During His three years of public ministry in Israel, Jesus used a lot of analogies and parables to help people understand how our Gods view us and how we are to relate to Them. In John 10, we find Jesus describing Himself as a good shepherd. Whenever Jesus starts using analogies, His purpose is to communicate important principles that will help souls draw closer to their Makers. Analogies are never perfect and they’re not meant to be overanalyzed. When we start picking apart every single word Jesus used and obsessing over the Greek, we’re overdoing it. Whenever you find yourself feeling confused by a passage in the Bible, it’s better to zoom out, not in. Look at the broader context. Think about who Jesus is talking to and how those people would have interpreted His words. Bear in mind what the Holy Spirit has already taught you about God and listen for Him to build on those ideas. Remember that you can’t get anywhere reading the Bible alone. The Holy Spirit is your Teacher, and He really enjoys teaching you, but you need to be an active listener.
AUDIENCE & LOCATION
Whether it’s Yahweh or Jesus talking, the first question you need to ask is “Who is God talking to?” In John 10, Jesus is in the city of Jerusalem. That’s your clue that He’s speaking to a primarily Jewish audience, for as the capital city of Israel and the location of Yahweh’s Temple, Jerusalem had a high concentration of Jews living in and around it, plus there were a ton of Jews traveling long distances to hang out in Jerusalem for religious festivals and rituals. The Jews in Jesus’ time were living under the Old Covenant. Yahweh required many kinds of sacrifices and rituals that all involved people making trips to the Temple. By Jesus’ day, the Jewish preachers of the day (Sadducees and Pharisees) had invented many more reasons why people had to travel to the Temple. So Jerusalem was a bustling place, and filled with Jews who were at least going through the motions of trying to please Yahweh (although most were not sincere).
So let’s say you know nothing about the Bible. How can you figure out who Jesus is talking to in a given passage? It’s easy. You don’t have to have a degree in biblical studies to get good at Bible study. You just need a few basic pointers. Open up your Bible to John 10. Find where Jesus is talking. Go to where He stops talking and start looking for references to the people in His audience. In John 10:19-21, it says:
Again a division took place among the Jews because of these words. Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and He’s crazy! Why do you listen to Him?” Others were saying, “These aren’t the words of someone demon-possessed. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
Notice the reference to Jews reacting to what Jesus is saying. This tells us that Jesus is talking to Jews. Now how are the Jews reacting? They’re arguing with each other. Some obviously don’t like Jesus at all, while others believe He’s credible. Notice the reference to the blind being given sight—this sounds like something that might have recently happened. Now go back to where Jesus is talking, and this time keep moving backwards through John to see what was going on before He started His speech in John 10. At the beginning of John 9, we find Jesus healing a blind man. We then learn that the blind man was brought before some Pharisees to explain how he got his sight back. The Pharisees are pretty ticked when they find out it was Jesus who did the healing—especially because Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Jesus loved to rile up the Pharisees by healing on a day when no one was supposed to do any work—we find Him doing this all throughout the Gospels. What a feisty Troublemaker.
Okay, so now we know that Jesus recently healed a blind man on the Sabbath, and that the Pharisees have found out about it, and now a whole bunch of Jews are feeling agitated. We also learn that the Pharisees have come up with a nasty little rule about Jesus—check out John 9:22:
The blind man’s parents said these things because they were afraid of the Jews, since the Jews had already agreed that if anyone confessed Jesus as Messiah, he would be banned from the synagogue.
This tells us that Jesus is in an area where there is a lot of animosity towards Him, and that animosity is coming from the Jews. We learn that the blind man gets thrown out of a synagogue for defending Jesus in front of the Pharisees. Then we learn that Jesus finds the blind man and encourages him. But check out John 9:39-41:
Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, in order that those who do not see will see and those who do see will become blind.”
Some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and asked Him, “We aren’t blind too, are we?”
“If you were blind,” Jesus told them, “you wouldn’t have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’—your sin remains.
The Pharisees are the popular Jewish preachers of their day, but they really hate Jesus, so why are they hanging out with Him? Obviously they’re trying to start trouble. Notice how they accuse Jesus of suggesting they are blind. The kind of blindness Jesus is talking about here is souls who are refusing to “see” that He is God. The Pharisees refuse to see this, therefore they are acting spiritually blind. But they’re not really blind, for they understand perfectly well who Jesus claims to be. They’re not rejecting Jesus out of ignorance but out of willful defiance—that’s why Jesus says their blindness is a sin. It’s not a sin to not revere God when you don’t even know who He is. But once He reveals Himself to you, then you are without excuse.
