By Sam E. Stone
In the Old Testament, God’s relation to the Hebrew people was often compared to that of a shepherd and his sheep (Jeremiah 31:10; Ezekiel 34:31). It is not surprising to find that Jesus used the same illustration (Luke 15:3-6). Today’s lesson is taken again from John’s Gospel. The setting is Jerusalem, well into Christ’s ministry.
The Good Shepherd and the Sheep
By saying, “I tell you the truth,” Jesus clearly connects what he is saying with what has just happened—the healing of the blind man and his debate with the religious leaders. The man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way is a thief and a robber. The common sheepfold in first-century Palestine consisted of a walled area uncovered at the top with only one entrance. The sheep were thus protected inside.
Any person with a legitimate reason could simply walk through the gate. Only someone who was not supposed to be there would try to enter some other way. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. “Shepherd” is used here of Christ (see v. 16), as well as elsewhere in the New Testament (1 Peter 2:25; Hebrews 13:20). The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. The picture suggests a large sheepfold where several small flocks might be kept at the same time. The fold represents the church, the sheep are the disciples, and Christ is pictured both as the door and the shepherd. Sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd. Some shepherds even had a name for each of their sheep.
When he has brought out all of his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. While a cowboy drives his cattle, a shepherd leads his sheep. Sheep will not follow a stranger and will, in fact, run away from him because they do not recognize his voice. They will not follow the shepherd of another flock, or anyone else who might attempt to lead them astray. They know the voice of their real shepherd, and will follow only him.
Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them. The King James Version refers to the comparison as a “parable,” but the New International Version more accurately calls it a “figure of speech.” It is technically an allegory. When he speaks of those who came before, Jesus is not referring to the Old Testament prophets, but rather to those religious leaders who were trying to steal the people away from him. They were on the scene before he came into the world and continued to that very moment as he spoke.
I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. Just as there was one door into the sheep pen, so there is one way into Heaven (John 14:6; 3:16). Those who enter by the one door find security, liberty, and nurture. While the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, Jesus came that people may enjoy the fullness of life. The Good Shepherd makes it possible for the sheep who follow him to “keep on having” eternal life (10:28). In dying for them, the shepherd gives them abundant life.
The Good Shepherd and the Hireling
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He literally “pours out his soul unto death” (compare Isaiah 53:12; Matthew 20:28; 1 Timothy 2:6). Christ purchased the church with his own precious blood (John 1:29; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 John 2:2).
With the hired hand, it is different. When he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Though paid to protect and care for the sheep, the hireling sees it only as a job. The man runs away because he
. . . cares nothing for the sheep. Not all hired workers are like this, of course. Some have a true shepherd’s heart, but the hirelings Jesus described don’t care about the sheep, just their salary (compare 1 Peter 5:2).
The other sheep that Jesus mentions are the Gentiles. They will be a part of the one flock. The prophets had foretold the inclusiveness of Christ’s kingdom (see Isaiah 42:6; Joel 2:28; Malachi 1:11). “I lay down my life—only to take it up again.” Jesus willingly sacrificed himself on the cross—the Good Shepherd dying to save his sheep.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.