In this short exegesis, we look at what is often called the Good Shepherd discourse. We will encounter some terminology that some will have heard before, but which is not considered as much in the New Testament as it was in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms. We are used to Jesus setting things in parallel for our understanding and have grown accustomed to metaphor and hyperbole in his teachings, but this section requires a little more literary insight to fully appreciate the message.
Let’s begin with antithetical parallelism. There’s a term we don’t use much in daily conversation, but with which the Jewish people would have been very familiar. It is to define, explain, or otherwise describe something by what it is and what it isn’t in parallel verses. There is nothing uniquely Jewish about defining something by what it is and what it is not. The great Greek thinkers did this frequently, but often in extended discourse for what is and what is not. The literature of the Hebrews is unique in adding the parallel construction to this genre.
Let’s examine this style further. I might describe my drive to the office in two parallel sentences.
My drive to the office is a short one.
The daily trek is not so long.
The Psalms and Proverbs are full of this type of literature.
Consider the blameless,
observe the upright;
there is a future for the man of peace.
But all sinners will be destroyed;
the future of the wicked will be cut off.
A cheerful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
If you have ever tried to study the proverbs, you have probably read several verses and remarked to the group or to yourself, “it seems like it just said the same thing two or three times in a row.” That’s because it did. That was the literary style of God’s people through several centuries.
The next literary tool we need to experience is called Chiastic construction. That is to build to the middle.
The most notable chiastic construction in the Old Testament is probably the story of the great flood. It begins in Genesis 6:10 and ends with Genesis 9:19. The story begins with Noah, his ark building, being shut in, and the flood. The poem continues from the flood, to the receding waters to Noah on dry land once again. In the middle of this poetic account is a single statement: God remembered Noah. The crux of the story lies in the middle.
We see similar construction at the beginning of John’s gospel, this one much shorter and having two parallel thoughts in the middle.
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Let’s begin our journey through the Good Shepherd Discourse. [View Color contrasted scripture].
The discourse actually begins at the end of the 9th chapter of John.
41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.
Jesus has just slammed dunked the Pharisees. The Pharisees have cast out one of their sheep because Jesus healed him and the man who was blind spoke the truth to them. The Pharisees believed themselves to be the shepherds of the Jews.
When Jesus deals with the Pharisees, we see two distinct styles. In one, Jesus answers question with question, usually until the so called shepherds of the Jewish people give up or at least retreat to regroup. The second is to launch into an extended discourse that puts the Pharisees back on their heels. The time for questions is over and the Teacher teachers until he is finished. The latter is the case in the Good Shepherd Discourse.
Jesus would first explain what a shepherd is and is not—that’s the antithetical parallelism--and leave the analysis and application to the Pharisees, his disciples, and probably to the crowd that had formed following the excitement of Jesus healing a man who had been blind from birth.
He begins by explaining who the shepherd is not. He is not the one who comes in any way but by the door or the gate. The shepherd does not climb over the fence.
Those who come in any way except the gate are thieves and robbers. Why the two terms? Thieves steal by stealth—often at night, and robbers steal in broad daylight usually with violence.
But the one who comes in by the door is the shepherd. The doorkeeper—often an undershepherd—would open the gate for the shepherd.
The next antithetical pairing begins with who the shepherd is. He is the one who call his sheep by name and they hear and recognize his voice. The shepherd goes before the sheep and the sheep follow the shepherd.
Next Jesus explains who the shepherd is not. He is no stranger. The sheep will not follow the person or voice of a stranger. They will flee from the stranger.
You might think that with a crowd following Jesus and not much interested in hanging out with the Pharisees; the analogy would have been crystal clear. It was not.
What to do?
Jesus moves the discourse into the first person but keeps the antithetical genre intact. He says I am the door of the sheep.
In contrast to the next line—who ever came before me are thieves and robbers.
Then back to the door in the next line. I am the door. Anyone who enters through me will be saved and go in and out and find pasture.
