JOHN 9-10. THE CONTEXT
The “I am the good shepherd” passage has as its background the story of the man born blind (9:1-34). Jesus healed the blind man, precipitating a controversy with the Pharisees, who refused to believe that Jesus had performed a miracle and who tried to discredit Jesus. That story ended with the formerly blind man bearing testimony to Jesus and the Pharisees driving him out—an ironic twist in which the formerly blind man is blessed with spiritual insight as well as physical sight while the spiritual leaders of Israel refuse to see—a fact that Jesus lifts up in his discourse on spiritual blindness (9:35-41).
Jesus then uses various pastoral metaphors about sheep, gatekeepers, and the gate of the sheepfold (10:1-10), identifying himself first as the gate of the sheepfold (v. 7) and then as the good shepherd (v. 11). He contrasts himself with thieves, bandits who do not enter by the gate (v. 1) and strangers whom the sheep refuse to follow (v. 5). Then he contrasts himself with the hired hand who is supposed to take care of the sheep but who really cares only for his own personal welfare (vv. 12-13).
These negative images (those who refuse to see, thieves, bandits, strangers, and hired hands) are thinly veiled metaphors for the Pharisees who, in their encounter with the formerly blind man, reveal themselves to be uncaring about the blind man and heedless of the truth. Their actions are selfish, and have nothing to do with love of God or man. The formerly blind man not only refuses to follow them but also courageously opposes them. Even though he was blind, now he sees clearly—and he sees that Jesus, not the Pharisees, is the good shepherd—that Jesus deserves his trust.
An interesting nuance occurs in that story when the Pharisees question the blind man’s parents, asking how he can see (9:19). The parents answer, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but how he now sees, we don’t know; or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. He is of age. Ask him. He will speak for himself” (9:20-21). The narrator explains, “His parents said these things because they feared the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that if any man would confess him as Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age. Ask him'” (9:22-23). In other words, these parents are acting like a hired hand who “sees the wolf coming, leaves the sheep, and flees” (10:12). Finding themselves in danger, they abandon their son.
Evidence that these various metaphors are really one continuous story is also found in vv. 19-21, which repeat two of the themes stated earlier, the division of the Jews regarding Jesus (9:16 and 10:19) and the significance of the healing as testimony to Jesus’ Godly power (9:33 and 10:21).
One unresolved problem is that 7:2 says that the festival of Booths was near, and 10:22 says, “It was the Feast of the Dedication at Jerusalem.” These festivals are roughly three months apart, and it is not clear where the story shifts from the earlier to the later time.
JOHN 10:11-13. I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD
11“I am (Greek: ego eimi) the good (Greek: kalos) shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who doesn’t own the sheep, sees the wolf coming, leaves the sheep, and flees. The wolf snatches the sheep, and scatters them. 13The hired hand flees because he is a hired hand, and doesn’t care for the sheep.”
“I am (ego eimi) the good shepherd” (v. 11a). Ego eimi is an important phrase in this Gospel, which includes a number of “I am” sayings:
• “Ego eimi, I am he” (4:26)
• “Ego eimi, I am the bread of life” (6:35).
• “Ego eimi, I am the living bread” (6:51).
• “Ego eimi, I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5).
• “Before Abraham came into existence, Ego eimi“ (8:58).
• “Ego eimi, I am the sheep’s door” (10:7).
• “Ego eimi, I am the door” (10:9).
• “Ego eimi, I am the good shepherd” (10:11).
• “Ego eimi, I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25).
• “Ego eimi, I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6).
• “Ego eimi, I am the true vine” (15:1).
Ego eimi can be understood as coded language that refers back to Moses’ encounter with God many centuries earlier. On that occasion, when Moses asked God’s name, God replied, “You shall tell the children of Israel this: ‘I AM has sent me to you'” (Exodus 3:14). In that verse, “I AM” is “ego eimi” in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament). Also, in Isaiah 40-55, God uses this phrase, “I am,” over and over to refer to himself. In other words, ego eimi can be construed as God’s name. When Jesus applies ego eimi to himself, he is subtly identifying himself with God—as God.
These ego eimi statements tell us that Jesus is the one who can meet our deepest needs and longings (O’Day, 601).
