'Tribes of Israel,' Yossef (Joseph) window, stained glass, modern Synagogue of Shilo, Israel.
'Tribes of Israel,' Yossef (Joseph) window, stained glass, modern Synagogue of Shilo, Israel.

Jesus' kingdom is different from others. It is different from political empires and from church institutions. As Jesus explained to Pilate:

"My kingdom is not of this world."

Jesus' Kingdom operates on a different plane altogether.

We have the luxury of hindsight, but the disciples are having trouble understanding the nature of the Kingdom of God that Jesus is proclaiming. They have their expectations of a messianic overthrow of the Roman oppressors and a restoration of David's throne. But they have little understanding of the true nature of the Kingdom of God of which they are ambassadors-in-training. So Jesus tells parables to explain what this Kingdom is like by comparing it to things they already understand,

"What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?" (Luke 13:18)

In this lesson I have grouped parables that focus on the nature of Jesus' Kingdom. Many parables could be included here that are treated in other lessons, so my selection is somewhat arbitrary.

7.1. Small but Expanding

7.2 John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah

7.3 The Old and the New

7.4 The Flock of the Kingdom

The Kingdom of God is Like....

Jesus begins eleven parables with the words, "The kingdom of heaven/God is like...." "Kingdom of heaven" is Matthew's way of saying "Kingdom of God" (Mark and Luke), in a way that didn't offend his Jewish readers who avoid uttering the name of God. Most of these parables we consider elsewhere.1 But here we'll examine three parables that begin with the words, "The kingdom of heaven/God is like...."

  1. Parable of the Mustard Seed,
  2. Parable of the Yeast or Leaven, and
  3. Parable of the Seed Growing by Itself.

7.1. Small but Expanding

We begin our study of the nature of Jesus' Kingdom with a pair of parables that make the point that the Kingdom is small but expanding rapidly to become quite large. In Matthew both occur as part of the "parables chapter," Matthew 13. In a similar setting, Mark only includes the Parable of the Mustard Seed. In Luke, the parables occur amidst other parables and the healing of the bent-over woman.

Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19; §97)

Jesus uses the contrast between the proverbial "smallest seed" in the Parable of the Mustard Seed.

"Then Jesus asked, 'What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.'" (Luke 13:18-19)

Matthew and Mark note that the mustard seed was considered by the Jews as the smallest of seeds. This isn't a scientific statement, only a commonly accepted generalization. Elsewhere, Jesus uses the mustard seed to describe the tiniest amount of faith.2

"Mustard" is usually identified as Sinapis nigra, "black mustard," which grows to a shrub about 4 feet high, but occasionally can grow to 15 feet high and would qualify as a "tree." Three varieties of mustard were grown in gardens because of their aromatic seeds.3 Jesus mentions the growth, but the main emphasis seems to be on the beginning (very small) and the end (very large). Small beginnings, large endings.

Birds Perching in Its Branches (Luke 13:19b)

There's one more detail to consider:

"The birds of the air perched in its branches." (Luke 13:19b)

Probably all that means is that the tree was large enough to sustain life around it as a mini-ecosystem. This isn't just a marginal tree, but one that provides support for wildlife. Some think that the birds of the air represent the Gentile nations seeking refuge with Israel.4 That may be so (as a secondary allegory), but I think "the birds of the air perched in its branches" is the way Jesus rounded out his story, in words echoing Daniel 4:12, 21 and Ezekiel 17:23; 31:6.5

Here the birds don't represent enemies, but rather welcome guests (contrary to birds in the Parable of the Sower, Lesson 8.1). Jesus' use of examples is flexible. Just because an item was used for evil in one parable doesn't mean it has to have the same significance in another.

The point is that the proverbial tiniest seed can produce a tree. So the Kingdom, though small now, will grow exponentially into a large kingdom with major significance of its own.

John Everett Millais, 'Parable -- The Leaven' (c. 1860), watercolor on paper
John Everett Millais, 'Parable -- The Leaven' (c. 1860), watercolor on paper, 5.3 x 4.2 inches, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Aberdeen, Scotland.

Parable of the Yeast or Leaven (Matthew 13:33, §98; Luke 13:20-21, §164)

The Parable of the Leaven makes a similar point.

"Again he asked, 'What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast6 that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.'" (Luke 13:20-21)

In the West we commonly purchase baker's yeast compressed in small blocks (from the late 18th century) or in dry granulated form in small packets (from World War II). But in Jesus' day, a portion of leavened fermented dough from the previous day's baking was set aside and, after softening with water, was mixed with the dough for the next day's baking, passing on the live yeast from one batch to the next.7 Leaven was commonly used in baking the round, relatively flat barley or wheat loaves that were the common fare of the Israelites.

Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a small lump of yeasty dough that is kneaded into a large amount of flour until it is homogenized.

If you've never baked a loaf of bread, you may not understand the radical difference that yeast makes. You take flour, water, a bit of oil, and salt and knead them together with some softened yeast. It is pretty compact at this point, and, if you were to bake now, the bread would come out heavy and hard.

