Jesus the Good Shepherd is a rich image that we all basically understand.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 10
Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate. When we realize that Jesus isn't telling us a parable in John 10, we appreciate the depth of meaning that Jesus isn't just our Good Shepherd (as opposed to everyone else), He is also our very path to life eternal and abundant with God. This passage ends with a logical reminder of our assurance of salvation.
I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance. (10:10)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Good Help Is Hard to Find
What's the difference between a good employee and a bad employee? What's the difference between a good employee and a great employee?
I would imagine that you'll hear a lot of different ideas. Behind all of the characteristics, there should be a thread of "personal ownership". When an employee can connect his/her personal success with the company's success, that's when you're on a powerful path. In a capitalist society, we incentivize that with financial gain. (Other groups appeal to pride, nationalism, duty, enjoyment, etc.) When an employee believes that it benefits him in no way to go "above and beyond", he's probably not going to go above and beyond.
How do you distinguish between those kinds of employees, and how do you encourage the kinds of characteristics you want in an employee?
[Aside: I am quite happy about the companies that tell their employees not to put themselves in harm's way to prevent a theft. Money/goods can be replaced. Lives cannot. In our passage this week, the "sheep" represent people; defending those sheep with your life is appropriate and admirable.]
Can We Appreciate Our First Responders Even More?
This week's passage seems like a good time to celebrate first responders. The difference between the "good shepherd" and the "bad shepherds" is that the good shepherd is willing to risk his own life to protect the sheep. As I said above, this is actually about people, not sheep, so let's think about the people who put their own lives at risk to rescue others.
To me, this starts with police and military -- their job involves putting themselves in harm's way to protect others. Let's say a lot of thank-yous to the folks you know in these lines of work. But there are many more jobs that include the reasonable expectation of doing something dangerous for the purpose of helping someone else.
Jesus proved to be the "Good Shepherd" by laying down His life for His sheep. Think of the people you know who are willing to risk themselves to save someone else. What can you do to say thank you to them this week?
[Aside: there's a great illustration bubbling under the surface. So many people around us are at the ultimate risk of dying and spending eternity separated from God in hell. We don't have to risk life and limb to share the gospel with the people around us (Jesus has already paid that price). What are we willing to do to rescue our friends and neighbors from that fate?]
This Week's Big Idea: Jesus' "I Am" Statements
While Jesus says "I am" a number of times in normal conversation, John highlighted seven special uses of the phrase with the clear intention of pointing his audience to God the Father's self-revelation in the Old Testament:
Ex 3:13 Then Moses asked God, “If I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what should I tell them?”
14 God replied to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.”
The Hebrew word Yahweh is based on the verb "to be" and means something to the effect of "I am who I am"/"I am because I am"/"I will be who I will be". It is (appropriately) a word that cannot be nailed down. But we know it highlights God's self-existence and self-revelation (based on how God used the name).
By using the words He does, Jesus clearly sets Himself in the place of God on earth. These are not similes or metaphors. Think about the predicates in the seven statements:
I am the bread (6:35)
I am the light (8:12)
I am the gate (10:7)
I am the shepherd (10:11)
I am the resurrection (11:25)
I am the way (14:6)
I am the vine (15:1)
These are basic, fundamental human needs in life -- light and provision and direction and protection and reconciliation and eternity. If anyone else told you "I am the gate" (not "I am the gatekeeper"!), you should run far away very quickly. Unless true, these are the words of a madman.
They're great devotional tools. I strongly recommend that you memorize them and their references because they do address every need (if you get right down to it). Write out the I AM statements and consider, how do these statements speak to my every need in this life and the next?
There are some very nice "word art" pieces about the I AM statements; just Google "Jesus I Am statements" and you will find the images in the collage and many more for sale in a number of formats. One of these might look nice on your wall ☺ If you remember something better by seeing it, maybe this would be the tool for you.
Of course, with some of those, you would have to manually add the verses references.
