Some parts of the Bible require very little interpretation; their meaning is clearly visible on the surface. However, some parts of the Bible require more knowledge of the culture and practices which would have been well-known to the first-century readers. John chapter 10 is one of those passages.

First-century Israel was a farming culture and sheep were an important part of their agricultural heritage. In fact, they had been part of Israel’s culture from at least the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the patriarchs (fathers) of the nation. Their methods of tending sheep were quite different from how sheep are reared here in Ireland today. They obviously did not ride around on quads, and they did not use sheepdogs to chase the sheep. Rather, the shepherd would have been intimately acquainted with his sheep and they would have recognised the shepherd’s voice. In other words, there was a relationship of trust between the shepherd and the sheep.

The Old Testament Scriptures frequently liken God’s people to sheep or a flock of sheep and present Him as the Shepherd who cares for His sheep (Psalm 23:1-3). The Scriptures also present the leaders of Israel as those God raised up as under-shepherds to care for His people.

But like leaders today, both political and religious, many of those ancient shepherds enriched themselves at the expense of the sheep. In fact, more than 500 years before the time of Jesus God sent the prophet Ezekiel to rebuke the leaders of Israel for their failure to care for His people (Ezekiel 34:1-10).

In John chapter 9, Jesus healed a man born blind on the Sabbath day, which led to a confrontation with the Jewish religious leaders. These “shepherds” were more concerned about the minutia of their man-made religious rules than about God’s people, “the sheep”. Jesus exposed them not as blind men but as those who rejected Jesus with their eyes wide open (John 9:40-41).

In John chapter 10, Jesus will speak of Himself as the Good Shepherd, but first He uses another metaphor from the world of the shepherd. He says,

“I am the door of the sheep.”

John 10:7

Jesus is describing what a shepherd would do when out in the fields, away from the village. He would build an enclosure of rocks or branches, call the sheep into the enclosure, and then spend the night lying in the entrance to keep the sheep in and predators out. He says,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them.”

John 10:7-8

Judaism had been established through Moses 1500 years before the time of Christ. The Law and the sacrificial system that God gave through Moses were intended to prepare the nation of Israel for the coming of the Messiah (that is, the Christ), but when He came and presented His claims through His words and miracles, the Jewish religious leaders rejected all the evidence, and failed the people they were supposed to be leading. Jesus says that they are thieves and robbers. So He speaks directly to the people themselves, offering them salvation and abundant blessing. He said,

“I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

John 10:9-10

In the words of Ezekiel, the sheep were left defenceless and in need of rescue, but the national leaders failed them. But the Lord Jesus had come to save them and to bring them into abundant life. And that is still the offer the Lord Jesus makes today. That relationship of trust that existed between first-century shepherds and their sheep is a relationship that you can enjoy with “the great Shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20). He wants you to enjoy abundant life.

Jesus calls his followers, not to a dour, lifeless, miserable existence that squashes human potential, but to a rich, full, joyful life, one overflowing with meaningful activities under the personal favor and blessing of God and in continual fellowship with his people.

ESV Study Bible note, John 10:10

As Jesus prays to His Father in John 17, He describes what the very essence of eternal life is. It is not simply life that goes on for ever and ever (although it does!) but is about intimate fellowship with the loving, Triune God of the Bible.

And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.

John 17:3

Religion can never meet the deepest longings of your heart. Only a right relationship with a loving, personal, caring God will meet that need. And Jesus offers it freely to any who will enter by Him. He alone is the door to salvation– not the church, not religion, not human effort. As Jesus says in another place:

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30


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