John 10:1-10, “I am the Gate”

[May 11, 2014] We come now, on this fourth Sunday of Easter, to Jesus’ parable of the Good Shepherd. Jesus places much emphasis on the gate of the sheep pen (or fold), saying twice that he is not only the shepherd but the gate of the sheep, and describes how he has come to remove those sheep who are his (who recognize his voice) from the confines of the sheep pen and lead them out into open pasture as his flock. This is the basic idea and it is fertile for interpretation.

Furthermore, in the verses that follow, Jesus says that, as the good shepherd, he freely lays down his soul (his life) for his sheep, and that the sheep that make up his flock he calls not from one sheep pen only but from many. (So while the reader might have been quick to assume what the sheep pen represented, he or she discovers that there are others, maybe closer to home.)

We know what Jesus means by laying down his soul: he refers to laying it down in death. He is the shepherd who calls and leads the sheep through the gate of the pen, but in a combination of metaphors, he explicitly says he is the gate of the pen itself. He in fact becomes the gate by laying down his soul. His death (or rather, he by his death) somehow becomes the gate into which the sheep must enter and pass through—into resurrection.

There are several further things to notice before we delve in.

It is not clear whether we are still in the Feast of Sukkōt (Booths, Shelters, Tabernacles), from 7:2, which takes place in the fall (September-October), or the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah; 10:22), which takes place around the beginning of winter (November-December). It does not take place during the Passover, celebrated when Israel left Egypt (Exodus 12) and again when they entered the land of Canaan (Joshua 5:10-12), but in between, when God was with Israel in the wilderness and in the days of their humiliation before the coming of the Messiah. Yet Passover themes run through this passage, and bracket it in chapter 6 (see verse 4) and 11:55. In fact, though the synagogue discourse in chapter 6 (verses 22-71) takes place around Passover, its theme of manna has more to do with Sukkōt. My own sense of this is that through our experience of the revelation of Jesus, while we are outwardly in the wilderness of this world, this life, our inner experience of God’s Presence and Providence (Supply) is by means of an inner Passover. Or, to put it another way, while we are in the wilderness, it is possible to already experience (at least a foretaste) of the Promised Land in Christ. This is what the manna represents in chapter 6. The Messiah has not yet come, and yet he has, though in a hidden way. In any case, keep this in mind with respect to chapter 10. It is Sukkōt or Hanukkah, but the theme of Passover runs through it, lending an interpretation of the believer’s unique experience of Sukkōt or Hanukkah.

At the first Passover, Israel left through the blood-smeared “gates” of their homes before they crossed the Reed Sea. The night before, they sacrificed a lamb and smeared its blood on the door posts and lintels to save them from death (the death of the firstborn), while inside the house they ate the lamb that they had slain. Again, after they crossed the Jordan (and before they marched on Jericho), in Joshua 6, Israel prepared for their celebration of the Passover by a bloody national circumcision (of the men) at Gilgal. Jesus, by his death (both the shedding his blood and his being cut off), is the gate of the sheep.

Also, John 10 is a commentary on the two stories that frame it. On the one side in chapter 9 is the story of the man born blind whom Jesus healed who is thrown out of the synagogue and who recognizes and comes to Jesus, believing into him. There is no chapter break between chapters 9 and 10. Chapter 10 is Jesus’ commentary on what happened to the man. Contrary to how it appears, Jesus is the one who threw him out of the sheep pen, because he recognized the voice of the Shepherd; but now he is not homeless but rather has come under the Shepherd’s protection as a sheep of his flock. We would be mistaken if we miss this connection.

On the other side, the speeches of Jesus in chapter 10 prepare us for, and are followed by, the raising of Lazarus. The stone is rolled from the door of his tomb (the word for gate in chapter 10 means door or entrance) and Jesus calls Lazarus by name. He who was dead comes to life and passes through the door into new life. This, of course, is followed by a picture of the “flock” in 12:1-8. Thus the raising of Lazarus itself becomes a picture of the new birth of 1:13 and chapter 3, and the raising of the spiritually dead to life in 5:21, 24-25, and everywhere in the gospel where Jesus gives (eternal) life. This theme runs through the whole gospel, though the symbols mix and change. It would, then, be a mistake to miss the connection between the giving of sight to the blind in chapter 9 and the raising of the dead in chapter 11, a connection that is hinted at by the reminders in 11:9-10 and 37.

