Who do you trust to give you guidance when it comes to faith and spirituality? Given how pervasive church baggage, and even worse, abuse are, it’s not always easy to figure out. It turns out, it’s not a new question. In fact, I think it’s the question that lies behind Jesus’ stories in John 10.
It’s a long, meandering passage, so, to save some space, I’ll let you give it a read on your own. Even if you don’t read it, you’ll likely recognize the main image Jesus uses: the good shepherd. He tells a series of stories and metaphors all about sheep, shepherds and thieves, most of which his audience doesn’t get.
If I’m honest, I don’t really blame them. The stories are all over the place. He keeps changing the metaphors and dodging questions that pop up. As storytelling goes, Jesus does a terrible job.
That’s probably because it’s not a modern story. It doesn’t fit our way of thinking. We expect stories to be clear, linear and with no wasted words. But Jesus’ stories are Semitic stories. They have their own way of working. They wander instead of being linear. They work on different levels rather than having one point. You have to walk around them for awhile. Often, you’ll walk in with one understanding and walk out with a completely different one.
So, to do Jesus’ shepherd stories justice, we have to walk around them. We’ll see what pops up and how it helps us know who to trust when it comes to faith.
Level One: Fight or Flight
There’s one level of the stories that speaks to one our most basic evolutionary tendencies: fight or flight. What kind of spiritual leader should we run from and/or resist? Wisdom on this pops up all throughout these shepherd stories.
First, check out the context of what comes right before John 10, when Jesus is talking to the religious leaders:
Jesus said to them, If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
Essentially, what Jesus is saying is that when it comes to spiritual insight, if you think you have a lot of it, you probably don’t. Jesus probably didn’t know it, but he was on to a pretty helpful principle of social psychology called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This principle says that in general, people who think they have an area of life figured out rarely actually do. The more know you about or have experienced something, the more you realize you don’t know about it.
This is what Jesus is saying about spiritual leaders. If you meet someone who thinks they know everything about God, they’re probably not worth trusting with your spirituality.
Next, Jesus gives us an obvious, but vital insight:
I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw.
This image is almost insultingly simple. If a spiritual leader looks like they’re being shady, they probably are. Trust your gut here. In religion, we write off our gut and let leaders get away with all sorts of sheep related shenanigans. Because it’s church, we give them the benefit of the doubt. Or if they’ve been helpful to us in the past, we think there’s no way they could be doing something out of line. Or everyone around us seems to be ok with what’s going on.
Sometimes we need a jarringly simple image to wake us up. If it seems like someone is breaking into the sheep pen, there’s a good chance that’s what’s happening.
Jesus has one final, and brutal, insight about poor spiritual leaders:
The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy.
Steal, kill, destroy. That’s some strong language. While those things certainly happen in church, don’t get caught up in the literal list. Poor spiritual leaders use others for personal gain.
People are objectified and expendable. This may happen maliciously, or it may be that a leader hasn’t dealt with their own wounds or pain. Some leaders simply want to see their institution or system survive, and they’re willing to sacrifice others for it. Whatever the reason, it’s toxic and certainly not worth our trust.
Level 2: Follow
Jesus’ shepherd stories speak to another basic need of ours: having someone to follow. At various stages of our lives, we need guides to show us how to move forward, and our spirituality is no different. So, the shepherd imagery speaks to the kind of leaders that are worth following, and how Jesus embodies those values.
This first place this pops up is easy to miss:
Jesus was in the temple, walking in the covered porch named for Solomon.
So Jesus liked porches. What does this have to do with who we can trust? Well, Solomon’s porch was an important place. It was the last place in the temple complex that everyone was allowed: men, women, Jew, Gentile. Everyone.
Jesus doesn’t wall himself off from anyone. When we think about who to trust, we should ask if everyone is allowed in their spaces and systems. If their spirituality is based on exclusion, then they’re probably tapping into some sense of superiority, not something sacred.
