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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life for His Sheep (10:11-18)
The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life for His Sheep (10:11-18)

Jesus says, I am the good shepherd (v. 11), an "I am" saying that, like the others, ultimately concerns the issue of life. He has just promised life to the full (v. 10), and he now says this life comes through his death (vv. 11, 15, 17-18). Once again he starts with a familiar image in his audience's life, since shepherds commonly had to deal with the problem of wild animals (cf. Gen 31:39; 1 Sam 17:34-37). A good shepherd, one who is worthy of admiration (kalos), would risk his life to protect the sheep. But Jesus does not merely risk his life; he consciously gives his life for the sake of his sheep (vv. 15, 17-18; cf. Jeremias 1968:496 104).

The idea of a voluntary and vicarious death for the sheep is not found in the Old Testament nor elsewhere (Jeremias 1968:496-97; Barrett 1978:374). The closest conceptual background is that of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 (Brown 1966:398; Westcott 1908:2:57). While this servant is likened to a sheep rather than a shepherd (Is 53:7), it is said of him that "the Lord makes his life a guilt offering" (Is 53:10). The expression in John 10, lays down his life (tithemi ten psychen), could be taken as a translation of "makes his life" (sim naphsho, Is 53:10; Jeremias 1967c:710). For the sheep (hyper ton probaton) does not in itself necessarily speak of sacrifice, but in John it does (Barrett 1978:375). In every place the preposition hyper ("for") is used in John (6:51; 10:11, 15; 11:50-52; 13:37-38; 15:13; 17:19; 18:14), with two exceptions (1:30; 11:4), it is used of sacrifice in which "the death envisaged is on behalf of someone else" (Carson 1991:386). So again Jesus' death is seen to be central to his task.

Another part of the conceptual background comes from the prophet Zechariah, who contrasts two shepherds. One is the messianic shepherd-king who is rejected by the people, which, in turn, results in their condemnation (Zech 11:4-14). The second is the worthless shepherd who deserts the flock (Zech 11:4-17). God's messianic shepherd will be struck down, causing the sheep to be scattered and leading to the judgment and refining of God's people (Zech 13:7-9). This rejection by the leaders of the people and their own condemnation is echoed in John, as is the striking of the shepherd, though with a different effect. It will indeed lead to the scattering of Jesus' flock for a brief time, but it will also be central in the gathering of his own flock from among the nations: "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (Jn 12:32).

This death makes him the shepherd that is good (kalos). This word refers in such a context to that which is beautiful, noble, honorable, worthy of praise. In other words, Jesus is fulfilling his job as a shepherd in an exemplary fashion so that such goodness is able to be perceived (Grundmann 1965:548). He is the admirable shepherd, and there is something admirable, heroic and attractive in his death. Consequently, it is in his death that he will draw all men to himself (12:32). The beauty of the Lord's character attracts those whose hearts are able to receive divine beauty. This is far more than an admirable death of a martyr. For in this death we see the beauty of God himself, since God is love, and love, as John says (1 Jn 3:16), is the laying down of life. It is precisely because he was in the form of God that he poured himself out and laid down his life (Phil 2:6-8; cf. C. F. D. Moule 1972:97). In Jesus we see the divine character, and what we see is beautiful. When we are able to really see God as Jesus has revealed him we cannot help praising him if we have hearts that are open to God. Such a vision of God's beauty is at the heart of all true worship.

Jesus goes on to contrast the shepherd who will risk his life for the sheep with a hireling who runs from the wolf and leaves the sheep behind to be attacked (harpazei, literally, "snatched" or "carried off") and scattered. They are not his sheep, and he does not care about them (Jn 10:12-13). This picture is not so much an allusion of Ezekiel 34 as a development from it. In Ezekiel the danger from wild animals arises after the sheep have been scattered (Ezek 34:5, 8), and the false shepherds are indeed shepherds, though like the hireling they care nothing for the sheep. So there are some general associations with Ezekiel, which may suggest that Jesus is continuing his condemnation of the leadership of Israel. But the main point seems to focus on the character of the Good Shepherd, specifically, his care for the sheep.

