Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 10:11-18
4th Sunday of Easter - Year B

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John 5:1-10:42 takes place during principal feasts of the Jews. Brown (John, The Anchor Bible) offers the following outline.

Even though there is the change of festivals at 10:22 -- and the Feast of Dedication or Hanukkah (Nov/Dec) comes about three months after the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths (Sep/Oct) -- Jesus continues the shepherd/sheep image that begins in ch. 10. Some outliners -- (Haenchen, John, Hermeneia and Smith, Harpers Bible Commentary) -- emphasize this continuity by keeping John 10:1-42 together in their outlines. Both of these commentators title these verses, "Jesus, the Good Shepherd." There is also Bultmann's method of rearrange the verses of chapter 10 so that the entire shepherd/sheep discourse takes place at Dedication.

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.

NOTE: the assigned Gospel readings for 4 Easter (commonly called "Shepherd Sunday") all come from John 10 -- year A: vv. 1-10; year B: vv. 11-18; year C: vv. 22-30. This also indicates an "outline" of sorts that overlaps the festival change at v. 22.


What might have Jesus meant by calling himself "the good shepherd" [ho poimen ho kalos]?

Craig Koester in Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, relates some of the varied associations connected to poimen = "shepherd".

First, the broadest level was life experiences. A shepherd was a common sight throughout the Greek-speaking world in the first century. The word might prompt readers to think of a figure with a weather-beaten face, dressed in course homespun clothing, with a wooden staff in one hand as he led a flock of sheep or goats out to pasture.

Second, associations might come from a reader's particular ethnic and religious heritage. According to the Jewish Scriptures, some of the leading figures in Israel's history had been shepherds. God appeared to Moses while he was tending sheep (Exod. 3:1-6), and David learned the art of war by defending his flocks against predators (1 Sam. 17:34-35). The term poimen was used also metaphorically for Israel's leaders, a future Davidic king, and even for God in both biblical and extrabiblical Jewish writings. The Greek classics, which were the mainstay of education throughout the Greco-Roman world, used shepherd as a metaphor for leaders like Agamemnon the king. Philosophers and orators often compared the art of governing a people to the art of shepherding a flock.

Third, the Gospel itself establishes a certain cluster of associations around the word poimen. Each time the image reappears it evokes and develops the associations found elsewhere in the narrative. John 10:1-5 introduces the image of the shepherd by describing how a shepherd enters the sheepfold, calls the sheep by name, and leads them out to pasture. In 10:7-18 Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep. In 10:22-30 he adds that no one will snatch the sheep out of his hand. At the conclusion of the Gospel, Jesus enjoins Peter to "feed my lambs.... Tend my sheep.... Feed my sheep: (21:15-17). The emphatic use of the shepherd imagery suggests that Peter's task must be understood in light of what Jesus said earlier in the Gospel about what is means to be a shepherd. Jesus makes a prophetic statement that reinforces the connection by anticipating that Peter, like Jesus the good shepherd, would lay down his life (21:18-19).

Thus far we have considered what the word poimen might mean on the cognitive level, but symbols also evoke associations on the affective level. For some people, especially in the western part of the Greco-Roman world, the image of a shepherd awakened nostalgia for the idyllic life of the shepherds who "lie there at ease under the awning of a spreading beech and practice country songs on a light shepherd's pipe" [from Virgil]. For others, shepherds aroused suspicion, since they were often perceived as rough, unscrupulous characters, who pastured their animals on other people's land and pilfered wool, milk, and kids from the flock. On the affective level, therefore, shepherding initially might attract or repel, or convey a sense of peace or uneasiness, depending on the reader's background. [pp. 16-17]

My summary: the image of shepherd can have positive associations (the idyllic life) or negative ones. (I've heard it suggested that "shepherds" in the first century were considered as honest and trustworthy as present-day used car salesmen -- and they received the appropriate amount of respect. With this understanding "good shepherd" would be an oxymoron. To counter the used car salesman stereotype, a car salesman in my previous congregation said that the most untrustworthy people are those who are trading in cars.)


The word for "good" is kalos, not the more generic agathos. kalos has a slightly stronger emphasis on what is morally right, what is more valuable. It can be translated, "model," or "true," or "honest." This word occurs seven times in John: five times in chapter 10.

What is it that makes Jesus the "good shepherd"?

(1) He lays down his life for the sheep (v. 11, 14, 17 -- of his own accord, v. 18)

(2) He cares (or is concerned -- melei ) for the sheep (v. 13) -- not like the hired hand, nor like Judas, who does not care about the poor, but was a thief (12:6 -- the only other use of this word in John).

(3) He knows his own sheep (and they know him) (v. 14). Remembering that ginosko is both a cognitive term, "to know intellectually," and a relational term that can connote a wide range of human relationships: "to know a person," "to be acquainted with," "to have a (close) relationship with," "to have sexual relations with." This verse is talking about the relationship Jesus has with his own, which is like the relationship he has with the Father (v. 15). Although I've read that it is this relationship with the Father that also makes Jesus the "good" shepherd, I think that that is stretching the metaphor a little too far. I'm not sure what role the Father plays in the shepherd/sheep image.

These definitions lead me to think that Jesus (or John) is adding a new association with the shepherd that's different from those used in the OT and other ancient writings. For Jesus/John, the shepherd is good because he lays down his life for the sheep.

In contrast to this is the hired hand or the wolf (or the bad shepherds in Ezek 34:1-10; Jer 23:1-3, Zech 11:15-17), whose primary concern is for their own well-being at the expense of the flock's well-being.


At the same time that I point out this truth from the passage, I also realize the danger of co-dependent relationships of clergy who lose themselves in extending unlimited care for their congregations without taking time to care for themselves. How are we to be "good shepherds" of the flock we have been called to pastor and be good to ourselves (self-care) and to our families?

Some possible correctives to co-dependent relationships for pastors.

(1) There is only one Shepherd (v. 16) and it ain't me (nor you). Although poimen can be translated "pastor" (only at Ep 4:11), it always refers to Jesus in John (10:2, 11, 11, 12, 14, 16; see also He 13:20; 1 P 2:25).

(2) Even if we understand the pastoral role to be a shepherding one -- (The verbal form is used of Peter in John 21:16 -- Tend my sheep) -- the primary indication of being a "good" shepherd is one's care and love for the flock. Such care and love can only come from one who cares and loves self, i.e., "Love your neighbor as yourself." Without self-care, one will not be well equipped to love and care for others.

(3) The possibility of Jesus' co-dependency is dispelled by v. 18. Others are not "taking" his life away. It is his own choice to lay down his life. The power (or authority -- exousia) of Jesus' actions remain with himself. Co-dependents fall under the power/authority of the other. They continue to do what they believe others want them to do. Their identity is tied up with what others think of them. This is not what motivates Jesus.


While it is clear that the good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sheep -- an obvious connection to the crucifixion. There is no theory of atonement presented here. Koester addresses this issue when he asks: "What does Jesus' death 'for' or 'on behalf of' (hyper) the sheep mean? He writes:

The shepherd would die in order that the sheep might be spared, but there is nothing to suggest that the shepherd took upon himself the consequences of the flock's sins. Instead, the action expressed the shepherd's complete devotion to the sheep, in contrast to the hireling, who cared nothing for them (10:13-14). Similarly, laying down one's life for one's friends was considered to be the consummate manifestation of love (15:13). By laying down his life, therefore, Jesus manifested his love -- and thus the love of God. [page 199]


I've already mentioned the contrast between Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and the hired hand, and the wolf. Who might be represented by these characters?

Every time lukos = "wolf" is used in the NT, it is in opposition to sheep or lambs. The wolves in Mt 7:15 are false prophets (wolves in sheep's clothing), which is similar to the meaning in Ac 20:29 -- people who are part of the group, but distorting the truth. In the other two passages, Mt 10:16; Lu 10:3, the disciples are sent by Jesus like sheep/lambs in the midst of wolves. In those verses "wolves" seem to be people who do not believe and who may be hostile to believers..

In summary: "wolves" are enemies of the flock who may be from without or appear to be part of the flock. They seek to destroy or distort faith through deception or possible direct physical attacks on believers. In recent years, terms like "alligators" or "sharks" have been used of destructive people within a congregation.

"Hired hands" (misthotos) are people who are paid (misthos) to work. Could this refer to paid church workers? Paul states: "the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel" (1 C 9:14, see also 1 Ti 5:18). Could John be thinking of some uncaring and uncommitted church workers who fled at the threat of danger in his day? Are there such people in our time?

The difference between the hired hand and the shepherd is not monetary. We would assume that the shepherd as the owner of the flock, would also reap financial benefits from the flock. The difference is their relationship to the flock. The flock belongs to the shepherd, but not the hired hand. The shepherd cares enough for the flock to lay down his life to protect it from destruction or separation, but the hired hand runs away from the danger. What implications might this have for the paid clergy today? Are we shepherds or hired hands (or somewhere in between)? When Jesus tells Peter to "Tend (or shepherd) my flock," is that an indication that Peter will also lay down his life for the sake of the flock? I think as every pastor knows, it can mean suffering in many different ways on behalf of the flock.


Looking at the larger "shepherd" context of John 10:1-39, part of the good shepherd's role in protecting the flock is to provide boundaries. There is a sheep pen for protection. The shepherd with his dogs will keep the sheep gathered together in one flock. Those who stray too far away run the risk of being devoured by wolves. Our noun "congregation" from the verb "congregate" comes from the Latin com- = "together" + gregare = "to collect into a flock, gather". Gathering the flock together often for nourishment and protection is a key aspect of a good shepherd's job -- and for that of a pastor, and, I think, should be seen as a necessity of the "sheep," especially if they want greater protection from the threat of "wolves" -- their false teachings and threats. At the same time, I realize that "wolves" are also found within the "congregation".

I fear for the faith of those who feel that they can be Christian without "congregating" -- being connected to a "flock" -- a Christian fellowship. I fear for the faith of those who do not take the "boundaries" (the commandments) of God seriously. This is also true for the "hired hands" of the church. Part of the self-care for clergy, encourages them to be part of a support group -- so that we can better withstand the wolves in the world and in the congregation.

JOHN 10:16

I offer a translation of v. 16:

I have other sheep which are not from this enclosure (for sheep),
and it is necessary that I lead them
and they will hear my voice
and there shall be one flock, one shepherd.

A distinction is made between being Jesus' (other) sheep and being in the enclosure (aule = "an enclosed area" = "courtyard" in John 18:15 = "a place with a gate for sheep" in John 10:1), which is the same as being in the one flock with the one shepherd.

This raises the possibility of three different groups.

(1) Jesus' sheep in the one flock being protected by the shepherd in the enclosure.

(2) Jesus' (other) sheep who are not in the one flock, who are not protected by the shepherd in the enclosure.

(3) (Other) sheep that Jesus does not have?

The other sheep that Jesus has may refer to all humankind, in which case there wouldn't be category (3) above. In addition, I'm not sure what would be the distinctions between categories (2) and (3). One possibility is that (2) refers to the Jews who do not believe in Jesus. They do believe in YHWH, but are not part of Jesus' flock; and (3) may be Gentiles who do not know or believe in YHWH or the Son.

The distinctions between categories (1) and (2) given in this verse is that group (1) are led by the Good Shepherd and they (will) hear his voice.

The idea of the sheep "hearing" (akouo) the shepherd's voice (vv. 3, 27) and not listening to other voices (v. 8) is a theme throughout this section. "Hearing" is also related to "being led" (v. 3) or "following" (v. 27). We also have the Jews saying, "Why listen to him?" (v. 20). They are not yet part of Jesus' flock. The importance of hearing is really introduced in John 1 with the emphasis on the Word. How does one receive a word? By listening.

How will these other sheep hear Jesus' voice? It will have to be spread by the disciples -- by us. It also suggests that some may not be willing to hear Jesus' word. The result of hearing Jesus' word is that they are led by Jesus and become part of the one flock under the one Shepherd. This also suggests that the unity of Christians comes about by being led by Jesus' word -- and that word does not lead one to be individual believers outside of a community of believers.


In the verse just before our gospel reading, Jesus says: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (V. 10). It would seem to me that an abundant life for sheep doesn't require anything more than to lie down and eat in green pastures, and to drink at still waters, and to be protected from large, hungry predators. An abundant life for us is a little more complicated. We need food and drink. We need restful sleep. But perhaps more than these, for the abundant life, we need to know that we are loved, that we are worthwhile people. The abundant life is not so much about things we may have, but about the loving relationships we experience with others and especially with God. Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus said: "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends" (15:13). For John, Jesus' death is the ultimate sign of his love for us.

Taking this image a little further: From what I understand, sheep are pretty dumb animals. Do they really have to be made to lie down in the grass? Do they have to be forced to go to sleep? Do they really have to be shown where to find water? They seem to be really dumb. I also understand that they smell pretty bad, too. Anyway, if the good shepherd is willing to suffer pain and even die for the sake of these dumb, smelly animals, how much more love does Jesus have for us. We may do some really dumb things, but we are not as dumb as sheep. We may smell really bad at times -- maybe as bad as sheep. For us sometimes dumb and smelly people, for us who sometimes refuse to listen to or be led by Jesus, for us Jesus died. Jesus loves us so much that he did give up his life for us. Like the shepherd who takes the fangs of the attacking wolf to protect the sheep, so Jesus took the pain and the death that should have been ours because of our disobedience and sin. We live because he has died. He was raised so that our lives might be abundant ones. He came so that we might know and live in the love of the Good Shepherd, whose goodness and mercy follows us all the days of our lives -- from the moment of our borning cry and our new birth in water and spirit to our last day on earth -- even if sometimes in between those times we act like dumb, smelly sheep. We are always loved and cared for and forgiven by the good shepherd.

I close with comments by Philip E. Thompson, Roberts Chapel Baptist Church, Pendleton, NC, "John 10:11-18," Interpretation, April 1997:

It may be jarring, discordant, to speak of subversion and the image of the Shepherd in one breath. Yet in the scriptures, when God is pictured as a Shepherd, there is often orientation toward the overcoming of those opposed to God's way and will (cf. Ezek. 34). Such is the case here. Judgment precedes comfort; the dark valley is traversed before the eschatological feast is set. The verses immediately following the assigned reading tell that a division arose among the hearers. There is subversion going on here. Under the image of the Shepherd a number of subversions may sit.

Verses 11-15: The Good Shepherd and the hired hands"

...The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd works to subvert lesser shepherds, what Paul calls powers and principalities. These will bring no salvation to the sheep. Ironically, in late modernity, many of these lesser shepherds attempt to control the sheep and gather them into a flock by the harmful, popularized Enlightenment notion that we all are, essentially, autonomous individuals. We are not to give in to a "herd mentality," but rather are to seek meaning for ourselves. Not mentioned, though, is that like the sheep that so often portray us in the scriptures, men and women are vulnerable when isolated. Supposed autonomy becoming unbearable, human beings will seek a shepherd, even if unwittingly. Thinking themselves strong in freedom, they are exposed to the tyranny of lesser shepherds who would seek to homogenize individuals under the banner of freedom.

Verse 16: The flock and the others

Verse 16 is pivotal, opening space to address crucial issues facing the church. Two of these stand out. The first is the ambivalence many contemporary persons have toward the church. Another manifestation of the "myth of the autonomous individual" is the relegation of matters of faith to the private realm. Religious belief is just one more area in which a person is entitled to his or her "opinion," though this opinion cannot be espoused in public discourse. Religion is a hobby (cf. Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief [New York: Anchor, 1993]). In such a milieu, it is little wonder that membership in a faith community is seen as being incidental to one's spiritual life. Many wish to find God apart from the church. Their concerns over the church's institutional life should not be dismissed as illegitimate. Yet the community is not to be diminished. In the Baptist tradition, a disappointing number of theologians have elevated the individual and made the church a fact only subsequent to individual religious experiences. Persons come to faith and decide to join with others of like opinion.

The image of sheep and Shepherd is subversive of such an idea. Throughout, "sheep" is plural. While the Shepherd knows, cares for, and loves each sheep, the flock is the primary reality to which the Shepherd is related. It is a matter of the collective being accorded greater value. It is a matter of order. We are not essentially religious individuals who are members of community only incidentally. The community of faith is prior to, and a means of grace for, Christian individuals, and so is the proper arena for the life of faith. Karl Barth noted that there is no legitimate private Christianity (Church Dogmatics, IV.1, trans. G. W. Bromiley -Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956, 1956] 688-689).

This raises the second issue. What about those who never come in contact with the means of grace, who never hear the gospel? What are the implications of God's Easter victory for them? Too often, the options seem to be either a complacent pluralism, even relativism, or a rigid exclusivism as regards the community of salvation. Counter to those who at best consign others indiscriminately to the category of "anonymous Christians," and at worst profess agnosticism on this matter, the text assigns the other sheep to this Jesus Christ and is quite clear that there will be one flock and one Shepherd. It is Christ's work to bring those into the fold. This work is carried on in the church's mission of proclaiming the gospel in word and action to those who have not heard.

We must hasten to add that also subverted is the view that is at best exclusivistic and at worst imperialistic. The other sheep respond to the voice of the Shepherd, not to the bleating of the flock. It is Christ's work on behalf of all that is primary (cf. 11:51-52)....

Verses 17-18: The subversion of death

...While his is not an uncontestable judgment, Jerome Neyrey notes that this language of laying down life and taking it back up is not soteriological. The soteriological affirmation of this passage comes in the previous verses -- in the calling, the loving, the leading, the shepherding. These last verses are christological, serving as warrant for Jesus' claim to be the Good, the saving Shepherd (An Ideology of Revolt, [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988] 59-65)....

...Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, works still to subvert our isolation, worthlessness, and despair, our pride and complacency, all of which grow out of the power of death. in so doing, he opens for us a space to know the victory of the resurrection; space to be led in the green pastures, beside the still waters, and to dwell in the blessedness of the Lord's House.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901