The Noble Shepherd versus the Thieves— John 10:1-18

Studies in John’s Gospel—Lesson 25

by Reta Halteman Finger

Henry Ossawa Tanner - "The Good Shepherd" painting from the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutger's University (public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)
Henry Ossawa Tanner – “The Good Shepherd”
painting from the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutger’s University (public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)

In previous lessons, we often heard Jesus speaking on two levels—the below and the above—which many listeners did not understand and which tended to separate the true seeker from the mildly curious or the downright hostile. John 10:1-6 is one more example. Here Jesus contrasts the care a true shepherd gives to the sheep with a “thief or bandit” who climbs over the wall of the sheepfold. Although this audience understands sheepherding, they don’t get the point.

In verse 6 the author calls this a “figure of speech” or riddle.  This riddle is an allegory where each part symbolizes something in real life. The only ones who “follow” Jesus are his disciples, some of whom he will name (v 3), such as Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, whom we will meet in the next chapter. After he leads the sheep out of the fold, he goes ahead of them (v 4). He will be the first to suffer and die. Those who climb over the wall are the antithesis of faithful shepherds—the Pharisees from 9:40-41 to whom he is still speaking—who do not care for the sheep nor listen to the shepherd’s voice. They don’t “get it.”

So Jesus puts himself into the picture, first as the gate to the sheepfold, offering life in abundance (vv 7-10), and then as the shepherd (vv 11-18). One wonders who he means by “all who came before me are thieves and bandits” (v 8). Is he referring to the number of would-be messiahs who preceded him? Or the sordid history of high priests after the Maccabean Revolt who bought the office with bribes and only cared for their own power and wealth? The cruelties of the Herodian rulers? The present collection of high priests, Sadducees, and Pharisees who maintain control over the temple system? All of the above?

What is a “noble shepherd”?

Jesus then names himself as the shepherd, the “good shepherd” who lays down his life for the sheep (10:11-18). How is Jesus “good”? There are two common Greek words for “good”: kalos and agathos. According to Jerome Neyrey, a New Testament social context scholar, agathos belongs to the realm of ethics and virtue, but kalos to the cultural world of honor and shame. Kalos, used here, is better translated as “noble” or “honorable” (Gospel of John, New Cambridge Commentary, pp. 180-184).

Jesus is a noble shepherd because he knows and cares for his sheep, and he repeatedly stresses that he will lay down his life for them (vv 11, 15, 17, 18). Because this nobility is linked with death, Neyrey looks at ancient Greek funeral orations for military heroes for insight into Jesus’ meaning. For example, the noble shepherd contrasts with the hired hand who runs away when the wolf comes. With courage he will fight the wolf even at the cost of his life (vv 12, 13).

The noble shepherd “knows his sheep” and treats them fairly (v 14). He takes responsibility for them, providing  justice for them. He knows his sheep as well as the Father knows him.

Jesus continually stresses the voluntary nature of his death. Like noble warriors in battle, Jesus does not flee from danger. “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (18). This concurs with the account of Thucydides, the Greek historian who writes of soldiers who “chose their fate.” Because their deaths were seen as voluntary, they were not victims. “In the logic of honor, they are judged undefeated” (Neyrey, p. 181). Since such a death benefits others, it is praised as a noble death and worthy of posthumous honors.

The difference between Jesus and Greek military heroes, of course, is that he confronts evil on the spiritual level and fights nonviolently. His honor is not dependent on piles of enemy corpses. Without his disciples’ witness to his resurrection, would Jesus have been merely a historical footnote as one more failed messiah of unrecognized nobility?

Shadows of an impending crisis

We have seen growing hostility against Jesus earlier in this Gospel as he continually challenges the traditions and injustices of his culture. But the “noble shepherd” text clarifies more clearly than before the direction we are heading. No one can oppose powerful leaders and get away with it. The shadow of impending death will loom ever larger as we continue through the narrative.

To conclude this lesson, it may be helpful to compare Jesus’s calm pronouncements in John 10 of “laying down his life” with the Synoptic Gospels, which portray Jesus in Gethsemane in agonized pleading with his Father to escape from execution. Further, the Johannine Jesus says he not only has power to lay down his life but also “power to take it up again” (v 18). In contrast, both the Synoptics and Paul’s letters insist that God raised Jesus from the dead; he did not raise himself.

Questions for discussion or reflection:

1. What are the causes of differing perspectives among our four evangelists? Different sources of oral history? Different theologies? Different demands of each narrative’s plot? What do you think?

2. Jesus sets a high standard for a shepherd. Should qualifications for church leaders (sometimes called “under-shepherds”) be much higher than that of the “sheep” they lead? What is your experience with church leaders?

3. Are you a “shepherd” of any sheep that you care about and would lay down your life for?

4. Does “laying down one’s life” for others mean only physically dying for them?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Reta,
    I was catching up on some back reading that I didn’t get to do while I was in CPE, and just finished your article in February’s Sojourners about Paul. I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought I’d check our your blog, which I also appreciate. I was a seminary student at GETS from 1985-90 (the 5 year plan since I had two babies while there!), but am not sure if I crossed paths with you. Anyway, it’s nice to cross paths with you now. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for your insights into Jesus noble death. “In the logic of honor they are judged undefeated” certainly speaks of Jesus’ triumph in the spiritual realm. What a beautiful insight.

  3. Thank you, Kathie and Berry, for your responses.

    Kathie, I came to Garrett for the MTS degree 1987-1989, so perhaps we crossed paths slightly without remembering! Then I went back starting in 1991 for the Ph.D. program. I hope you’re doing well and getting a lot of use out of your GETS studies!
    BTW, as you catch up on Sojourners, I have another article in the April issue on the Ethiopian eunuch and other transgender people.

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