One thing that has always amazed me about mothers is their ability to distinguish their child's voice or cry from hundreds of other voices or cries. A mother can be in a room with dozens of other children. If one gets hurt and cries or cries out for "mommy," as a mother, she knows “that's my child”. A mother knows her child's voice, and they know her voice.
John 10 is a fascinating passage in which Jesus refers to Himself as "The Good Shepherd." Consistent with John's Gospel, there are all types of reactions to Jesus and His words. Some understand and believe, while others pick up stones to kill Him.
What is so controversial about Jesus referring to Himself as the Good Shepherd?
Shepherding has a long history. The earliest biblical shepherd we read about is Abel (Gen. 4:2), a "keeper of the flocks" or, as the (NKJV) translates, "a keeper of the sheep." Then, of course, we remember King David, who looked after his father's sheep as a young boy (ref. 1 Sam. 17:34).
Language and Imagery
The language and imagery of shepherding was a language and imagery used of kings. From Egyptian rulers to the ancient near east, "the metaphor of shepherding is often connected with a "king's role as just ruler, benevolent provider and powerful defender" (1) In the Greco-Roman world through the writings of Homer, Plato, and Aristotle "Rulers are often depicted as shepherds in Graeco-Roman literature..." (1)
Noted New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, in comments on this passage records:
What is so controversial about Jesus’ words?
JOHN 10: 1-6 (NKJV) “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them.”
Notice in (Jn. 10:22) the context of Jesus' word is "The Feast of Dedication."
JOHN 10: 23-30 (NKJV) “And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch. Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one.”
I am getting a little ahead in our text, but I want us to notice the context. This conversation and teaching take place around the Feast of Dedication.
In some study Bibles, you may notice a footnote here. The Feast of Dedication is Hanukkah (a feast to celebrate the rededication of the temple). The Feast of Dedication was a celebratory feast to commemorate the purging of the temple after its pollution by Antiochus Epiphanes and its rebuilding of the altar after Syrian invaders had been driven out by Judas Maccabaeus (the Maccabean Revolt).
Judas and his family became kings. This ended when the Romans made Herod the Great King, and he married a princess from the family of Judas Maccabaeus to show his intentions of continuing the line.
Jesus walks into the middle of this feast and announces He is the true Shepherd King. Many do not understand Jesus' parable. Jesus continues as He provides a few explanations. To see what Jesus is saying and to understand what John is revealing about Jesus, it is helpful to look at these examples together.
JOHN 10: 7-10 (NKJV) “Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”
The question that has dominated the conversation from (Jn. 9) is "Who is Jesus?" Is He the Son of Man, or is He the Prophet? Jesus' answer is in the form of a parable about shepherding and sheep. As mentioned earlier, in the Bible, kings are often associated with shepherds. Consider the great King of Israel, David.
There was a relationship of trust between a shepherd and his sheep. There was also the idea of protection as the shepherd looked after his sheep. This is how Jesus expresses who He is, the "door of the sheep," the true Shepherd King. He saves and rescues. He provides abundance and peace (sheep go in and out and find pasture). As Jesus continues:
JOHN 10: 11-16 (NKJV) “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.”
The true Shepherd will give His life for the sheep (again, John and Jesus point us ahead in the narrative to the cross). One who is not a true shepherd will not be faithful to the sheep. When trouble comes, they will look out for their interest and not the best interest of the sheep. Jesus is the true Shepherd who will lay down His life for the sheep. The sheep will know Him. They will listen to His voice.
Notice in (Jn. 10:16), Jesus is not only the Shepherd of Israel, but He has also come to be the exalted King of creation, of every nation, of all people. Jesus brings with Him God's kingdom. He is fulfilling the Hebrew Scriptures, and the promise made to Abraham. Consider the promise to Abraham:
GENESIS 22: 17-18 (NKJV) “blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”
All nations of the earth are to be blessed through Abraham's offspring (your seed). Jesus is fulfilling this promise to bless all the nations of the earth and draw them together as one flock with one shepherd, King Jesus.
In these two pictures, Jesus reveals who He is. He is the One who saves, rescues, and provides. Jesus is the true Shepherd who will give His life for the sheep. He is the true King who calls together one flock from all the nations of the earth.
How do some react to Jesus’ teaching?
JOHN 10: 31-32 (NKJV) “Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?”
This is the second time in John's gospel where they have taken up stones to kill Jesus (ref. 8:59). Some have not believed the works done by Jesus (ref. 10: 25). Others have not heard the words of Jesus, they have not believed in Him (ref. 10: 26, 27). As Jesus continues, He responds to their unbelief:
JOHN 10: 37-39 (NKJV) “If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.” Therefore they sought again to seize Him, but He escaped out of their hand.”
Jesus, the true King, is making a profound statement. Those who heard the words of Jesus and we who are reading the Gospel of John are left to consider the signs and words of Jesus. We are left to draw an appropriate conclusion about who Jesus is. Will we hear His voice and follow Him, or will we reject God's Son and true Shepherd King? Jesus offers life, peace, and abundance. Jesus has come to establish God's Kingdom and draw all people together as one flock under His protection. However, we must listen to and follow the Good Shepherd's voice to become part of His one flock, the family of God.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1. Matthew Montonini, “Shepherd,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
2. Excerpt From: N. T. Wright. “John for Everyone, Part 1.” Apple Books.