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John 10:11-18


In the Gospel text today, Jesus speaks one of his many “I am” (ego eimi) statements. This time he declares, “I am the good shepherd.” (vv. 11, 14). Anytime Jesus makes one of these statements in John, we are reminded of God’s divine name given to Moses in Exodus 3:14. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint), ego eimi is the phrase that becomes the divine name, and this is the phrase that the Jesus uses in John’s Gospel.

Jesus’ reference to being the good shepherd is both a divine and a messianic reference (think the shepherd King David). What is odd here is the first and foremost characteristic that Jesus attributes to the good shepherd: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He says that he “lays down his life” five total times in this 7 verse passage.

The idea of the good shepherd laying down his life is odd because this is not expected of a divine figure or the Messiah. While the prophets mention that the Messiah will suffer or die a couple of times, death was generally not an expectation for the Jewish Messiah. Dying for their sheep is also not necessarily an expectation for an actual shepherd either. Of course, a shepherd’s job is to protect the sheep as best they could, and David says that he risked his life defending his sheep from lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34-36). Still, a shepherd would only do so much to save a sheep.

While Jesus’ point that he “lays down his life for his sheep” is undoubtedly a prediction of his death, it’s not only that. This is not just a reference to his sacrificial death; Jesus’ entire life is one of committing to a self-sacrificial way of leading his followers. Jesus laid down his life when he flipped the marketers’ tables in the temple (2:13-22). He lays down his life when he risks his reputation by speaking to a Samaritan woman (4:7-29). He lays down his life when he heals on the Sabbath (5:2-18). And to jump ahead in the story, Jesus lays down his life when he stoops to wash the disciples’ feet (13:1-11). It is these examples and his entire ministry and life that lead to Jesus’ crucifixion. He has committed to laying down his life from the beginning and remained faithful to that cause, resulting in his death.

Reading this text, we may wonder who the hired hand is. Does Jesus have someone in mind? Is it the religious leaders? The political leaders? Who knows. The point indeed is that what leads to Jesus being the good shepherd is his willingness from the beginning to lay down his life that his sheep might live; not something that someone who’s in it for the money (or power) is going to do. While the hired hand “does not care for the sheep” (v. 13) because he “does not own the sheep” (v. 12), the good shepherd cares enough for the sheep to die for them because they are his “own” (v. 14). The sheep are possessed not by an uncaring hired hand but by the good shepherd when they come into his fold.

Verse 14 takes a significant turn when he likens the knowledge he has of his sheep to the knowledge shared between the Father and the Son. This isn’t the only time that the Johannine Jesus brings his followers into the life of the Trinity (see 6:57, 15:9, 17:20-24, 20:21). This further explains the intimate knowledge that Jesus has of us. We may think of Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus in chapter 20. In this Easter story, it is only because of Jesus’ knowledge of Mary that Mary finally recognizes her Lord.

Jesus wasn’t done upending the expectations of the Messiah with reference to his death and resurrection. He further surprises us by explaining that there are other sheep that don’t currently belong to the fold that he must bring in. The reference here is surly to the breaking down of walls that have been put up between the Gentiles and God. All sheep, regardless of their ethnic identities, are now welcomed into the fold simply by listening to the good shepherd’s voice.

Jesus says that “there will be one flock, one shepherd.” A new reality, for sure. Not only then when Jesus initially spoke these words but now as we read them well. The world is still divided into many flocks with many shepherds. Unfortunately, those who are supposed to be the one flock following the one shepherd are divided into many flocks with many shepherds. We struggle to understand ourselves as a global flock with no particular nationality, race, or gender. Jesus describes a diverse flock that is unified under himself that he “must bring” into the fold. He describes this as taking place through his sacrificial life and as a divine mandate from the Father.

Like so many stories from John’s Gospel, this passage contains both a comforting quality as it emphasizes the care that Jesus has for us and a commissioning quality as he doesn’t simply snap his fingers to make his flock diverse and welcoming. Finding a way to incorporate both into a sermon or lesson is the challenge of preaching and teaching, and our context may determine what we need to hear from the passage. In the Easter season, we focus on the salvation that the Good Shepherd brings while also recognizing that there is a mission that we join when we accept this salvation.