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John 10:1-10 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 9:41 – 10:22. THE CONTEXT
Biblical manuscripts don’t include chapter or verse divisions. The chapter-break between 9:41 and 10:1, which separates the discourse (10:1-18) from the story of the man born blind (9:1-41), was not present in the original. This discourse grows out of that story.
The Jews (this Gospel’s term for Jewish leaders who seek to discredit Jesus) “agreed that if any man would confess him as Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue” (9:22). Excommunication isolated a person, not only religiously, but in every way. It was such a frightening prospect that the parents of the man born blind dodged the questions of the Jewish leaders—referring them to their son. The son not only refused to agree that Jesus was a sinner, but also challenged the Pharisees with provocative answers. The Jews responded by driving him out (9:34)—presumably meaning excommunication. This sort of uncaring action is characteristic, not of a shepherd, but of a thief or a bandit who cares nothing for the sheep.
John 2-11 includes seven great signs or miracles (2:1-11; 4:46-54; 5:1-9; 6:1-14, 15-25; 9:1-8; 11:1-45) and is often therefore referred to as “The Book of Signs.” The Good Shepherd Discourse falls between the last two of these signs, the healing of the man born blind and the raising of Lazarus. The irony is that the religious leaders, who think that they understand everything, fail to see the significance of these signs. Their hearts are closed to Jesus, so they miss the plain-as-day truth right in front of their eyes.
“At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem” (10:22). While this verse is not included in the Gospel lesson, it helps us to identify time and place. The festival of Dedication is Hanukkah, which takes place in December and commemorates “the purification and reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple and the dedication of the new altar by Judas Maccabeus in 165-164 B.C. …after Antiochus IV Epiphanes had desecrated it by decreeing pagan sacrifices there (1 Macc. 4:52-59; 2 Macc. 10:5)” (Myers, 276).
JOHN 10:1-10. AN OVERVIEW
Jesus uses two metaphors for himself in this passage. He is the shepherd who enters by the gate which the gatekeeper opens for him (v. 2-6), and he is the gate (or door) by which the sheep enter into salvation and go out to find pasture (v. 7-9).
Jesus says that thieves and bandits enter the sheepfold by another way (v. 1). The thieves and bandits are “all who came before me” (v. 8), and the thief who “comes to steal, kill, and destroy” (v. 10).
These metaphors are confusing if we treat them as allegory and try to assign precise meanings. If Jesus is the shepherd who enters by the gate, how can he also be the gate? If the thieves and robbers are Pharisees, are there also other thieves and robbers? We must accept a bit of ambiguity here. Jesus is the shepherd—that is a valid image—but he is also the gate—another valid image. We gain nothing by forcing the images together. The Pharisees are thieves and robbers, but hardly the only ones. There were other thieves and robbers in the church when this Gospel was written at the end of the first century—and there are other thieves and robbers in the church today.
We sometimes refer to ordained clergy as pastors or shepherds. There are other passages that support such terminology (John 21:15-19; Acts 20:28-29; 1 Peter 5:2-3) but John 10 does not. Verses 11-18, which go beyond this Gospel lesson, emphasize the Christological nature of this passage and the inappropriateness of applying its imagery to anyone but Christ.
JOHN 10:1-6. JESUS AS THE GOOD SHEPHERD
1“Most certainly, (Greek: amen amen) I tell you, one who doesn’t enter by the door into the sheep fold, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. 2But one who enters in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out. 4Whenever he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5They will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him; for they don’t know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus spoke this parable (Greek: paroimia) to them, but they didn’t understand what he was telling them.
“Most certainly, (amen amen) I tell you” (v. 1a). Amen expresses strong affirmation of that which is being said. In the Gospel of John Jesus uses the double amen 23 times for emphasis (in the Synoptics, Jesus always uses a singular amen). Morris notes that the author of this Gospel always has “amen, amen” linking a prior story with Jesus’ teaching. The prior story in this case is that of the man born blind (9:1-41), so the good shepherd teaching grows out of that story where the Pharisees were anything but good shepherds (Morris, 446).
“one who doesn’t enter by the door into the sheep fold, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber” (v. 1b). This brings to mind Ezekiel 34:11, 15-16, in which God rebuked the shepherds of Israel (religious leaders) who fed themselves rather than their flocks. God stopped their exploitation and took on the role of shepherd. Jeremiah 23:1-4 has much the same emphasis. The Old Testament includes a number of references to God as shepherd and the people as flock (Psalm 23:1; 77:20; 79:13; 80:1; 95:7; 100:3; Isaiah 40:11).
