Jesus had been giving warm and familiar teaching on the true and good shepherd, a motif the people knew well. God was the shepherd of Israel, and their two most beloved leaders, Moses and David, had also been shepherds. Most everyone either knew a shepherd or had been one, growing up, and the hills of Judea were dotted with the flocks of sheep and goats.
In first century Palestine, sheep and goats were kept for their milk and their wool, and were only eaten when the flocks needed to be thinned, or it was a time of festival. Because of this, shepherds grew to know their sheep by name, calling to them daily, and caring for them tenderly.
But then, Jesus had interjected a jarring new thought—he had sheep in another fold.
Sheep of Another Fold
Jesus spoke of sheep not in this fold, meaning the fold of Judaism. The people were familiar with teaching that spoke in metaphor, and undoubtedly they understood this. The Hebrew scriptures prophesied of a time when all nations would stream to Israel to be blessed by God.
In days to comeIsaiah 2:2-3 (NRSV)
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
One Flock, One Body, One Temple
Jesus was referring to all the people who would be saved, down through the centuries, those of the Jewish faith and also those of other cultures and nationalities, coming from other religions and ethnicities. All would be one flock together, belonging to the one Lord.
The apostles wrote about this theme throughout the Christian Testament, the one body of Christ, the one temple of Christ, every believer equally loved and valued by God. And all would know Jesus’ voice.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.Ephesians 4-6 (NRSV)
Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.1 Peter 2:5 (NRSV)
Certainly, people will say they know God, but the important question is whether God knows that person. In a relationship there is interaction, you respond to each other, come to know each other better and better, share more deeply from your hearts with each other, trust each other, give to each other, and move with each other.
It is this kind of intimacy, the relationship that Jesus described with the Father, that Jesus also has with his sheep, “I know the Father and the Father knows Me,” (John 10: 15) and “I know My own, and My own know me.” (John 10:14) The Shepherd gives his life because of the intimacy of both of these relationships
Through this the Father loves me, because I lay my life down in order that I might take it up again.Jesus, John 10:17
In a way, the sheep also give their lives to the Shepherd by utterly trusting and following him. Each gives to the other.
I Lay Down My Life
The Lord Jesus, Messiah is unique among all the shepherd leaders Israel has ever had, because Jesus has the authority and power to lay down his life, and also to take it back up again.
- Jesus was not crucified against his will, like some terrible mistake.
- Jesus’ life was not cut off before its time.
- Jesus had the power to prevent his death and suffering because he is God, God the Son.
But he did not exercise that right. Instead, because of his love, for the Father and for the sheep, and because of the Father’s love for the sheep and for the Son, Jesus willingly died and was able to raise himself from the dead in resurrection
Not even one takes it away from me, but rather I lay it down myself. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to pick it back up again—I took hold of this commandment from my Father.Jesus, John 10:18
Some wrinkled their brows, others rubbed their beards between puzzled fingers. Why would the rabbi make such emphasis on being able to lay down his life and pick it back up again? Did he mean in the evening, as a shepherd lay down at the sheep enclosure’s opening, and in the morning when the shepherd arose? Did he mean as a shepherd faced perils and dangers in the remote fields and rocky crags where lion and bear stalked the flocks?
The disciples also shifted from foot to foot. They did not understand this teaching. Why would Messiah speak of laying down his life when he was meant to reign over Israel’s renaissance? The glorious kingdom of God!
Some began to mutter, disappointed. “He has a demon,” one said, and several others nodded, apprehensive. They could not account for his strange charisma and his powerful healings in any other way. He had a demon. It was the only explanation.
“He is beside himself, raving.” Said another, a little louder. John had been standing nearer to the onlookers, and he could hear them as they distanced themselves from Jesus, vexed and distressed. They had been taken in by Jesus’ teaching on shepherds, lured into his delusion, and now, having snapped out of it, they felt betrayed by a madman.
Some even stepped back with a shudder. They jutted their chins toward the disciples, and others who seemed less hesitant, “Why are you listening to him?!” They asked.
But those who knew the man who had been a blind beggar that morning, and now stood with them a man with his sight restored, defended the rabbi with fervent appeal. “These words are not of one who is under the power of a demon! One who is under the power of a demon is not able to open blind eyes!”
The man who could now see nodded vigorously, turning his head so all could look at his face, pointing energetically to his eyes and the panoramic scene of the temple and the gathered people.
Those who doubted shook their heads, shook the dust from their sandals, and turned away, waving their hands behind them. The spell had been broken, they would remain no longer. But others turned toward Jesus, as the wind swirled and eddied around them, now carrying the scent of sycamores and the song of temple prayers. They asked him to continue to teach them.
Jesus is the good shepherd who knows his own.
And his own know him.
In italics is my own imagined sense of the scene, working with my own translation of John 10:19-21
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