The Good Shepherd and the Sheep of John 10

I decided to take a fresh look at John 10 and this sheep thing… What I found was surprising.
I have long warned of overstretching metaphors (the number one cause of error). Here, I was stretching a metaphor from a different passage into this one, where it did not belong. I’m speaking of the passage that tells us of the sheep and the goats which will be separated in the end. I was surprised to realize that there are no goats intended in John 10 — that’s the wrong metaphor. Equally surprising is the realization that in this passage, ALL are sheep. Some are Christ’s sheep and some are not, but all are sheep. Also, there are two types of Christ’s sheep: those who are in the salvation relationship now, know Him and are known by Him, hear His voice and follow Him; and those who are not of this fold, who WILL hear His voice and follow Him [eventually].

John 10 (ESV)

1“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

This parable uses the figure of the sheepfold, which was familiar in that day. It was an enclosure where shepherds could put their sheep for safe keeping. Sometimes different shepherds would put different flocks together in the same fold. The sheep were familiar with their shepherd’s voice so that all of the flock who belonged to a given shepherd would follow him out of the sheepfold when called, leaving behind those sheep that did not belong to that shepherd. However, since Christ calls Himself the Door in this passage (v. 9), we must conclude that only one flock within the fold is intended here.

Thieves and robbers would be any supposed spiritual leaders of the Jewish people whose faith was not genuinely of God and His coming Messiah, as well as false messiahs. Such false leaders would be strangers to those sheep who already had genuine faith in God and in His coming Messiah and thus belonged to Him. Those of real faith were waiting on the real Messiah and would not be fooled by the voices and false teachings of others. Prior to the start of Jesus’ ministry, Israel was not completely lacking in men of real faith; and of course, during Jesus’ ministry, many believed in Him. Both of these comprised the sheep who were His and were already in the fold.

7So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and 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.

Here, Jesus changes the figure and calls Himself the Door. Yet, He is still contrasted with the thieves and robbers, whom the sheep did not listen to. ALL who came before Jesus were thieves and robbers. He repeats that He is the Door, and then explains how other sheep may be saved, by saying, “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture… I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” He did not merely come to bless and enjoy those sheep that were already His, but to preach to the lost and bring many more into the fold, giving them life abundantly. But notice that the sheep that hear His voice and follow Him out of the fold are already in the fold — they have already entered by the Door. Having entered, a sheep is now part of the flock, and is saved, and will “go in and out and find pasture” (normal activities for sheep and shepherd).

The Good Shepherd’s appearance in the fold is the beginning of His incarnate ministry. The sheep cannot follow until the Shepherd appears. All who came before Him, before He came into His earthly ministry, were frauds. He is the real Shepherd, and now that He has appeared, the sheep follow Him. Following the Shepherd “in and out and find[ing] pasture,” etc., is analogous to following Him in belief — believing He is the Messiah and following His teaching (which often resulted in literally following Him in His travels). By this, it must be inferred that those who enter by the Door and are saved entered because they listened to the Shepherd’s voice and “followed” Him into the fold.

11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who loves His sheep and lays down His life in behalf of (huper) them. Hired hands will flee from the wolf and care nothing for the sheep. In v. 14, Jesus tells us that He knows His own sheep and they know Him, and compares such personal knowledge (ginōskō) to His relationship with the Father. This parallels 17:21,”…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” and 14:20, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” This knowledge also reminds us of Matt. 7:23, “And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew [ginōskō] you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” Clearly, the sheep which are already in the fold are already saved, and it is these whom the wolf comes to kill. The Good Shepherd knows these sheep and is known by them, and has a loving relationship with them similar to the Father and Son. However, the thought is not yet complete..

16And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

As Mathew Henry wrote, “‘Those other sheep I have,’ saith Christ, ‘I have them on my heart, have them in my eye, am as sure to have them as if I had them already.’” He has not yet brought them, but “must bring them also.” They do not yet listen to His voice, but “will listen to my voice.” They are not yet one flock with these who are already in the sheepfold, but they will be when He brings them. In the same way, though Christ knew them in His foreknowledge, He did not yet know them in the way that He knows those who are already in the fold — they did not yet have that relationship comparable to the Father-Son relationship by which they knew Him personally and He knew them (as spoken of negatively in Matt. 7:23). They are not yet in Him and He is not yet in them. But He speaks of them, as Henry said, as if He had them already, because He is God who sees the certainties of the future as clearly as the present.

