The purpose of this paper is to explore the Christology in the passage of John 10: 11-15. I will explain how I will be reading this passage, what the basic image of Jesus is in the passage and how it makes me feel. I will then determine what doctrines of the atonement and person of Christ that would be compatible with this image.
The method of exploring this scripture is a new one for me since coming to seminary. I will be operating on a purely subjective methodology that will focus solely on the image presented and my reactions to it. This means no looking into the literary analysis or putting the text through the critical method. I will be operating on a purely subjective methodology that will focus solely on the image presented and my reactions to it. This is to help focus my thoughts and feelings in a Lectio Divina style meditation on this passages and what associations it brings up to the readings that were assigned for class.
Thoughts and Feelings
On my first reading of the passage, I felt secure, taken care of. I would hope to be in this flock and that I would be protected by this shepherd. Then I started thinking “What the hell kind of shepherd is this?! I don’t want the shepherd to die for the sheep; I want him to beat the snot out of the wolf with his crooked stick! Where was he during the wolf attack? Does he not interview well if the hired help runs away? Doesn’t seem like a good shepherd to me!” Then I started noticing the details of the story and image.
Jesus is not just a shepherd but a “good” one. There is a hired hand there but he had no ownership of the sheep and ran away when trouble started. Jesus not only owns the sheep but cares for them as well. This suggests that Jesus is more than “just” a shepherd but THE shepherd, as this is a popular description of God and God’ relationship with Israel. The flock is scattered and a wolf has attacked, apparently not while the “good shepherd” was around but instead when the hired hand was around, who allowed the attack to happen and ran off to save his own hide. Unlike that hired hand, the good shepherd will lay down his life, meaning he may lose, but he will fight to the death. It doesn’t say that the shepherd will win against the wolf or that the flock will be brought together, but there is a sense of commitment and relationship between the sheep and shepherd.
Jesus criticizes the Pharisees just before this passage for not being good leaders and bringing great harm to the people. Jesus condemns them as bad shepherds – shepherds who hurt the flock. The Pharisees then, according the author of John, were these cowardly shepherds who wanted the wage but were unwilling to pay the price. I am taking ministerial ethics and this reminds me about spiritual abuse and how to cope with the damage spiritual leaders can leave. These abuses come from self-serving pastors with bad boundaries, or boundaries that only serve themselves. A spiritual leader who’s looking out for him or herself will not make sacrifices because it costs them something. It would be akin to a pastor getting rave reviews and having the people feel that they are cared for, but at the first sign of an external threat, like a financial crisis the pastor splits. Jesus isn’t looking out for himself, he’s looking out for us and so he makes sacrifices that cost him everything.
When I understand the phrase in that context with those considerations, I am more open to it. I feel safe or at least safer in comparison to the hired hand. A tragedy has befallen the flock, a traditional metaphor for Israel and the leadership that was around at the time was not enough and proved to be self-serving. The owner is now gathering the flock and repairing the harmed caused. I imagine Christ as a shepherd knowing each of his sheep by name, checking each sheep at the end of the day, inspecting and bandaging all the places where they are wounded. He remembers that and comes back to check and mend as often as they need it. This image is one of total care and protection.
Atonement and Christological Implications
John 10 is a sacrificial model. It is pretty straight forward as it is said twice that the “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (15:11,15). To whom or to what and why is uncertain. Presumably to the wolf or maybe the whole life is spent tending to the sheep, and therefore that is what is meant by laying down one’s life. It could be said that pastors lay down their life for the wider church as that is what they will spend most of their life doing. In this understanding, postal carriers would lay down their lives for the delivery of mail to use another example. This would be akin to someone who would dedicate their life (give up in a sense) to a cause, like Saving Private Ryan, for example. I do not think that is what the passage is directly point to, although it is part of it.