As the yeast begins to metabolize the sugars in the dough, it forms carbon dioxide that puffs into tiny gas pockets all throughout the dough. The gas can't escape because of the elastic gluten in the flour, so these pockets of gas stay in the loaf making the lump of dough larger -- rising. When the loaf finally goes into the oven, the gas expands even more as the temperature rises, until the dough finally bakes, holding the shape of those tiny gas pockets, now filled with air, making a light, tasty loaf.

And as the bread rises, the size increases many-fold. When I bake bread, I use a large pottery bowl and place the kneaded lump dough in the bottom of the bowl. By the time it has risen, the dough is nearly overflowing the bowl.

What's the point of the parable? A small amount of yeast will leaven a large amount of dough. Small beginnings, large endings.

Occasionally people get confused about this parable. They reason that since leaven is sometimes used negatively elsewhere in the Bible,8 that it must be negative in the Parable of the Leaven. Not so. Jesus shows quite a bit of flexibility in using comparisons. In Jesus Analogy of the Yeast of the Pharisees (Lesson 9.2), for example, Jesus makes the same point about yeast as in this parable, warning his disciples against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees that can start small and grow to become large and pervasive.

Small Beginnings, Much Discouragement

Sometimes we get discouraged. What we've worked so hard to do seems so small and insignificant, like a mustard seed or a bit of yeast -- so small, so hopeless, so tiny. The disciples may have felt that way about the Kingdom of God. Here is an itinerant carpenter-preacher speaking in villages in a minor Roman province. Not very impressive when you look at the big picture. But within a single generation after Christ's death, Christianity had spread all over the Roman empire and beyond -- India to the East, Ethiopia to the South, and Britannia to the West.

Just because the Kingdom doesn't seem very great as yet, Jesus is saying that it will grow. The Kingdom of God begins as small and insignificant, but grows to become large and powerful. Mustard seeds versus trees, tiny leaven-lumps versus large bread loaves, fresh and fragrant from rising, and ready for the oven.

There's an old hymn with a chorus that begins, "Little is much when God is in it."9 The Prophet Zechariah warns fragile Israel after the Exile:

"Don't despise the day of small things." (Zechariah 4:10)10

Too often we, like Jesus' first disciples, are tempted to give up when we see the tiny, struggling beginnings and think that's all there will be. But the seeds we sow today will grow great crops in season, even if we never live to see them. "We walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7, KJV).

Q28. (Luke 13:18-21) What lesson did Jesus intend his disciples to learn from the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast or Leaven? Why might the disciples be discouraged by the "size" of the Kingdom? Why are we sometimes discouraged in Christian work? Why are patience and faith so important for disciples?

Parable of the Seed Growing by Itself (Mark 4:26-29, §95)

(Also known as the Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly)

There is a third parable that illustrates the growth of the Kingdom, found only in Mark, right before the Parable of the Mustard Seed in Mark's chapter of parables.

"26 This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.
27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows,11 though he does not know how.12 28 All by itself13 the soil produces grain -- first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe,14 he puts the sickle15 to it, because the harvest has come." (Mark 4:26-29)

Jesus' society is primarily agricultural. Everyone outside of a large city -- even craftsmen -- would have a garden plot and perhaps a sheep, cow, or goat. Planting was familiar. This parable, however, assumes large scale planting, such as a field of barley or wheat.

Jesus describes the course of growth:

"First the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head." (Mark 4:28b)

Of course, the farmer is active in weeding and protecting the growing crop, and perhaps watering, but he doesn't have any part in its actual growth. He starts the process by sowing and completes it by harvesting.

What does it mean? Some have focused on the inactivity of the farmer, though the text doesn't actually mention it. Others have allegorized the parable -- the sower is Jesus, they say, and the harvest is the End Time. Probably the eschatological harvest is in mind in this parable, but that isn't the point of the parable. The key phrase is "by itself" or "of itself."

"All by itself the soil produces grain16 -- first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head." (Mark 4:28)

The Greek word is automatos (from which we get our word "automatic"). It means, "pertaining to something that happens without visible cause, by itself."17 It is used elsewhere of doors opening themselves, of plants growing without help, etc.18

This is a parable of inevitability and thus an encouragement to patience. The seed has been planted already by God and its growth is evident in the ministry of Jesus. And just as surely as planting the seed will lead to an inevitable harvest, so the Kingdom of God is growing and maturing, and the harvest will come in due time at the End of the Age.19 As James tells us:

"Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near." (James 5:7-8)

We too must be patient, because though delayed, the Harvest of the Kingdom will surely come!

7.2 John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah

Parable of the Bridegroom's Guests (Matthew 9:14-15; Mark 2:18-20; Luke 5:33-35; §54)

Jesus has been criticized by the Pharisees and teachers of the law that his disciples didn't fast like "serious" followers of God, such as the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist.

"They said to him, 'John's disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.'" (Luke 5:33)

What's wrong with your disciples -- and by clear implication -- what's wrong with you?

The Bridegroom's Celebration

"34 Jesus answered, 'Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? 35 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.'" (Luke 5:34-35)

Jesus answers by referring to his disciples as "guests of the bridegroom." You don't fast at a wedding celebration.

Weddings in Jesus' day, as in ours, are joyous affairs. The custom in those days was that the bridegroom and his family were to put on the celebration (John 2:9-10), not the bride's family as in American custom. As we saw in the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Lesson 5.2), the groom would go to the bride's home to fetch her and her attendants, and the couple would lead them in a procession to the groom's house where the celebration would take place. Though the consummation would take place that night, the party might go on for as long as a week with friends and family who had traveled some distance to attend.

