“The Court of the Sheep”: A Temple Reading of John 10

herd of sheep on grassland

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.
— John 10:1 —

In John 16:25, Jesus says to his disciples, “I have said these things to you in figures of speech [paroimia]. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech [paroimia] but will tell you plainly about the Father.” In that context, Jesus was speaking of his going away and the resulting sorrow his disciples would experience (John 16:16–24). In this exchange, Jesus’s disciples did not understand what he was saying (v. 18), and so verse 25 is a pivot in the conversation.

Starting here, Jesus begins to explain what his going away means—soon he is going to leave the world and return to the Father. It is unlikely, in that moment, that the disciples understood how this departure (his exodus) would take place (by means of a cross, resurrection, and ascension), but they say in v. 29, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech.”

Importantly, this word for “figure of speech” is used only one other time in John’s Gospel. In John 10:6, John narrates and says, “This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” Structurally, John 10:1–21 works very similarly to John 16:16–33. Jesus says something figuratively, i.e., in a figure of speech, which his audience does not understand (compare John 10:6 and John 16:18). Then, after acknowledging the confusion, Jesus speaks again more plainly. In John 16, the focus is on Jesus’s coming departure. In John 10, the focus is similar, as Jesus describes the way he will lead his sheep out of something.

But what is that something?

In John 10:3, Jesus speaks of an unidentified shepherd, “To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” In these five verses, the place from which the sheep are led out is the “sheepfold.” As verse 1–2 indicate, the thief enters the sheepfold falsely (v. 1), but the true shepherd enters the sheepfold by means of the door (v. 2). This is the contrast that Jesus sets up in figure of speech, and it is repeated in verse 4–5, when he explains how sheep follow the true shepherd (v. 4) but not the stranger (v. 5). As John notes, this figure of speech is lost on Jesus audience.

Interpreting John 10

Unfortunately, I think that this figure of speech is also lost on many readers today. Here’s what I mean. While evangelical commentators rightly understand the full passage of John 10:1–21, which identifies Jesus as the Door (vv. 7, 9), the Good Shepherd (vv. 11, 14), and the Sovereign Lamb, who lays down his life to take it up again (vv. 17–18), they tend to miss the figural or typological nature of Jesus words in verses 1–5. Consider the way that Edward Klink puts it, as he describes the figure of speech in John 10:1–5 as an illustration. In his otherwise excellent commentary, he states,

Jesus begins with an “illustration” that is difficult to classify but significant to the interpretation of the entire pericope (see comments on v. 6). The “illustration” employs agrarian language and describes a context common to first-century shepherds. The term “courtyard” (aulēn) describes “an area open to the sky, frequently surrounded by buildings, and in some cases partially by walls” [BDAG]. This courtyard may have been bordered by family homes, serving as a sheep pen or corral for the one or more families who owned and had access to the courtyard. The scene depicted, therefore, is familial and private. This is not a public courtyard; it was restricted and private property.” (Klink, John, 459)

In this reading of John 10:1–6, the courtyard of the sheep is immediately compared to the agrarian context of Jesus contemporaries. And this cultural and historical background is necessary for understanding the picture that Jesus paints in John 10. But I am not convinced that Jesus is using the imagery of sheep, folds, shepherds, gatekeepers, and thieves as a mere “illustration.” Rather, as Andreas Köstenberger has articulated it, the type of speech in John 10:1–5 is a “symbolic discourse” (John, 302). In other Gospels, Jesus speech would be described as a parable. In John, the word parabolē is not used, but the word paroimia is. And this latter word is closely related to parabolē, as Kostenberger notes (302, n17).

So, based on the textual direction given to us in John 10:6, I am not inclined to read John 10:1–5 as a simple illustration or metaphor taken from Jewish agrarian life. For starters, Jesus pronounces this “figure of speech” in Jerusalem, not in the fields of Galilee. Moreover, the book of John is filled with signs, which are physical objects like wine and physical conditions like blindness that have a spiritual and theological sign-ificance. And further, the imagery of sheep, shepherds, courts, and thieves have larger theological import from the Old Testament.

Again, most commentators make this point in John 10:7–21, but I want to read John 10:1–6 in the same way. Indeed, it would be poor interpretation to suggest Jesus reference “I am the true vine” in John 15:1 was merely a convenient metaphor to describe his relationship with his disciples. No, Jesus imagery of the vine picks up a ideas from the Old Testament (see e.g. Isaiah 5 and Ezekiel 17), and his employment of the term reveals how he is fulfilling the Old Testament promises of a fruitful vine. So too, the imagery of Jesus as the Door and the Shepherd pick up Old Testament types, but instead of waiting for those connections to occur in John 10:7ff, I believe we should read John 10:1–6 typologically, not merely illustratively. To say it differently, the first line of interpretation of Jesus’s figure of speech should be ancient Scripture, not just Jewish culture.

