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The Good Shepherd Sends Safe Shepherds
Did you know that the Gospel of John is all about the fulfillment of the OT expectation for the removal of false shepherds and the return of good shepherds? Not just the Good Shepherd, but also under-shepherds called by Jesus to mediate his loving care for his flock. What follows are some exegetical notes establishing these connections. If you want to skip the biblical analysis—which is a bit long for a Substack, in due time it will be refined and hopefully a chapter in a book—and just get the take away, here it is:
The promise from Jesus to be the Good Shepherd who protects his sheep from false shepherds provides meagre hope unless Jesus also sees to it that there are human shepherds on earth right now to follow his example, spiritual leaders who will do the same safe shepherding works as Christ himself.
Join me on a short(ish) journey through the prophets and the Gospel of John to see how I got there.
Broadening the Context of John 10
Most bibles have “The Good Shepherd” or something like that in the heading above John 10. Leaders as shepherds is an Old Testament theme that goes back to Numbers 27 and the commissioning of Joshua, where Moses asked the Lord to
“appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep that have no shepherd,” (Numbers 27:16-17).1
A casual reading of John might lead one to limit the shepherd theme to ch. 10. However, shepherding language and OT allusions to typological shepherding themes run throughout John.
In John 5:14 and 9:35 Jesus “found” wounded sheep whom the spiritual leaders failed to protect and heal. This echoes texts like Ezekial 34:11ff,
“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.”
We also see this shepherd/finding language at the beginning of the Fourth Gospel. John’s account of the calling of Jesus’ disciples is different from the synoptics in his repeated use of the same verb, “found”. In 1:41 it is actually Andrew who “found” his brother Simon and said, “We have found the Messiah.” In 1:43 Jesus “found” Philip. I believe these are, if not explicit allusions, at least echoes of shepherding language. This is confirmed in the near context where Jesus is referred to as “the Lamb of God” (1:29, 26), another use of sheep/shepherd language.
We will trace this thread to the end of the Fourth Gospel in John 21, but first, we do need to focus for a bit on ch.10.
Prophetic Background to John 10
I have previously explored some thematic connections between John 10 and prophetic discussion of wolfish religious leaders in Ezekiel and Jeremiah. Specifically, when Jesus speaks of “the wolf [who] snatches them and scatters them,” (John 10:12), he is echoing the septuagint text of Ezekiel 22:27, which uses the same word for snatch, as well as Jeremiah 23:1-2 which uses the same word for scatter.2
There is also an important OT echo in John 10 and Jesus’ repeated reference to “thieves and robbers” (10:1, 8, 10).
Not coincidentally, of the 4 gospels only John refers to Judas as a “thief”, and only John refers to Barabbas as a “robber”. As framed by John, the spiritual leaders and religious community consorted with a thief and absolved a robber rather than follow Jesus. These terms have relevant OT referents and contribute to the overall narrative typology regarding good and false shepherds.
The same word for “thieves” is used in the LXX of Isaiah 1:23:
“Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.”
“Robbers” also occurs in Ezekiel 22:9 (LXX), which we already saw is a chapter alluded to with the word “snatch”:
“Men were robbers in you so that they shed blood in you, and upon the mountains in you they ate; they were committing unholy acts in your midst.” (NETS)
Both “thief” and “robber” occur in Hosea 7:1:
“when I would heal Israel, the iniquity of Ephraim is revealed, and the evil deeds of Samaria, for they deal falsely; the thief breaks in, and the bandits raid outside.”3
While “thief” and “robber” don’t have specific personal referents in John but rather speak to a general class (including the religious leaders of John 9), I believe Judas and Barabbas are intended by John to represent/signify that class of spiritual leader. With these OT shepherd/leader allusions connecting Judas and Barabbas with false spiritual leaders more generally, we can look beyond ch. 10 for these shepherd themes in John. As Jesus, the Good Shepherd, contrasts himself with thieves and robbers generally, there is also a specific contrast between 2 named spiritual leaders: Peter (a shepherd) and Judas (a thief).
Tracing the Shepherd Theme Beyond John 10
Both Peter and Judas fail to follow Jesus’ example of sacrificial service. Their respective betrayals were both foretold in the context of Jesus’ exemplary foot washing in John 13. Judas succumbed to greed (John 12:6), and Peter succumbed to violence (John 18:10), and both betrayed and denied their commitment to Jesus. In those ways they were alike. However, they were different in how they responded to their failure. While John doesn’t include the scene of Judas’ remorseful suicide (Matthew 27:3-10), he is the only evangelist who recounts Peter’s restoration by the Sea of Tiberias (ch. 21:15-19). And significantly, of the 4 gospel accounts, only John shows Jesus commissioning Peter to “feed my sheep”.
The word for “feed” in John 21:15 & 17 occurs most frequently in the OT in Ezekiel 34 (10x).45 Although I haven’t yet found a commentator who addresses this, it seems highly likely that this scene in John 21 draws from the emphatic role “feeding” has in Ezekiel 34.6 Jesus is telling Peter to do what God promised he would do: “feed my sheep.”
In light of John’s intentional thread connecting Ezekiel 34, John 10, and John 21, we can ask this question: though much of the hope of OT shepherd expectation centers on Jesus (he is after all the Good Shepherd), is he the full and final fulfillment of this typological hope for caring shepherds? No, I don’t think so. Certainly Jesus is, in the words of Ezekiel 34:23, the “one shepherd, my servant David…[who] shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (cf John 10:16, “one shepherd”).
But in Jeremiah 23 (which we saw above is also in the typological context of John 10) God promises,
“I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the LORD” (v. 4).
This is an incredibly important promise. How might that connect to the Gospel of John?
