Historically this Sunday has been called "Good Shepherd Sunday," but in our text for this year Jesus doesn't say, "I am the Good Shepherd," but "I am the Gate." So Gate Sunday would be more appropriate.
The Gate speaks, and to whom does He speak? Our text begins with, "I tell you the truth." This is the NIV's way of rendering the King James' "Verily, verily." These words never begin a new section in the New Testament. There is no break in the action between John 9 and John 10. We dealt with John 9 seven weeks ago. It's the account of the man born blind. So whom Jesus is speaking to is the man born blind now healed who has been excommunicated, the Pharisees who did that, the man's parents who wouldn't confess Jesus, and the disciples.
You have to feel the tension. Jesus ended chapter 9 telling the Pharisees that their sins remained on them. He had used the binding key of the office of the keys. The sins of these Pharisees remained on them, and those sins are sinking them into the depths of hell as sure as a millstone around the neck would. Skip ahead to verse 31 of chapter 10. There we read, "Again the Jews picked up stones to stone Him." You have to be awfully mad at someone to actually pick up stones to kill Him. Yet, Jesus speaks this text also to them.
He also speaks it to the man born blind that He had healed. Having been excommunicated by the Jews, having had the binding key of the Old Testament Church wrongly used against him, Jesus came and found him and revealed Himself as the Son of Man. The healed blind man believed and confessed Jesus as Lord. Jesus addresses this text to him a friend, a believer, a follower. But more than just bitter enemies and an excited new convert are being spoken to. The healed blind man's parents who wouldn't confess Jesus as Lord for fear of being excommunicated are here. So are the disciples of Jesus, and so are you.
What does the Gate say? Jesus opens up with what the insert calls a "figure of speech." In the Greek translation of the Old Testament this word is used for a proverb. In other Greek writings it can be translated "dark saying." In any event, "They did not understand what Jesus was telling them." So in the second paragraph Jesus drops the figure, "Therefore Jesus said again, verily, verily I say to you that I am the Gate of the sheep. All who ever came before Me were thieves and robbers."
You know what the problem with that translation is? The word "were" isn't there; the word "are" is. Jesus isn't speaking in the past tense. Jesus is condemning the leaders of the church right before Him as thieves and robbers. These men, who went to church, studied their Bibles, who were considered the holiest of people by ordinary church goers Jesus calls thieves and robbers. Why? Because as Jesus says in the first paragraph, "the man who doesn't enter the sheep fold by the Gate but climbs in some other way is a thief and a robber."
Can you believe the audacity of Jesus? About six months from now where will Jesus be hanging? Between two thieves having been cast out by the church. Do you see what fired the taunting and jeering of the church leaders while Jesus hung on the cross? He who had called them thieves and robbers now hung dying between thieves. O the irony.
The Holy Spirit is big with irony particularly through the pen of John. John doesn't call the two crucified with Jesus "robbers" as Matthew and Mark do or "criminals" as Luke does. All John says is "and with Jesus two others were crucified." The word John uses for thief is only found one place in John other than here in John 10. Later in John 12 when Judas complains about Mary wasting money by anointing Jesus, John tells us, "Judas did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief." O the irony. Jesus is going to the cross betrayed by a real thief to hang among real thieves to suffer in place of even the church leaders whom He called thieves. Think I've gone too far? O you don't know the richness of the Spirit's irony yet.
Jesus doesn't just call the church leaders standing before Him thieves, He calls them robbers. This is the word Matthew and Mark use for the thieves on the cross, but as we've noted John doesn't use it for them. No, there's only one other place John uses robber. He only uses it of one other person: Barabbas, the person who goes free while Jesus goes to the cross. We read in John 18: 40, "Now Barabbas was a robber." John and only John refers to Barabbas as a robber using the same word Jesus used for church leaders. We are to see that Jesus, the Gate, is betrayed by a thief to hang on a cross with thieves in place of a robber.
Furthermore, we are to see Jesus is a thief and a robber. What? Sure Jesus is a thief; He steals sins that don't belong to Him and claims them as His own. Those sins of not fearing, loving or trusting God above all things that you do every single day of your life, Jesus stole from you. He took them from your account and put it in His. John the Baptist says that there is not one single sin in all the world that Jesus did not steal and carry away. Jesus steals sins from their rightful owners and having their sins gets the wages owed those sins. Jesus suffers not just here but in eternity too. He dies not just in time but forever. On the cross He doesn't just die; He is damned.
But Jesus isn't just a thief, He's a robber too. That Greek word, although translated by some as thief, means more than that. It's one who steals openly as opposed to one who steals by stealth. Therefore, it's better translated robber, plunderer, or brigand. Think of what we mean when we refer to a strong-arm robbery. This is how Jesus depicts Himself in Mark 3. He says in reference to Him being able to cast out Satan, "In fact, no one can enter a strong man's house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house."
Going to the cross in place of the robber Barabbas, Jesus succeeds in tying up the strong man Satan and robbing him. By the death which we deserve because of our sins that the law convicts us of, Satan held us captive. Jesus keeping the law in our place means Satan has nothing to convict us with. Dying the death our sins had rightly earned means Satan has nothing to require of us. We're free to go with Jesus. Free to leave our sins dead and buried in the tomb and rise with Jesus from death.
Can you see how this would comfort the healed blind man and should comfort us? The blind man was excommunicated by the church and told he was steeped in sin. His sins were undeniable, indelible, and inescapable. And isn't this what your very own conscience constantly assures you? You are cut off from the church and your sins are crimson, black, ugly, and deep. But having entered by the Gate, Jesus has stolen our sins from us and robbed the Devil of the right to our bodies or souls.
We are baptized literally into the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Do you think sin, death, or the Devil Himself can reach us there? We are absolved with Jesus' Words. Do you think sin, death, or the Devil has any say in the matter now? Jesus joins His Body and Blood to our body and blood in Holy Communion. Do think sin, death, or the Devil have any hold over the Body and Blood of Jesus? No! with the formerly blind man we are freed to go in and out to the green pastures, the still waters, and the overflowing cup Jesus prepares for us even in the midst of our enemies. Yes, even in the midst of enemies like sin, sickness, suffering, and dying, through Jesus the Gate we enter into life to the full.
Why does the Gate speak now? Although John has 21 chapters and we're only in the 10th in our text, this is the last extended public teaching of Jesus in the Book of John before His suffers for our sins. All that suffering takes place because Jesus wills to be the Gate for sinners. Jesus is like Big John in the Jimmy Dean song. The only way Big John saves the miners from death is by making his body the beam that holds up the sagging mine shaft. It means certain death for Big John, but life for his fellow miners. The mythical Big John willed to be a brace for the mine shaft. The real Jesus wills to be a Gate for sinners, a gate for even thieves and robbers.
Of course we're more familiar with the rest of John 10 where Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd," but the shepherd serving as a gate is something real shepherds do. A 1951 commentary on John's Gospel cites the story of Sir George Adam Smith. He came upon an Arab shepherd with his sheep. The man shows Smith his sheepfold which consisted of four walls with an opening. Smith asked him if this is where he kept his sheep at night. He said that it was and that while in there they were perfectly safe. Smith replied, "'But there is no door.'" "'I am the door,' said the shepherd."
This man was not a Christian. He didn't know of our text, but he knew what Jesus meant when He said, "I am the Gate," because he went on to explain. "'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 come in unless he crosses my body; I am the door'" (Morris, 507, fn. 30). What a picture! You can see that shepherd stretched across the door, can't you? Jesus wills for you to see Him that way. By saying, "I am the Gate," He wills for you to see Him as the only way into the Church and that anything that wants to get to His sheep in the Church has to get by Him first.
Have you ever gone around a big building looking for an open door? You try door after door, but nothing. Finally, you pull on a door expecting to find it locked, and how relieved you are to find it opened. On Gate Sunday Jesus would spare you that hassle. Are you looking for relief from guilt, escape from Death, or protection from the Devil? All the doors you could pull, all the gates you could try are either going to be locked or open to less than you hoped for. Jesus is the Gate, the only Gate that opens to house of the Lord where you can dwell forever. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Fourth Sunday of Easter (20110515); John 10: 1-10