The Shepherd of Israel: The True Shepherd John 10:1-5 – Part One
The tenth chapter of the Gospel of John is one of the most beloved and popular chapters in the Bible. It is special to God’s people because it presents the Lord Jesus Christ as the Shepherd of His flock, and the imagery of the Lord as a Shepherd strikes a tender note in the hearts of believers. There is a deep sense of security in knowing that Christ tenderly cares for us as only a shepherd cares for his sheep.
To the twentieth-century Christian, the imagery of a shepherd and sheep evokes feelings of great tenderness; however, we live in a society that understands little about shepherding. While we sing songs about our Shepherd leading us and create paintings of Christ carrying a lamb in His arms, we really don’t know much about the work of a shepherd. The Jewish people living in Christ’s day, however, were very familiar with a shepherd’s work because their society was geared to shepherding. It was to this knowledgeable Jewish audience then that Jesus began to present Himself as the true Shepherd of Israel.
One of the recurring themes of the Old Testament is that of God being a Shepherd and His people being sheep. The psalmist said, “we, thy people and sheep of thy pasture” (Ps. 79:13). Isaiah wrote, “like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Isa. 40:11). Even David, a shepherd himself, wrote Psalm 23 out of an understanding that “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1).
While the Old Testament Scriptures picture Jehovah as the Shepherd of Israel, they also teach that the leaders of the Jewish nation were given the responsibility of functioning as undershepherds. These men were to lead the nation in paths of righteousness and care for the spiritual needs of the people. Instead, they were more interested in their own welfare than the welfare of the sheep, and they failed miserably as shepherds. They became evil shepherds instead. Jeremiah 23:1-2 says, “Woe be unto the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the Lord. Therefore, thus saith the Lord God of Israel against the shepherds who feed my people, Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them; behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the Lord” (also Jer. 50:6; Ezek. 34:10).
In spite of the failure of these evi! shepherds, God gave a message of hope to Israel. He promised that one day He would send them a faithful Shepherd – One who would properly care for His flock. “And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant, David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd” (Ezek. 34:23). It is with this Old Testament prophecy in mind that Jesus, in John 10, introduces Himself to Israel as their true and good Shepherd.
To properly understand the message of Christ in John 10, one must first understand the circumstances that lead up to it. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John we read about a blind man who has been mistreated by the Pharisees. Jesus had healed him, but the Pharisees would not accept it. Instead, they insulted the man, threatened him, tried to intimidate him and finally excommunicated him from the religious life of Israel (Jn. 9:24-34). These hostile religious leaders cast away one of the precious sheep of the house of Israel. They threw him out of the religious fellowship of Israel. Jesus, though, being the true Shepherd found him and lovingly brought him into the fold of God (Jn. 9:35-38).
From chapter 9 to chapter 10 there is no time gap, no change in circumstances and no change in scenery. As chapter 10 opens, our Lord uses this opportunity to indict the Pharisees as self-appointed shepherds, hirelings who have no concern for the sheep of Israel. But in exposing these men as false shepherds, Jesus presents Himself as the true Shepherd. In John 10:1-10 we find four truths Christ gave in relation to His identification as the true Shepherd. In this article we will examine two of these truths.
THE PRETENSE OF FALSE SHEPHERDS
In Israel there were two kinds of sheepfolds, The sheepfold that Jesus referred to in John 10:1 was a sheepfold in a town or village as opposed to one out in the country. Each village in Palestine had a common sheepfold where each shepherd, returning from the field with his sheep, would lead his flock at night, The sheepfold itself was a roofless enclosure of rough stones with ten to twelve foot high walls.
The function of this enclosure was to protect the sheep from wild animals and thieves and robbers who might try to harm them. After the shepherd led his flock through the door of the sheepfold, he would entrust his sheep to the doorkeeper. Each sheepfold had a doorkeeper whose job was to protect and care for the sheep while the shepherd went home to sleep. Once the sheep were led safely through the door into the sheepfold, the door was locked and guarded by the doorkeeper. No one but the doorkeeper had the key to unlock the door.
