The Sheep of John 10

Perhaps about a month or so ago, I came across this argument against Calvinism and John 10:

Only the elect are in view because Calvinism requires that reading of the text. Thus anyone cannot mean anyone but must be redefined to mean, in this case due to your contextual requirement to conform to Calvinism, something other than anyone, it must mean My sheep. Logically, no one is part of “My Sheep” until they enter the door. [source]

A similar argument:

Folks, lets look at John 10:2 and following to see if “the sheep” equates with “his sheep”

Now of course, “the sheep” which are His sheep are part of “the sheep” but are not all of “the sheep.

First we have the shepherd entering by the door, thus the doorkeeper knows that the shepherd is the shepherd of at least some of “the sheep.” Now “the sheep” hear his voice, so this could refer to all of the sheep or just the sheep that are his sheep. But He calls his own sheep by name, so the others of “the sheep” are not called by name. He leads only His sheep out. Thus this first illustration clearly teaches that “the sheep” include His sheep, but in no way suggests other sheep do not exist. [source]

What we are told is:

  • No one becomes Christ’s sheep until they follow Him through the door (in other words, a synergistic approach to salvation).
  • Christ only refers to His sheep when He says “My sheep,” and therefore His call to the sheep is a general call to all the sheep in the pen. Again, they only become “My sheep” and receive the salvation thereof by following Christ’s voice out the door.

Let’s review these two arguments first by looking at the entirety of Christ’s sermon regarding His sheep within chapter ten of John’s gospel.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

This figure of speech Jesus spoke to them, but they did not understand what those things were which He had been saying to them. So Jesus said to them again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again This commandment I received from My Father.” [John 10:1-18; NASB]

The first part of the sermon (10:1-5) is a summary of what Christ will later elucidate in the longer version (10:7-18), having had to explain because no one understood the figure of speech (10:6). Some theologians, such as Adam Clarke, have made the case that 10:1-5 are examples of lesser shepherds (in other words, Christian ministers), however I believe the clarification our Lord makes in the following verses shows this is merely the shortened version of His identification as the Good Shepherd.

Christ begins His sermon, as He often does in the gospels, with a double affirmation (“truly truly” or Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν) of what He is about to say. Our Lord then starts first with the antithesis of the Good Shepherd, saying: “he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber” (10:1). There is only one entrance into the sheep pen: the doorway, through which the Good Shepherd enters. This Christ affirms in the next passage with: “he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep” (10:2). A shepherd enters because his flock inside belongs to him, and he only intends good; any one who tries to sneak in has nothing but ill intent. In that instance, it would be illogical to say that the use of “the sheep” here refers to a large group of sheep that includes more than simply the shepherd’s sheep – he is identified as “shepherd of the sheep,” not “shepherd of some of the sheep.”

Now, in the following verse, Christ illustrates something very important to our topic:

To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (10:3)

The doorkeeper (θυρωρὸς, coming from the Greek words for “gateway” and “guardian”) opens for no one else except the shepherd – that is, the one who owns the sheep inside. The sheep inside hear his voice, and then the shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” In other words, before the sheep even move, the shepherd knows which ones are his sheep. To clarify, the sheep are identified as the shepherd’s sheep: (1) before they follow him, and (2) before they leave the gate. This is further illustrated in the following verse: “he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (10:4). The shepherd puts forth his own, and goes ahead of them. Christ emphasizes the possessive identity of the sheep to the shepherd with: “a stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers” (10:5). They follow only the shepherd (that is, Christ), and anyone else (that is, a false teacher, prophet or messiah) they will seek to avoid.

According to the arguments given at the beginning of this post, we are expected to believe two things: (1) the Good Shepherd essentially walks into the pen, gives a whistle, looks at some sheep coming to him, and concludes, “Ah, those must be my sheep!”; (2) upon walking towards the door, some of the sheep are able to say, “Bugger this!” and run off, with the shepherd unable to do anything. However, the text plainly teaches that we do not become Christ’s sheep by following Him out the door – we are already Christ’s sheep, for He knows who are His own.

Before we continue, it might be worthy to note how much credit some synergists seem to give sheep. Sheep are not known for being intelligent animals – in fact, out of most barnyard animals, they’re considered one of the dumbest. They are not able to reason, let alone resist the shepherd, and will do as the shepherd commands. They know who their shepherd is – that is the only thing good that can be said regarding their intelligence. A shepherd, likewise, knows his flock, and we cannot believe that the Good Shepherd is “sheep-napping” from other flocks. Not only would that contradict the ancient idea behind shepherds and their flocks, but that is not what is told in scripture.