The Courtyard of the Sheep 

The genesis of this study came when I discovered the word for “fold” (v. 1, 16) is never found in the Bible to describe sheep and their household lodgings. Rather, the word aulēn, which is the Greek word for “fold” is better translated “court,” “courtyard,” or “palace.” In the New Testament, the word is used of the court of high priest (Matt. 26:3, 58, 69; Mark 14:54, 66; Luke 22:55; John 18:15), the inner “palace” of the governor (Mark 15:16), ), the “palace” of the strong man (Luke 11:21), and the court outside the temple (Rev. 11:2). That’s it. There is no connection between animals and courtyards in the New Testament. Except John 10.

More conclusively, in the 179 uses of the word in the LXX, aulē is never used to speak of animals and their shelters. It is almost exclusively used to speak of the tabernacle,[1] the temple,[2] or some precinct associated with the priests or kings of Jerusalem.[3] In fact, the largest number of uses are found in Ezekiel, where in the section describing the reconstruction of the temple (ch. 40–48), courts and courtyards are mentioned forty-seven times.[4] In all, the word is prominently associated with the temple in the Old Testament and never associated with sheep. This is the first reason why I believe it is a mistake to interpret Jesus words “court of the sheep” (aulen tōn probatōn) as referring to the architecture of agragrian Jews, a “sheepfold.”

The second reason I believe this reading is poor is due to Jesus’s audience. Jesus is addressing the shepherds of Israel. As it becomes plain in verses 7–21, Jesus is the Good Shepherd and the leading Jews in Jerusalem are the bad shepherds. These are the ones fleecing the flock, stealing their money, and doing the devils work. As Ezekiel 34 spoke of the wicked shepherds of old, Jesus speaks to the wicked shepherds of his day. And most importantly, if Jesus is addressing them, and he speaks of the “court of the sheep,” and aulēn is a word predominately associated with the temple, then it makes sense that Jesus is speaking about the temple courts where the shepherds are mistreating the sheep.

A third reason for this reading is found in the details of Jesus’s speech. As noted, Jesus is not talking to sheep, but to shepherds. Second, Jesus is speaking in Jerusalem, probably in view of the temple courts. He is not speaking in the fields of peasant shepherds; he is speaking to the priests—of whom he will soon be arrested and brought into their courts as a sheep to the slaughter. Third, he is speaking figuratively. If we read his words literally, rather than typologically, we miss the way his words work. Again, any figure of speech depends upon knowing the cultural artifacts described by them. Knowing that shepherds led their sheep by name is important for understanding John 10:3, but if we only read Jesus words at the level of cultural illustration, we miss the indictment that Jesus is bringing against his audience and their courts. And this is the point I want to make: Before the judgment comes on the temple, Jesus will lead his sheep out of the temple courts.

The Big Reveal

If Jesus figurative speech (John 10:1–5) is an indictment against the false shepherds, it reveals that the place from which Jesus is leading his sheep is the temple courts. Read verse 3 again: “To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” Out of what? The literal reading of verse 1 is “the court of the sheep.”

As John’s Gospel has indicated to those who know the courts of the temple, Jesus has already overturned tables in the court of the Gentiles (John 2). He announced himself the light of the world in the court of the women (John 8). And now, he is telling the shepherds that from the court of the sheep, i.e., the courts where male Jews can enter and worship, he is going to remove all those who will listen (i.e., his sheep). He will do this by his Word and he will do this as he bring judgment upon the temple.

In fact, the theme of judgment on the temple is not only one that pervades all of John’s Gospel, it is one that centers the next section. In John 10:7–21, the center of the section, as strange as it sounds, are the verses 12b-13: The hired hand “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” As the following outline shows, the threat of a wolf is the center of John’s chiastic structure.

Screen Shot 2022-07-15 at 12.22.38 PM

And this center pairs with the center of John 10:1–6 and the promise that Jesus will lead his people out of the temple.

