Lessons from John, ch. 10

John 10:1-21 Good Shepherd

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class, originally broadcast April 29, 2007

Craig D. Atwood, Comenius Scholar

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it has been a good week for you and those you love.  Our lesson for this week comes from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John. It is one of the most familiar chapters of the Bible and is often preached on. Jesus tells the crowds that he is the good shepherd and that his followers are like sheep. I tried to come up with a good joke about sheep, but I’m afraid that none of them were appropriate for the radio. Of course, you may have heard about the magician who used lambs instead of pigeons in his act. It didn’t go well. The audience didn’t like his sheep tricks. And then there was the bovine daredevil who lived for sheep thrills.

            Leaving bad puns aside, it is useful to know that shepherds are important figures in the Bible, as they were in ancient Mediterranean literature. Shepherds in real life were lower class people, often young boys, who had to endure weeks of boredom taking care of someone else’s sheep. People did not like real life shepherds much, but ancient literature romanticized shepherds. They were a familiar symbol in the ancient world, as we can tell from sculpture. We can understand this difference between literature and reality. In America today, we use the word “cowboy” to conjure up an image of a rugged individual living bravely by his own rules. This romantic Western image has almost nothing to do with real life cowboys who were poorly paid ranch hands responsible for herding cattle. Shepherds were the cowboys of the ancient world.

            In the first century, Jews and Gentiles alike would have responded well to these parables about the shepherd and the sheep. The Old Testament uses the image of shepherd often, probably because of the importance of sheep in the patriarchal days. You are familiar with the 23rd Psalm where the Lord is my shepherd. Kings of Israel were called shepherds: some were good, others negligent. Moses, you may remember, had to become a shepherd before he was able to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. The image of the shepherd Moses calling the people out of slavery and into freedom may have been part of the inspiration for these parables in John 10.

Parables            It is unlikely that Jesus gave all of these parables in one sermon the way it appears in John’s Gospel. It is more likely that the author of John collected different parables that dealt with sheep and put them together here in ch. 10.  There are at least three different parables in this section. The first contrasts the shepherd and the robbers. It does not explicitly state that Jesus is the shepherd in that parable, but we assume that is what is meant. In the second parable, Jesus is not a shepherd; he is the gate to the sheep pen. The third parable is another “I Am” passage. Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, or the true Shepherd. The only things these parables have in common are sheep and robbers. They are placed here in the Gospel of John as a transition from the story of the healing of the blind man, in which there was a judgment on the religious authorities, and the Feast of Dedication, which dealt with false priests.

Hanukah            You probably know the Feast of Dedication better as Hanukah. It is a winter festival, and until recent years was a minor Jewish holiday. The Gospel of John is one of the earliest sources that mention this feast of dedication. We’ll talk more about Hanukah in a week or two, but for now I just want to point out that the festival deals with the desecration of the Temple by the Seleucid Greeks in the 2nd century BC. The high priests Jason and Menelaus had collaborated with the Greeks and allowed the desecration. In contrasting the good shepherd and the bandits, John was probably thinking of the high priests who had failed to protect the people from oppression and the Temple from sacrilege. The assigned readings in the synagogue for the days leading up to the feast of dedication dealt with shepherds. The most important passage was Ezek. 34, which was the basis for the “Good Shepherd” passage here in John. Once again, we see how closely tied the Gospel of John is to synagogue worship.

            Many commentators assume that Jesus was contrasting himself and the Pharisees here in ch. 10 since the previous chapter ended with a judgment against the Pharisees for their “blindness,” but I am not convinced. I think it is more likely that Jesus was criticizing the priests and the Temple, which would be consistent with the anti-Temple perspective we have already seen in John. The Feast of Dedication was about the corruption of the high priests who had not been good shepherds. The priesthood and the sacrificial system of the Temple had failed, and so the Son of Man would be the true high priest. There is no reason to read the later struggle between Pharisees and Christians into every passage in John.

