The gate: shepherds, robbers and sheep

I AM the Good Shepherd2Commentary Moloney [301] outlines this narrative by the following schema:

  • 9:39-41: Introduction. Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees (among whom there is a division) and he condemns them for their blind ignorance
  • 10:1-6: Jesus tells a parable about entering the sheepfold and the Pharisees cannot understand. This section is marked with the unique, “Amen, Amen…
  • 10:7-13: Jesus contrasts himself, the door and the Good Shepherd, with others who are thieves, robbers and hirelings. This section is also introduced with “Amen, Amen…
  • 10:14-18: Jesus the Good Shepherd, out of union with the Father, lays down his life for the sheep
  • 10:19-21: Conclusion: A division among “the Jews.”

Some Background To appreciate this parable it is important to understand its setting in a small first century Palestinian village. It would be quite the norm for a family to own but a few sheep. The sheep were sources of income (wool) and clothing, and so the animals were protected usually within small walled courtyards next to or connected to the house. If each family had only a few sheep, a shepherd for each household was not justified, so several households would have one shepherd to look after their sheep. Often the shepherding was done by a child from one of these families. If no child was available a hireling was employed. Early each morning the sheep would be taken out to graze in the open country. The shepherd moved from house to house, and because he was known to the doorkeepers they opened their courtyard doors to allow him to call out the sheep. The sheep knew his voice and eagerly followed him into the open country to feed. The walls of the courtyards would be substantially high, this anyone who was not the shepherd, who had ulterior motives, would have to climb over the walls because the doorkeeper would not admit him and, of course, the sheep would not recognize his call and would flee from him. While this practice was not uniform, it was typical according to scripture scholars. Interestingly, a similar system of community “shepherding” was used by the Maasai, Samburu and Kuria people of Kenya in their cattle herding.

The Long Awaited Shepherd The open verses (vv.1-2) are actually one sentence in the Greek and form a carefully balanced antithetical parallelism that establishes the identity of the shepherd (v.2) by first establishing who he is not (v.1). While scholars have debated for ages is this is a simile, parable or metaphor, what seems clear is that Jesus is drawing a distinction between those who are (a) the one(s) expected and known by gatekeeper and sheep alike, and (b) those who are pretenders to that responsibility and authority. It is for the one sent and charged with pastoral care to call out all his sheep, to lead them, going on ahead of them. This part of the parable is reminiscent of Moses’ prayer for a successor: 16 “May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all mankind, set over the community a man 17 who shall act as their leader in all things, to guide them in all their actions; that the LORD’S community may not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Numbers 27:16–17)

Thieves and Robbers  Who are the thieves and robbers? Does the phrase in v. 1 refer to the same group as the phrase in v.8 (or “thief” in v. 10) or not? It is likely that they may refer to different groups. Whoever they are in v.8, they came before Jesus. The ones in v.1 are contemporaries with the shepherd. They also seem similar to the “thief” in v. 10, who also has malevolent intentions against the sheep.  It would be very Johannine if there are different layers of meaning to this phrase, e.g.:

  • Jesus is continuing his attack against the blind Pharisees from 9:41. So the “thieves and robbers” could refer to them.
  • They are disruptive people within the community; people who have entered the flock — but not through the proper entrance — not through Jesus, who is later pictured as the gate. For example, Judas Iscariot, one of the “insiders,” is called a “thief” in 12:6. Acts 20:28-29 uses some of the same language: “Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock of which the holy Spirit has appointed you overseers, in which you tend the church of God that he acquired with his own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come among you, and they will not spare the flock.
  • It also may be a polemic against the agenda laden leaders within the Fourth Evangelist’s own church.
  • In a general sense the phrase may refer to any deceptive leaders or people – people with hidden agendas.

Verse 6 makes it clear that the opening verse have more that figurative meaning.

The 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.


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.

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