His care for the sheep addresses two problems, the lack of care on the part of the hireling and the threat of scattering by the wolf. Elsewhere the wolf is an image of false teachers who come both from outside the community and from within (Mt 7:15; Acts 20:29-30). Such a problem was present in John's day in Ephesus, since Paul's prediction to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:29-30) was already coming to pass in Paul's own day (cf. 1 Tim 1:3) and continued in John's time (cf. 1 John). Likewise, the problem of hirelings continued in the church, as seen in Peter's exhortation to the elders to shepherd God's flock willingly and not just for money (1 Pet 5:2).

The themes introduced in a general way (Jn 10:11-13) are then personalized and developed (10:14-18). Jesus' knowledge of his flock and their knowledge of him (v. 14) are compared to the knowledge the Father and the Son have of one another (v. 15). The conjunction translated just as (kathos) is most often used as a comparative, but it can have a causal sense (Wallace 1996:674). Both senses are true here, for "the relationship between God the Father and his Son is the original model and reason for Jesus' fellowship with his own" (Schnackenburg 1980b:297). As always, Jesus' identity as the Son and his relationship with the Father are crucial for understanding what is being said.

This knowledge is not simply a knowledge about one another or merely the knowledge of an acquaintance. Rather, it is an intimacy that is love. The intimacy of the Father and the Son is so close it is described as a oneness (10:30), and a similar oneness of life is affirmed between Jesus and his disciples (for example, 15:1-7). The believer is not stirred into some cosmic soup, as in false forms of mysticism, but rather there is a radical oneness that does not obliterate the distinctness of the person. As the holy Trinity is both One and Three, so the believer is one with God and yet distinct from God. This theme of intimacy has been introduced earlier, for example in Jesus' teaching that his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood (see comments on 6:53-57), and it will be unpacked in detail in the discourse in the upper room (chaps. 13—17). Its inclusion here provides important clarification regarding the nature of the new community Jesus is bringing into existence. This closeness includes the most intimate of relations between Jesus and each of his followers, and it is part of the union with God that they enter into in Christ through membership in his flock.

This new community is based in his death (10:15). The very pattern of life in this new community is that of life laid down for one another, a cruciform life. The possibility of such a life and the power for such a life come through the life of the Son of God poured out on the cross, thereby uniting God and mankind by taking away the sin of the world and revealing the glory of God.

Before revealing more about his death, Jesus mentions that he has other sheep not of this sheep pen who must be brought also, so there shall be one flock and one shepherd (v. 16). The most natural reading, accepted by most commentators, is that Jesus is referring to sheep from outside the fold of Judaism. There are Gentiles who will listen to his voice and be joined to his flock. Thus, in this section that speaks of Jesus' founding a community apart from official Judaism, Jesus himself speaks to one of the greatest points of controversy in the earliest church. He does not clearly specify on what terms the Gentiles are to be included, and so the church later had to discern his will whether or not Gentiles must become converts to Judaism in order to join his flock. But the present context, which describes a follower who has been expelled from the synagogue, hints at the answer. Most recent scholars think John is simply giving Jesus some lines that would address the later situation, but the potential ambiguity of the figure is typical of Jesus himself (cf. 21:22-23).

They are already his sheep because they have been given to him by the Father (v. 16; cf. 10:29; 6:37-39; 17:2, 6, 24; Beasley-Murray 1987:171), yet they must hear his call and respond. So once again we see both divine sovereignty and human responsibility at play. In saying that he must bring them also he speaks of the love that goes in search of the lost, which is a theme running throughout this Gospel and indeed the New Testament. He must (dei) do this; it is a divine necessity (cf. Grundmann 1964:22-24) that comes from the very character of God as love.

But how will he bring the Gentiles? When Gentiles do come to him it signals his hour has finally arrived (12:20, 23), but Jesus himself is not seen going to the Gentiles. He will bring the Gentiles into the flock by the ministry of his disciples, whom he will send (20:21). Jesus will continue his own ministry through his people, which will be accomplished through the presence of the Spirit. They are the ones who will bring the Gentiles, but Jesus is saying it is he himself who is doing so. This is an example of the oneness between the shepherd and his flock.

