The statement “I am the good shepherd” that Jesus made in John 10:11 and again in John 10:14 was a teaching point that Jesus used in the lives of those around Him. Throughout the history of the Jews, sheep have played an integral part in their economy. The sheep and other livestock were what determined the wealth of a person. Not only was Jesus’ use of the shepherd important in the present to illustrate the point He was making. His use of the shepherd also points to the past. It was used in the Old Testament to express God’s will in the lives of the Jews and the whole world through His appointed ‘good shepherd’. The illustration also showed the deity of Christ which is the goal of John in the writing of this Gospel.
“I am the good shepherd” is set in a monologue that Jesus was using to share and teach the Pharisees and others that were in His presence. Unfortunately, the Pharisees had just treated one of their own, the blind man that Jesus had healed, with “a prejudice that blinded [them] to anything but their own preconceived opinions” (Tenney 160). The purpose and meaning as it applied to Jesus’ monologue was to show that like a shepherd taking care of his flock, so does Jesus take care of His own. The people that will become His flock are the ones that can see and believe through faith, the ones that come through Him to God.
The miracle of healing a blind man had just happened and the man had been questioned by the Pharisees. When the Pharisees didn’t like what they had heard they decided to drive out the man from the temple. When Jesus heard, He came to the man and asked him in John 9:35 “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man asked who was the Son and Jesus said it was Him, immediately the man professed his belief in the Son of Man. Jesus then said in John 9:39 “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Some Pharisees that were nearby heard and asked the question if they were blind also. They asked this in confusion even though they were the appointed leaders and teachers of Israel.
After answering them with “If you were blind . . .” in John 9:41, Jesus started a monologue in chapter 10 with how He was the door and that those that did not use the door are like thieves and robbers that sneak over the wall to do harm. But only the shepherd can enter through the door; that the sheep know the voice of the shepherd and follow him as he leads them from place to place and just as the shepherd knows the name of the sheep and calls to them, these are the next points that Jesus makes. The first part is about how He is the door of the sheepfold and He expands into His ‘I am the good shepherd’ in the second part of the monologue. Though the ‘good shepherd’ is the stronger statement the ‘door’ plays a very important part in Jesus speech.
Jesus illustrated the protection of the sheep with a narrow door to show that all the sheep (or flock) inside the fold would be protected from the thieves. The blind man healed in the previous chapter “is a member of the flock of the good shepherd; what was true of him is true of the whole flock” (Bruce 223). This shows that not only would the healed man be protected, but that all of God’s people would be protected also. By Jesus stating this He was making the claim that like a door, He was the way into God’s protection. In verse 10 He describes the thieves and robbers who would come not through the door but over the wall to do damage.
But when the Pharisees failed to see the significance, He switched tactics and expanded on the theme. By stating in verse 11 “I am the good shepherd” Jesus changes from being in a protective role (the door) to being in a leadership role (the shepherd). In the next few verses Jesus explains how the shepherd would give his life for his sheep. There are several key points about the word life in this application. Not only would the shepherd give his life, but also give life to the sheep. Then He describes the hirelings who did not care for the sheep, which compares the Pharisees and scribes and how they do not care for the people. This was demonstrated by their treatment of the healed man.
The Pharisees should have understood either theme because in the Old Testament there are multiple references to the word shepherd and how it is used to illustrate God’s response to the human nature of man. For example David uses the word in several Psalms: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want” in Psalm 23. Also, as it is written in Psalm 28:9 “Oh, save your people and bless your heritage! Be their shepherd and carry them forever” to ask for needs to be met and for protection of the people. Specifically in Psalm 23, David is asking for the guidance of the Lord through the illustration of what a shepherd should do in the lives of the sheep. For example: to be the leader; to be the protector, and to come after lost sheep. The verse that captures this most strongly is Psalm 23:4 “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Though the verses before and after this speak of what the shepherd does, this verse points to another Old Testament verse in Isaiah 40:11 “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” Hence, these scriptures and many others like them were a consistent theme throughout the Old Testament.
In another example we can compare and contrast the positive and negative aspects of the shepherd illustration. In Ezekiel 34 we are shown when the appointed shepherds (or hirelings) do wrong. Though there is more to the chapter, verse 10 “Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the flock; neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more; for I will deliver my flock from their mouth, that they may not be meat for them” describes God’s anger towards those shepherds that were appointed over His people.
The leaders of Israel had failed in their duties as the shepherds of God’s people and would not be trusted anymore. God turns around and promises several things; a promise to take care of the people, that the there would be a separation of the fat and the lean, and that the Messiah would come to fulfill God’s promise by being the ‘good shepherd’. In the Old Testament the leaders struggled with their responsibilities, just as the Pharisee’s and scribes where failing also in their responsibility in leading the people.
The deity of Christ is pointed out in the illustration around the phrase “I am the good shepherd.” By giving His life to His sheep, Jesus is reinforcing the fact that the cross was coming, even though the Pharisees and others did not understand that implication. By the sacrifice on the cross, Jesus in Love, promises eternal protection to His flock. The flock included more then just the Jews, it also included the Gentiles. This is reinforced in John 10:16 when Jesus promises to bring other sheep into the fold. The love that Jesus speaks from is the same love that John speaks of in chapter 3 verse 16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. . .”
God, through His Old Testament writers, expressed a plan for a ‘Shepherd’ to come and take care of His people. When Jesus reaffirmed this with His ‘I am’ statement, He expressed the fact that He was in unity with His Father. This unity includes the ability to protect those who believe that Jesus is, just like the door, the only way to God. Once the flock has gone through the door, Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, knows each one by name and leads them in Love. Though He is the Living Word, which was here from the beginning, He has left His Word and sent the Spirit to lead and protect his flock.
Bruce, F. F. The Gospel of John. Michigan: Eerdmans, 1983.
Henry, Matthew. Commentary on the Whole Bible. E-Sword
Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. Ryrie Study Bible: New American Standard. Illinois: Moody,1995.
Tenney, Merrill C. John: The Gospel of Belief. Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997.
Towns, Elmer. The Gospel of john: Believe and Live. Tennessee: AMG, 2002.