Then back to the thief. He comes to kill and to destroy.
Jesus continues in the first person. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for his sheep.
This is in contrast to the hireling—the hired hand. He is not the shepherd. He will not die for the sheep. In fact, he deserts them at the first sign of trouble.
The hireling is further described as one who does not care about the sheep.
Jesus concludes this antithetical set by again saying I am the good shepherd. I know and am known by my sheep.
Jesus continues in parallel without the antithetical. That is, he no longer needs to describe what he is or is not as he talks of his relationship to his Father.
The Father knows me and I know the Father.
I lay down my life for the sheep.
But not just these sheep--there are other sheep.
They will hear my voice and there will be one flock and one shepherd.
The Father loves me because I lay down my life that I will take it up again.
Then briefly back to the antithetical.
No one takes my life.
I have the power to lay it down and take it up.
Then Jesus ends this pericope when he began it, with the Father.
This command, I have received from my Father.
What is the result of this discourse?
There was division among the Jews. Surely some of these were Scribes and Pharisees. The rest surely were vested in the doctrine and dogma of their religious leaders.
We have surely ended where we began, with the blindness of the Pharisees.
It’s good to have someone to point a finger at. The Pharisees make an opportune target. We can study this lesson and say what a bunch of knuckleheads and not have to apply the lessons of this discourse to our own lives.
We can understand the literary construction and admire the gospel writer for recording this wonderful discourse so poetically. Again, we can enjoy this passage without having to apply this to our lives.
It’s sort of like a get out of jail free card. We get to look at a part of the Bible that just seems to apply to somebody else.
Except, there was one sentence in this exegesis that I left out. This discourse began with the blindness and confusion of the Pharisees and ends with the same. In general terms and in the first person Jesus describes who the shepherd is and is not. We get all of this literary excellence, but when we look to the middle of the discourse—yes this is where we bring in that Chiastic term and see how the story builds to the middle—we find a single sentence.
It is a purposeful sentence.
It is not cloaked in literary tools.
It is there for all to see.
It speaks to us all. There goes the get out of jail free card.
I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly.
Is there a good versus evil theme in discourse? Certainly.
Are there words of caution for God’s people? Surely there are.
Should we be on the lookout for the Pharisees of our age in the doctrines and dogma that have somehow superseded the very word of God? You betcha!
But we must also recognize that these are all secondary or even tertiary to the very direct and very purposeful statement of Jesus. He came to give us life. He came to give us a way to live that life to the fullest extent possible.
Are there forces and people and words that are working against us? Yes.
But they cannot get into the fold. They are not permitted in the sheep pen.
Paul would later describe our relationship this way.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So we can have abundant life!
So we can live life to the full!
But what is abundant life? What do we know about abundant life? Let’s look to the words of Jesus as to what we should expect.
Jesus came to save not to condemn.
Jesus said those who followed him would be persecuted.
Jesus said all who left family and possessions to follow him would receive many times in return in this life and the one to come.
Jesus after showing us what a neighbor was in the parable of the Good Samaritan and showing us how to serve each other by the washing of the disciples feet told us to do likewise.
Jesus told his disciples they would drink of his cup of suffering.
Jesus told his disciples that he longed to eat a special meal with them.
Jesus told his disciples that his yoke was easy and his burden was light.
Jesus told his disciples to watch, be alert, not to fall asleep.
Jesus told his disciples not to worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow has enough troubles of its own.
Jesus promised that trial would come upon the world.
Jesus promised that a Helper, a Comforter, a Spirit of truth would come to us.
Jesus told a parable of a wise man who built his house on a rock foundation.
Jesus said he owned no real estate—he had no place to rest his head.
Jesus longed for his Father to take away the cup that was the hour of his trial.
Jesus desired to do his Father’s will and to be the very sacrifice for which he came.
Jesus told all who were weary and heavy laden to come.
Jesus commissioned his disciples to go into the world.
