―I am the Good Shepherd.The Good shepherd lays downs his life for the sheep‖ (John 10:11).
The Gospel of John
We have seen in previous articles that the motif of shepherd/shepherding is found throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. The motif of shepherd /shepherding as found in the Bible including the Gospel of John reflects the socio-economic contexts of the times. Shepherding was, and still is to a certain extent, a very common occupation for those in the Middle East. The sacred authors of the Bible made use of the shepherd motif to portray God and Jesus. Hence, Shepherd in the Old Testament and Shepherd in the New Testament is a very common theme.
In the Old Testament, God was the shepherd of the sheep Israel. Time will come when God would raise a new David to be shepherd over them: ―I will set up one shepherd over them, and He will feed them, even My servant David. He will feed them, and He will be their shepherd. And I the LORD will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them‖ (Ezekiel 34:23-24). And My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd‘ (Ezekiel 37.24).
In the New Testament, especially in the Gospel of John, Jesus – the incarnate Son of God – is presented as the promised Good Shepherd (John 10:1-21). In contrast to Jesus‘ good shepherding, the Fourth Gospel exposes and accuses the Jewish religious leaders (especially the Pharisees) as wicked shepherds, who are not concerned for the hurting and troubled sheep and who abuse the sheep of God‘s flock for their own personal gain. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, showed the full extent of his selfless love for the flock by dying for them. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11; cf. vv. 15, 17, 18).
This is the first time in the Fourth Gospel that the topic of shepherding has been addressed as such. The theme will re-appear in the gospel in 21:15-17. At first sight, the subject of shepherd and shepherding unifies all of chapter 10. This post closely examines the characteristics and meaning of the good shepherd motif in John 10.
St. John – the Spiritual Gospel
Kenneth E. Bailey in the recent book The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey From Psalm 23 to the New Testament (2014) rightly says, ―To enter the Gospel of John is to enter a world of theological and historical delights. The Fourth Gospel has been called ―the spiritual Gospel‖ by early church Fathers. Compared to the Synoptic Gospels, John is more reflective, profound, and indeed spiritual.
Augustine of Hippo has likened John to the eagle who can soar higher than any other bird, because John‘s ―spiritual understanding compared to the eagle, has elevated his preaching higher, and far more sublimely, than the other three. The evangelist of the Fourth Gospel goes beyond the literal message and historical facts to help readers understand the deeper spiritual meaning of Jesus himself – including his teaching, life, and miracles.
The Gospel of John is more concerned in portraying who Jesus actually is, that is, his divine origin and identity. The Gospel Prologue begins with the pre-existence of Jesus: ―In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God‖ (John 1:1-2). In John 8:58, Jesus affirms:
―Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am. These passages surely demonstrate the pre-existence of Jesus, the Word Incarnate. The pre-existent one is God, who, therefore, can reveal God. The ―I am‖ statements recorded in the FG are a description Jesus gave of Himself and they help us to better understand the divinity of Jesus Christ.
The evangelist carefully selected seven (7) statements each beginning with the declaration ―I am:
―I am the bread of life‖ (6:35, 41, 48-51)
―I am the light of the world‖ (8:12, 9:5)
―I am the door of the sheep‖ (10:7, 9)
―I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep‖ (10:11,14)
―I am the resurrection and the life‖ (11:25)
―I am the way, the truth, and the life‖ (14:6)
―I am the true vine‖ (15:1,5)
The “I am” statements of Jesus in the Gospel of John echos the very name which God revealed to Moses in the burning bush at the foot of Mount Horeb:
13But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, „The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,‟ and they ask me, „What is his name?‟ what shall I say to them?” 14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, „I AM has sent me to you.‟” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, „The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you‟: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations (Exodus 3:13-15).
It is interesting to note that two of the seven ―I am sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John come from chapter 10 and they both pertain to the motif of sheep/shepherd: ―I am the door of the sheep‖ (10:7, 9); ―I am the good shepherd‖ (10:11, 14). There are three themes that can be identified from John 10: (1) as a good shepherd, I lay down my life for the sheep (10:11, 15);
(2) My sheep hear my voice; I give them eternal life; they shall never perish (10:27-28); and
(3) I bring my other sheep into the one flock (10:16).
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