Next, Jesus says something pretty unique in religious circles:
If I don’t do the works of my Father, don’t believe me.
In a world of people shouting, “because God says so,” Jesus says, “If I’m not embodying something holy and worth following, you shouldn’t believe me.” He invites critique and expects authenticity from anyone who would offer spiritual guidance.
He does this right as some of the crowd wants to know if he has the qualifications to lead Israel. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in their titles though, and instead tells them to just look at what he does. And if it’s not from God, everyone should walk away.
Lastly, he gets to the heart of spiritual leaders worth trusting:
I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.
Jesus’ ministry was in service of something bigger: life to the fullest. He suggests he can be trusted because he’s just a means to the end that is a big, connected, deeply rooted life.
He also picks this up when he switches metaphors and calls himself a gate. He’s meant to lead us somewhere: the sacred.
At the risk of oversimplifying it, we can figure out if someone is worth trusting simply by asking, “Are they connecting me to the sacred?”
In church, we normally stop here. Trust Jesus. We’ve been told that’s the whole deal. But there’s more. There’s at least one more level here.
Level 3: Freedom
We tend to miss what was really revolutionary in these shepherd stories. What was controversial wasn’t that Jesus was trying to claim the authority of the religious leaders. It’s that he was trying to give it to everyone.
Check out these very similar sounding lines:
Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice.
I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.
For Jesus, being connected to God comes down to knowing. He’s not talking about cognitive knowledge, like we often think. Semitic knowledge was experiential. It was mystical. It meant trusting your experience.
Who do you trust when it comes to connecting with God? You trust you. Trust what you know to be true about God, not what you’re told. At the end of the day, that’s the only thing that’s going to stick anyway.
I don’t think we choose what we believe or find compelling about God. We may be able to blindly defer to spiritual authorities and traditions for awhile, but those beliefs don’t have roots. When life gets hard, they’ll get pulled up.
This has been true in my life. My faith has changed a lot, but what I’ve known – deeply known – to be true and compelling about faith hasn’t changed. At the core of every meaningful faith experience has been love and awe. There were times where I falsely accepted the limits of fundamentalism to those things. I put conditions on my ability to be loved or to love others, like my LGBTQ neighbors. But, at its essence, what I’ve always known to be true in my spirituality hasn’t changed, only my understanding of it has.
So trust your experience. As a friend of mine says, we’re busy trying to show how much faith we have in God, but God is trying to show us how much faith s/he has in us.
But Jesus wasn’t done. Right when the crowd was about to kill him because they thought he was equating himself to God, he throws this out:
Jesus replied, “Isn’t it written in your Law, I have said, you are gods? Scripture calls those to whom God’s word came gods.
Jesus radically rethinks the divine human relationship by going…back in history? He quotes Psalm 82:6, which says, “You are gods, you are all sons of the Most High.”
He’s essentially saying, “If you’re going to stone me, you better stone everyone.” He reaches back into their collective history and levels the playing field. He’s not just saying he’s especially connected to God. He’s saying everyone is.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we are literally God. Please don’t go start a cult. It’s that we all have access to the sacred. So much so that the Psalmist, and Jesus, are willing to label us “gods.”
Now, before we all get big heads, there’s one more helpful insight that pops up:
I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen.
If we’re tempted to think that Jesus’ radical message of divine connection makes us and our tribe special, Jesus stops us in our tracks. He says he has other flocks. Spirituality is always bigger than we think.
While Jesus may call you a “little g” god, it doesn’t mean you’re the expert on spirituality. It means you have a piece no one else has. Your connection to the sacred can’t be replicated. And neither can your neighbors’. So we come together with our collective pieces of and perspective on God to get a bigger picture. We’re neither deferring to spiritual authorities, nor acting like we are one ourselves.
When we bring our collective insights, something really beautiful happens. We begin to experience what Jesus was leading us to all along: life to the fullest.
Questions to think about…
Who are the people on your personal advisory team? Who do you trust to give you relationship advice? Parenting advice? Financial advice? Medical advice? Movie advice? What convinced you that these people were worthy of your trust?
