Reader: “I am the good shepherd;”
Response: “I know my own sheep.”
Scripture: John 10:1-18
“I tell you the truth, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! But the one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice.”
Those who heard Jesus use this illustration didn’t understand what he meant, so he explained it to them: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and robbers. But the true sheep did not listen to them. Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he’s working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.
“The Father loves me because I sacrifice my life so I may take it back again. No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.”
Reader: “The word of the Lord.”
Response: “Thanks be to God.”
One of the things to keep in mind is that the first people to read John’s gospel were Middle Easterners, not Westerners, Asians, Africans, Latinos, nor any other culture. In this passage Jesus was speaking to Jews. The more we understand the culture of Jesus’ day, the more we will understand some of his expressions and illustrations.*
Twenty years ago when we were in Israel, we saw shepherds walking along the side of the road with their flocks of sheep. No fences, just open pasture in the place where we were. Shepherds were their protector, provider, guide, and veterinarian. The sheep were totally dependent on their shepherd to lead them. They knew his voice and followed it. They trusted him completely. Sheep are near-sighted, pusillanimous, and defenseless. Their terrifying defense is stamping their feet! Often goats are put into a flock because goats will fight an intruder. As far as the sheep are concerned, their lives are in their shepherd’s hands.
Throughout the First Testament, the Jewish people were very conscious of the idea of God being the Shepherd of Israel. After all, Psalm 23 was well known by every Jew. Even in Jesus’ day, the priests, the spiritual leaders of Israel were also considered shepherds of God’s people, God’s flock as it were.
What you read is Jesus speaking during the Festival of Dedication (Hanukkah). During this particular festival there is a concerted focus on Ezekiel 34. In that passage, the first section describes bad shepherds who are concerned only with themselves which is followed by a section where God declares himself the good shepherd who cares for his sheep. Hanukkah was the yearly opportunity for the priests, as the “shepherds of Israel,” to examine their commitment to service in light of Ezekiel 34. This is the backdrop for Jesus’ message and the reason for the theme of shepherds.
When he begins with “I tell you the truth,” it’s a way of saying “Amen, amen,” in other words, “Listen up people, what I’m about to say is really important, so pay attention.”
He begins comparing bad shepherds to thieves and robbers, as does Ezekiel 34. Everyone knew the content of that portion of the book.
Some helpful background: Sheep were kept in a pen at night and the shepherd slept in the single doorway, the only way to get into or out of the fold. Since the shepherd was the only door; the sheep were secure. Any enemy coming for the sheep had to deal with the shepherd first! The relationship between the shepherd and the sheep was personal. He knew every sheep and every sheep knew his voice. They followed by the sound of his voice, not by sight. You can drive cattle, not so with sheep. Sheep are followers. Often, several shepherds would go together putting their flocks in the same fold. When morning came, each shepherd would call his own sheep and the flocks would separate based on hearing their master’s voice. The challenge was not only to the shepherds of the flocks, but also for the sheep to learn their master’s voice so they would know whom to follow.
Jesus was alluding to the fact that the people (the sheep) didn’t recognize his voice, but were following bad shepherds (the priests). The people listening did not make this connection, so Jesus did another “Amen, amen!” We see in this portion a challenge to know his voice, to know Scripture, and to know the truth. They and we are not to be dumb sheep. The Good Shepherd loves his sheep to the point of his own death. Then he said plainly: I am the Good Shepherd. My sheep know my voice. I am the gate of the sheepfold. Then he identifies himself with the Father―God of the First Testament. He is the God of the second part of Ezekiel 34!
Rather than leadership in the first part of reading, the focus shifts here to the commitment of the Shepherd. Jesus’ discourse here deals with two ways of viewing him, both having to do with salvation. He is the Door, the only way to salvation. He is the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep with the power to take it up again.
I might make one additional comment about the sentence “I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold.” Remember, throughout the early part of Christianity, the converted Jews struggled with the concept of accepting Gentile believers as equals before God. In this particular instance, Jesus is talking to Jewish leaders and Jewish people. A reasonable understanding is that Jesus’ comments refer to non-Jewish people who will come to faith as the gospel unfolds following Jesus’ death and resurrection. At this point in history and in this context is how I would interpret these words.
Finally, the last portion of this reading centers on the Lord taking things into his own hands and providing a true shepherd who will care for his sheep. Note how much similarity there is in this description to Psalm 23 written roughly 400 years earlier. God’s shepherd will search out the lost sheep. He will feed them and they will dwell in peace. He will bandage the wounded and strengthen the weak. He will destroy the fat and powerful; he will bring justice. He will separate the sheep from the goats. Let us sheep listen for our Shepherd’s voice today.
*Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, IVP Press A helpful and interesting book giving a picture of Jewish and middle eastern culture in Jesus’ day.
Music: “Shepherd Me Lord” Arizona State University Concert Choir
O Shepherd of the sheep, who didst promise to carry lambs in Thine arms, and to
lead us by the still waters, help us to know the peace which passeth understanding. Give us to drink that heavenly draught which is life, the calm patience which is content to bear what God giveth. Have mercy upon us, and hear our prayers. Lead us gently when we pass through the valley of the shadow of death. Guide us, till at last, in the assembly of Thy saints, we may find rest forevermore. Amen. ―George Dawson, Prayers Ancient and Modern, p.143