Sometimes we think that the abundant life is the luxurious life, but it’s not. Sometimes we mistake the abundant life for the pain free life, but it’s not. Sometimes we mistake the abundant life for the trouble free life, but it is not.
A life without any need, or without pain, or without challenges is not really life. Think to the end of the New Testament and the words of Jesus to the Angels of the Churches of Asia. He told of wonderful outcomes for him who overcomes. How can you be an overcomer if there are no challenges?
Sometimes we think that the abundant life is the life that follows this one, and it is.
We think one day life will be good, and it will be.
These statements both are true but we treat them as restrictive parameters. We see the abundant life beginning at some future point but Jesus calls us to live life to the full now.
He calls us to live in purposeful relationship with him now.
When we do that, the pain and suffering as well as the joy and celebration are all part of an abundant life. The gifts and rewards from a righteous God and the sacrifices we make with what he gives us are part of living life to the full.
It doesn’t matter if we are coming are going—and in today’s busy world it is sometimes hard to tell the difference—we are to live life as fully as possible.
What makes life abundant are not the things we accumulate or the events we schedule but that we have these things and participate in the events of our life in purposeful relationship with Jesus. Living to the full is in that we live with Jesus as Lord and Savior but also as brother and friend. That the verbs to live and to love become nearly synonymous.
John’s gospel is very reflective, probably the most reflective of the four that are canonized. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty of abundant life. Let’s put it in something we Okies can understand—sporting events.
The worst thing for me that I can think of in a sporting event is not an injury. It is not striking out three times in one game—though that’s not much fun. It is not missing a tackle or missing a shot at the buzzer. It’s not losing by one run or losing by five touchdowns.
The worst thing that could happen to me at a sporting event would be to come home with a clean uniform. A uniform should have a little sweat, dirt, or even blood on it at the end of a contest. The worst thing would be to not have had a chance to dive for a line drive or slide into home. The worst thing would be not to have the chance to make the tackle or make the shot. I guess if I were a hockey player, I would say the worst thing that could happen would be to come home with all of my teeth.
In the late 1990’s while living in Orlando, Florida, my son and I were headed to a Solar Bears hockey game at the Orena. We left in plenty of time and avoided the parking lots disguising themselves as highways. That is to say, we took the toll road. But as we neared the event, traffic was very backed up. It seemed that there was a tractor pull at the nearby Citrus Bowl and exits of the toll road serviced both locations.
We arrived in our seats with 1 minute and 21 seconds elapsed in the first period. I asked the person next to me if we missed anything.
She said, “A goal and two fights.”
Now that’s abundant life! Eighty-one seconds elapsed and we missed a goal and two fights. Could you pack much more into this extended minute?
We are a count and measure society and we like to think in terms of what things will be waiting for us in heaven and we forget to live along the way.
Jesus didn’t come to shackle us until time for trial. The trial is over. We were found guilty and sentenced to death, and Jesus stood in our place.
Do you think he did this so we could go back to business as usual? He did this so we could live—beginning here and now—life as God intended it to be.
Jesus said, I came so you could live life to its fullest. I wish he would have added four simple words: get on with it!
We are God’s people and we need to get on with living. Loving, serving, healing, teaching, listening, helping, guiding, giving, enjoying each other, being ridiculed for believing God loved us enough to send Jesus to the cross, hurting when we lose someone close, rejoicing when one comes to know Jesus, resting from the busyness of the world, thanking God for more things that we can count, asking him for what we need, reaching for things beyond our grasp and sometimes falling flat on our faces, and other times achieving more than we thought possible and not having to ask how that happened.
When we go to bed at night, we should do more than just say, “Man, am I tired.”
We should say, “Lord, I used everything in my tank. I’m empty.” Then we can say, “That was a day lived to the full!”
Perhaps the abundant life is known in a paradoxical antithetical parallelism.
Lord, my tank is empty.
I have lived this day to the full.