Who are the people you trust to guide you in your faith and spirituality? What convinced you that these people were worthy of your trust?
Jesus was essentially slamming the Jewish leadership, saying they were not worthy of trust for a range of reasons. One of the first things Jesus noted was that they were know-it-alls. The Dunning-Kruger Effect understood from modern psychology essentially validates the idea that when people act like they have mastered something, it likely means there is much they don’t know. When have you experienced being around a know-it-all?
How do you determine if a person is a know-it-all versus a person who knows a lot?
Jesus later advises his audience against following leaders who don’t pass the “smell test” – there’s just something fishy about them. Have you ever experienced this with a person you trusted? How did you know something was up? How early did you realize something was amiss?
Jesus shifts to more a more positive approach, speaking into the types of leadership criteria that warrants trust. First, Jesus led by example, hanging out on Solomon’s Porch where everyone was welcome. Why would this be a sign of someone worthy of following?
Later, Jesus essentially told people to look at the actions of the leaders they are considering following to see if their behavior matches what we know to be true of the character and nature of God. What would that include?
How do you relate to Jesus comment about the sheep knowing the shepherd’s voice? What do you suppose he means? How has this been true for you?
How do you make sense of Jesus’s statement about some sheep knowing his voice? Who do you think he is referring to? What would this have meant to the original audience? What do you think it means for us today – what do we do with this? What is the criteria for determining who is included? Is there a criteria, or does this simply mean “everyone” is the same, or?
Reflect on all of the questions we’ve pondered here. What is the stickiest take-away for you today?
Study Notes (Gail O'Day, New Interpreters Bible)
The image of Jesus as the good shepherd has a perennial hold on Christian imagination and piety. Some of the most popular pictures of Jesus are those that depict him as a shepherd, leading a flock of sheep. This picture of Jesus has influenced the church’s images of its leaders, so that in many traditions the ordained minister is referred to as the “pastor,” and ministerial care of the congregation is referred to as “pastoral care.” Behind both of these understandings of ministerial vocation is the sense that the minister is called to lead in the image of Jesus’ leadership, to be the shepherd as Jesus is shepherd. Because these images play such an important role in the life of the church, it is critical for the interpreter of John 10 to distinguish among the various uses of shepherd imagery in the NT. The move to pastoral images of ministry, for example, belongs more to other NT texts (e.g., John 21:15–19; Acts 20:28–29; 1 Pet 5:2–3) than to the interpretation of John 10. The pastoral images of John 10 are primarily christological and ecclesiological, focusing on Jesus’ identity and his relationship to the sheep.
Because the picture of Jesus as good shepherd has such a rich tradition in the life of the church (for other NT examples of this image, see Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 3:4), there is a tendency to read John 10 as if Jesus’ self-revelation as the good shepherd is the only christological image in the discourse. As a result, the christological imagery of the gate (vv. 7–10) is subsumed into the imagery of the good shepherd (vv. 11–16). This move runs contrary to the text itself, however. The two “I am” statements of John 10 present the reader with two christological images whose theological integrity must be preserved. When the shepherd image is emphasized in isolation from the gate image, the picture of Jesus in John 10 becomes too easy to appropriate and loses its christological edge. When the gate imagery is dropped, the christological focus of the shepherd imagery can become anthropocentric. That is, Jesus as the good shepherd becomes a model for other shepherds who would lead the “sheep.” The text becomes as much about “us” as leaders as it is about Jesus as the shepherd. When the gate imagery is retained, however, this slide from the christological to the anthropocentric is more difficult.
The heavy concentration of OT pastoral images in this discourse, particularly images associated with God in the OT texts, points the reader to the discourse’s christological heart: Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to God’s people. Yet Jesus is more than the good shepherd for whom Israel waits (Ezekiel 34), because he is also the gate for the sheep. Jesus is the way to life (the gate), and he leads the way to life (the good shepherd). While these are closely related, they are not the same thing. Jesus is the way to life because he is himself life (v. 10; cf. 14:6). Jesus leads the way to the life because he lays down his own life (vv. 11, 14–15). These are non-transferrable attributes; they derive from the heart of Jesus’ identity as the one sent by God.
