“Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:7–10)
Many people who live in an urban or suburban environment have only seen sheep in a petting zoo. But in Jesus’s day, shepherds and sheep were common sights, and John’s original readers would have been familiar with sheep herding. They would also have been aware of the many Old Testament references to God as the shepherd of Israel, including the well-known twenty-third psalm, which begins with the words, “The Lord is my shepherd.” So the imagery of this “I am” statement and the next (“I am the good shepherd”) would have been very familiar to Jesus’s audience.
He begins by describing a typical first-century sheep pen and the way it functioned for both shepherds and sheep:
Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice. (John 10:1–5)
A few years ago, a friend of mine invited me to join him and twenty-five others on a tour of Israel. On one of our first stops, we visited a sheep pen. If I had heard the words “sheep pen” prior to this trip, I would have imagined an enclosure made of either wood or metal. But in Israel the most common material is stone, and therefore the enclosure we saw that day was made of large white rocks piled on top of each other to a height of about three feet. This is the type of pen that Jesus’s readers would have seen in first-century Israel.
At sundown sheep were led into this enclosure to protect them from predators and thieves. Some sheep pens, including the one Jesus describes, were large enough to house more than one flock. For security, there was only one gate into the pen. A watchman, who was a hired hand, only allowed certain shepherds and sheep to enter that gate. If anyone tried to come into the pen at night by climbing over the wall, it was clear that he was a thief and a robber, not a legitimate shepherd. In smaller sheep pens, the shepherd himself would sometimes lie down at the entrance to the pen, becoming a human gate that protected the sheep from all intruders.
Surprisingly, Jesus does not begin this story by describing himself as the “good shepherd” but rather as the “gate” into the sheep pen. He thereby claims to be the one and only way into the pen—a theme he will repeat in some of his other “I am” statements. Only those sheep and shepherds who come through Jesus can experience the benefits of his promise: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (v. 10).
I first heard that promise the night I became a Christian, when someone read to me from a booklet that told me, “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.” That was followed by the quote from John’s gospel, “‘I came that they might have life, and might have it more abundantly’ [that it might be full and meaningful] (John 10:10 KJV).”
I would never have thought of Jesus coming to give me abundant life. Like many who had never read the first-century accounts about him, I imagined that he came to make sure I kept a bunch of rules and stayed out of trouble. Or, possibly, he came to make sure I went to church regularly, and that I spent most of the rest of my time praying and reading the Bible—all of which sounded completely boring and the opposite of the life I longed for!
Imagine my surprise when I learned that Jesus didn’t come to make me a religious fanatic but rather to give me a full and satisfying life. He promised to give me everything I truly wanted, and that caught me off-guard.
I’m not suggesting that Jesus doesn’t care about how we live. His analogy of the gate, the shepherd, and the sheep makes that clear. Jesus’s sheep are identified by two key characteristics: (1) They realize that a full life, both now and eternally, can only be found in Jesus, and (2) his sheep know his voice and follow him. Following Jesus involves not only believing in him but following his teachings, especially those related to loving God and loving others. But these commands aren’t intended to enslave us but rather to liberate us by transforming us into the loving, relational people God intended us to be. As we will see in the next section, the Good Shepherd truly cares about his sheep.
Jesus makes a claim of exclusivity—he is the gate. How do you currently compare Jesus with other religious beliefs?