Set Reading: John 10:11-18. We have included extra verses for context.
‘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. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.' 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. 11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The 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. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I 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. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No 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.'
John 10 might be called the chapter of the good shepherd. It may bring to mind cosy, and sentimental images, of a lush pasture-picnic on an English summer day. In reality, Palestinian shepherds lived a tough life; isolated, and at risk from brigands, and wild animals. Sheep were a vulnerable prey animal. John 10 was a very realistic image of life.
The passage has a background of sheepfolds where the sheep were herded at night for safety; this was not a time of fenced paddocks! It is likely that sheep in the care of more than one shepherd would be held in a fold. At the beginning of the day, the sheep followed their own shepherd to the pasture he had chosen. They separated out from the larger group, listening to the sound of their shepherd's voice calling them. This is a very different situation to Australia, where we drive the sheep from behind!
In these verses Jesus is presented as Gate and as Shepherd. He is not just a shepherd leading sheep. His very self, his essence or identity, is critical. He is the gate, the pathway out to food and life, and the entry back into safety during the dark night.
He contrasts himself to other leaders: All who came before me are thieves and bandits. The sheep "did not listen to them." It is clear from this that John is identifying the sheep with those who are already following Jesus. This is very much an "insiders'" text. Those who came before are not the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, but the current enemy, the leaders of the synagogues. The complaint about false shepherds is not unique to Jesus. Ezekiel 34: begins
The word of the LORD came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them-to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep...
It would be very clear to any Jewish reader that John is attacking the Jewish religious leadership.
The shepherd, leader and gateway to good life, also lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand... sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away. This was no made up illustration. People knew what a wolf could do. It contrasts the hired hands who desert the sheep in the face of danger with Jesus, who the readers already knew had laid down his life.
I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly. "Abundantly" is sometimes translated as life "in all its fullness." This is a wholistic vision of Jesus. He does not come to save us from... in some divine, forensic transaction, which is somewhat removed from us. Believing in him, which means following him, is about finding the fullness of life; its depth and richness. He comes to save us from and for. Given our lack of appreciation of this, I tend to say to people, he came to save us from, for, and for more! Immediately following this statement is the cost of his life giving: The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (verse 11).
The typically dense text of John continues: 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. (Verse 16) The inclusion of Gentiles in God's vision for us; unity and community; it's all there.
Back to the laying down of life: Bill Loader notes the "cuddly" image we have of shepherds. He remembers New Zealand sherpherding:
For me, having grown up in New Zealand, Aotearoa, ‘the land of the long white cloud' and of millions of sheep, the picture ... would be of Jesus on the motorbike disappearing across the hills behind a cloud of blue smoke, sheep dogs in tow.
As an Aussie farm boy, I think of utes idling in low gear. The sheep dog hitching a ride on the back periodically flies off to round up errant sheep and bring them back to the mob. Then she jumps back to her vantage point, and hangs over the side, lording it over the sheep.
Bill began by saying
Jesus, the good shepherd, reminds me of soft images of a Jesus with flowing robes, cuddling a tiny lamb, while others lie peacefully at his feet. The scene is idyllic, probably conjured up in an urban environment and nourished by infant recollections of holding ‘Teddy'.
The gospel reading speaks of an altogether harder, intense, and real life. Sometimes the wolves come. Life in all its fullness includes living in the wilds, not just pretending to be church.
Bill finishes his commentary this week with this wonderful line:
Meanwhile in the Galilean hills our other Jesus cuddles his teddy and the sheep sit around in large numbers doting - it keeps them very busy and they feel good!
A nice, safe Jesus, means we miss life in all its fullness.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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