Anyway, this week we cover two of these statements, which is why I want to draw particular attention to this. John the author likes the number 7 (why might that be?) -- 7 signs, 7 I AMs, 7 feasts, 7 discourses (and quite a few more possible 7s). This does not mean that Jesus only said 7 "I am" things. Remember that John the author said that Jesus' words would fill up entire libraries. Instead, it just means that John the author thought that the number 7 was an appropriate "organizing tool" for his Gospel (much like Matthew chose the number 5 to reflect the 5 books of Moses). Works for me.
By all means, memorize and chew on these statements. I had never really looked at all of them together -- they are an incredibly powerful image when combined.
This Week's Little Idea: The Sheep's "Courtyard"
You might be like me -- when you hear about the "sheepfold" and "Jesus is the gate", you might have in mind the picture on the left. Someone piles the rocks in a field into an enclosure, and a shepherd sits in the entrance to control the sheep.
The word Jesus uses to describe the setting (go back to verse 1) is different -- it means what we think of as a courtyard: "an area open to the sky, frequently surrounded by buildings, sometimes by walls". It's a corral between family homes -- in other words, more like the picture on the right.
What's the difference? Jesus has in mind a private and familial setting. The sheep are kept near the home of the owner -- anyone who wants to threaten the sheep has to invade the owner's privacy.
I don't know how much that will help you understand what Jesus is saying. After all, verse 6 literally says that Jesus' hearers (who knew exactly what the word meant) didn't understand what He was saying. So, there you go.
Where We Are in John
This Week's Visual Bible Video
The video has the right of Jesus' illustration. The director focuses on how the Pharisees didn't understand Jesus' illustration. So, let's start there.
John the author is clearly leading us to connect last week's story (the "trial" of the man born blind) with this week's teaching. The Pharisees have proven themselves to be "bad shepherds", while Jesus has proven Himself to be a "good shepherd". Now, Jesus wants the people to make that connection for themselves (and some of them are taking those steps in verse 21). It's a simple question: who has their best interests at heart? The Man who healed a blind man, or the men who are bickering why the blind man shouldn't have been healed?
To make this teaching clear (or not clear, depending on which side of the truth you're on), Jesus uses an "illustration" or "figure of speech" (see verse 6). The word is paroimiai, not parable. One of the big uniquenesses of John's Gospel is that he doesn't share any parables, as are frequent in the synoptic Gospels.
So, what is a paroimiai? (Boy, that doesn't roll off the tongue.) Let's start by remembering what a parable is. We have covered many parables; this lesson focused on definitions:
A parable is not a fable, and it is not an allegory --intead, it is a simile that provides a vision of kingdom life by comparing it to life here and now.
By that definition, what Jesus says in our chapter about the sheepfold and the shepherd and the thief is clearly not a parable. Rather, it's just an illustration of truth. I think the word "illustration" communicates what Jesus is doing a little better than "figure of speech", but that's basic semantics; which word would you use in that situation?
In other words, in chapter 10, Jesus is simply trying to help the people understand the difference between Him and the Pharisees by using the image of sheep/shepherds.
I am not a farmer, and what Jesus says makes sense to me. That's the definition of good teaching.
Based on what I said above about the sheep's courtyard, let's see if the setting makes a little more sense:
10:1 “Truly I tell you, anyone who doesn’t enter the sheep pen by the gate but climbs in some other way is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out."
I highlighted the three key parties. Remember that this is an intimate, private setting. The sheep live outside the master's home. The gatekeeper is watching the estate/complex, and the shepherd comes all the way to get the sheep and take them out to pasture.
I'm hoping you will agree with me that this makes no sense as an allegory or parable. Who is the gatekeeper? If the Pharisees are the thief, how are they climbing in? What does that even mean? And that's just it -- that's not the point! Jesus is just using this to illustrate what sets Him apart. He is a "good shepherd", and will demonstrate that by giving up His life to protect His sheep. The Pharisees (and anybody else) exploits the sheep for their personal gain. Jesus protects His sheep from any danger. The Pharisees (and anybody else) will run away the moment things look dangerous.
With that in mind, I think we should be able to enjoy these verses and be quite bowled over by them.
Part 1: The Gate (John 10:7-10)
7 Jesus said again, “Truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. 9 I am the gate. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 A thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.
There is one overarching question in these verses: who are "all who came before me" and how are they "thieves and robbers"?