Read:             John 10:1-14

Parables            The odd thing in these parables is that Jesus is compared both to a shepherd and a gate that leads into the sheepfold. There are many pictures of Jesus as a shepherd, but I bet you’ve never seen a picture of Jesus as a gate. This is a verbal symbol, not a visual one. The fact that it is nearly impossible to picture in our minds Jesus as a gate is a good reminder that there are portions of Scripture that were never meant to be taken literally. God wants us to use our minds and our imaginations when reading and interpreting. The fact that Jesus has also been described as the Lamb of God as well as the Shepherd should also give us a clue that we cannot read Scripture literally the way we can a biology book. In the real world, lambs are rarely Shepherds or Gates, and the Bread of Life is rarely a Vine.

            Verse 6 tells us that Jesus was speaking in parables. The Greek word that is used here is paroimia, which is normally translated as proverb. Some of these aphorisms sound like they could have been proverbs that were expanded by the preacher. Scholars go to great lengths to distinguish between the famous types of figurative speech: proverbs, parables, allegories, metaphors, similes, etc. But in Hebrew there is only one word for all these: mashal. The Greek version of the OT uses paroimia to translate mashal. In other words, John is following the practice of the Greek OT in saying that Jesus used figurative language. Raymond Brown translated this nicely by saying that Jesus drew a verbal picture for the people. It is interesting that John acknowledges that the people did not always understand Jesus’ metaphors. They were probably trying to take them literally.

            This verbal picture of the shepherd and the sheep is so clear and compelling that artists have painted countless versions of this parable, one of which is on a window in Home Church. The oldest surviving examples of Christian art depict Jesus as a beardless youth carrying a sheep on his shoulders. He was shown as the good shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep and who sacrifices himself for his flock. I wonder if the history of Christianity would have been any different if the Catholic Church had chosen this image of the Good Shepherd as the primary picture of Jesus instead of making statues of Jesus hanging on the cross. This is not to say that the crucifix is unimportant, but I do think that it is best to hold on to all of the images of Jesus that we have in Scripture – especially those metaphors that he himself used to describe his work.

Verses 1 – 5            Shepherd and Bandits            The first parable may have originally been two sayings of Jesus brought together by John, but they are so closely connected that we can treat them as one parable. The main theme is that there is a clear difference between the Shepherd and those who try to steal or harm the sheep. If Jesus had been preaching in America, he might have contrasted the Cowboy and the Cattle Rustler. The movie Babe is about a pig that becomes a sheep herder. There is a scene in the movie that vividly depicts this parable. On Christmas Day, robbers come and steal many of the sheep. They are brutal to the sheep and to the dogs that try to protect them. In contrast, Babe, who knows the sheep by name, is able to guide them with a mere word. If the sheep trust the shepherd, it is not difficult to herd them.

            Incidentally, the word Lestes is usually translated as robber, but it is the same word that was used for Barabbas. It was the word for a guerilla fighter or insurrectionist. Today we might use the word insurgent. One possible meaning of this parable is that Jesus was not like the political revolutionaries and murderers who caused the Roman Empire to destroy Jerusalem. His path is not one of violence and destruction. He is the good shepherd, not the suicide bomber. Jesus leads his sheep with a word, not a sword, and he expects us to follow his way.

            I think many preachers and theologians miss the significance of this parable. The one who does not enter the through the proper gate is a robber or bandit. The sheep do not listen to his voice; therefore he has to use violence and threats against them. But the true shepherd calls to the sheep by name and they obey him because they trust him. They respond because the shepherd cares for their welfare. Why, then, do so many preachers think they need to threaten people with damnation in order to get them to follow Christ? Why do we think that threats and violence are the way to motivate the people of God? That is what the robbers and thieves do, not the shepherd.

            The picture of the shepherd is a beautiful image of the relationship between Jesus and his people, and it was the inspiration for the popular Moravian hymn “Jesus Makes My Heart Rejoice.” “I’m his sheep and know his voice,” we sing. This passage could provide an argument for the doctrine of election or predestination, by the way. Those who have been chosen by God respond to the voice of the shepherd. He calls to the elect. I’m not sure that we need to push the parable that far although some have. The primary meaning of this parable is that we can recognize who our true shepherd is by the way he calls to us. He does not sneak up on us through a hole in the fence. He comes to us openly and calls us by name. He walks ahead of us and asks us to follow him. That is what the Christian life is all about. Have you heard your name, your true name, called by the one who loves you more than anyone on this earth loves you? Will you follow as the shepherd leads?

