[October 2, 2011] This week we continue our reflections on the story of the man who was born blind. We think it would be a mistake to separate chapter 10 from chapter 9 as if a new section began, for Jesus is continuing to speak without a break from the last verse of chapter 9. At that moment Jesus had been speaking to the Pharisees while others listened (9:40). In 10:19-21 the listeners are the divided crowd of “Jews” (probably meaning, Judeans, specifically people of Jerusalem). As we have pointed out before, these two chapters are one piece with chapters 7 and 8, all of them coming under the rubric of “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5) and taking place with the Feast of Tabernacles in the background. Together they correspond chiastically to chapter 5.
In chapter 5 Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath and we understood this to allude to the Sabbath rest of the people of God when they would enter the Promised Land. Jesus healed the man born blind on the Sabbath too. The Feast of Tabernacles in the background is the Feast about the Promised Land, looking back to Israel’s wandering and exile and forward to the fulfillment of the promises and to the Presence of God with Israel. When Jesus spoke Israel was still wandering in the wilderness of its exile, the exile of judgment of which the prophets spoke. Under that long shadow Israel is under the same judgment that has hung over the nations since the days of Babel. They would remain so until they are restored to the Land at the end of days, the days when the Messiah will come.
For those born spiritually blind who are given the gift of sight, however, the Messiah has already come. They see the glory of God in the cloud of smoke and the pillar of fire and follow Him into the Promised Land to the place of His habitation. For those who see, the Messiah in His own Person is the Promised Land, its blessing and the divine Presence in it. He is the “life more abundant,” where the sheep at last find verdant pasture.
The Messiah, whose coming was “not openly, but as it were, in secret” (7:10), did not openly manifest Himself as He will on the day of His coming in glory. Though many of Israel once did, for a long time Israel (as a whole) does not recognize Him, and a rift has developed between the sheep who recognize the voice of the Shepherd and those who do not. Until the day of His coming, the Messiah gathers a “little flock” to Himself apart from the people of Israel as such, a flock that includes sheep from other nations who hear His voice (10:16). The flock holds His place on the earth as, and together with Israel they wait for His manifestation in glory.
Jesus’ teaching on the flock is probably the closest that the Gospel according to John comes to describing the church. While the gospel emphasizes and zeroes its scope on the individual coming to faith in Christ, it never envisions that person in isolation. Before faith in Christ they are part of the “world,” and afterwards they are one among many siblings in Christ.
The man born blind whom Jesus healed was left on his own by his parents in John 9:18-23 and cast out of the community of the synagogue in 9:34. When He first saw Jesus in 9:35, he may have felt quite isolated and alone. Chapter 10 shows how his being cast out of the synagogue by the Pharisees was actually the Shepherd casting him out of the sheepfold so that he could become part of the flock that the Shepherd was leading out to pasture.
Inside the Sheepfold and Recognizing the Voice of the Shepherd (John 10:1-6)
At the end of chapter 9 Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” In other words, He came to make a distinction between people. Now He explains further.
He envisions a sheepfold, a holding pen for the sheep where they are temporarily protected from predators by a wall or barrier of some sort. At one end of the fold is an opening or “door” where the “doorkeeper” guards. When a shepherd comes, the doorkeeper lets him in and he calls his sheep. The sheep that recognize his voice come to him. He casts them out one by one, gathers them together and leads them to the countryside for pasture. If a person did not enter the sheepfold through the door but climbed up over the wall, that person obviously had no right to be there. He is a thief and a robber, out to steal sheep.
The sheepfold is the community of Israel formed by the Mosaic covenant. When Jesus says, “He who does not enter through the door into the sheepfold, but climbs up from somewhere else,” He is referring to the Pharisees as false leaders. In Matthew’s gospel, in 21:33-41, Jesus tells the story of the stewards of the vineyard. There He was referring specifically to the chief priests and elders. Here he speaks specifically about certain Pharisees (and their schools) as teachers. By their opposing Him, they proved themselves to be false shepherds, and in affect were attempting to steal the sheep that belong to YHWH (Psalm 95:7; Isaiah 43). The Shepherd whom YHWH appoints is “My Servant David,” that is, the greater Anointed One of David’s line (Ezekiel 34:23). He enters through the door.
From John 1:29-34, we might surmise that the doorkeeper is John the Baptist. “I came baptizing in water that He might be manifested to Israel … and I have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” It was the Baptist who was the gatekeeper who let Him into the fold. The Jerusalem establishment of priests and teachers associated with the Temple may have thought of themselves as the official channel through which recognition must be given. If any credentialing was to be done, they were to do it. John the Baptist, however, worked independently, as we see in 1:19-28. It is the gate of the baptism of repentance through which Jesus passed. John’s baptism spoke of Israel passing through the Red Sea and more especially their crossing of the Jordan in the days of Joshua (Joshua 3—4). It was by that passage through the waters that Israel entered the covenant of Sinai and the renewed covenant at Gilgal in Joshua 5.
Jesus’ baptism speaks of His solidarity with Israel in its sin but also of His faithfulness to the Father in bearing that sin.
