Easter 4 • John 10:1–10 • May 15, 2011
By Joel P. Okamoto
Notes on the pericope
This pericope consists of a paroimia (“parable” or “figure” or “illustration”) and part of Jesus’s explanation.
The parable follows an exchange recorded in chapter 9 between Jesus and the Pharisees after he had healed the man who was born blind. Jesus had raised doubts about himself by healing on the Sabbath. “Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, because he does not keep the Sabbath’” (9:16). They denied the explanation of the healed man: “We know that God does not hear sinners, but, if anyone is pious and does his will, he does hear. Never has it been heard that someone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could not do anything” (9:31–33).
This controversy leads to the issue of salvation and condemnation. After the Pharisees cast the healed man out of the synagogue for his explanation, Jesus finds him and reveals his identity. The man believes in Jesus and worships him (9:35–38). Then Jesus explains in the hearing of some of the Pharisees: “For judgment (κρίμα) I have come into this world, so that those who do not see would see, and those who see would become blind” (9:39). The sight and blindness are spiritual, pertaining to the truth about Jesus, the God who sent him, and the salvation and the condemnation that his coming entail. The Pharisees respond in unbelief. “What?” they ask Jesus, “Are we blind, too?” Jesus replies with condemnation: “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (9:40–41).
Then Jesus turns to the Pharisees themselves by telling a parable about the sheep in the sheepfold. The one who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but rather climbs in somewhere else is a thief and a robber. This man is certainly not the shepherd. The shepherd is known to the doorkeeper, who lets him in by the door, and he knows his sheep by name. Likewise, the sheep know their shepherd’s voice, and they follow him when he calls and leads them. The sheep, however, will not follow a stranger, but rather will flee from him.
What does this saying mean? Jesus first explains that he is the door of the sheep. He is the way they enter the sheepfold and the way they go out of the sheepfold to find pasture. Those who enter through other ways and take out sheep by other ways are thieves and robbers, and they will “steal and kill and destroy” the sheep. But those who enter and exit through him as the door will “have life and have it to the full (περισσόν)” (10:10). Jesus then explains the parable with the theme of the Good Shepherd (10:11–18).
Who are the “sheep” in this parable? Jesus does not explain, but the context shows that they refer to the people of Israel. The man born blind is one of the sheep. He received sight from Jesus and believed in him; through Jesus he also would receive eternal life. But this same man was cast out of the synagogue, as would happen to anyone who would confess Jesus as the Christ (9:22). Ezekiel 34, a prophecy against the faithless shepherds of Israel that the parable echoes, supports this reference. According to this prophecy, God’s sheep were being scattered and destroyed because their appointed shepherds did not tend to them. They would feed themselves, not feed and protect the sheep.
Therefore, God threatened judgment against these shepherds and promised to set up his servant David as shepherd, who would feed God’s sheep. Jesus is that servant and shepherd for Israel (10:11–18), just as the Pharisees and others among the Jewish rulers are among those faithless shepherds. Jesus himself further supports this reference when he says later that he has “other sheep . . . not of this fold” (10:16).
Returning to our pericope, the purpose of Jesus as the door is also clear: so that the sheep would have life, and have life in an overflowing abundance, or eternal life. The promise of life is the basic promise of John’s Gospel, given to those who believe in Jesus as the Son of God (see 1:4; 3:16; 17:3; 20:31; see also 3:36; 4:14; 5:19–29; 6:25–40; 8:12; 11:25–26; 12:23–50; 14:1–7). The man born blind received not only physical sight but also spiritual sight: he recognized the one who healed him as coming from God; he believed in Jesus when he was identified as the healer (9:38). In the language of the parable, he went in and out by the door, and in hearing and following Jesus this man will have life, and life to the full. But the Pharisees and other leaders of the people rejected the healer as a man of God and condemned this healed man as a sinner and cast him out (9:34). Their way threatens death and destruction for those under them. So for this—and not only their personal unbelief—they stand condemned.
Notes for preaching
The pericope itself suggests how one might preach the text: first, relate the parable that Jesus told, then explain it in the way that Jesus did, and finally work through the implications for those gathered to hear the word.
Of course, relating this parable and explaining it to hearers today requires more than repeating the words recorded in the Gospel. The preacher has blanks to fill in, details to fill out, and connections to make. But since this parable refers to action already described in the Gospel, and since Jesus himself explains his parable, doing these things is a relatively straightforward matter.
What implications might a sermon deal with? Two obvious ones concern relevance. First, this pericope gets us to ask how this is relevant to Gentiles. The sheep represent the people of Israel, the door is the way to the life promised to Israel, and the men coming over the walls are the unfaithful leaders of this people. What relevance does all of this have for the many Gentile hearers in today’s American churches? The answer is not hard, and Jesus’s own reference later in the passage to “other sheep” and “one flock” is helpful and convenient. In and through Jesus Christ the distinction between Jew and Gentile has been overcome, so that all whom he calls and gathers together are one flock, under one shepherd, who go through the same door to find eternal life. The Gentiles did not even have false shepherds and unfaithful leaders, but Christ has sought them out, too, and made all of us his sheep. And so the promise, if not the history, belongs to us all.
Second, this pericope gets us to ask how it is relevant to the Easter season. The collect suggests that we look to the Good Shepherd laying down his life and taking it back up. But if we want to stay within the confines of the pericope, then we may explain that Jesus was rejected and killed for being the door. This differs from the shepherd laying down his life for the sheep, but it does fit the immediate context as well as the image. Jesus came to give sight to the blind—physically and spiritually—so that those who received sight would believe in him and have eternal life. In this way, he is the door to life for the sheep. The Pharisees had cast this man—this sheep—out of the synagogue, thus acting like the thieves and robbers of the parable. These Pharisees did not believe in Jesus. Instead of finding eternal life through him, they plotted his death and had him crucified. But Jesus rose again from the dead, proving his claims and securing his promises.
What about contemporary questions? This pericope bears on such questions as whether Jesus alone is the way to eternal life and how one attains eternal life through Jesus. The Lord teaches plainly that he alone is the way to eternal life, and the context (and the whole Gospel) shows that this comes through faith in him. Recent surveys have found that the majority of Christians in the U.S. believe that “good people” and even non-Christians may attain eternal life. If you are a pastor and think that this does not apply to the congregation you serve, I urge you to reconsider. A recent study (the 2006 Faith Matters study) finds that you would not be alone in this view. The results of this study are discussed in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. On this issue, the authors “see a disconnect between the leaders at the pulpits and the people in the pews. Most Christian clergy see salvation as exclusively Christian, while most Christians have a more—if not completely—inclusive view of who will be saved in the hereafter.”1 They also explain that this disconnect was made vividly clear to them through a meeting that Putnam had with Missouri Synod theologians.
They were shocked that such a high percentage of Americans believe that there are many ways to get to heaven. One theologian spoke up firmly that those who believe that are simply wrong. And judging from murmurs of approval from the group, he was not alone in his opinion. In an attempt to reconcile this apparent heresy, another member of the audience proposed that, surely, Missouri Synod Lutherans do not take such a casual view toward salvation. What ensued was social science research in real time, as an on-the-spot analysis of the 2006 Faith Matters data stored on Putnam’s laptop revealed that 86 percent of Missouri Synod Lutherans said that a good person who is not of their faith could indeed go to heaven. Upon hearing this news, these theologians were stunned into silence. One wanly said that as teachers of the Word, they had failed.2
1 Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 539.
2 Ibid., 540.