“I am the good (kalos) shepherd” (v. 11a). The Old Testament uses shepherd as a metaphor for God (Genesis 48:15; 49:24; Psalm 23:1; 28:9; 80:1; Isaiah 40:11). God also appointed leaders to be shepherds for Israel (Numbers 27:16-17; 2 Samuel 5:2; 7:7; 1 Chronicles 11:2; 17:6; Isaiah 44:28).
Barclay notes that there are two Greek words for good:
• Agathos “simply describes the moral quality of a thing.”
• Kalos (used in this verse), “means that a thing or a person” goes beyond good to lovely.
Barclay then likens the phrase “the good shepherd” to the phrase “the good doctor.” When people speak of the good doctor,they are thinking beyond the doctor’s medical skills to his/her kindness and compassion. “In the picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd there is loveliness as well as strength and power” (Barclay, 71).
“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11b). This brings to mind David, the shepherd boy who slew a lion and a bear in defense of his sheep (1 Samuel 17:35-36). Surely some shepherds lose their lives trying to protect their sheep from wild animals or thieves. Others lose their footing as they search for lost sheep at night, suffering injury or even death. Being a shepherd is not for the fainthearted.
But Jesus goes beyond that. A good shepherd will risk his life to protect the sheep, but that is different from laying down one’s life. The shepherd who risks his life for the sheep does not expect to die, but expects to live. Occasionally, a shepherd will die in an encounter with animals or thieves, but most will not. People who engage in risky occupations typically believe that it will be the other person who will die. They don’t plan to lay down their own lives, but rather to make their foe to lay down his/her life.
Also, a shepherd who dies leaves the sheep defenseless, so the only good shepherd is a live shepherd—or so it would seem. Jesus says otherwise. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11b). While a good shepherd does not go to the field intending to die, Jesus will do exactly that in obedience to the Father (v. 18). Jesus came into the world to die on the cross, and it is the death of the Lamb of God that saves us from death (1:29; Revelation 7:17)—or perhaps we should say that it is the Lamb’s resurrection—his victory over death—that insures our victory over death. His resurrection will bring him back to his disciples. When he finally leaves them, he will not leave them comfortless but instead will give them the gift of the Comforter (14:25) and will return to take them to a place that he has prepared for them (14:2). This is no “dead and gone” shepherd—no absentee Lord.
“He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who doesn’t own the sheep, sees the wolf coming, leaves the sheep, and flees. The wolf snatches the sheep, and scatters them” (v. 12). Exodus 22:1-14 includes laws of restitution. For instance, a thief would be required to repay twofold, fourfold, or fivefold, depending on the circumstances. If unable to pay, he could be sold into servitude (Exodus 22:1-4). However, if an animal “was mangled by beasts, let it be brought as evidence; restitution shall not be made for the mangled remains” (Exodus 22:13). However, the Mishnah (commentary on Jewish law) required a hireling to protect the sheep from one wolf, but relieved him of responsibility if more than one wolf was involved (Kostenberger, 305-6).
If there is such a thing as a good shepherd, there must also be such a thing as a bad shepherd. Jesus contrasts the good shepherd, not with a thief, but with a hired hand—a mercenary who cares only for his paycheck—who has no affection for the sheep and who feels no great responsibility for them—who sees shepherding, not as a calling, but only as a job—who runs away from danger, allowing the wolf to snatch and scatter the sheep. Such a hired hand will tend the sheep only until he receives a better offer. If a sheep wanders off at night, he can easily justify staying with the flock rather than seeking the one who was lost. If a lion stalks the sheep, the hired hand can easily justify sacrificing a lamb or two to save the flock—and himself.
“The hired hand flees because he is a hired hand, and doesn’t care for the sheep” (v. 13). In a sense, having a hired hand as a shepherd is worse than having no shepherd at all. The hired hand gives the illusion of protection without protecting. If the owner has no shepherd, he will work to find one. If he has a hired hand, the owner will relax, thinking that the sheep are safe.
On a morality scale of one to ten, the hired hand is somewhere in the middle. He intends to be neither a hero nor a villain, but becomes a villain because of what happens to the sheep in his care. He fails to recognize (or perhaps to care) that his work is important—literally a matter of life or death for the sheep. His indifference is likely to result in the death of the sheep in his care. His attitude is important, because lives are at stake.
