Author: Ron Graham
The Sheepfold Parables in John chapter 10 contrast the Shepherd first to a stranger, then to a thief, and lastly to a hireling, and show how we must ensure that we follow him and not them.
John chapter ten contains parables that liken the kingdom of God to a sheepfold. Christ is the Shepherd, and the sheep hear his voice. He is also the door (or gate) of the sheepfold, and only through him can one enter God’s kingdom. It is a great mistake to follow any other shepherd or try to enter heaven by any other gate.
A “Sheepfold” is a secure walled enclosure in which sheep are penned when not out to pasture in care of the shepherd. The sheepfold might be a permanent barn-like enclosure for shelter, an outdoor holding pen with stone walls, or a makeshift barricade of briars and cris-crossed pointed sticks. A single narrow opening was provided for entry and exit. If there was no secure door or gate, a keeper would guard the entrance or at night sleep across it. The purpose of the sheepfold was to keep the flock together, keep out wolves or dogs, and to make it difficult for thieves or vandals to steal or harm the sheep. A flock of sheep is a very valuable but vulnerable asset. A good shepherd knows and loves his sheep and guards them with his life against all predators. He keeps his flock together and fetches back any sheep that stray. A sheepfold was necessary for the protection of the flock.
The key verse in our study passage (John 10:1-30), is verse 11 where Jesus says, "I am the good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Jesus compares the good shepherd to a stranger, to a thief, and to a hireling, and we shall note these comparisons shortly. The main idea is that only the shepherd has a full commitment to the sheep, and consequently has their full trust. The good shepherd will even lay down his life for the sheep, so much does he care about them.
Three times Jesus repeats the statement, "I lay down my life for the sheep" (verses 11,15,17). This indicates that it is the point of emphasis in the sheepfold discourse. The third time Jesus elaborates on this statement. He tells us that he has the authority, a commandment from the Father, to lay down his life —and not only to lay it down but to take it up again.
Christ purchased the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28). He gave his all for the flock (the church). That is why the sheep will follow no one else, and why the sheep belong to him, and why he alone is entitled to call them "my sheep", and to call himself "the good shepherd".
The Jewish leaders incensed at the statement, "I am the good shepherd". The rest of the chapter (John 10:31-39) shows that they "took up stones again to stone him". What was making them so angry? Well, Psalm 23 was one of their favourite Psalms, just as it is one of ours. The Psalm begins, "The Lord is my shepherd...". By calling himself the good shepherd Jesus was making himself out to be God, and he was not denying it, but rather clarifying it, because he ended his discourse with the plain statement, "I and my Father are one" (John 10:30).
A stranger cannot lead the sheep because the doorkeeper (God) will not admit a stranger to the sheepfold (the church). Should the stranger climb into the sheepfold other than by the door, the sheep will not follow him because they do not recognize his voice (false doctrine). The stranger does not know the sheep by name like the shepherd does. The sheep do not know the stranger and do not trust him.
The thief comes to steal the sheep. Jesus calls the stranger "a thief and a robber". There were such thieves and robbers before Jesus came. He predicted that there would continue to be thieves and robbers after his departure. "Many false prophets will arise and mislead many" (Matthew 24:11). Thieves do not have the welfare of the sheep in mind. They come only "to steal, and to kill, and to destroy". But Jesus came to give abundant life to the sheep. Only he can "give eternal life to them" the thief brings nothing but death.
A hireling is neither a stranger nor a thief. He is a legitimate carer. But he is in it only for the money. He is not the shepherd, and does not own the sheep, therefore they are not his life. He puts his own life ahead of them. If a wolf comes, the hireling runs away to protect himself. He is not willing to endanger his life for the sake of the sheep. Jesus is here making reference to the Jewish religious leaders who had some legitimacy since they were appointed by the law. They however did not have their hearts in the right place and put their own lives ahead of the welfare of the people they served. The people were consequently "like sheep without a shepherd" (Mark 6:34).
Jesus is both the shepherd and the door. He is the true shepherd to whom the doorkeeper opens the door (John 10:1-3). He is also the door itself (John 10:7). The parable "I am the door of the sheep" is a second likeness embedded in the larger parable, "I am the good shepherd". Only one door or gate leads to the green pasture of eternal life. That door is Jesus. Enter by him and you will be saved. Enter by another door and you will be lost.