“I Am the Good Shepherd”
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Recite reasons Jesus is the good shepherd.
2. Contrast Jesus as a spiritual shepherd with other religious leaders of his day.
3. Suggest one specific way to participate in the shepherding ministry of his or her church.
How to Say It
Ezekiel. Ee-ZEEK-ee-ul or Ee-ZEEK-yul.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Jan. 29—God Tends His Flock (Isaiah 40:10–14)
Tuesday, Jan. 30—A Warning to False Shepherds (Ezekiel 34:1–6)
Wednesday, Jan. 31—I Will Shepherd My Sheep (Ezekiel 34:11–16)
Thursday, Feb. 1—You Are My Sheep (Ezekiel 34:25–31)
Friday, Feb. 2—The Sheep Know Their Shepherd (John 10:1–5)
Saturday, Feb. 3—I Am the Good Shepherd (John 10:7–11)
Sunday, Feb. 4—The Shepherd Suffers for the Sheep (John 10:12–18)
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Why Teach this Lesson?
We all like to feel that we’re “in control,” don’t we? We can become terrified when we get swept along by events that are beyond our control. Think of the widow who hears someone sneaking around outside her house at night. Think of citizens of a nation that is victimized by terrorist attacks. Think of residents of a coastal area as they watch weather reports of a hurricane advancing relentlessly against them. All these situations involve people desiring protection against “enemies” over which they seem to have no control.
Satan, the great enemy, the awful adversary, is sneaking around. At times he strikes as a terrorist. Spiritual forces beyond our control threaten to overwhelm us. We are weak and vulnerable; we need shelter. In such times the Christian has a sure protector. Jesus is the good shepherd of his flock. From the Scripture lesson today we learn to listen for the voice of the gentle shepherd. Listen as he speaks to you words of encouragement, hope, and comfort. He is in control.
A. Knowing Your Own
For many years we had a large dog named Sassy. I could always identify Sassy’s bark from several blocks away, even though there were dozens of dogs in our neighborhood; Sassy, in turn, could identify my call and would come to me in a crowd of people.
In a similar way my wife and I can identify our young daughter’s cry in a room full of toddlers. My son’s first-grade class at church, where I volunteer as a youth sponsor, includes a pair of twins who define the word identical. Their teachers are constantly in a quandary trying to tell them apart. The teachers insist that the two must never wear matching clothes. Yet the parents of these boys can immediately tell one from the other.
Knowledge of this kind—the ability to pick out a voice or a face in a crowd—is a sign of intimacy: we know those we love and they know us, through constant interaction. In our lesson today Jesus will apply this principle to his loving relationship with his disciples.
B. Lesson Background
Most scholars view John 9, just preceding today’s lesson text, as critical for understanding the background of John 10. In John 9 Jesus met a man who had been blind from birth and healed him. The healing came about when Jesus covered the man’s eyes with mud and sent him to wash at the Pool of Siloam. The cure was effective, but it was impossible for the man to recognize Jesus or know much about him. (Jesus was gone before the man had a chance to see him.)
The Pharisees later interrogated the man who had been healed because Jesus, in their view, had violated the Law of Moses by healing on the Sabbath. The man refused to condemn Jesus and ultimately criticized the Pharisees for ignoring the obvious evidence of his divine power. As a result they excommunicated him (John 9:1–34).
Jesus later found the man and led him to faith, while the Pharisees continued to question Jesus’ authority (John 9:35–41). Jesus’ teaching in chapter 10 about his role as the good shepherd is a commentary on this situation. It includes several promises that Jesus will protect and save those who believe in him.
This teaching undoubtedly was extremely meaningful to the apostle John. He, along with the other apostles, also experienced persecution and excommunication for faith in Christ (see John 16:1–4).
I. Shepherd and Thief (John 10:1–6)
A. Reaction to the Shepherd (vv. 1–4)
1, 2. “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep.
The opening phrase I tell you the truth leads us to ask a question: to whom is Jesus speaking? The context of John 9:40, 41 seems to indicate that Jesus is still talking to the Pharisees. On the other hand, the phrase “they did not understand” in John 10:6 (below) may indicate that a different audience is in view.
