In the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaims eight “I AM” statements about His identity:
I AM the bread of life (Jn. 6:35)
I AM the light of the world (Jn. 8:12; 9:5)
I AM the door (Jn. 10:9)
I AM the good shepherd (Jn. 10:11)
I AM the resurrection and the life (Jn. 11:25)
I AM the way, the truth, and the life (Jn. 14:6)
I AM the vine (Jn. 15:5)
Of the eight statements, four of them are descriptive nouns for tangible things (bread, light, door, and vine) and three of them are descriptive nouns for nonmaterial things (the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, and I AM that I AM). But there is one “I AM” statement which differs from the rest. In this “I AM” statement Jesus uses a character noun with the emphasis on the adjective. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd” (Jn. 10:11, emphasis added). The question now is why did Jesus choose to exhibit this characteristic of God? Let’s start with getting some background on what was taking place during the time Jesus uttered that “I AM” phrase.
The New Testament Setting
The good shepherd illustration is in between the time of the Feast of Tabernacles (Jn. 7:1) and the Feast of Dedication (Jn. 10:22). Thus, Jesus and His disciples were in Jerusalem. Some hours earlier before the discourse, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath that was born blind and that starts a new confrontation with the Pharisees (Jn. 9). The Pharisees had previously attempted to stone Him (Jn. 8:59) for saying they were children of Satan (Jn. 8:41-44) and that He was the great “I AM” (Jn. 8:58). And yet the Pharisees are at it again. Robert Thomas and Stanley Gundry said, “The occasion for this allegory [John 10] was furnished by the excommunication of the blind man whom Jesus healed (Jn. 9:34).”[*3] Because of how the Pharisees responded to the healing of the blind man, Jesus equated them in His illustration with the thief, the robber, and the hirelings (Jn. 10:1, 12). The Pharisees “had no real concern for the sheep.”[*1] After this discourse by Jesus there was a division amongst the Jews because of what He shared (Jn. 10:19). Some said He was mad and had a demon, others said a mad and demon-possessed man cannot open the eyes of the blind (Jn. 10:20-21).
During the Feast of Dedication, the Jews seemed fed up with waiting, some for reasons of entrapment and some for sincere inquiry. Seeing that the Feast of Dedication “was closely connected with that part of Israel’s heritage known as the Maccabean revolt,”[*5] the Jews just straightforwardly asked Jesus was He the Messiah probably with a political intent in mind (Jn. 10:22-24). This question turns into another debate and ultimately ends with an attempt to seize Jesus again (Jn. 10:25-39).
The good shepherd illustration was delivered right at a time where it would be starkly contrasted with the characteristics of the Jewish leaders.
The Old Testament Setting
The sheep and shepherd illustration can be traced back to the Old Testament. In Ezekiel 34 and Jeremiah 23:1, God speaks out against the shepherds of Israel who aren’t concerned about the sheep. This is similar to what Jesus did throughout His public ministry with the Jewish leaders (Pharisees, priests, etc). He was purposely making mention to the Old Testament scriptures. The Jewish leaders are symbolic to the irresponsible shepherds depicted in the Old Testament. Jesus, on the other hand, is displaying and proclaiming Himself to be the good shepherd whom God was portrayed as in the Old Testament (Ps. 80:1). God is revealed as the savior of His sheep (Ezek. 34:11-15), the One who cares for His sheep (Ps. 78:52-53, Amos 3:12), the One who causes His sheep to rest (Ps. 23:2, Jer. 33:12), and so forth. Jesus says, in regards to those representations of God in the Old Testament, I am that same good shepherd.
Some may say that just as Jesus was showing a parallel of the present day Jewish leaders with the Old Testament irresponsible shepherds, so He was doing with Himself and God—He was merely showing a similarity not a claim of deity. However, Jesus knew exactly what He was saying when He said, “I am the good shepherd” (Jn. 10:14). Jesus speaks of Himself in the same manner God did in Ezekiel 34. In Ezekiel 34 God calls them His sheep and His flock (Ezek. 34:6, 8, 10-12, 15, 17, 19, 22, 31). In John 10 Jesus calls them His sheep and His flock (Jn. 10:14-16, 26-27). This is significant. Because in Ezekiel 34:23 it was prophesied that God will establish one shepherd over His sheep. Jesus, in His “I am the good shepherd” statement, is saying that He is the fulfillment to this Ezekiel prophecy. Jesus makes it very clear that He is God the good shepherd the Old Testament testifies of:
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want…Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Ps. 23:1, 6).
“Know that the LORD, He is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture” (Ps. 100:3).
“He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young” (Isa. 40:11).
“I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture…I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own…And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring…I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand” (Jn. 10:9, 11, 14, 16, 27-28).
There is no ambiguity to what Jesus meant. Jesus claims Himself to be that same good shepherd portrayed in the Old Testament, not merely a similar one.
So, why did Jesus choose to exhibit this specific characteristic of God in an “I AM” statement? This “I AM” statement demonstrates the preface to the affectionate nature of God. The shepherd cares, protects, feeds, leads, and will even die for His sheep. By re-introducing this characteristic of God, it was an ideal way for Jesus to express the totality of God’s affectionate nature, that is, that Jesus—the Son of God—is literally laying down His life for His people (Jn. 10:11, 15) to ultimately care for them and keep them safe (Jn. 10:9-10, 27-29), and that no one else but He is willing and able to do so (Jn. 10:12-14, 16). The greatest display of a good shepherd is making the greatest sacrifice for his sheep, and that’s exactly what Jesus did for His, which is why He is and will always be the good shepherd.
1. The New Testament and Wycliffe Bible Commentary. New York: The Iversen-Norman Associates, 1971
2. The One Volume Bible Commentary. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1936
3. Thomas, Robert, and Stanley Gundry. A Harmony of the Gospels. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978.
4. Towns, Elmer. A Journey Through the New Testament. Mason: Cengage Learning, 2008.
5. Towns, Elmer. The Gospel of John: Believe and Live. AMG Publishers, 2002.