We arrive once again at “Good Shepherd Sunday,” the fourth Sunday of Easter.
The focus of this portion of John 10, however, is on Jesus as the door or gate of the sheepfold.
Admittedly, the image of Jesus as shepherd makes for a far more natural comparison than comparing Jesus to a gate. And how can Jesus be both at the same time? These two images are part of a richly layered, extended metaphor that speaks of sheep, shepherd, gate, gatekeeper, strangers, thieves, bandits, and wolves. All of these except for the wolves are introduced in the first ten verses, and all of the elements of this extended metaphor contribute to understanding who Jesus is, and who we are in relation to him.
Jesus begins by describing who he is not. Those who climb into the sheepfold in a furtive way are thieves and bandits who do not care about the sheep but only about their own gain (10:1). By contrast, the shepherd enters the sheepfold openly, by means of the gate (10:2). He is recognized immediately by both the gatekeeper, who opens the gate for him, and by the sheep, who know his voice (10:3). When he calls his sheep by name, they follow him, and he leads them out to pasture (10:4). The sheep will not follow a stranger but instead will flee from one whose voice they do not recognize (10:5).
At this point the narrator comments that those listening did not understand the figure of speech (paroimia) that Jesus was using (10:6). Rather than change tactics, Jesus “doubles down” on this figure of speech, saying to them, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep” (10:7). He describes all who came before him as thieves and bandits to whom the sheep did not listen (10:8). Again Jesus says, “I am the gate,” and then adds: “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (10:9). Whereas “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10).
The function of the gate is to keep the sheep together in the sheepfold during the night, safe from thieves and predators. During the day the gate is opened so that the sheep can go out, following their shepherd, to find pasture. The gate and the shepherd work together for the well-being of the sheep, so that the flock thrives. Jesus is both the gate and the shepherd at the same time; he guards and protects his sheep from danger, and he provides for their nourishment, for their life in abundance.
As Karoline Lewis rightfully emphasized, this discourse of Jesus follows directly after his healing of the man blind from birth in John 9. Though chapter divisions might obscure the fact, there is no break after Jesus’ comments to the Pharisees in 9:41. Rather, Jesus launches immediately into this discourse about sheep and gates and shepherds. The shepherd discourse, then, interprets the sign that he has enacted in restoring sight to the blind man.1
Although there is no one-to-one correspondence between elements of the metaphor and the narrative it follows, certain associations are hard to miss. The Pharisees who have interrogated the blind man in John 9 are supposed to be the shepherds of Israel, those who care for, protect, and nourish the people. Instead, they expel the healed blind man from their community, refusing to believe that Jesus and his healing work come from God. They are more concerned about guarding their power and authority than about the well-being of the people.
Having already restored the sight of the man, Jesus seeks him out again after his expulsion from the synagogue and brings him into the community of his followers (9:35-38). For the blind man, salvation is not only receiving his physical sight but also spiritual sight, recognizing who Jesus is, believing in him, and becoming part of his community. He followed the voice of Jesus before he could see him, and it led to new life. His days of isolation are over; he now knows himself to be a valued member of Jesus’ flock, cared for and protected.
One direction for reflection on this text might be to ask: What does it mean for us as followers of Jesus today, in our context, to be protected by the gate and the shepherd, to be “saved,” to have life in abundance?
It is important to note that the metaphor of the gate is not one of exclusion, not a license to think of ourselves as Jesus’ true sheep and others as outsiders. (If we use it that way, we become like the Pharisees who expelled the blind man from their community.) The purpose of the gate is not to keep out other sheep. Indeed, Jesus says in verse 16, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Rather, the purpose of the gate is to guard against all that threatens the well-being of the sheep — thieves, bandits, and wolves.
It goes without saying that there are many thieves and bandits in our world who seek to steal and kill and destroy. There are also “wolves in sheep’s (or shepherd’s) clothing” — for example, preachers who proclaim the abundant life that Jesus offers as a life of continual health, wealth, and success. This message often leads to much wealth for the preacher, but deception and despair for those who follow and find that life is still full of struggle.
