John 10:1-21 – Jesus the gate and the shepherd

(These notes were prepared for a series of teachings on John’s gospel given in Pretoria in 2008 and 2009)

JN 10:1 “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. 3 The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father–and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
19 At these words the Jews were again divided. 20 Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?”
21 But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

The Pharisees had repeatedly accused Jesus of leading the people astray – i.e. away from their God and from His Law – which would make of him a false shepherd. Ironically, they were themselves the false shepherds, whom Jesus had come to depose and replace.

By identifying himself as the good shepherd, Jesus defends himself against their accusations, and at the same time brings a counter-accusation. He does this in a riddle (i.e. a veiled teaching which depends on the hearer’s understanding for its right application), so that the Pharisees did not understand. Let us then seek the understanding they lacked and for this look firstly to Ezekiel’s prophecy:

EZE 34:1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
7 “`Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 10 This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. 11 For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.’

Then from verse 22:

22 I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. 23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken.

We spoke in our introduction to chapter 9 of the Scribal and Pharisaic rules, which evolved as a ‘hedge’ around the Law. But this very hedge in fact kept the people in bondage to those who built it, and at the same time locked the people out from the source of life, the safe and green pastures and the life-giving waters – namely, the Word and the Spirit of God.

Those who had hijacked the flock for their own fleecing, and deprived it of access to its Rightful Owner, were ‘thieves and robbers’. Having their own interest at heart, they had no genuine concern for the flock. They had not ‘strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured.’ ‘You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost.’

It was for this that the God of Israel would punish these shepherds, and hold them accountable, and remove them from tending the flock. He himself would search for the sheep, and be their shepherd – through the agency of Messiah (spoken of as ‘my servant David’). He would tend and gently lead the flock, as it is written in another prophecy:

You who bring good tidings to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”

See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power,
and his arm rules for him.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.

He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.
(Isaiah 40:9-11).

In word and deed, Jesus had demonstrated himself to be this shepherd. We were reminded when the Pharisees tried to trap him with the adulterous woman, that Jesus was known as a friend of tax collectors and sinners, and by his own profession he had come ‘to seek and save the lost’. By the countless healings he had already performed, he could clearly be recognized as doing what the false shepherds were accused of neglecting, namely ‘healing the sick and binding up the injured’. For their callous hearts, the Pharisees would rather stick to their man-made traditions than see the healing of their nation.

All who ever came before him, Jesus said, were thieves and robbers.

We have seen this applied to the Pharisees who were keeping God’s people for themselves. They did this by keeping the gate closed and confining God’s flock to their own fold. Jesus later accused them: ‘You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to'(Mat. 23:13).

Another category of thief was the false Messiahs that had come before Jesus. We know of these from Acts 5:35-37 – where Gamaliel testifies of two of them – and from historical sources. These had come at the time when Messiah was ardently expected, but not with the right credentials, i.e. not in fulfilment of the prophetic word. They are thus described as jumping over the fence rather than entering through the gate.

By contrast the true shepherd comes through the gate to call the flock, and his purpose is to lead the flock out – into good pasture. They will follow him willingly because they know his voice. How do they know is voice? Because they know the voice of God! And Jesus, as he had by now claimed a number of times, spoke nothing but the words that the Father had given him to say. Those who belonged to the Father would thus hear the Father’s voice speaking through him. For the same reason those who hold to God’s word would never be deceived to follow after a stranger – for they do not know the stranger’s voice. ‘No one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand’ (verse 29).

Jesus came in his Father’s name, and with His credentials. His claims to being the Prophet like Moses, and Messiah the Son of God, were based on his fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies that spoke of him. He came openly – into the Temple, among the people. Not by stealth or trickery, leading a secret rebellion on unsubstantiated claims of divine authority.

In the Law the elders were required to sit at the gate of the city, the most public place, where there would always be witnesses and where they could judge the people visibly and openly. Jesus came in full view of the Elders and Rabbis and everything he did was open to their scrutiny. In Gethsemane he asked. ‘Am I leading a rebellion that you should come for me with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the Temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me’ (Mat. 26:56).

This made Jesus the shepherd of his sheep. ‘The watchman opens the gate for him and the sheep listen to his voice’ (verse 3). The ‘watchman’ probably refers to John the Baptist who made straight paths for Jesus’ and announced him to be the Messiah.