It's a rather comprehensive statement, wouldn't you say? Jesus isn't just talking about "false prophets". The Pharisees didn't call themselves "prophets" or "messiahs" and Jesus certainly includes them in this illustration. No, this is everybody else. Past, present, and future.
There is one way to God (one "gate") -- through Jesus. Anyone who says anything else isn't just wrong, but they're a thief and a robber.
[Aside: that's why the people in the past who pointed to Jesus aren't thieves and robbers.]
For the sake of keeping this conversation manageable, let's focus on religious leaders or self-help gurus -- people who claim to have a "better way" to live. Now let's ask the above question again: how is that person a thief and robber?
Again, to keep things manageable, focus on what Jesus says a thief does: steal, kill, and destroy. How is a "life lesson" not related to Jesus like that? That seems harsh!
Your group should be able to identify a number of ways this can be literally true. I'll just focus on the big picture. Jesus has already identified the "archetypical thief" -- Satan/the devil.
8:44 You are of your father the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks from his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of lies.
And what is Satan's remaining purpose? To destroy what he can of God's good creation.
Ergo, anyone who teaches salvation/meaning/purpose in life apart from Jesus is just playing the role of Satan's minion.
Jesus also calls Himself "the gate". Your first thought might be of this "I AM":
14:6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
It reinforces the exclusivity of what Jesus has just said about "everyone else".
But it also makes me think of a different beloved passage:
It's been a few years. You might remember that I focused on a wonderful little book by Phillip Keller called A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. In Psalm 23, David is describing the seasonal travel from the sheep's "winter home" (the sheepfold Jesus mentions here) to their summer grazing fields up in the mountains. As they travel through the plains and the valleys, the shepherd protects the sheep from harm and gives them regular access to food and water. Along the way, the sheep learn the trust the shepherd. They "learn his voice" so to speak.
Things have changed since David's day (remember - it's been 1,000 years). In Roman times, irrigation practices have improved, and fences have become more common. Sheep didn't take the seasonal treks from pasture to pasture. But they still built their trust with the shepherd who provided for them and protected them.
The thieves and robbers have tried to trick the sheep. (We will learn in a moment that the sheep who belong to Jesus cannot be tricked like that.) But what they offer is fake.
And that's the setup to the most important words in the passage (the whole Bible?)
I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.
"Abundant life" has become a cliche in some Christian circles (there are three churches with that name right around us). But set that aside: what is the difference between "abundant life" and "not-abundant life"?
Do you remember the "more flags more fun" guy? (The campaign stuck in my head, but it didn't get me to go to Six Flags.) What would a "life-o-meter" look like?
And at the same time, the "thieves and robbers" also offer a kind of life. They use phrases like "it makes you feel alive" or "you can really live". What kind of life are they promising? What are they not telling you?
Part 2: The True Shepherd (John 10:11-14)
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, 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. 13 This happens because he is a hired hand and doesn’t care about the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me,"
Not only is Jesus the gate, but He is the shepherd. That's why we shouldn't read this like a parable. It's teaching us so much more than our brains can handle logically.
Jesus as a "shepherd" makes sense to us, right? We get that. We've seen that illustrated in countless sermons and children's sermons. We've heard Psalm 23 taught many times. Jesus is our good shepherd.
But Jesus is also the gate. What does that even mean? How can a person be a gate? That's Jesus' point. We got God's instructions wrong all these years because we tried to make God's instructions line up with our preconceptions. Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate. He doesn't just point us to salvation. He doesn't just make salvation possible. He is salvation.
Put that in a formula.
The rest we've hinted at already. The word "for" ("for the sheep") is very important. Your leader guide says this is a direct reference to the "substitutionary atonement" on the cross. There's no doubt Jesus has that in mind, but think about it in the context of this illustration. If the wolves kill the shepherd, they will just immediately attack the sheep. Rather, this "for" is about purpose. Everything the shepherd does is on behalf of/for the good of the sheep. He will do anything to take care of the sheep, even to the point of his own death.
