Commentary on John 10:1-10
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:
- “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (1:4).
- “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” (3:1).
- “I am the resurrection and the Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (11:25).
- “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3).
- “But these are written so that you may believe… and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
“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.
May 7, 2017