Jesus is saying in this parable that, just as you don't fast while the bridegroom hosts the wedding celebration, neither should my disciples fast while I am ushering in the Kingdom of God. It is a time for celebration, not for mourning. Then he adds, darkly,

"But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast." (Luke 5:35)

Jesus knew that his crucifixion and death lay ahead and refers to it here. Interestingly, John the Baptist told the Parable of the Bridegroom's Friend, with Jesus as the Bridegroom and himself as the best man (see Appendix 4.2). "He must increase, but I must decrease."

The Biblical Imagery of Wife and Bride

Jesus clearly identifies himself with the bridegroom in this parable. It is a powerful image! This wedding analogy carries with it the overtones from the Old Testament of Israel as the bride of God,20 which the New Testament carries forward to the Church as the bride of Christ,21 culminating in the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-9).

Having said that, I doubt that Jesus is referring directly to this theme of the Bridegroom and the Bride, or he would have spelled it out more explicitly.22 Rather he is probably using this simple analogy of rejoicing with a bridegroom to explain why this wasn't to be a time of fasting, but a time of rejoicing in the Messiah and the Kingdom he is bringing.

7.3 The Old and the New

Immediately, following Jesus' Parable of the Bridegroom's Guests, Jesus gives a pair of parables to explain that his coming Kingdom is different than what people expect. It doesn't follow the old tried-and-true traditions. It is new and exclusive and must not be considered the same as the past. These are the Parable of the Unshrunk Cloth and the Parable of the Wineskins.

Parable of the Unshrunk Cloth (Matthew 9:16; Mark 2:21; Luke 5:36; §54)

As you recall, the Pharisees and scribes are insisting that Jesus and his disciples should fast. In response, Jesus explains in these parables why it is important that he doesn't fit his new teaching into their mold. First, he uses the metaphor of patched garments:

 "No one sews a patch of unshrunk23 cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse." (Matthew 9:16)

As I write this it is a popular fashion for young women (and some men) to wear jeans that are frayed and torn at the knees. They are marketed as "ripped," "torn," or "distressed." No patches. But in Jesus' day clothing was expensive. Keeping clothing in repair was a point of pride. Thus, patching one's clothing was a common task and Jesus' hearers would know the problems inherent in patching. Patching with unshrunk cloth would cause the patch to tear from its stitches when it was washed and shrunk the first time.

Jesus is saying that to try to attach the new to the old won't look right and will eventually tear again.

Parable of the Wineskins (Matthew 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37-39; §54)

Jesus makes the same point with a parable about new wine and old.

"37 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins.24 If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins." (Luke 5:37-38)

Jesus is referring to fairly large wine containers made of the skins of goats used to store the wine while it fermented.25


Pirosmani, 'Porter with a Wineskin' (before 1919), oil on oil-cloth,
Pirosmani, 'Porter with a Wineskin' (before 1919), oil on oil-cloth, 15 x 34 cm. State Museum of Fine Arts, Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia.

In Jesus' day, wine was made by treading on the grapes barefoot in a wine press, a square or circular pit hewn out of the rock, or dug out and lined with rocks and sealed with plaster.26 The juice from the pit then flowed through a channel into a lower vessel, a wine vat which functioned as a collecting and fermenting container for the grape juice or "must."

In the warm climate of Palestine, grape juice began to ferment very quickly and there was no easy way to prevent fermentation. After the first state of fermentation had taken place in the wine vat, the wine was separated from the lees (that is, sediment of dead yeast, tartar crystals, small fragments of grape skins, etc.) and strained through a sieve or piece of cloth (cf. Matthew 23:24). After four to six days, it was poured into clay jars (Jeremiah 48:11) or animal skins for storage and further fermentation.27

Wineskins were made of whole tanned goatskins or sheepskins where the legs and tail were cut off and sewn shut.28 A skin might hold about 8 to 10 gallons (30 to 40 liters), depending upon the size of the animal.

Imagine a large leather bag with nubbins bulging out where the legs and tail once were, the neck tied off where the wine has been poured in. The whole large skin would be bulging almost to bursting as the carbon dioxide gas generated by the fermentation process stretched it to its limit. This image is well described by Job:

"For I am full of words,
and the spirit within me compels me;
inside I am like bottled-up wine,
like new wineskins ready to burst." (Job 32:18-19)

Fermentation in the wineskin might continue for another two to four months until the process slows down and stops.29 By that time the skin has been stretched to its limit and the alcohol level is about 12%. The collagen protein that gives the leather its elasticity has been stretched out by the pressure and denatured by the alcohol, destroying its natural resiliency. The skin's ability to contract and stretch again has been lost.

New Wine in Old Wineskins (Luke 5:37-38)

Jesus' hearers knew all about wineskins and the aging of leather.

"No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins." (Luke 5:37-38)

Here is the same contrast of old and new that we saw in the Parable of the Unshrunk Cloth. His point is the same: you can't join the new to the old or you'll ruin both the new wine and the old skin. The gas pressure from the fermentation would eventually be so great that the inflexible old skin would rupture and the new wine would gush out onto the ground and be wasted.

