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The Life of Jesus - Series 8: Episode 6

Jesus - the Good Shepherd

| Martin Charlesworth
John 10:1-21

Jesus uses an extended metaphor to contrast the 'shepherding' of the religious leaders at the time with himself. This is another I am saying and speaks of his identity.

Jesus uses an extended metaphor to contrast the 'shepherding' of the religious leaders at the time with himself. This is another I am saying and speaks of his identity.


Hello and welcome to series 8 and Episode 6, 'Jesus the Good Shepherd'. We're in John 10-1 to 21. We're continuing a long narrative in John's gospel that's gone from chapter 7 all the way through to this passage in chapter 10, telling of Jesus's third visit to Jerusalem in his public ministry.

Introduction and Recap

To set the scene a little more broadly, John's account of this visit to Jerusalem comes in the context of Jesus having now decided to leave Galilee, the northern province where he has based his ministry for a long period of time, and to head for Jerusalem. He and his discipleship band, and other followers, are travelling to the south of the country and this is clearly explained to us in Luke's gospel, which we'll refer to in just a moment. John describes this visit to Jerusalem in the context of Jesus orientating his ministry towards the centre, and particularly the south of the country. The main part of Israel was divided into three main provinces on the western side of the Jordan River, Galilee in the north, Samaria in the middle and Judea in the south. Jesus is leaving Galilee, heading through Samaria and into Judea, where the capital city Jerusalem is situated. As he started this journey, he explained to his disciples that things were going to be different. It wasn't going to be a time of popularity and success so much as a time of preparation for suffering, conflict and difficulty. He predicted to his disciples that he would be suffering, then he would die and rise again from the dead at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem. This is the general picture that we have. Jesus is moving southward in the country and travelling around, taking a number of months, as far as we can tell, to make this journey from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem in the south.

John points out that as he's travelling, he also visits Jerusalem very briefly, for a few days and then leaves the city and comes back to where his disciples are, on the broader journey south. That's the story that John has been describing in chapters 7, 8 and 9, which we've been studying in recent episodes. The third visit of Jesus to Jerusalem in his public ministry was to the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the major religious festivals of the Jews. The events that John describes took place at the Feast of Tabernacles where Jesus came up quietly and privately to the feast without anyone really realising he was there. Then halfway through the feast, he started teaching in the Temple compound. He made a dramatic statement about the Holy Spirit coming - living water coming forth from those who believe in him, which was an image of the Holy Spirit welling up inside them, as the Holy Spirit was going to be given after Jesus' death and resurrection. This is recorded in John 7: 37 - 39. We looked at that episode very carefully recently in our studies.

We see John describing some very significant conflict because whenever Jesus is in Jerusalem, conflict and opposition is one of the main things that we've noticed. This started at the very beginning, on his first visit to Jerusalem in his public ministry, as recorded in John 2, when he went into the Temple compound and he challenged the traders, those trading in animals and changing money for the religious sacrificial system, but making a lot of money out of it. He was very angry with them; he confronted them. This set the tone for confrontation between Jesus and the religious authorities in Jerusalem led by the High Priest, Caiaphas, and all the priests who ran the sacrificial system, and also led by the Sanhedrin, which was the official Jewish ruling council, which ruled over the affairs of the Jewish religion, under the watchful eye of the Roman political leaders. Every time Jesus came to Jerusalem, there was tension. The second visit, recorded in John 5, led to a remarkable healing of the man who'd been disabled for 38 years. He got up from his mat and walked. He was healed on the Sabbath and a great controversy came about whether Jesus should have healed him on the Sabbath, who Jesus was, why he was there, what he was doing, and what authority he had.

In the third visit, which we're now describing, and of which this is the last section described in John, we see that conflict developing and becoming even more extreme. In fact, as we noticed in earlier episodes, the conflict is so extreme between Jesus and the religious leaders, and some of the crowd in the city - bearing in mind there's a huge crowd there because it's a big religious festival with many visitors - some of the crowd sided with the religious leaders and were very suspicious of Jesus The religious leaders were looking for a way to deal with him and so we note in John 7, for example, some very remarkable statements, while Jesus was teaching openly in the Temple, John 7: 30, some members of the crowd, ‘tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him because his hour had not yet come.’ They tried a citizen's arrest, then the Pharisees and the chief priests, in 7: 32,  sent Temple guards to arrest him, which they failed to do, as we notice later on. The Temple guards were the religious police force, if you like, who watched over the welfare of the Temple compound, where thousands of people came, and they needed to keep order there. Then, as this debate between Jesus and the religious authorities continues, as described in John 8, it concludes in verse 59 with this statement, ‘At this they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.’ That gives you a flavour of the atmosphere - really tense, really difficult, really dangerous for Jesus.

