Meditating on Great Themes in John: 16. Gate & Shepherd
John 10:7,9,11 Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep….. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture….I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
We said in the previous study that we discern two major themes running through John’s Gospel – the transforming power of Jesus and the identity of Jesus. These verses above speak more to the second theme but reveal how the first one comes about. What is intriguing about them is that, unlike so much else that we have seen where there are links with many earlier verses, the thoughts about a door and the good shepherd appear to come from nowhere, with no earlier links. So why does John introduce them here or, perhaps, in the chronological flow of history, why does Jesus say these things now?
Well, what has just gone before? The blind man has just been healed and there has been much discussion about Jesus’ authority to heal like this, and Jesus has spoken about being the light of the world who reveals the blindness of the Pharisees. The picture Jesus has just been painting by word and deed has been of the one who comes to open the eyes of the blind to let them see and enter God’s kingdom. Now in the Old Testament, the Jews were familiar with the concept of a doorway or gateway into heaven. The patriarch who would give them their name, Jacob (to become Israel), had a dream and we see, “He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen 28:17). We just referred to people ‘entering the kingdom of God’ which in Jewish eyes was virtually tantamount to being given entry to heaven, so Jesus applies the idea of a gate to himself: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep.” (v.7) The implication is, “I am the doorway to heaven”
But he links this idea with sheep and refers to Israel as sheep, which was a very familiar concept for them in Psalms and in the prophetic books (use a concordance to look up the many references). Jeremiah introduced the concept of lost sheep (Jer 50:6) and Ezekiel also added to it (Ezek 34:4) and Jesus himself referred to the “lost sheep of Israel” (Mt 10:6), the ones to whom the apostles should go to be brought into God’s fold. The imagery here is unmistakable: “I am the way for the lost sheep of Israel to return to their Lord. in heaven.”
We need to retrace our steps and see the earlier verses in this chapter: Remember we just said he had called the Pharisees blind and now he says, “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.” (v.1) The sheep pen appears at first sight to be the land of Israel, God’s covenant people, but Jesus when he speaks about the kingdom of God means the covenant people who obey and respond to their Lord so He can exercise His rule in and through them. The sheep fold might, therefore, be better associated with the ideas of the kingdom of God or place where God’s rule is experienced. But there is only one way in to this ‘fold’ and this implies Jesus is God’s appointed ‘gate’ and anyone who tries to gatecrash (an interesting word!) the sheepfold has obviously tried to appear to get in some other way but they are not there to benefit the sheep but to steal them, and take them off somewhere else (lead them into error). Strong condemnation!
So now he extends the analogy and says the only person to get in through the gate is the shepherd: “The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep.” (v.2) he then says something intriguing: “The watchman opens the gate for him.” (v.3a) The ‘watchman’ must be angelic beings or the work of the Holy Spirit. (In Ezekiel’s ‘wheels within wheels’ prophecy in Ezek 1, the rims of the wheels were full of eyes. In John’s vision of the throne room of heaven in Rev 4, the four living creatures are covered with eyes. Whatever the meaning we have a picture of ones who see all things – watchmen if you like.)
What then follows is a picture of intimacy between shepherd and sheep: “the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (v.3,4) The sheep recognize his voice, he knows them individually and calls them each by name, he leads them out in the world and they follow him In fact, “they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” (v.5) The work of the Pharisees and all the other religious groups is doomed to failure because the sheep – those of God’s real people – deep down know His voice and no other voice will comfort and make them secure.
Now it makes sense when Jesus says, “All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.” (v.8) Of course the sheep wouldn’t follow anyone else because there is only one voice that will touch something deep within them and bring them peace and comfort. Anyone who came before Jesus in that four hundred year period of silence between Nehemiah/Ezra and the Gospels was just a pretender and so it was no surprise that the people collectively did not follow them. There is a complexity in these verses of chapter 10, a mixing together of the analogies of the door (or gate) and the shepherd. For the moment, we’ve noted the emphasis on the door or gate: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture.” (v.9) The entry into God’s kingdom comes through Jesus alone; accept no substitutes. We will go on to consider more the picture of the shepherd in the next study.