Jesus: The Good Shepherd (John 10:1-42)

Have you ever wondered about Hanukkah? I'll tell you in a minute why I am bringing it up. For now, just bear with me.

A Christian friend once asked me if Hanukkah was a creation by Jewish families for their children, so they wouldn't feel left out. It falls around Christmastime on the Christian calendar, so I suppose that's not a bad guess. Children in Christian homes get to put up lights and receive presents. So parents of Jewish children wanted to do something comparable for their children. Creative guess. But wrong.

Hanukkah means "rededication" and traces back to an event over a century and a half before the birth of Christ. Although it is not one of the mandated feasts of the Hebrew Bible, it is quite important in Judaism. It is a festival about loyalty to Yahweh. It reminds the people to follow the Lord's chosen and anointed leaders and not to chase after false shepherds. It is about purity of faith, commitment to God, and trust in him to supply.

In the inter-testamental period, a program of Hellenization was pressed on the entire civilized (i.e., Mediterranean) world. After the death of Alexander the Great and the parceling up of territories under his generals and successors, a common theme for the next couple of centuries was the forced Hellenization of the world. Greek language, culture, and religion were promoted energetically. It happened in the territory of the Jews as elsewhere, and within 150 years there had been a major assimilation of the Jewish people into Greek lifestyle. The Septuagint, for example, is our Old Testament translated into Greek somewhere around 200 B.C. for Jews who could no longer read the Hebrew text of Holy Scripture.

A Syrian king named Antiochus IV Epiphanes was determined to finish off Judaism and to replace it with Greek gods and religious observances. It was his plan to unite everyone in his kingdom under one king, one leader, one shepherd. But he precipitated a major revolt among the Jews in 167 B.C. that was led by the Maccabees. They eventually drove the Syrians from Jerusalem, reclaimed the temple for Yahweh, and rededicated it on the 25th day of Kislev - the third month of the Jewish calendar that falls in the winter period of late November to December (e.g., December 10, 2001 or November 30, 2002).

When Judah Maccabee and his followers had purified the temple from Greek defilement, they wanted to light the temple menorah. A jug of oil was found that had only enough for a single day's light. The story is that God miraculously increased the oil so the lamp burned for eight full days of the Feast of Dedication (cf. John 10:22) or, as it was also called, the Festival of Lights.

This is a pretty extensive history lesson, but I promised to give it for a clear reason. Let me make that plain now. Hanukkah is about false leaders and true leaders, usurpers and legitimate rulers, tyrants who exploit the masses and genuine leaders who deliver people from oppression. Antiochus called himself "Epiphanes" (i.e., God manifest) but was a bogus pretender; even in his own lifetime, many called him "Epimanes" (i.e., madman). Judah Maccabee is hailed for his war for freedom against such a man. Evil leaders take charge for themselves and exploit the masses for their own sakes; good leaders exercise their power for the sake of those they lead and lay down fortune, comfort, and life if need be for the sake of their followers.

The Allegory

With the history lesson finished but kept in mind as the backdrop for Jesus' teaching by means of this story, read these familiar words once more:

"Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away - and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 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. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father" (10:1-18).
The Non-Sentimental Meaning

With historical background about the Feast of Dedication in mind, I suspect you got a different mental image from the reading than in some times past. Haven't you seen the paintings of Jesus cradling the single sheep in his arms? Or perhaps the one where he is being nuzzled by a single lamb - perhaps grateful at being snatched from the jaws of danger? I don't dislike those paintings. They make an important point about Jesus' love for every single lamb in his fold. But those sentimental takes on the Good Shepherd imagery aren't exactly faithful to what is happening either in this teaching setting or in the church to which John wrote his Gospel. To our penchant for individualistic theology, this non-sentimental view may be less appealing. But it is important. This allegory is about false versus true shepherds and false versus true community. Let me explain.

The one time I have been in modern Israel, I marveled at how time seems to have stood still in some places. As we drove from Jerusalem toward the Dead Sea, for example, we saw flocks of sheep grazing or moving toward pasture. The shepherd was never driving his sheep but was always out in front leading. My understanding is that at night the shepherd would build a waist-high pen from rocks or branches. With the sheep inside, he often sleeps with his own body across the single entrance to it. The sheep are thus kept from wandering away, and his own body is the shield against thieves or predators who would enter. With the dawn of a new day, the shepherd rouses, calls the name of his sheep, and begins walking toward the new day's grass and water while talking, singing, or playing his flute. The sheep know their shepherd - and follow.

First, Jesus is the true shepherd. "Strangers" (v.5) may be the pretender-Messiahs - of whom there had been several already and would be more (cf. Acts 5:36-37). More likely, the "strangers" - Jesus also used even stronger terms such as "thieves" and "bandits" (v.8) - are the Pharisees with whom he squared off back in chapter 9.

Although most of us know the shepherd-motif best from Psalm 23, more often its use in the Old Testament is about God-ordained leaders for the community. The theme isn't personal salvation but political security under God's true shepherd. Thus Yahweh told Moses to appoint Joshua his successor "so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd" (Num. 27:17b; cf. Jer. 10:21; 23:1,4; Ezek. 34:1ff).

Second, Jesus is the gate for the sheep. "I am the gate," he declared. "Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture" (v.9). The rightful and true shepherd alone determines who goes through the gate into his fold. Ironically, he seems to imply that it won't matter what the pretender-shepherds have said about you. If they have excluded you, he can still admit you. And they will be destroyed for their misuse of power in his name. Why, isn't that what the parents of the healed blind man had feared three months earlier? When they were asked how their son had come to have his sight, they declined and told the Pharisees to let him speak for himself. Here is John's explanation: "His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue" (John 9:22).