As Jesus left the Temple compound on that occasion, he came across a man who had been blind from birth. He spat on the ground and mixed his saliva with some of the mud and dust on the ground, creating a mud which he put in the eyes of the man and nothing immediately happened. He said to the man, ‘Go to the Pool of Siloam, wash your eyes’, which is exactly what the man did and immediately his eyesight was fully restored. This now became a major incident, a major point of controversy. The religious leaders interviewed this man and there was a lot of confusion about what was going on. Who was it who had healed him? The man didn't even know who'd healed him initially because of course he'd been blind at that particular point and hadn't seen Jesus in the first instance of speaking to him. A huge controversy arose again in chapter 9. This is the context in which Jesus tells the story that we're going to look at now, with Jesus making this poignant powerful statement, John 9: 39,

‘For judgement I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.’

John 9:39, NIV

Jesus is speaking not just of physical sight there but of spiritual sight. He will liberate some people to see the truth, to see he's the Messiah, the Son of God, Saviour; those who claim religious knowledge will be blind to the coming of Jesus. This is a reference to the religious leaders - the Pharisees, the priests, the Sanhedrin, the High Priest - those who are in conflict with Jesus at this time.

A Metaphorical Story

In this context, Jesus tells an extended story. He gives a metaphorical story, that describes the situation in Israel and gives us a lot of important spiritual truths about who Jesus is, and who his followers are. He uses the analogy of a shepherd and sheep - a very familiar analogy to the listeners. Let's read the first part of this account, John 10: 1 - 13,

“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him, because they do not recognise a stranger's voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them. Therefore, Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life; and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”

John 10:1-13, NIV

This is a powerful story and it draws on common experience in Israel, and of course, in all Middle Eastern countries at that time - the experience of the shepherds and their sheep. We've come across this several times already in our studies. We have seen the shepherds on the hillside in Bethlehem at the very beginning of the story, and we've seen the Parable of the Lost Sheep, so the image of the shepherd and the sheep is a common one. I want to repeat now some of the things I have said in those other contexts, to ensure that we are clear about the background.

Shepherds worked in groups, generally speaking. They looked after sheep who roved over large areas of open country. Very rarely was open country fenced in, and so sheep could mingle between one herd, or flock, and another; they could mingle with goats and other animals. Because there was no fencing, the shepherds' means of looking after the sheep, especially at night, was to gather them into sheepfolds, specially designed to keep them together for periods of time, when they would be vulnerable to attack by wild animals such as wolves. Sheep easily wander; it was very easy for them to get lost, and so shepherding was a very active role. Sheep can easily have accidents, and are in real danger from wild animals in that environment. These are the things we need to keep in mind in terms of the background and particularly the significance of the sheepfold, which is part of the story that Jesus tells here.

It's a figure of speech as he says, as John says in verse 6. The image of the shepherd and the sheep is not just an accidental image that comes from human experience in animal husbandry at the time. No, there was even more significance to it than that because the Old Testament uses the analogy of a shepherd and sheep to describe the people of Israel and their relationship both to God and also to their appointed kings. Psalms describe the people of God as the sheep of his pasture, Psalm 74: 1, for example. If we take Psalm 78 as an example, which describes the monarchy of King David and his successors, who were the shepherd kings of Israel, Psalm 78: 52 describes how God ‘brought his people out like a flock and led them like sheep through the wilderness’ to describe how God helped the children of Israel as they came out from Egypt. Then verse 70 to 72, describing David,

‘He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens;(because he was a shepherd)from tending the sheep he bought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance, and David shepherded them with integrity of heart and with skilful hands he led them.’

Psalm 78:70-72, NIV

You can see the connection here between real-life shepherding which David experienced from a shepherding family, and a sheep owning family in Bethlehem through to the role of political leaders, and also the spiritual leaders of Israel, who were seen as shepherds of the flock, and God was seen as the ultimate Shepherd.

