Translation and commentary on John’s Gospel
“Amen, amen I tell you whoever does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and an outlaw. But the one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens up for him, and the sheep hear his voice and he calls his own sheep by name and leads then out. When he puts all of his own sheep outside, he goes ahead of them; and the sheep follow him because they know his voice They will not follow a stranger but will run away from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Jesus spoke this riddle to them, but they did not understand what meant.
So Jesus spoke to them again, “Amen, amen, I tell you, I am the door for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and outlaws and the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door: if any one enters through me, she will be rescued, and will go in and come 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 risks his life for the sheep. Someone who is a hired worker and is not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, when he sees the wolf approaching, leaves the sheep and runs away; and the wolf pounces and scatters them. He does so because he is only a hired worker and has no regard for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the father knows me and I know the father. And I risk my life for the sheep.
And I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must guide them also, and they will listen to my voice; so that there will be one flock, one shepherd.
At least two bible passages lie behind this chapter: Psalm 23, and Ezekiel 34 both of which also influenced other gospel writers. Psalm 23 had been interpreted as a messianic prophecy before the time of Jesus but its depiction of the shepherd who leads, cares, nourishes and protects the flock in the valley of death, is an obvious match for the Jesus of the early churches, as is that of the Sheikh who offers food in the presence of enemies. The Ezekiel passage which castigates the false shepherds of the people, and promises that God himself will come in the role of shepherd, may well have been a favourite passage of this gospel author.
But the use of the shepherd image in this passage is nevertheless very distinctive.
Firstly, the true shepherd is the one who has access to the sheepfold and whose voice is recognised by the sheep. Anyone else entering the fold is a criminal. If we assume that Israel as God’s People is the fold, then it becomes interesting that the shepherd leads his sheep OUT. Of course, outside the fold is where the sheep find pasture, and in this first riddle the direction of travel is from within to outside. Jesus is the messiah who leads his flock out of the fold of Israel into a new place. The author even uses the strong verb ekballo (to put out, expel, throw out) to describe this departure.
The sheep “know” the voice of the shepherd. The verb carries overtones of the Hebrew verb yada’, to know, which often suggests the intimacy of husband and wife. The relationship of this shepherd and these sheep is one of love. The rejection of other leaders of Israel is clear and unmistakable. Perhaps that’s why Jesus’ hearers “don’t understand.”
The image then changes. Secondly then, Jesus is the door/gate of the sheepfold. Perhaps this image comes from Psalm 118 v20 “This is the gate of the Lord through which the victors will enter.” Now the fold is the true people of God into which many desire to enter but must do so “through Jesus”: the author means specific trust in the divine human being Jesus. Notice that there is freedom for those who are “rescued” into this fold, that they have freedom to “come and go and find pasture”; these asylum seekers are freed from those who would destroy their lives and liberated into a place of abundant resources for living. This is an important indication of the positive goal of trust in Jesus: it leads to life which is only defined by a word which means “in excess of expectation.”
The third image takes us back to the first but with addition of the Greek word “kalos” which is Plato’s term for the ultimate purpose of human life, the good which is beyond us but which we desire if we get a glimpse of it. In ordinary use it can mean noble, beautiful or splendid. Some of these associations are relevant here, but the writer gives his own definition: the “good” shepherd risks his life for the sheep. The verb is often translated “gives” his life, or “lays down” his life; I think it is more that he lays out his life, places it in danger, lays it on the line, for the flock. We can see how that applies to Jesus, but we should also note that it applies to the father, who “lays out” his life by sending his son Jesus into the world.
The contrast to the good shepherd is the hired worker, the religious functionary who has no personal stake in the safety of the flock. The writer may have some Christian leaders in mind as well as the Pharisees of the Judeans. The relationship of Jesus and his followers expressed in terms of mutual “knowledge,” is included in the mutual knowledge of Jesus and his father. Human beings are thus incorporated into the being of God.
The “other sheep” are doubtless not part of the fold of Israel, and may be the Gentile nations from which believers were welcomed into the one new fold of God’s people. The whole passage is a profound meditation on the theology of the shepherd king in the Hebrew Bible. The “one flock/one shepherd” puts to shame the sectarian divisions between churches which human “shepherds” maintain, all of which increase their petty powers as popes, patriarchs, bishops, ministers, evangelists and priests. I am ashamed of the times I have usurped the shepherding role of Jesus with my own authority, yet I know that Jesus has chosen to exercise his function through the human beings who form his body on earth. That sets up a double bind: none of us should steal the authority of Jesus, but he devolves his authority to us. So we cannot for example settle the issue of abortion by simply waiting for Jesus to give a ruling. Rather with fear and trembling, we must examine the facts impartially; study the witness of the scriptures and the traditions of the church past and present; open ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the equal partnership of the church community; remind ourselves that all God’s commandments are for human good; then boldly speak for Jesus, remembering we may be wrong.
I insist that the partnership of the church community is of equals, but it is nevertheless a community structured by the functions of individuals and groups within it. The body is not “all eye” as Paul says. This means that for example, there may be scholars whose function is to understand and interpret the scriptures, and whose speciality must be respected, but no more than the speciality of the person whose function is to run the church kitchen. The takeover of the Christian Church by clergy who do not know the voice of the good shepherd is its principal disgrace.