In Luke 15 we come across a parable told by Jesus, directed at the Pharisees, where a shepherd leaves his ninety-nine sheep to go save the one lost sheep. In that parable Jesus says something about himself and the lost sheep he has come to save. Even more, in that parable, Jesus speaks against the Pharisees who have refused to find the lost sheep. Simultaneously, he reveals the kingdom he is bringing, a kingdom filled with lost sheep, now found by Christ.
Just in case you have not read Luke 15 in a while, here it is again.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
In Luke’s Gospel everyone agrees this is parable. Jesus is using sheep to speak about the conditions in Jerusalem, which he was going to change soon.
In John 10 we have a similar parable, though the word parable (parabolē) is replaced by the word “figure of speech” (paroimian, v. 6). Ironically, many who read Jesus’s words in verses 1–6 do not recognize the parabolic nature of Jesus’s language. Instead, they see his words about the sheep as a mere illustration or metaphor. But in so doing, these commentators miss the context of Jesus’ sharp words.
So let me begin by saying that on the last day of the Feast of Booths, Jesus addresses his adversaries, the ones seeking to kill him, and he tells a parable that describes God’s coming judgment on the temple courts of Jerusalem. At the same time, his parable identifies Jesus as the only Savior who can lead his sheep away from this impending disaster.
This is the context of John 10:1–6, and in these six verses, we find at least three reasons for reading this passage in this way.
First, Jesus is not speaking to shepherd-peasants. He is speaking to the leaders of Jerusalem (9:40–41). As we read in John 8–9, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees who were leaders in Israel. And as John has shown from the beginning, when Jesus drove out the traders from the temple (John 2:13–22), Jesus is bringing a message of judgment against such false leaders.
So, as Jesus speaks here, he is not speaking literally about sheep and pens, he is using a figure of speech to condemn the shepherds in Jerusalem. And this is the second reason I don’t see vv. 1–6 as mere illustration. In verse 6 Jesus tells us how to interpret his words: “This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”
So Jesus’s opponents don’t understand his words. And like all the parables Jesus told, this was the purpose. The reason Jesus spoke in parables was to reveal and conceal, to save and judge. And so here, Jesus’s sheep hear his voice, but his enemies will be confounded. And this was as it was designed by God.
So again, Jesus is speaking to the false shepherds of Jerusalem, and second he is speaking in a parable to them. But then, third, Jesus is speaking of events foretold in the Old Testament.
That is to say that when Jesus spoke of shepherds, sheep, sheepfolds, and strangers, we was digging into a rich tradition of biblical imagery and biblical prophecy. As we read in Ezekiel 34, the reason why God brought judgment on Jerusalem was largely a result of shepherds fleecing the sheep and failing to protect the flock.
So too in Jesus day, the Jewish leaders were not protecting the flock from sin but were robbing them and defiling God’s house. And accordingly Jesus came with this figure of speech aimed directly at the priests. In short, it is a word filled with warning.
At the same time, it was a word filled with hope and salvation for those sheep who have ears to hear. In fact, as John 10 continues, Jesus explains further how he will bring salvation to his sheep, even as the judgment comes. And for those today seeking to find salvation, shelter, and security from a world under threat of God’s judgment, this chapter is filled with gospel promises.
On Sunday, our church considered these promises and what it means that Jesus is the Door (John 10:7, 9), the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14), and the Sovereign Sacrifice—the Son who had authority to lay down his life and take it back up again (John 10:17–18). Indeed, these are just some of the truths found in John 10:1–21 and you can hear the whole sermon here.
May the Lord continue to open the ears of his sheep, so that they are led from the courts of destruction to the eternal courts of God. This is the promise of John 10 and one we need today.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds