by Jacob Roberts
As we saw with His declaration “I AM the bread of life” and “I AM the light of the world,” Jesus used much of the imagery associated with the Jewish festivals to reveal His identity and, consequentially, shed light on ours as well. His third and fourth I AM statements maintain this pattern. For it is during the Feast of Dedication, more commonly referred to today as Hanukkah, that Jesus declares both “I AM the gate for the sheep” and “I AM the good shepherd” (John 10:7,11).
The feast of dedication was a time of both reflection and celebration, marking the rededication of the temple in 165 B.C. During the 160s B.C., many of the temple priests had become “Hellenized,” that is they took on Greek cultural and worship practices. This Hellenization became so pervasive that they even allowed Greek idols to be set up in the temple itself. As a result, a war broke out between the conservative Jews who abhorred the idols and the Hellenized Jewish leadership. In 165 B.C., Judas Maccabeus captured the temple in Jerusalem for the conservative Jews, removing the idols and rededicating the temple to God. It is during this time that God performed the miracle now associated with the lights of Hanukkah, burning Judas’ lamp for eight nights even though he only had enough oil for one.
Now, I know what you are thinking. What does any of this have to do with gates and shepherds? Why would Jesus use this festival as the context for these two I AM statements?
As well as celebrating the rededication of the temple, Jews also used the Feast of Dedication to reflect on the consequences of bad leadership. One of the passages that was commonly read and discussed was Ezekiel 34, which denounces and describes Israel’s past poor leaders as bad shepherds, men who fulfilled their own desires rather than serve their sheep.
It is within this context that Jesus tells His parable of the good shepherd. In the parable, Jesus contrasts a good shepherd with thieves, asserting that good shepherd’s use the gate to let the sheep out to peace and plenty while the thief instead hops over the wall of the pen with the intent to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10). He then moves from a general parable—which the people do not understand (John 10:6)—to specifics, inserting Himself into the parable to explain His point more clearly.
The first way Jesus inserts Himself into the parable is by declaring “I AM the gate for the sheep,” which demonstrates His identity of protector and provider. He asserts, “if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10: 9). The image Jesus uses here is of a sheep pen used in the middle east: a low walled enclosure that backs up to a hill or the end of a ravine. The gate on the front, then, was the only way the sheep could enter the pen to find protection from the wild animals at night. Similarly, the gate was also the only way to find their way back out to the lush pasture in the morning. When Jesus declares that he is this gate, He claims to be the only means to protection and provision.
The second way Jesus inserts Himself into the parable is by stating, “I AM the good shepherd.” Though this phrase has inspired many a cute picture of Jesus cuddling little lambs, the word use for “good” (καλός) here could just as easily be translated “noble.” When Jesus calls himself the “good shepherd,” He does not necessarily paint himself as a cute lamb coddler. Rather, He contrasts Himself with bad shepherds from Israel’s past—such as the ones mentioned in Ezekiel 34 or the Hellenized Jews fought by Judas Maccabeus—as well as the corrupt leaders that proliferated the temple during Jesus’ own life time. These bad shepherds seek their own good and flee when the sheep are in danger. The good or noble shepherd, instead, “lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). As the “good shepherd,” Jesus is the self-sacrificial protector of his flock.
So, if Jesus is “the gate for the sheep” and “the good shepherd,” two images that declare His identity of protector and provider, then what does that make us? We are His beloved sheep who depend on Him for both protection and provision.
Rather than implying some sort of cute image, this conveys a dire situation. Picture it. It’s the middle of the night and the sheep are asleep in their pen. All of a sudden, a group of wolves approach. One attempts to jump the wall and, as he comes down with jaws open wide, the shepherd spins around and strikes the wolf in the face with his staff, breaking the animal’s jaw. With one swift move, the good shepherd jumps over the wall to confront the other beasts. He looks and it seems as if he is hopelessly outnumbered. Yet the good shepherd stands his ground, fighting to defend the flock even as his own flesh is ripped from his bone.
This is what it means to be a good shepherd. And this is the identity of Jesus, the Son of God “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). Like the shepherd from His parable, Jesus provides for and protects His sheep, even to the point of giving up his own life.
Jesus fulfilled his identity of gate and good shepherd, but are you willing to be one of His sheep? Do you see Him as the only gateway to protection, or do you build up emotional and physical barriers in an attempt to protect yourself? What about provision? Are you willing to enter through the true gate to find provision that will truly satiate your desires, or do you seek fulfillment in another direction? Are you willing to follow Jesus as the good shepherd, or are you going to follow your own feelings or the leading of others?
And think about that last question carefully. The image of the shepherd’s provision is one of his leadingthe sheep to pasture. The shepherd does not drive the sheep like one would cattle. No, he lovingly leads, only taking the sheep where He himself has gone first. I pray that we are all willing to follow such a noble shepherd.