There is a lesson here for us. It is not enough to go through the motions as a Christian. Christ wants more than lip service—he wants our hearts. In the letters to the seven churches, Jesus warns the church at Laodicea: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16). The reason is simple. Christ calls us, in ways great or small, to proclaim the Good News of the salvation available through him. Indifference is a serious evil, because lives are at stake.
Jesus takes the metaphor of good and bad shepherds from Ezekiel 34, which speaks of the shepherds of Israel—religious leaders—”who feed themselves! Shouldn’t the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, and you clothe yourself with the wool, you kill the fatlings; but you don’t feed the sheep” (Ezekiel 34:2-3). It contrasts these bad shepherds with God, the true shepherd (Ezekiel 34:11-31). The passage concludes with God promising Israel, “You my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, are men, and I am your God, says the Lord Yahweh” (Ezekiel 34:31).
There are good and bad shepherds today, both clergy and laypeople. The difference is in the shepherd’s heart. The good shepherd cares about the people in his/her care, whether they are a diocese, a congregation, or just a few children in a Sunday school class. The good shepherd seeks ways to lead faithfully, and stands for what is right—even in the face of opposition or danger. Bad shepherds care only about their own welfare. A bad shepherd might preach false doctrine—or care more for programs or building campaigns than for people—or become embroiled in a sexual scandal—but it is bad enough for a shepherd simply not to care about the sheep. Fortunately, Christ has many more good shepherds than bad.
JOHN 10:14-16. I KNOW MY OWN, AND I’M KNOWN BY MY OWN
14 “I am the good shepherd. I know (Greek: ginosko) my own, and I’m known by my own; 15even as the Father knows me, and I know the Father. I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep, which are not of this fold (Greek: aules). I must (Greek: dei—it is necessary—a divine necessity) bring them also, and they will hear my voice. They will become one flock (Greek: poimne) with one shepherd” (Greek: poimen).
“I am the good shepherd. I know (ginosko) my own and I’m known by my own” (v. 14). In verse 11, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. In verse 14, the good shepherd knows (ginosko) the sheep and the sheep know him. Ginosko is more than superficial knowledge—it involves experience—relationship. The Old Testament talks of a man knowing his wife in the sense of sexual intimacy, a relationship that has significance beyond the physical act. When Jesus says that the good shepherd knows the sheep, he is not implying anything sexual, but is nevertheless talking about a very significant relationship.
The shepherd (Jesus) knows the sheep (people) because he “became flesh, and lived among us” (1:14). “Existing in the form of God, (he) didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus knows his own, because he has lived in our skin and has experienced our joys and sorrows.
Jesus says that he knows his own and his own know him “even as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (v. 15a). The unity of Father and Son is a major theme of this Gospel:
• “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).
• Jesus tells the Jewish leaders, “I and the Father are one” (10:30).
• When the Jews reject Jesus, he challenges them, “But if I do them, though you don’t believe me, believe the works; that you may know and believe that the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (10:38).
• In his high priestly prayer, Jesus prays for the disciples, “that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me” (17:21).
In verses 14-15a, Jesus gives us the sense of an all-encompassing intimacy that begins in his relationship with the Father and extends to those whom the Father has given to him (17:6) and to all “who believe in me through their word” (17:20). What Jesus is describing, then, is a grand extended family that begins with the loving Father and, through the love of the Son, embraces all believers.
I experienced something like that many years ago in a little country church when I was a student-pastor. A wonderful member of that congregation, a woman named Matie, had grown sons and daughters who lived nearby. They were a close-knit family who gathered regularly for Sunday lunch at Matie’s house. Matie had a big table that would seat twenty people, and I seldom saw an empty seat. I was unmarried at the time, and Matie adopted me into her family. I often stayed at her house on Saturday nights and ate lunch at her table on Sunday afternoons. It was a wonderful experience that was possible only because of Matie—the fine person that she was. That large but intimate fellowship grew out of her large and loving heart. So it is with the church, the extended family that grows out of the loving hearts of the Father and the Son.
“I lay down my life for the sheep” (v. 15b). Jesus reminds us once again that he lays down his life for the sheep, a theme that he will pick up again in verse 17.
“I have other sheep which are not of this fold (aules). I must (dei) bring them also” (v. 16a). A sheepfold is an enclosure or a corral where the sheep live when they are not grazing for food. It provides security and fosters a sense of community. Jesus says that he will bring these other sheep also, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Who are these other sheep? Most scholars think that Jesus is referring to Gentiles. When Jesus says, “I have,” he implies that these sheep already belong to him, but he has yet to bring them to the fold. He must do so (Greek: dei—it is necessary for him to do so).
