John 10 continues the narrative of John 9. In particular, Jesus is responding to this exchange with the Pharisees —
(John 9:39-41 ESV) 39 Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”
Jesus is accusing the religious leaders of Israel of being blind while refusing to admit it. Chapter 10 is an expansion on “your guilt remains.”
(John 10:1-3a ESV) “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens.
Jesus’ point — his literal point — is plain enough. Robbers don’t come in via the gate of the sheepfold. The NET Bible translators explain,
There was more than one type of sheepfold in use in Palestine in Jesus’ day. The one here seems to be a courtyard in front of a house (the Greek word used for the sheepfold here, αὐλή [aule] frequently refers to a courtyard), surrounded by a stone wall (often topped with briars for protection).
But what is the point he is making?
Well, in context, who has failed to enter something? The Pharisees have failed to believe and so to enter the Kingdom. Jesus is the door. The Pharisees have gained power over the sheep (the ordinary Jew) by illegitimate means. Rather than being true servants of the Father, who owns the sheep, they’ve slipped in as thieves and robbers.
The references to the Pharisees being thieves and robbers makes better sense if we take Jesus to be condemning the leaders of the Jews generally — the Pharisees, the priests, the elders of the Sanhedrin, etc. History tells us that the Temple was corrupt.
In the first century, there were serious economic problems in Judaea. The rabbinical sources indicate that the Temple authorities were widely regarded as corrupt. In this conflict between the rich elite and the poor peasants, the Romans sided with the elite, as they always did.
The Romans chose to rule the Jews, in part, via the Temple authorities. Rather than being solely servants of God in his holy house, they were vassals of Rome. And this led to priests taking on Roman ethics.
Regarding the high priest —
The High Priest ruled over the temple. He was appointed by Herod for the duration he desired, and often won his office through treachery or bribery. Beginning with the Maccabean revolt and up until the time of Herod–the high priest was the leading religious and political figure in Jerusalem.
The Romans also appointed Herod the Great (and, later, his sons) to be “king of the Jews,” giving him, an Edomite, rule over the Jewish people. However, they preserved much of the political power and prestige of the high priest in order to legitimize Herod’s rule in the eyes of the common people. That is, the willingness of the priestly class to collaborate with the Romans to preserve their own power, as well as the power of Herod, was essential to Roman rule because the people gave great deference to the priestly class, based on the Torah.
If the use of bribery to obtain positions in Jewish circles was well known, as was likely true, Jesus’ language would have been clear to his audience: the people in authority, especially those people on whom the Pharisees rely to keep the Pharisees in authority, got there corruptly.
The right path to leadership is through the “door” by means of the doorkeeper’s permission, that is, through God and faith in Jesus.
(John 10:3b-5 ESV) “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
The true Shepherd, however, is demonstrated by his relationship with the sheep. In Eastern lands, shepherds have a unique whistle or call that the shepherd’s sheep respond to. Several different flocks can mingle and graze together, but when one shepherd calls, that shepherd’s sheep follow.
In what sense has Jesus demonstrated that the lost sheep of Israel know his voice? Well, the leadership rejects him out of hand. They don’t even give him a hearing. They don’t hear his voice.
But the Samaritans, the lame, the blind — the weakest and most oppressed members of society — quickly come to faith. Other common folk at least give Jesus a hearing. They may ask questions, but they have open minds — and many come to faith.
(John 10:6-8 ESV) 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.”
Jesus, finding the leaders uncomprehending, makes it plain. Jesus is the door. The only legitimate path to leadership is via Jesus.
Of course, Jesus was unknown to them when they ascended to power. But Jesus is God’s message about his true character. They’ve always known God well enough to know that corruption is outside of his will — and even if they were not themselves corrupt, they supported and benefited from a corrupt system.
This passage, therefore, looks ahead a few years to the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. God would give these leaders a generation to reform, but failing that, they’d be removed from power by the hand of history, that is, God’s own hand.
(John 10:9-10 ESV) 9 “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
“Saved” refers, of course, to God’s salvation, and it fits well within the metaphor, because the purpose of a sheepfold is to protect the sheep from wolves and other enemies.
Regarding “will go in and out,” the NET Bible translators comment,
Since the Greek phrase εἰσέρχομαι καὶ ἐξέρχομαι (eiserchomai kai exerchomai, “come in and go out”) is in some places an idiom for living or conducting oneself in relationship to some community (“to live with, to live among” [cf. Act 1:21; see also Num 27:17; 2Ch 1:10]), it may well be that Jesus’ words here look forward to the new covenant community of believers. Another significant NT text is Luk 9:4, where both these verbs occur in the context of the safety and security provided by a given household for the disciples.
Thus, Jesus promises not only salvation at the end of time, but an immediate family and community, substituting for the artificial community created by the Jewish leaders. Rather than the synagogue that easily disfellowships a formerly blind man because he testifies that Jesus did the healing, there will be a new true community built on submission to the true Shepherd.
“Pasture,” to a sheep, is food. A theme of John is that the word of God is our true food. That is, Jesus will lead his sheep to the true Word, true understanding of God, true relationship with God and with each other.
The life being experienced by the ordinary Jew at the hands of the Jewish leadership is not abundant life at all. The fellowship is artificial. The leaders stand between them and God, rather than bringing them closer to God.
Thieves enter the sheepfold to take what they want — even the lives of the sheep. They kill
— slaughter — the sheep to eat them. But Jesus loves the sheep, doesn’t use the sheep, and instead offers a better life than they even imagine possible.