Finally, there is a chiastic parallel with the story of Jesus in Cana healing the royal official’s son who was about to die in John 4:43-54. That story also alludes to Exodus themes, the basilikos being literally the royal one and thus alluding to the Pharaoh whose own son was threatened by death. Only, in the story of the Exodus, the pagan loses his son to death, whereas with the coming of Jesus, the pagan gets his son back from the grip of death. The pagans are Jesus’ “other sheep that are not of this fold” (10:16), who are, in fact, trapped in other folds.

Jesus is the shepherd; he is also the gate of the sheep. In saying both things he introduced the predicate with the words “I am,” words which unpredicated pronounce the divine name, “I AM.” We usually think of Exodus 3:14, of which the translation is not precise. The sevenfold occurrence of the words e eimi find an exact equivalence in the latter part of Isaiah, in which the words identify God as absolutely single and unique; there is no other. This is precisely what Jesus means in 10:30 when he says, “The Father and I are one” (when he says, “I am the Son of God” in 10:36 he is not implying a distinction from God). Seven times in John’s gospel ego eimi is unpredicated and seven times the words are predicated. Two of those times are here: “I am the gate,” the gate of the sheep (verses 7 and 9), and “I am the good shepherd” (verse 11 and 14). He speaks these as divine appellations: God is everything for us through him. He becomes the means not only for us to come to God, but for us to partake in God.

We, of course, are sheep, dumb animals that need someone to care for us. Yet these dumb sheep by being given eternal life (the uncreated life of God) become divinities themselves, for they are children of God, being born of God. They are partakers of the divine nature, sharing in Jesus’ divinity, even while they remain sheep. The chapter is careful not to say this explicitly, for fear of misunderstanding, and yet this is where 10:25-38 is heading. “The Father is in me and I am in the Father” he says in 10:38, and later, “you are in me” and “we” (see 14:23) are in you, which was fulfilled after he passed through death, resurrected himself, and breathed the Holy Spirit into his disciples. The early church (the so-called “Fathers”) and the Orthodox (Byzantine and Eastern) still speak—and speak correctly—of our being divinized or deified. It is what John’s gospel means by “glorification.”

“In all truth I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a bandit.”

The sheepfold is not Judaism. After all, Jesus was a Jew and could never reject the faith of Israel; nor could the apostles. The sheepfold represents the restrictiveness of the Jewish community at the time, namely that out of which the man who was born blind and healed by Jesus was thrown (9:34). These were the Pharisees in 9:13 and the “Jews” elsewhere in chapter 9. But in John’s gospel the “Jews” are often contrasted to others whom we would also consider Jews (such as the Jews of Galilee). For this reason, I would contend that the word refers to the Judeans (which is what the word literally means), connoting the people of Jerusalem in particular, people whom the Gospel according to John refers to as Jesus’ “own.” In this case, their “Judaism” refers to Temple Judaism rather than the Judaism of the synagogue and Diaspora, a form of Judaism that came to an end with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The Essenes rejected it because its priesthood was false and others were dubious about it. Jesus honored it. Yet by the time that John wrote his gospel, it was a thing of the past. Jesus also alluded to its end in God’s judgment in 2:13-22, to be replaced by the Temple of his body (the Father’s House). The siblings, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity (as a Jewish religion), took its place.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the “Jews” refer to the zealous party, intolerant Jews who for the most part seemed to follow the interpretations of the Shammaite School of the Pharisees. The School of Hillel (represented by people like Gamaliel) was much closer to Jesus’ own approach to the Torah. These zealots were also called Judaizers because they insisted that circumcised Jewish believers should not be associating with uncircumcised gentile believers. If they wanted table-fellowship, it was not enough for those God-fearing gentiles to give up idolatry and to worship the God of Israel; they had to convert and be circumcised (the women were apparently invisible). Paul (well within the Pharisaic perspective) had a different interpretation of the messianic promises to the gentiles.

How did Jesus enter the sheepfold? It was through the gate, but what was the gate? Perhaps we can ask at the same time, who were the thieves and bandits are? In chapter 2 they were those who made the Temple a form of business. Obviously it was the sellers of ox and sheep and doves, and the money-changers, but it also refers to the chief priests and elders who were the guardians of Jerusalem’s economy (which served their own coiffures) which was completely dependent on the Temple and its “tourist” trade in religious pilgrims. The immediate context must also refer to the Jerusalem Pharisees in chapter 9, whose scribes were also attached to the Temple. This is the same criticism that we see Jesus level at Jerusalem in the synoptic gospels. Jesus says in verse 10 that their thieves come “only to steal and kill and destroy.” They were spiritually destructive to the sheep of Israel.