What, then, is the life in abundance that Jesus promises? The whole of John’s Gospel is focused on this gift of life:
“Life” or “eternal life” in John’s Gospel is not just about life after death. It is life that begins here and now; it is knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent. It is knowing the voice of the good shepherd who truly cares for us. It is life in community, finding security and nourishment as part of his flock. It is life that abounds in meaning and value and endures even beyond death.
Much has been written about how sheep are rather unintelligent animals. It is true that without a shepherd, they will not necessarily be able to find food or water, and that they will easily get lost and not be able to find their way home. However, the thing that Jesus emphasizes about sheep is that they know the voice of their shepherd. Whatever else one can say about the mental capacities of sheep, they have this in their favor: they recognize the voice of the one who cares for them. They follow their shepherd, but will not follow a stranger whose voice they do not know.
What about us? Do we recognize the voice of the good shepherd over all the other voices promising abundance? How might you as a preacher help us to recognize that voice?
1. See chapter 6 in the excellent commentary by Karoline Lewis, John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 123-146.
Acts, as the New Testament’s only book of ancient historiography, records Luke’s retelling of the earliest days of the church.
For Luke, the early church is an idyllic society marked by shared meals and prayers, awe or reverence, portents and signs, communal sharing and redistributive economics, ritual faithfulness, joy, good will, and growth. Whether or not this is a strictly historical portrait, there are strong catechetical reasons for Luke to portray the church in this way. Such a portrait points to Luke’s ideals of what a church community ought to be. Luke might also be painting this picture for political purposes, although it is not apparent whether Luke’s purpose is protest or pacification.
Coming immediately after the Pentecost narrative, the passage functions both as a summation of the Pentecost story, and a pivot toward the ministry of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 3-7). Luke, here, lays out the immediate consequences of the repentance and baptism of the Jewish (Acts 2:5) respondents to Peter’s Acts sermon; Gentiles will come later, in Acts 10.
Holding fast together
The Greek verb prokartereo rarely occurs in the New Testament. However, Luke uses it twice in this passage. The verb can be glossed as a description of attachment or persistence. Luke’s use of this verb in verse 42 and again in verse 46 underscores his depiction of an ethos of unity, commitment and commonality among the earliest church. Luke speaks of the earliest church as holding fast, or dedicating themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the Temple.
For the earliest church community, the apostles become de facto religio-political leaders, taking the place normally ceded to the Sanhedrin leaders in Acts. Beyond Peter’s sermon, Luke does not tell us what “the apostles” might have been teaching, when, or in what format, whether privately or in public. However, this teaching leads the newly converted to dedicated and ongoing actions of attention to the apostle’s teaching, living in community, breaking of bread, and prayers.
When Luke refers to “the breaking of the bread” a ritual action can be assumed, as the Greek word artos, or bread, occurs only five times in the Acts of the Apostles (the other three times in Acts 20:7, 11; 27:35), and in each case it seems to point to a ritual observance. This ritual was likely a precursor to the Lord’s Supper practiced in contemporary church. For Luke, it seems, one of the results of baptism is the communal partaking in the ritual feast of commemoration. However, this bread-breaking would have taken place in the context of a ritual meal. Meals, such as these hinted at by Luke, would have taken place in homes of wealthy patrons of the church. Their homes would have contained dining areas where the whole ekklesia, likely a small number, could recline at table.
Rising fear or awe
Verse 43 is structured as an inclusio; beginning and ending with the word egineto or “was coming to be.” Here, two phenomena are described as coming into being: fear (phobos) and portents and signs (terata kai semeia). “The Greek word phobos includes, in its semantic range, both the concepts of terror and of awe or reverence. Both are probably appropriate reactions to supernatural displays of power, although Luke does not say what those displays might be. Still, until Acts 5, (i.e. the death of Ananias and Sapphira), we are given no reason to consider that the word might connote terror.
Both the Pentecost story, earlier in Acts 2, and the miracle of the man at the Beautiful Gate, that follows in Acts 3 could be examples of the signs and portents intended by Luke. These seem to be told to provoke awe and reverence. Note also, that Luke does not specify which apostles are demonstrating portents and signs. Peter and John will distinguish themselves from the rest in chapter three, but nothing in this text suggests that they were alone in this regard.
