The Good Shepherd: the flock

Christ the Good ShepherdThe Sheep. The latter part of v.3 (the sheep hear his voice) literally translates as “the sheep the sounds (phōnēs) his hear.” While voice might be part of the range of calls the shepherd might use, perhaps when one considers the use of whistles, “sounds” is the better translation. In any case, the key is the link between recognition of the proper phōnēs and the resulting movement: lead-follow. The movement is also twinned: call-answer, lead-follow, stranger-run away. In one, the movement it towards intimacy (v.4); in the other, the movement is towards separation (v.5).

It would seem clear that Jesus’ “figure of speech” (v.6) should be read with the larger context of the tradition OT image of God as the shepherd and God’s people as the sheep (e.g., Pss 23:1; 74:1; 79:31; 80:1; 95:7; 100:3 – and Ezekiel 34:1-10). God is the Good Shepherd who will rescue the sheep.

The Pharisee’s conduct towards the man-born-blind (cf. 9:34) has demonstrated that they do not have the flock’s best interest at heart. This stands in contrast to Jesus who has cared for the man and as we see at the end of John 9, the man responds to Jesus.

So Jesus said again… It is evident to Jesus that the disciples do not understand, so Jesus offers another explanation. Commentaries have long asked how we are to understand the relationship between vv.1-6 and vv.7-18. Are the latter verses making an allegorical explanation to the already presented parable? The problem with such a view is that characters and imagery has changed. In any case, if vv.7-18 are a clarifying or additional explanation, it likely was not any more effective.

But some see that a change of scene/place is implied (from “driven out…walks ahead…follow). Whereas the opening verses were within the village: the courtyards and narrow streets on to which they opened. Now the setting is the open country into which the shepherd led the sheep for grazing, and where in the summer months shepherd and sheep might spend the night. Overnight the sheep were placed in roughly constructed round stone-walled enclosures. The top of the dry-stone wall was covered with thorns to keep out wild animals. Inside the enclosure the sheep were safe so long as the entrance was secured by the shepherd. He slept across the entrance as there was no door and no doorkeeper.

While this explanation (possible, but not definitive) gives a good reason for the change of symbols, it seems also clear that the unusual statement “I am the gate” makes clear that now it is only via Jesus that one can enter the “flock” and be considered part of the people of God. It is the intimate relationship with Jesus that defines that association. It is also key that Jesus’ self-identification as the gate is primarily oriented to the life of the sheep – something made clear in vv.9-10 where Jesus explicitly identifies himself as the means for salvation: I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly (v.10b). This restates one of the central affirmation of the Fourth Gospel: Jesus comes to bring life (e.g., 3:16; 5:24; 6:40, 51; 11:25; 20:31)

This is the third of seven ‘I am’ sayings with predicates in the Fourth Gospel (6:35, 48, 51; 8:12; 10:7, 9; 10:11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5). It is introduced with the solemn formula “Amen, Amen I say to you” (amēn amēn legō hymin) to emphasize the importance of what is said.

All who came before me. There cannot be a sweeping rejection of all OT figures – especially given that Jesus has already made references to Abraham and Moses as positive witnesses to him (5:45-46; 8:56). This statement is more akin to OT passages like Jeremiah 23:1–8 and Ezekiel 34, in which the prophets pronounced judgment upon the shepherds of Israel for their failure to care for the people. Jesus may have had in mind messianic pretenders (cf. Matt. 24:24; Mark 13:22), or more likely ‘the Jews’, who treated the man born blind so badly. Of such leaders, Jesus says, the sheep did not listen to them. The man born blind certainly did not listen to them. Those who belong to Jesus, the true shepherd, do not resonate with voices such as theirs.

Notes

John 10:1 sheepfold: a low stone wall open to the sky. gate: The word translated ‘gate’ is thyra, which means ‘door’, and the word translated ‘sheepfold’ is aulē, which means ‘court’ or ‘courtyard’. When translated correctly it is clear that the parable is set in the village, not the open country. thief and a robber: the expression robber (lēstēs) is sometimes used to describe revolutionaries; in Jesus’ day this term was sometimes used of the Zealot movement. Given v.12, it is a possibility that lēstēs is referring to those who would use messianic hopes for their own nationalistic ventures and aspirations.

John 10:3 gatekeeper: Allegorical readings of this passage attempt to identify the gatekeeper with some figure in the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities.

John 10:4 driven out: the word (ekballein) normally means “to cast out” – seemingly lending the sense that the sheep are reluctant to leave the confines of the sheepfold. recognize his voice: the Pharisees do not recognize Jesus, but the people of God, symbolized by the blind man, do. Where John 9 relied on the sense of sight to fuel the narrative, John 10 adds the sense of hearing to make the parallel distinction.

John 10:5 not follow a stranger: Some commentaries suggest that several flocks are kept within a single sheepfold, thus the separation occurs when a single shepherd calls out his sheep and those sheep respond, while the remaining sheep do not because they do not recognize the shepherd’s voice. This interpretation is far from certain and there is no clear reference to a multiplicity of flocks elsewhere in the immediate text.

John 10:6 figure of speech: John uses a different word for illustrative speech than the “parable” of the synoptic gospels, but the idea is similar.

John 10:7 I am the gate for the sheep: There are several ancient manuscripts which read “shepherd for the sheep.” Thus some scholars speculate “gate” may be a scribal error associated with an underlying Aramaic expression. Perhaps, but given that v.9 repeats the image of the gate in a context that would make “shepherd” a strange usage, most scholars agree that “gate” is appropriate for v.7’s usage. There are others who note that in some instances the shepherd slept across the opening of the sheepfold thus acting as a gate for all practical purposes. Perhaps relevant, in Islam, one of the monikers for a religious leader is Bāb (gate) of knowledge. In John 10:7-8, the figure is of a gate for the shepherd to come to the sheep; in John 10:9-10, the figure is of a gate for the sheep to come in and go out.

John 10:8 all who come (before me): The phrase “before me” is omitted in many good early manuscripts and versions. The larger phrase is perhaps a reference to the long history of God’s people and its leadership. This is difficult in that it implies criticism of patriarchs, prophets and righteous of the OT era. Brown (286) considers this too drastic an interpretation.

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