The Good Shepherd in John 10

The parable of the Good Shepherd in John’s Gospel is a rich source of meditation for Christian leadership.  The Eastern Churches use this selection 10:9-16 for feasts of great Bishops.[1]  The Church finds in this parable the example of perfect leadership for our spiritual leaders.  The passage also provides the bad example of false leadership.  These false leaders will feign interest in the flock for their own selfish purposes.  Both of these examples, the good and the bad, are cast in a timeless manner.  They represent past, present and future examples of each class using the eschatological imagery of Israel.


John uses a number of allusions to Old Testament passages in this brief parable.  I have categorized the background references by the major aspects of the parable.  Each element of the parable draws on a rich Old Testament history.  The nomadic history of Israel is the source for this pastoral image.  From this nomad shepherding background the image of a large group of defenseless sheep being guided and protected by the shepherd is a natural and powerful one.  John draws on this reservoir of images to connect the life of Jesus to the idealized life of God in the Old Testament.  These common images serve to connect Jesus’ ministry with the salvation history of Israel.  They place Jesus’ action in a continuous history and connect him with the greatest leader of Israel’s past, King David.


The false leaders of the flock will leave the sheep to the wolves as mere hired hands.  Or they are compared to the thieves and robbers that break in to steal the flock.  These unfaithful leaders will scatter the flock.  These false leaders scatter, instead of gather.  Only a remnant of the flock remains for the Good Shepherd to gather at the end of time.  The masters of the flock send the sheep to the slaughter for personal gain, with no remorse.  The flock serves only to enrich the false leaders.  They care nothing for the sheep.

Worse than these poor leaders, are the wolves that tear the sheep apart.[3] (Ezekiel 22:27)  These are out for personal gain and gratification.  This group becomes closely associated with the devil and the fallen angels by New Testament times.  Just as the fallen angels have the powers and appearance of their heavenly counterparts, these false teachers try to appear as shepherds.  But the sheep will not respond to their call.


The shepherd is an Old Testament figure for the perfect leader of the people.  Coming from the idealized view of nomadic life, the shepherd leads.  He takes the flock from place to place.  He provides them with food and water by leading them to the appropriate venue when needed.  The shepherd protects the flock.  He watches through the night for the dangers in the land and keeps the enemies and wolves at bay.  The shepherd gathers the scattered flock.  As the flock spreads out in the land and separates from the main group, he guides them all back together.  All of these daily routines of the shepherd are easily seen symbolically for the leader of the nation.

This figure is associated with the king and ruler of Israel.  Further, the equation of the shepherd with King David makes the shepherd an image of the messiah.  David is the king that God promises the everlasting rule of Israel.  He is the image of the messiah.

David came to the office of king from his life as a shepherd.  This actual connection with the life of a shepherd dovetails with the symbolic image of the shepherd as the true role of the true king, the messiah.


John mentions a single flock under the shepherd.  This plays off the establishment of one shepherd, David over Israel.  He rules forever as he walks in the way of the Lord.  The flock is united under the leadership of this great shepherd king.  The unity of the nation under the shepherd repairs the damage done by the occupations of old.  The shepherd will gather the flock from far reaches of the earth.  He will call home and unite the scattered people of God under this new leadership.

In the messianic visions this will include the gentiles, Israel will be the light to world, the glory of the nations.  The united flock of all humanity restores the intent of the original creation.  The messianic shepherd creates this united flock.

We also see the reverse happening in Old Testament scripture.  Striking shepherd will scatter the sheep.  This is the image of what is to come in the gospel.  When the hour arrives the shepherd will be struck and the sheep will scatter.  But ultimately the unity of the flock will be achieved.

GATE [6]

In the parable in John Jesus equates himself with the gate of the sheep.  There is no direct image of the sheep gate as a messianic image in the Old Testament.  There is a separate image of the gate for the ideal city of God.  The gate itself is not the messianic image, but the passage to the better life.  John expands on this gate theme from the Old Testament.  The gate of the Lord is where the righteous will enter the idealized city of God.  This is the gateway to the holy city and the better life.  John takes this gate and makes it part of the role of the messiah.

Another Old Testament reference to the sheep and a gate is in the temple mount.  The Sheep gate is consecrated entrance to Jerusalem rebuilt on the restoration of the city after the exile in Babylon.  All of the special entrances are reestablished after the exile.  The sheep enter the city by this gate and are led to the temple for the slaughter.  John uses the image of the sheep led to the slaughter for Jesus as the paschal lamb slain for the life of the people.  Jesus as the gate for the sheep would be evocative of this entrance in light of the coming passion narrative.