When the Shepherd came, John the Baptist opens the door for Him and He entered the sheepfold. When He spoke, His sheep recognized His voice and came to Him. He called them by name and one by one He cast them out of the sheepfold. These sheep–whether the disciples, such as John, or Peter and Andrew, or Phillip and Nathaniel, or Nicodemus or the woman at the well, or the man born blind—did not recognize those other voices that called to them. They recognized His voice alone as the voice of their Shepherd.
“When he puts forth all his own.” The word “puts forth” (ekballō) is the same as the word “cast out” in 9:34. The sheepfold out of which the man born blind was cast was the synagogue, that is, the community of the Torah, the community bound to the Mosaic covenant, the covenant of Sinai.
Does this mean that Jesus rejected Moses and God’s covenant with Israel? Does this mean that Jesus rejected the community of Israel? The answer is no. Indeed, in verses 7—10 we see that He is the door into the sheepfold as well as the door out of it (verse 9). But when the sheep hear His voice and He casts them out of the sheepfold, “He goes before them” and leads them as a flock.
The sheepfold protected the sheep by its walls. In the flock the sheep have no walls. What protects them is the shepherd. If Gentiles can come to the Messiah apart from the Halakah (the legal requirements of the Torah), and be the spiritual equal of Jews who come to the Messiah, if they are just as holy, then the Halakah is made relative by the Messiah. As the faithful One, the Messiah in His own Person becomes the guarantor of the Halakah. He is its fulfillment and everyone in Him is justified and made holy.
The Halakah becomes then the pedagogue who brings the child to the teacher. “Before faith came we were guarded under the Halakah, being shut up unto the faith which was to be revealed. So then the Halakah has become our child-conductor (paidagōgos) unto Christ that we might be justified out of faith. But since faith has come, we are no longer under a child-conductor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:24-27).
The Halakah is not thrown away, but no one can be justified by it (Galatians 2:15-16). To follow it becomes a privilege and a sign for the Jew. For the Gentile to attempt to follow it is another story. When the synagogue expels “anyone who confesses [Jesus] to be the Messiah” (see 9:22), that person must cast in their lot with Gentile believers. This they ought to do in any case. The expulsion forces the issue on them. Before they might have attempted to keep themselves separated from Gentile believers; they might have considered them unclean. In Christ, however, the Gentile believer is clean and holy. Christ guarantees him or her. In Him there can be no Jew and Greek (Galatians 3:28-29). The significance of the Halakah becomes clear in Christ. Keeping it becomes relative to Him.
Believers in Christ are freed from the obligation of the Halakah. Instead, they come under the government of the Holy Spirit. “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Halakah” (Galatians 5:18). It does not mean we do not fulfill it, “for the whole Halakah is fulfilled in one word, in this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14). No, “the righteous requirement of the Torah [is] fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the spirit” (Romans 8:4).
Jew and Gentile are free in Christ. This is the significance of being freed from the confines of the sheepfold. The Messiah changes everything if we enter into the sphere of His Person by faith in Him. All who believe into Him receive the Holy Spirit, which is Jesus’ own indwelling Presence. He abides within us in all His faithfulness. In particular, His faithfulness unto death, offering Himself up in obedience to God, surrendering in love to the judgment of God against us, thus fulfilling the repentance to God that we owe. The Halakah thus finds in Him its faithful Adherer, its Fulfillment, and its Guarantor.
The Door to the Good Life (10:7-10)
Jesus says, “I am the door of the sheep” (twice, in 10:7 and 9). This is one of the seven “I am” statements with a predicate (as opposed to the seven absolute “I am” statements). The verb is to be taken seriously and not indirectly. The door, in other words, is His own Person, not His example or something He teaches.
The metaphor also changes here. Before, He entered the sheepfold through the door, and the doorkeeper opened the door for Him. Now He is the door.
Notice also that He is a two-way door. Through Him people enter and are “saved and shall go in and go out and shall find pasture.” He is the door by which sheep enter the fold and by which they leave to enter the flock. More importantly, it is through Him that they are saved. What can all this mean?
Up to this point in the Gospel according to John we have seen that Jesus is the significance of the Passover, of the Sabbath, and of the Feast of Tabernacles. He is the Lamb of God and the Promised Land. He is the Temple of God and the glory of God that fills it. By His obedience He fulfills all the requirements of the Halakah; no one can accuse Him of sin. Apart from Him all these things lose their purpose and sense. In this way He is the door into the sheepfold. He is what the sheepfold is all about. He is the meaning of the Sinai covenant.
That meaning is salvation, salvation from the world and salvation from sin. It is also the Torah’s promise of life (Deuteronomy 30:19)—“I have come that they may have life”—though not in any ordinary sense but the promise of divine life, the life that overcomes death.
As the meaning of the Sinai covenant, Jesus is also the door out of the sheepfold into the freedom of the Spirit. “I have come that they may have life and may have it abundantly.” Instead of the walls of Halakah, the flock has the Shepherd Himself. The Shepherd not only protects them from foes, but leads them into open places, pastures where they feed them. He is also their grass (the Bread of Life) and Living Water.