The Shepherd would lead his people out. It says in verses 3-4: ‘He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought them out, he goes on before them.’

Compare this to the prophecy in Micah 2:

I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob;
I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel.
I will bring them together like sheep in a pen,
like a flock in its pasture;
the place will throng with people.

One who breaks open the way will go up before them;
they will break through the gate and go out.
Their king will pass through before them,
YHVH at their head.
(verses 12-13)

Jesus opens the way for the remnant to go out. Ironically their bondage is not Egypt or exile, but sin. And their captors are not Pharaoh or Babylon, but the Pharisees. Jesus goes ahead of his flock, through the gates of death and, raised up in immortal flesh, reveals the resurrection of the faithful as the way to enter into the promised inheritance, being an everlasting tenure in the Promised Land. Jesus goes before them as king, and as YHVH at their head.

But, Micah’s prophecy continues.

Then I said, “Listen, you leaders of Jacob,
you rulers of the house of Israel.
Should you not know justice,
you who hate good and love evil;
who tear the skin from my people
and the flesh from their bones;
who eat my people’s flesh,
strip off their skin
and break their bones in pieces;
who chop them up like meat for the pan,
like flesh for the pot?”
Then they will cry out to the LORD,
but he will not answer them.
At that time he will hide his face from them
because of the evil they have done…

But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the Spirit of the LORD,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression,
to Israel his sin.
Hear this, you leaders of the house of Jacob,
you rulers of the house of Israel,
who despise justice
and distort all that is right;
who build Zion with bloodshed,
and Jerusalem with wickedness.
Her leaders judge for a bribe,
her priests teach for a price,
and her prophets tell fortunes for money.
Yet they lean upon the LORD and say,
“Is not the LORD among us?
No disaster will come upon us.”
Therefore because of you,
Zion will be plowed like a field,
Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble,
the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.
(Micah 3:1-12)

Jesus undertaking to lead his people out and go before them, by allusion to prophecy, is firstly a claim that HE is king and LORD, but also, from the subsequent verses, a warning that God’s time of judgment on the false shepherds was at hand. Within forty years of those words, Zion would be plowed like a field and Jerusalem become a heap of rubble.

Jesus would lead his flock to good pasture, as David had said in his famous Psalm:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
(Psalm 23)

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Vv.9-10). From verse 18 we understand that the good pasture and the fullness of life is in fact eternal life: “I give them eternal life”.

The good shepherd, ‘my servant David,’ risks his life for the sheep. On this basis, the David of history convinced Saul to let him fight Goliath:

But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”
Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.”

(1 Samuel 17:34-37)

Jesus is appealing to their conscience. It was public knowledge that the Pharisees planned to kill him, so his very presence in Jerusalem was at the risk of his life. He did this for the sake of the remnant of Israel whom he had to rescue from the hands of the Pharisees – and for this reason he did not run away, or desert the fight. This identifies him as the true Shepherd. The false shepherds, by contrast, run away. This happened during the siege on Jerusalem of AD 70, when Yochanan ben Zachai, the leading rabbi of the time, was smuggled out of the city in a coffin and negotiated with the Romans for safe passage for the rabbis to Yavne – to continue their ‘Torah studies’ there. In this manner the Rabbis deserted the starving masses – whom they themselves had brought under God’s judgment through their rejection of Messiah (cf. Numbers 13 & 14).

Jesus makes further predictions – also with reference to prophecy – which, as we saw in the case of Nicodemus, would plant seeds of faith for those who did not yet believe. When these predictions were later shown to be accurate, many more would put their faith in him.

The first of these predictions was that the Gentiles would repent and join the flock of Israel. ‘I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd’ (verse 16). Zechariah prophesied:

On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sean and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter. The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name. (Zechariah 14:7-8)

His second prediction concerns his death and subsequent resurrection: ‘The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life–only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father’ (verses 17 and 18).

This confirms the prophecies of Isaiah 53:

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

How absurd then, on the basis of what we’ve just seen, that anyone should request of him: ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly’ (verse 24).

While anyone could say ‘I am the Messiah’ only Jesus could ever BE the Messiah.