Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Good Shepherd is the Messiah

John 10 centers on the singular suitability of Jesus to be the leader of God’s people on account of his self-giving actions. The climax of the discourse is obviously the ‘I am’ statements that ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ (10:11, 14). The shepherd metaphor concerns the intimate care and sacrificial protection that Jesus gives to the sheep as their leader. However, no one can escape the regal imagery because in the ancient near eastern sources and in Graeco-Roman traditions a ‘shepherd’ was primarily an image for kings. The Egyptian monarch Amenhotep III (1411-1374 BCE) was called: ‘The good shepherd, vigilant for all people, whom the maker thereof has placed under his authority’. The Homeric phrase ‘shepherd of the hosts’ referred to a commander of military forces.[1] In the Old Testament, the metaphor of a shepherd is applied to both Yahweh and to ancient kings. To give a few examples, first, concerning Yahweh, Isaiah contains the words, ‘See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young’ (Isa 40:10-11). The Lord of the nations guides them into the pastures of a restored land like a shepherd directing a flock. Second, it is interesting that Cyrus is labeled as ‘my shepherd’ in Isa 44:28 and then ‘my anointed’ in Isa 45:1. He was the anointed shepherd used by Yahweh to end the exile of the remnant in Babylon. Third, the quintessential shepherd king was David, the shepherd boy who became a king. At Hebron the tribes reminded David that, ‘The LORD said to you: “It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel” (2 Sam 5:2). The hope for a new Davidic king was the hope for a new shepherd king to guide Israel into its day of restoration (Jer 23:1-6; Mic 5:1-9). In fact, Ezekiel 34 depicts of the coming of Yahweh as Shepherd in and through the raising up a new Davidic Shepherd-King (Ezek 34:16, 23-24).[2]

The upshot of this is that when Jesus says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ we are not confronted with merely a claim pertaining to his quality of pastoral care giving. It is a royal and even messianic claim. Jesus will be the restorer of Israel, exactly what is attributed to him elsewhere in the Gospel (1:11-12; 10:16; 11:47-52), and precisely what the Messiah was supposed to do. Furthermore, John 10 is analogous to the Animal Apocalypse found in 1 Enoch 89–90 that focuses on shepherding as a key metaphor for national restoration. In 1 Enoch the ‘Lord of the sheep’ leads Israel and bring them into pasture (89.42; 75; 90.29, 33) and also gathers them into a new Jerusalem (90.32-36). In imagery reminiscent of Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34–37, Jesus as the Good Shepherd in John 10 is the true and benevolent shepherd who leads Israel into the pastures of restoration. Building specifically from Ezekiel 34, Jesus seems to take on the shepherding roles of both Yahweh and David. Jesus the Shepherd is contrasted with the false shepherds or the ‘hirelings’ – the Judean leaders and the Pharisees – who should have led people to their Messiah rather than hinder their faith and attempted to thwart Jesus’ ministry at every turn. What will prove the true nature of Jesus’ shepherding is when he lays down his life for the flock (10:15-18).[3]


[1] Chae, Jesus as the Eschatological Davidic Shepherd, 19-25 (esp. 21-22).

[2] Cf. survey of the OT imagery for shepherds in Chae, Jesus as the Eschatological Davidic Shepherd, 25-172.

[3] John A. Dennis, Jesus’ Death and the Gathering of True Israel (WUNT 2.217; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2006), 270-71.

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