Shepherd, Sheep & Hirelings

The Shepherd ~

The key verse in John 10 is verse 11 where Jesus says, “I am the good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus compares the Good Shepherd to a stranger, to a thief, and to a hireling. The Good Shepherd cares about the sheep so much that He will even lay down his life for the sheep. (vs 11).

Three times Jesus repeats the statement “I lay down my life for the sheep” (vss 11, 15, 17). This indicates that this is the point of emphasis in this discourse, His being Messiah. The third time Jesus elaborates on this statement, he tells us that He has the authority, a commandment from the Father, to lay down His life–and not only to lay it down but to take it up again (vs 15). The main idea is that only the Shepherd has a full commitment to the sheep and consequently has their full trust.

There is only one flock and one Shepherd (vs 16). Jesus knows who His sheep are (v.14, 27). He calls them (vs 3). He gathers them (vs 16). He guides them (vs 3,4). He feeds them (vs 9). He protects and preserves them (vs 28). He gives eternal life to His sheep and they will never perish (vs 28).

Only Jesus is entitled to call them “my sheep,” and to call himself “The Good Shepherd”. Jesus is also called the CHIEF Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4) and the GREAT Shepherd (Micah 5:4; Heb 13:20) The Apostles are not “shepherds.” There is no passage in the New Testament that refers to the Apostles as shepherds.

Hostile Jews made up a significant portion of Jesus’ audience, and they were incensed at His statement, “I am the Good Shepherd.” What made them so angry? More than likely, Psalm 23 was one of their favorite Psalms, just as it is one of ours. This Psalm begins, “The Lord is my shepherd…” By calling himself the Good Shepherd, they thought Jesus was making himself out to be God. And when He went even further and ended with “I and my Father are one” (vs 30), they “took up stones again to stone him” (vs 31).

The Sheep

The Sheep are those who believe in Jesus, who know who Jesus is, and who recognize and follow Him (vs 3, 4). They are in the sheep pen or fold (the collective universal church). The sheep know the Good Shepherd and He knows them (vs 14). The sheep belong to Jesus and will follow no one else—thieves can never steal the sheep from Jesus (vss 8, 28, 29).

The Door of the Sheep

Jesus Himself is the Door of the sheep (John 10:7). All sheep who enter through the Door will be saved (vs 9) and will have abundant life (vs 10). Christ purchased the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28). He gave His all for the flock (the church).

John 10:9 The parable “I am the door of the sheep” is contained within the larger parable, “I am the Good Shepherd”. Jesus is both the Shepherd and the Door. He is the true Shepherd and He is also the Door itself (John 10:7). Only one door or gate leads to the green pasture of eternal life. That door is Jesus. Enter by Him and you will be saved. Enter by another door and you will be lost.

At night, shepherds rounded up their sheep and took them to a nearby “fold” in the field. This was a round, walled-in area with one doorway. The shepherd slept in the doorway. Sometimes the fold would contain the sheep of more than one shepherd all mixed together. There was no problem separating them the next morning, however, as the sheep knew their shepherd’s voice, and would come and follow him when he called to them. One had to enter the sheepfold through the only entry into it—the door where the shepherd slept so the sheep would stay inside. The Door is Jesus.

The Stranger – John 10:4-6 A stranger cannot lead the sheep because the doorkeeper/porter (God) will not admit a stranger to the sheepfold (the church). Should the stranger climb into the sheepfold other than by the door, the sheep will not follow him because they do not recognize his voice (false doctrine). They will flee from the stranger (vs 5). The stranger does not know the sheep by name as the true Shepherd does. The sheep do not know the stranger and do not trust him.

Thieves and Robbers – John 10:1-2, 8, 10, 28 Jesus calls the stranger “a thief and a robber”. The thief comes to steal the sheep. There were such thieves and robbers before Jesus came on the scene. He predicted that there would continue to be thieves and robbers after his departure. “Many false prophets will arise and mislead many” (Matt 24:11). Thieves are imposters of the Shepherd who come to steal the sheep. They do not have the welfare of the sheep in mind. They have evil intentions and come to take life not give life to the sheep. Their purpose is “to steal, and to kill, and to destroy” (vs 10). But Jesus came to give “abundant life” to the sheep (vs 10). Only He can “give eternal life to them,” while the thief brings nothing but death.

Hirelings – John 10:12-13 When a Shepherd cannot be with the sheep himself, he may hire someone to care for them in his place temporarily. This parable calls this person a “hireling.” A hireling is neither a stranger nor a thief. He is a legitimate caregiver, and unlike the thief, may have good intentions. A hireling may take the job for any number of reasons; i.e. for self-preservation, for the money, for a job, or because he has a genuine care for sheep. The true Shepherd is not a hireling. The hireling is hired to take care of the sheep and does not own them.

Being human, the hireling may put his own life ahead of the sheep, since the sheep are not his sheep. If a wolf comes, the hireling may protect himself by running away. Unlike the Good Shepherd, the hireling may not be willing to endanger his life for the sake of the sheep. Self-preservation usually comes first with a hireling.

In this parable, the concept of a hireling was compared to Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It was used to make a sharp contrast between Jesus, the ultimate caretaker of the sheep, and mere men caretakers (vs 13). Jesus may have been making reference to the Jewish religious leaders who were appointed by the law, yet they put their own lives ahead of the welfare of the people they served. Consequently, the people were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34).

Who Feeds the Sheep?

Jesus is not hired–He is The Owner of the sheep. Peter who called himself an elder, wrote that the elders are not “Lords (owners) over God’s heritage.” Paul wrote “Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand” (2 Cor. 1:24).

The elders are the “feeders” of the sheep. Jesus asked Peter to “Feed my lambs” and “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-16). Paul asked the leaders of Ephesus to “Feed the church of God which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Peter wrote to the elders, “Feed the flock of God which is among you” (1 Peter 5:2).

What is the main lesson of this parable? This parable is chiefly about Jesus. The paramount lesson to learn from Jesus’ words in John 10 is that Jesus Himself is the Shepherd and the Owner of the sheep and the Door of the sheepfold. He extends to the sheep, not the limited care of one hired, but his total care and commitment as Owner and Shepherd, and He was willing to die for His sheep, take up His life again, and He did so. This parable refers to hirelings, thieves, and strangers to show the awesome contrast between them and Jesus being The Shepherd-Messiah. Hirelings are NOT its focus.

The Apostles and elders are not the Good Shepherds. In the context of John 10, all ministers/pastors/workers are “hirelings,” in the sense that they do not own the sheep. They are all fallible, imperfect, human beings even in their best state, who for self-preservation might flee when they see the wolf coming. In this context, the ultimate safety of the sheep is not in the hands of ministers/pastors/workers, but in the hands of the Good Shepherd who gave His life for the Sheep, and “no man shall pluck them out of my hand.” (vs 28-29)

By Cherie Kropp-Ehrig
Revised July 22, 2008