This coming Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Easter, is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because of the gospel that is proclaimed:
11 I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. 13 This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”
In this, the last public address of Jesus that John records, a further aspect of his ministry is unfolded in an allegory of great power. Jesus uses the figure of the Good Shepherd to differentiate his ministry from that of false shepherds and to stress the voluntary nature of his sacrifice for his people. This chapter should be read in the light of Old Testament passages that castigate shepherds who have failed in their duty (see Jer. 23:1–4; 25:32–38; Zech. 11; and especially Isa. 56:9–12 and Ezek. 34). For example, in Isa. 56 the leaders are both “shepherds” and “watchmen” (cf. the “watchmen” of this passage), and they are castigated as “blind” and as those who “lack knowledge” (cf. 9:40–41; 10:6).
God is the Shepherd of Israel (Ps. 80:1; cf. Ps. 23:1; Isa. 40:10–11), which gives us the measure of the responsibility of his under-shepherds. Those entrusted with this duty must be faithful, and it is a crime when they are not. But Israel’s shepherds on more than one occasion did fail in their responsibility. It is this which calls forth the prophecy that a shepherd after God’s own heart will in due course appear: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd” (Ezek. 34:23). It is this shepherd who is depicted in this chapter.
Lest we only think of the shepherd in terms of tender care and concern for the flock, thoughts that are legitimate for the ancient world as for the modern, we should not overlook the fact that for people in biblical times other associations were also aroused by the term. The shepherd was an autocrat over his flock, and passages are not lacking where the shepherd imagery is used to emphasize the thought of sovereignty. Jesus is thus set forth in this allegory as the true Ruler of his people in contrast to all false shepherds.
The passage seems to being with a harsh, accusatory tone. It is almost as if we have pick up an on-going conversation. And we have. There are many commentators who set the boundaries of this gospel pericope as John 9:39-10:21 in order that the reader understand the scene that is unfolding.
Chapter 9 is essentially the narrative of the “man born blind” whom Jesus heals on the Sabbath – much to the exasperation of the religious authorities who cannot see the glory of God revealed in this sign. Instead the authorities are more concerned with the “who, what, when and where” of the miracle and why it was done on the Sabbath. One of their agenda was to discredit the notion that Jesus was the promised Messiah (cf. 9:22). At the end of the narrative, the now-sighted man has been thrown out of the Temple and Jesus comes to him. While the man comes to believe in Jesus as Messiah, the religious authorities are, at best, divided – and in fact are plotting to do away with Jesus.
39 Then Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains. (John 9:39-41)
The accusation hangs in the air and colors the verse that follows: Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.
Jesus is rebuking the religious authorities because they had become irresponsible and thieving shepherds, feeding themselves rather than their flock. The condemnation of the shepherds would have been a theme well understood from the OT narrative. Crucial to the identification of the author’s purpose at this point is the necessary realization that he is writing about Jesus with the text of Ezekiel 34 in clear view. (Note: it would be good to pause at this point and read Ezekiel 34) In that passage, Ezekiel, speaking God’s word, rebukes and condemns the authorities of his own time. They too had fed themselves rather than their flock. Thus God would take away their position and authority and become the shepherd himself. Finally he would appoint another shepherd after the figure of David. John sees all of this coming true and fulfilled in Jesus, God become shepherd. Thus John makes clear that the glory of God is being revealed in the pastoral metaphor of shepherd in that Jesus’ fidelity to his sheep, his sacrifice for them, will stand in contrast to the failure of the blinded, bullying authorities of John 9.
The metaphors come fast and often in John 10. There are the sheep — easily identified as the flock that Jesus intends to lead into good pasture (v. 9), those whom he knows by name and who recognize his voice (vv. 3–4, 14), those whom he intends to defend against thieves and robbers (vv. 1, 8, 10) and whom he wishes to join together with all others who, listening to his voice, will come into the one fold (v. 16). Jesus will effect all this because he is the Good Shepherd (vv. 11, 14), loved by the Father because he will lay down his life for the sheep. It is this act of total, loving self-sacrifice that is mentioned again and again as the central motif. Appearing first in v.11 as the good shepherd title is introduced, it occurs again in verses 15, 17, and twice in verse 18. Though the shepherd-sheep metaphor was well known in the OT, this laying down of the shepherd’s life is something new. It is the characteristic function of Jesus. He is the good shepherd especially because of his willing self-sacrifice.