We should notice to what extent our churches have become businesses, and how the drive to keep them open, to “market” them, is driven by business concerns. Our denominations are modeled after corporations and our local churches after non-profit organizations. The concern for survival is approached from a business perspective; everything is about markets and targeting demographics. Likewise, church publications, and the constant churning out of new curriculums and programs materials are motivated by profit more than edification. Everyone, after all, needs to make a living, and church participants are the clientele base that makes the lives of these church professionals possible, whether they be educators, pastors, musicians, administrators, publishers, or other church or denominational staff.

Actually, all leaders or teachers who create followers of their own are thieves. When people come to Jesus, he is the “I am,” who takes them to the one and only God. He is so transparent that whoever comes to him comes to the Father without division or hierarchy. Every other prophet who draws attention to themselves takes people’s attention and devotion away from God. When people find themselves able to believe into Jesus, it is not Jesus as someone transcendent to themselves, outside themselves, but someone within themselves: “the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water gushing up into eternal life (4:14),” “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes into me, as the Scriptures said, out of his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.” It is as though eating and drinking Jesus (the revelation of him) awakens something within us that was dead; our innermost being comes alive, and our faith—our believing into him—is a geysering up of this. “The words which I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (6:63). Every other teacher attempts to awaken us from without. This revelation awakens us from within.

We can think of Jesus entering the sheepfold through the gate as referring to (1) his coming into the world (by his incarnation) as the life-giver, (2) his being given recognition by John the Baptist as the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit (his baptism as a penitent is not emphasized in John’s gospel as it is in the synoptic gospels), and (3) his passing through the gate of death to resurrection. In a sense they are all the same, so there is no need to choose between them. He comes into the world as the giver of life. No one else can make this claim. Jesus not only makes this claim; he gives life. He even raises the dead. In chapters 1—12 he enters the sheepfold as this one. And it is as this one that the gatekeeper (John the Baptist) recognizes him. Chapters 13—20 concern how he becomes the gate by which the sheep can leave the sheepfold by entering the gate of death. He becomes the lamb whose blood marks the portal and whose flesh is given for us to eat.

“He who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep; the gatekeeper lets him in, the sheep hear his voice, and one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out.”

Jesus is the shepherd of the sheep: from time immemorial (since the dawn of consciousness, especially human consciousness), not just now. I suggested that the gatekeeper is John the Baptist, for in 1:31-34 he says, “I came baptizing in water in order that he might be manifested to Israel … This is he who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. And I have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” See also 5:31-35. On the other hand, the gatekeeper might also be the Scriptures, or even Moses, for Jesus also says, “It is these [the Scriptures] that testify concerning me … If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote concerning me” (5:39-47).

The sheep hear his voice. We saw this with the man born blind. He did not know who Jesus was, but he recognized that he was from God (9:30-33). This nascent faith was enough to get him thrown out of the synagogue. When Jesus spoke to him and asked, “Do you believe into the Son of God?” and the man asked, “Who is he, Lord, that I may believe into him?” and Jesus said, “You have both seen him, and he is the one speaking with you,” the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and worshiped Jesus. His faith suddenly blossomed. This is when the man discovered that he was not just thrown out of the confines of the pen but that he had entered the flock of Jesus.

Others threw the man out of the synagogue, but it was the voice of the shepherd that precipitated it. It was actually Jesus who caused the man to be thrown out. Jesus even says that as the shepherd he was the one who threw him out. He had been in the sheep pen long enough. Out you go! The sheep might be terribly uncomfortable with this, for the pen represents security and definition, a sense of identity. Yet, in fact, the sheep were not safe in the pen, for thieves and bandits still found their way into it to steal and kill the sheep. Safety was in the flock, even though it had no clear borders, even though it was a place of freedom, for there the shepherd was, who could guard and protect the sheep from harm.

In chapter 11 Jesus calls Lazarus by name and he comes forth from the confines of the cave that held him. In chapter 20 Jesus speaks Mary’s name and she too finds freedom. Sometimes the Scriptures speak of us calling on the Name of the Lord. But in reality, we do not call upon the Lord until he first calls us through his word, and that word calls us by name. It zeroes in on us and “names” us. We hear it and recognize the voice of the shepherd. It is then that we call upon his Name (see the two together in 1 Corinthians 1:2). We all are the “called ones” of Jesus Christ, the ones whom he has called. When we gather in his Name, it is because he has called us to himself. The church, the ekklēsia, are the called or summoned ones, literally called apart, unto him: the summoned gathering, summoned by his call and summoned to him.