Yes, Jesus' death on the cross was as a substitute for the penalty for our sin we could not pay. But here, that's not the focus. In a few verses, Jesus will say, "17 This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life so that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” Jesus doesn't just face death on our behalf. He experiences death. He conquers death. He destroys death.
But why? Why did Jesus go through that? Was it to show His love for His Father? Was it to prove His loyalty to God? No and no. He didn't need to do anything for those truths to be eternal. No! Jesus went through that in love for us, the sheep. It was all for us. That's the power of the "for" in verse 15.
Aside: Other Sheep
I think it's worth pointing out the earth-shattering statement in verse 16:
16 But I have other sheep that are not from this sheep pen; I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Yep, He's talking about us. He's talking about everyone who wasn't born a Jew. We were all always intended to be part of one flock of humanity. Part of the reason God allowed the Jews to be conquered, and then the early Jewish-Christian church to be persecuted and scattered, was to force this message to spread around the world to these other "sheep".
It's a beautiful image.
Part 3: The Securing Shepherd (John 10:25-30)
25 “I did tell you and you don’t believe,” Jesus answered them. “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify about me. 26 But you don’t believe because you are not of my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all. No one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
The lesson skips a few verses. Verse 22 suggests a significant passage of time to the "Feast of Dedication" (Hanukkah) which happened in December. John the author skips to this exchange because it's the same debate Jesus has been having. This time, however, Jesus does clarify a few things.
The setup here is the people who want Jesus to say the words "I-am-the-Messiah".
Jesus doesn't play their game. He also doesn't have to. Everything He has said and done makes it very clear who He is. If they don't believe it, it's because they won't believe it.
At Texas A&M, we had phrase we taught to incoming freshmen:
“From the outside looking in, you can't understand it. From the inside looking out, you can't explain it.”
That was our ultimate get-out-of-debate-free card when trying to explain why Texas A&M was better than every other school in the country. Either you got it or you didn't.
Well, Jesus actually came up with this idea under far more important circumstances. If anyone else were to say this, we would call it circular reasoning: if you don't believe, it's because you are not of Jesus' sheep. If you were of Jesus' sheep, you would believe. But once again, that mystery is the point. We talked about the mysterious intersection of "divine sovereignty and human responsibility" in salvation when we talked about a similar passage in John 6:
There, I go into detail about the doctrine of eternal security/assurance of salvation.
Here, Jesus gives one important bit of logic that should help anyone who might be doubting his/her salvation. Who is going to take you from God?
What about you? Are you able to snatch yourself from God? I hope no one is so self-absorbed as to believe that.
And then we get to the highpoint of this section in John's Gospel. You might remember what we studied in chapter 5:
17 Jesus responded to them, “My Father is still working, and I am working also.” 18 This is why the Jews began trying all the more to kill him: Not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal to God.
If Jesus considers Himself God's coworker, answerable to God's own charges, then that "suggests" an equality between the two. Well, Jesus confirms the Jews' suspicion. Yes, working on the Sabbath suggests an intertwining of the work of God the Father and Jesus (God the Son). But for Jesus to shepherd His sheep through death itself? That implies that He has the power of God! And indeed He does. Not only does Jesus share God's work, but He shares God's very nature.
[Aside: Yes, "Trinity". If you want to have fun that this week, go for it. Call people's attention to how we started the Gospel of John:
And as you read the rest of the chapter, you see that this indeed came to a head, with the people attempting to stone Jesus for blasphemy. (Some interesting stuff happens in those verses -- if you really want to dive into it, know that Psalm 82 is the key, particularly how it uses the word "god" in 1-7 as opposed to 8.)
Your key here is that if you are a "sheep of Jesus"/"child of God", your eternal destination is secure.
And so then the final discussion is something along the lines of "how do you know if you're a child of God?" We've talked about that enough that I will trust you to it.
But for understanding the Gospel of John, the final lesson is to make sure everyone is clear about an implied "I AM" statement: Jesus is God. "I am one with the Father."
I mentioned this survey from 2020 a while back -- though 98% of Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God, 30% of evangelical Christians believe that Jesus is not God.
Let's make sure everyone in our groups is clear that Jesus is indeed God, that there is only one God, and that Jesus and God the Father are two distinct persons.