Jesus Applies the Metaphor

All these ideas and thoughts would be in the minds of people as they hear Jesus explaining this extended metaphor. We see here the people of Israel are the sheep and Jesus is described interestingly enough, in verse 7, as the gate, the gate into the sheepfold. He is also the good shepherd, who looks after the sheep, gathers the sheep into the fold, lets them come in and go out and find pasture and protects them from danger . He describes in verse 8 ‘thieves and robbers’ who have come before him, so who are they? They are false prophets; false messiahs in Israel; those who pretended to speak on behalf of God; those who were self appointed; and there were many of those. These he describes as ‘thieves and robbers’. Then he mentions the hired hands and he distinguishes between the shepherd and a hired hand. The shepherd is fully committed to the sheep and a hired hand is temporarily supporting - someone who is paid temporarily - to come do a bit of work with the sheep. He likens the hired hands to the religious leaders of the time: people who are paid, as it were, to do their religious duties but they don't have the best interests of the sheep in their minds.

This is the context of the famous verse in John 10: 10,

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have that to the full.”

John 10:10, NIV

This is often applied by Christians to the devil or Satan, and in a secondary sense you can make that application, but the primary meaning here is that the false religious leaders have negative motives towards the sheep. They're not serving them; they're not doing things in their best interest; they've come to steal; and to kill and to destroy. That's a very powerful statement. We can root those ideas very firmly in Jesus' critique of the religious establishment of his day. For example, what is stealing? Taking what is not yours, taking money and taking resources. We find in Luke 16: 14, the Pharisees, Luke describes the Pharisees as those who love money. They were motivated by getting money for themselves from people - killing, bringing spiritual death. Jesus is constantly criticising the religious leaders for bringing spiritual death by replacing the Law of Moses with their human traditions and human laws. This is a form of bringing death, bringing spiritual death to the people. Mark 7: 9, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” This brings spiritual death. To destroy - this is the desire to control, and the religious elite in Jerusalem desire to control the whole Jewish people, make them do what they want them to do, and to get material benefit from it. This critique in John 10: 10 is very specific. It's specific to this particular context - the life of Jesus and the particular people that he's talking to, which in the first instance are the Pharisees, as we see at the beginning of the passage.

We find that under the care of Jesus, verses 9 and 10, “whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.” Under the care of Jesus, people find safety and provision; they find salvation and they find spiritual nourishment. Jesus is drawing a direct comparison between what he can give people, and what the religious leaders of the time are giving people. This comparison is a huge contrast between spiritual life and spiritual death. These wonderful statements, ‘I am the gate’, and ‘I am the good Shepherd’, are part of a series of seven statements that John's writings record of Jesus claiming certain aspects of his identity through sayings which begin with the phrase, ‘I am’: ‘I am the bread of life’, ‘I am the light of the world’, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, ‘I am the gate’, ‘I am the good shepherd’, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, and ‘I am the true vine.’ These sayings appear through John's Gospel. Six out of seven of those sayings are statements that Jesus makes while he is in Jerusalem. Jesus continues, verses 14 to 18,

The Good Shepherd

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me - just as the father knows me and I know the father - and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my father loves me is that I lay down my life - only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my father.”

John 10:14-18, NIV

This passage begins with that wonderful statement, ‘I am the good shepherd.’ Jesus is utterly trustworthy; he is morally good; his intentions are good and positive towards the people who choose him to be their shepherd by believing in him, trusting in him and becoming his disciples. That's a very powerful statement which has real application for us in our individual lives. The shepherd knows his sheep, verse 14, and they know his voice. His actions, his care, his love and his provision. Jesus is speaking about a situation where his followers are in personal relationship with him. This has two applications: the first application obviously is to his existing disciples at the time who are listening to this conversation, and all the others who chose to follow him in his lifetime. People could know him personally; his disciples knew his voice; they knew his thoughts; they knew his motives; they knew his actions; they felt the goodness of his being; they were drawn to that; they wanted to follow him; and they wanted to serve him. The second application is to the rest of the Church in all of history, after Jesus's death and resurrection. We don't know Jesus in the human sense face-to-face; we don't see him in the flesh but we have the Holy Spirit living within us, who makes the reality of Jesus' love and care for us and his will for us known, especially through understanding the Bible; and within the Bible especially understanding what the Gospels tell us; and within the Gospels, especially understanding passages like this which tell us unambiguously that he is good and that we can discern his voice, his actions, his care, his love and his provision for us.