Okay, so now we get to John 10 where Jesus is continuing a conversation that He started with Pharisees and Jews in John 9. It is to this agitated Jewish audience which is a blend of believers and non-believers that Jesus says:
“I assure you: Anyone who doesn’t enter the sheep pen by the door but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. The doorkeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought all his own outside, he goes ahead of them. The sheep follow him because they recognize his voice. They will never follow a stranger; instead they will run away from him, because they don’t recognize the voice of strangers.” (John 10:1-5)
This is a weird speech to Jesus’ audience, because He’s telling them stuff they already know. Shepherding was a common job in these times. People understood the basics about how shepherding worked. Sheep are kept in pens. Bad guys sneak into those pens to try and steal the sheep. No duh. There’s nothing spiritual being said yet, Jesus is just describing basic sheep mechanics. Like dogs, sheep learn to recognize the voice of their human shepherd and they follow that voice. Shepherds name individual sheep and bonds are formed. Sheep run away from strange shepherds who come up to them and try to call to them because they don’t recognize the voice. All of this is basic information to Jesus’ audience. What they’re wondering now is why Jesus is going off on some random tangent about sheep.
Jesus gave them this illustration, but they did not understand what He was telling them. (John 10:6)
In church, you get used to viewing everything Jesus says as some great spiritual insight. But in reality, much of what He said seemed rather pointless to His original audiences. Today someone could describe how to place a call on your cell phone. You’d find such a lecture very boring if you already know how to work a cell phone. Jesus often started His speeches like this—by talking about stuff that everyone already understood. It was only after everyone was thinking “Yeah, okay, so what?” that He’d then tie in some spiritual point. That’s what He’s going to do now as we continue through John 10:
So Jesus said again, “I assure you: I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.” (John 10:7-10)
Now Jesus goes into analogy mode. Here He compares Himself not to a human shepherd, but to the door of the sheep pen. He’s talking about salvation. Under the Old Covenant, you only had to believe in and follow Yahweh in order to receive eternal life. But now Yahweh has changed His Covenant, and there are new rules for obtaining salvation. Now it’s not enough to just believe in Yahweh—everyone has to believe in Jesus, too. Jesus says He’s another God who is equal to Yahweh in Divinity and power. This is what makes Jesus so offensive to Old Covenant Jews. They say there’s only one God. Jesus says there are multiple Gods.
Now no analogy is perfect, and this sheep pen analogy is awkward at best. In real life, a sheep can’t climb through a fence—that’s why the pens were effective. Sheep could only enter the pens through the pen door. Well, just as a sheep pen only had one way in, Jesus is saying that He is the only “door” to salvation under the New Covenant. He says that if we enter through Him, we’ll receive salvation and we’ll be able to go out and find pasture. Here’s where the analogy breaks down, because as sheep, the pasture is where we just came in from. Analogies are never perfect, so you can’t over analyze them. Jesus is making three key points here. First, He’s the only way to salvation under the New Covenant. Second, if we come to Him, we’ll receive spiritual salvation, spiritual refuge, and spiritual provision (which is represented by access to the pasture). The third point Jesus makes is that there are false teachers who have been trying to deceive the sheep.
Sheep in this analogy represent human souls. Jesus says that others have come before Him who were thieves and robbers. Those people were only out to harm the sheep. Who is Jesus talking about? He’s talking about the Pharisees, for one. He’s also talking about false spiritual leaders in general—false prophets, false priests, etc.. Israel has had a long history of bad spiritual leaders. But notice how Jesus says the sheep didn’t listen to those thieves and robbers. That’s because these particular sheep are ones who really care about pleasing God.
When we sincerely seek God, He guides us and He helps us recognize false teachers and lies. Remember that Jesus is talking to a mixed crowd here: there are souls who sincerely care about pleasing God and souls who don’t. The souls who really care are understanding that Jesus is Someone special and they’re really paying attention to Him. They’re not letting evil Pharisees turn them against Jesus with lies. Jesus is encouraging sincere Jewish followers in this speech. He’s saying, “Hey, you guys are right to listen to Me. I can be trusted because My motivations are good. I really care about the welfare of your soul, unlike these people who are trying to turn you against Me.” Our Gods have always taught us that motivation is what matters. Even though They put us through difficult trials and do things that we don’t like, They insist that Their motivations are always good, and that’s why we can trust Them.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired man, since he is not the shepherd and doesn’t own the sheep, leaves them and runs away when he sees a wolf coming. The wolf then snatches and scatters them. This happens because he is a hired man and doesn’t care about the sheep.” (John 10:11-13)
Okay, now forget about Jesus being the door. He’s moving on to a new analogy. Now He says He’s like a good human shepherd. In real life, dedicated shepherds like David were very protective over their sheep. They really cared about them and they risked their own lives to save them. But shepherding was really hard work, and often sheep owners would just hire other men to take care of their sheep for them. Hired hands were often not nearly as dedicated to the sheep because they didn’t own them. When trouble came, hired hands were more likely to run away—why should they risk their necks to protect someone else’s property? This is basic human nature—you’re going to take better care of your own stuff than you are of your boss’. Jesus says He’s like a good, dedicated human shepherd who sincerely cares about the welfare of his flock. He’s not like those other guys who just ditch the flock as soon as trouble comes. Jesus is loyal and faithful and trustworthy. This is certainly a comforting analogy.
