Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 10.1-10
4th Sunday of Easter - Year A

Other texts: 

This is "Good Shepherd" Sunday. Each year on the 4th Sunday of Easter, we celebrate Christ as the Good Shepherd. The gospel lesson for each of the three years comes from John 10: Year A = 10:1-10; Year B = 10:11-18; Year C = 10:22-30.

While all of these texts relate to shepherding, there is a change in Jewish festivals. Jesus is at Tabernacles in 7:1-10:21; but in 10:22 he is at Dedication (10:22-39).

There is a connection between the Shepherd discourse with its emphasis on proper hearing and John 9 where there is a miracle that leads to proper seeing. It is clear in 9:40-41 that Jesus is speaking to (or against) Pharisees and it seems that his speech in ch. 10 continues to be against them.

There are also some outline discrepancies within this section. Does vv. 1-5 contain two parables or one? Are vv. 7-18 an explanation of the parable(s) or a continuation of the discourse spurred on by images in the parables? These are questions scholars will debate, but not necessarily useful for preaching.

Vv. 1-5 talk about a shepherd's relationship to the sheep by creating two contrasts. The shepherd enters through the gate, but thieves and robbers sneak in another way. The sheep hear and know and follow the voice of the shepherd, but they don't know the voice of a stranger so they flee rather than follow.

It is clear in vv. 11 & 14 that Jesus is the good shepherd, but is he the "shepherd" in verse 2 or is he the doorkeeper or both? Could the shepherd refer to all church leaders? Peter is told "to shepherd" the sheep in Jn 21:16 -- the image carried on in the title "pastor" (see Ep 4:11 -- where the Greek poimen = "shepherd" is translated "pastor"). In addition, there are numerous OT references to leaders as shepherds (usually as bad leaders) Jer 23:1-2; Ezek 34; Nu 27:16-17.


Who are the thieves and bandits? Does the phrase in v. 1 refer to the same group as the phrase in v. 8 (or "thieves" in v. 10) or not? First of all, I think that they may refer to different groups. Whoever they are in v. 8, they came before Jesus. The ones in v. 1 are contemporaries with the shepherd. They also seem similar to the "thief" in v. 10, who also has malevolent intentions against the sheep.

Secondly, in typically Johanine fashion, there are different layers of meaning to this phrase. One answer is Jesus is continuing his attack against the blind Pharisees from 9:41. So the "thieves and bandits" could refer to them.

Another answer might be that they are disruptive, sneaky people within the community. In the parable, they are people who have entered the flock -- but not through the proper entrance -- not through Jesus, who is later pictured as the gate. In addition, Judas Iscariot, one of the "insiders," is called a "thief" in 12:6. Acts 20:28-29 uses some of the same language: "Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them."

It also may be a polemic against the more zealot leaders in John's church. Barabbas is called a "bandit" in 18:40.

In a general sense the phrase may refer to any deceptive leaders or people -- people with hidden agendas. A number of years ago, the "moonies" were going through towns in Nebraska soliciting funds. However, they never identified themselves as "moonies" or members of the Unification Church. They had a list of registered names such as the "Fellowship of the Holy Spirit." They were not honest about who they were and what they were about. Sometimes clergy or councils may not always be upfront and open about their plans or problems. A friend became very distrustful of his congregation when he discovered that they had a lot of money in saving accounts that they weren't reporting when they were requesting extra giving because they didn't have enough money.

What about "hidden agendas" of members at council or congregational meetings? That is, greater concern for themselves than for the group. Thieves and bandits are people who take for themselves without much thought about what others are losing.

In another general sense the phrase may refer to people who "pretend" to be part of the flock, but who haven't entered through the proper "door". Some of you may remember a few years ago when federal agents "joined" churches and Bible study groups who were supporting sanctuary for Central Americans. I wonder if a similar problem faced John's church. Were anti-Christian people sneaking into Christian communities? Christianity was an illegal religion in the Roman Empire -- because Christians were considered "atheists"! They didn't worship the Roman gods.

What about members who join a church because of the social status it gives them? or because of family pressure?

Bill Easum, in a talk I heard, wondered why we think church membership should bring with it privileges rather than obligations. The example he used was parochial schools. Why do we give church members a discount? Why don't we charge them more, so that children who are unchurched and poor might be able to attend for free or at a reduced rate?

