Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Translation: "Truly, truly I say to you, the one not entering through the door into the yard of the sheep, but ascends up some other way, is a thief and a robber. But the one entering in through the door is shepherd of the sheep. To him, the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he might throw out all his own, he goes before them, and his sheep follow because they have known his voice. But they will surely not follow a stranger but will flee from him because they have not known the voice of strangers." Jesus spoke this proverb to them, but they did not know what he was saying to them.
Then again Jesus said, "Truly, truly I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All that came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If someone might enter through me, that one will be saved. And that one will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except that they might steal and kill and destroy. I came so that they might have life, and they might have abundance."
Background and situation: Rob Bell writes in Velvet Elvis that young Hebrew boys of the first century would memorize the entire Torah. They would learn by heart the complete books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And we thought memorizing the catechism was tough!
All Hebrew males, then, would have been able to connect Jesus' words in chapter 10 of the fourth gospel with those of the Book of Numbers, that the Lord God would appoint someone "who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in" (Num 27: 16-18).
Hebrew males who, after their initial instruction, went on to become rabbis would have memorized the entire Old Testament by the time they were 18 years old. They would have known of the prophet Jeremiah who wrote about bad shepherds who "destroy and scatter the sheep" (Jer 23: 1). The prophets Ezekial, Micah, and Zechariah as well talked of the various would-be shepherds who scattered the sheep and did not feed them.
Thieves and robbers: Jesus uses strong words--"thieves and robbers"--right off the bat. (Kleptes--thieves--is where we get our word "kleptomanic.") Jesus has been a critic of the economic practices of Judean Temple officials throughout the fourth gospel. The use of the word "thieves" is consistent with this critique.
The word for "robber" is lestes, and refers to what, today, we would call "terrorists." ("Revolutionary guerrillas," says Wes Howard-Brook, "guerrilla warriors," says Ray Brown.) The combination of "thieves and robbers" suggests economic exploitation coupled with violence.
Shepherd and gate: After this abrupt beginning, Jesus shifts to the "shepherd of the sheep" who enters through the gate. The gatekeeper--God--opens the gate for this shepherd. The sheep will hear the true shepherd's voice--he calls them by name, he leads them out, he goes before them, his sheep follow.
Did you notice the shift in direction? The passage begins with entering the sheepfold, but now the good shepherd is leading his sheep out. In chapter 5, Jesus had said that "all those who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out" (5: 28-9). The sheepfold, supposedly a place of protection, is here equated with death. At the call of his voice, Jesus leads his sheep out from death and into eternal life.
In the next chapter, Jesus will call Lazarus out of his grave--Lazare, deuro exo! "Lazarus, come out." In chapter 20, he will utter the name of "Mary" and she will recognize the Lord. His sheep hear his voice!
Jesus says twice (v. 7, 9) that he himself is the gate. That would make Jesus both the good shepherd and the gate itself. This only makes sense if the gate is seen as his death and resurrection.
The good shepherd enters the sheepfold through the gate of death. ("The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." 10: 11.) On the basis of his death and resurrection, he leads his sheep out of death. This is the way--the only way--that the gatekeeper, God the Father, approves.
The word for "stranger"--allotrion--makes its only appearance in the fourth gospel. Along with "thieves and robbers," it is yet another negative image. The sheep do not follow this stranger. In fact, they run away. The stranger is a thief and a bandit. The stranger steals and oppresses, and is prone to violence. Sound like any Temple officials you might know?
Jesus appears to be speaking to the pharisees (9: 40). Naturally, the pharisees don't understand any of this. In the actual history of the period, the pharisees shared some of Jesus' criticisms of the Temple. They looked for the renewal of Judaism. They were the "liberal reformers" of their day, you might say.
The problem is that they continue to have an investment in the system itself. They are trying to reform a system that, in the view of the fourth gospel, cannot be reformed. They are trying to come in "by another way" than through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
"I am the gate," Jesus says. This is another ego eimi saying, underlining its importance. God the Father is the gate-keeper, the one who makes the decision about the method by which he will save his people. He chooses death and resurrection. Any other way--any Temple-based sacrificial system, any morality-based self-improvement system, any power-based oppressive system--has been rejected.
"I am the gate," Jesus says again (v. 9). That gate, the crucified and risen body of Jesus, frees all his sheep from the power of death. They will be able to "come in and go out," and will have "pasture." The word translated as "pasture" is nome, which means all that they will need for a full and abundant life.
Compare Micah 2: "I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture. It will resound with people. With a leader to break open the path and go before them, they will break out and pass through the door, going out by it. Their kind will pass on before them, the Lord at their head (2: 12-13)."
"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy." Of course, the thief steals. But "kill and destroy"? Ray Brown sees a sly reference to the sacrificial system in the word for "kill." The word is thyo and is the same word that is used to describe the priestly sacrifice of passover lambs.
The pharisees have already been identified with the Temple police earlier in the fourth gospel (7: 32, 45). Stay away from the thief who kills, says Jesus to these pharisees. What thief kills? The Temple priests. Thus, Brown sees the reference to "kill" as an appeal to the pharisees to break their alliance with the Temple authorities.
The thief also wants to "destroy," which is directly contrary to God's desire to not to see anyone "perish" (3: 16). Jesus wants not destruction, but abundant life. "I came so that they might have life, and they might have abundance."
The word for "abundance"--perisson--is used only twice in the fourth gospel, here and in 6: 12 where Jesus tells the disciples to gather up "the abundant fragments" left over in the fourth gospel's version of the story of the feeding of the multitude.
Sheep as a psychological metaphor: In the story as a whole, "sheep" are a metaphor for the people of God, and not a particularly flattering one either, as anyone familiar with sheep knows.
Psychologically, "sheep" also refers to a primitive aspect of one's own personality, the instinctual ability to try to discern and recognize the "true voice" and distinguish it from false ones.
"Thieves and robbers" are false voices and false guides. These false guides are many. They are attractive to us because they offer the possibility of by-passing the hard work of discernment of the "true voice." If we will only give our power over to them, they promise us relief from the task of mature ego development.
"Thieves and robbers" are not only figures from outside of ourselves, they are also aspects of our own inner psychology. This is the part of us that wants to deny difficult truth and take the easy path of satisfying our own self-centered desires. The early church father, Origen, understood "thieves and robbers" to be everything in us that is defective because of our lack of consciousness.
Psychologically, the "gatekeeper" is the one who makes the decision about whether or not your ticket is paid. You must go through the "gatekeeper" to get to move forward on the path to spiritual growth. Think of various myths, legendary stories, and dreams where someone is on some kind of quest and must get past a "gatekeeper."
In this story, the "ticket" required by the gatekeeper--the only requirement--is the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Image: I AM the good shepherd, Lee Hodges.