“I am the good shepherd. I know My own sheep, and they know Me, as the Father knows Me, and I know the Father. I lay down My life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15)
Still likening Himself to the best of human shepherds, Jesus now brings Yahweh into the picture. In real life, there was a personal bond between a sheep and its human shepherd, much as we observe between some dogs and their human owners today. Some dogs demonstrate a strong emotional bond to a particular human. Jesus says this is how it is between Him and each one of the sheep in His flock. In other words, He’s saying that He has a personal bond with every soul who comes to Him—that there is a two way connection between Him and them. How cool is that? Remember that Jesus is talking to people who are familiar with the principle of sheep bonding with their human shepherds. Jesus then goes on to say that He has a personal bond with not only each of His followers, but also with Yahweh. Why is Jesus bringing up Yahweh here? He’s pulling rank by claiming to have a close personal, two-way bond with the magnificent Yahweh. In modern day terms, Jesus is confidently declaring, “Yahweh and I are besties.” Hm. Jews who were sincerely seeking God would have been attracted by this claim. But Jews like the Pharisees who only cared about controlling people would have felt very threatened by Jesus’ confidence. Confidence always draws attention, and Jesus has buckets of it.
“But I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will listen to My Voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)
Jesus is talking to Jews. In Bible times, the Jews were entitled bigots who treated non-Jews like inferior scum. In Jesus’ day, Jews used all kinds of nasty names for non-Jews, calling them things like dogs, unclean, and uncircumcised. Words like this were as offensive as a white man calling a black man a nigger today or a straight man calling a homosexual a fag. These were very insulting, derogatory names, but the Jews felt totally justified in using them. The Jews were so off on their own superiority that they even had laws that prevented Jews from going to a non-Jew’s house or physically touching them. Non-Jews were considered icky scum, and we find this nasty attitude carrying over into the New Testament epistles, which were written by Jews. It’s hard to grow out of a mindset that you were taught from the crib, which is why we find Paul making comments like:
“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 2:15)
Merely being a Gentile hardly makes you sinful. But though Paul promoted the idea that Gentiles should no longer be shunned under the New Covenant, he often distinguishes between Jews and Gentiles in his letters, and he makes it quite clear that he is very biased towards his own ethnic people.
So who are these “other sheep” that Jesus talks about bringing into His fold? Gentiles. In real life, Yahweh has been welcoming Gentiles from the very beginning, but the Jews in Jesus’ day ignored this fact. They taught that Jews were spiritually superior to everyone else—something which Yahweh adamantly disagreed with. Under the Old Covenant, Yahweh ordered the Jews to treat non-Jews as their equals and He said that all souls who were seeking Him were equal in His eyes. Your personal genetics have nothing to do with your spiritual standing with God, but the Jews Jesus is talking to in John 10 do not see things this way at all. They consider all Jews as spiritually “in”, simply because they are Jews. And they consider all non-Jews to spiritually “out”. Well, Jesus is no more of a bigot than Yahweh is, and He loves all souls. In the Gospels, we find several examples of Jesus putting His love for the Gentiles into the Jews’ faces and saying, “Hey, I’ve come to save them, too.” When He talks about making one flock and one shepherd, He’s talking about doing away with all the bigotry and shunning that the Jews were so into. There is not really one shepherd, because we have three Gods: Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Don’t read too much into the analogy. The point is that Jesus is bringing back the concept of equality among all sincere God seekers—a concept that Yahweh also promoted, but one which the Jews had drifted far away from. Jesus says those “other sheep” will also listen to His Voice, which means they will respond well to the Holy Spirit’s illumination.
So then, in this passage, Jesus has taught us several key principles. He’s good in Character. He takes personal interest in each one of us. He deeply loves us and puts effort into caring for us. He knows us. He protects us. He doesn’t shun any of us over irrelevant issues like earthsuit genetics. Jesus is fabulous.