The first thing our Lord wanted the Pharisees to understand was that they were false shepherds – illegitimate leaders of Israel. He addressed their pretense by saying, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber (Jn. 10:1).
When Jesus spoke these words He was speaking in symbolic language. He had a theological message for the Pharisees, and He communicated it in words that would be obvious to those who were familiar with the terminology of shepherds. With this in mind, what does the sheepfold stand for? It can’t be Heaven because thieves and robbers can’t climb up into Heaven. It can’t be the Church because shepherds don’t lead their flock out of the Church as this picture eventually shows the shepherd doing (w. 3-4). A second reason it can’t possibly be the Church is because the doctrine of the Church was unknown to the Pharisees. That was a truth hidden in the heart and mind of God and revealed only later in the New Testament writings.
So then, what is the sheepfold? It is Judaism, the religious system in which God’s people were kept until Christ came. Jesus later clarified this when He spoke of other sheep “that are not of this fold” (v. 16), The “other sheep” (Gentiles), who would eventually become part of the Church, means that the sheepfold He is referring to now is made up exclusively of Jewish sheep. The only religious institution made up of Jewish people is Judaism.
If the sheepfold represents Judaism, then who are the thieves and robbers? They are the Pharisees whose intention was to harm the sheep. They were not appointed by God as shepherds over Israel. They appointed themselves and entered that role in an illegitimate way. Jesus said they didn’t enter into their position in a lawful way (by the door) but rather “climbeth up some other way.” The Pharisees were often cunning men who desired nothing more than to gain followers for their own glory by stealing Israel from God. The Greek word for “thieves” is kleptes from which we derive our English word kleptomaniac, a person with a persistent impulse to steal. The Pharisees, as the self-appointed religious leaders of Israel, were determined to steal the affection of the Jews away from God. Jesus indicted these sheep stealers when He said in Matthew 23:13-15, “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for ye neither go in yourselves, neither permit them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers; therefore, ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.” Our Lord was pronouncing judgment upon them because they blocked the way to Heaven by their false leadership. In the name of religion, they stole money from widows and went to great lengths to make proselytes who would follow them and their man-made traditions, rather than the Lord God of Israel. Jesus wanted the Pharisees standing before Him in John 10 to clearly understand that they were hypocrites. They were merely pretending to care about the sheep of the house of Israel, but in reality their goal was to steal for themselves Israel’s affection away from God.
Time has not changed a thing. Today, there are still false shepherds who want to steal people’s affections and lead them astray. The Apostle Peter wrote in his second epistle, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who secretly shall bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways, by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they, with feigned words, make merchandise of you; whose judgment now for a long time Hngereth not, and their destruction slumbereth not” (2 Pet. 2:1-3). False shepherds have only one goal and that is to promote their own glory by having you follow them. They will take advantage of you for their own egotistical profit.
The Apostle Paul, addressing some genuine undershepherds of the Ephesian church said, “Take heed, therefore, unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30).
Paul warned these Holy Spirit appointed overseers about teachers who would speak perverse things to draw the disciples after them and away from the Word of God, Today our churches are filled with leaders pretending to speak for God, when in reality they intentionally say things contrary to the Bible in order to gather for themselves a following of disciples.
How can we tell if a shepherd is false or genuine? Jesus said that a false shepherd does not enter the sheepfold in a legitimate and lawful manner using the door. Instead, he climbeth up some other way. He comes deceitfully and not through the proper divinely appointed channels. If the false shepherd enters the fold through unlawful, improper and deceitful ways, then the true Shepherd comes in a lawful and proper manner. At this point in His message to the Pharisees, Jesus offered them the proof that He alone is the true Shepherd of Israel.
