This is the first for three posts leading up to Good Friday, April 6.
John 10:1-6 states:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
I love the “sheep/shepherd” illustration primarily because I’m so far removed from agricultural life that I’m forced to study in order to grasp the historical and literary context of Jesus’ day so that I know what Jesus is trying to say (R. C. Sproul’s commentary was most informative for the information below).
It turns out that he way sheep were cared for in ancient Israel was very different from the way they are handled today. In those days, there was one large, central pen, or sheepfold, in a given community, and at the end of the day people brought their small individual flocks and led them into the big sheepfold. With their combined resources, they paid a gatekeeper, and it was his job to stay with the sheep during the night.
In the morning, the gatekeeper opened the gate to those who were truly shepherds, whose sheep were enclosed in the sheepfold. The shepherds entered by the door, for they had every right to do so—the sheep were theirs and the gatekeeper was their paid servant. When a shepherd entered the sheepfold, the sheep of all the local flocks were mixed, but he began to call, and his sheep recognized his voice and came to him. In fact, a good shepherd was so intimately involved with the care and the nurture of his sheep that he had names for them, and he would call them by name. His sheep followed him out because they knew him.
There is another major difference in the way sheep were tended in the past and the way they are now. Today, sheep are herded, usually by dogs that drive them and keep them going where the shepherd wants them to go. However, in ancient Israel, sheep were led. The shepherd went ahead of them, and where the shepherd went, the sheep followed. They didn’t simply roam all over; they followed the shepherd. The shepherd was their leader, and if one sheep began to stray, the shepherd would simply call it. The sheep knew his voice and followed him, but they did not follow a stranger.
Of course, there is a literary context to deal with as well. When we connect these verses with the end of chapter 9, we see that these verses are a continuation of a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees.
With these bits of context in place, we are quite certain that: Jesus is the Shepherd, the Pharisees are thieves and robbers, and the Father is the gatekeeper.
First, consider the weight of the Pharisees being labeled as “thieves and robbers.” Jesus essentially looks at the Pharisees and says, “You want to talk about who the real believers are? I’ll tell you who the real believers are: they are the ones who listen to my voice and follow me, not you. By calling people to follow you instead of me, you are acting as a thief and robber, not a shepherd. Anyone that seeks followers for themselves other than me is like a thief or robber. They take things that are not theirs and use them for their own selfish purposes, and that is what you, Pharisees, are doing.” It’s no wonder the Pharisees didn’t come to grips with Jesus’ metaphor (v.6). What Pharisee would want to hear that his hard-earned self-righteous life aimed at pleasing God was the very thing that was damning him before God?
Second, consider the implications behind Jesus’ being a Shepherd (in verses 2-5 … more implications in vv. 12ff to come!). The emphasis is intimacy. Jesus knows who His sheep are. There’s a party in heaven when one sinner repents (Luke 15:7, another parable using sheep), but it’s not a surprise party (John 10:3). And Jesus’ true sheep know His voice and follow His lead, and are never led astray.
The Pharisees respond to these realities with confusion (v. 6). Jesus response is to double-down on the metaphor (vv. 7-21), which we will take a look at tomorrow.