Much of Judea is poor, rocky soil, better suited for grazing than cultivation, so shepherding was a common occupation. The collection of wool is important, so shepherds sometimes work with the same sheep for a number of years, developing a strong relationship.
“But one who enters in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice” (vv. 2-3a). A solitary shepherd watching over a small flock would not encounter a gatekeeper. What is being pictured here is a large sheepfold capable of accommodating several flocks. The gatekeeper recognizes the shepherd and opens the gate for him. The shepherd would use a distinctive call to call his sheep, and they would recognize his call and gather around him.
“He calls his own sheep by name” (v. 3b). “His own” reflects the personal nature of the relationship between shepherd and sheep. Shepherding is not just a job for this shepherd, and the sheep are more than an asset.
In that culture, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name––that the name expressed something of the person’s essential character. The point of this verse is that the good shepherd knows the sheep with the same kind of intimacy that we have with friends and neighbors.
It is noteworthy that Mary Magdalene recognizes the risen Christ only when he calls her by name (20:16).
G. A. Smith tells of watching shepherds in Judea. Several shepherds would converge on a water hole and the flocks would get intermixed. Smith wondered how the shepherds would separate them once again into their individual flocks. The answer came when it was time for a shepherd to move on. He would use his distinctive call, and the sheep from his flock would make their way to him (G. A. Smith, Historical Geography of the Holy Land, 210-11, quoted in Beasley-Murray, 168).
“and leads them out” (v. 3c). While inside the sheepfold, the sheep have the protection of its walls. When the shepherd leads them out of the sheepfold, the shepherd is their only protection—and all the protection that they need if he is a good shepherd.
“Whenever he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (v. 4). Once the sheep have recognized the shepherd’s call and have separated themselves from the other flocks and gathered around the shepherd, the shepherd leads them out of the sheepfold to pasture and water. He leads rather than drives them—goes ahead to insure that the path is safe. He repeats his call periodically to keep the sheep together. The sheep recognize his voice and follow him.
“They will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him; for they don’t know the voice of strangers” (v. 5). The sheep know their shepherd’s voice and follow him willingly, but will not follow a stranger whose voice they do not recognize. They have learned to trust their shepherd, but have not learned to trust the stranger. We see something similar with babies who readily accept their mother or father but reject being held by strangers.
“Jesus spoke this parable (Greek: paroimia) to them” (v. 6a). Paroimia combines two words, para–by) and (oimos–a way or highway). In this context, it means a proverb, parable, or wise saying.
“but they didn’t understand what he was telling them” (v. 6b). To whom does “they” refer? The Pharisees? The disciples? Probably the Pharisees, given that Jesus was addressing them in 9:41—although in this Gospel it is usually the disciples who fail to understand (Johnston, 525).
The Pharisees could not understand, because they thought of themselves as good shepherds. It would have been nearly impossible for them to imagine that Jesus would portray them as bad shepherds—thieves and robbers.
JOHN 10:7-10. JESUS AS THE DOOR
7Jesus therefore said to them again, “Most certainly, I tell you, I am (Greek: ego eimi) the sheep’s door. (Greek: thura—gate or door) 8All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. 9I am the door. If anyone enters in by me, he will be saved, and will go in and go out, and will find pasture. 10The thief only comes to steal, kill, and destroy. I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly” (Greek: perisson).
“Most certainly, I tell you, I am (ego eimi) the sheep’s door” (thura—gate or door) (v. 7). Jesus changes the metaphor. He was the shepherd, but is now the gate. Bruce sees the gate metaphor as a short parable inserted into the longer shepherd parable (Bruce, 225).
“I am” (ego eimi—God’s name—see Exodus 3:14-15) the thura (door or gate—the latter translation better fits a sheepfold, which typically has either a hinged gate or simply an opening). In this Gospel, Jesus will use “I am” to identify himself as “the bread of life” (6:35)—“the living bread” (6:51)—“the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5)—“the son of God” (10:36)—“the resurrection and the life” (11:25)—“the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6)—and the “true vine” (15:1).
Villages often have a large communal sheepfold with a strong door. In the hinterlands, however, sheepfolds are much less grand. Instead of a well-made door, they have only an opening. The shepherd makes his bed in the opening—blocks the opening with his body—protects the sheep with his life. He is the door to the sheepfold (Barclay, 67).