Jesus then goes on to say that the shepherd is going to lay down his life for his sheep - unlike the hired hands, unlike the thieves, unlike those characters in the early part of his statement, the religious leaders of his time, and the false prophets and messiahs who had come before him. He's going to lay down his life and then he is going to take up his life again. This shepherd is going to give everything for his sheep, even his own life. This is a prophetic reference, of course, to his coming death on the cross. In verse 16, we have a marvellous prophetic statement, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also.” This is an unmistakable reference to the fact that the Church will reach the Gentile, or non-Jewish, nations. These are the other sheep. At this particular time, Jesus is concerned to form a shepherding community, a discipleship community, an embryonic Church community among the Jewish people, who were the primary mission field for Jesus. He makes it unmistakably clear here, and in many other places, that this mission, after his death particularly, is going to extend to all the nations of the world. He brings the nations together, into one flock, one Church, one community. Verses 19 to 21,

‘The Jews who heard these words were again divided. Many of them said he is demon- possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?” But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”’

John 10:19-21, NIV

That last statement, of course, is a reference to the healing of the man born blind in John 9, which was the subject of our last episode, and which I mentioned just a few moments ago in the introduction. There's a division amongst the Jews. This division has persisted all the way through this series of episodes of Jesus being in Jerusalem for his third visit recorded in John 7 through to John 10.


What concluding reflections can we make after hearing this marvellous teaching of Jesus? What actual application can we make to ourselves? As we think of Jesus, it is good to think of him according to the titles that he gives himself. These ‘I am’ titles are wonderfully revealing, and this particular one, ‘I am the good shepherd’, is incredibly empowering for us. If you are a Christian today, if you're a disciple of Jesus, you can say from the bottom of your heart that he is your shepherd. He is a good shepherd; his intentions to us are positive. He provides for us spiritually and physically. He doesn't promise an easy life but he says, John 10: 10 the second half, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” We're given spiritual life; we're given a meaningful life. It's my view that Christians have the most meaningful life of any people who live on this earth. They know what the purpose of living is; they know where they fit into creation; they know with certainty that they have received salvation and have an eternal inheritance; they know that they have a purpose in this world; and so he enables us to live life to the full. That's not a materialistic life; that's not a selfish life; that's not a comfortable life necessarily - that is not what is promised. A full life - a full life of serving God wholeheartedly, and being blessed in that process, whatever the circumstances are.

We can hear his voice John 10: 4, the voice of Jesus comes to us through the presence of the Holy Spirit living within us, and I encourage you to listen to that voice - the particular things you feel God's saying to you, the particular things that you learn and have a big impact on you when you're listening to episodes like this. It's wonderful to think that Jesus at this point in his life could so clearly envisage that his flock, his Church, would extend to all the nations of the world. That process has been going on for 2000 years and it's still going on. It's a joy to think that all the way round this world, there are those who have found salvation, who've acknowledged Jesus as Lord and who are gathered into church communities and serving him in their communities. That is a fulfilment of what Jesus said two thousand years ago concerning other sheep who would be added into the flock. Jesus, as the good shepherd, has laid down his life for the sheep. He's laid down his life for you and me. He went to the cross quite deliberately.

We're in the part of the story where we see Jesus' deliberate intention to move from the safety of Galilee to the vulnerability of Jerusalem and we're in the part of the story where we know that conflicts, like those that are happening in this particular narrative, are going to ultimately lead to his death - a sacrificial, substitutionary, atoning death, which brings forgiveness for us. We can truly worship Jesus as the good shepherd; we can truly worship him as the gate, the one who provides security for the sheep as they come in and out of the sheepfold. Our lives ultimately are in the hands of the good shepherd.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How can you have a relationship with Jesus today?
    2. What does living a ‘full’ life mean to people in your society, or to you?
  • Discipleship
    1. What does a shepherd do? How do you see that being worked out in your life today? i.e. where have you seen God’s protection, provision, leading?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. How can/does God speak today?
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