The Old Is Better (Luke 5:39)

What is Jesus getting at? Jesus has come with a radical gospel of Good News to the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the sick, the brokenhearted (Luke 4:18-19). He speaks with authority, rather than the casuistry, the tortured interpretations of religious texts, used by the scribes of his day. Their man-made rules of who a person can eat with and how he should fast would just get in the way. They are externals. Jesus, on the other hand, is aiming to expose afresh the heart of the ancient faith. He helps them to return anew to love for God and for one's neighbor, to do mercy and love justice and walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8). These are the core of the Hebrew faith -- its true life, not the dead Pharisaical external traditions that offer an appearance of piety but don't change the heart (see Colossians 2:23).

You may think that this is a dead issue, but it has a way of raising its head again and again. Paul, trained as a strict Pharisee, grasps the radical nature of salvation by grace through faith, and goes preaching it boldly throughout the Mediterranean. Soon he is called on the carpet to explain why he isn't imposing the familiar Jewish regulations on his Gentile converts (Acts 15). Again and again, he has to insist that we are free in Christ, so we must not become entangled again in a legalistic religion trying to pass itself off as Christianity (Galatians 5). The Judaizers tried to infect church after church with their legalism; the recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews are tempted to turn again to the regulations of Judaism. Yes, legalism and an external faith are problems of every generation.

Comparing the Old and New Wine (Luke 5:39)

At the close of Luke's parable of the wineskins, Jesus adds a sentence not found in Matthew and Mark.

"And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better.'" (Luke 5:39)

Old wine has had a chance to mellow; new wine is more raw and biting, less pleasing to the taste, having not yet finished the process of fermentation.

Jesus is saying that it is easier to fall back to what is familiar and comfortable, rather than launch out into a life guided not by laws and regulations, but led by the Voice of the Spirit of God. The two are opposites, the old and the new. You cannot combine them without destroying both.

Pastors and church planters face this. Pastoring a long-established congregation generally offers greater security and predictability than starting a new congregation from scratch. But for all the difficulties and hardships of church planting, change is much easier in a new church than with the traditionalists, and you're able to reach many more non-Christians with the gospel in a new church designed to minister to a particular unreached slice of the culture. In an established church, it is extremely difficult to shift focus to the lost and needy of the community without major resistance.

The New Wine may not be as smooth to the tongue and finely aged. It may be a bit sharp and unrefined. But it is alive. You can't contain it in old structures. You must find new wineskins for it or none at all.

Integrating the New with the Old

That is not to say that Jesus' threw out the Old Covenant. He makes it very clear in the Sermon on the Mount that he comes to fulfill the law, not to abrogate it (Matthew 5:17-20). Jesus didn't come to set aside the law, but to strip away the Pharisees' precious oral tradition so people can see the true power and spirit of the law, and repent, preparing for the coming of the Kingdom. The Spirit Jesus sends now fulfills the law within us (Romans 8:1-4; Galatians 5:16-23).

Q29. (Luke 5:36-39) What did Jesus intend his disciples to learn from the Parables of the Unshrunk Cloth and the Wineskins? Why are we tempted to say, "The old wine is better?" How might our church traditions limit the Holy Spirit's work in our day? How do these parables illustrate the need for newly planted churches?

Another parable that contrasts the old and the new is the Parable of the Scribes of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:51-52). It compares a Jesus-follower to a person who finds both old and new treasures in his treasure box. We'll examine it in Lesson 12.4.

7.4 The Flock of the Kingdom

As Jesus explains what the Kingdom of God is like, he uses analogies of a shepherd with the sheep. The analogy of the shepherd and sheep is a common one in the Bible and rich in meaning. Jesus uses the shepherd/sheep analogy quite often.

But here, especially, in the Parables of the Good Shepherd and the Sheep Gate we see several sheep/shepherd analogies used together as Jesus explains his role in caring for his "sheep."

Parables of the Good Shepherd and the Sheep Gate (John 10:1-18)

Statue of the Good Shepherd (c. 300-350), marble, 39 inches high. Rome, from Catacomb of Domitilla, Vatican
Statue of the Good Shepherd (c. 300-350), marble, 39 inches high. Rome, from Catacomb of Domitilla, Vatican, Museo Pio Cristiano. 

Rather than seeing this discourse as a narrative, it is best understood as a series of teachings, spiritual lessons drawn from sheep-herding. We can see four primary analogies drawn from the pastoral images that weave through this discourse:

  1. The Sheep-pen (verses 1-2).
  2. The Shepherd's voice (verses 3-5).
  3. The Gate or Door of the sheep-pen (verses 6-9).
  4. The Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (verses 10-18).

Rather than treat them as separate parables, however, I think it is more useful to refer to them together as Parables of the Good Shepherd and the Sheep Gate.

Shepherds as Leaders

Throughout the ancient Near East, rulers and leaders were often spoken of as "shepherds" of their people. Ezekiel indicts Israel's shepherds -- both kings and spiritual leaders -- for caring only for themselves, not feeding the sheep, not healing the wounded sheep, not searching for the strays, and allowing the flock to be scattered (Ezekiel 34:2-5, 10-12). In John 9, Jesus has just dealt with the spiritual blindness of Jerusalem's shepherds, the scribes and Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin. They weren't really interested in the sheep, only in finding cause to destroy the true Shepherd who did care about the flock.

