John 10 begins with the closest thing to a parable we find in the Gospel of John. While parables are common in the other three Gospels, John does not record a single parable. In this passage, Jesus uses an extended metaphor drawn from the common experience of tending sheep. If the audience had not tended sheep themselves, they knew that these things were true from their experience.
Jesus chose this metaphor intentionally since the image of a shepherd is used in the Old Testament frequently for the leaders of the nation. The are bad shepherds who are not leading the people “beside still waters” (Psalm 23) The people are like “sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). In contrast, Jesus leads the people into the wilderness and provides food for them (the feeding of the 5000), seeking out the lost sheep wherever they are (Luke 15:3-7) and ultimately laying Jesus will lay down his life down on behalf of his flock.
What is more, this image of a true shepherd is a messianic image found in the Old Testament. Moses led sheep for 40 years in the wilderness before God called him to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, and the ideal King of Israel was David, who was first a shepherd before his was a king. Psalm 23 has messianic overtones (“The Lord is my shepherd”), but Ezekiel 37:24-28 is the most clear use of a shepherd metaphor for the coming Messiah, the true son of David and ideal shepherd who replaces the bad leaders who have led the people into danger but do nothing to save them.
The image of a God as a shepherd is found frequently in the Old Testament. God is described as a shepherd for his people (Gen 48:15, 49:24, Ps 23:1, 28:9, 77:20, 78:52, 80:1, Isa 40:11, Jer 31:10) and the people of Israel are regularly refer to as the sheep of God’s pasture (Ps 74:1, 78:52, 79:13, 95:7, 100:3, Ezek 34:31). It is possible that Jesus had Ezekiel 34 in mind, but the fact that the image of an ultimately good shepherd who will lead God’s people back to the land appears in Isaiah 40 and Jeremiah 31 as well. These are passages Jesus uses frequently in his teaching and would have been well-known to the listeners in the Temple.
In John 10:14 Jesus declares he is not only the proper gate into the sheep pen, he is in fact the good shepherd who will lay his life down on behalf of his flock. By calling himself “the shepherd,” Jesus is evoking passages such as Ezekiel 34 which looks forward to an ideal shepherd who will lead the people on behalf of God. On the other hand, the true shepherd of Israel is God. There is only one shepherd for the flock (verse 16). God the Father is the shepherd (Ps 23:1), but here Jesus is claiming to be that good shepherd.
The reaction of the crowd (10:19-21) is similar to chapter 9, some say Jesus is inane or demon possessed, yet others understand that a demon possessed man cannot open the eyes of the blind, nor does an insane person speak as Jesus does. He makes sense!
By claiming to be the Good Shepherd, Jesus in intentionally declaring that he is the Messiah and therefore God’s son. But he will go beyond the expectation that the Messiah will be the ideal king, a new Moses and new David. Just as both those men could be called “a son of God,” Jesus also claims to be the ideal Son of God because he is God.
There is more in this chapter which makes Jesus’s claim even more clear. But is this an accurate reading of the words of Jesus? Is he claiming to be the eschatological shepherd from Ezekiel 37:24-28? And if he is, what does this tell us about his relationship with God?