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. Continue reading