The Bible is loaded with the metaphorical use of language. This situation involves analogies, figures of speech, hyperbole and similar constructions. The biblical writers understood the power of rhetoric and the creative use of words in presenting spiritual topics. Even today, the effective use of language can grab attention and make a point with the power of poetic persuasiveness.
Today’s message from John’s gospel is a case in point, where the writer compares Jesus to a gate through which shepherds and sheep enter. Jesus is not a literal gate, and we get that, but the suggestion is that Jesus functions as the portal or entrance through which people must pass if they want salvation. One of the issues in John’s writing is his comparison of all sorts of religious leaders and followers to a flock of sheep. The mention of sheep and shepherds complicates the issue for us today. The reason is that such references have lost relevance to a modern audience, especially among a primarily urban population who don’t live in the country and who do not regularly interact with sheep, shepherds, or a pastoral lifestyle.
John instructs his readers to enter the sheepfold (heaven) by the gate (Jesus). He warns that anyone who tries to find another way other than through Jesus will be treated as a “thief and a bandit” (John 10: 1). John then speaks of the shepherd, suggesting that the gatekeeper (God the Father himself?) opens the gate to the legitimate shepherd. The analogy is completed as John refers to the sheep (all of us Christians) who hear and respond to the shepherd’s voice.
Jesus flatly states that he is the gate where the sheep pass (John 10:7). Remarkably, Jesus then dismisses all other spiritual and religious leaders by saying that “[a]ll who came before me are thieves and bandits” (John 10:8). Wow! That’s a provocative statement which arouses all sorts of responses. The implications and ramifications of the language in this passage is ratcheted-up further when we read that only those who enter by Jesus will be saved (John 10:9).
As you might imagine, today’s verses from John are highly controversial for what they suggest. However, there is a consoling verse worthy of additional elaboration. Jesus says that “I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). What comprises an abundant Christian life? This is worth out time because we seek the joy that can come from spiritual abundance. Yet even here controversy prevails. Some Christians argue that abundance is inner peace and joy while others claim that an abundant life includes inner peace and joy but also worldly prosperity and recognition. Can both be correct or is it just one aspect?
Absent definitive answers, I’m willing to get up on my soapbox and proclaim that we need to continue working hard on obtaining and sharing inner peace and joy. People observe us and judge our religion by our attitudes and actions. Knowing this reminds us of the power of our Christian witness. Moreover, If we want to attract people to our church then we need to create an effective worship environment relevant to unchurched persons in our community. The Both/And approach to church renewal can help us preserve the best of who we are while also adding a new, very different type of ministry. There’s a lot that will go into this renewal, and my ongoing prayer is that we will marshal our resources and embrace the God of promise and possibility.
–Reverend Larry Hoxey