Gospel: John 10:11-18 (NAB):
Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”
Our Gospel passage focuses on one of seven “I am” sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel, “I am the Good Shepherd” (10:11, 14). Along with other “I am” statements in John’s Gospel, these passages illustrate particular dimensions of Jesus’ identity, his relationship with God the Father, and his significance for humanity and the Christian community. (The seven are the Bread of Life, 6:35; the Light of the World, 8:12; the Gate for the sheep, 10:9; the Good Shepherd, 10:11, 14; the Resurrection and the Life, 11:25; the Way, the Truth, and the Life, 14:6; and the True Vine, 15:1. See also other “I am” statements in 4:26; 6:20; 8:24, 58.)
John 10:11-18 follows immediately upon a description of shepherding practices, given in parable-like fashion (10:1-6), as well as Jesus’ self-identification as the “gate” for the sheep. Beginning with verse 11, he shifts by identifying himself instead as the good shepherd, one who cares for the sheep with self-extending, self-expending love. The surrounding literary context implies that his audience is “the Jews” (10:19), if not more specifically Pharisees (see 9:40-41).
This passage is loved by many for its meaningful, pastoral imagery. For this reason paintings and pictures of Jesus as a kindly shepherd adorn countless church buildings and Sunday school classrooms, along with an inscription from either John 10:11-18 or Psalm 23 (e.g., “The Lord is my Shepherd”). Similarly, many interpreters freely mix metaphors between John 10 and Psalm 23 (no less because they are grouped together in the Protestant lectionary), since they deal with similar core metaphors of a divine shepherd for God’s people. However, the careful interpreter takes note of the differences. First, while Psalm 23 focuses on how God cares for and nurtures the one who trusts God, John 10:11-18 has no such concern—no streams of water, no grassy hills, no table or cup running over. Instead, Jesus’ words narrow in on a singular idea: the ultimate act of the Good Shepherd, laying down his life (vv. 11, 15, 17-18). The divine Shepherd of John 10:11-18 is hardly a kindly, nurturing caregiver; he is rather a sacrificial lamb. Second, Psalm 23 focuses upon the plights and experiences of the author (or believer in God), whereas Jesus’ words focus upon the shepherd’s love. While many take heart at the Psalmist’s earthy focus on the troubles of life’s journeys, it is finally John 10 that speaks the boldest message of God’s love: not simply “Thou art with me” (Ps 23:4) but “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11), the ultimate act of love (15:13).
Notwithstanding, Old Testament imagery of the divine Shepherd can still inform interpretation of John 10:11-18, but only with care. Jesus speaks these words against the backdrop of God’s historic interest to shepherd God’s people in ways that reflect God’s pure standards (see Ezekiel 34:1-30, esp. 11-16; Isaiah 40:11; Psalm 23; 95:7; 100:3). Certainly these longstanding interests and words of God’s need not be ignored; they only need be clarified as earlier expressions with purposes different from Jesus’ in the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel.
There are four areas of fruitful exposition in this passage, each emphasized at different points in John 10:11-18.
First is the imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, an image that has carried rich meaning for many readers throughout Christian history. Jesus’ words focus on his particular role of laying down his life for the sheep—an act that distinguishes him from other false shepherds (hired servants, vv. 12-13). The very use of the image presumes the background of Ancient Near Eastern sheepherding—still practiced today in Israel and elsewhere—a job whose description entails guarding (keeping safe), guiding, and nourishing the flock. These are the assumptions of Jesus’ self-description “I am the Good Shepherd,” spoken first to hearers and readers much more familiar with sheepherding than most readers today. While the passage draws no specific attention to these matters (guarding, guiding, and nourishing), they are worth pointing out due to the cultural and historical differences between the original audience and ourselves. The image itself lends itself well to questions about how Christ still guards, guides, and nourishes us—his followers—today.
Second, Jesus specifically points out, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (v. 16). Within the context of John’s Gospel, these “other sheep” are almost certainly Gentiles (see 7:35; 11:52; 12:20-21, 32). While the notion of welcoming Gentiles into Jesus’ fold is hardly new to Christians today, we do well to pause and reflect on how momentous a shift it was for first-century Jews. We do well also to consider whom Jesus might call “other sheep” today, about whom he is most concerned to gather into his flock. Although Jesus says that “I must lead” these others in, his words do not exclude his doing so through his followers (see John 20:21; cf. Matt 28:18-20). More than the Psalmist of Psalm 23, John’s Jesus has an eye squarely upon those far and away, yet in need of being brought near. In like manner, Christ’s Church flourishes most when it replicates this heart for those at a distance from God’s grace.
Third, Jesus emphasizes the unity of his flock, once the “other sheep” have joined: “and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). The idea is hardly provocative in theory, but we may rightly ask whether in practice Jesus’ followers extend themselves to make it reality. Historic theological divisions and billions of diverse adherents make uniformity within Christ’s Church virtually impossible. But this is not a matter of eliminating the existence of particular groups (orthodox, liberal, charismatic, traditional, etc.), it is a matter of unity in action, in spirit, and in mission. Does Christ’s Church genuinely care about Jesus’ vision of “one flock” under one shepherd? Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus has a distinctive vision and prayer for unity among his followers (17:1-26, esp. 20-24). His prayer, it seems, stands still unanswered today.
Fourth and finally, as noted above, John’s “Good Shepherd” focuses little upon how he can nurture and care for his sheep, and far more upon his ultimate calling: “I will lay down my life for the sheep” (10:15b). In John’s Gospel, the ultimate sign of love is to lay one’s life down for one’s loved ones (15:13). Jesus embodies this act perfectly, as one who not only fulfills the act but also does so of his own volition: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own” (v. 18). Likewise, Jesus says “I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again” (v. 18), not to make a statement about authority, but to underscore the non-coerced way in which he makes the ultimate sacrifice for his friends. (The language of “take it up again,” furthermore, links his resurrection squarely to his crucifixion, lest the two be seen separately.) Jesus also links the Father’s love toward him to this act of love, not as the reason for the Father’s love but as the supreme manifestation and enactment of that love for the sake of the world (3:16). All told, Jesus insinuates that he perfectly fulfills divine shepherding imagery in the Bible for no other reason than the cross. In fact, his role as “the Good Shepherd” cannot be divorced from the cross, since it is the focal point of his shepherding work. Given this, the title “Good Shepherd” would best adorn paintings of the crucifixion, not of idyllic scenes of pastoral peacefulness. For it is on the cross that the Good Shepherd’s goodness is most vividly known, nowhere else.
The Rev. Dr. Troy Troftgruben is a pastor at Calvary Lutheran church (E.L.C.A.) in Grand Forks, ND, and an Adjunct Instructor of Religious Studies at the University of North Dakota.