Selling, sharing and redistributing point subtly to the class differentials already present in Luke’s church. If some are able to sell their acquisitions and possessions and others “have need,” then their previous piety (these are all Jews who live in Jerusalem according to Luke) had not extended to economic and class matters. There are parallels here to Luke’s story of John the Baptist’s preaching (Luke 3:11), especially regarding the redistribution of economic resources.
In Luke, as in Acts, baptism and faithful observance bears both spiritual and economic consequences for the initiates. In addition, this story allows Luke to fast forward from the time the church is twelve members to a time of a significant and growing number. Scholars debate how soon after the resurrection these kinds of numbers would actually have been seen.
Praise, grace, and growth
Beyond the matter of economic sharing, Luke’s idealized vision of the early church is also marked by praise, grace, and growth. Praising God is an important part of Luke’s description. The economic sharing is not some dour requirement of a stringent otherworldly cult, but rather accompanied by the praises of God. Note, too, the role of the Temple in this praise of God; these are faithful Jews, and the Temple is, for them, the seat of God.
Acts does not become a book about Gentiles until much later. Further, the community is well regarded by the outsiders. That is, their way of living attracts others to come and live with them. Finally, the community is characterized by growth. However, the growth and salvation are not the work of the community; these are the works of God.
Luke’s narrative focuses less on theology than on ecclesiology, on what it means to be the church. Specifically, Luke portrays a church that lives in an attractively countercultural, joyful community, a church that prays, praises, breaks bread, and to which God keeps adding. This rather rosy depiction will develop shadows, contours and fractures later in Luke’s narrative.
Many of us can only hear the first line of the Psalm in the King James Version (KJV): “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.1
Many of us can only hear the first line of the Psalm in the King James Version (KJV): “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” With a simple metaphor in a concise and elegant line, this verse expresses the message of the entire psalm: Yahweh satisfied every need. The images shift throughout the poem, but that central idea remains constant.
Indeed, Psalm 23 delivers some of the most beautiful and deeply comforting images in the whole Bible. As such, this psalm is a favorite — indeed, the favorite — of many.2 But the imagery in this psalm is also full of surprises. So our reading and preaching of this text should not be sentimental, but bold, always keeping in mind the ways that its radical claims confront our experiences of suffering, fear, enmity, and alienation.
The enduring appeal of Psalm 23
The pastoral metaphor at the outset of Psalm 23 resonates so deeply with Christians because of texts like John 10:11 (the Gospel reading for this Sunday) and John 21:15-17. The history of Christian art has played its part as well, reinforcing and developing this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd through countless iterations. Having encountered all of these images of Jesus holding and caring for sheep, it’s hard for us not to associate Jesus as the shepherd in v. 1.
We can also attribute the psalm’s popularity to its happy ending. With rhetorical flourish, the psalm describes a blessed present and a blessed future, filled with the enjoyment of God’s presence: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long!” (v. 6, NRSV). The venerable KJV, which so many of us know, in fact, seems to suggest that a beatific afterlife is in view: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Preaching such a popular text is dangerous, for sentimentalism can easily supplant exegesis. When that happens, our well-worn readings tend to mute the fresh word from God to the contemporary community. Thus we proceed with caution in mapping the structure and imagery of the text.
The journey of the Psalmist
The pastoral images that dominate the beginning of the psalm (shepherd, the verdant fields, and the waters of repose) actually work together to describe a journey that Yahweh oversees and guides. The rest in green pastures is in fact but a temporary repose (v. 2a). This psalmist is on the go, walking beside the water, along paths, and through valleys (vv. 2-4).
After the description the blessing that awaits the psalmist in the house of the Lord (v. 5), the text again pictures the psalmist in motion: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life” (KJV). The word “follow” here (radaph) is better translated “pursue,” a surprising verb given that it is usually the enemies that are pursing the psalmist with an intent to overtake and destroy (e.g., Psalms 7:1; 35:3; 143:3). Furthermore, in this same verse, the word “surely” (’aq) is better translated “only.” Thus it’s not the enemies in hot pursuit. Instead, “only goodness and mercy will be chasing me down.”
