Bible Study I:
The Image of the Good Shepherd in the Fourth Gospel
by Daniel S. Thiagarajah
John 10:7-10; 11-18
The question about Jesus' identity is one of the dominant themes in the Fourth Gospel. Those who believed in Jesus and confessed his identity were constantly being expelled from the synagogue. Many have been quite content with being secret believers for the fear of expulsion and the suffering that brought for them. However, Jesus went on revealing his identity to the people.
The 'I AM' sayings (ego eimi) in the Fourth Gospel do portray the identity of Jesus. Seven of these, which do occur with predicate nominative, can be classified under a specific category. They are;
i) I am the Bread of Life (6:35,51)
The predicate is not an essential definition/description of Jesus himself. It is, in fact, more a description of what he is in relation to human beings. Jesus is the source of eternal life ('life', 'resurrection' and 'vine') and is the means through whom men and women find life ('gate' and 'way'). He, as a shepherd, leads human beings to life and as the truth reveals the truth to them, the truth that nourishes their life. Analysis of the fourth of these ego eimi sayings will reveal that for John's Gospel, the Shepherd-God who is the great 'I AM' now is present and active in Jesus as 'The Good Shepherd'. 'I am the Good Shepherd' is part of the larger concern for Jesus' identity as the Messiah, the Son of Man and the Son of God who brings life! Actually, as mentioned, all these seven 'I AM' sayings are connected to the concept of life in the Fourth Gospel. At least four important assertions could be made about the portrayal of the Good Shepherd in the Fourth Gospel.
First of all, A Good Shepherd lays down his life.
Right from the beginning the image of the Good Shepherd involves the cross. When Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd (10:11), he speaks about the laying down of life for the sheep. Being a shepherd entails a constant living for one's own sheep. The word used here for life is mortal existence (psuche). But, in 10: 10 when Jesus says that he has come that they may have life and have it abundantly, the word used there for life is a different word, zoe. Therefore, the emphasis is clear. The Good Shepherd lays down his mortal existence, psuche, for the sake of affirming life, zoe, in its fullness to the humanity. The shepherd-status of Jesus, the Good Shepherd makes itself manifest in the sacrifice of his life (psuche), so that he may make his sheep the gift of true life (zoe).
At the same time, for John, the laying down language is not limited to Jesus alone. It occurs also for those whose lives are rooted in his!
The sheep that 'sees' such laying down in their shepherd will 'follow' him in laying down their lives in love for one another! 'Seeing' in Fourth Gospel is internalizing the spirit of the Good Shepherd. Seeing means adaptation. It means obedience.
Secondly, The Good Shepherd knows his sheep and is known by them.
The other characteristic of the Good Shepherd is that he knows the value/worth/importance of his sheep. This is the meaning of his knowing his sheep. As a result of this 'knowing', the sheep understands the sacrificial nature of their shepherd. Therefore, the relationship with Jesus, the Good Shepherd is a highly personal two-way knowing! It is of pertinence to note that in John's Gospel, this 'knowing' is related to the 'abiding' language.
Thirdly, The Good Shepherd has A LARGER SINGLE FLOCK.
When analyzing the background of the Fourth Gospel, one is able to know that the first followers were Jews and they were not open to the Gentiles. Besides, there were other groups that were excluded by the Jews. Therefore, the Fourth Gospel challenges the community to have or internalize a larger version, which is inclusive in nature and in which the current fold will include others who will listen to Jesus' voice and finally there will be 'ONE FLOCK AND ONE SHEPHERD' (cf. 10:16).
The task of the Good Shepherd reveals the idea of unity in a wider perspective. It is not unity for the sake of unity! Rather, it is unity in a broader sense. A disunited and unloving community hardly can have a credible witness to God's love in Jesus! The one who lays down his life on the cross is at the same time is also the one who is lifted up from the earth to draw all people to himself! (Cf. 12:32).
Finally, The Good Shepherd is not a victim, but a victor.
The laying down language in the Fourth Gospel does not in any way point to an end. It does not imply a defeat. Rather, it affirms an eternal life. Jesus is the Resurrection and Life. The resurrection is already a reality! Neither John's community, nor even ours needs to live only with the hope of future resurrection. It already is a power of new life here and now!
Therefore, it has to be clearly understood that the power of the Good Shepherd is not a power that by passes the self-giving, laying down love on the cross. It does not by pass the love that knows and calls each by name. It does not by pass the love that puts us in a community that can break all human barriers and unite us in the One Flock of the One Good Shepherd!
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