The “I am” statements of John 10, then, deepen the array of images of Jesus available to the church. The images of Jesus as the gate and the good shepherd are intensely relational; they have no meaning without the presence of the sheep. These “I am” statements do not simply reveal who Jesus is, but more specifically reveal who Jesus is in relationship to those who follow him. The identity of Jesus and the identity of the community that gathers around him are inextricably linked.
The relational dimension of the christological images provides the bridge to the ecclesiological dimension of this imagery. The identity of the community is determined by the shepherd’s (Jesus’) relationship to it and its relationship to the shepherd (Jesus). There is, then, an anthropological dimension to the shepherd discourse, but it is an anthropology completely dependent on the discourse’s christology and expressed exclusively in communal terms. For the community of faith, human identity is determined by Jesus’ identity. Who Jesus is with and for the community determines who the community is.
What image of community life does this discourse present? Nowhere in this discourse are any who follow Jesus depicted as shepherds or even assistant shepherds. Rather, all who gather around Jesus receive their identity as members of the flock. The community that gathers around Jesus are the ones who share in the mutual knowledge of God and Jesus, whose relationship to Jesus is modeled on Jesus’ relationship to God (v. 15). Listening to Jesus’ voice is the source of its unity (v. 16). By taking Jesus as its point of access to God, the community receives abundant life (v. 10).
Most important, however, the community that gathers around Jesus receives its identity through Jesus’ gift of his life for them. In the end, to be a member of Jesus’ flock is to know oneself as being among those for whom Jesus is willing to die. The christological and ecclesiological images of the shepherd discourse become one around the death of Jesus. The death of Jesus also holds together the metaphors of gate and shepherd and shows how Jesus can be both things. In the freely chosen act of his death, Jesus shows the way to life (gate) and offers abundant life by the example of his love (shepherd). It is important that Jesus says he lays down his life for the sheep, not for his sheep (v. 15), just as in 6:51 he speaks of giving his flesh for the life of the world. It is an inclusive, rather than an exclusive, gift, just like God’s love for the world (3:16). Jesus makes the love of God fully available by expressing that love in his death (vv. 17–18).
The shepherd discourse thus provides the contemporary church with the occasion to reflect on several critical theological themes. First, it asks the church to attend to the christological heart of its identity. Who the church is cannot be separated from who Jesus is. Reflection on church identity, then, always needs to be part of a serious christological conversation, a conversation that takes Jesus’ gift of his life as its starting point. Second, this discourse provides an occasion to reassess the assumptions that accompany the use of shepherd and pastoral imagery within the church, particularly about the church’s leaders. When that imagery sets the church’s “shepherds” apart from the rest of the sheep, the power of the pastoral imagery of community in John 10 is diminished, if not lost. Jesus uses pastoral imagery in this discourse to depict the lives of all believers, not just some, in relationship to him.
Finally, the discourse provides the church with a fresh vantage point from which to reflect on community practices. What does it mean for the church to live as Jesus’ sheep? What does a church that understands itself as Jesus’ sheep look like? How will its identity be manifested in the world? Jesus the good shepherd chose to make his identity manifest to the world through his death. The shepherd discourse calls the church to live out its life according to the model of community envisioned here by Jesus, a model grounded in the mutuality of love embodied in the relationship of Jesus and God. This model of community will be developed further in the Farewell Discourse, but the first glimpse of the community for which Jesus gave his life is available in this text.
John 10:22–42 brings the interpreter face to face with the decisive theological issue of this Gospel: the relationship of God and Jesus. As the commentary has shown, this passage says nothing about this relationship that has not been said before, but it says it in direct and concise formulations: “The Father and I are one”; “the Father is in me and I in the Father.”