The imagery of the final line of the psalm (v. 6b) also deserves another look. For most readers, the end of the psalm provides a picture of an unending bliss in the house of the Lord. The KJV is the basis for the NRSV translating the word shuv as “dwell” here. Some scholars reckon this to be a unique usage of the word shuv, claiming that it indicates a “return with the desire to stay where one ends up.” So, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (NRSV). Yet others rightly understand shuv here in its most simple sense: “to turn” or “return.” Given the prevalence of images of travelling throughout the psalm, it is most appropriate to read the last line this way: “I will continually return to Yahweh’s presence, my whole life long.” Thus the journey does not end at the end of the psalm. Rather, seeking after God’s presence is a lifelong enterprise, a long-term journey.
This journey consists of the “paths (ma‘galim) of righteousness.” Interestingly, when ma‘galim appears in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, we find it translated “tracks” or “entrenchments,” or even “ruts” that are made by the wheels of an ox-cart — the word ma‘galim is in fact related to the word for young cow, ‘egel. Thus, the “paths of righteousness” are more like ruts in the ground, groves for the wheels of your ox-cart. So, walking with Yahweh is finding your groove, and a righteous groove at that! To get into the righteous groove is to live in a way that promotes and sustains right relationships all around you, with the community and with God. To live this way glorifies the name (or the reputation) of God: “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
Jesus as shepherd and trailblazer
As Christians who read and preach this text, we must consider Jesus not only as the good shepherd of John 10, but also as the trailblazer of the paths of righteousness (see Hebrews 12:1-2). Jesus tends us and guides us into right relationships with each other and with God. In the psalm, the paths of righteousness do not lead directly from the green pastures to the house of the Lord. No, those righteous ruts go through the very darkest valley (v. 4). In Jesus’s case, the paths of righteousness lead all the way to the cross. Jesus has shown us that way (see especially 1 John 3:16-24, another lection for this Sunday) and calls us to follow him. The good news of Psalm 23 is that when we walk these paths of righteousness, we walk with God (v. 4).
1. Commentary first published on this site on April 26, 2015.
2. For an extraordinary discussion of the ascendancy of Psalm 23 in American culture, see William Holladay, “Epilogue: How the Twenty Third Psalm Became and American Secular Icon” in The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 359-371.
The lectionary text for this week provides a compelling commendation to Christians to do what is right even if it brings suffering.
Part of the power of this text is its Christological grounding — it is Jesus who has gone before and whose footsteps we attempt to follow (1 Peter 2:21).
Before we hear this passage for us today, we need to hear it in its first-century context; when it would have been read aloud to small, house-church communities scattered across Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Particularly, what we need to reckon with is the specific audience of 1 Peter 2:18-25, referenced in verse 18. Peter addresses slaves: “Household slaves, submit by accepting the authority of your masters…” (Common English Bible).
What do we do with this artifact of the text? If we are convinced slavery is an inhumane institution, can we take these instructions from the author to Christian slaves and simply apply them to ourselves, especially since the writer seems to encourage harshly treated slaves to submit to this treatment? Can the rest of his words to slaves speak to us at all, given this cultural accommodation on the author’s part?
A few cultural realities of the author and audience of 1 Peter can help us here. First, we should note that Christians were a small struggling messianic sect of Judaism in the first century; they would likely have had no pretensions of ridding their world of slavery, or patriarchy for that matter (3:1-6). Their calling was to live out the gospel as those without much cultural power. In fact, across 1 Peter we hear how their attempts to live out Christian allegiance are bringing these people no small measure of verbal slander for their ‘anti-social’ behavior (see 4:3-4). As John Elliott notes, these Christians were susceptible “to charges of wrongdoing and conduct injurious to the well-being of the commonwealth and the favor of the gods.”1
Second, the balance the author calls for — a balance between Christian distinctiveness and cultural accommodation — comes through in his adaptation of a household code in this part of the letter (2:13-3:7) which is a commonplace genre in the Greco-Roman world of his time (for example: Aristotle, Politics, 1.2.1). Noteworthy in this adaptation of the genre is the shift of its typical addressee. Ancient writers addressed the entirety of household codes to the person with the power — the male head of the household referred to in the Roman world as the paterfamilias. The household code would instruct the paterfamilias to rule his household well, including his wife, slaves, and children.2 So then, what is out of character about the Petrine code is its direct address to those with lesser (wives) or no power (slaves of unbelieving masters), thereby encouraging a great sense of agency for these more vulnerable members of the household.
