On John 10: Salvation for Sheep and Goats (Series Part 9)

In this installment, we continue our investigation of some problematic passages that are often used to support deterministic theology.

You do not believe because you are not my sheep

Another passage often used to support the doctrine of predestination is that of the good shepherd and his sheep found in John 10, where Jesus uses an imagery that his audience would have easily understood. He teaches that, as a good shepherd, he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. This seems to imply that there was then a select group of people who had an intimate relationship with Jesus. In fact, Jesus says that he knows this people as intimately as he knows the Father (10:15). Jesus also says that there is another set of sheep that belonged to a different fold which he intends to bring in as well (10:16). The Pharisees later asked him to speak plainly on his identity as the promised Messiah. Jesus replied thus: “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (10: 25-27). Read deterministically, one would take Jesus as saying that the reason some people will not believe for salvation is because God did not make them his sheep. That is, God rejects the non-sheep (or goats). This is an incorrect reading of the text.

We require some contextual analyses to understand this verse. One of John’s goals in writing the Gospel book is to do apologetics. Whereas Luke, for instance, was concerned with giving us a history and referencing his sources, John was not so much interested in narrating the deeds of Jesus as he was in applying the truth of Jesus’ life. He tells us his reason for writing, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Therefore, John minced no words even from the introductory portions of his writing. For instance, he writes:

“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John 1:10)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1)

“No-one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in the closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18).

To a Jewish listener of the time, there would be no mistaking the weight of Jesus’ claims about himself as recorded by John. He claims to be God. In other words, Jesus says to his Jewish listeners that the same Yahweh that they and their forefathers worshipped from a distance and with veiled faces is the one standing before them in person. We, of course, would not expect the Jews to recognize him by his look; we can only recognize what we have seen before. So, we can excuse the Jews for not knowing Jesus in this way. However, they are supposed to identify him by his voice—not the pitch, amplitude, or frequency that his voice box produced, but the inward way of knowing when God speaks. This likely explains why Jesus marvels that the Jews did not understand his language (John 8:43).

Besides, the Jews also had the Holy Text to use as a guide to identify the Messiah. Therefore, Jesus says to them, “believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father” as if he were saying the messianic mosaic included doing miraculous works (John 10:38). When they would not recognize him by his voice or the miraculous works that he did, Jesus made a conclusive pronouncement about the Jews thus:

Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:47). 

Jesus here calls the bluff of the religious leaders. Whereas they appeared to everyone as pious and intimate with God by their religious exercises and flamboyant attires, Jesus says to them they do not know God at all and that is why they could not understand his speeches. This verse is strikingly similar to John 10:26. We now turn to John 10.

This passage is rich in indicators requiring readers to be cautious. For instance, it is worthwhile to notice that the literary devices used in John 10 do not always have a one-to-one correspondence. In this story, Jesus identifies himself as both the shepherd and the gate. For instance, in verse 2, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep,” Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate. Also, in verse 8 where Jesus says, “All who have come before me are thieves and robbers,” he could not possibly mean that John the Baptizer, Moses, Elijah, and the other prophets were thieves. More likely, Jesus is here calling as thieves and robbers all the persons who have recently proclaimed themselves as Israel’s Messiah and wanting to militarily rescue Israel from Rome’s control. (See Acts 5: 36-37.) The point I am now making is that this passage requires a good measure of caution.

Jesus introduces the figure of speech in verses 1 to 6, but his listeners did not understand him. In this early portion of the passage, Jesus declares that his sheep know his voice. Who are these sheep? Well, we know who the sheep are not: the Pharisees and religious leaders. To identify the sheep, we should pay attention to how Jesus defines them: Whoever belongs to God hear what God says. Plausibly, the sheep were members of the Jewish community at the time who truly sought God and communed with him as he desires. This would include people like Simeon, “who was righteous and devout” (Luke 2:25). It would also include most of the Apostles who came to believe following an encounter of God in Jesus through his marvelous works. When Jesus says he has other sheep that are not of the same pen, he probably was referring to the proselytes who were still somewhat religiously second-class people. This would include people like Cornelius (Acts 10) who was already a devout believer in Yahweh before encountering Peter. We should stress that these sheep were all God’s people under the old covenant.

Now, nothing in the passage requires us to conclude that the then non-sheep were irreversibly separated from God. In fact, there are straightforward examples that suggest that non-sheep or goats can become sheep. For instance, at the time that Jesus gave this speech, Pharisees like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Saul of Tarsus were all members of the Goat Club. But we know that these men eventually came to believe in Jesus; Saul who became Paul eventually proudly died gruesomely for the name of Jesus. So, “sheep” does not mean “fixed; immutable; or eternally determined.” Besides, we even see Jesus appealing to his listeners in John 10:37, 38 in this way:

“Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”

Jesus assumes that his listeners can do something with what they are hearing. Specifically, they could, at least, want to believe. In summary, therefore, John 10:26 is not a statement of determinism. When Jesus says, “you do not believe because you are not my sheep,” he is not teaching that being a sheep is a requirement for believing and salvation. Instead, he tells the Pharisees that they are no sheep of God at all–contrary to what they and many people thought. Jesus calls out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who “study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39). They were guilty of bibliolatry having made the scriptures an end in themselves and severed the author of the scriptures from his text. Notice how Jesus says yet you refuse to come to me, suggesting that the Pharisees literally had the capacity so to do, if they wanted to. And as already discussed, some of their members eventually believed.

Jesus also plainly says the following to the Pharisees:

“I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts.I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? “But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (John 5:42-45, Emphasis added.)

So, we see that Jesus’ evaluation of the Pharisees was that they were goats who wanted to appear like sheep. This was Jesus’ point in John 10. He was not teaching deterministic theology.

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