Thus far in looking at the seven “I AMs” of Jesus in John’s gospel, we have seen Jesus as the bread of life and as the light of the world. This week, we see him as the door, or the gate.
I Am the Gate
Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. – John 10:7-9, NIV-1978
It is difficult to read this statement from Jesus without the events of the previous chapter ringing in our ears. There, the religious authorities of the day had punted a blind man from the synagogue because he refused to label Jesus as a sinner for healing him.
In response to the calloused attitude of the purported “shepherds of the people,” Jesus spoke quite harshly of their style of leadership, transitioning us into what has come to be known as the Good Shepherd Discourse, which begins like this:
‘Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.’ This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. – John 10:1-6, ESV
What Jesus has described is a familiar scene to all who heard him, and in rural villages it is the practice even to this day.
The sheepfold is a walled enclosure, typically made of rocks, with an opening left in one wall for ingress and egress. The porter, or gatekeeper (θύρα), guards (ώρα) the sheep by sleeping across that opening – quite literally a “gate” for the sheep pen.
It is not the case that each sheep owner has their own pen, but rather, all the sheep are herded into one enclosure for safe keeping. Thus, the porter, an under shepherd, is responsible for guarding the herds of numerous owners until their respective shepherds retrieve them the following morning. When we consider this, it makes sense that the porter would leave the ninety-nine sheep to find the one stray (Matthew 18:12). He has lost a sheep that does not belong to him.
One with evil intent will not come to the opening of the enclosure because the porter will know that he has no sheep there and will deny him entrance. Rather, the thief or impostor will come in over the wall, and he will have to take sheep by force because none of the sheep will recognize his voice.
The Point of Jesus’ Teaching
The “listeners” to this parable did not understand Jesus’ teaching, and certainly did not apply it to themselves as the failed shepherds of Israel. How frequently we read difficult teachings from Jesus and fail to see their direct application to us.
The contrast is striking when we compare the porter guarding the sheep against the religious leaders of John 9 who excommunicated the man formerly blind. Add to that the fact that the Jesus, the gate to the sheepfold, reconnected with the man following his being tossed out of the synagogue.
Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.” Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. – John 9:35–38, NIV-1978
The main point of our focal passage is not that Jesus (the gatekeeper) is the only path to heaven (the sheepfold) and that attempts to get in via other avenues will fail. While that concept is valid (Acts 4:12), the point Jesus is driving home in John 10 is that the sheep of Israel have been abused, mistreated, and largely abandoned, and that Jesus will care for those sheep, and will add to them “other sheep” who are not of the sheepfold of Israel.
Note, also, that Jesus distinguishes between a “fold” and a “flock.” The fold of sheep from many shepherds becomes a single flock with a single shepherd.
And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd. – John 10:16, ESV
That is tremendous news for most of us (Gentiles) who are reading this. The gatekeeper is protecting us, and has included us in the flock of God’s sheep. Under the care of the gatekeeper, we who were diverse and separated become one flock with one shepherd.
The gatekeeper protects the sheep while the false shepherd exploits them. The true gatekeeper leads us out and in, treating us to good pastures. He leads us from bondage to freedom, from death to life, from certain doom to absolute deliverance.
Come to the gate. There we will go in and out and find good pasture. Then, surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6).