“When he has cast out all those who are his, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

The shepherd leads the sheep out in verse 3, but here in verse 4 a more forceful word is used. He “throws” them out (ekbal). This means, as I indicated above, that the sheep might not want to leave, even though they want the shepherd. He may need to take them in his arms and force them out. We may find ourselves being expelled instead of leaving peacefully. Outwardly, our love for Jesus will cause others to reject us even though we still want to belong. Their rejection, though, is the providential hand of the divine (the shepherd’s own hand), and we ought not to blame those whom God temporarily uses. After all, we might at one time have been in their place before we realized that we too were being called.

Jesus goes ahead of the sheep, who now become his flock, and leads them into pasture. What unifies the sheep is the person of the shepherd, not the rules and formats and conventions that kept them “safe” before. Out in the open there is grass to feed on but there is no safety, except in the shepherd himself. In Christianity, when we are still held in place by church organizations, by moral codes and standards, by doctrinal statements, by leaders and pastors, by conventional ways of doing things, by church “culture,” and not by the presence of the shepherd himself, we are still in the pen. We are not yet in the pasture. It is not that once we are in the pasture all these things no longer exist. There is always some sort of “culture.” What I mean is that they no longer confine us; they no longer act as a pen. We no longer need them even though we avail ourselves of them. The shepherd takes their place. Before we paid attention to moral rules and they were important to us. Now we are still moral people but we do not live by those rules anymore. We end up fulfilling them by following the shepherd. This is what Paul means in Galatians 5:13-26 and elsewhere (for example, Romans 6—8).

“They will never follow a stranger, but will run away from him because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”

We end up following the voice of strangers because we do not know any better. But something inside us should tell us—and does tell us—that something is wrong. We have a terrible feeling of dissatisfaction. It is like when a person wants to prey on you, whether sexually or financially. You may not know it but something inside you is very uncomfortable. If you persist in being “nice,” you will get into trouble. It is the same with spiritual leaders. We can get caught up in someone else’s obsession or fantasy. If we persist in following them, we can bring ourselves to ruin. (Thankfully God can restore our ruins!) Once we recognize the voice of the shepherd, which resonates very clearly within us, we can clearly distinguish it from those other uncomfortable voices. Eventually those other voices should raise alarms within us. We need to learn to—inwardly at least—run away.

“In all truth I tell you, I am the gate of the sheep … I am the gate. Anyone who enters through me will be safe: such a one will go in and out and will find pasture … I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.”

The shepherd becomes the gate of the sheep, the gate out of the sheep pen and into the flock, by laying down his soul for the sheep. He refers to his death, of course, but the use of the word “soul” implies more than just biological death. The soul is our psyche, our self, our interior characters and landscape and all its roads and buildings and rooms and furnishings. Jesus took the path of self-denial, of renouncing his soul. He had no interest in self-annihilation, which has attracted many in the Christian tradition as it does in the Buddhist. Rather, the soul is saved in resurrection. The soul that must die is not the soul itself, as a structure, but rather the soul as it insulates itself and isolates itself and attempts to hermetically seal itself off from reality, the reality of creation and spirit, and the reality of the divine. It is the soul as a function in the world’s matrix: that is formed by it and contributes to its continuation. Jesus laying his soul down, ultimately in his actual death, becomes the way by which he comes to resurrection. His death and resurrection thus become the way through which the sheep must pass if they are to leave the sheep pen and find their way into the pasture with his flock.

Both the pasture and the flock are on the other side of this divide. As safe as the soul feels inside the confines of the structure of the sheep pen, it is a false safety, as it is a false and empty and futile life. It is only by passing through the gate that we find real safety, open pasture and feeding, and abundant life, life to the full.

Our true being is in the enjoyment of resurrection, which here and now is only a hint of the glorification (divinization) of the creation that is to come. If there were no “world” and no “powers” and no “sin” or alienation, there might never have been a cross. Jesus would have been the revelation to us of resurrection, the receiving of which would have been enough to bring us into the reality of it. Unfortunately that is not the realm in which we live. We live in the realm of samsara, of suffering and delusion and futility. Without an awakening, and a leaving behind in death of what we have known, we are stuck. The words of Jesus are spirit and life to us, if we can hear them, if we recognize the voice of our Shepherd.

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