The Gate        In the second parable in this series, Jesus describes himself as the gate for the sheep. It may sound odd to compare Jesus to an inanimate object, but today we refer to soldiers as boots, lawyers as hired guns, and so forth. This metaphor may have communicated better to Jesus’ audience than to us, though. Apparently, some sheepfolds in the Middle East even today are just fences without gates. I don’t know if you’ve tried, but it is hard to make a working gate. It is much easier just to leave an opening. So how do you keep the sheep from wondering out of the fold or keep wolves from entering? Simply, the shepherd sleeps on the ground with his body across the opening. In other words, the shepherd becomes the gate for the sheepfold. This may well have been what Jesus had in mind here.

            The key point in this parable is that Jesus is the one who protects the sheep from people who would harm them, and he is also the one who brings the sheep into green pastures. Clearly John 10 is picking up on the imagery of the 23 rd Psalm. The allegory is fairly clear here, that Jesus is the doorway into the church, and every Christian church that uses sacraments, baptizes new members in the name of Jesus or in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We sometimes say that baptism is the means by which people become part of the church, but I think John’s Gospel calls us to be more precise. We enter the church through Jesus who is the gate. Baptism is a visible sign of this spiritual truth, but baptism is meaningless with faith in Jesus.

Salvation        Let us leave the important question of other religions to the side this morning and focus on the promise that is given here in John 10. “Whoever enters by me will be saved.” That is all we really need to know. If you enter into the life of God through Jesus, you will experience salvation and blessedness. Trust in that promise, but there is more. It says that Jesus leads us into good pasture. The Christian life is not a static life spent huddling in fear. Because Jesus is the Gate that keeps evil out, Christians can live together in love and hope. Because Jesus is the Gate that opens for us, we can go out into the pastures and be fed.

            Here is one of the great promises of the New Testament: because the Son of God came into the world, we may have life and have it abundantly. Many sermons preached on this promise focus on receiving material riches, which directly contradicts many of Jesus’ teachings and should be rejected by believers. Jesus does not offer prosperity; he promises life that overflows into eternity. It is a life that does not need material things to be blessed. It is a life conquers anxiety and fear. It is a life that produces good things and opens our eyes to beauty and truth. I know there are many different views of what the gospel is and what Christianity is all about, but here is one answer in John: Christianity is life and vitality. The root meaning of the word salvation is health, by the way. If your religious beliefs do not fill your soul with health, wholesomeness, and vitality, then maybe it is not Jesus that you are really following. If your faith is causing you to retreat from the world in fear, judgment, and bitterness, then maybe you should listen for the voice of the Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd              This brings us to the final two parables. Both deal with Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The Greek word translated “good” here actually means “model” or even “true.” It is good in the sense of the best example, the exemplary Shepherd. This saying was probably based on Ezek. 34 where God is described as the good shepherd who provides water and food for the sheep. This parable also contrasts the true shepherd and the hired hand. The shepherd cares so much for the welfare of the sheep that he is willing to die for them, but the hired hand does not. This probably refers to the high priests who sold out the nation of Israel during the time of Antiochus IV of Syria. It is unlikely that Jesus was criticizing the prophets and patriarchs of the OT. The Gospels consistently affirm the goodness and salvation of people like Moses and Elijah.

Other Sheep               We will continue discussing sheep and shepherds next week since time is running out. Let me end by pointing out that Verse 14 repeats the theme that the shepherd knows his sheep and they know him. This is a beautiful image of the intimacy that we can have with Jesus. We need to remember that John was writing for the post-resurrection church. This was not a statement about Jesus knowing the people who followed him to Jerusalem. It is a promise that Jesus is present in his church today. He knows his sheep and they know him. This is something to rejoice in. As the hymn says, “Should I not for gladness leap? Led by Jesus as his sheep? For when these blessed days are over, to the arms of my dear Savior, I shall be conveyed to rest.”

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