The church (though the Gospel according to John never uses this word) is this flock. Perhaps John does not use the word because—as in the Book of the Revelation 2—3—the truth of the church was becoming obscure. The church is not supposed to be a sheepfold but a flock. The church is defined by its Shepherd, not by its constitution. The only organization it knows is love. “This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, even as He gave a commandment to us. And he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And in this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom He gave to us” (1 John 3:23-24). This summarizes the Gospel according to John in terms of what it asks of us. Jesus gives no other commandment: only that we believe into Him, and thus abide in Him, and He in us by the Holy Spirit whom He gives us, and thus—as we abide together in Him and He in us—that we love one another. The church as an historical phenomenon always seeks to become a fold; but the movement of the Spirit in history is always breaking this down. The church of Christ is a flock, His flock. It is the absence of walls and the presence of the Shepherd in our midst that makes us the church.
The walls we build, by which we narrow the truth by rejecting what we cannot understand, prevent us from enjoying the green pastures to which the Holy Spirit would lead us. We build these walls because we want to control the truth, that is, make it into some sort of soul-substance that we can define and handle, instead of being content with the reality that causes our mental constructions to unravel. The truth can only be known spiritually, by revelation. It always has to come to us fresh, and if it does not, the soul must stay humble before it in darkness. Otherwise the soul will slowly change it to something it can manage, something that fits its own terms.
The church can be something wonderful, but we must be wary of its institutionalization and expect the Spirit to resist it in every way. If we are led of the Spirit, we will find Christ in our midst—not controlling us by the walls of law, but moving us from within, as we discover our freedom in Him. Love in the church is personal, and this love overflows and extends to the whole community and world around it; the church is not an impersonal “caring” social institution.
The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Soul for the Sheep (10:11-18)
Jesus goes back to the original metaphor now. He is the good Shepherd. He makes this additional “I am” proclamation also twice (10:11 and 14). He compares Himself to a hireling, someone who serves the sheep only for self-gain. Again, He is speaking of the teachers of Israel, these “experts” of the Torah, who had something to gain in terms of status and wealth from their role.
Jesus is the good Shepherd because He lays down His soul for the sheep. The word “soul” (psychē) is not the same as the word for life in verse 10 (zōē). The second word is the word used in the expression “eternal life.” To lay down His soul means to give it up in death. Our Lord’s soul dies when He dies on the cross. He uses this expression several times (10:11, 15, 17, 18). It is His ultimate self-denial; He denies His soul unto death. More than the death of His body, it is the death of His soul that is the “grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying” (12:24; see verse 25). It is the soul that sins, and it is the soul that comes under God’s judgment and dies. It is, moreover, the attachments of the soul that enslave us to the world, and the world itself is the collective construction of our souls. What the Lord went through is the salvation of our own soul. He bore our judgment and thus we know the forgiveness of sins by believing into Him. But we must follow Him in denying our soul (its possessive attachments and false constructs—that is, its alienating delusions) if we would keep our soul unto eternal life.
At the center of this passage Jesus says, “I have other sheep which are not of this fold; I must lead them also, and they shall hear My voice, and there shall be one flock, one Shepherd.” This refers to Gentiles, those who do not belong to the sheepfold of Israel. Like the Lord’s sheep in the sheepfold of the community of Israel, they too recognize the Lord’s voice and come out from wherever they are. They may be in a fold of their own or be wandering lost in the hills. In the Shepherd’s flock, there is no distinction between the sheep. Those who came out of Israel are sheep just like those who came out of paganism. “The Scriptures has shut up all under sin in order that the promise out of faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Galatians 3:22).
It should go without saying that the practical expression of the Lord’s flock in the local church cannot be ethnic or racial or be an expression of class, education, or status, or age or gender or health. Of course local churches are exactly this—but can that be right? It does not express the Lord’s flock until it is inclusive of all people, and until those with high social status put themselves on the same level as their housecleaners. The church cannot ignore the young but neither must it cater to young people as if everyone else is already irrelevant—there needs to be a balance even as we encourage the young. Nor should churches ignore or emasculate the men in the name of equality, or under-privilege the women. Ironically some churches manage to do both simultaneously and hypocritically. I have observed the irony that it is often bossy women who teach that women should not teach in the church. In the church the centrality of the Shepherd levels everyone else.
The Gospel according to John stresses how the Lord is in command of the events that seem to befall Him. “No one takes [My soul] away from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it again. This commandment I received from My Father.” Nothing ever happens to Him. He goes forth to conquer.
The Division (10:19-21)
The division revealed in these final verses reminds us that we are in the setting of the Feast of Tabernacles and that what Jesus has described—the Messiah taking out of the flock a fold for Himself—is still in relation to Israel. This takes place during the days of Israel’s exile, of their wilderness sojourn among the nations. Some in Israel believe in the “hidden” Messiah and some do not. This depiction of Israel is consonant with what we have seen since chapter 7 began. What takes place in the church is a prelude, a foretaste, of the days that will come when the Messiah returns and calls all Israel to Himself. The church guarantees the fulfillment of these promises to Israel (and to the earth), even as the continued faithfulness of God to Israel teaches the church a thing or two about the election and grace of God.