In either case Jesus’ parable about the sheep pen here in verses 1–6 is a sharp condemnation of the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus compares God’s people to sheep in a pen; in the immediate context, the specific “sheep” in question is most likely the man whom Jesus has just healed of blindness in chapter 9.
The shepherd in this analogy is Jesus himself, while the thieves are the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders who are attempting to prevent people from believing in him (compare John 9:40). Jesus’ legitimate spiritual authority is evidenced by the fact that he enters by the gate. He displays God’s care and love, and people recognize him as the one whom God has sent (compare John 9:30–34).
What Do You Think?
Do the “thieves and robbers” that challenge your own spiritual vitality tend to be specific people or are they more likely to be various temptations? How do you counteract them?
God’s true sheep, however, refuse to accept the false teachings of the Pharisees. These sheep recognize that those teachings do not reflect a correct understanding of Christ in light of Jesus’ miracles. Many Pharisees are thieves and robbers, bent on self-preservation at the sheep’s expense (compare Ezekiel 34; Jude 12).
3. “The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
Middle Eastern shepherds lead flocks by voice commands. Consequently the sheep know the voice of their shepherd. Even when many different flocks graze together, a shepherd can gather his own simply by calling to them. In a similar way those who seek God’s will recognize Jesus’ voice and willingly follow him.
What Do You Think?
Caller ID is a helpful invention! But perhaps you ignored important messages by not responding to the ones marked “caller unknown.” What was a time when you were confused about whether or not it was God who was trying to speak to you through a circumstance or situation? How did you sort things out?
The watchman is the person who guards the gate of the sheep pen. In the context of Jesus’ illustration, this character probably does not refer to any specific person. Rather, the reference is to the general fact that Jesus has a legitimate claim to call God’s people.
Known by Our Names
For several years we had a professor on our college faculty who had an amazing gift. He would look at the pictures of all incoming freshmen that the admissions department provided. He would also notice the hometown of each. At freshmen orientation he would then have all new students stand up—usually over two hundred people whom he had never met.
Starting at one end of the group, he would begin to call out names and hometowns. Each student named would then sit down. By the time he got to the other end of the room, only one or two students would be standing—and often they were recent applicants for whom the admissions office did not have a picture!
In addition that man often taught at a particular “high school week” at a nearby Christian service camp. He would have all students who were there the previous year stand up. He had not seen these students in a year, but he called off their names without any mistakes.
In the 1996 movie Fly Away Home, Amy Alden raises a flock of orphaned Canada geese. She gives them all names and leads them into winter quarters in the southern United States. To most of us one goose looks just like another.
If a human can have an ability to know names, hometowns, and individual geese, how much more is Jesus able to know us! He is the good shepherd, and he knows the names of his sheep. That comfort will follow us into eternity. —J. B. N.
4. “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.
To heed the call of Christ is vital! Ancient shepherds walk ahead of their flocks to lead them from the pen to safe pasture, and Jesus uses this analogy to describe his leadership of God’s people. The twofold emphasis is on knowing his voice and on following him. The first of these two speaks to the ability to recognize Jesus as the one who has come to reveal God to the world. The second speaks to being obedient to his teaching in all circumstances.
B. Reaction to Strangers (v. 5)
5. “But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”
In John 9 the man healed of blindness stubbornly refused to yield to the Pharisees. He would not condemn Jesus despite pressure. His reaction contrasted sharply with that of his parents, who tried to straddle the fence when called to testify (John 9:18–23).
The attitude of the man healed of blindness parallels the way that sheep will scatter when strangers attempt to lure them away. God’s people will listen to Jesus’ voice and no other.
C. Reaction of the Listeners (v. 6)
6. Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them.
Although the meaning of Jesus’ analogy seems obvious to us now, it is misunderstood by the original hearers. This confusion may suggest that Jesus is now speaking to a different audience: not to the Pharisees of John 9:40, 41 but to a larger group of Jews of John 10:19.
This view could be supported by the reaction of the chief priests and scribes in Luke 20:19. There we see that those religious leaders are able to understand all too well that Jesus uses a figure of speech against them. Here, however, the audience did not understand what he was telling them.
What Do You Think?
The people listening to Jesus were confused by his figures of speech. What subjects in the Bible still cause you confusion? How do you go about getting help to clarify those issues?
