John 10 – The Shining Shepherd
The words of Christ in chapter 10 were spoken at the Feast of Dedication, a few months after the events in chapter 9. This feast commemorated the consecration of the temple, which had been destroyed first by Nebuchadnezzar, and then desecrated centuries after the exile by the Greek king Anthiochus Epiphanes. Many years later, Christ Himself was consecrated to be the Temple through whom we can approach and worship the Father. In fact, in this very chapter, Christ says of Himself that “the Father hath sanctified” or consecrated Him to be the Messiah (v. 36). The temple ultimately was only pointing forward to Him, who in His own Person would be the truly consecrated way to worship God. Christ had taken the place of the earthly Temple as the only true sacrifice. Worship was through Him only.
The Feast of Dedication was also a festival of light during the shorter days of winter. This explains why John highlights the theme of light announced in 8:12 and continued through 8 and 9. Christ was the heavenly Light in the darkness to give identity, life, and purpose to those who trust and follow Him as the light in a cold, dark world.
In this chapter, the major symbol that symbolizes this identity and purpose was the metaphor of the Shepherd. In the Old Testament, God frequently spoke of Himself as a Shepherd leading His flock (Jer. 23:1-4; Ezek. 34; Ps 23; Ps. 77:20). This gave His people the identity of sheep whose purpose is to follow the Shepherd and count on His care. We might not naturally connect the themes of Shepherd and Light, but the Bible does, especially in Psalm 80:1, 3: “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock; thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth ... Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved” (emphasis mine). In other words, Christ would be Light for His people to guide them and give them life abundantly as they fulfill His purpose all the way to glory. Identity, purpose, and a life in this Light are all promised to those who follow this good Shepherd.
The Door to the Shepherd
In verses 1-10, Christ is revealing what has just happened with the man born blind, and with that, showing what He will work in the entire world. He does this to comfort the man and also His own followers. This man had been expelled from the temple, the place of God, but instead of being expelled from the fellowship of God’s people, he had entered into the fellowship of God’s people. He had gone Through the Door to the sheepfold, namely, Christ Jesus. By entering the sheepfold, he could now worship Christ in person; no religious leader nor law would stop him. He had free access to the Savior, the Shepherd, the real Temple, and the Light of the world.
Sheepfolds in Christ’s day were often fields enclosed by large walls that were several feet high. At night, the shepherds would often bring their flocks to these enclosed areas. There was a doorkeeper (porter), usually a hired servant from a nearby village, who would keep watch over the flock at night. The high walls and the doorkeeper (porter) helped keep the sheep safe from thieves, who would often try to break in and steal sheep. Some even say that the custom in those days was for the shepherd to lie down in the gate of the fold to prevent any person or animal from getting in or out. If this is true, it would give additional significance to the fact that Christ calls Himself the Door; no one can get to the sheep because He guards them with His life.
This section is also a stinging condemnation of the Pharisees. In the previous chapter, they had cast the healed man out of the synagogue, thinking thus to cut him off from the worship of God and the fellowship of Israel. However, Christ makes clear that though the healed man has been cut off from fellowship with the Pharisees, he has actually entered into fellowship with the triune God, and thus has abundant life. The Pharisees were just hirelings who didn’t care for the flock. They were after their own pride, their own glory instead of feeding the need of the sheep. They were called to care for the spiritual nourishment of the sheep but were wicked and strayed away themselves. But the flock recognizes the true, caring, and loving Shepherd, and “the stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers” (v. 5).
Unlike the Pharisees, Christ cares for the sheep, knowing each of their names, caring for each one individually. His sheep recognize His voice; He is familiar to them and they trust Him. Those who flee from the hirelings feel safe with Christ instead. This is exactly what took place with the man who was healed in the previous chapter. Despite pressure from the Pharisees, he would not listen to or obey them, for they were not true shepherds (see 9:13-34). However, he knew the voice of the true Shepherd and followed Him “out of the synagogue” and into the “pasture,” where Christ leads every one of His people (see 9:35-38). Unwittingly, the Pharisees drove this sheep straight to the arms of the Shepherd.
So Christ is the “door of the sheep” (v. 7). Through faith in Him, every true sheep passes through and is saved. He is the only one who can give the sheep entrance into life. He came to save them and lead them into abundant life. Never will His sheep lack what they need; they will be under His care forever.
The Sacrifice of the Shepherd
In verses 11-18, Christ elaborates on how He is the self-sacrificing Shepherd. This is where He explains how He is the good Shepherd. This characteristic “good” sets Him apart from other shepherds. He is especially good because He laid down His life for the sheep (v. 11). That means that He loves the sheep so much that He is prepared to trade His own life so the sheep can live a life of goodness. Though a good human shepherd may on occasion end up giving his life defending his flock, he does not willingly lay down his life as a sacrifice for the benefit of his sheep. In fact, the death of the shepherd would expose the whole flock to danger. But Christ’s sacrifice for His sheep is not just a remote possibility; it is in fact a requirement or “commandment” that the Father gave Him (v. 18). Without it there would be no abundant life possible. His death did not leave the flock in danger; in fact, it saved them all, none excluded.
Christ’s death for the sheep is not evidence of weakness, but love for the sheep — strong love, for it speaks of His divine authority. Christ clarifies that His death won’t be the end of Him or His sheep: “I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (vv. 17-18). Christ will save His sheep by dying for them and rising again. That is why He has come into the world: to give His life for them. What a difference from the cowardly hirelings! They run at the slightest danger because they are weak and scared. It’s interesting that the text says that though the wolf scatters the sheep, “the wolf catcheth” the hirelings (v. 12). The sheep are ultimately kept by Christ, cared for by His strong arms, but the hirelings won’t escape the wolf!
