September 23, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: The good shepherd

See John 10:1-21 and Ezekiel Chapter 34

Jesus used the allegory of a good shepherd to contrast himself with the Pharisees with whom he had been arguing. The Pharisees, he said, did not recognize Jesus’ voice, but the people did.

In the rural society of Palestine, the ways of sheep and shepherds were well known, especially among the Jews who offered sheep as sacrifice. The concept of God as the shepherd of Israel was a constant theme in the Old Testament.

In his good shepherd discourse, Jesus first compared himself with the gate for the sheep. When a shepherd let his sheep graze in the Judean wilderness during the day, he would herd them into a three-sided structure at night. Then, if there were no actual gate out in the wilderness, he himself would serve as the gate by sleeping in the opening. With the shepherd near, the sheep felt secure from the attack of wild animals.

“I am the gate,” Jesus said. “Whoever enters through me will be saved.”

Sheep are docile animals, quickly learning the voice of their shepherd. Therefore, Jesus said, he not only was the gate for the sheep, he was also a good shepherd. He contrasted himself with the Pharisees, the “hired men” who do not really care for the sheep.

Jesus was hardly the first person to criticize the Jewish leaders for neglecting their sheep. The prophet Ezekiel devoted the chapter referenced at the top of this column to lambasting the leaders: “Thus says the Lord God: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep?”

Jesus then went on to say that he had other sheep, too—a reference to the Gentiles who, by the time John’s Gospel was written, formed a large percentage of the Christian Church.

But Jesus still wasn’t finished. “I will lay down my life for my sheep,” he said, indicating for the first time that his death would be redemptive. His death would somehow be beneficial to his followers!

Then he gave up his allegory of the good shepherd in order to be more specific: He said that his Father loved him precisely because he was going to lay down his life. And not only lay it down, but also to take it up again. He was not only going to consent to his own death, but would be actively involved in it: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.”

He continued, “I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.” He would die, he said, in order to rise again because it was both his will and his Father’s that the human race was to be redeemed through his death and resurrection. We might add that it was also the will of the Holy Spirit since there is only one will in the three persons of the Trinity. Until now, though, Jesus had not revealed the Spirit. †


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