John 10 (cont.) Sheep

 John 10:14-21 “More Sheep”

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 6, 2007

Craig D. Atwood

The Good Shepherd               We are continuing our study of the Gospel of John. Last week we began discussing the Good Shepherd parables in John chapter 10. The final two parables present Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The Greek word translated “good” actually means “model” or even “true.” It is good in the sense of the best example of a shepherd. This saying of Jesus was probably based on Ezek. 34 where God is described as the good shepherd who provides water and food for the sheep. This is how you can recognize a good shepherd: he or she takes care of the sheep.

Read: John 10:14-21

The Caring Shepherd I know a shepherdess by the name of Susan who can tell you about how much attention sheep require. She has to nourish them, protect them, and help to heal them when they are suffering. She is a good shepherd, and that is the image that Jesus claims for himself. Like my friend Susan, Jesus cares for his sheep and calls to them by name. Verse 14 repeats the theme that the shepherd knows his sheep and they know him. Real life sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd or shepherdess. You may recall that “Mary had a little lamb” that followed her to school one day. This simple children’s song communicates a profound biblical truth. We are called to follow Jesus wherever he leads us.

            John 10 provides a beautiful image of the intimacy that we can have with Jesus in this life and the next. We need to remember that John was always writing for the post-resurrection church. John was not saying that Jesus who his disciples were in Jerusalem. This is a promise that Jesus is alive and active in his church today. He knows his sheep and they know him – all in the present tense. We will see that John’s Gospel ends with Jesus still with his disciples rather than with the ascension. 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.”

            One thing that a member of the class brought up last week bears mentioning today. The word sheep in English is both plural and singular. American Christians tend to focus on the singular in their spirituality. We see this in the hymn I just quoted. What is important to us is that Jesus is our personal shepherd and we are his sheep – each of us individually. But here in John 10, the sheep are not simply individual whose name the shepherd knows. One of the important teachings in these parables is that the individual sheep are part of a flock. Those who are guided by Jesus are also united by him. One of the difficult things for us to learn is how to live together in the church. Throughout John’s gospel, there is as much focus on the community as there is on individuals. We see this same balance in traditional Moravian theology, by the way. If you visit the God’s Acre you are probably first touched by the uniformity of the gravestones. It is a community where all are equal. And yet, each stone gives the name of every individual buried there. In the archives are the personal funeral biographies of thousands of Moravians because each individual life is important. The strongest communities are those in which each individual member knows that he or she belongs and is loved. That is the flock of Jesus.

Dying for the Sheep               This parable in John 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 is a bold claim, and I’m not sure that even my shepherdess friend would lay down here life for the sheep. This is where we see that Jesus is not simply the Good Shepherd; he is the perfect Shepherd. In giving this parable, Jesus no doubt had in mind the high priests who sold out the nation of Israel during the time of Antiochus IV of Syria. Remember these parables are connected to the Jewish feast of Hanukah which commemorates the rededication of the Temple after the desecration by Antiochus. The priests before Jesus were the thieves and bandits. It is very unlikely that Jesus was here criticizing the prophets and patriarchs of the OT. The Gospels consistently affirm the goodness and salvation of people like Moses and Elijah.  

Other Sheep               One of the most interesting things in this section is the claim that Jesus has other sheep that are not part of this sheepfold. They will also listen to his voice and there will be one flock in the end. It is not clear what this meant originally. Most likely it referred to the calling of the Gentiles into the church. The “sheep” Jesus was talking to were Jewish and belong to the Jewish sheepfold. But there were also Gentiles who would answer the call of Christ and who would become part of the flock. Much of the writing of the Apostle Paul dealt with this issue of whether Gentiles who had faith in Jesus could become part of the one church alongside Jewish Christians. It appears that John’s Gospel depicted this long process of inclusive of Gentiles in the church by using the metaphor of sheep outside the fold of Judaiasm who would be included in the flock. The idea that there could be a single shepherd for a community that included Jews and Gentiles was one of the most radical ideas of the ancient world. Notice that it is the intention of the Good Shepherd to overcome the barriers that separate people. There would be one flock with one shepherd. Notice as well that the Good Shepherd does not build this large flock through conquest and violence. He calls to other sheep and they answer. As Williams Jennings Bryan said a century ago, the gospel has no need of gunboats and empires. 

            Many commentators have seen this more in terms of the divided nature of Christianity. There is one flock that answers the call of Christ, but many churches or sheepfolds. There is one shepherd and one flock, but many pens for the sheep. This interpretation would be consistent with Jesus’ great prayer at the Last Supper, and it does provide a way for dealing with the reality of a divided church. Certainly, the author of John’s Gospel was aware that there were many different congregations who worshiped and followed Jesus. John’s Gospel, unlike Matthews, seems to acknowledge that there was diversity in early Christianity. There was unity under Christ, but there were different flocks, different sheepfolds.

            In recent years, some theologians have expanded this notion of many sheepfolds with one shepherd as a way to argue for salvation for those who have not been baptized. It is possible that this verse is looking beyond the confines of institutional Christianity and that the Good Shepherd works through other religions, but that is probably pushing this passage too far, perhaps even to the point of breaking it. Especially in the context of the first century, when paganism was the main competitor to Christianity, I doubt that John saw salvation outside of Christ. Still, it may be significant that the only thing required here is to listen when the Good Shepherd calls. I do not know how someone could listen to the voice of Jesus and follow him without becoming part of the Body of Christ, but there is much I do not know. I can see why so many people in our day say that they love Jesus but don’t want to join the institutional church. We Christians seem to be so worried about strengthening the walls of our little sheepfold that we forget to go out through the gate into the world or even to welcome others in. Most important, it is not the job of the sheep to determine who belongs in the flock. Let’s leave that up to Jesus. He may be calling those that we reject.

Laying Down His Life            Verse 17 moves from a discussion of Jesus as the shepherd gathering his scattered flocks into one flock to a discussion about the death of Jesus. Some scholars see this as such an abrupt change that they have rearranged this chapter, but we can see that this prediction of the death and resurrection is connected to the idea the Good Shepherd is the one willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the sheep. Rather than being jumbled, ch. 10 repeats key aspects of the work of the shepherd. The one who gathers sheep not in this sheep pen is the one who lays down his life for all of the sheep.

            There are three predictions of the sufferings, death, and resurrection in each of the Synoptic Gospels. John also gives predictions about the death of Jesus, but they only make sense if you know that is what is going to happen. For instance, Jesus speaks of the Son of Man being lifted up, which John interprets as the crucifixion. Here in ch. 10, Jesus says that the Father loves the Son who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. Unlike some of the other gospels, John emphasizes that Jesus freely chose the path of suffering and death for the sake of his people. He was not sacrificed by the Father to appease the wrath of the Father. He was not the powerless victim of Roman oppression. Jesus, in John’s portrait, was not a passive figure or a puppet of faith. Here he says that he will freely lay down his life to protect and preserve the sheep.

            This statement that Jesus has the power to lay down his life and take it up again has been important in Christian theology, but it has also been controversial. In the rest of the NT, it is the Father who raised Jesus from death, but here Jesus claims that he has the power to raise himself. It is hard to see how someone who is dead can resurrect himself, but this is consistent with John’s claim that the Father and the Son are so united that the work of one is the work of the other. Notice that Jesus does not claim this power on his own: it is given by the Father because he is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. The death and resurrection of Jesus are here connected with the love that the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the world.

Resurrection              Another important aspect of verses 17-18 is that the death of Jesus is always linked to his resurrection in John. Many preachers and theologians focus on the death of Jesus as the moment of salvation and the climax of the Gospel, but John’s Gospel does not do that. The death is inseparable from the resurrection. Jesus lays down his life and takes it up again. Here we have an image of what eternal life means in John. The life that we experience in this body with Jesus as our shepherd is filled with abundance and blessing. Death cannot end this life. Death merely destroys the body, but life continues. Two hundred years ago, Moravians referred to death as being transferred into the heavenly choir, a view based on John 10. The Good Shepherd has gone ahead. One day we will leave the confines of our congregation and denomination and even our family and be united with the entire flock of Christ in heaven, rejoicing in salvation and healing.

