Commentary on John 10:1-10
Lovers of the literal, maligners of metaphor, beware!: This passage is not for you.
Or, maybe this passage is especially for you. Here John showcases Jesus’ habit of conveying truth not propositionally, but poetically. Jesus carries on about sheepfolds, gates, thieves, sheep, and gatekeepers, strangers, and voices. After five verses he pauses and notes that they haven’t got any idea what he’s talking about (v. 6). So, what is an effective speaker to do at that point? Explain the figure of speech (paroimia)? Drop the use of metaphor? Apologize for using such elevated speech and dumb things down, put it all in simplistic terms? Maybe. But that’s certainly not what our Lord and Savior did. Rather, he again (v. 7, palin) throws out the same word-pictures. The whole Gospel of John is nothing if not a piling up of metaphors, figures of speech. How else are we to convey truth about God? What single image, what single word could suffice? Plain speech (parresia) is fine as far as it goes (see 16:26, 29)–but it can’t go far enough to “explain” God. The Fourth Evangelist is a wordsmith extraordinaire. Words matter: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This passage is a call to pastor and parishioner alike to exult in the poetic power of language to draw us into a transformative experience of truth.
Billy Collins has a wonderful poem about poetry that applies equally well to Scripture:
Introduction to Poetry www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html)
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
If we wanted to “find out what Jesus’ figures of speech really mean,” we’d have to do a fair amount of torturing. Anyone looking for an exact one-to-one correlation between image and referent may be frustrated. How can Jesus be the shepherd, the gate, and the gatekeeper all at once? The same way he’s the way, the truth and the life in ch. 14; the true vine in ch. 15; the light of the world in ch. 8; the resurrection and the life in ch. 11, the true bread of heaven which the father gives in ch. 6, and so on. He’s all of this and more. All of these metaphors get at Jesus’ nature and function as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the world.
Jesus the Shepherd and the Lamb
I don’t know any shepherds and no amount of sharing what you found out about first-century shepherds in the Bible Dictionary or stories you tell about the modern Bedouin shepherds you met on your trip to the Holy Land is going to change the fact that I don’t know any shepherds. Your best bet, then, may be to continually familiarize me with my scriptures which speak at length about how God is shepherd-like. Read Ps. 23 to me while my eyes are closed and ask me how I do or don’t experience God as a shepherd? If Ps. 23 is read along with ch. 10, the listener will immediately hear the connection in v. 9. Inundate me with shepherd language from the Hebrew Bible. Then show me the places in John where this theme recurs. If you do this, I will discover that John wants me to understand that I am known by name and constantly cared for, never “orphaned” (14:18) or forsaken.
In John 5 Jesus says that soon the dead will hear his voice (phone) and live. In our passage, we hear that the sheep know the shepherd’s voice (phone). In ch. 11, Lazarus, whom Jesus loved, comes out of the tomb to live in response to the voice (phone) of Jesus calling his name (11:43-44). In 18:37 Jesus tells Pilate that everyone who belongs to truth listens to Jesus’ voice (phone). In ch. 1 John the Baptist declares “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Unlike the Synoptics, in the Gospel of John, Jesus dies on the day before Passover; he is killed on the day that the paschal lamb is slaughtered. And the resonances go on and on. John intends to convey all of these meanings, piled on top of one another until we find meaning everywhere.
The Enemies of the Shepherd
The shepherd, sheep, gate, and gatekeeper have enemies: thieves and bandits. Judas Iscariot will be named a thief in ch. 12. In ch. 1 John made it clear that God creates and saves; therefore, it makes sense that those working against God’s plans can be identified by their association with death and destruction. God is not in that business.
Truth over Time
Often in the Gospel of John the disciples don’t understand a particular speech or act of Jesus’ and the reader is told that the requisite knowledge, remembrance, or understanding will come later for them (2:22; 16:4, 12). So, the author is telling us to immerse ourselves in the biblical language and metaphor, absorb it, and, in time, we will understand it. We all know that some kinds of truth stun us with their unexpected, immediate appearance; others unfold over time as we gather the various pieces that, taken together, eventually form a discernible truth.
From start to finish and everywhere in between, this Gospel announces that the sole purpose of God’s creative acts and Christ’s work on the cross is life (zoe). The noun alone is used thirty-six times and various forms of the verb twenty more. Draw your people into the poetry of life and you will have been true to the passage in particular and the Gospel as a whole:
Poem A, John 1:4: In him was life, and the life was the light of all people;
Poem B, John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him;
Poem C, John 10:10: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly;
Poem D, John 20:31: But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.