The problem is not that humanity needs to be bought back from someone nor that victory will be gained over the wolf. The sheep are the victims in the story as those who were hired to watch over the flock did not. The model fits with the “Classical” model
(Barrett para 2). In this model Jesus’ death on the cross atones for human sinfulness. I initially thought that the Latin view the atonement would be made for the sins of the leadership/hired hand for letting the wolf attack the flock and scatter them and Jesus, like God, desires to maintain order and works to take away the sin that has happened (Barrett para 2). However, the hirelings run and are never mentioned again. It is purely for the sheep's sake (with no mention of the sheep's sin) that is the focus and the feeling is one of fighting evil forces, no reparations for sin. The sheep are known and wanted by their owner and this is a “compelling affirmation of belonging” (McGrath 8). The security is total while there has been an acknowledgement that tragedy has happened; the image given is one of dedication and security. Much like the picture On the Lawn by Amedeo Bocchi as described by Alister McGrath:
What is the broader context? Where exactly is the lawn? What lies beyond the picture’s margins? We have no idea. The threat of war may loom. Troops may be on the move. Economic recession may have gripped the nation. Yet here, frozen by the artist, is an image of personal security and acceptance. Whatever the context may be, this child is enfolded and protected. She is loved, accepted and wanted (9).
This is the same feeling I get from the passage. The people are experiencing their religious leaders as out for themselves, they feel taken advantage of, scattered and divided and used. Yet here is Jesus saying that they are wanted and that they belong to his flock and harm will not befall them again as he will lay it all on the line. In fact, Jesus is the ideal shepherd much like the images of God that can be found in Ezekiel as well as many Psalms (most notably Psalm 23). This would seem to point to the atonement theory of Anselm.
In Anselm’s theory, a new relationship is forged between God and the world and it is God who acts as both the reconciler and the reconciled
(Aulen 30). In this image, Jesus is not just the “Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) but the Shepherd and therefore the fighter, the victor over the wolf, however, there is no mention of whether the wolf would be defeated or not, thus the metaphor isn't completely Classical, but more on this later.
In John's understanding, God has come down and seeks to put together what humankind has torn apart. Jesus as the Shepherd, namely God, points to either an Antiochen or Alexandrian view of Christ. With Jesus using shepherd imagery and that image being closely linked to God, I believe rules out Ebionism. The reference to Jesus dying for the flock rules out Docetism as a bodily death must happen. Given that God tends the flock and would be an ideal shepherd, I believe this points more to an Alexandrian understanding than an Antiochen as the divinity of Christ would be the governing principle. The Antiochen model divides up the actions of humanity and divinity, so speaking about being a shepherd would be very human, but the long tradition of God as shepherd leads me to regard the divinity dominating the humanity of Jesus in this statement.
The image in John is one of safety and security. It is one of gathering and reconciliation out of the love God has for his sheep. Jesus seeks to do what the religious authorities could not do (and what the Zealot, Essene, and Rabbinic movements also claimed). However, the image doesn't fully get the job done. So I do have another interpretation of this image if I take into account that the wolf could be a symbol for Rome.
In the myth of Romulus and Remus, a she-wolf suckles the boys who go on to found Rome. In this understanding, Jesus is protecting the flock, namely the simple agrarian farmers of the Galilee from the Romans since the Temple authorities could not protect from oppression and invasion. Jesus will give up his life for the flock while the hired hands run away. There is no concept or reference of the resurrection in this statement, although given the rest of John’s gospel it is implied in the narrative arch. This understanding is plausible as well yet changes the atonement model from sacrificial to the empathic model, where Jesus provides a powerfully moving manifestation of the extent and depth of God’s love for humanity
(Barrett para 4). The Christology remains Alexandrian in terms, as the image of God as Shepherd is too strong to be ignored.
I have explored two possible meanings for the image presented in John 10. I am normally drawn to Jesus as political revolutionary but challenged myself to explore another mode of interpretation. I find that both fit in this instance. While I prefer the political revolutionary, I see how the Christus Victor model cannot be avoided here due to the Gospel of John’s view that everything Jesus says or does is somehow related to his death. The laying down of the life can be interpreted as Jesus willing to go and fight and sacrifice himself for the good of the flock or due to the fact that he knows that Rome will kill him for his words and desire to unite the flock against the imperial colonizers. Reading with both images in mind help provide a fuller understanding of how people can approach the same text and come away with different thoughts and feelings. This paper was fun to write and was a useful exercise. It has helped me respect the different Christologies.
Aulen, Gustaf. Christus Victor: A Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement. Eugene Oregon: WIPF & Stock, 1931.
Barrett, Lee. "Theories of Atonement (The Work of Christ)." Class Handout (March 22, 2010).
McGrath, Alister. Redemption. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.