So perhaps this is a larger audience (again, John 10:19) that is not aware of Jesus’ earlier discussion with the man whom he had cured of blindness. In either case Jesus proceeds to expand the illustration in order to explain its relevance to all people who are considering whether or not to follow him (next verse).
II. Individuals and Motives (John 10:7–10)
A. Now vs. Then (vv. 7, 8)
7. Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep.
In ancient times sheep often are kept in caves or in pens made of rock walls in open fields. The shepherd brings his flock back to the pen at the end of the day. There he counts and inspects them.
These pens may have no physical doors or gates. For that reason the shepherd himself would stand or lie across the opening to prevent sheep from wandering out and wolves from entering. Thus the shepherd himself becomes the door or gate of the sheep pen. This is the imagery Jesus uses to describe how he watches over his sheep and guards them from harm.
8. “All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.
The thieves here may refer again to the Jewish religious leaders as depicted in Jeremiah 23:1, 2; Ezekiel 34:2, 3. The term may also refer to the various false messiahs who led anti-Roman revolutionary movements after the death of Herod the Great in 4 b.c. (compare Acts 5:36, 37). In either case God’s people are waiting for the true shepherd, Jesus. Thus the sheep do not heed the imposters who came before Jesus.
B. Salvation vs. Destruction (vv. 9, 10)
9. “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture.
This verse pictures the sheepfold as the dwelling place of God’s redeemed people. Come in and go out does not suggest that one falls in and out of salvation. Rather, the reference is to the way that Jesus continually provides for his people by leading them to safe pasture—by providing for their spiritual needs. The sheep depend on the shepherd to lead them out of the pen for food and water. In the same way we depend on Christ to provide for us.
The imagery thus emphasizes the shepherd’s ongoing, daily care for the flock. Jesus’ concern for his people is constant.
10. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
The false messiahs attempt to “call” God’s sheep, but they do so for selfish reasons. They want to increase their own power and prestige in service of their own agendas. Jesus, here as elsewhere, stresses that his motives are entirely pure. He does not wish to promote himself at the expense of others. He seeks only to protect the lives and well being of his flock. In fact he is willing to sacrifice his own life to save them (v. 11, next).
What Do You Think?
Christians often fill their lives to the brim with activities and duties. Churches may be partially responsible for this hyperactivity. How is this different from what Jesus meant by having an abundant life? What corrections do you need to make?
III. Shepherd and Hired Hand (John 10:11–18)
A. Shepherd’s Actions, Part 1 (v. 11)
11. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Shepherds give their lives for their sheep in at least two ways. First, sheep need constant care and attention, with many long days and nights in the field. The job is all-consuming. Second, and more specifically here, shepherds are called upon to protect the flock from dangerous predators. In these cases the shepherd risks his life by placing himself between the sheep and the wolves. Ancient Jews can well relate to this sort of imagery because so many of them work with livestock.
The Old Testament frequently refers to God as the shepherd of his people. Often the emphasis is on protection and provision. Perhaps the most famous of these passages is Psalm 23. Jesus calls himself the good shepherd against this backdrop to emphasize his loving care for his people. This is in contrast to the religious leaders of his day. It is Jesus alone who literally will give his life on the cross for the sheep (compare Hebrews 13:20).
Visual for Lesson 10
Point to this visual as you ask,
“In what ways do you allow Jesus
to be your shepherd?
In what ways do you resist?”
Laying Down One’s Life
On January 23, 1943, more than 900 men sailed from New York on the USAT Dorchester, a former luxury liner, now a troop ship bound for Greenland. Most of the travelers were young Army enlistees, plus some officers and Merchant Marine sailors. There were also four chaplains: George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister; John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest; and Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbi.
About 150 miles from Greenland, at about 1:00 am on February 3, German submarine U-223 torpedoed the aging transport. The attack killed about 100 men immediately. The rest groped for the openings in the darkness that would lead to the deck. The four chaplains helped where they could, lending some sense of calm to the fear-crazed young men. Lifeboats were readied, and the chaplains went to the lockers to hand out life jackets.
Unfortunately, there were not enough jackets for everyone. The four chaplains had theirs on, but all four removed their jackets and handed them to young men and directed them to the boats. The Dorchester sank in less than 30 minutes. As it went down the survivors noticed the four chaplains standing at the railing, arms linked together, singing and praying, giving strength to others.