The Kingdom of God is different from earthly kingdoms where the kingdom exists for the whims of the king. In God's Kingdom, the Shepherd King actually cares about his subjects and lays down his life to save them. Hallelujah.

Analogy of the Sheepfold and the Shepherd (John 10:1-2)

Stone sheepfold
Stone sheepfold, Ameixiel Photo by Muffinn. Wikipedia, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

The first analogy Jesus draws from shepherding relates to the sheep-pen where the sheep are kept at night.

"1 I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep." (John 10:1-2)

Jesus has in mind an enclosed pen, open to the sky, with a doorway30 through which the sheep might enter.31 Such an enclosure would protect the sheep from straying at night and from attack by wild animals, such as lions, wolves, and bears.

A pen might have been constructed next to the family's house. But I think Jesus has in mind a sheep-pen out on the grazing fields some distance from town. Such a pen would likely be made of rocks piled up to make an enclosure, since wood is scarce in this hilly, rocky terrain. A gate might have been constructed from wood or scrub brush on a crude hinge. Or perhaps the shepherd himself might sleep in the doorway so that no one could get to the sheep except by climbing over his body. More on that in a moment.

In this first analogy, Jesus speaks of thieves who would try to climb over the fence or wall to steal a sheep. A shepherd or the owner of the sheep would use the gate, which would be closed and guarded at night. Only thieves32 or bandits33 would try to get in undetected some other way.34

The "thieves and robbers" in this analogy are, of course, the religious leaders who take advantage of their positions of trust to ravage God's flock. Among Jesus "woe to the Pharisees" discourse, he says.

"You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are." (Matthew 23:15)

The identity of the "sheep-pen" isn't as clear. Israel? The church? We're not sure. Making a point with such an analogy doesn't require every element to be identified.

Analogy of the Shepherd's Voice (John 10:3-5)

Jesus' point, however, is that the legitimate shepherd comes in through the gate and his sheep know him.

"3 The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen35 to his voice. He calls36 his own sheep by name37 and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice." (John 10:3-5)

Verse 3 mentions a gatekeeper.38 When several flocks would be put in the same pen on a remote sheep-field, each of the shepherds in turn would agree to act as the gatekeeper for one of the watches of the night. Of course, the gatekeeper on duty would open up for a shepherd whose flock was contained within.

When you have several flocks penned together for the night, the way they get sorted out in the morning is by each sheep recognizing its own shepherd's voice and coming when he calls them out of the pen for another day of grazing. The shepherd might even have a name for every sheep that he might call out if the sheep didn't come when he called the flock. Jesus is referring to the intimate relationship between the shepherd and his own sheep -- mutual knowledge.

George Adam Smith, who traveled in the Holy Land at the end of the nineteenth century before its modern development and westernization, relates an incident that illustrates this passage:

"Sometimes we enjoyed our noonday rest beside one of those Judean wells, to which three or four shepherds come down with their flocks. The flocks mixed with each other and we wondered how each shepherd would get his own again. But after the watering and the playing were over, the shepherds one by one went up different sides of the valley, and each called out his peculiar call; and the sheep of each drew out of the crowd to their own shepherd, and the flocks passed away as orderly as they came."39

The sheep knows its shepherd's voice.

I believe that one of the neglected, seldom-taught skills necessary to being a disciple, is to learn to discern Jesus' voice. We hear many voices -- the pressures of our society's expectations, our family's desires, our own selfish desires, our own inner voices. It is possible to hear Jesus' voice and distinguish it from the others, but we must make a practice of learning which is which. It is good to learn this with the help of a more mature Christian brother or sister.

Once we learn to discern Jesus' voice -- the leading of the Spirit, same thing -- then he can guide us, teach us, and use us much more effectively than before. For more on this see my study, Listening for God's Voice: A Discipleship Guide to a Closer Walk (JesusWalk Publications, 2018). www.jesuswalk.com/voice/

Q30. (John 10:1-5) Why is knowing the Shepherd's voice and obeying it so very important for disciples? What happens when we act independently of the Shepherd? What causes sheep to stray?

Analogy of the Gate for the Sheep (John 10:6-9)

The analogy is confusing to some of Jesus' hearers, so he explains it a bit more, at the same time adding new elements and shifting the analogy some.

"6 Jesus used this figure of speech40, but they did not understand what he was telling them. 7 Therefore Jesus said again, 'I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture41.'" (John 10:6-9)

Jesus shifts his analogy from the multiple-flock sheep pen with an assigned gatekeeper to one in which all the sheep in the pen belong to the same shepherd on a particular night.

In this third of his "I AM" declarations, Jesus says in verse 7b, "I am the gate/door for the sheep.42 Perhaps he is comparing himself to a gate to protect the sheep, swinging open on hinges to let the sheep through. But there is another possibility, illustrated by a story told by George Adam Smith to Bible commentator G. Campbell Morgan.

