10 July 2022

The Good Shepherd Story.

John 10.11-21.

In the previous bit, Jesus says he’s the sheepfold gate. In this bit, Jesus says he’s the good shepherd.

These passages don’t confuse a lot of people, because most of us have plenty enough brainpower to keep up with the idea of Jesus switching metaphors. “I’m the gate; you don’t go in around me. And I’m the shepherd—a good shepherd, who defends his sheep, unlike people who only start up a church for the power and money and fame, and the instant things get serious or rough, they bail on their church in Seattle, Washington and move to Scottsdale, Arizona, and con another flock into following them.”

…Okay yeah, I’m sounding a tad specific there, like I have a particular guy in mind. Maybe I do. But you could swap in any two cities in the United States—or the planet—and you’ll probably find a bad shepherd fleeing from town to town, hoping to evade accountability so he can get away with yet more evil. There have been bad shepherds throughout history. The people of Jesus’s day no doubt knew a few; maybe some rabbi who stole all his synagogue’s money, or one who slept around, or one who touched the children. Human nature doesn’t change, and ravenous wolves still try to feast on the faithful. So these things still happen.

But Jesus is the good shepherd. Kinda like the LORD is in Psalm 23… and since Jesus is the LORD, it’s totally okay to apply that psalm to him. But let’s deal with today’s passage first.

John 10.11-21 KWL
11 “I’m the good shepherd.
The good shepherd puts down his soul for the sheep.
12 The hireling, being no shepherd—
who isn’t the sheep’s own shepherd
he sees the wolf coming,
and he abandons the sheep and flees.
The wolf snatches and scatters them.
13 Because he’s a hireling!
He doesn’t care about anything about the sheep.
14 “I’m the good shepherd.
I know who’s mine,
and who’s mine know me.
15 Just as the Father knows me,
and I know the Father.
16 I have other sheep,
which aren’t from this sheepfold.
It’s necessary for me to lead them as well:
They’ll hear my voice,
and they’ll become one flock, one shepherd.
17 “This is why the Father loves me:
I put down my soul,
so I can pick it up again.
18 No one takes it away from me;
instead I put it down by myself.
I have the power to put it down,
and I have the power to pick it up again.
I receive this command from my Father.”
19 Again, there became a split among the Judeans
about these words.
20 Many were saying about him, “He has a demon,”
and “He’s raving mad; do you hear him?”
21 Others were saying, “These sayings aren’t demonic;
a demon isn’t able to open blind eyes!”

Jesus says a lot of profound things here, and of course the Judeans’ response was to either say, “Well of course he’s the good shepherd,” or if you’re a bit more closed-minded, “Oh he’s just babbling complete nonsense. Who does he think he is, God or something?”

As you might remember, parables tend to go right over the heads of the closed-minded—not necessarily because they can’t follow what Jesus means by them, but because they have no faith in Jesus. They might totally agree with the metaphor of Jesus’s followers being sheep—but they’re gonna dismiss and ignore the rest. It’s childish rubbish, meant for weak-minded sheeple.

Giving up his soul for the sheep.

Most translations generally follow the King James Version’s lead—

John 10.11 KJV
I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.

—and presume “giveth his life for the sheep” means dying for the sheep. Especially because of the wordplay in verses 17-18 about giving it up and taking it back. Everybody knows Jesus died for the sins of humanity, then rose on the third day; what they figure is that’s how Jesus was the good shepherd. He died for our sins.

But really, verses 17-18 are just wordplay on Jesus’s part. The bit in verse 11, ἐγὼ τίθημι τὴν ψυχήν μου/eghó títhimi tin psyhín mu, “I put down my soul,” literally means that: He puts it down, much like you’d put down a backpack or package or sheep you were carrying. And you can interpret it literally, but don’t: He’s doing wordplay. He’s not literally plucking out his lifeforce, putting it on the ground… then dropping dead ’cause without a soul you’re dead.

Among Greek-speakers, when you “put [something] down,” it can mean you established it, surrendered it, made it, deposited it, gave your opinion on it, rewarded it, commanded it, dismissed it, or managed it. Plenty of things can be implied—and let’s go with the one most likely to be what Jesus meant by it. Which is not that he died for his flock, ’cause what good is a dead shepherd? It’s that he surrendered his life to his flock. They’re his life’s purpose. His eternal life’s purpose.

No, Jesus doesn’t surrender his life for the sole purpose of the Romans crucifying him, so he could die for our sins and we could receive grace. Sure, that stuff is true too. But surrendering one’s life is much, much bigger than simply dying for another person, or even the whole world. It means they’re our new priority—not we ourselves. If I put down my life for my kids, it does not mean I die for them (even though I would); I gotta take care of them and provide for them. I gotta live for them! Dying’s the eays way out. Surrendering my life on a daily basis, thinking of them before I think of myself: There’s the challenge.

