John 10: 1-10.

Good Shepherd Mosaic. Ravenna, Italy. 440 A.D.

{For commentary on the reading for April 29, 2012, on John 10:11-18, click here.} A favorite New Testament passage is the story of the “Good Shepherd” in John chapter 10. Jesus tells the story of the Good Shepherd while standing on the steps of the outer courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem. To modern readers, the story that Jesus retells is a straightforward analogy – Jesus is to the disciples what the Good Shepherd is to his flock.

But Jesus is also 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 most English bibles translate as sheepfold (or sheep’s pen) is aule in Greek. The term aule can mean either a public courtyard, or  a pen for animals. Hence, Jesus literally states, whoever does not enter the courtyard through the gate is a thief and a robber.

But who is Jesus referring to when he speaks of the thief and the robber?  Is it Bar Abbas – the man who was condemned to death, but then subsequently released (rather than Jesus) at Pilate’s trial?   This is the thesis of some biblical scholars.  Bar Abbas is mentioned in all four Gospel accounts.  Matthew the Evangelist says Bar Abbas was a notorious prisoner. John the Evangelist calls him a thief.   Consider the passage from the Evangelist Mark at  verse 15:7: ην δε ο λεγομενος βαραββας μετα των στασιαστων δεδεμενος οιτινες εν τη στασει φονον πεποιηκεισανMark tells us, with no further explanation,  that Bar Abbas “had committed murder (φονον) in the riot (στασει).”  Some scholars believe the riot was a failed attempt by Bar Abbas, a truly notorious criminal, to storm the Temple in Jerusalem.

If Jesus is referring to Bar Abbas, then what is he trying to say? In verse 4 he states 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 thieves and robbers 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 the unselfishness of the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd is not a thief, a robber, or a brigand.   The Good Shepherd does not come to cause violence; but he may be called upon to lay down his life to protect his own flock.

Jesus also refers to himself as gatekeeper in verse 10:3. 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  aware, and the symbolism as to where Jesus is standing, can more fully understand precisely who Jesus is – the Good Shepherd – and who he is not (a thief or a robber).

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