A favorite passage from the bible is the Good Shepherd account in John chapter 10. Jesus tells this story while standing on the steps of the outer courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem. To modern readers the story that Jesus unwinds is very generic – Jesus is to the disciples what the Good Shepherd is to his flock.
But Jesus is actually telling a more exciting story.
As Jesus stands by the outer courtyard, he says in 10:1, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.” What the NAB translate’s into English as sheepfold (or sheep’s pen) is aule in Greek. The term can mean both courtyard or pen for animals. Hence, Jesus euphemistically states, whoever does not enter the courtyard through the gate is a thief and a robber. Is referencing Bar Abbas – the bandit or brigand who stormed the temple and was ultimately sentenced to death? This is the thesis of some biblical scholars. Ironically, the hebrew name Bar Abbas means “son of the father” in English.
What is the message Jesus tries to convey to his listeners on the temple steps? First, he says in verse 4 that only his sheep “follow him, because they recognize his voice.” In other words, his true disciples know who the Son of Man is, and they are not about to be misled by brigands who storm the temple courtyard. In verse 11 Jesus says “a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This is a commentary on himself and the price of being the good shepherd. By implication, Jesus is also distinguishing himself from brigands in that he did not come to cause violence. However, a good shepherd may be called upon to lay down his life to protect his own flock.
Jesus also refers to himself as gatekeeper in verse 3. As he stood at the steps of the temple, astride the entrance to the courtyard, he is referring to himself as the one who provides access to the sheepfold. His listeners, who combine the spoken words of Jesus, the current events of which they are aware, and the symbolism as to where Jesus is standing, all assist in revealing precisely who Jesus is – the Good Shepherd – and who he is not – an instigator like Bar Abbas- to the crowd.