I know; plenty of Christians claim the Father was Jesus’s greatest concern. After all, didn’t Jesus say so? Um… he actually never did. He did say he only does as he sees the Father do, Jn 5.19 but not because he lives a lifestyle of repentance; there’s nothing about the life of Christ which he needed to change! We have to strive to follow his will. For Jesus, it’s his nature. Doing God’s will is who he is. He does it automatically, without thinking; it’s built-in. Hence he never sinned. He 4.15 We’re the ones who need to learn how to be like Jesus, and develop a godly nature; it’s a huge priority for us, but not so much for Jesus, who never lost it.

So we became Jesus’s top priority. He’s our shepherd, and we’re his flock. He wants to save us and give us more life than we ever imagined. Jn 10.10 And though the Father sent the Son on this mission, Jesus’s statement that he does this—that it’s his choice to put down his soul for his flock, ’cause it’s also his choice to take it up again, and nobody’s making him do this—the Father loves that Jesus chose to do this. He’s perfectly pleased with this plan. So don’t worry about how their relationship is doing; Jesus’s agenda is the Father’s agenda.


Sometimes a shepherd has to hire help. He’s gotta shear the lambs, and he can’t do that and watch the rest of them; so you find a guy in town and offer him a denarius to make sure the sheep stay out of trouble. So what happens when the sheep get into trouble on the hired guy’s watch? Well he’s hardly qualified: If a pack of wild dogs came to snatch sheep in those pre-gunpowder days, day laborers likely as not wouldn’t know how to defend themselves, much less sheep; they’d run. Whereas shepherds had learned, often by hard experience, somebody’s gotta fight off the wild dogs. That’d be them.

The KJV called such a person a “hireling,” which comes from Jesus’s word μισθωτὸς/misthotós, “wage worker.” I didn’t wanna use the word mercenary to translate it, ’cause that implies someone who will do anything for money, and this guy clearly won’t fight wolves for it. Think of it more like a teenager who really, really hates their job, and barely does it, but sticks around ’cause there are paychecks, and sometimes coworkers to flirt with.

Many Christians nowadays use the term hireling to describe any pastor who doesn’t actually lead their church. Certain church governments work that way: The church is run by its elders, or by popular vote, and if their pastors wanna take the church a certain direction, they need to get the real leaders of the church to agree to it, or it’s not happening. And if the pastors persist… well, they might be out of a job. I’ve been in certain churches where the pastor has no power to get anything done, and people shake their heads and say, “Well of course not; he’s just a hireling.” But he is not what Jesus means by hireling; he cares about the sheep. He’d totally fight off wolves for them. The hireling in Jesus’s parable? Nope. Bye!

So properly, a hireling in this parable’s context would be any Christian in church leadership who oughta step up when times get rough, but back down in cowardice. And Jesus contrasts himself with one of these lousy shepherds: He never cuts and runs when times get tough. He’ll empty both barrels into the wolf… wait, first century; he’d sling a stone right at it. Either way, dead wolf.

Other sheep!

“I have other sheep,” Jesus says in verse 16, “which aren’t from this sheepfold. It’s necessary for me to lead them as well: They’ll hear my voice, and they’ll become one flock, one shepherd.”

He’s speaking of course about pre-Christians. These are people who aren’t Christian yet, but will be. Some churches love to use this term instead of “non-Christian” or “pagan,” ’cause they wanna be optimistic: No these people aren’t Christian… yet. Give the Holy Spirit time!

And there were plenty of pre-Christians in Israel at that time. Remember when Simon Peter spoke at Pentecost in the year 33, and 3,000 people became Christian? Ac 2.41 A number of those 3,000 people were in Jerusalem right then, right at the time Jesus said this parable. Wouldn’t be Christian for a few years yet. They were his sheep too. They had yet to hear his voice. But they would, and they’d follow.

Sometimes they’d hear Jesus’s voice personally, like what happened when Paul of Tarsus had his Jesus-encounter. Ac 9.3-5 Same as people still do. But the rest of the time they’d hear Jesus’s voice secondhand, through his followers who share his gospel with the world. Either way, Jesus and we his followers are gonna gather more sheep for his pen.

The Latter-day Saints have a very weird spin on Jesus’s statement, “I have other sheep.” They claim it’s a prophecy specifically about the first-century indigenous Americans: The Book of Mormon states that right after Jesus was raptured, he returned to earth to visit and evangelize the Americas, and share the gospel with them. Unfortunately all those Christians were wiped out centuries before the Europeans got here in the 1400s, which is why no American Indian tribe has any record whatsoever of an ancient American variant of Christianity. Just recent American variants.

I have profound doubts about the Book of Mormon’s story… but y’know, Jesus’s words refer to anybody who later becomes Christian, American or not.