Sunday Morning Greek Blog

May 6, 2023

Of Sheep, the Shepherd, and His Open Door (John 10:1–10)

My message from three weeks after Easter, 4/30/23. I’ll add the audio file later.

Nehemiah was a central figure in the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Exile. Around the year 444 BC, he had approached King Artaxerxes about returning to Jerusalem to see the city walls restored. Some families had been there for almost 70 years already, beginning to return in earnest after the new temple was completed, but they had no protection from enemies around them because of the decimated walls. Most of us, I think, are somewhat familiar with the big picture of the story of rebuilding the wall. The task was divided up among several different groups, with each group taking responsibility for a section of the wall that contained a particular gate—10 gates are mentioned as Nehemiah details the assignments.

One thing of note in this story, especially as it relates to our passage today, is that the Sheep Gate was the first section of the wall to be assigned. It was on the northeast corner of the Temple mount near the recently rebuilt Temple and adjacent to the Pool of Bethesda, and it was most likely the gate the sheep would come through when brought in for the sacrifices. This particular gate was so significant and so important that Nehemiah assigned the high priest and his fellow priests to be in charge of that section. This would be the cornerstone, as it were, for the rest of the wall. That the high priest was involved let everyone know in Jerusalem that this project was serious business. They would establish the standard and the work ethic for getting this project done in 52 days.

John doesn’t give a lot of details about where Jesus is at when he speaks the message of the sheep and the good shepherd in John 10. I can imagine, however, if he was in Jerusalem, he was probably pretty close to the Sheep Gate. Five chapters earlier, Jesus had healed an invalid of his 38-year disability at the nearby Pool of Bethesda. One might say Jesus had already rescued one of his sheep in that instance, just like the parable of the lost sheep from Luke 15.

This location was special not only to Jesus, then, but also to his followers and to those who had witnessed that miracle. Historically, there has been and continues to be an occasional sheep market near that gate, so it’s special to the shepherds as well. It’s entirely possible that Jesus had this as his backdrop while teaching his disciples.

Now the word used for “gate” here is the typical word that would have been used for the door of a house, or more figuratively, a “door” of opportunity. The Greeks had a unique word for gate that typically implied either the entrance into an outdoor enclosed area that didn’t have a frame save for the fence on either side, or a city gate, which may have been reinforced to withstand attacks. In the context of shepherding, a “door” for the sheep may have referred to a corral that had some sort of sheltered area the sheep entered through and could stay under in bad weather.

Regardless, the purpose of the door or gate was to keep the predators out. Verse 1 makes that plain: “Anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber.” In verse 8, Jesus tells his listeners that “all who have come before me are thieves and robbers,” and he finishes off this section by warning them of their purpose: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”

That sounds pretty scary, right? But in this story, we also get a glimpse of the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd that has helped the sheep develop a sense of when danger is near so they know when to flee. In verse 8, Jesus says the sheep won’t even listen to the thieves and robbers, and in fact, as verse 5 says, they will run away from the thieves and robbers because they don’t recognize the stranger’s voice.

But they do recognize the shepherd’s voice, and they will follow the shepherd. If they’re out in the field grazing, they know when it’s time to come in. If they get lost, they can listen for the shepherd’s call and follow their voice to get home safely.

I think the parallels here for our own lives are obvious to most people, but they always bear repeating. How do you recognize the Shepherd’s voice? How many times have we caught ourselves saying something like, “I just wish God would tell me what to do!” If you’ve spent enough time reading and studying Scripture, praying to God, and hiding his word in your heart, you probably already have the ability to discern God’s voice. You may not hear an audible voice, but sometimes the Holy Spirit’s promptings are so powerful, you cannot help but pay attention and act accordingly. We’ll talk about that some more in a couple weeks.

Another way to hear God’s voice is to read the Bible out loud for yourself. This same John who wrote this gospel says in the introduction to the book of Revelation, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near[1]” Did you know that reading out loud takes longer than reading without speaking? When I’m reviewing my sermon to put the finishing touches on it, I can read through it on paper in about 5 minutes just in my head. But when I read it out loud, it forces me to consider how my words sound as they come out of my mouth. What seems perfectly normal to me on paper may have a slightly different nuance when I read it out loud.