Finally, the author of 1 Peter hits some of the same notes for the entire Christian community as he does for the slaves. These themes include suffering for doing good not evil (2:19-20; cf. 2:11-12; 3:13-17; 4:14-16) and Christ as exemplar (2:21-23; see also 4:1) and shepherd (2:25; see also 5:4). In these common themes, we can see that how Christian slaves are to live out allegiance to Christ is actually paradigmatic for other believers in their community — a powerful commendation of their influence in “God’s own household” (4:17).
Peter is intent on ensuring that any suffering that comes to believers comes because they are pursuing good — allegiance to Christ Jesus (3:15) — and not because they are doing evil. This repeated refrain across the letter presses its readers to examine and reexamine their ways of living in their world. It can be easy to give oneself a pass and think that any criticism from outsiders in unfounded. But Peter wants his readers to take a deeper look (3:13-14a).
Such careful self-examination will guide them to live out what Miroslav Volf calls a “soft difference,”3 a Christian distinctiveness that sits between the extremes of simply capitulating to culture and unnecessary distinctiveness (a brittle difference). By living a soft difference, their more vulnerable members would actually be protected. “Readers were instructed to comply with the standards of popular society as a way of preserving the basic safety of the most at-risk readers; yet, in each case, social conformity was balanced by some form of resistance which cautiously challenged existing social structures”4 (Williams, 277).
The address to slaves is the longest of the Petrine household code because Peter provides them with the example of Jesus himself as an extended word of hope for all those in dire situations (2:21-25). Jesus is the example to follow for these slaves but also for other believers. Jesus did not retaliate when he was maligned. He was innocent though insulted, and, even then, he did not respond in revenge (2:21-23). Instead, he entrusted himself to God, the final judge of all injustice (2:23) — something Christians are exhorted to do at 4:19.
And for all the beauty of the reality of Christ as example for his followers, Peter is not satisfied leaving his Christological portrait there. Jesus suffered not only as example but also “on your behalf” (2:21). This truth leads the author to reflection on the servant of the Lord figure from Isaiah 53. He cites Isaiah 53:9 in 1 Peter 2:22 and adapts phrases from Isaiah 53:4-6 (from the Septuagint) in the subsequent verses: “he himself bore our sins” (53:4) “by his wounds we were healed” (53:5); and “we had all gone astray like sheep” (53:6). As the Isaianic servant of the Lord took on Israel’s plight and represented Israel’s vocation and mission to the nations (compare to Isaiah 49:6), so Jesus has taken on the plight of humanity. In the cross, he has brought healing (1 Peter 2:24) and the possibility of “living in righteousness” (2:24).
We have just recently celebrated Easter, and it can be tempting to land on a single lens for viewing the meaning of Jesus’ life and death. Yet Peter leaves us with a multifaceted vision of Jesus as example, healer, and restorer — he is the one who has turned us back “to the shepherd and guardian of [our] lives” (2:25).
1. John H. Elliot “1 Peter.” Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 94.
2. Jeannine K. Brown “Silent Wives, Verbal Believers: Ethical and Hermeneutical Considerations in 1 Peter 3:1-6 and Its Context.” Word and World 24 (2004): 395-403.
3. Miroslav Volf. “Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation between Church and Culture in 1 Peter,” Ex Auditu 10 (1994): 15-30.
4. Travis B. Williams. Good Works in 1 Peter: Negotiating Social Conflict and Christian Identity in the Greco-Roman World (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 277.