"[Smith] was one day travelling with a guide and came across a shepherd and his sheep. The man showed him the fold into which the sheep were led at night. It consisted of four walls, with a way in. [Smith] said to him, 'That is where they go at night?' 'Yes,' said the shepherd, 'and when they are there, they are perfectly safe.' 'But there is no door,' said [Smith]. 'I am the door,' said the shepherd. '... When the light has gone and all the sheep are inside, I lie in that open space, and no sheep ever goes out but across my body, and no wolf comes in unless he crosses my body; I am the door.'"43

However, we understand Jesus' words, whether as a swinging gate or the shepherd's own body serving as a gate, Jesus teaches that he is both the Protector (Savior) of the sheep, and their Point of Access to life beyond the fold -- pasture, water, life, and ultimately, the Kingdom of God in the presence of the Father.

Abundant Life (John 10:10)

Now Jesus repeats and amplifies this idea further.

"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;44 I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." (John 10:10)

Jesus is the herd's protection against thieves, who are the false Jewish religious leaders. Jesus' motive is for the sheep to have a full life -- protection from wolves and thieves, as well as pasture, water to drink, and the shepherd's experienced hands to rescue them and bind up their wounds. The words of the Twenty-Third Psalm come to mind:

"1 The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff,
they comfort me...." (Psalm 23:1-4, ESV)

Some see the Christian life as no fun, somehow constrained and diminished by the restrictions of Jesus' commands. But true disciples realize that only in Jesus' care can they truly flourish. They are healed within and protected without. They can live life to the full45 as it was intended to be lived.

Analogy of the Shepherd Laying Down His Life for the Sheep (John 10:11-13)

Now Jesus changes the analogy once again. In verse 10a, the threat was thieves who would try to break into the fold. In verse 11, the figure turns to threat from predators -- a wolf, bear, or lion. The predator's strategy would be to suddenly attack the flock, which will scatter. The predator then would go after the slowest sheep to react -- usually the youngest or weakest of the flock.

"11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down46 his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons47 the sheep and runs away.48 Then the wolf attacks49 the flock and scatters50 it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares51 nothing for the sheep." (John 10:11-13)

A hired hand -- here again probably representing the Jewish leaders -- isn't willing to risk his life fighting off a dangerous animal like a wolf. But the owner of the sheep doesn't run. Rather he stands up to the predator, ready to "lay down his life for the sheep." We think of David as a young shepherd, who explained to Saul, just before going out to defeat Goliath:

"Your servant has been keeping his father's sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it." (1 Samuel 17:34-35)

Of course, when Jesus talks about laying down his life for the sheep, he is not talking merely about taking risks to protect the sheep from predators. This is a thinly veiled reference to his death on the cross, to bear our sins to deliver us from sin and its consequences.

This theme of the shepherd laying down his life for the sheep is repeated five times in this discourse. It is therefore vital for us to grasp its importance.

"The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." (verse 11)
"I lay down my life for the sheep." (verse 15)
"I lay down my life -- only to take it up again. (verse 17)
"No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord." (verse 18a)
"I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again." (verse 18b)

Verses 17 and 18 talk about laying down his life, but verses 11 and 15 give the reason: "for the sheep," indicating a sacrifice made on behalf of another.52

I Am the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14)

In verses 11 and 14, "I am the Good Shepherd," is the fourth of John's seven "I AM" declarations.53 The "Good Shepherd" is prepared to lay down his life for his sheep. The Greek word for "good" is kalos, which may also carry the idea of "beautiful" -- the "Beautiful Shepherd" (though that is probably an over-translation).54 It also carries the ideas of the "Noble Shepherd"55 -- one who stands up for his sheep and does not run away when his life is threatened.

Mutual Knowledge (John 10:14-15)

"14 I am the good shepherd; I know56 my sheep and my sheep know me -- 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father -- and I lay down my life for the sheep." (John 10:14-15)

Jesus is referring to the mutual, intimate knowledge of the shepherd for the sheep, the shepherd who can call each of them by his or her special name (verse 3). He knows their peculiarities and weaknesses, and accommodates for these as he shepherds them. And in turn, they trust their shepherd because he always looks out for them. He rescues them when they get lost or caught in something. Heals them when they are sick or injured. Brings them to the best places to graze and water. They can trust him, so when he speaks, they listen and follow.

Jesus' Parables for Disciples, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats

Verse 15a suggests that this intimate knowledge and love between the shepherd and his sheep is a picture of the intimate knowledge, love, and trust between the Son and the Father.

My dear friend, how intimate is your knowledge of your Shepherd? How much do you trust him to lead you better than you can lead yourself? How much do you love him? How much do you listen for his voice, or do you let it be drowned out by the noise of the world? He longs for you to know him and love him as he knows you.

Q31. (John 10:6-15) Why does a true shepherd "lay down his life for the sheep"? How did Jesus' do this for his disciples? For us? In what way did Jesus intend his disciples to learn that they, too, must be willing to lay down their lives for the sheep? Can you think of any examples where Christ's servants have done this?


Father, mature us as disciples. Help us to see not our own smallness, but your greatness, not our own importance, but your preeminence. And help us to let go of the traditions and self-imposed restraints that prevent your power from breaking forth into the world. Forgive us, and lead us to better things. We pray in Jesus' name, Amen.


References and Abbreviations

[1] Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Lesson 1.2); Parable of the Marriage Feast (Lesson 2.2); Weeds or Tares (Lesson 4.2); the Net (Lesson 4.2); the Laborers in the Vineyard (Lesson 4.3); the Hidden Treasure (Lesson 8.5); Pearl of Great Price (Lesson 8.5); and Scribes of the Kingdom (Lesson 12.4).

[3] R.K. Harrison, "Mustard," ISBE 3:449.

[4] They cite Daniel 4:12, 21; Psalm 104:13; Ezekiel 17:23; 31:6; and 1 Enoch 90:30.

[5] Jeremias, Parables, p. 147. Dodd, Parables, p. 153. T.W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (Eerdmans/SCM Press, 1957).

[6] Zumē, "fermented dough, leaven." The rendering "yeast" popularly suggests a product foreign to ancient baking practice (BGAD 429, 1).

[7] Adrianus Van Selms, "Bread," ISBE 1:540-544.

[8] Luke 12:1; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Galatians 5:9.

[9] "Little is Much When God Is in It" is the title of a 1924 gospel hymn by Kittie L. Suffield.

[10] See my article "Don't Despise the Day of Small Things" www.joyfulheart.com/encourag/small-tg.htm

[11] "Sprout/s" (NIV, ESV, RSV), "spring" (KJV) is blastanō, "to emerge as new growth, bud, sprout" (BDAG 177, 2). "Grows" (NIV) is mēkunō, "make long," middle, become long, grow (long)" (BDAG 648).

[12] "How" is the particle hōs, here, "a comparative particle, marking the manner in which something proceeds, "as, like," corresponding to outōs -- "so, in such a way." In our passage, "(in such a way) as he himself does not know = he himself does not know how, without his knowing (just) how" (BDAG 1103, 1a).

[13] "All by itself" (NIV), "by/of itself/herself" (ESV, NRSV, KJV) is automatos (from which we get "automatic"), "pertaining to something that happens without visible cause, by itself" (BDAG 152).

[14] "Is ripe" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "is brought forth" (KJV) is paradidōmi, "to make it possible for something to happen, allow, permit," here, "when the (condition of the) crop permits" (BDAG 763, 4).

[15] "Sickle" is drepanon, "an agricultural implement consisting of a curved blade and a handle, used for a variety of purposes, sickle" (BDAG 261).

[16] Of course, we know (and Jesus' hearers knew) that the seed produces the growth of the plant, but only after the seed has been planted in the soil and flourishes with the moisture the soil provides (John 12:24).

[17] Automatos, BDAG 152.

[18] Acts 12:10; Leviticus 25:5, 11 (LXX); Josephus, Antiquities, 1:54; 12:317; Life 11), etc.

[19] Hunter sees this parable as "a call to patience.... Stage by stage, quietly but irresistibly, it grows to harvest, whether men will or no" (Hunter, Parables, p. 45). Jeremias says, "With the same certainty as the harvest comes for the husbandman after his long waiting, does God when his hour has come, when the eschatological term is complete, bring in the Last Judgment and the Kingdom" (Jeremias, Parables, pp. 151-152). France sees this as a parable "about rightly interpreting and responding to the period of apparent inaction of the kingdom of God. Despite appearances to the contrary, it is growing, and the harvest will come. But it will come in God's time and in God's way, not by human effort or in accordance with human logic" (France, Mark, p. 215). Snodgrass puts it this way: "Jesus' ministry has inaugurated a sequence of action leading to the fullness of God's kingdom, just as surely as sowing sets in play a spontaneous process leading to harvest" (Snodgrass, Stories, p. 189).

[20] Isaiah 62:4-5; Jeremiah 2:2; 3:20; Ezekiel 16:8; 23:4; Hosea 2:19-20.

[21] 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:25-32; Revelation 19:7-8; 21:2; 22:17.

[22] In Jesus' day, the term "bridegroom" didn't seem to be laden with Messianic connotations, though France concludes, "This verse ... may be properly read as a veiled messianic claim" (France, Mark, p. 139). Reference to the Messiah as bridegroom in the Old Testament and later Jewish writings wasn't pronounced, though a couple of Qumran references could be interpreted as possibly messianic (D.J. Williams, "Bride, Bridegroom," DJG 87, citing Jeremias nymphē, nymphios, TDNT 4:1099-1106). Snodgrass, Stories, p. 514; Jocelyn McWhirter, "Bride, Bridegroom," DJG2, p. 97.

[23] "Unshrunk" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "new" (KJV) is agnaphos, "pertaining to cloth fresh from the weaver's loom, not fulled, unshrunken, unsized, new" (BDAG 12). Matthew and Mark make explicit the "unshrunk (agnaphos) cloth" that is implied by Luke's "new (kainos) garment" (Matthew 9:16; Mark 2:21).

[24] "Wineskins" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "bottles" (KJV) is askos, "a leather bag," especially, "wine-skin" (BDAG 143).

[25] The KJV translation "bottles" may confuse us, but "bottle" was used in Elizabethan English of a container made of skin to store liquids, common from medieval times through the eighteenth century.

[26] See Isaiah 63:2-3; Job 24:11b; Lamentations 1:15; Joel 3:13; Matthew 21:33; Revelation 14:19-20; 19:15, where treading the winepress was a symbol of judgment.