Look at a messianic prediction that is six centuries older than this event:

For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick. . . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?

Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken (Ezek. 34:11-24).
Men don't decide who gets in. Racial stock doesn't determine it. Your church membership isn't the issue. Whether you are in or out of the mainstream, in or out of your family's religious history, in or out of this church - these are issues of minor importance. Not one of them decides your relationship to Jesus. Jesus is the gate, and your personal faith in him includes you in the community that counts. You have recognized the God-ordained shepherd, savior, and leader. You have cast your lot with him. And he has included you - regardless of anyone's personal, denominational, or other judgment about you.

Third, more than the true shepherd, Jesus is also the "good" shepherd. He leads but doesn't force (v.4). He gives abundant life to all under his care (v.10b). Why, he even lays down his life for his sheep (vs.11) - the first clear indication in the Gospel of John of the self-sacrifice that lies ahead for Jesus. And just how did Jesus receive this role? "I have received this command from my Father," he said (10:18b). He and the Father are "one" (10:30), and he never does anything independently of him (cf. 8:16, 28, 38, 42, et al.).

I think a shepherd's job would be incredibly hard, not just the occasional cuddling of a furry lamb. He lives in the open. He has the constant stress of watching for wolves and other predators. He has to find pasture and water. He is the only available veterinarian for his animals when they are sick and has to do his own lambing. A mere hired hand who doesn't own the flock and who isn't personally invested in their welfare just might give up if it got too hard, the wolves too many, the nights too cold, and the sheep too demanding.

Our Good Shepherd owns us (v.12b; cf. Acts 20:28), knows our names (v.14), and lays down his life for us (vs.11,15b). If there seems to be a problem here in that laying down one's life for his sheep would - in the real world of shepherding anyway - leave the flock totally vulnerable and defenseless, it is only a paradox. Death would not have the last word with Jesus, and he would return to life. Thus his death would provide the basis for reconciliation, and his resurrection would see the process through to our ultimate and complete salvation (cf. Rom. 5:8-10).

What Do You Hear?

Do you hear the words of division and oneness in this text? The call of Christ both divides and unites. To hear and respond to his voice is initially divisive. The faith of the few in his own time separated them from the majority. It made them subject to persecution. To follow Jesus as the authorized, true, and Good Shepherd meant rejecting the Pharisees and the religious establishment. At one and the same time, hearing and following the voice of Jesus unites. All who enter the fold by Jesus become part of his one great flock. "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold," he said. "I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd" (10:16). There would be more to follow him from his own people, and a great ingathering of the Gentiles lay ahead. But all would be one fold under one shepherd.

Please don't hear his words in some sectarian way. Shepherds don't build fences and pens. Please don't visualize a mutton farm! Jesus isn't raising sheep for market. He is a shepherd moving about freely in the open fields - pasturing, watering, tending, nurturing. Our sectarian divisions over time have erected fence after fence to keep the sheep tightly restrained and under control. There is no Jew pen and Gentile pen, no Baptist acres and Presbyterian acres, no Church of Christ stall and Pentecostal stall. The Good Shepherd has one great flock of all those who confess him, follow him, and acknowledge his right to lead - a motley flock with all sizes and varieties, all markings and colors, all theological stripes and denominational backgrounds. We are not uniform, but we are united because we are listening for the same voice.

Because we have heard Jesus, we have come in from the desert, huddled close to one another as we press in to our shepherd, and refused to listen to the false promises and false leaders of this age for the sake of hearing Christ. Because he is the gate by which we entered, hearing his voice and following him has put us in a secure place to heal from our wounds, nourish our faith, and grow strong in his flock.

There is an old book by an Englishman who wrote out of his experience with sheep. In some of his earliest days on a sheep ranch in East Africa, his property bordered that of an unfeeling fellow who paid minimal attention to his animals.

As winter, with its cold rains and chilling winds came on, my neighbor's sickly sheep would stand huddled at the fence, their tails to the storm, facing the rich fields in which my flock flourished. Those poor, abused, neglected creatures under the ownership of a heartless rancher had known nothing but suffering most of the year. With them there had been gnawing hunger all summer. They were thin with disease and scab and parasites. Tormented by flies and attacked by predators, some were so weak and thin and wretched that their thin legs could scarcely bear their scanty frames.

Always there seemed to lurk in their eyes the slender, faint hope that perhaps with a bit of luck they could break through the fence or crawl through some hole to free themselves.[1]

If you have faith in Jesus Christ, he invites you to enter his fold. Even if you don't believe in the Pharisees, the Christian clergy, or the church, you are invited to hear his voice and follow him. If somebody has told you that you don't or can't enter, he still says, "Come right in!" He will heal and protect you. He will feed and nurture you. He will guide you onto safe paths. With the third of his great "I Am" statements in the Fourth Gospel, he calls you to see him as the Good Shepherd. All you have to do is listen, hear, and follow.

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one (10:27-30).
Why, they were willing to try to stone Jesus for saying such non-clerical, non-institutional things back then (10:31ff). He just asked the people whose hearts were not already permanently closed to keep watching - to see for themselves that the Father was at work in him (10:37-38). The ones who watched, who listened, and who belonged to his fold believed - and followed (10:42).

If you hear his voice today, you can enter too. You can be one of the fold. And no one can snatch you from his hand. What a gift!

[1]Philip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), pp. 138-139.

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