One of the most important things I was reminded of during seminary is that I am not a smart man. More important than this, though, is being taught that the danger lies not in not being smart, but in imagining myself to be smart when I’m really not. And the most dangerous application of this imagined smartness comes in the interpretation and application of Scripture.
So for our weekly, in-depth Bible studies that I’ve been doing over the past three years or more, I don’t rely on my own brilliance very often or very long. I utilize multiple commentaries to provide a cross-section of thought on the passages we study. Right now we’re working our way through the Gospel of John. I’ve utilized to some degree the following resources:
- Concordia Commentary John 1:1-7:1
- Word Commentary John
- Lenski’s Commentary on John (1943 Edition)
- The Anchor Bible on John (Brown)
Between all of them, I’m generally able to sift through what makes sense to me, but at least I’m not making stuff up whole-cloth. That makes me more comfortable since I’m not doing my exegesis from the Greek but from English translations, and at least this way I can hopefully be made aware of curiosities in the Greek that might affect how a given word or passage is read or applied.
But on the other hand, I don’t like being afraid to interpret the text myself. If I assume that there can be nothing more said about a given passage, that every issue of interpretation and explanation has already been thought about by somebody, that seems strange. At the very least, I know I can’t possibly read every single commentary on any given passage, so I’m limiting my education to a very small sliver of 2000 years of Biblical scholarship. It might be argued that I’m just as stupid as I was before sitting down with the commentaries, as they only represent a small fraction of interpretative opinion.
So in working with the opening of John 10, I struggled this week.
I side with scholars who view the first half of John 10 as continuing right on from John 9. Remembering that the chapter divisions and even verse divisions are arbitrary aids created many, many, many years later (Archbishop Steven Langton’s division of Scripture into chapters is the approach we utilize today, and dates from the 13th century. Robert Estienne’s division of chapters into verses was introduced in the 15th century and is the version most commonly used today). In other words, chapter and verse divisions are not original to the manuscripts, and while they are helpful for organizing Scripture, they can also introduce confusion in the form of artificial separators. I think that’s the case with the break between John 9 and John 10. The chapter division helps organize, but it also makes us think that there is a separation between the two sections of discourse when there isn’t necessarily. So I think Jesus just keeps right on teaching and preaching to the same people in John 10 that He was at the end of John 9 – likely a man who has been given sight by Jesus, a crowd of curious people, and some Jewish leadership in the form of scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus has just said some challenging things to the Pharisees at the end of Chapter 9. They object to being called spiritually blind, and Jesus alleges that if they really are as astute as they claim to be, if they truly can see and aren’t blind, then they’re in even a worse state for rejecting what they claim they can see clearly – namely himself as the Messiah.
Which sets the stage for John 10:1-5. Jesus is offering a test to the Pharisees to test their sight. Can they understand what He is talking about in his parable? Verse 6 renders the verdict – no, they can’t. They’re blind. So, as He did with the blind man, Jesus spends the following 11 verses or so trying to give them sight, with mixed results.
But the expectation is that anyone with spiritual sight/vision should be able to make sense of the parable. It wouldn’t be a very good test if it would have been impossible for the Pharisees to interpret it. It wouldn’t have proved anything except that Jesus was lousy at parables, which most people are inclined to say isn’t true!
The real challenge comes because in verse 9, Jesus explains his parable, and his role in it. So the commentators I read all go to verse 9 and say Jesus is the gate/door to the sheep pen. But as near as I can tell, for the purpose of his parable/mashal, it wouldn’t make sense for his hearers to identify him as the door/gate. It would make more sense to be appealing to a third-party door/gateway that the legitimate shepherd uses while false shepherds – thieves and robbers – avoid. They prefer alternate means of gaining access to the sheep. So what is that door/gateway? Jesus will claim to be that gate/door in v.9, and He truly is. But in vs.1-5 He seems to imply that it is something separate as well, something that the scribes and Pharisees ought to be using, but aren’t.
We can assume that Jesus is alluding to himself as the proper shepherd in vs. 1-5, contrasting himself with his opponents who are thieves and robbers. The sheep pen is something that separates the sheep from the outside world, providing a level of comfort, protection, and identity, and is accessible by a door/gate. Entry by that door/gate is a form of propriety – the door/gate and the associated keeper ensure that not just anyone can come in and gain access to the sheep. If the Pharisees could see, they would know to go in by this gate. But their blindness causes them to choose alternate, inappropriate ways, so that people don’t recognize their voice and follow them naturally, as they are starting to follow Jesus.
To my way of thinking, the problem the Pharisees have with Jesus is his refusal to play by their rules. The complicated system of traditions and rituals and rules by which God’s people are protected from breaking any of the Ten Commandments and violating their covenant again. Hundreds and hundreds of rules pertaining to how you prepare to eat a meal, what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath, and lots of other things. Jesus ignores some of these, and instead is constantly directing the Pharisees back to the Word of God.
So the gate/door to the sheep pen is the Word of God, the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians know as the Old Testament. The one who has this as their means of living and speaking and acting enters through that doorway and should be recognized by the sheep as someone they can trust and follow. On the contrary, the scribes and Pharisees try to climb over the wall. Instead of relying only on Scripture, they rely on their traditions and rules.
Why do the people listen to Jesus? Because He comes to them through Scripture, not through Pharasaical rules and regulations. Because He comes to actually care for them, feeding them (Chapter 5), teaching them, and healing them (Chapters 7, 9). The Pharisees make life more difficult for the sheep, and are more concerned with their rules and regulations than with celebrating when an invalid is healed and can walk, or when a man born blind is given his sight. They are blind to the Scriptures which depict a loving God who seeks relationship with his people, rather than a harsh overlord who desires rote memorization and mindless obedience.
Now, when Jesus identifies himself as the gateway/door in v.9, He’s telling the truth. He is the Word made flesh. He doesn’t simply obey Scripture, He is Scripture, the living embodiment, the Word of God, the Logos in human flesh. He will then discard his original picture language centering on his identity as the gate to sketch a new illustration, where He is the Good Shepherd, which allows him to flesh out additional aspects of his person and ministry both in relationship to God the Father’s people (sheep) and God the Father.
I like my interpretation, but it doesn’t mean that it’s right. It’s just a good reminder that as valuable as the words of those before us are in helping us understand God’s Word, we still need to be able to examine it ourselves as well. It should be a constant process and interaction between the Word and those who study it, both present and past.