Explaining what He meant more clearly, Christ tells the people:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” (10:7-9)

Our Lord begins His sermon anew (once again starting with His “Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν”) and immediately identifies Himself as “the door of the sheep” – in other words, He is the gateway for salvation, and the sole source of salvation (for only one door is mentioned). All who came before Christ (that is, false messiahs, who are spoken of by Gamaliel in Acts 5) were the thieves and robbers spoken of in 10:1, being those who sought to enter another way. “The sheep,” however, “did not hear them” – in other words, the sheep of the shepherd did not follow them, for it is clarified that the “my sheep” do not follow the voice of strangers (10:5) – therefore, there is no difference between the “my sheep” and “the sheep” of John 10, for they are identified as being one and the same.

Those who propose the arguments presented at the start of this post have tried leaping to 10:9 and saying, “Christ says ‘if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved,’ and therefore it is our entering the doorway that saves us.” Let’s not, however, forget the identification of how one enters through the door: the shepherd calls them and leads them out (10:3). Again, sheep are not known for being clever enough to pick and choose shepherds, and Christ has already identified that these sheep follow no one else but their own shepherd.

Now comes the most revealing aspect of the sermon:

I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. (10:11-15)

Christ reveals the shepherd as Himself and states, “the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (10:11). Those in the opening argument say that this is speaking generally – that Christ says He, as the good shepherd, lays down His life for “the sheep” in a general sense, but only “His sheep” will be saved. However, that would break the train of thought that has been perpetuated for this entire chapter. The shepherd is never identified with any flock other than his own, and it would be nonsensical to suddenly assume that Christ is speaking of a larger flock that does not include the shepherd’s own. Shepherds do not die for other flocks, but rather take care of their own and preserve them like children. The sheep in this sermon are those that belong to the shepherd. Our Lord emphasizes this with “I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father,” followed by the reiteration, “I lay down My life for the sheep” (10:14-15). “The sheep” are His own who know Him, just as sheep know their shepherd and just as the Father and the Son know one another.

Some now cling to the following verse: “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd” (10: 16). It seems to prove that there do exist other sheep besides the one in the pen. This verse, however, speaks of the Gentiles whom God will bring into the fold, so that both Jew and Gentile believer will become “one flock with one shepherd” – the one shepherd being, of course, Christ.

Let’s review again what was discussed at the beginning:

  • “Logically, no one is part of ‘My Sheep’ until they enter the door.” – On the contrary, it is stated at the very beginning that the shepherd calls his sheep by name and leads them out, emphasized later with “I know My own and My own know Me.” Ironically, it was admitted by the opening argument that Christ calls “His sheep” and “by name” from among the general group of sheep, but it would appear that there was some confusion as to how this argumentation would not only contradict the first argument, but still lead one into Calvinism.
  • “Thus this first illustration clearly teaches that ‘the sheep’ include His sheep, but in no way suggests other sheep do not exist.” – As we have shown, nowhere does the context of “my sheep” change with “the sheep.” We are expected to believe that Christ’s train of thought amounted to: “My sheep. My sheep. My sheep. Other sheep! My sheep. My sheep…” No human mind works this way, save in the criminally insane.

The context of John 10 is clear: Christ has His sheep, and they will be called to Him, the Good Shepherd. Furthermore, it is for these sheep that the Good Shepherd dies.

——–

EDIT – JULY 30, 2011: This is a follow up responding to some objections I encountered shortly after the original post was made.

Contention: The sheep in John 10 are merely God-fearing Jews whom the Father has given to Christ because of their loyalty to His word. They are here being handed over to the Son by the Father because they have followed the Father’s will. This is shown in verse 29, when Christ says: “My Father, who has given them to Me…” The “them” are the sheep.

Response: The immediate problem is that this argumentation is an example of eisegesis, where an assumption is inserted into a passage of scripture. That the sheep are given to the Son by the Father is, of course, plainly there, and would coincide with the earlier statement by Christ in the gospel: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me…” (John 6:37). However, nowhere in scripture is it demonstrated that the Father essentially “screens” believers to bring them to the Son. This is an assumption that has been read into the text.

One reason we know this is an assumption read into the text is the fact that there is no evidence in scripture that all the disciples were devout Jews before following Christ. One big example is found in Matthew, who was a tax collector when Christ called Him. Was Matthew, at the time of his calling, following the Father’s will in a profession known for lying, stealing and cheating fellow Jews? It was in this state he was “handed over” to the Son, when Christ called him from his toll booth. Is the job of a Jewish tax collector under the employment of the Romans an example of being “God-fearing”?

An even bigger example is the apostle Paul, who, when Christ called Him, was a member of the Pharisees, was persecuting the church and seeking to kill every Christian he found. Is this pleasing to the Father? Does it please the Father when a man persecutes His church? When Christ found Paul on the road to Damascus, headed to cut off the growing church, was the future apostle worthy to be handed over to the Son? Did the Father “hand over” Paul to the Son in the midst of Paul being the Reinhard Heydrich of the apostolic Church?