“All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep didn’t listen to them” (v. 8). Of whom does Jesus speak? Surely not the great historical figures of the faith! In this Gospel, Jesus speaks positively of Moses (5:45-46) and Abraham (8:56) and negatively of Jewish religious leaders (5:39-40, 47). It is the latter—the Pharisees who excommunicated the formerly blind man in chapter 9 and wealthy Sadducees—who are the thieves and bandits.
“I am the door” (he thura—the gate or door) (v. 9a). Jesus doesn’t say that he is A door, but that he is THE door. Later, he will say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me” (14:6).
It is popular today to believe that there are many equally valid doors that lead to God. This verse suggests otherwise. While many Christians reject any hint of exclusivism, others find motivation for evangelism in verses such as this.
Quite apart from issues of world religions, we are tempted to seek salvation from psychiatry, free enterprise, education, or science and technology. Each produces fruits both good and evil—i.e., technology makes it easier both to save lives and to kill—education makes us smarter but cannot insure that we will not turn our knowledge to evil ends.
God can admit to his kingdom anyone whom he chooses, but Jesus’ disciples have the responsibility for proclaiming that Jesus is THE door, THE way, truth, and life.
“If anyone enters in by me, he will be saved” (v. 9b). That is the purpose of the sheepfold—a safe haven in a dangerous world. It protects sheep from thieves and predators and saves them from their own foolishness.
“and will go in and go out, and will find pasture” (v. 9c). That is in keeping with Jesus’ earlier words that he offers “living water”—“a well of water springing up to eternal life” (4:10, 14) and “food which remains to eternal life” (6:27). Finding food is the purpose of leaving the fold. Sheep in the fold eat hay—last year’s crop—dry and tasteless. To find succulent green pasture and cool running water, they must leave the sheepfold. The Jesus-gate leads to good pastures.
“The thief only comes to steal, kill, and destroy” (v. 10a). The thief focuses only on satisfying his own needs, and cares little about the welfare of others.
The Pharisees of 9:41 are one example of thieves and bandits, but there is no lack of others. Jesus warns of false prophets (Matt 7:15-23). When this Gospel was written, late in the first century, the church was struggling with antichrists (1 John 2:18-22) and false prophets (1 John 4:1-6). Acts 20:29-35 warns of savage wolves who will not spare the flock. Philippians 3:18-19 warns of many—some who are church members—who live “as the enemies of the cross of Christ.” 1 Peter 5:1-5 exhorts elders, “Shepherd the flock…not for dishonest gain but willingly.”
We do not lack for examples of thieves and bandits in the church today. The church suffers from televangelists who promise wealth for the sheep but reap wealth for themselves. A friend of mine dishonored himself and injured his congregation by engaging in an illicit sexual relationship. The Catholic Church has suffered because of the sins of a few rogue priests. Every preacher is tempted to pack the pews by telling people what they want to hear instead of proclaiming truth from the Bible. All these are “thieves and robbers” who “steal, kill, and destroy”—who steal that which does not belong to them—who kill the trust of those who believed them—who destroy faith.
We who are entrusted with Word and Sacrament need always to remember that the devil, whom Jesus calls a murderer (8:44), works especially hard to bring us down. Nothing serves Satan’s purposes better than rogue clergy. We must be always on guard against temptation lest we find ourselves numbered among the thieves and bandits.
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (perisson) (v. 10b). Unlike the thief, Jesus is focused on the welfare of the sheep. Coming or going, Jesus’ sheep are safe and well fed. They have life, and have it abundantly (perisson).
The word perisson (abound) has to do with the kind of abundance that goes far beyond one’s needs. It brings to mind Jesus’ words, “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you” (Luke 6:38a). The context and meaning are different, but the effusive language is the same.
If we want to experience life at its fullest, we will ask, WWJD?— “What would Jesus do?” What would Jesus have me to do? How can I be more faithful to Jesus? How can I be more like Jesus? As we bring our lives into compliance with Jesus’ will, he blesses us with abundant life. That does not necessarily mean health or wealth. It means abundance, which has more to do with what is in our hearts than with what is in our hands.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, “The Gospel of John,” Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1955)
Beasley-Murray, George R., Word Biblical Commentary: John (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999)
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Borchet, Gerald L., New American Commentary: John, Vol. 25A (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1996)
Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966)
Bruce, F.F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983)
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Howard-Brook, Wes, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2001)
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Marty, Peter W., “The Door to Abundant Life,” The Christian Century, April 17, 1996
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Myers, Allen C., The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987)
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Vawter, Bruce, and Carl, William J. III, Proclamation 2: Easter, Series A (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981)
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