Who are the "thieves and bandits" who sneak into the flock today?


V. 3b: "The sheep are hearing (present tense) his sound."

The ambiguity of phone as "sound" or "voice" may be intentional. Somewhere I remember hearing that each shepherd had a special whistle or sound that called his own sheep. While the sheep were grazing on the hillside, different flocks would mingle together. When it was time to return to the fold, the shepherds made their sounds and their own sheep knew that sound and went to it. Unfortunately, I haven't found any references to verify this practice. However, I know (from watching National Geographic specials) that there is often a sound (and smell?) connection between young animals and their mothers. The offspring recognize their mother's call and follow it, but not that of another. That image, as well as the shepherd calling his own sheep by name, denotes a close intimate relationship between shepherd and sheep.

The shepherd in these verses leads the sheep out rather than provides a way for them to come into the safety of the enclosure. Where does the shepherd lead the sheep out to? Where does Jesus lead the church out to?

Who are the strangers' voices we might hear? Like with "thieves and bandits" we might find a number of possible references from John's time; but we also need to name those strangers in our time. Could the call of greed and materialism and self-pleasure and success be some of the strangers' voices we should flee?

This verses also raises the question, "If we can't distinguish the voice of the stranger and flee from it, does that indicate that we don't know the voice of the shepherd?"

I've heard the illustration of parents who can recognize their young child's voice in the midst of a crowd, and vice versa. How can they do this? They are quite familiar with the sound of each other's voices. Their ears are "tuned in" to mother or father or child. They can sort out those specific sounds from all the others that are bouncing off their ears.

A few years ago, I attended a lecture by Ed Friedman on leadership. He reported from a friend of his who had gone to Palestine to see what shepherds actually did with the sheep. His observation was that shepherds seldom coddle the sheep. Usually "they are hitting them in the ass with their rod." Friedman added his own observation: "We've made empathy [coddling leading to immaturity] more important than responsibility -- 'kick ass'." I'll let each of you make your own application to the pastoral (shepherding) ministry.


I find a lot of irony in v. 6. Jesus has just been talking about the sheep knowing (oida) and hearing and following their shepherd's voice; but Jesus uses "figures of speech" (paroimia), so that his hearers won't know (ginosko) what he is saying.

To whom is Jesus speaking these paroimia? In this text, we can assume that it is the Pharisees of 9:41. Jesus accuses them of being blind in that verse. Now we also know that they can't hear too well either. However, Jesus says that he has spoken in paroimia to his disciples in 16:25. Here and in 16:29 paroimia is contrasted with parresia = plainly or openly. This indicates that paroimia is not plain or clear speech, that the meaning is purposely hidden, perhaps behind a parable or proverb, a simile or metaphor. So if we don't completely understand what Jesus is talking about, maybe we're not supposed to! <g>

The irony is that as Jesus' sheep we are to hear and recognize and follow his voice, but that voice speaks in figures of speech that we may not fully understand. If this is true, then perhaps the voice of the stranger (or thief or bandit) speaks in words that are clear and easily understood and not the ambiguity of parables or metaphors or paradoxes or other figures of speech that Jesus uses.


I don't believe that vv. 7-10 are an explanation of the preceding parable(s). In the preceding, Jesus seems to be the shepherd or the gatekeeper. In this section Jesus is the gate (thyra). The fact that thyra was used in vv. 1 & 2 (but not in reference to Jesus), may have led Jesus to use this metaphor now for himself. "I am the gate." The only proper way into the fellowship of the flock is through Jesus. Those who enter by some other way are thieves and bandits. The image of the gate also brings to mind Ps 118:19-20:

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD;
the righteous shall enter through it.

Who are thieves and bandits who came before Jesus? I don't think that they can be all the people who came before him. That would include John the Baptist and the prophets, Moses and Abraham -- people who were servants of God and who pointed to Jesus (see Jn 5:45-46; 8:56). Some ancient manuscripts omit the phrase "before me," perhaps to soften the rejection of all OT figures.

