John 10

Following the presumption of “sight” by the Pharisees at the end of ch. 9, Jesus launches into an extended metaphor regarding his identity and, more to the point, theirs. As usual, Jesus doesn’t hesitate to mix metaphors, claiming to be at once the shepherd who leads the sheep (10:2) and the gate by which the sheep enter (10:7). Both of these identities are presented as “I am” sayings:

“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (10:9).

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (10:11) and “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” (10:14, 15).

The gate is the way to salvation, not just in terms of protection but also in terms of finding sustenance. The shepherd emphatically lays down his life in protection (salvation) of the flock, as an extension of “knowing” each of the sheep (thus, “caring” for the sheep unlike the hired hand). These hinge, as previous “I am” statements, on the purpose of “life” (bread of life, light of life). “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10b).

That last phrase is often excised from its context and abstracted to one notion of “abundant life” or another. Given that this whole scenario is indeed a metaphor, that process is not totally without ground, but we should not be too quick to leave the imagery behind; Jesus hasn’t yet. Here, “abundant life” is a sheep’s life that entails both protection from the ravages of those who come to “steal and kill and destroy” (10:10a) and the enjoyment of pasture. The sheep are not simply saved from the hostility endemic to their environment but saved for the enjoyment of the good creation—for true life. It would be life, but hardly abundant life, if the shepherd fenced up the sheep, saved them from the evil outside, and left them there.

Jesus takes the opportunity in the midst of this figure of speech to make the point that there are other sheep “not of this fold” who will come to form part of the “one flock.” It is an aside, it seems, but an unprecedented, stunning one in John’s narrative. In the context of Jesus’s declaration that he will “lay down his life for the sheep,” for a saving purpose, he reveals that there are other sheep that will receive this salvation. John gives no indication that the Jewish listeners understood him, at this point, to mean Gentiles.

Likewise, his explanation of the Father’s love of him remains somewhat arcane. He has remained insistent on his mutuality with the Father (“the Father knows me and I know the Father [10:15a]). Now he says that he Father loves him because he “lays down his life in order to take it up again” (10:17). The subsequent phrasing stresses the voluntary nature of this action in light of the Father’s command, implying that the Father loves Jesus because of his willful, saving obedience. The idea of taking up his life again is a glimmer of the resurrection theme that will take center stage in the next chapter.

Now an interlude of divided opinion orients us to the burden of the rest of the chapter and, by implication, the extended metaphor’s essential point. Some are so off-put as to conclude that he’s got a demon causing insanity. This reasoning in a different context in the Synoptics leads to the suggestion that this was a common enough understanding of apparently irrational behavior or thinking. It also lets us know that, while we can understand Jesus in his context, unless we are merely to dismiss such accusations as willful hardheartedness, he was one tough cookie to swallow (to mix metaphors myself).

At last, then, “the Jews” corner Jesus and make the reasonable request: “If you are the Messiah, tell us with boldness” (10:24). That is to say, come out and say so!

“Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Fathers name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me'” (10:25-27).

If you thought the sheep-talk was over, think again. And now we see the upshot of the earlier claim that the sheep know the shepherd and follow him but would flee from the sound of a stranger’s voice. That claim, now in the context of the opinion of those who have said, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” but must still ask for Jesus to put things into simple, propositional terms, is an open-hand slap in the face. There should be nothing that makes plainer Jesus’ identity, for those with eyes to see, than what Jesus has said and done already. He’s as recognizable as a shepherd’s voice is to his sheep. Had we really known God, we would have seen the Father in the Son immediately, for the sheep were the Father’s, and he and the Father “are one,” speaking with the same voice. As for the listeners’ identity, therefore, they are not the sheep of God’s flock.

Feeling the force of that slap, that removal of any claim truly to know Yahweh in the sense that makes a difference at the moment of the Messiah’s long-awaited arrival, provokes them to stone him (again!). Jesus’ composure is more than enviable (even if he is getting used to immanent death by now). “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” (10:32). Okay, so it’s more than composure–it’s God’s own sharp wit.

The Jews’ response is telling: “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” This is another piece of what is called John’s “high Christology.” Whereas Jesus’ opponents kill him in the Synoptics fundamentally for his (often implicit) claim to be the Messiah while promoting an agenda and m.o. unlike any they were interested in, the rub in John is much more theological, so to speak. Jesus is accused of blasphemy in the Synoptics as well, but not of “making himself God.” His insistence that he and the Father are one, that he was “sent from God,” is starting to take on an unexpected flavor, however, and they don’t like it.

The chapter ends reaffirming John’s overarching scheme of revelatory signs and testimony. Jesus calls them back to what he has been doing: “the works of my Father.” Perhaps the force of his point is clearer when translated as, “my Father’s own works.” That I do them should be enough to “believe me,” he says. What is in question is the claim to be the “Son of God.” And, he continues, “if you do not believe my testimony that I am the Son of God despite the fact that I do these works, you should nonetheless believe the works’ testimony about me: I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” The logic of John’s Gospel is fairly simple but difficult to ignore, not to mention more eloquently put than it often has been. Their accusation is that Jesus is “only human.” The signs—the doing of what no mere human can do—clearly suggest more. They point to the astounding Christology that, for John, was always apparent in Jesus of Nazareth.