Similarly, the one shepherd unites the flock (Morris 1986-1988:380). The oneness comes from sharing the life of the one God in his Son by his Spirit. This flock is thus a spiritual entity yet not in the sense of being nonhistorical or only invisible any more than the incarnate Son who is its shepherd is such. This community has identifiable marks as a recognizable entity within history. Several marks are referred to in the New Testament, but the main ones mentioned in this passage are the centrality of Christ, the confession of him as exemplified by the former blind man and the fact that this community is to be composed of both Jews and Gentiles. The centrality of Christ is especially strong, given his exclusivist claims. "The text does not suggest that this Good Shepherd will one day join a series of other shepherds who will then form a cooperative `shepherds' union'" (Bailey 1993:17). Thus, the oneness of the flock corresponds to the thought found throughout this Gospel that Jesus is the only way to the Father.

Jesus concludes this teaching by revealing more fully the mystery involved in the shepherd's laying down his life for the sheep (vv. 17-18). He says he lays down his life of my own accord (literally, "from myself," ap' emautou), which makes it clear that his life is not simply taken from him by his opponents. At no point in this Gospel are his actions determined by human agenda, and his death will be no different. It may look like the triumph of darkness over light, but it is not. Pilate may think he has the authority (19:10, exousia, "power" in the NIV), but Jesus tells him, "You would have no power [exousia] over me if it were not given to you from above" (19:11). This does not mean that the human agents of God's power, both Pilate and Caiaphas, are without sin (19:11) but rather that there is an antinomy between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

Jesus' statement that he has the authority to lay down his life stretches the imagery of the shepherd. He next proceeds to transcend it altogether by saying he has the authority not only to lay down his life, but also to take it back again. This cryptic teaching will become clearer in the next chapter, when he speaks of resurrection. The theme of life has been central throughout John's Gospel, and soon it will be the focus of the climax of Jesus' public ministry in the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11). The abundant life that this shepherd has come to give (v. 10) is something far beyond anything ever before available. Those in the story cannot even begin to grasp what he is talking about.

Despite this talk about having authority and acting from himself, the hallmark of his life is dependence on the Father. So he concludes by grounding all that he has said in this truth (v. 18). In laying down his life and taking it back he is obeying his Father. He knows his Father's voice and obeys, just as we are to hear his voice and obey.

It is in this light that we must understand his statement that the reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again (v. 17). This statement seems to imply that the Father's love is based on the Son's obedience, but it is clear that the Father's love for the Son is from all eternity (17:24; cf. 3:35; 5:20; 15:9; 17:23, 26). Furthermore, the Father loves the world, which is certainly not obedient (3:16), so the Father's love is not conditioned by obedience. Some commentators resolve this problem by looking at the character of the love between the Father and the Son and concluding that it is "eternally linked with and mutually dependent upon the Son's complete alignment with the Father's will and his obedience even unto death" (Barrett 1978:377; cf. Carson 1991:388). Others point to the effects of the obedience, either in terms of its revelation of the love between the Father and the Son (Bultmann 1971:384; Beasley-Murray 1987:171) or in terms of its accomplishment of the salvation of the world (Hoskyns 1940b:440; Beasley-Murray 1987:171). Rudolf Schnackenburg says the Father's love for the Son is mentioned here "to throw the Son's deed into relief" (Schnackenburg 1980b:301).

Each of these efforts touch on Johannine themes, but what does it mean that the reason the Father loves the Son is that he lays down his life? The Father simply is love (1 Jn 4:8), and as a part of his very character his love is not contingent on the loveliness of the objects of his love. But it is possible to fall out of "the sphere of His active love" (Hoskyns 1940b:440), which is the condition of the world upon whom God's wrath abides (3:36). His wrath is his settled opposition toward that which disrupts the harmony of relations between himself and his creatures and which corrupts and destroys those whom he loves. In the case of Christ, his sinless obedience maintains the harmony of relationship between himself and his Father—therefore God's love remains fulfilled toward him. Jesus refers to this when he says, "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love" (15:10). Such obedience is the expression of love (14:15, 21) and is the condition for intimacy (14:23). Thus, in our passage Jesus would be saying that the Father is able to fulfill his love for the Son because the Son does the Father's will. In this way, as the commentators have suggested, we see both the character of God's love and the effects of the Son's love, which is shown in obedience.

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