Notice that He speaks as if He will bring them to this sheepfold; but, it cannot be meant as the physical location of Israel, since the whole Church will not be brought to Israel (except maybe the New Jerusalem). Much better is to understand this as a spiritual sheepfold, even though only Jews of Judea were currently in it (and, of course, only those of faith). There are two thoughts intertwined in the meaning of these other sheep. It speaks both of the fact that salvation was about to be opened up to the Gentiles, so that Gentiles and Jews would become one in Christ (Eph. 2:14-17; Col. 3:11); and it speaks of those who were not yet converted to Christ (Jew and Gentile), including all those who would eventually be converted but were not yet even born (Luke 15:4-5). John 17:20-22 speaks in a similar way:

20“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one,

We do not become His sheep (knowing Him and listening to no other) until we are saved; even though in His all-knowing eyes, we are His sheep who are yet to come. How many elect followed fraudulent teaching and did not listen to the voice of the Savior for many years before being converted? Many, to say the least. Thus, when He says that the sheep did not listen to the voice of strangers who came before Him, He is speaking of the sheep who were already within the fold of faith, and not of the future sheep. He says of the presently faithful sheep, “They listen to My voice and follow Me,” but of the future sheep He says, “They will listen to My voice…” John 6:37, “All that the Father gives to me will come to me..”

Thus far, this passage in John 10 has spoken of those who already are Christ’s sheep, and those who will be but are not yet in the fold. Jumping ahead to 10:24-30, we are shown a group of unbelievers…

24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

Jesus told the unbelieving Jews, “…You do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me…” His sheep were those who did believe, and had entered by the Door. The unbelievers had not entered the sheepfold (though some tried to enter like thieves and robbers). They did not believe Christ because they did not have true faith in God and in His coming Messiah. The truth had no place in them — they did not truly believe what Moses and the prophets had said, so they did not believe what Christ said. [Notice that He did not say that they did not believe because they were not sheep. The metaphor of the contrast between the sheep and the goats is an unrelated parable. Here, it is inferred that all are sheep, and these unbelievers were “not part of my flock.”]

These unbelieving Jews to whom Christ is speaking were persistently unbelieving, in the face of the presence, teaching and miracles of the incarnate Son of God. Christ said, “I told you and you do not believe…” He had done the miraculous works of His Father, which they should have believed, but they did not believe — “because you are not part of my flock.” If they had been part of that group of Christ’s sheep who had not yet come, then they would have believed already and would not have had such persistent unbelief in the presence of the Savior, His teaching, and His works. This is not to say that the elect immediately believe and convert upon the first hearing, but rather, only that these particular Jews were persistent enough in their unbelief that it was evident that they were not of those whom the Father had given to the Son (not part of His future sheep).

When Jesus tells them that they are not of His flock and that His sheep listen to His voice and follow Him, He is speaking of the inevitability both that the nonelect will not believe and that the elect will believe — whether the elect are simply foreknown in the Arminian sense or specially enabled in the Calvinist sense is not addressed here (both would work). These Jews simply had the kind of unbelief that would persist to the end.

Going back to v. 15, where Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep,” He lays down His life in behalf (huper) of the sheep (both present sheep and future sheep). He does not lay down His life for those who will never enter by the Door and enter into His flock, becoming His. But again, this does not address whether He sees His future sheep based on unconditional election or based on foreknowledge of who will be willing to enter through the Door. It does affirm, however, that He does not lay down His life in behalf of those who will never come — the ones who are not His sheep and never will be. The common objection that He does not exclude them by this statement is weak. He describes His sheep as having a loving, intimate relationship with Him comparable to His relationship with the Father, and attributes His dying for them to this relationship. The purpose of the cross is to redeem all who come by faith — no matter who or how many. But the purpose is not to redeem those who never come.

Ken Hamrick