[27] Barry L. Bandstra, "Wine Press, Winevat," ISBE 4:1072; and Duane F. Watson, "Wine," DJG 870-873.

[28] 1 Samuel 1:24; 10:3; 16:20; 25:18; 2 Samuel 16:1.

[29] Watson, DJG 871.

[30] "Gate" (NIV), "door" (KJV) is thyra, "door," here, "a passage for entering a structure, entrance, doorway, gate" (BDAG 462, 2b).

[31] "Pen" or "fold" is aulē, "an area open to the sky (frequently surrounded by buildings, and in some cases partially by walls), enclosed open space, courtyard," here fold for sheep (BDAG 150, 1), in verses 1 and 16.

[32] "Thief" is kleptēs (from which we get our word, "kleptomaniac"), "thief" (BDAG 574).

[33] "Robber" (NIV, KJV), "bandit" (NRSV) is lēstēs, "robber, highwayman, bandit" (BDAG 594, 1).

[34] "Some other way" is allachothen, "from another place" (BDAG 46).

[35] "Listen" (NIV), "hear" (NRSV, KJV) is akouō, "hear," but here with the idea of "to give careful attention to, listen to, heed someone" (BDAG 38, 4).

[36] "Calls" is phōneō, "to produce a voiced sound/tone, frequently with reference to intensity of tone," here, "to call to oneself, summon" (BDAG 107, 3).

[37] "By name" (kat' onoma).

[38] "Watchman" (NIV), "gatekeeper" (NRSV, ESV), "porter" (KJV) is thyrōros, "doorkeeper, gatekeeper" (BDAG 462).

[39] George Adam Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1900), p. 312.

[40] Paroimia, "pithy saying" (BDAG 779, 2). For more on this see Appendix 3. A Vocabulary for Parables and Analogies.

[41] "Pasture" is nomē, generally, "pasturing-place, grazing land, pasturage" (BDAG 675, 1).

[42] See my study, John's Gospel: A Discipleship Journey with Jesus (JesusWalk Publications, 2015, Appendix 4. The "I Am" Passages in John's Gospel (www.jesuswalk.com/john/appendix_4.htm).

[43] Morris, John, p. 507, n. 30, citing G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to John (London and Edinburgh, 1951). In the fuller quote, Smith explains that the shepherd "was not a Christian man, he was not speaking in the language of the New Testament. He was speaking from the Arab shepherd's standpoint."

[44] "Destroy" is apollymi, "ruin, destroy," especially, "put to death" (BDAG 116, 1aα).

[45] In verse 10b, "to the full" (NIV), "abundantly" (NRSV, KJV) is perissos, "exceeding the usual number or size ... pertaining to being extraordinary in amount, abundant, profuse," here, "going beyond what is necessary" (BDAG 805, 2a).

[46] "Lays down" (NIV, NRSV) is tithēmi, "put, place," here, in the sense, "lay down or give (up) one's life" (verses 11, 15, 17, and 18; also in John 13:37-38; 15:13; and 1 John 3:16) (BDAG 1003, 1bβ). In verses 11 and 15 (but not verse 17 and 18), KJV text is "giveth," didōmi, "give," supported by p45 Aleph* D. The Editorial Committee prefers tithēmi, which they say is characteristically Johannine, while didōmi is found in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). They give tithēmi a {B} "some degree of doubt" confidence rating (Metzger, Textual Commentary, p. 230).

[47] "Abandons" (NIV), "leaves" (NRSV, KJV) is aphiēmi, here, "to move away, with implication of causing a separation, leave, depart from ... abandon" (BDAG 156, 3a).

[48] "Runs away" (NIV, NRSV), "flees" (ESV, KJV) is pheugō, "to seek safety in flight, flee" (BDAG 1052, 1).

[49] "Attacks" (NIV), "snatches" (NRSV), "catcheth" (KJV) is harpazō, "snatch, seize," that is, take suddenly and vehemently, "to make off with someone's property by attacking or seizing, steal, carry off, drag away something" (BDAG 134, 1).

[50] "Scatters" is skorpizō, "to cause a group or gathering to go in various directions, scatter, disperse" (BDAG 931, 1).

[51] "Care" is melomai, "be an object of care, be a cause of concern" (BDAG 628).

[52] The preposition hyper is used with the genitive case: "a marker indicating that an activity or event is in some entity's interest, for, in behalf of, for the sake of someone/something" (BDAG 1030, 1aε). We also see this expression of "laying down one's life" at John 13:37-38; 15:13; and 1 John 3:16. The Greek parallels that use the verb tithēmi, "to put, lay," all denote taking a risk rather than full sacrifice of life as in John. This is John's way of reproducing Jesus' saying in Mark 10:45, to "give his life as a ransom for many" (Christian Maurer, tithēmi, TDNT 8:156-157).

[53] See my study, John's Gospel: A Discipleship Journey with Jesus (JesusWalk Publications, 2015, Appendix 4. The "I Am" Passages in John's Gospel (www.jesuswalk.com/john/appendix_4.htm).

[54] Morris, John, p. 509, n. 34, citing Rieu.

[55] Beasley-Murray, John, p. 170.

[56] "Know" four times in verses 14 and 15 is the generic word ginōskō, "to know," here of persons, "know someone" (BDAG 200, 6aβ).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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