A promised good shepherd

This coming Sunday is the 4th Sunday of Easter . In yesterday’s post we provided some context for the gospel reading, discussing a little bit about the use of “shepherd” imagery in Scripture but also about some of the feasts that Jesus was celebrating as part of John 10. Today we explore the image of shepherds in more detail.

This week’s passage is succinct and calls to mind the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd (cf. John 10:11) – as it is meant to do.  The gospel establishes a certain cluster of associations around the word shepherd (poimen.) Each time the image reappears it evokes and develops the associations found elsewhere in the narrative. John 10:1-5 introduces the image of the shepherd by describing how a shepherd enters the sheepfold, calls the sheep by name, and leads them out to pasture. In 10:7-18 Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep. In 10:22-30 he adds that no one will snatch the sheep out of his hand. At the conclusion of the Gospel, Jesus enjoins Peter to “feed my lambs…. Tend my sheep…. Feed my sheep” (21:15-17). The emphatic use of the shepherd imagery suggests that Peter’s task must be understood in light of what Jesus said earlier in the Gospel about what it means to be a shepherd. Jesus makes a prophetic statement that reinforces the connection by anticipating that Peter, like Jesus the good shepherd, would lay down his life (21:18-19).

One should also note that all of the shepherding imagery follows the narrative of Jesus’ healing of the Man Born Blind.  While worthy of further development, for our purposes here, let us simply say that John’s theological intent is to show the religious leaders as blind shepherds in their failure to recognize the healing light that is Jesus

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 had become irresponsible and thieving shepherds, feeding themselves rather than their flock. So 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 in Jesus. God has become the shepherd in Jesus, himself Messiah and Son of David. Jesus’ fidelity to his sheep, his sacrifice for them, stands out in contrast to the failure of the stumbling, blinded, bullying authorities in John 9.

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 verse 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 Old Testament Scriptures (as in Ezek 34), 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.

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