“and they will hear my voice” (v. 16b). Earlier Jesus said, “the sheep follow him (the shepherd), for they know his voice” (v. 4). Borchert, who lived for a time in Israel, recounts two incidents that reflect this truth. In the first, a shepherd led his sheep through the busy traffic in Jerusalem, singing and whistling to keep the sheep together. In the second, four shepherds shared a sheepfold. In the morning, each shepherd in turn would sing and call his sheep, who “dutifully separated from the larger flock and began to follow him to the hills for their daylight feeding” (Borchert, 330).
Jesus concludes, “They will become one flock (poimne) with one shepherd” (poimen) (v. 16c). Brown suggests that we translate this “one sheep herd with one shepherd” as a way of preserving the similar sound of poimne and poimen in the original (Brown, 387).
Some earlier translations translated verse 16b “one fold, one shepherd,” but that is not correct. The Greek clearly says poimne (flock or herd) instead of aules (fold). Jesus is speaking here of the church, the people of God. We might not all be corralled in one enclosure, but we are all one flock.
Today the barriers that separate us are likely to be denominational, national, racial, educational, vocational, or financial. Such barriers are inappropriate among Christians. Christ calls us to be “one flock” (v. 16).
JOHN 10:17-18. I RECEIVED THIS COMMANDMENT FROM MY FATHER
17“Therefore the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. 18No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down by myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. I received this commandment from my Father.”
“Therefore the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again” (v. 17). This is difficult to understand—doesn’t the Father love the Son because he is his Son? Surely he does—but the Father’s heart must be brimming with pride at his Son’s willingness to give his life to bring the world salvation.
The Son lays down his life “that I may take it again” (v. 17). John’s Gospel views the cross and resurrection differently from the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and Acts (also written by Luke):
• In the Synoptics, it is God who acts. In John, the Son acts in obedience to the Father but of his own accord.
• In the Synoptics, Jesus prays, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Please remove this cup from me. However, not what I desire, but what you desire” (Mark 14:36). In John’s Gospel he lays down his life himself—but only so that he might take it up again. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension together constitute a single salvation action. Jesus is not a reluctant martyr but a willing savior carrying out the purpose for which he came.
• In the Synoptics and Acts, the emphasis is on God raising Jesus from the dead (Matthew 28:6-7; Mark 16:6; Acts 2:24, 32; 3:15, etc.), but in John’s Gospel, Jesus takes his life up again (v. 17). Not only does he take up his own life again, but he also makes our resurrection possible—“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up in the last day” (6:44).
“No one takes it from me, but I lay it down by myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. I received this commandment from my Father” (v. 18). Who is responsible for Jesus’ death?
• The chief priests and Pharisees plotted against him (7:32-36, 45-52; 10:31; 11:45-57; 18:19-23; 19:13-16).
• Judas betrayed him (13:21-30; 18:1-11).
• Pilate sentenced him to death (18:28 – 19:16
• The Roman soldiers carried out the crucifixion (19:16b-37).
But the architect of the plan was the Father, and the Son is complying with the Father’s will. The purpose of the plan was to save the world from its sin, and Jesus is a willing participant in that plan. Just as “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11), Jesus lays down his life “that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (3:16).
The plan required the incarnation—the Word becoming flesh and living among us (1:14). It required Jesus to wear the garb of human flesh for three decades as he dwelled among us “full of grace and truth” (1:14).
The plan also required Jesus’ willing cooperation with those who were plotting to take his life. When Judas and the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, he made no attempt to flee but instead identified himself to the soldiers (18:5-7). He refused to allow Peter to use his sword to save him (18:10-11). Instead, he said, “Put the sword into its sheath. The cup which the Father has given me, shall I not surely drink it?” (18:11). He refused to defend himself before Pilate (33-38).
While those who plotted to take Jesus’ life bear the guilt of their actions, it was never within their power to take Jesus’ life. He says, “No one takes (my life) from away from me, but I lay it down by myself” (v. 18).
But that will not be the end of the story. If Jesus has the power to lay down his life, he also will have the “power to take it again” (v. 18). The resurrection will trump the crucifixion.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966)
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Johnston, Scott Black, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan