"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 9 Deepening Conflict (Jn 9.1- 10.42)

9.2 Shepherds and Sheepfolds (Jn 10.1-21)


The (much later) division into chapters can disguise the closeness between the harsh judgement of the Pharisees with which ch9 ends and the stories of shepherds and sheepfolds beneath with Jesus continued his condemnation of their actions. Just as they were willfully blind spiritually, so they showed themselves to be false shepherds of God's people. The Hebrew Bible uses the image of sheep and their shepherd to speak about God and God's rule and protection of God's people in, for example the Psalms (such as Ps 80.1) or the prophets (such as Is 40.1). But more importantly for this passage the image of the shepherd is also used (overwhelmingly) in the prophets to describe the leaders that God has set over God's people (God's sheep) to guard and protect them as God's agents.

Although some of these shepherd/leaders are portrayed positively, like David, they are usually mentioned only to be condemned by God for failing to do what God has appointed them to do. Ezekiel 34 is an extended prophetic oracle using these images of sheep and shepherd which touches on many of the themes that Jesus uses here in John 10, especially in vv11-16. In the prophet's words, God rejects the failed shepherd who don't feed the sheep but use them for their own food and profit, and scatter the flocks and vows that God will rescue the sheep from the false shepherds (Ez 34.1-10). In fact God will seach out the scattered sheep, save them, and feed them (Ez 34.11-16). The remainder of the prophecy (Ez 34.17-31) is one of judgement and of restoration which still employs some sheep and shepherd imagery but moves further away from it.

But these analogies of sheep and shepherds are more than condemnation of the Pharisees for not living up to the demands of the responsibilities of being leaders among God's people, although any of John's readers well-versed in the Hebrew Bible would certainly take that point. The evangelist also creates in this section a series of positive statements about Jesus himself, who he is and what he is doing.

The three sayings about sheep and shepherds in vv1-17 are built around double-Amen sayings (in vv1 and 7) and I am sayings (in v7 (repeated in v9) and 11(repeated in v14). This seems to have been a common technique of the evangelist with double-Amen sayings. Bauckham (2007 pp 109-10) has suggested that the double Amen designates traditional sayings (or logia) of Jesus which the Evangelist wants to mark as specially significant, and around which he has sometimes built his discourses or with which he sometimes concludes them (see also the discussion in Brown 1966 pp 83-4).

In vv1-7 Jesus took some familiar observations about shepherds working in a town or village sheepfold and framed them as a back-handed comment on the Pharisees' actions. This section begins with the person who enters the sheepfold surreptitiously, climbing in somewhere rather than simply stepping in through the gate. This is in contrast with a shepherd: a shepherd comes to the gate and is let in by the gatekeeper. His sheep recognise their shepherd when he calls them and follow him through the gate and out to to pasture. This would have been a familiar picture to those who had lived or visited in rural Roman Palestine and seen the common sheepfolds there, where small flocks would be kept all together, separated out by their individual shepherd's call when it was time to go out to pasture. Instead the thieves who enter over the fence scatter the sheep (like the failed shepherds of Ezekiel 34): the sheep run away from them because they don't recognise their voices.

It seems that Jesus intended the Pharisees to be seen as false shepherds here, the ones who come in over the fence. But the analogy is not clear and the connection between vv1-5 here and the familiar biblical images of false shepherds who betray the sheep is not clear. It is perhaps not surprising that (according to v6) Jesus' hearers, including the Pharisees, his interlocutors in Jn 9.40, did not understand what Jesus was getting at, especially because it is hard to associate Pharisees with the image of one who flouts the rules and comes in over the walls. The Pharisees were very conscious of rules and the importance of observance of even the minutiae of the Law. Doubtless John's (and Jesus' ?) irony is in play here.

In any case in vv 7-10 Jesus changes the image: instead of speaking of different sorts of people, contrasting the thieves with the proper shepherds, he is now focussed on the gate through which the sheep go in and out. He is the gate and entering by this gate ensures that one will be kept safe, and pass in and out, and find pasture. The thief brings destruction to the sheep pure and simple but Jesus came so that the sheep could have abundant life. All that came before are thieves and robbers to whom the sheep do not listen.

We are not told how the Pharisees reacted to this mixed metaphor, but it is hard not to see that Jesus was claiming to be God's true shepherd, appointed by God to care for God's sheep, the Messiah for Israel. And he was dismissing Israel's other leaders not just as thieves and robbers, but as ineffectual thieves and robbers, leaders to whom the sheep do not listen.

The final one of these three sayings (in vv11-18) is probably the best known, usually known as 'I am the Good Shepherd'. Here Jesus claims explicitly to be the real deal, the genuine shepherd, and for two reasons. First, he acts like a shepherd, in contrast to a hired hand who has no connection with the sheep: he will even give up his life to protect them. Second , the sheep recognise and acknowledge him: he leads them and they hear his voice. Even the other sheep, ones that are not from this sheepfold, recognise his voice.

This part of the saying is hard to understand -- who are the sheep that aren't from this sheepfold? Are they the Jews of the Diaspora, who have been scattered afar? Are they the Gentiles? And if the latter, is John moving beyond Jesus' own concerns to those of his own later communities? As Brown rightly observes, all the Gospels hint at Jesus' concern for, and interest in, the Gentiles, although this was not understood at first by the very early church. So it seems possible to me that Jesus may have been referring to either group here.

In any case this series of parable-like sayings ends with a return to the idea of the shepherd dying to protect the sheep, and Jesus dying for those that trust in him. Here Jesus proclaims yet another truth about his relationship with the Father who sent him: the Father loves him precisely because he gives up his life, not in a final sense, but in order to take it up again. This is the sort of thing that would not have made much sense until after the resurrection, but might well have been remembered, discussed, and passed on by the very early church for exactly that reason. Jesus has the power to give up his life and take it up again. This helps prepares John's readers both for the Farewell Discourses that take place in the context of the Last Supper, and for the trial before Pilate.

The section as a whole concludes with the reaction of the Jerusalemites to Jesus's words and to the healing of the blind man described in the previous chapter. Just as in Jn 9.15-16, the crowd are divided in their reaction. Is Jesus a mad man and possessed? Then how could he open the eyes of the blind? The last word goes to those who cannot accept that Jesus is possessed.


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The Greek word translated here as proverbial way of speaking, paroimia, is one of those used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew mašal, referring to various kinds of figurative speech. "Parabolē", parable, is the more common of these words in the New Testament, but is never found in John. Whereas the Synoptic gospels emphasise that Jesus' use of figurative language, such as parables, hid his meaning from his hearers (or at least many of them), here the point of the Evangelist's comment is that the familiar picture Jesus used to make his point should have been clear and wasn't.

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Following the dictionaries (usually a wise move), the word that I have translated as "real" ("kalos") is traditionally translated "good" (in a moral sense). Thus Jesus is the good, or the fine, or even the noble shepherd -- the one who is all that a shepherd should be. But it seems to me that we should adopt a slightly different translation here -- "kalos" also means "genuine", as for instance a coin which is of the proper weight and purity of metal is genuine. For I think the point that Jesus is making here is that he and only he is the true shepherd, the one rightly appointed by God to lead and protect the people.

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