About 75 percent of the men aboard perished in the sinking, including the four chaplains. Those four had laid down their lives for the men of their “flock.” We marvel at their sacrifice, even after more than 60 years. Do we marvel as much about Jesus? He also laid down his life, but in a much more profound way. His sacrifice made it possible for us to live eternally. That’s something that even the selfless sacrifice of the four chaplains could not accomplish.
—J. B. N.
B. Hired Hand’s Actions (vv. 12, 13)
12, 13. “The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
While the thieves and robbers of verse 8 likely allude to the Pharisees who had persecuted the healed man in John 9, we’re not really sure who the hired hand represents. Whoever this is, such a person works among the flock (God’s people) but without genuine concern. Jesus, by contrast, knows his people and loves them as his own. The next several verses describe how he expresses this love.
What Do You Think?
Jesus distinguished between shepherds and hired hands. How do we use this distinction to help us discern between those who have good and bad motivations for being in leadership roles in the church?
[Make sure to consider Matthew 7:1, 15–20.]
C. Shepherd’s Actions, Part 2 (vv. 14–18)
14, 15. “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.
The verb know here refers to more than merely “know about.” Of course Jesus knows his sheep in the sense that he knows who we are. But the hireling of verse 13 can also claim that he knows the sheep in this way—how many sheep there are, what they look like, which ones walk slower, etc.
Jesus therefore proceeds to outline two ways in which his ministry is unique. First, he emphasizes the special relationship that he has with his people through comparison with his own relationship to God. Jesus and the Father are completely united, and Jesus and his people are united as well (see Matthew 11:27). Second, Jesus restates his willingness to lay down his life, sacrificing everything for the well-being of his flock.
16. “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
Who are the other sheep of whom Jesus speaks? Most commentators conclude that these are Gentiles (that is, non-Jewish people) who have not yet heard about Jesus and his message. Consider the prediction in Isaiah 42:6: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.”
Jesus is thus making a prediction about the mission to the Gentiles that will follow the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10. That mission ultimately will find its fullest expression in Paul’s ministry.
Notice also the emphasis on the unity of the flock. The phrase one flock speaks to the unity of Jew and Gentile in Christ, one shepherd. Jesus’ words are especially meaningful to John’s churches in the late first century ad. These churches likely include believers from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. Christ cares for all of his people equally.
17. “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again.
Take it up again refers to Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus enjoys the Father’s love because he, unlike the Pharisees and false Messiahs, proves his love for God’s people. The ultimate proof comes when he lays down his life to pay the price for sin. After the resurrection Jesus is exalted once again to his heavenly position beside the Father.
18. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
John stresses throughout his Gospel that Jesus’ death was not an accident of circumstance. Despite the fact that he died in a gruesome and humiliating way, Jesus was at every moment completely in control of everything that happened to him. This makes his death so much more meaningful as an expression of his care for the flock.
Many shepherds may have to risk their lives to protect the sheep at a moment’s notice; Jesus consciously chooses when and how he will die, confident that he has the power to live again. No one else could make such a claim.
Very often we are told (especially in advertisements) that it’s bad to be “just one of the crowd.” We are supposed to let our individuality stand out. We like to think of ourselves as independent individuals who don’t need to rely on anyone else. At the same time, however, it is very comforting to be a member of a group in which we can feel safe and at home. The hit television show Cheers (which ran from 1982 to 1993) portrayed a group of close friends at a small bar in Boston. That bar was a place “where everybody knows your name.” That was an important part of the show’s appeal: it illustrated the type of place that many of us long to find. A place to be “one of the gang.” A place to be accepted for who one is.
The sad thing about that television program is that so many people seek these types of relationships in bars rather than in churches. While we are all individuals, together we make up Jesus’ flock as we follow his voice. He knows each of our names, and we each have a special place in his family. In him we find an eternal peace and comfort that the world cannot provide.
Thought to Remember
Jesus still shepherds us today.
Lord, we know that you call to us in every situation; help us to hear your voice. We live in a world with many false ideas and self-serving teachers. Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s right. Keep us focused on the one who gave his life for us. In Jesus’name, amen.
Underwood, Jonathan ; Nickelson, Ronald L. ; Underwood, Jonathan: New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2006-2007. Cincinnati : Standard Publishing, 2007