The Fourth Gospel is rich with intertwining spiritual and theological themes, one of which is that of knowing, perceiving, understanding and recognizing. John the Baptist told the crowds that there was one among them “whom you do not recognize” (Jn 1:26). Jesus told the Samaritan woman that she worshipped what she did not understand, in contrast to the Jews (Jn 4:22). Peter, after the controversy over Jesus’ bread of life discourse, told his Master, “we have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:69).
John 10, in which Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd and explains his work as such, is filled with this emphasis on recognizing the voice of the shepherd and knowing him. The good shepherd “walks ahead of them” — that is, his sheep — “and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice” (Jn 10:4). And: “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father … ” (Jn 10:14-15). This intimacy between the Son and the Father is another key theme in the Gospel of John.
The Son speaks to man, first by becoming man himself, then through his teachings, and then through his act of sacrificial love on the Cross. “Thanks to the Incarnation,” writes Father Paul-Marie de la Croix in “The Biblical Spirituality of St. John” (Alba House, 1966), “man can know God in him who has conducted himself as man, in him whom he sees in everything like himself except sin, and so close to himself that he is his own flesh and blood.” This intimacy, Father de la Croix emphasizes, is especially poignant in John 10 in the metaphor of the sheep and the good shepherd who lays down his life for his flock.
It is always God who initiates the work of salvation, as man is unable to save himself. The shepherd speaks, and the sheep follow him. He gives them eternal life, and they can rest in it if they continue to follow him. “The mark of Christ’s sheep,” wrote St. Cyril of Jerusalem, “is their willingness to hear and obey … We take the word hear to imply obedience to what has been said. People who hear God are known by him. No one is entirely unknown by God, but to be known in this way is to become part of his family.” This means, Cyril adds, that Jesus grants us a “permanent mystical relationship” with himself, made possible through his incarnation.
That relationship begins with baptism, alluded to in St. John’s Apocalypse through the vision of the saints “wearing white robes,” having been made white by being washed “in the blood of the Lamb.” The white robes symbolize the purity and endurance of the holy ones, the saints. And the Lamb, who is in the center of heaven’s throne, “will shepherd them” and lead them to life-giving water.
The saints are the New Israel, the Church, who have gone through the New Exodus, liberated from the land of sin and the rule of death. As Jesus stated, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish” (Jn 10:28).
In the Gospels, Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom, and his words were met with both joyful faith and angry rejection. In the Acts of the Apostles, the same work continues, but with the apostles proclaiming the Gospel. Their words are met with joy and delight, as well as with jealousy and anger. The drama of the sheep and the goats continues until the end of time, when the righteous shepherd will separate them for all of eternity.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of the Catholic World Report.