Have you ever had a familiar text of scripture come alive? Perhaps you’ve read it and heard it so many times that it’s almost committed to memory, but you didn’t really fully understand it. UNTIL. Until it was explained to you in a way that brought it to life. All of a sudden, what used to be weird bible language is understandable. Have you experienced that before? I know I have plenty of times, and continue to as I read, listen to messages, and talk with friends about their studies. I’m hoping that this morning will be one of those times for you.
I’m going to start by pulling a phrase from the middle of our text. John says, “This figure of speech Jesus used with them” I’m not pulling this out of context – I’m hoping to save us some time and misunderstanding. John wanted his readers to know that Jesus’ words were to be read as metaphorical or figurative. That doesn’t mean that we’re not to take them seriously – far from it! He absolutely meant the things he said – but he meant them a particular way. And it’s not me suggesting this - John actually said it. So, if Jesus was speaking figuratively, he was speaking about something. He had a specific thing in mind, and he was speaking to them in a way that they would understand it.
My message is titled “Life in the Pen”. I could say something about how the things written in the Bible carry spiritual power that can transform us. But I’m not going to.
Maybe I have something to say about the prison system and the lengths of sentences. Nope.
This would be a good title for each of these examples. In both cases, it would be speaking of a literal “life in the pen”. The trouble is, I don’t want to talk about either of those things! We can read both those meanings into that phrase – but in both cases we would be wrong!
Too often, we Christians understand a verse a particular way that turns out to be inaccurate. The only way to figure out the accurate meaning is to read in context.
Today I’m speaking about John 10. In that chapter, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. I chose “Life in the Pen” because it sums up much of the chapter. Jesus refers to people as sheep. He talks about how sheep act, what good and bad shepherds looks like, he describes some of the dangers to the flock… He talks about us as being sheep in the sheepfold. I called it life in the pen. Do you see how context matters?
We’re about to dig into a series of teachings Jesus gave. As John tells us, this is figurative. As I just illustrated, figurative language is every bit as accurate and meaningful as literal language. Sometimes it actually is more helpful because it is framed in a way that is more understandable to the listener. Parents do this with children every day. Theologians call it “condescending language”. That doesn’t mean it is demeaning. It means a stooping down to the level of the listener. That is how we learn, and Jesus knew that because he made us.
There is often a difficulty in applying this principal properly to scripture. The problem is we are not his original audience. The way Jesus stooped down to his fellow Jews assumes a lot. He knew he was talking to people who lived in the Middle East, who had been oppressed for centuries, who looked forward to a Messiah, and who interacted with animals daily. That does not sound like me. Because of this, the metaphors Jesus used are somewhat lost on us. His hearers knew all about sheep, so this took no explanation. Very few of us are shepherds, so we’ll have to first understand them in order to understand him.
There is a lot written in the bible about sheep. I don’t have much personal experience to draw from when it comes to sheep. Here’s what I learned that you may find helpful.
Sheep were integral to the Israelites lives. Raising flocks is one of the earliest careers mentioned in the bible. Sheep were used in sacrificial offerings. They ate them. They made clothing from their wool. You could even pay people using sheep as currency.
Sheep were almost always cared for by their owners or their owner’s children. Before they were married, Jacob’s wife Rachel kept her father’s sheep. Each of Jacob’s twelve sons watched their father’s sheep. Moses watched his father-in-law’s sheep. David watched his father’s sheep.
In fact, David, the favorite king of Israel and Judah, would later reflect on his sheep and his time shepherding when writing his Psalms. Psalm 23 for instance begins, “The Lord is my shepherd” and sets about describing God as a shepherd and David as a sheep.
Sheep were a very familiar part of life for the people that Jesus was speaking to.
Shepherds and Sheepfolds
Shepherds were the people entrusted with guiding the sheep, protecting them, and feeding them. The shepherd was 100% responsible for the sheep under his care.
Sometimes sheep were kept near or in homes, joining the larger herds to graze. Others stayed out in the fields all the time. While out in the fields, sheep would sometimes be kept in a pen (also called a fold). During the day the shepherd might guide them into a pen for their safety as they rested. Certainly at night he would do so.
The sheepfold might be an impromptu ring of brambles the shepherd threw together on the spot. In other cases it could be a more permanent stone structure, probably with thorns along the top. In any case, it was a place of safety. It kept the sheep in and everything else out. There was a single opening through which sheep could come and go, called the door. It usually did not have a swinging panel like the doors we think of. It had an opening, but the obstacle was not a piece of wood – it was a person. The shepherd himself would lie across the opening. Sheep would not go over him, and neither would predators. If they tried though, the shepherd would certainly know it, and would fight to the death if necessary to protect the flock in his care.
