Jesus has used divine language when speaking of himself (8:58) and backed it up with a healing unheard of since the world began (9:32), thereby revealing himself as the agent of creation. By referring to himself as the shepherd of the flock he is appropriating further divine language. In the Old Testament, the leaders of the people are called shepherds, especially Moses (Ps 77:20) and David (Ps 78:70-72; Ezek 34:23). But God is the shepherd par excellence (for example, Ps 80:1; cf. Jeremias 1968:488-89; Barrett 1978:373-74). Jeremiah and Ezekiel in particular develop the shepherd motif to express how God cares for his people and his condemnation of false and evil rulers. God will condemn the false shepherds (Jer 23:1-2; Ezek 34:1-10) and appoint faithful shepherds to tend his flock after the manner of his own heart (Jer 3:15; 23:4). Indeed, the coming Davidic Messiah will be God's shepherd for his flock (Ezek 34:23-24), a prophecy given in the context of God's announcement that he himself will come to shepherd his flock. He will search for his scattered flock, gather them from the nations and lead them to good pasture on the mountains of Israel. He will tend to the weak and injured but will judge those sheep who only look after themselves and harm the others (Ezek 34:11-22).
In these passages God shepherds through his designated leaders. Jesus is claiming such a role for himself, but in a way unlike anything seen before. He has made clear claims to divinity and messiahship, which will be repeated shortly (Jn 10:22-39). So when he claims to be the shepherd he is claiming that Messiah has come and in him God himself has come to shepherd his people.
Jesus begins with a scene from everyday life, though the exact nature of this scene is uncertain. Kenneth Bailey (1993) suggests the background is from village life where each family owns a couple of sheep for personal use. The animals stay at night in the courtyard of the family's house (aule, paraphrased in the NIV as sheep pen, v. 1). Families on a given street agree as to who will shepherd their combined flock, often designating one or more of the children. In the morning this shepherd goes down the street to gather the sheep. The person at the door recognizes the shepherd and opens the door for the sheep to pass through. The shepherd has a distinct call or whistle, sometimes using a small flute, which the sheep recognize and follow. When several flocks end up at a watering place at the same time and mingle together, they are easily separated again by the shepherd, who gives his call as he starts to walk away. In addition to their own distinctive call, some shepherds also give their sheep names (Bailey 1993:10; cf. Beasley-Murray 1987:168).
This interpretation assumes there is a single flock composed of the sheep from several families that have been gathered from the courtyards of the various houses. However, the presence of a watchman (v. 3; literally, "doorkeeper," thyroros) seems unlikely in the home of a village family, and later in Jesus' application he speaks of a single courtyard (v. 16). So instead of several courtyards and a single flock, the picture seems to be of a larger courtyard or enclosure (possibly a sheep pen as the NIV suggests) in which the sheep of several flocks are kept. In the morning a shepherd comes to collect the sheep of his flock and is able to do so in the way Bailey describes.
Jesus contrasts those who enter through the gate and those who do not (vv. 1-2). The one who has legitimate business and authorization enters in the proper fashion, while those without authorization use underhanded means. These thieves and robbers do not have in mind the good of the sheep but rather selfish ends of their own. The shepherd is recognized by the one who guards the fold, and so his entrance is natural, out in the open, without forcing. Such has been Jesus' entrance into this world and amongst his own people. He has come in the appropriate manner, having been sent by the Father, in contrast to the Jewish leaders who are rejecting Jesus.
Jesus' call is a fulfillment of Wisdom's crying out in the streets to see if anyone hears and responds (Prov 1:20-21). The focus here, however, is not on a general call, for he calls his own sheep by name (v. 3). Each particular sheep is known by this shepherd. They are "not simply units in a flock" (Westcott 1908:2:51).
Jesus refers to bringing out all his own (v. 4). The word for brought out (ekballo) is the same word used to describe the leaders' throwing the man out of the synagogue (9:34-35). The picture of the shepherd who leads them out (v. 3) to find pasture and water thus interprets what has just occurred to the man born blind. Jesus goes on ahead of his sheep, calling them as Bailey has described, and they follow him because they know his voice (v. 4). They don't follow strangers; indeed, they flee from them, because they do not recognize a stranger's voice (v. 5). The word for know and recognize are the same word in Greek (oida), so the sheep will be known by whom they know. Here is a beautiful picture of both divine sovereignty in the shepherd's call and the human response in the hearing, knowing and following by the sheep. We also find the theme of discernment, since there are more voices calling to them than just their own shepherd's. Following Jesus means refusing to follow others who are claiming to be shepherds. Put in this perspective, the expulsion from the synagogue is no great hardship—indeed, Jesus' sheep will actually run away from strangers.
Jesus spoke this figure of speech to the Pharisees (v. 6, autois; ["to them"], left out of the NIV), but they did not get it. These are people who claim to be able to see (9:40-41), but their inability to understand Jesus is yet another example of their spiritual blindness. The word for figure of speech (paroimia) refers to an obscure saying that needs to be interpreted (cf. Jn 16:25, 29, Hauck 1967a:856). It is not just a figure of speech or a comparison, but a saying that is loaded with significance—the verbal equivalent of Jesus' signs. Little that Jesus says in this Gospel is not conveyed in this manner, as he will admit at the end of his teaching (16:25).
Jesus uses the shepherd motif to interpret what has just taken place with the former blind man. Judaism is described as a sheep pen, but not all the sheep in the pen belong to Jesus' flock. They are separated out as they recognize his voice and follow him out from the sheep pen. Jesus is gathering his flock together from the pen of official Judaism.