The Gospel of John is the culmination of a couple of generations of recitation and reflection on the words and deeds of Jesus.
They have been examined from multiple perspectives and studied with respect to Scripture. What starts out as a historical recollection gets filtered through the community’s experiences, and the result is a two-level reading that interweaves Jesus’ story with that of the Johannine community.
It makes for theological depth, but it often seems that the text is going around in circles. A better description, however, would be that the passage is spiraling upward, repeatedly touching on previous thoughts or themes but always progressing to some new insight or conclusion.
For the text at hand, John 10:1 seems to be a beginning of a new unit, and verses 1-18 breaks into three parts with a response to Jesus words in verses 19-21. With verse 21, however, we see that this unit is actually part of a larger reflection referring back to the healing of the blind man in chapter 9. Physical sight and spiritual insight were the motivating issues there.
In chapter 10, hearing, which results in following and knowing Jesus, becomes the theme. Verses 1-18 are the spiraling preamble that leads to Jesus’ stunning statement in verse 30, “The Father and I are one.”
Jesus does not make any claim about himself in the initial “figure of speech” (verse 6). He simply describes a gatekeeper at the gate of a sheepfold, probably some kind of walled, stone structure. The antagonists in verse 1 are thieves who operate by stealth and bandits who use violence.
The key character introduced here is the shepherd. He has the proper relationship with the sheep because they hear (akouo) and know his voice and will follow him, in contrast to strangers from whom the sheep flee. On the surface, this is a quite unremarkable observation. It should not be a surprise that “they” — apparently the Pharisees mentioned in 9:40f. — do not understand what he is talking about.
Jesus makes it personal in the next section: “I am the gate.” The previously mentioned thieves and bandits reappear and initially the issue is that the sheep do not listen (akouo) to them. The comparison then shifts to how entering the gate is the way to be saved and have access to pastures in contrast to the thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy.
Such violence leads to the next contrast (verse 10b) where Jesus says he came so that the sheep may have abundant life, and this thought leads to Jesus’ most memorable claim in this section, “I am the good shepherd [who] lays down his life for the sheep.”
Such a good shepherd stands in contrast to a hired hand who fails to care for the sheep and flees when the wolf comes. To continue the contrast, Jesus repeats the thought of “knowing” introduced in verses 3-5 to speak of the close relationship between shepherd and sheep. This mutuality then leads to verse 15 and the dramatic comparison to how “the Father knows me, and I know the Father.”
Verse 15b reintroduces from verse 11 the theme of laying down one’s life, a theme that receives full exposition in verses 17-18 where it is extended to Jesus’ choosing to lay down his life and his ability to take it up again. Such power, Jesus says, is part of his commission from the Father.
Inserted between that discussion is verse 16 where the picture of the sheepfold from verse 1 is evoked and how the sheep will listen (akouo again) to his voice. The result is the alliterative assertion that “there will be one flock (poimne), one shepherd (poimen), a reference perhaps to future conversion of pagans but more likely to the unity of dispersed Christian communities.
What started out as a simple pastoral image has resulted in significant theological claims played out with a large cast of characters. On the negative side, there are thieves, bandits, strangers, hired hands, and wolves. In contrast, it is the sheepfold with its gate and the shepherd that protects the sheep from those destructive forces.
In John’s two-level reading, the antagonists in Jesus’ time are the chief priests and Pharisees who seek to stone him (verse 31) and arrest him (verse 39) and are complicit in Jesus’ final arrest (18:3) and crucifixion (19:16). In John’s community, they are the “Jews,” specifically the Jewish authorities, who are harassing Jewish Christians and expelling them from the synagogues (8:22; 12:42).
In opposition to the hostile forces, Jesus is the gate and good shepherd on both levels. This understanding is informed by references to shepherds and sheep in the Old Testament, particularly Ezekiel 34:11-16, 23; 37:24.
In these verses, the worthless caretakers of God’s people are set aside and God personally assumes the role of shepherd or assigns it to his Davidic Messiah. It is reasonable for the Jewish authorities to be divided in their opinions (verses 19-210), and it is a logical extension for Jesus to claim in verse 30, “The Father and I are one.”
Note, however, that the role of shepherd was not one of power or status, especially in Jesus’ time. Rather, the emphasis on Jesus’ laying down of his life demonstrates the close relationship he has with the sheep and that he is truly a good shepherd. As Jesus himself says in 15:13, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
If a non-Christian were to read this text, I suspect Jesus’ mundane analogy about shepherding that initiates the extended reflection sounds like what Chance the gardener says in the Peter Sellers’ movie, Being There. Chance is a complete simpleton who only knows about gardening. He falls into the highest circles of economic and political power where his gardening tips are interpreted as profound and insightful allegories.
Chance succeeds because others misunderstand him. Jesus’ “success” is due to his followers listening to his voice and knowing the truth that he did in fact lay down his life and take it up again. In the midst of a world filled with all sorts of threats and dangers — and for Christians in some parts of the world, it is an actual matter of life and death — we long for the fulfillment of Jesus promise that there will be one flock, one shepherd.