I am the Gate
Today’s reading is another of Jesus’ important teachings. He uses a number of images that first century people would easily understand. The images center on shepherds, sheep and sheep pens. Is there anyone here who is an expert on sheep? I confess that my experience and knowledge of sheep is quite limited. I have seen sheep in Ohio, Saudi Arabia, Israel and in the Dakotas. One of the most interesting books I have read about sheep is Philip Keller’s classic, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. I highly recommend it as Keller raised sheep in Australia for seven years and gives us city folks a good understanding of herding sheep.
People in ancient Israel knew the spiritual symbolism of the shepherd, sheep and the sheep pen. Some of the greatest men in Israel’s history were shepherds. Abraham was a shepherd. Isaac and Jacob were shepherds. What was Moses doing when God called out to him from the burning bush? He was shepherding the flock of his father-in-law. And where was David when the Prophet Samuel came to his father’s house to anoint the second king of Israel? He was out shepherding the family’s flock of sheep. The people of Israel recognized that God is the Great Shepherd. David writes Psalm 23 and begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” The psalmist wrote in Psalm 79:13, “We are Your people & the sheep of Your pasture will give thanks to You.” In the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews speaks of Jesus as “that Great Shepherd of the sheep…(Hebrews 13:20).” And Peter writes, “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive glory that will never fade away (1 Peter 5:4).” When Jesus speaks about shepherds and sheep, he is speaking serious theology, not just talking about sheep.
However, we cannot understand John 10 without knowing the events of John 9. Let’s first look at the events in chapter 9. Jesus sees a man who was blind from birth and heals him. The religious leaders, the Pharisees, investigate the miracle. When they discover Jesus restored his sight, they complain that Jesus a sinner. The formerly blind man tells them, “One thing I know. I was blind but now I see.” They kick him out of the synagogue. Later Jesus finds him and they talk. The man believes Jesus is the Messiah. Some Pharisees present hear this and Jesus begins to talk to them.
Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you [the Pharisees] anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and robber.” Remember that when you hear Jesus begin a teaching with the words, “very truly I tell you..” that is a clue that he is going to say something quite important. There are two different kinds of sheep pens in Israel. One is in the village and is an enclosure with a door. All of the village sheep are herded into the enclosure by the various shepherds. There is usually a gatekeeper who spends the night and ensures that the sheep do not get out. The other is in the countryside. It is a square structure that is open at the top but has a small opening so the sheep can enter and exit. The shepherd herds the sheep in and then lays down for the night in the entryway. Nobody can enter or exit without coming by him. However, thieves may take a chance in climbing over the wall and steal a sheep for wool or meat. The only ones authorized to get into a sheep pen by the door is the shepherd. Robbers or thieves stealthily climb in over the walls.
Who is Jesus calling a thief or a robber? He is calling the Pharisees thieves or robbers. The Pharisees saw themselves as religious leaders. They sought to live out the Law of Moses by following all 612 rules. The problem is that they were false teachers and poor examples. In another place in Scripture he calls them other negative names. By their unfaithfulness to God, they were robbing the people of their spiritual heritage. They were following their own notions rather than following the Lord God. They did not recognize Jesus as Messiah but dismissed him as a sinner. Jesus healed the blind man but the synagogue leaders kicked him out.
Jesus continues, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice.” In ancient Israel, shepherds had an important job protecting the village wealth. One writer wrote of the shepherd’s task: “The shepherd’s task was relentless vigilance, constant attention as danger was all around, danger from animals, danger from thieves and robbers who came to steal the sheep for the wool and for meat.” They had total care for the lives of the animals. Sheep are vulnerable. They have a herd instinct but it is easy for a predator to pick off a young one. Sheep easily wander off as they ate grass. Philip Keller had a ewe he called Mrs. Gadabout as she was always wandering off. Shepherds in Israel did not have sheep dogs so they had the task of keeping the flock together and safe. Shepherds named each animal with names that fit a particular sheep. As I said, Phillip Keller named one Mrs. Gadabout for her characteristic wandering away. They may name them for physical characteristics like blackie or whitey. Sheep listen for and know the voice of their particular shepherd. Even when they were gathered with all the rest of the village’s sheep, they recognize the voice of their shepherd.
Jesus is telling the Pharisees and others that he is the Shepherd of Israel. In essence, he is contrasting himself with the Pharisees who think they are the shepherds of Israel. He is telling them that they have abused their position and are not God’s shepherds. Shepherds must have the well-being of the flock uppermost in their mind. However, the Pharisees were self-centered and concerned about their well-being over the spiritual needs of the people of Israel. Jesus’ comments cut to the heart of the problems the Pharisees had.
When morning comes and the sheep are awake in the communal sheep pen and the shepherds come to get their sheep, the gatekeeper opens the gate for them. While the village flock is large, each shepherd only has a few sheep in his care. He stands outside the pen and calls them by name. Each sheep recognizes the voice of their particular shepherd and comes out to him.
Jesus continues, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Shepherds in ancient Israel did not follow the sheep but went ahead of them and they followed him. People listening to Jesus would certainly understand what he is saying. They knew that shepherds led sheep. Since sheep know their shepherd’s voice they will not follow the voice of a stranger. We who follow Jesus know his voice and we follow him. The ones who follow a stranger are those who do not know the voice of the Chief Shepherd.
Even though everyone who listened to Jesus knew about sheep and shepherds, the disciples did not understand the point he was making. He then said, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” Jesus is the one who guards the sheep pen and protects them from predators. Those listening would recognize this as one of the seven “I am” statements Jesus makes that point to his divinity. Contrary to the Pharisees who operate out of their own self-appointed authority, Jesus operates out of divine authority.
He then says, “All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them.” Some people wrongly believe that Jesus is speaking about the Old Testament prophets and even John the Baptist. He is not speaking of God’s faithful prophets but the ones who try to deceive us. We live in a culture full of spiritual thieves and robbers. There are plenty who seek to deceive us that their religious system will save us. The teachers of Mormonism, Jehovah Witnesses, Islam and others present a religious system that is clearly false. Jesus is the only way to salvation. I know that this is a teaching our culture has problems with. However, Jesus is clear when he says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me (John 14.6).” Jesus’ sheep do not listen to the false prophets.
Jesus continues, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.” Salvation is found in Christ Jesus and in no other. When we are committed to Jesus, we become one of the sheep of his pasture. He will give us what we need. The Psalmist wrote: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I lack nothing (Psalm 23:1).” The Lord gives us exactly what we need for life. Jesus leads his sheep to green pastures.
If the Pharisees and the disciples don’t get it, Jesus gets even more specific: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” I know there are teachers who proclaim that this means that we will all have material wealth and good health. That is incorrect. Jesus never taught what is known as the prosperity gospel. Pastor John Piper writes, “Abundant life is not about having stuff. It’s about having peace, having joy, having God.” Abundant life is life beyond measure, life over and above, and life over the top, and overflowing life. While the thief comes to destroy, Jesus comes so that we may have life to the full. The thief comes to take; Jesus comes to give.
Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, has gone on ahead of us to the Cross. He has gone ahead of us and was raised from the dead. Someday he will come again. In 1880, Rev. Joseph Gilmore wrote a hymn that even today we find comfort in singing it. Let us recall the chorus: He leadeth me, he leadeth me; by his own hand he leadeth me: his faithful follower I would be, for by his hand he leadeth me.
A sermon preached at Veterans Memorial Chapel
by CH (COL) Michael W. Malone, AUS (RET)