No More Fear
Before answering that, let’s consider a different question: if John emphasized this aspect of Jesus’ earthly ministry—the fulfillment of hope for good shepherds of God’s flock—why? What motivated that emphasis? I believe we can see a hint of an answer in 3 John 9-10 which portrays a thief/robber:
“I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not welcome us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us. And not content with those charges, he refuses to welcome the brothers and sisters and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church.” (NRSV)
Expelling or putting people out is exactly what the Jewish leaders did to the man in John 9:34 (same word in Greek, ekballō). Such behavior is the act of a thief and a robber, not a shepherd.7 And so the author of 3 John was aware of the presence of false shepherds within the community he sought to help. If we assume the gospel and epistles of John share the same author, then perhaps we can imagine the gospel providing deeper hope for addressing churches being harmed by Diotrophes-like false leaders.
The church needs good shepherds who will feed rather than fleece the sheep. Jesus demonstrated that he is able to train and develop such shepherds who demonstrate devotion to Jesus in their loving care, protection and provision for God’s flock. This is indeed what God promised in Jeremiah 23:4:
“I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the LORD.”
This promise from Jeremiah becomes all the more poignant against the backdrop of the repeated fear of false spiritual leaders in John. John very clearly emphasizes this fear (4-5x, John 7:13, 9:22, 19:38, 20:19).8 This recurring theme coincides with the typological contrasts noted above between Jesus (the Good Shepherd), religious leaders (especially in ch. 9-10 as thieves and robbers), Judas (a thief), Barabbas (a robber), and Peter, a recovered shepherd commissioned by the Good Shepherd.
While I haven’t yet found a modern commentator who sees a direct allusion to Jeremiah 23:4 in John’s gospel9, Bruce Henning argues that Jeremiah 23 has been overshadowed by Ezekiel 34 in interpretations of Matthew. Although it is probably not a sound scholarly move to transpose interpretation of one gospel directly on to another, Henning’s summary fits the message I believe John presents in Peter’s commission in John 21:
“Ezekiel 34 is surely a significant background for Matthew’s imagery here [Matt 9:36 and 10:6], but Jer 23, with its direct mapping of the plural shepherds of v. 4 to the apostles, also demands serious consideration in understanding Matthew’s description of the apostles.”10
Could it be that John presents Peter—and by extension, all of Jesus’ faithful apostles—as the caring shepherds promised by God through Jeremiah?
God promised the return of caring shepherds to his exiled people through the prophets. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, fulfilled that promise by setting safe spiritual leaders over his people in the 1st century AD. He has surely done it throughout history. May he do it again today.
Quote from Diane Langberg
“A church that follows her Head, the Good and Great Shepherd, is a refuge for the flock, a place of green pastures and clear waters, a place of restoration for wounded sheep and most certainly, a place that fights off the wolves.”
Where and in whom are you placing your trust for the provision of safe shepherds? We naturally focus attention on the responsibility of churches, denominations and networks to ensure that pastors are qualified, trained and equipped to protect the flock. That is certainly appropriate. But is that attention rooted in trust in God’s promise to do that very thing?
As Gary Manning Jr. observes, Numbers 27 has as many if not more textual parallels with John 10 than Ezekiel 34. Cf Echoes of a Prophet: the Use of Ezekiel in the Gospel of John and in Literature of the Second Temple Period (London: T & T Clark International, 2004), p. 103.
John also alludes to this Jeremiah 23 text again in 11:52, “and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”
“thief” and “robber” also occur together in Obadiah 1:5, but I don’t see any connection in the context. The same word for “robbers” is used in the LXX of Jeremiah 7:11, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” John doesn’t quote this verse in the temple cleansing scene of John 2:13-17, whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke do quote Jeremiah 7:11. But it’s possibly still in the background.
Isaiah does use the word 8 times, but scattered throughout in separate chapters and different thematic contexts.
34:2 “Should not shepherds feed the sheep?”, v. 3 “but you do not feed the sheep”, v. 8 “but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep”, v. 10 “No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves”, v. 13 “And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel”, v. 14 “I will feed them with good pasture”, v. 15 (in LXX, assume English text is based on different manuscript) “I will feed my sheep”, v. 16 “I will feed them in justice.”
Dodd believes John is alluding to the LXX of Jeremiah 31:10 (Barrett, p. 585). Where the ESV has “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock,” the LXX reads that second clause as “and will keep him as a shepherd feeds his flock.”
But there is an ekballō, a driving out, which can describe the actions of a true shepherd. In John 2:14 Jesus drove out the temple money-changers. In John 10:4, Jesus used this word to describe the shepherd who “brought out (ekballō) all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”
John 7:13 Yet for fear of the Jews [διὰ τὸν φόβον τῶν Ἰουδαίων] no one spoke openly of him.
John 9:22 (His parents said these things because they feared the Jews [ὅτι ἐφοβοῦντο τοὺς Ἰουδαίους], for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.)
John 19:38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews [διὰ τὸν φόβον τῶν Ἰουδαίων], asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body.
John 20:19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews [διὰ τὸν φόβον τῶν Ἰουδαίων], Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
There is a fifth occurrence if we include John 12:42, “Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees [fear is implied, Greek just has “because of the Pharisees”, διὰ τοὺς Φαρισαίους] they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue;
German reformer Johannes Bugenhagen does allude to John 21:15-17 in his commentary on Jeremiah 23, but it’s nothing more than an allusion. Cf J. Jeffery Tyler, Jeremiah, Lamentations: Reformation Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018), p. 403.
The Apostles as the Messiah’s Kingly and Prophetic Shepherds (Bulletin for Biblical Research, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2019), p. 173.