Often, sheep from different owners were mixed in a single sheepfold. When any given owner of sheep came to the fold, he’d give a whistle or a holler, and his sheep would perk up and come out to him. Let’s try a little figure of speech exercise:
Picture the kids’ Sunday School after church. Kim Meszaros is the gatekeeper. She doesn’t open the door to let any sheep out except to their owners. And when their owner hollers, their sheep spin their heads because they know their owner, and they run to the door.
To Americans without much exposure to farm life, actual sheep all look fairly interchangeable. Children’s Church can be like that. To a stranger, it’s nothing but a sea of faces. But to the sheep and shepherds (er, children and parents) nothing could be farther from the truth. Children’s Church is a decent parallel to a mixed flock. You could allow a number of flocks to intermingle, then count on them to separate appropriately when the call is given.
So now you know all about shepherding. Kinda. Enough for our purposes anyway. We’re ready to start examining the text now.
Getting the Story Straight
Rather than just reading today’s passage in isolation, let’s get some context. Surprisingly, John 10 comes right after John 9. Chapter numbers were not added until 1,200 years after Jesus. There’s nothing wrong with them. After all, they’re handy addresses for finding texts! The trouble is that they’re often located at lousy points in the narrative. To look at John 10 alone is like starting a movie halfway through. At this point I’d like to give a brief overview of chapter 9 so the conversation in John 10 makes sense.
The disciples had happened upon a beggar who was born blind. They began discussing why he was born like this. As was often the case, Jesus pointed out that the way they were thinking about it was all wrong.
In the process, Jesus referred to himself as the light of the world. What was a blind man supposed to do with a metaphor like that? Seeking after the light was not something this man could do, so the light went to him. And the light of the world utterly healed the man’s blindness so that he could see Jesus.
The Pharisees interrogated the man and ultimately excommunicated him over his report of the events.
Jesus later implied that the Pharisees were just as blind as the man had been. When they were offended, he explained that their blindness was not a physical disability, but a willful choice to stand in opposition to God.
Look at the big picture here.
- The religious rulers who ought to have been looking after the weak among them were barely aware that this man existed.
- The people who claimed to stand between God and his people didn’t recognize God himself when he intervened.
- What sort of caregivers were these men? The worst kind. They ought to be shepherds, yet they acted more like predators. They were more interested in their power and their status than they were about their sheep.
And now we’re set up for chapter 10.
To understand it properly, I find it easiest to break a passage up into manageable chunks.
Our passage begins with Jesus introducing the sheep scenario we looked at earlier.
“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. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
That summarizes our crash course on sheep and shepherds. A couple things to highlight here:
- Predators will come to the pen. As we learned just a moment ago, the shepherd would come to the door to claim his sheep. Anyone who came any other way was not the owner of the sheep. Parents of children in Children’s Church would not climb through windows or over room dividers to get their kids. Anyone who did that either meant them harm or wanted them for their own purposes. Today, “thieves and robbers” are those who claim to come in the name of Christ, but actually just want your money. Or to build their influence. Or to stroke their egos. That’s certainly who it meant then, because Jesus was talking about the Pharisees who claimed to represent God but took advantage of the people. It means the same thing today.
- The Shepherd will come to the pen. The one who is the legitimate owner comes to the door – he’s the only one with the standing to do so – and he calls his own to come to him. Jesus came to this sheepfold (the Jewish people) and called his sheep who were intermingled in the pen. Upon hearing his call, his sheep came out.
A Change of Metaphor
Jesus continues, but now he is the door rather than the shepherd.
So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.”
Notice he said “I AM the door of the sheep.” This is the first “I Am” statement in this passage. I won’t belabor the point, but it’s worth noting instances when Jesus uses this phrase. Over a thousand years earlier, God told Moses to tell the people that “I Am” had sent him. “I Am” was one of God’s names for himself. (Jeff mentioned this in his message last week.) Jesus was calling himself a door to help explain his purpose, but his opening words screamed his identity: He was claiming to be God. No one hearing him missed this.
To call Jesus the door is to say that Jesus is the only way. All others who claimed to be the messiah were not. Anyone who entered the fold “through Christ” would be saved. They would be welcome into the fold for protection and back out of the fold to find pasture.
Not only is Jesus the way, but he is the only way. (As if there could be other ways.) Some say, “why aren’t there lots of ways if God is love? A better question would be, “why are there any ways if God is just?” Jesus stands ready to welcome those who come “through him”, meaning under his authority and on his terms. Anyone who attempts to reach God through another religion or another mediator is a thief and a robber. Christianity is not inclusive – it is exclusive. Thieves and robbers say the Christian life is easy. But Jesus said “the gate is narrow and the way is hard and there are few who find it”. There is only one way.
Jesus talked about those who came before him, and then said they are thieves and robbers. Not were. So while he’s certainly including false messiahs that had come and died long ago, he seems to be focusing on someone who came in his name and is still around. Given the context, it seems a fairly clear reference to Pharisees and others who oppress the people while claiming to come to save. To their face, Jesus is saying, “What kind of lousy shepherds are you?!” You claim to mediate on my behalf, and yet all you do is take from the people, and take people from God. Beware the fate that awaits those who stand between God and his people.
Doors work both ways. They keep bad guys out and they keep sheep in. More specifically, Jesus keeps thieves, robbers, and wolves out, and keeps his sheep in. This is about protection. In the fold (the church, the kingdom) we are safe.
“…the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
This verse is worth examining by itself because of a number of popular misconceptions.
- Out of context, you’ve probably heard this mention of “the thief” as a reference to the devil. Hopefully, you see that in context it is not. Certainly the devil does take things that are not rightfully his, and the Bible gives us plenty of other warnings about the devil’s plans, but that’s not the immediate point Jesus is making. He is saying that false teachers have no authority, and they come only to take from you.
- Conversely, Jesus is the only one with authority to come to his own. And rather than take from them, he gives to them. In context, the primary meaning of “abundant life” is similar to the meaning of “abundant money”. In other words – lots of it. The “lots of life” that Jesus promised is eternal life. Abundant life doesn’t necessarily mean a cushy life. Absolutely, God can and does bless his children, but this verse does not promise that. This verse says predators come to shorten your life, but Jesus comes to lengthen it. Eternally.
The Uniqueness of Jesus the Good Shepherd
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He 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. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 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. (….) For this reason, the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 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.”
Jesus is back to his original metaphor of being the shepherd. This language is reminiscent of Psalm 23, but do you see the problem for his listeners? As I said in the opening, David described God as his shepherd. Here, Jesus uses all the same language David did, but referring to himself. Yet again, Jesus is equating himself with God. We may not notice it, but you can be sure that they did.
Jesus was not just an hourly worker that would run at the slightest sign of danger. Remember all my references to sheep being watched over by the children of the owner? Jesus is making it clear that his Father is the owner of the sheep. He is not going to let them be injured. Owners have a vested interest in their sheep. Owners fight to the death. Hirelings do not. Jesus has a rightful claim to us, and that guarantees he will protect us.
Note Jesus’ claim of being able to lay down and pick up his life at will. How bizarre does this sound? It’s easy to read past it from our vantage point, but at this point these people had no idea he would be crucified and rise from the dead. To them his statements were not only blasphemous but just plain ridiculous. He wasn’t predicting being a victim of murder. He said his life would not be taken from him. He would lay his life down and he would pick it back up himself.
It’s also worth mentioning that the bible also refers to pastors as shepherds. Christians have been grafted in to God’s family, and some have been appointed to serve as shepherds for the flock. God’s flock is currently housed in hundreds of thousands of small sheepfolds tended by local shepherds. These shepherds ought to emulate Christ in their guidance, feeding, and protection of their flocks. This one reason we must challenge teachings or teachers that we believe are misleading people. Jesus made no secret of the fact that the Pharisees were bound for hell if they didn’t repent, and even said that their followers had been made “twice as fit for hell” as they were. Proper care for the flock is why pastors and teachers are held to a higher standard, and why we ought to care that our fellow sheep are not being led astray.
“And 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.”
This is another statement easy for us to miss, but I think it was loud and clear to the listening Jews. These people had immense pride in being the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. An inheritance had been promised to them. As far as they were concerned, God was looking out for them and no one else. While he didn’t lay out all the details, his language was clear enough. There were other sheep besides them. This was a passing, but pointed reference to Jesus’ plans to save not only Jews, but Gentiles as well.
But even though there are multiple sheep, there would be one flock, joined in unity under Christ. Different folds, but one flock, one shepherd, one door, one way.
There was again a division among the Jews because of these words. Many of them said, “He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?” Others said, “These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
Some thought he had a demon because of the outrageous things he had been saying. And you have to admit, they were outrageous! Others rightly asked, how could a person with a demon heal the blind? They were caught in a dilemma. Who was this man, and how did he accomplish this trickery?
So 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.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me,”
This reminds me of my last message when the 5000 who had been miraculously fed by Jesus asked him for a sign that he was from God. Seriously, guys? Jesus had made it more than plain enough for them. They knew all the miracles he had performed, but they were oblivious. He who has ears to hear will hear. She who has eyes to see will see. Those who stand in opposition to God will remain deaf and blind. Seeing they have not seen and hearing they have not heard. Jesus had already told them he was the Christ and he had proven it. They were just blind.
Security in the Call to the Redeemed
“but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.”
Why didn’t they believe? Because they were not Jesus’ sheep. He came to claim all that were his, but some were not his. If they were his, they would have believed. Jesus was saying that the Pharisees and those who sided with them were opposed to God because they were not his sheep. In the same fold for a time, but not part of his flock.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
The voice Jesus speaks of is his call into the flock. As the shepherd, Jesus has legitimate right to come to the fold. But not all in the fold are his. Those who are his hear him and come out from among them. And this “voice” is not talking about hearing a special word from the Lord. This is about the Holy Spirit’s call to his own, urging them to follow Jesus’ leadership (or shepherding) in their lives.
“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My 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. I and the Father are one.”
Only Jesus’ sheep follow him. Only Jesus’ sheep have eternal life. Only Jesus’ sheep are safe in the Father’s hand. Therefore, we can come to Christ and find rest. In Christ we are safe. Only in Christ are we able to find real security.
If Jesus is the only begotten from the Father, the only light, the only way, the only protection and security, and the only hope for eternal life and reconciliation with the Father… why would you not believe and follow?! But Jesus is no longer on earth calling his flock in the same way. So how do we hear the shepherd today?
When Jesus said his sheep hear and recognize his voice, he wasn’t talking about an audible or personalized revelation to us. He’s not saying that believers ought to expect to hear directly from God. Jesus was using a widely known metaphor so the audience could envision what he meant.
- We aren’t sheep, we’re people.
- We don’t “hear”, because nothing is said audibly.
- And even though we often use language of feeling things in our heart, we don’t mean the blood-pumping organ in our chest.
So what does it mean? Language such as “hearing the call of Christ in your heart” is a way of saying that Jesus’ followers feel the urgency within their souls as the Holy Spirit draws them to reconciliation with God. In short, this is what we respond to at salvation.
It could also be heard audibly, if biblically.
- God has always spoken. In the beginning, he spoke through prophets, but 2000 years ago he spoke directly to us through his son.
- The words of the prophets and the words of Jesus were recorded for us in scripture. We have everything that God intended for us to have.
- Jesus sent us to speak on his behalf. He said that those with whom we share the gospel will hear him through hearing us.
- We are to speak, because that is how people meet Christ. Paul asked, “How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them? … faith comes from hearing the preached word of Christ.”
So what does the bible have to say to me today? We hear the same thing that everyone in the sheepfold heard. If we are his, we will recognize our shepherd’s voice and follow him with the rest of his flock. Today, perhaps you heard the following call of Jesus into the pen of our church:
- Jesus opened the eyes of a blind man. He did many miracles to authenticate his power as God. When you see the miraculous power of God at work in Scripture, in the lives of others or in yourself, don’t resist the truth of who he was like the Pharisees did. There is no question he was God, and is God.
- Today you may “hear his call” as an inner prompting to leave your sinful life and follow him in obedience. If you follow him – meaning recognize that Jesus is who he claimed to be and surrender your life in obedience – then you are in the fold. There is no need for anxiety. There is every reason for security.
- Today, you have heard the shepherd in scripture
- Because he is the door, entering through him is the only way to peace with the Father
- All others steal, kill, and destroy, but through him and him alone can you find eternal life
- He is the only true shepherd who would – and who did – die for his sheep
- If you hear him today, follow him and don’t look back.
Have you heard his call? Do you recognize his voice? Will you follow him? I pray that you do. As Peter said, “Where else can we turn? Jesus alone has the words of eternal life.”
 John 10:6
 Genesis 4:2
 Exodus 20:24
 1 Samuel 25:18
 Leviticus 13:47
 2 Kings 3:4
 7,000 originally which God allowed to be taken and replaced with 14,000 after his sufferings. (Job 1:3; 42:12)
 2 Chronicles 7:5
 Genesis 29:9
 Exodus 3:1
 Many references in 1 Samuel 17
 John 10:1-5
 John 10:7-9
 Exodus 3:14
 Matthew 7:14
 It is interesting to note the parallels in Romans 5:1-5
 Matthew 23
 Matthew 18:6, for instance
 John 10:10
 John 10:11-15; 17-18
 Romans 11:11-24
 Matthew 23:15
 John 10:16
 John 10:19-21
 John 10:24-25
 Matthew 13:10-17
 John 10:26
 John 10:27
 cf vs 4 as well
 John 10:28-30
 Matthew 11:28
 Hebrews 1:1-2
 John 14:26
 2 Peter 1:3
 Matthew 28:16-20
 Luke 10:16
 Romans 10:14,17 (NET)