When we read silently, we typically read in monotone in our minds. When we read out loud, especially if we’re familiar with the passage, we begin to understand where the author may have intended to inflect their voice one way or the other. When we speak, we tend to emphasize certain words by raising our voice, or maybe drop it to a whisper if we want to add some more drama to it. We raise our voice at the end of a question, right? When we’re getting to our conclusion, we tend to slow down a bit to make sure every word is clearly understood. I do love it that we read whole passages out loud here every Sunday. I think that’s important for any church to do that. And those of you do read up here on Sundays do a great job of putting expression and emotion into the passages you’re reading. That brings God’s word alive and gives all of us a chance to learn it and take it to heart even more fully.

Finally, hearing God’s word read or seeing it portrayed in a movie or television show adds extra depth to God’s word, because you can see an interpretation of the historical and cultural setting in which it’s spoken. A few weeks ago, when I spoke on the woman at the well, instead of reading that long passage from John chapter 4, a passage filled with drama, emotion, and suspense, I thought it much better to show you the clip from The Chosen series about that passage. I think I’m a pretty good reader, but my speaking skills just were not up to the task of trying to portray a frustrated, heart-broken, oppressed woman who’s had five husbands. I just can’t do that role justice! Watching a series like The Chosen, or any of the movies depicting the biblical stories like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ or Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, can help bring the biblical story to life for us and give us a new and deeper understanding of God’s word. They help us hear God’s voice in a different way.

Another way we can hear his voice is by fellowshipping with one another. Since we’re called to be part of the body of Christ, fellowshipping with one another allows us to share our experiences with each other and learn from each other how God has worked in and spoken in their lives. We are not alone, and I don’t mean there are aliens out there. We have a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us to give us their historical perspective through their lives, their written or recorded word, and the fruit of their ministry.

If you’re more of a politically or civically minded person, you might be hearing God’s voice if you find you have a passion for some social justice cause on any side of the issue. It’s not my job to tell you which side to take, of course. This is America, after all, and we’re all free to not only express our opinions and beliefs, but to defend and try to persuade others of our beliefs, in love of course. God’s kingdom has a diverse population, and we can’t always expect that everyone will be on the same page of every issue all the time. But let’s not resort to extremes like “cancelling” or ostracism either just because we disagree with a brother or sister in Christ. Let us speak the truth in love to each other. Even if we don’t agree with one another on something, having a robust discussion on issues of the day helps us to understand one another and develops a certain sense of empathy, even if in the end neither side budges. It helps us to see how God may be moving in others’ lives.

There’s one other aspect of this passage that is worth noting, and this really cuts to the core of what Jesus’s statement “I am the gate” is all about. Look at verse 9 again: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.” First notice that Jesus says he is THE gate. He’s not just any old gate, and he’s not one of many gates; he’s the only gate. And what does that gate lead to? The salvation of our souls. It’s interesting, I think, that there is only one other time in John’s gospel where Jesus uses the phrase “through me.” It comes in the sixth “I am” statement of Jesus in John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Jesus is the only way to get to our eternal reward. But what does it mean to go “through” Jesus? It means we become part of the body of the Christ and maintain that connection by being faithful to him. We immerse ourselves in God’s word and surround ourselves with other faithful followers so we have a strong support network. But notice the other part of vs. 9: “The will come in and go out, and find pasture.” Jesus is not saying here that we move in and out of salvation. What he recognizes here is that, as Christ-followers, we can’t avoid being out in the world where wolves and thieves and robbers want to attack us. But we have a safe haven in Christ, where we can enter in and find rest from the struggles of life. Knowing we have that safe haven helps us endure in the “pasture.” In vs. 11, Jesus says he’s the good shepherd. As the good (and perfect) shepherd, he maintains the boundaries of his pen so that we can have that safe place to rest. But he also promises that he won’t abandon us when the wolves come after us in the pasture. He is watching over us, giving us a strong sense of security that he will never leave us nor forsake us. We have a wonderful shepherd, a great high priest who knows what it’s like to be us and can empathize with us in every way.

I suppose we can say that our church family is our “sheep pen.” I do hope that you all feel that sense of security and belonging being here on Sunday mornings and whenever else you gather to make quilts or carry out your other ministry activities. The church is the place where that should happen. I also hope you know that your church family can be a valuable source of support for you in times of trouble, darkness, and even despair. Even though this congregation is small in numbers right now, I have seen the impact of your ministry. I am one of the results of the ministry of this church from 50+ years ago. Many of you have been faithful to this ministry for even longer. I know the good shepherd looks down on this part of his flock and smiles, and I pray you will continue to lead others to gates of heaven, just as you have been doing. Amen.

[1] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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