Series: Face-to-face with Jesus (John’s gospel), by rosie moore.
John 10 contains two of Christ’s seven I AM statements in John’s gospel, namely, “I am the gate” and “I am the good Shepherd”. These two claims cannot be separated if we understand the figure of speech that Jesus used to convince the Jews that He was the Messiah, the one and only ‘door’ to God’s salvation. Jesus offers us and his original hearers the only access to safety, security, nourishment and protection. Best of all, he issues an open invitation for each and every one of us to enter his Church, and a promise to those who do. Verse 9 and 11 are key verses:
“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9).
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
But there’s plenty more that Jesus says to put flesh on the bones of these two profound claims, echoed five hundred years before, when God’s people were in captivity in Babylon:
“And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:23).
Let’s ask the Lord to show us more of Himself in this amazing teaching that John has recorded for us.
The false shepherd.
It’s interesting that Jesus describes Himself by way of contrast to the false shepherds or ‘hirelings’ of God’s people. The context helps us understand why. This chapter is a continuation of the last, where Jesus had been speaking about the Pharisees, the false shepherds who refused to acknowledge or celebrate His amazing healing of the man born blind.
Jesus did a miracle right before their eyes. But instead of worshipping Christ, the Pharisees willfully suppressed the truth of the man’s obvious healing, shaming and slandering him when he simply offered his honest testimony: “You are this fellow’s disciple!” they mocked, but “we are the disciples of Moses!” (John 9:28)
Ignoring the beautifully clear and logical testimony of the man and his parents (John 9:20; 25; 30-33), the Pharisees threw the new convert out of the synagogue and hurled insults at him, “You were steeped in sin at birth,” they accused the man, “How dare you lecture us!” (John 9:34). Not only did they deny the evidence that Christ was the Messiah, but they also banished the man from the symbolic dwelling place of God with his people—the synagogue. The Pharisees’ chosen path of spiritual blindness makes more sense in light of Christ’s description of false shepherds in chapter 10.
So what are the marks and motives of the ‘hirelings’ who set themselves up as shepherds of God’s people? Jesus draws us a character sketch,
“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… 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them… 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full….12 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. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. (selected verses from John 10:1-13)
They climb in some other way.
The bottom line about every false shepherd in the Old Testament, the early church and even today, is that they don’t enter through the real ‘door’, which is by the blood of Christ and his atoning death on the cross. Instead, they climb into Christ’s Church some other way, and thus, have no love or concern for God’s people. They are not saved themselves, so cannot lead others to salvation.
Perhaps the ‘other way’ into the Church is their great learning or impressive CV; eloquence or giftedness; charisma or a characteristic that the world values highly at that particular time. Some are just bullies who climb over the wall using strongarm tactics. A false shepherd knows how to look right and sound right.
But the end game of the hireling is always to steal, kill and destroy God’s Church. He or she tries to rob lost people of the true way to the Father; to kill the joy and fruitfulness of the Church; to destroy the holiness, peace and gospel zeal of God’s people; to rob God’s people of the potency of God’s word.
In one of his sermons in 1884, Robert Murray M’Cheyne quotes verse 5, “But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice,” warning Christians to make no friendship with false shepherds. He reminds us to beware of worldly and covetous ministers, for they will come to destroy. He warns believers to flee from those who the world favours, the ones who flatter and impress, the ones who speak of sin and God’s holiness but do not know it in their own hearts. They are the church leaders who come to rob God of his throne and rob God of our souls. M’Cheyne’s words are worth heeding today.
These are the false shepherds who climb in some other way. But what are the marks of the Good Shepherd, whom Jesus claims to be?
The true shepherd.
Jesus tells us explicitly, “I am the good shepherd,” and then proceeds to give us his credentials:
“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 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. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice….I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 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 shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 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.”
Every time I read this passage, I’m stirred all over again by its beauty! I want to weep when I think of Christ as the access gate and our Shepherd, who died for Jews and Gentiles alike, his lambs that were condemned to die.
He didn’t flee the wolves.
Christ didn’t flee when he saw the wolves— the wolf pack of soldiers and officials who came to arrest Him in the Garden (John 18:12); Caiaphas the high priestly wolf (John 18:14); Pilate the Roman governor (John 18:31); the crowds and chief priests baying for His blood (John 18:15); the soldiers who shredded his clothes (John 19:24). And of course, Jesus faced head-on the rage of the great wolf himself, Satan, known also as the devouring lion (1 Peter 5:8), the dragon who tries to devour the child that “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter” (Revelation 12:1-6).
Christ, the real Shepherd entered in by the door, even though He was the door. He entered by his own blood. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, Christ “went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Heb 9:11-12).
Reading Christ’s own words in John 10, I’m reminded of how much it cost Him to make us his sheep and bring us into His spiritual tabernacle. Unlike the Pharisees, who banished the formerly blind man from the Temple, Jesus lets us in! He didn’t have to enter into the sheep pen to be our good Shepherd, and I know that I was a particularly motley, lost little stray. But He chose to take our sins upon himself, so that we could access his sheepfold. Christ’s Church is the only place of safety, security and protection. What a privilege to be called one of Christ’s own sheep, known personally by name, and given a new name!
Marks of the good shepherd.
Jesus calls each one of his followers by name, just as He called Zaccheus from a tree; Simon Peter from a fishing boat and the grieving Mary by the empty tomb. Christ knows each of us by name (John 10:3). When we were lost and wayward strays, He called us individually to himself and gave us a new name. He still calls us to follow him and listen to his voice in the Bible.
As the shepherds in Palestine lead their sheep from the front, Jesus goes before us in every way: To the well to drink; to the green pastures of rest and renewal; through the dark valley of the shadow of death. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned” (Isa 43:2).
The true shepherd never abandons his sheep. Our good shepherd will always be with us and will go before us, even if human shepherds fail us.
But the marks of the perfect Shepherd should characterize every human shepherd whom Christ sends to look after his sheep. Pastors, elders, teachers, disciplers, parents—we’re not just hirelings who are paid to do a job. We’ve been appointed as shepherds over Christ’s lambs, tenderly placed in our care.
We answer to the Chief Shepherd for the way we lead, feed and protect His lambs. As good shepherds, we lead with diligence and vigilance; with kindness, constancy and courage, even fearlessness when the wolves are around (1 Peter 5:4). We never abandon the sheep.
Just as Jesus goes before us, so every human shepherd should show people the way to the true gate– the cross of Jesus Christ. We can never grow weary of inviting inside any man, woman or child we find outside of his sheep pen, but let’s never encourage anyone to climb in by some other way.
Promise of the Good Shepherd.
Christ’s promise is that “anyone who enters through me will be saved… He shall go in and out and find pasture…I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
It’s a promise of immediate entry into Christ’s church, along with all the privileges —safety, security, nourishment and peace, forever. There are no passports required to enter this sheepfold, and no sin or human characteristic can bar us from its gate. But it’s useless if we just admire the door or make plans to enter it at some later stage. We must leave everything at the gate and enter in.
The gate is still open, but it won’t stay open forever. One day it will slam shut, “for the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them to fountains of waters of life: and God shall wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:17). The promise of the good Shepherd and the privilege of the sheepfold is for those who enter through the gate now.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne, A Basket of Fragments.