Last week, in The Shepherd and His Flock, Part 2, we learned that Jesus was reproaching the Pharisees of being spiritually blind. Why? Because when brought face to face with Truth, they chose to hang on to their pet beliefs. And for this Jesus said, “but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” (John 9: 41b NIV) The beautiful lesson for us is that there is nothing we can do to be saved. Jesus has already done it all. None of our pet prayers, our favorite translations of the Bible, our routines or our rituals can save us. We are saved by grace. Period.
But the Pharisees dont get it, and so Jesus goes on to give us the beautiful analogy of the Shepherd and His Sheep: “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman 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 NIV)
But wait. Wasn’t this teaching given so that we can better understand Salvation by faith? Then why does Jesus use such obscure imagery?
Because Jesus’ imagery was not obscure to the people of His day! In order for us to fully understand, however, we first must know a few things about the sheep pen of Jesus’ day.
First of all, the sheep pen was a walled enclosure with just an opening for a doorway. It was usually made of stone, and sometimes there was a layer of thorn bushes along the top. It was open to the elements, and its main purpose was to provide protection from night-time predators.
Now I, personally, found it interesting that there would be no door in the structure. If it was meant to provide protection from predators, then what good is it if there is nothing across the only opening? There is nothing to keep the wild animals and thieves from entering in!
But this was actually by design. In Bible times, there was no door in the structure because the shepherd himself would lie down across the opening to the sheep pen, and he would sleep there. If anything tried to enter in, it would first have to contend with the shepherd. Thus, there was no legitimate access to the sheep pen accept through the shepherd, and anyone who tried to enter any other way was up to no good.
As you can imagine, being the “gate” to the sheep pen put the shepherd at high risk, sometimes requiring his very life.
The second image we need to understand is that of the “watchman”. Sheep pens sometimes held more than one flock of sheep, and in these cases, a guard or “watchman” was sometimes hired to be “the door”.
When this was the case, the shepherd’s first task of the morning would have to separate his own sheep from the others in the pen.
Fortunately, in that day and age, sheep were trained to only respond to the voice of their own shepherd. Therefore all the shepherd had to do was call.
Finally, in order to fully understand Jesus’ imagery, we must remember that God describes Himself as a Shepherd many times in Scripture. Consider the following texts:
a) “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” (Psalm 23:1)
b) “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:11)
c) “He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.” (Jeremiah 31:10)
There are many more, but let’s remember here that Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees, the teachers of His day, those who spent their lives in pursuit of studying the Scriptures. They would not have been ignorant to Jesus’ analogy. With Jesus’ words, they would have immediately recognized His claim as the Son of God.
So Jesus is using imagery that is very familiar to the people of His day, and He is also making reference to the fact that God calls Himself our Shepherd. This is a very pointed lesson, friends! One that is packed full of meaning, not just for the people for whom this imagery was familiar, but for us as well!
The final three parts to this series will be taking a closer look at just what the symbols of “the gate”, “the flock”, and “the shepherd” have to teach us about Salvation. Please join us next Saturday for The Shepherd and His Flock, Part 4: I am the Gate.
In His love,
Lyn Chaffart, Speech-Language Pathologist, mother of two teens, Author and Moderator for The Nugget, a tri-weekly internet newsletter, and Scriptural Nuggets, a website devoted to Christian devotionals and inspirational poems, with Answers2Prayer Ministries.
(To access the entire “The Shepherd and His Flock” mini-series, please click here.)