What if we interpret pro- rather than "before" in the sense of time = "earlier than", but "before" in the sense of space = "in front of". With that sense it could refer to those who opposed Jesus to his face. Thus these thieves and bandits would be contemporaries with Jesus as they were in v. 1. They are the ones who "refuse to come to me [Jesus] to have life" (5:40). They are the ones who are blind to see where Jesus has come from (9:29, 41). By refusing to see Jesus as the revelation from God, they are trying to enter the sheepfold by some other means.

I also think we need to see these thieves and bandits as contemporaries of Jesus because he tells us, "the sheep did not listen to them." If "sheep" refers to the believers in Christ, they would have had to "not listen to" the thieves and bandits -- during the ministry of Jesus. The people they did not listen to were those who denied Jesus as the revelation of God. The "sheep" believed that he was. They entered the sheepfold through Jesus. The promise is given to them: They will be saved. They will come in. They will go out. They will find pasture. When does this happen? Is it our heavenly existence or is it part of our living the abundant life now? Whenever it happens, Jesus is both the way in and the way out. Note also that finding pasture (Ps 23) happens after going out! Could this imply that coming in and being huddled together in church is not finding pasture?

An interesting image can be provided by translating sothesetai in v. 9 with "they shall be kept safe" rather than "they will be saved." There is safety in coming into the sheepfold. We are also promised safety in our going out. Even though the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, Jesus promises to keep us safe.

There are also interesting contrasts in the verb tenses of v. 10. The thief's "coming" is present -- a continuous action. We might say that "thieves" will always be with us coming. Their actions of stealing, killing and destroying are aorist verbs. They happen once (or at a particular time in history). Once the thief has stolen all you have or killed you or destroyed you, that's it. There is no point to keep on killing a dead person.

"I have come" -- an aorist. Jesus' coming happened at a particular point in history. For John, Jesus is not continually present, but he leaves and sends the Spirit to be the ongoing presence of God. The purpose of Jesus' coming is in the present tense -- that we might continue to have life and might continue to have it in abundance.

What does it mean to have life in abundance? The basic meaning of the word perissos is "more of something". It may pertaining to that which is exceptional in the sense of being more than what is expected -- "exceptional," "outstanding," "remarkable," "unusual" [Louw & Nida]. Those are all interesting adjectives to define the life Jesus offers us.

TDNT says the following about the related verb.

The idea that the time of salvation, as a counterpart of Paradise, will bring super-abundance in many different ways is already to be found in the OT, though perisseuein is not used for this in the LXX, cf. Am 9:13; Is 65:17-25; Ez 47; Jl 3:18 etc.

In the NT perisseuein is almost always used in contexts which speak of a fullness present and proclaimed in the age of salvation as compared with the old aeon, or of a new standard which is required in this age. To this extent perisseuein is an eschatological catchword.

The present tense of the verb would imply that we have the abundant life now. How is our life something more than what other people have? How do we participate in the eschatological paradise now?

When I first created these notes, I had received a sermon by Rich Mayfield, pastor of Lord of the Mountains Lutheran, Dillon, CO. He shares the thought that "Jesus was a teller of stories rather than an issuer of edicts. Jesus invited us to use our imagination as we ventured forth on our spiritual journey." He makes a contrast between the factual accuracy of fundamentalism and "hyperbole of the heart," which he finds in scriptures. An example:

A husband looks deeply into the big blue eyes of his wife of many years. He sees the accumulating wrinkles, the sprinkling of gray, the passage of time. And yet still he boldly and truthfully proclaims, "You are the most beautiful woman in the world." It is the truth. Now, it may not be factually verifiable. She might not actually win the Miss America contest that year. But there is no question in his mind that what he is saying is the truth. What he is doing is offering up a "hyperbole of the heart." He is sharing what really matters to him. He is confessing his love.

What I find fascinating about this sermon in relationship to our text is its title: "Hyperbole of the Heart." A hyperbole is a figure a speech. It is an exaggeration, but even more so, it is something that is not meant to be taken literally. That is true of our text. Jesus is not a literal shepherd. We are not literal sheep. He isn't talking about literal thieves and bandits. At the same time, Jesus is speaking the truth. Jesus speaks in paroimia -- in figures of speech. His truth is so big that it can only be communicated figuratively. Some who hear it will be captured by and share in the truth of the figurative speech. Others who hear it will be lost -- blind and deaf to his truths.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364