There is a temptation to interpret these words according to the norms of later trinitarian doctrine, to read them according to what they became in the life of the church, rather than what they say in their own context. To do so, however, is to distort and diminish the theological and christological witness of this important text. The Gospel of John was an important resource for the theologians of the second and third centuries as they struggled to think through the interrelationship of the three persons of God, but their questions were not the Fourth Evangelist’s questions, nor were their intrachurch controversies his. As the Commentary on 10:30 shows, John was talking about the functional unity of God and Jesus in their work and power, not a metaphysical unity of nature and person. Later christology expressed this unity metaphysically by speaking of the one nature or substance, categories absent from John. The Fourth Evangelist’s primary concern was to articulate the relationship of God and Jesus in the context of Jewish-Christian relations, not Christian-Christian relations in the debates over christology.
The most important difference between the discussions of the early church fathers and the Fourth Evangelist about the relationship of God and Jesus is that the church fathers were developing doctrine and the Fourth Evangelist was telling a story. This does not mean that the Fourth Evangelist’s reflections are inherently any less theological, but because they are cast in a story, they have a very different theological intent. John 10:30 and 38 thus belong to John’s story of Jesus and cannot be abstracted from that context without altering their meaning. When Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” it does not come as any surprise to the Gospel reader, because that reality has been acted out throughout the Gospel narrative. Jesus has done the works of God, spoken the words of God, identified himself with the I AM of God. The relationship of God and Jesus is not a metaphysical puzzle for the Fourth Evangelist, but evidence of God’s love for the world (3:16–17). The wonder of the incarnation is that God is palpably available to the world in the person of Jesus, that those who believe in Jesus, who see the works of God in Jesus, have access to God in ways never before possible (14:7–11).
The question of the identity of the persons of God and Jesus would make no sense to the Fourth Evangelist, because he is clear throughout that Jesus’ incarnation and presence in the world are wholly the result of God’s initiative: God gave; God sent. The two distinct characters, God and Jesus, are essential to John’s proclamation of the gospel. In fact, much of the trinitarian conversation about natures and persons would probably sound to the Fourth Evangelist like the “Jews’ ” erroneous charge of blasphemy in 10:33, a conversation that misses the point about the unity of God and Jesus.
One non-negotiable point that John and the early framers of doctrine have in common, however, is that Jesus’ relationship to God is the crux and stumbling block of Christian faith. For the Fourth Evangelist, that relationship is the dividing line between Jews and Christians, and hence is the focal point of most of the controversy between Jesus and the religious authorities. For the second-, third-, and fourth-century theologians, it was the dividing line between orthodoxy and heresy. For contemporary Christians, it is the source of Christians’ distinctive religious identity in their conversations with one another and with people of different religious faiths.
In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus does not claim to be a second God or somehow to replace God or to “make himself” God. Rather, Jesus claims to know God as no human has ever known God, to be one with God in will and work for the salvation of the world. This truth, and the believer’s experience of it, is the ultimate shaping factor in the Fourth Gospel narrative. Everything, from the hymnic beginning (1:1–18) to Thomas’s confession at 20:28, works to show forth the incarnate presence of God in Jesus.
It thus requires a significant amount of interpretive imagination and effort to allow John 10:22–42 to speak to the church about the relationship of God and Jesus in its own voice, and not in the voice of church doctrine. In order to understand Jesus’ claims in 10:30 and 38 about his relationship with God, it is critical that the interpreter keep them grounded in the whole story of the Fourth Gospel. Jesus’ acts of healing and giving life, his words of teaching all demonstrate and embody the presence of God in the world. Taken out of that larger context, the theological and christological claims of John 10:30 and 38 become doctrinal propositions. Within that narrative context, however, they have a life and vitality that they cannot have as doctrinal propositions. They serve to guide the reader back into the story of Jesus, to remind the reader of the shape and character of the “grace upon grace” (1:16) that is available when Jesus makes God known.