Sheep Parables and Temple Festivals—John 10:1-42

Studies in John’s Gospel—Lesson 24

by Reta Halteman Finger

Nazareth Village Sheep Pen
Modern day recreation of a sheep pen such as would be found in Nazareth during Jesus’ lifetime.
Photo credit – “Nazareth Village” by on Flickr. Used under a ShareAlike License.

In our 8th grade class in the Mennonite school I attended, we studied the Gospel of John and were required to make an outline of the whole book. This is far easier to do for John than for the Synoptic Gospels because almost every chapter comprises a discrete topic. In this case, John 10 could be titled, “Jesus as the Good Shepherd.”

That may be adequate for 8th graders, but, as both science and poetry teach us, “There is a universe in a grain of sand.” In John 10, we’ll find enough riches for two or three lessons! For now, let’s look at literary structure and historical context. Here’s a simple outline:

  • 1-6. Jesus describes a sheepfold and a shepherd who owns his own sheep. The sheep follow the shepherd because they know him. This contrasts with a “thief or bandit” who climbs over the wall.
  • 7-10. Inserting himself into this picture, Jesus calls himself the “gate” to the sheepfold.
  • 11-18. Jesus shifts his identity from “gate” to “shepherd,” thus claiming to be a leader of the people of Israel.
  • 19-21. The Jewish leaders are again divided over this Galilean upstart. Is he insane, demon-possessed, or just plain arrogant?
  • 22-39. A judicial trial ensues. As in earlier chapters, Jesus defends himself before his accusers.
  • 40-42. A transition paragraph prepares us for Chapter 11.

I doubt whether any readers of this blog have experience raising sheep, and certainly not with sheepfolds as primitive as the one in the photograph above. Yet we Jews and Christians are familiar with shepherds and sheep because of Psalm 23 and many other biblical references. Our nomadic Hebrew ancestors’ livelihood came from their flocks of sheep and goats. “David the Shepherd Boy” became Israel’s greatest king. This imagery serves as a metaphor for the people of Yahweh and their leaders. Early Christian art depicts Jesus as a shepherd, not hanging from a shameful cross.

Watch for transitions and repetitions

Before we explore these pastoral parables, however, let’s look at transitions. How did we get from the blind man to the Good Shepherd? Removing chapter headings, Jesus is still in Jerusalem speaking to the same crowd of Pharisees who had just asked him if they were blind (9:40). In fact, after the discourse of 10:1-18, “the Jews” again have divided opinions about him. Though some call him a demon, others ask, “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (10:21).

In the court scene of 10:31-39, we are on familiar ground. Several times previously, Jesus has had to defend himself and his behavior from hostile accusers. Even the charge is familiar: “We are going to stone you for blasphemy because you are making yourself God” (10:33). These recurring court trials and the growing hostility of religious leaders hold the story together even amid chapter divisions. They give readers a sense of foreboding; how will this darkening plot be resolved? Jesus’ prediction of “laying down his life for the sheep” (10:15) is not a divine prophecy. The signs of an impending assassination are everywhere.

Special holidays for remembrance

Raymond Brown’s commentary calls attention to the odd juxtaposition of two Jewish festivals in this chapter. Since chapter 7 began, Jesus has been in Jerusalem for the fall Festival of Booths, or Sukkot—with its emphasis on water (7:37-39) and light (8:12 and 9:1-41). But by 10:22, we find ourselves at the winter Festival of the Dedication, which takes place three months after Sukkot. This event is also known as Hanukkah—another Festival of Lights. The author collapses the time between them to maintain his theme of Jesus as the Light of the World.

My NRSV Bible with Apocrypha  from the American Bible Society has biblical references at the bottom of each page. The Festival of Dedication in John 10:22 links to the inter-testamental books of 1 Maccabees 4:36, 52-59, and 2 Maccabees 1:18; 10:5-8. In 164 BCE, the law-observant Maccabean Jews in Palestine succeeded in overthrowing the Seleucid prince, Antiochus IV, who wanted to abolish Jewish Torah practices. He with other Hellenizers had desecrated the temple altar by sacrificing pigs on it. These texts tell the story of the ritual cleansing of the temple and its rededication. This eight-day celebration involves the lighting of the menorah candles to preserve the tradition that the one-day supply of oil at the dedication lasted for eight days.

This Gospel’s emphasis on the Jewish calendar and its festivals demonstrates the author’s deep roots in the Hebrew Bible and the events that the festivals commemorate. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus remains in Galilee until the spring festival of Passover, here Jesus travels to Jerusalem over several years of ministry. He is faithfully Torah-observant as he immerses himself into these events. He becomes water and light; he is the gate that protects the sheep. He will—even more literally—become the Passover lamb. Watch out, religious leaders—a new shepherd is in town!

The next lesson will focus on Jesus as shepherd and gate to the sheepfold. What is the meaning of the “Good” Shepherd?

Questions for discussion or reflection:

1. What value, if any, do you see in learning the history of the people of Yahweh, including the inter-testamental period?

2. In our technological, urbanized cultures today, what imagery might parallel a shepherd with sheep? What “thieves or bandits” try to break up the flock? Or does our concept of a liberal democracy change anything?

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.