THE PROOF OF THE TRUE SHEPHERD
In contrast to the Pharisees’ self-appointed leadership over Israel, Jesus told them, “But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep” (v. 2). In keeping with Christ’s symbolic message, what does the door represent? It refers to the divinely appointed legal entrance to the nation of Israel.
The true Shepherd does not have to sneak into the fold because He has the legal right to enter. Jesus has the right to enter the fold of Israel and to call individuals out of Judaism to Himself because He is the lawful, divinely appointed Messiah. Only the Lord Jesus came to Israel in the way God said the true Shepherd would come — in fulfillment of messianic prophecy.
Only Jesus Christ had the credentials of the Messiah the Scriptures pronounced it (Mic. 5:2), His life evidenced it (Isa. 61:1-2), the miracles proved it (Jn. 20:30-31), the Father declared it (Mt. 3:17) and the witnesses verified it (Jn. 1:41). Because Jesus alone came in fulfillment of prophecy, He alone has the authority from God to enter the nation of Israel and lead men and women out of Judaism into a shepherd/sheep relationship with Him.
It is a proven fact that a leader must have followers in order to be a legitimate leader. Titles of leadership mean absolutely nothing if nobody follows you. For Christ to prove that He is Israel’s true Shepherd, He must have Jewish sheep who are willing to follow Him, and He does. According to Romans 10 and 11, there is a remnant of Jewish people, a small minority, who follow the Lord. Therefore, as Jesus continues His message to the Pharisees, He explains the procedure by which these remnant-sheep come to follow Him. He says, “To him [the Shepherd] the porter openeth, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him; for they know.his voice (Jn. 10:3-4). In Israel, after the sheep spent the night in the sheepfold under the care of the doorkeeper, the shepherd would return in the morning to lead his sheep out. When the doorkeeper heard the shepherd’s voice, he would open the door of the sheepfold for him.
Who does the doorkeeper represent? He is John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for the Messiah and introduced Him to Israel. In John 1, the Apostle John publicly identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (v. 29) and “the Son of God” (v. 34). After John introduced Jesus to Israel, Jewish people began to follow the true Shepherd (Jn. 1:37).
When a shepherd in Palestine came to get his sheep in the morning, he would come to a sheepfold filled with many shepherds’ sheep. In order to lead out those sheep that belonged to him, he would call his own sheep by name, and they would follow him, Sheep know the voice of their shepherd. You cannot fool them when it comes to recognizing their shepherd’s voice. They all will respond to his voice but not to the voice of strangers. That’s why Jesus said in verse 5, “And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him; for they know not the voice of strangers.”
The point of our Lord’s message to the Pharisees was to explain why a man born blind would follow Him. It was because He was Israel’s genuine Shepherd, and a true shepherd has sheep. But certainly the application of these truths is for us today who follow Christ. Why does anyone leave a religious system, whether it be Judaism, secular, paganism or any other “ism”? It’s because we have inwardly heard the voice of the true Shepherd calling us, through the Bible, to follow Him. The reason you are a Christian today is because the Word of God spoke to your heart about abandoning the lifeless system you were in to trust Christ and follow Him. “. . . faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom, 10:17).
While these verses prove that the Lord Jesus is the true Shepherd, they also indicate who His sheep are. His sheep follow Him, not anyone else. His sheep only respond to His Word, not the word of false shepherds (Jn. 10:27). Just a few chapters before this message, Jesus had told the Pharisees, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (Jn. 8:31). The proof of belonging to Christ is obedience to His Word, which begins by recognizing Him as the genuine Shepherd and then following Him.
Steve Kreloff is the Pastor/Teacher of Lakeside Community Chapel in Clearwater, Florida. The emphasis of his ministry is the expository teaching of God’s Word. A Hebrew Christian, he met the Lord Jesus Christ while a student at the University of South Florida and studied for the ministry at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, IL. He and his wife, Michele, have three children, Benjamin, Sarah and Rachel.