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Gems in the Gospel of John

Part 41 – John 10:3

Who are the true shepherds?

We come now to the passage about shepherds. The NIV labels all of 10: 1 – 18 as ‘the good shepherd and his sheep’. But any even half critical look at this passage will leave one puzzled by its apparent inconsistencies. That is because it is actually four different passages put together because they all feature shepherds even although they are about very different uses of a shepherding metaphor (notice too how the ‘Pharisees’ of v1 have become ‘Jews’ of v19 suggesting that Jesus did not say all this one just one occasion). They are:

  1. v1 – 5 – – who are the acceptable sub-shepherds of the Lord’s people?
  2. v7 – 10 – Jesus is the Gate who controls the lives of the shepherds and the sheep.
  3. v11 – 13 – Jesus is the Good Shepherd who is prepared to give his life for the sheep.
  4. v14 – 18 – who are the sheep in the flock the Good Shepherd cares for?

They are closely linked to the story in the previous chapter about the blind man who was healed, which ran into so much opposition from the Pharisees because Jesus had carried out the healing on a Sabbath day. Jesus said in that story that they were blind to the realities of what the Lord’s work was really all about.

Now he goes on to say they are like thieves and robbers who break into a sheepfold to steal some sheep. This was a very challenging thing to say because of the many places in the Old Testament where many prophecies promise bad things for shepherds who fail to look after their flocks properly.

Typical of these is Ezekiel 34 where we read, “Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, … Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.”

So, when Jesus talks about shepherds who break into the overnight sheepfold to get some sheep he is clearly referring back to passages like that. No wonder he wasn’t popular amongst the leaders of the people in Jerusalem!

When he goes on to talk about the sheep following the shepherd he is talking about the standard Middle Eastern practice of the shepherd leading the sheep, as opposed to the Western practice of driving them from behind, usually with sheep-dogs. He also talks about the sheep following the known voice of their shepherd. The voice here refers to a particular call or whistle that each shepherd will have had. The difference arises because the Eastern shepherds lived with the sheep so that as soon as they were born they saw him and heard him. They grew up as close to him as to their mother sheep. They knew what he looked like and sounded like.

The whole picture fits the situation Jesus is describing very well. The shepherds that were ‘thieves and robbers’ were the Pharisees who were so concerned about the religious detail of Sabbath observance but not interested in the wonderful miracle that had given the man his sight. Or, to bring it into our day, those pastors (the very word means shepherds) who consider their job to be just a job and who have no real interest in the people they are supposed to be looking after. They just want to be looked up to. They like to be able to tell people what to do. They like to preach without contradiction from high in their pulpits. It might be it is one particular set of character traits, not very desirable ones, that take people into the ministry.

Beware of such people. Avoid them if you can. You have this word of Jesus to justify doing so

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