Christ’s hands are hands that bear the marks of sacrifice. Satan can’t take us out of those hands. As Christ says, no one is able to seize one of His sheep out of His hand or His Father’s hand (v. 29). What a tender picture — a sheep with a wolf nearby, but the Father’s hand securing a scared sheep, and the wolf slinking away, frustrated in his designs. No wild animal, no attack from the outside can ever harm His sheep. Christ is entirely in control of all circumstances. When the stones are ready to fly again in the direction of this Shepherd (v. 31), He shows His power. No one can take His life from Him, and no one can take His sheep out of His hand.
As Christ contemplates the sacrifice He will make, He thinks about “His other sheep” (v. 16), Gentiles, who are also on His heart. He will die for them as well; He “must bring (them), and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold” (v. 16). As Paul would later put it, Christ’s cross broke down the middle wall of partition, and both Jews and Gentiles would unite in the one fold of Christ (Eph. 2:14). There will be one flock, where all sheep will be of equal value. It will be a great flock, but the Shepherd will know every sheep by its name.
The Sheep of the Shepherd
How do we know we are one of Christ’s sheep? In essence, Christ has answered that through the first two sections, but He comes back to it in the last section of the chapter (vv. 19-42). He explains this in verse 26: “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you” (v. 26). When we believe, we see that all that Christ has said and done about Himself prove that the Father and He are one (v. 30). So that means that if we are Christ’s sheep, we will think highly of Christ. We will see Him as equal with the Father and one with the Father. This will excite us to follow this Savior. We start to desire to know the Shepherd’s voice and let Him lead our lives. Most of all, we will know the love of the Father and of the Son. The Shepherd will never cast us out; He will take us in and will care for us.
The identity of the sheep is in Christ, for without the Shepherd the sheep would be lost. So, essentially, Christ’s sheep have the highest regard for Him, and they truly “hear Christ’s voice” and “follow him” (v. 27). Sometimes these are called the “ear mark” and the “foot mark.” Whom we listen to (ear mark) and whom we follow (foot mark) are the identifying characteristics of whose we truly are. Who do we identify with in life? Are we so connected to Christ, following Him so closely, that we find our identity in Him? Have we learned to hear His voice and to follow Him, even to difficult places? As His sheep, we will know that we have nothing outside the Shepherd, but that we would be lost, hungry, and alone without Him. He is our everything. Our identity and purpose is in Him.
At conversion, we develop new senses that enable us to hear and discern the voice of the Shepherd. Of course, sheep are notoriously silly. They often go astray, as the Bible frequently makes clear (e.g., Ps. 119:176). Sheep can also become sick or have other problems; they are easily distracted from hearing the Shepherd and following as they should. Yet, in the end, the Shepherd cares for the sheep who stray as well. He will never leave them wandering off too far, and the sheep will never lose their ability to hear Him. They recognize His voice. Other voices can’t substitute for His. They miss His voice when He’s silent and are glad when they hear it again. Ultimately, when they look back over their lives, the times they were truly happy were when they were following Him. That’s what His love and grace brought to bear on their lives.
It’s comforting to notice that all the sheep need to do is listen and follow. They don’t keep themselves or provide for themselves. The Shepherd has everything they need: life, pastures, and a safe place (the sheepfold). And the life He gives them is not just a meager life: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (v. 10). He leads us to green pastures, where there is enough food for our souls. He leads us to places where living water is plentiful and never runs out. He knows the way; all we need to do is trust, and follow.
It could be disheartening to think that Christ’s words did not find entrance into the hearts of many people who heard Him offer Himself so freely. However, the chapter does not end without evidence of considerable fruit. When Jesus comes to the wilderness where John used to baptized years before, many believed on Christ. John had prepared the way for this Shepherd, and now He has come, like Isaiah prophesied in Isaiah 40:11: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” Christ is now among His flock. These people finally now heard the Shepherd’s voice, and they followed Him. They discover for themselves that everything John had said about Christ is true (v. 41). They are safe with Him. No wolf will seize them.
Have you made that discovery of Christ for yourself? Have you found Him to be a good Shepherd, though you might be a silly, wandering sheep? Christ knows our weakness; He knows we are prone to wander. But He leads, and He leads gently. He leads to places of nourishment and rest (Ps. 23). No wild animal nor any trying circumstance can rob us from His loving care. He loves His flock so much that He paid with His life so that the sheep can rest and have the joy, comfort, and care they need. If we know Christ as our Shepherd, we follow wherever He goes, trusting that His hand is over us. Nothing will come between the Shepherd and His sheep, and what awaits us is an abundant life in His presence.
- How does the Bible and this chapter connect the pictures of light and the shepherd? How do these pictures help put the Christian life into perspective?
- Compare this chapter to Psalm 23. What does Christ promise for His sheep? Have you felt these blessings in your own life?
- Name examples of good and bad shepherds that God hires to take care of His flock. What is the difference between them? How do they relate to the Good Shepherd of this passage?
- Name concrete examples of how we can learn to hear the voice of the Shepherd. How can we follow Him in daily life?
- Verses 28-29 hold a great promise. How does this promise comfort God’s people?
- Sometimes we sow the seed of the Word of God but don’t see results. These people came to believe through the witness of John. What does this tell us about the way that God works in His kingdom?