In a powerful Old Testament image, the King walks at the head of the people out of the gate.  Leaving the gate of the city, the king leads the people forth.  John clearly plays off this image for the sheep following the shepherd out of the gate in the parable.  The shepherd calls forth the sheep and the follow because the know his voice.


The gatekeeper of the city and watchman of the Lord are seen in various settings in the Old Testament.  None of these characters are directly associated with the pastoral scenes, sheep or the shepherds.  But the role of the gatekeeper in the parable is the same as these watchers for the city.  The Lord sets a watchman over the people to blow the warning trumpet at the gate keep out those that don’t belong.  There are both good and bad examples in the literature of the Old Testament.  The gatekeeper must be vigilant, announce those who belong, guard against the enemy.

The son of man is the watchman over Israel.  The messianic figure that will save the entire nation takes the role of the gatekeeper of the city.  In John’s parable the messianic figure is the one who arrives at the gate, not the keeper of the gate.  The gatekeepers become the leaders of the Christian community in later tradition.  The roles are from the Old Testament tradition but the associations with the messianic salvation have shifted in this Christian usage.

In this same context of Christian rulers, the watchman in the Old Testament makes known the goodness of the Lord to the city and the world.  The joyful role of the gatekeeper is announcing the good.  This watching and announcing theme become an important element in Christian understanding of the Second Coming of Christ.  This passage from John is a powerful image for the parousia and the image is borrowed from the Old Testament tradition.


The Gospel of John has attracted a great deal of attention from commentators.  One of the reasons for this attention is the way John uses simple vocabulary to construct multi-layered stories.  These stories often allow for simultaneous different structural analysis.  One can see multiple literary structures imposed on the scene.  The true beauty of this phenomenon is that these multiple structures peacefully coexist in the finished Gospel.  While each can be seen separately under study, none of them interferes markedly with the others.  This is certainly the case in the passage on the Good Shepherd.  We can find several over arching structures to the scene.

The passage can be seen as a series of parables and allegorical explanations.[8]  We see the scene painted in a series of verses and the meaning of the scene explained in a series immediately following.  The allegorical explanations are even introduced as such in the text.  This is the simplest literary structure of the passage.  The style is common to other period literature in both the Christian and Jewish traditions.

The passage separates as follows:

10:1-6Parable of the sheepfold
10:7-13Allegorical explanation-the Gate, the Good Shepherd
10:14-18Union with the Father, lay down of life
10:19-21Concluding dialog with the Jews

[9]  Jesus draws the picture, explains the meaning, expounds on the fullness of this image and dialogs with those present.

Within this allegorical explanation structure, we can discern a doubling effect of the image.  The explanation is delivered twice.  The “I AM” statement is made twice in each explanation and expounded from a different angle in each.  This compounding effect drives each point home from two different aspects.[10]

There are a series of I AM sayings throughout the Gospel.  This passage has both the Gate and the Good Shepherd.  Each of the symbols in the entire series of I AM statements connect the person of Jesus with the great religious motifs of the Christian community.  We build a foundation in pieces throughout the Gospel.  This passage provides two of the links in this chain.[11]  This chain of statement plays off the general Old Testament scene of Divine Revelation where Moses by the burning bush hears God’s name I AM.  Isaiah receives this same revelation when he is called to witness for God.[12]

Another overall Gospel literary structure is chiastic in nature.  In this division the entire Gospel can be neatly divided into chiastic pairs.[13]

Chapter 1Chapter 21
Chapter 2Chapters 18-20
Chapter 3-4:46Chapters 13-17
Chapter 4:46-6:71Chapter 11-12
Chapter 7-10

In this pairing structure the passage of the Good Shepherd is part of the bridge between the ladder parallelism of the whole Gospel.  After this point we begin to revisit the Gospel themes in reverse order and head towards the ultimate glorification of God only hinted at in the prologue.

This particular passage presents a number of literary critical issues for the exegete.  The abrupt nature of the transition at 10:1 represents evidence of insertion to some.  There is no clear thematic link for this material to what happens immediately before.  Only the comments with the audience after the presentation of the parable provide a clear link.  There is a clear thematic link to the next passage of the gospel in the sheep theme, but the intervening announcement of the next calander festival provides a three month gap in the action.  All of these structural issues provide for a lot of speculation on how the original sources of these stories may have been merged or rearranged to achieve the current order.[14]

Many commentators have noted that the thematic link between the Good Shepherd discourse and the discourse at the feast of the Dedication in the next passage is very strong.  Yet the chronology of the events would separate the speeches by three months time.  The flock and shepherd motif ties these two discourses tightly together and the Dedication discourse clearly links this to messianic claims.  In the Good Shepherd passage the crowd reaction is clearly tied to the miracle of the blind man and the crowd at Tabernacles.  The chronological gap in the story is bridged by this thematic link.  There is no concern on the part of the author to justify the “historical” need for the same crowd to hear both stories.  The evangelist knows that the receivers of the Gospel have just heard both stories.  In a literary sense, the shepherd and sheep themes connect the two festivals and advance the story of the Gospel.[15]


Shepherd-This is the key messianic image of the passage and a common one for the entire New Testament and early Christian literature.  The synoptic Gospel tradition also uses this messianic image for the ministry of Christ.  We see Jesus as the seeker of the lost sheep, just as he gathers the many folds in John’s Gospel.  In early Christian writings the shepherd is a frequent image.  The second century even brings us a document called the Shepherd of Hermes that contains an elaborate allegory of the Christian kingdom.

Sheep-The image of sheep as defenseless groups in need of leadership is the flip side of the shepherd image.  The lost sheep needs to be sought out and found, they are not capable of returning on their own.  But sheep have another powerful role in the Gospel of John.  Through the paschal lamb the Passover is accomplished.  Later in the Gospel Jesus becomes the sheep, instead of the shepherd.  He walks into the Passover festival as the messianic king but he enters the feast as the Paschal lamb.

Gate-The gate is the point of entry to the temple, and by extension, the kingdom of God.  In the statement, “I AM the gate”; Jesus is taking this key term and personifying the image.  The Christian tradition expands this understanding to connect the faith in Jesus with the path to God.

Thieves & Robbers– These characters represent the leadership of Israel and connect to priests at the original dedication of the temple.  When the Macabees led the revolt to reclaim the traditions of God there were leaders in Israel that had sold out to the occupying forces.  The victory of the Macabees reclaimed the temple from these thieves and robbers.  This festival is the next stop in the Gospel.


In the progression of John’s Gospel this passage provides a stark contrast of current leaders to the idealized image of leadership in the Old Testament.  The argument with the Pharisees over the blind man in the previous passage sets the stage.  The leadership of Israel is blind.  In the Good Shepherd passage, they cannot understand the symbolism.  At the conclusion of the passage they can only resort to ad hominum attacks on Jesus.  They call him demented or possessed. The current leaders fall short of the idealized picture.  They are the false leaders, the thieves and robbers spoken of old.

This passage pushes the Pharisees to the edge.  In the next passage they proceed over.  They move from name calling here to an attempt at stoning at the feast of the Dedication.  But the contrast between Jesus’ messianic leadership and the false leadership of the Pharisees is the central point of this passage.


In the literary structure of the John the Good Shepherd is the bridge of the two feasts tabernacles and the dedication of the temple.  The pastoral theme connects the conflict with the Pharisees at tabernacles with the argument in the temple at the feast of the dedication.

The Good Shepherd passage connects Jesus to the Davidic kingship and messianic image.  In the Old Testament David is the shepherd of Israel.  Here Jesus lays claim to the title Good Shepherd.  The next encounter with the Pharisees at the Dedication the claim will become an explicit question to Jesus.  Here is the answer.  The Old Testament references are not quoted, but they are clear.  I AM the Good Shepherd, the Davidic king, the Messiah.

At this point in the Gospel the conflict between Jesus and these leaders of Israel is escalating.  We are laying the groundwork for the final conflict in the arrest and trial of Jesus.  As we prepare for that final conflict, Jesus explicitly introduces his willingness to “lay down his life”.  The Johannine Jesus is well aware of his impending death.  In fact, he must lay down his life in order to take up his life again.  The act of his death is complete only in the Resurrection.  The passage of the Good shepherd creates that bridge explicitly in preparation for what is to come.

The care and love that Jesus has for the individual sheep will provide the background for a key passage at the close of the Gospel.  Peter carries on leadership after the time of Jesus.  The question and answer dialog between Jesus and Peter in chapter 21 centers on the pastoral theme.  Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?”  Peter is designated a new shepherd to feed the sheep.  The relationship of shepherd to the sheep is one of love, do you love me equals feed my sheep.  The passage of the Good Shepherd is the example for Christian leadership after the ascension of Christ.


The final discourse of Jesus on the night of his arrest stresses the unity of the Christian community.  We see that theme of unity in a format that acknowledges physical separateness of the Christian community.  The Good Shepherd comes to the sheepfold and leads out the community. Jesus notes that there are other folds that he will also call out and lead.  These multiple folds will join together into a single flock.  These other sheepfolds represent the unity of all Christians

Certainly, John did not envision the problems we face today with a divided Christendom.  But the call to unity for our divergent communities is no less of an obligation.  On the surface level John sees Church communities that are in different cities and environs that come together behind the one shepherd.  Here the image is not much different that the gathering in of the scattered Jewish faithful seen in the Old Testament.

But we can also see this as an image of the relationship between sister apostolic Churches.  The Eastern Churches are the direct spiritual successors to the Johaninne community.  Our spiritual life and liturgy isinfused with the direction and spirit of John’s Gospel.  The community of John existed in the Christian east.  Throughout the Gospel we see a contrasting pair of Peter and the Beloved Disciple (John).  This pair represents the eastern and western Christian communities.  The eastern member defers to the leadership of Peter, but at the same time Peter acknowledges the deeper relationship to Jesus of John.  In this symbolic parable the multiple sheepfolds come together behind the single leader.  The differences in approach between the east and west merge at the second coming when we join as one flock behind one shepherd.[16]

[1] Three Hierarchies, SS Cyril & Methodius, St. Nicholas and others

[2] Jer 23:1-8 ; Ezek 22:27 ; Zeph 3:3 ; Zeck 10:2-3, 11:4-17

[3] Triodion, Vespers Wednesday  “The cunning enemy envious of your flock, struggles unceasingly, wishing to prepare a meal for himself…”

[4] Psalm 22(23) ; Jer 3:15 ; 13:17 ; 23:3-6 ; Isa 40:11 ; 49:9 ; Mic 2:12 ; Zeph 3:19 Qoh 12:11 ; Sir 18:13

[5] Jer 31:10 ; Isa 42:6 ,  Isa 56:8 ; Ezek 34:23 ; 37:24 ; Zech 13:7-9 ; psSol 17:24

[6] Psalm 117(118):20 ; Neh 3:1 ; Mic 2:13

[7] Jer 6:17 ; Ezek 3:17 , 33:6 ; Isa 62:6

[8] Brown, The Gospel of John, Vol 1, p 390.

[9] Mcpolin, The Gospel of John, p 301.

[10]Brown, The Gospel of John, Vol 1, pp 391-396.

[11] Perkins, Reading the New Testament, p 250.

[12] Isaiah 43:10

[13]Dicharry, Paul & John, pp 160-161

[14] Schnackonburg, The Gospel according to St John, p 276.

[15] Brown, The Gospel of John, Vol 1, p 389.

[16] Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, p 90.


BROWN, Raymond.  The Gospel According to John.  (Two volumes) Garden City: Doubleday, 1966.

BROWN, Raymond.  The Epistles of John.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1982.

BROWN, Raymond.  The Community of the Beloved Disciple.  NY: Paulist Press, 1979.

BROWN, Raymond.  The Churches the Apostles Left Behind. NY: Paulist Press, 1984.

CULPEPPER, Alan.  The Gospel and Letters of John.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.

CULPEPPER, Alan.  John: the Son of Zebedee.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

DICHARRY, Warren.  Human Authors of the New Testament: Paul & John.  Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992.

MALONEY, Francis.  The Gospel of John.  Collegeville: Michael Glazier, 1998.

MCPOLIN, James.  John.  Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1979.

PERKINS, Pheme.  Reading the New Testament.  New York: Paulist Press, 1977.

SANDERS, J. N.  The Gospel of John.  In The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible.  Volume II.  Nashville: Abington Press, 1986.

SCHNACKENBURG, Rudolf.  Gospel According to John.  (volume 1).  Translated by Kevin Smyth.  NY: Burns and Oates, 1968.

SMALLEY, Stephen.  John Evangelist and Interpreter.  NY: Nelson, 1978.