Screen Shot 2022-07-15 at 12.23.18 PM

Read in the context of Old Testament, we find multiple passages threatening the coming of a wolf. Jeremiah 5:6 declares that a wolf shall devastate the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and Zephaniah 3:1–8 says the same, only it will be multiple wolves. In particular, Zephaniah 3:3 says, “Her officials  [the officials of Jerusalem] within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves that leave nothing till the morning.” In the New Testament, Jesus likens the false teachers of Israel to wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15), and in John 10, the threat of a wolf seems to imply something similar. God is bringing judgment on Jerusalem (like Jeremiah and Zephaniah foretold) and he is doing so by letting wolves roam the city. The hired hands (i.e., false shepherds) are culpable, but God using them to accomplish his judgments (cf. Assyria in Isaiah 10; Babylon in Habakkuk).

Still, before the wolves completely devour the sheep of Israel, the ones who assemble in Jerusalem, Jesus will lead out his sheep. These are the ones who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, who is also the one who will lay down his life for his sheep. Even as the wolves gnash their teeth and seek to take Jesus’s life, he is truly in charge. He will lay his life down, and he will take it back up again (John 10:17–18). Ultimately, this is the main message of John 10:1–21.

What This Reading Teaches Us About Jesus

From this reading, we see that Jesus is not a hireling. He is the Good Shepherd. And as the Good Shepherd, he will lay down his life for the sheep, paying for their sins (see Isaiah 53). Yet, in the same moment, he will save them by delivering them from the judgment that is coming on the temple, the place where the people of Israel, human sheep, gather. Indeed, in most commentaries, this is the message that is communicated. But it is restricted to verses 7–21.

What I have argued here is that the whole section points in the same direction, and that we should understand Jesus words in vv. 1–5 as a figural speech that depends upon the promises of the Old Testament and the confirmation of verses 7–21. Faithful readers of John should in these verses not make the first move to the culture of Israel, but to the encyclopedia of imagery found in the Old and New Testaments. By reading “the court of the sheep” in light of the Old Testament, it helps us see the temple typology of John 10, which fits the rest of the book and sheds greater light on the imagery of this entire pericope.

In fact, by reading John 10:1–5 in this way, it reforms the way we think about Jesus’s statement “I am the door.” He is the door or the gate of the temple, not just the door of the sheep pen. Critically, this difference means he is the place where the sacrifice is brought. In Leviticus, it is the “door” where the sacrifice is offered, and in John 10, when Jesus says he is the Door, we should also see the door of the temple. Of course Jesus protects the sheep and provide access into the court, but by reading his words as the door of the sheep pen, we miss how they relate to the temple. Truly, Jesus is the gateway to the true courtyard of God, and by means of his sacrifice he brings his sheep into his Father’s house (see John 14:1–6). Yet again, this depends on reading “court of the sheep” as the courtyard of the temple.

Once again, most commentators get to this by the end of John 10:1–21. But many stumble out of the blocks. As a result they miss some of the biblical theological gold that is available by reading “sheepfold” as “the [temple] court of the sheep.” In this blogpost, I’ve tried to show why I think this common reading is infelicitous, and why on Sunday I will preach John 10 as another temple text in John’s glorious gospel.

Soli Dei Gloria, ds

Photo by Alexey Komissarov on Pexels.com


[1] Exodus 27:9, 12, 13, 16, 17, 18, 19; 35:12; 37:7, 13, 15, 16, 18; 38:19, 20, 21; 39:9, 20; 40:27; Leviticus 6:16, 26; 8:31; Numbers 3:26, 37; 4:26, 32.

[2] See e.g., the temple court (1 Kings 2:35; 6:34; 7:45, 46, 49; 8:64; 2 Kings 21:5); the courts of the Lord/God (Psalm 64:5; 83:3, 11; 95:9; 99:4; 115:10; 121:2; 134:2).

[3] See e.g., the courtyard of the king (2 Samuel) 17:18; the middle Court when God came to Isaiah (2 kings 20:4); the two courts of the house of the Lord (2 Kings 21:5; 23:12; 2 Chron 33:5); David’s Courts (1 Chron 9:22, 25); holy courts (1 Chron 16:29); the courtyard of the king (Esther A:2, 12, 13, 16; 1:5; 3:2, 3; 4:2; 5:9; 5:14; 6:4, 5, 10, 12; 7:4); the woman’s courtyard (Ezra 2:11, 20).

[4] Ezekiel 40:16, 17, 19, 20, 23, 27, 28, 31, 34, 37, 44, 47; 41:3; 42:1, 3, 7, 8, 10, 14; 43:5; 44:17, 18, 19, 22, 27; 45:20; 46:1, 20, 21, 22; 47:2, 16, 17; 48:1.