            This may seem like a dream or even a delusion. Certainly there are many authors out there who claim that this hope for heaven is ridiculous. Let me share with you a quotation from John Amos Comenius: “Someone may say here and now that I am indulging in a drunken dream. But I only wish that those who chase after worldly prosperity would sleep off their intoxication, and begin to drink abundantly of this infinitely better sweetness. …let all men indulge in this kind of intoxication and dream the same kind of dream about naught but Christ, heaven, universal salvation, mutual charity and edification and the Sabbath of rest from sorry enslavement to sin! Indeed let us do as men usually do when wine has made them merry and open our mouths in cries of jubilation, and let us sing aloud the hymn of victory to Christ as conqueror and the wedding hymn of the lamb as the bridegroom of the church!”[i]

Demon-possessed                  According to John’s Gospel, some people rejected these parables of Jesus as well. They seemed like a madman’s dream rather than revelation from God. This section of the chapter ends with the audience debating about Jesus. Some said that he was possessed by a demon, which meant that they thought he was out of his mind. Others believed his words because he had opened the eyes of the blind. It is no different today. You have to decide whether Jesus’ teaching and his promises are naïve and the stuff of dreams. If you choose to have faith in these words and have your eyes opened to new ways of viewing your life and your world, you may find that people around you think you have lost your mind. Maybe I’m just a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Perhaps some day you’ll join us.

The Feast of Dedication                    That sounds like a good conclusion, and I had intended to end there last week, but we still have some radio time left, so lets move on to the next passage in ch. 10. Verse 22 says that after Jesus taught these parables about the sheep and the shepherd, it was time for the Feast of Dedication or Hanukkah. John includes the statement that it was winter and Jesus was walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. This is another one of those little things in John that may add authenticity to his account. Solomon’s Colonnade was on the eastern side of the Temple, and it would have been the warmest area of the Temple courts in the winter. Several times, we’ve seen that the author of this gospel had a good knowledge of the geography of Jerusalem. There may have also been a symbolic significance to having Jesus teach in an area associated with the wisest of the kings of Israel.

            You may wonder why it mentions that the feast is in winter. Wouldn’t the original hearers of this gospel know that Hanukkah is in winter? Some would have, no doubt, but many would not have known. Though the author and many of the members of the community of the Beloved Disciple were Jewish and steeped in Jewish worship and ritual, some were Samaritans and Gentiles. John often explains Jewish things to his readers. It is also likely that the author knew the gospel would be shared beyond his own congregation. There is also the fact that in the first century, Hanukkah was not a major festival even for Jews. The Gospel did not have to tell people when Pentecost was because that was a major festival, but the Feast of Dedication was not. So, this reference to winter would be like saying that something occurred on All Saints’ Day, in the autumn. By including this detail about the calendar, though, John is letting us know that Jesus had been teaching in Jerusalem for several months. There is a long passage of time in ch. 10.

            The feast provides the opportunity for an important exchange between Jesus and the people of Jerusalem. As we discussed earlier, the focus of the feast was on the rebellion of the Maccabees against their Greek rulers who had desecrated the Temple. Messianic expectations would have been high during the eight days of the festival. We have seen that there was a lot of discussion about who Jesus was and whether he could be the One. “How long will you keep us in suspense?” they ask. The literal translation here is interesting: “How long will you take away our breathe or life?” We don’t know for sure that this was an idiom for keeping someone in suspense, but it makes sense. Picture the people afraid to breathe until they know what is going to happen? The future is in the balance, tensions are rising. Are you the One to come? I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you in suspense for another week.

[i] Panorthosia, 165.

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