Some bringing this contention forward have cited John 17:6, which reads: “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word.” The problem with citing this verse is two-fold:

1) The desired order is wrong. It says the disciples: first) belonged to the Father; second) were given to the Son; and third) kept the Father’s word. In order for this citation to fit with the contention, it would have to be: first) they kept the Father’s word; second) they thus belonged to the Father; and third) they were given to the Son. As it stands, the obeying of the Father comes after being given to the Son.

2) Some have said that the obeying of the Father’s word in John 17:6 is past tense. However, the word translated as “they have kept” is τετήρηκαν, the Perfect Active Indicative form of τηρέω. What this means is that the disciples are not being commended for something they did in the past, but something they have done completely in the present. In other words, during their time with Christ. Again, their obeying the Father’s word has happened after being given to the Son. Even ignoring grammatical rules, this is further illustrated in the following verses:

Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. [John 17:7-8]

When Christ says “they have kept Your word,” He is referring to that which the Father gave to Him, which He then gave to the disciples. Therefore, Christ’s use of “they have kept” is speaking of after they were handed over by the Father, both grammatically and contextually. The Father gave Christ instructions, which He then gave to the disciples, and it is these words, given to them by Christ, which they have kept.

Contention: The Gentiles, mentioned in verse 16, are God-fearing Gentiles, such as Cornelius in Acts 10, or the God-fearing Gentiles of Athens in Acts 17.

Response: Actually, not all the Gentiles who come to believe in Christ are said to be “God-fearing” beforehand. For example, the “prominent Greek women and men” in Berea (Acts 17:12) are not said to be God-fearing, and neither are the Gentiles who converted after Paul’s sermon in Athens (Acts 17:34). In fact, none of the Gentiles in Acts 14 are said to be God-fearing. Some are even found polytheists, which is shown by their initially thinking Barnabas and Paul are Zeus and Hermes respectfully (Acts 14:11-12).

We can find a lack of a “God-fearing” state previous to conversion among many of the Gentiles within Paul’s epistles. Most prominent among these is Paul’s epistle to the Ephesian church, in which he says that they “formerly walked according to the course of this world” (Eph 2:2), and “were by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2:3). Does this sound like the state of God-fearing Gentiles? It was while they were in this rebellious state that they were “saved through faith” as a “gift of God” (Eph 2:8). Paul likewise tells the Colossian Christians that God “rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col 1:13). Again, it does not say that God the Father rescued us while we were God-fearing, but rather that we were rescued from “the domain of darkness,” then handed over to the son. 

The problem with this contention lies in linguistic context. The word that many translate as “God-fearing” (as it is in the NASB) is likewise translated as “religious” or “devout” (as it is in the ESV), and stems from the Greek word σέβομαι, which means “to be religious” or “to worship.” When it is used in reference to Gentiles in the New Testament, it is referring to those Gentiles who either pander to or are converts to the Jewish faith. They are, to use modern terminology, religious Jews who are still divided from their ethnic Jewish brethren because of their Gentile lineage. At the Temple in Jerusalem, there was even a “Court of the Gentiles” which was so-called because that was as far as Gentile men could go. Cornelius, often cited as an example of a “God-fearing Gentile,” was recorded to have given “many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually” (Acts 10:2). In other words, he was almost an “official” Jew. Remember that the New Testament writers were not living in our day and age, where a person could simply convert to a religion and immediately be labeled a member of the faith.

A note from the NET bible on the subject:

The description of Cornelius as a devout, God-fearing man probably means that he belonged to the category called “God-fearers,” Gentiles who worshiped the God of Israel and in many cases kept the Mosaic law, but did not take the final step of circumcision necessary to become a proselyte to Judaism. [from the NET notes for Acts 10:2]

An interesting dilemma comes from this contention: anyone who argues this way is actually siding with the Judaizers who opposed Paul. Why do I say this? Because they are (inadvertently) saying that, in order to become one of God’s sheep, a Gentile must first become a Jew! Keeping within the context of New Testament terminology, they are saying that only “God-fearing Gentiles” can fit into the sheep spoken of in verse 16, and yet these “God-fearing Gentiles” in the New Testament are nothing more than Gentile members of the Jewish faith. 

Contention: Nowhere does it say in John 10 that Christ died for His sheep and no one else.

Response: Christ does not make the plain statement “I’m dying for the sheep and no one else,” but He wouldn’t have to given the context and wording. He clearly says “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (v. 11), repeated later on with “I lay down My life for the sheep” (v. 15). For whom else does a shepherd lay down his life? A shepherd does not lay down his life for another flock, nor for sheep that are not part of his flock. Rather, he lays down his life for his flock and his flock alone.

This is where the person who argues the previous contentions runs into great trouble: by their own logic, they are still proving Limited Atonement. Their argument is that the Son’s flock are made up of faithful believers given to them by the Father…yet Christ plainly states that it is for this flock that He dies. This is why a person has to argue that the context of “the sheep” is different than the context of “My sheep,” as was discussed in the original post.

Leave a Reply

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: