The text below comes from a research project I did on the Good Shepherd while in seminary. It combines both patristic commentary and modern scholarship to examine John 10. It’s lengthy compared to most of what I post here, but I thought it may be edifying for those who want to dive deeply into the passage.
Introduction & Purpose
Scholars and patristic authors agree that what is now the tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel is a continuation of the conversation between Christ and the Pharisees regarding the blind man whom He healed. With that being the case, the chapter break could have occurred several verses earlier. The organization of church lectionaries and ancient commentaries also affirms a different chapter break. Additionally, chapter ten opens with the words, “Verily, verily I say unto you,” which Christ used in reply to someone or to deepen the truth of an idea already presented earlier. In other words, the phrase indicates we have dropped into the middle of a conversation and not the beginning of it.
Both the overall patristic consensus and textual context indicates that the Good Shepherd “proverb” was told by our Lord as a rebuke against the Pharisees for their poor leadership. Their wickedness is most obvious when they ridicule and ostracize a man who was born blind but healed by Jesus. They refuse to glorify God and acknowledge the goodness of Christ. They were jealous that people flocked to Jesus instead of to them. Christ tells this parable to explain why the people recognize the voice of their loving, gentle Shepherd.
Much of the patristic commentary focuses on the wickedness of the Pharisees, and that is undoubtedly what the textual context points to as well. However, because we no longer have literal Pharisees dominating the religious scene or trying to convert Christians to Judaism, I have chosen to filter out most of the commentary that disparages the Jews and Pharisees. Instead, I sought out teachings that are relevant for today’s Christians while touching on sociological, historical, and linguistic information that helps to bring the passage to life. Therefore, this is not an exhaustive examination of the Good Shepherd, but rather a review of key concepts that are applicable for today’s Christians.
There are numerous allusions to the Old Testament in this passage. One of the most obvious is Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd…” Additionally, Psalm 118:20 refers to the “gate of the Lord” and Ezekiel 34 sharply rebukes the selfish shepherds of Israel who are mistreating the flock. For brevity’s sake, most allusions to the OT will not be addressed.
Commentary on the Text
Sheep and Shepherds, Doors and Doorkeepers
During the day, shepherds watched their sheep as the flocks grazed over large areas of land. At evening, the sheep would be gathered and placed in sheepfolds. These pens had stone walls and one gate, with the walls high enough to keep out animals and most intruders. Gatekeepers were assigned in the evening so that the shepherds could rest. These are the hirelings that the Lord speaks of, who, when threat of violence arose, were much more likely to abandon the flock (v. 12-13). The man who entered the sheepfold by any method other than the door clearly meant harm. He was either a thief or a robber (vv. 1 & 8). The good doorkeeper that Christ mentions (v. 3) is interpreted in multiple Fathers as Moses, who predicted the coming of Christ and opened the door of Christ’s listener’s hearts. Blessed Theophylact interprets the doorkeeper (porter) as both Moses and the Holy Spirit. He writes, “The porter also represents the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, Who likewise opens the doors of Scripture to reveal Christ our Shepherd.”
St. Cyril of Alexandria, by contrast, views the doorkeeper as either the Lord or an angel that the Lord appoints over every church, “The gatekeeper opens, that is, either the angel appointed to preside over the churches and to assist the priests for the benefit of the people, or the Savior himself, who is himself both the gate and the Lord of the gate.” While the gatekeeper can admittedly be interpreted in multiple ways, St. Cyril believed the context of the passage shows that this allegory was aimed at spiritual leaders, and that such leadership comes exclusively from God. He writes, “[Jesus] is again clarifying that we come to a position of rule and leadership over the rational flocks through him, in accordance with Paul’s statement, ‘No one takes this honor on himself, but he is called by God.’” No prophet and no apostle was ever self-appointed. We could apply this to today’s situation with Christianity. The Orthodox Church ordains men to the ministry. No man appoints himself to any office in the Church, great or small. Contrarily, Protestant ministers can be self-appointed, and in some Charismatic circles, self-appointment that circumvents established rules may even be viewed as a positive thing.
St. John Chrysostom interprets the gate or door as the Scriptures. Those who teach the Scriptures to the flock are shepherds, whereas heretics will utilize other methods. He writes:
For Scripture, like some sure door, bars the passage against the heretics, placing us in a state of safety as to all that we desire, and not allowing us to wander; and if we undo it not, we shall not easily be conquered by our foes. By it we can know all, both those who are, and those who are not, shepherds.
A little later, our Lord will state that He is the Door Himself (v. 7). While this may seem contradictory (how can our Lord be both the Shepherd and the Door?), St. Chrysostom explains it thus: “When He brings us to the Father, He calls Himself a Door, when He takes care of us, a Shepherd.” In this way, the symbols within this parable have multiple meanings. Because Scripture is profound and divinely inspired, it is common for there to be multiple layers of meaning in many of its passages. While there are incorrect interpretations, there is often no single correct way to interpret scriptural allegories.
Thieves and Robbers
All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them (10:8).
As mentioned above, thieves and robbers climb into the sheepfold by illicit means. These can be interpreted in multiple ways. As mentioned above, St. John Chrysostom states that it is the heretics who do not enter by way of the Scriptures. St. Cyril of Alexandria applies this to those who enter the clerical office unfitly: “But whoever thinks they can take by force and violence the honor [of leadership] that is not given to them, he calls a thief and a bandit.” As mentioned above, one of the main themes from St. Cyril’s commentary is that some men are called by God to lead His flock and other men appoint themselves. Those who lead in the Church with impure motives, such as the desire for fame, influence, or power, are thieves and robbers. The shepherds of God should be modeled after the chief Shepherd, Christ, who laid down His life for the flock in complete obedience to His Father. Those who are called to the pastoral ministry should also be motivated by love and obedience. In this way, those who are called bring healing, hope, and love to the flock like the chief Shepherd whom they model.
Our Lord said, “All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers,” yet this should not be taken literally. The prophets and patriarchs were not thieves and robbers. Instead, it refers to false prophets and false messiahs. St. Cyril writes,
Therefore, the statement is not directed against the chorus of the holy prophets but rather against those who at any time pretended to be prophets throughout Judea and who deceitfully claimed to come from God, persuading the people to obey not the true prophets of God but rather to adhere to the machinations and teachings devised by them.
Likewise, the divine Chrysostom writes,
He does not speak here of the Prophets (as the heretics assert), for all who believed in Christ listened to [the prophets] also and were persuaded by them. Rather, [He speaks] of Theudas and Judas, and the other exciters of sedition.
Our Lord sent the true prophets and is not here rejecting the Old Testament, unlike what the Manichees and Marcions claimed. Blessed Theophylact points out that our Lord refers to those who came, but the prophets were sent by God. He continues, “God Himself affirms, ‘I sent not them, yet they ran (Jer. 23:21).’”
The Lord’s sheep must refuse to listen to those whom God has not sent, those who are self-appointed prophets, leaders, and teachers of the faith. There are many such people in the world today. Some of them seek out the zealous sheep, presenting an Orthodoxy that is supposedly more pure or more correct than what is being practiced in the mainstream churches. It can perhaps be called a spirit of schism that has been a temptation for many in the Church since the early centuries. Great teachers of the past, such as Tertullian, cast their lots with the schismatics and fell from the mainstream Church.
Today, the same temptation of schism, which comes from pride, has influenced leaders in the Orthodox Church to teach disobedience to the hierarchy. These teachers often imagine themselves as the next St. Maximus or St. Mark of Ephesus, the lone voice of truth fighting against the world. Their charismatic persona, unfortunately, attracts the attention and admiration of the zealous faithful. American Orthodox converts seem to be particularly prone to falling for these false teachers. One popular self-appointed teacher has nearly 100,000 followers on YouTube. Another false teacher – who teaches disobedience to bishops and obedience to his own message – has over 20,000 followers.
What makes these men so popular? Our culture loves an underdog – a man who is willing to singlehandedly fight against the corrupt establishment. The independent, revolutionary spirit of Western man enjoys rebelling against authority, assuming authority corrupts absolutely. We know little about humility and obedience, often believing that those virtues may apply to others but not to us in our given circumstances. In summary, we’re thoroughly Protestant in our thinking. We criticize and reject the Church hierarchy because they challenge our ability to be spiritually self-ruling.
Also, many people come to the Orthodox Church looking for Christianity in its purest form. They are attracted to leaders who claim to be protecting Orthodoxy from worldly influence. In my opinion, converting to Orthodoxy only because a man believes it’s the purest form of Christianity is a good starting place. But it’s not a good end. We should always be motivated by a desire to draw closer to Christ. Anything less than that falls short, it misses the mark, which is the definition of sin. While truth seekers have my respect and admiration, we must not treat Orthodoxy as a philosophy. It’s the institution of God’s grace that brings us into the presence of the living God. Any motive aside from wanting to deepen our walk with God is falling short of the Church’s mission. Those who join for philosophical reasons often fall for personalities that can make better arguments than a parish priest. With the Wild West of the internet at our fingertips, there are innumerable schismatics vying for our attention. In response, the words of St. Vincent of Lerins come to mind,
Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense ‘Catholic,’ which as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally.
The lesson from St. Vincent is: Stick with the mainstream Orthodox Church that has been around for nearly 2,000 years. Don’t fall for the schismatics on the fringes. After all, many of the worst schismatics in history were pulling people away from mainstream Christianity because it wasn’t “pure” enough.
Judas of Galilee & Theudas
The last point for this section on thieves and robbers regards a common theme in patristic texts. Most of the ancient commentaries that I found on the Good Shepherd mention Judas of Galilee and Theudas as examples of “thieves and robbers.” These two men were referenced in Acts 5:36-37. They were would-be political messiahs, seditionists, who made attempts to overthrow Roman rule of Judea. Their attempts failed and their followers were killed. Unlike the Good Shepherd who protects His sheep, these false messiahs (anti- christs) exposed their sheep to danger. While many martyrs have, of course, died for Christ, He will resurrect them and grant them new life. However, Judas and Theudas are powerless to restore their followers back to life.
Judas of Galilee was likely a contemporary of our Lord Jesus and from the same region. While he was zealous for God and His laws, he was too occupied with politics to notice that the Lawgiver and Savior of the world was in his region. When we become consumed with anything worldly, but especially politics, we too can easily miss the Savior. Politics has a way of consuming our entire outlook on life. Every election cycle, each side tries to convince us that the other side will undoubtedly destroy our country and perhaps the world. We, like sheep, are told to obey and vote for Red or Blue so that we are protected from the wolf on the other side. A clergy friend once told me that he read a survey that revealed how couples who have religious differences are more likely to stay together than if they have political differences. While I have been unable to find the survey my friend was referencing, it is believable. The reason for the success or failure of these couples is faith – misdirected. Essentially, we tolerate religious differences in loved ones because we believe it matters less. However, political differences can easily anger us because we believe political action actually makes a difference. In short, we have more faith in a politician changing the course of history than we do in God.
While we can certainly vote and rally for things that align with the teachings of the Church, we must be careful that we do not allow politics to consume our outlook on life. God’s divine plan will succeed no matter how ungodly our rulers are. The Alpha and Omega began history, and He will end it as He sees fit. We must trust in Him and place our efforts in drawing closer to the Judge of history.
Life More Abundantly
The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly (10:10).
As indicated above, the thieves and robbers, while capable of gathering a following, are incapable of bestowing life on anyone. Their influence kills, our Lord gives life. St. John Chrysostom expresses this abundant life as, “The kingdom of heaven.” St. Cyril of Alexandria teaches that all humanity will be resurrected and given life at the Second Coming, but not all will have abundant life. He explains “there will be a significant distinction” in the quality of life between those “who have gone to rest with faith in Christ” and “those who do not believe in the Son.” The latter “will share with others only the return to life, and they will pay a penalty for such deep unbelief.” 
Raymond Brown points out that Jesus refers to Himself as “the water of life, the bread of life, and the gate of life.” The word for life used here is zoe, which can refer to ordinary earthly life, but also carries much deeper implications. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, it can be used emphatically to refer to “the absolute fullness of life, both essential and ethical, which belongs to God,” as well as “a life active and vigorous, devoted to God, blessed, the portion even in this world of those who put their trust in Christ, but after the resurrection…to last forever.”
Such life contrasts with the death and destruction from the thieves and wolf. The devil is the ultimate thief and works through those who disobey God. He steals us away by diverting our focus from Christ to false teachers or to the world. In that way, he kills us spiritually, as he killed Adam and Eve. That is why our Lord speaks of him saying, “He was a murderer from the beginning” (Jn. 8:44). Those who ignore the Good Shepherd’s voice and heed that of the noetic wolf will find not only physical death, but destruction in the end. Blessed Theophylact writes that the “noetic wolf” acts through our thoughts. He continues, “When an evil thought assails a man, his soul has been stolen; when he gives his assent to it, he has been slain; when he commits the evil deed, he has been destroyed.” However, our “Lord does just the opposite,” Theophylact explains:
He gives us divine life; He illumines our minds with good thoughts; He sanctifies our bodies with good deeds. And He bestows something more: the power to benefit others by the grace of teaching, and as the reward for so doing – the kingdom of heaven.
Usage in the Liturgical Cycle
This life-giving Good Shepherd is the model for all shepherds whom He entrusts over His flock. Chapter 10:9-16 is read on feast days commemorating a holy hierarch. The passage outlines several ways in which our Lord Jesus differs from the self-appointed teachers who use the flock for their own pride and gain. The loving characteristics described of the Good Shepherd should also be found to some degree in a good bishop or presbyter. A good shepherd selflessly serves his sheep and will even lay down his life for them (v. 11). However, a hireling is a clergyman who flees when persecution and hardship attack the Church. He has no love for the flock and serves only to better himself (vv. 12-13). The good shepherd will know his sheep and is known by them (v. 14). Concerned for the lost sheep and those who have lapsed, good shepherds will seek sheep outside of the four walls of the Church, and show great concern for bringing the Gospel to others (v. 16). Such a reading serves as a gentle reminder to all clergymen of the Church regarding their sacred duties and the example of Christ that has been provided.
The Voice of the Shepherd
One of the most important duties of earthly shepherds (bishops and presbyters) is to direct people to Christ. This is done by teaching the people how to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd. Our Lord affirmed, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (10:27). Through active faith, prayer, diligent reading of the Scriptures, reception of the sacraments, attendance in the services, and practicing the virtues, we are transformed into heavenly creatures who instinctively recognize our Shepherd’s voice. In this way, our Shepherd knows us, and we know Him. There are innumerable voices clamoring for our attention, but through practicing the presence of God, we can learn to recognize our Shepherd’s voice. When we do so, our Lord says about us, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand” (10:28). We are adopted into the family of God, as St. Cyril wrote,
Those who hear him are known by God. And ‘being known’ means being brought into a family relationship, since no one at all is unknown to God. Therefore, when he says, ‘I know my own,’ he means this: ‘I will mystically and permanently receive them and make them family members.’
Being part of God’s family enables us to “come in and go out, and find pasture” (10:9). One source notes that the Greek phrase used here, eiserchomai kai exerchomai, was an “idiom for living or conducting oneself in relationship to some community…it may well be that Jesus’ words here look forward to the new covenant community of believers.”
Brown, Raymond, The Gospel and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1988).
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, Editor Alfred Plummer, (Cambridge University Press, 1884). Accessed online at biblehub.com in March and April of 2021.
Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, Vol. 2, Ancient Christian Texts Series, Translated by David Maxwell, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic Press, 2015).
Expositor’s Greek Testament, Editor Sir William Robertson Nicoll, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1897). Accessed on biblehub.com.
John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, NPNF, Series 1, Vol. 14.
Meyer, Heinrich August Wilhelm, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Gospel of John, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1881).
NET Bible, Full Notes Edition, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019).
Nonnus of Nisibis, Commentary on the Gospel of John: Translation of the Armenian Text, Translated by Robert Thomson, (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2014).
Theophylact, The Explanation of the Gospel of John, Translated by Fr. Christopher Stade, (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom Press, 2007).
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, Electronic Database, Biblesoft, Inc., 2011. Accessed on biblehub.com, 4/3/2021.
Vincent of Lerins, The Commonitory, NPNF, Series 2, Vol. 11.
Word Biblical Commentary: Vol. 36, John, Editor George R. Beasley-Murray, (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987).
 Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, John 10:1-0; Meyer’s NT Commentary, John 10:1,
 Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, John 10:1-0.
 The actual Greek is “paroimian” which can mean proverb or figure of speech. As St. Cyril states, “he used the term proverb (paroimian) because that is what he calls a parable (parabole)” (Commentary on John, Vol. 2, 57).
 Meyer’s NT Commentary, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/meyer/john/10.htm, accessed 3/29/2021.
 Expositor’s Greek Testament, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/egt/john/10.htm, 10:1, accessed 3/29/2021 and Word Biblical Commentary, 169. Also, Raymond Brown, The Gospel and Epistles of John, 59.
 Expositor’s Greek Testament, 10:1, op. cit.
 John Chrysostom, 212; Nonnus of Nisibis, 216; Theophylact, 164.
 Theophylact, 164.
 Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, Vol. 2, 56.
 Cyril of Alexandria, 57.
 John Chrysostom, 211.
 John Chrysostom, 212.
 Cyril of Alexandria, 56.
 Cyril of Alexandria, 58.
 John Chrysostom, Homily 59.3. English modernized.
 Blessed Theophylact, 165-166.
 Ibid., 166, italics in the original text.
 Vincent of Lerins, The Commonitory, NPNF Second Series, Vol. 11, Chapter 2.6, p. 131
 John Chrysostom, Homilies on John, 59.2; Theophylact, Explanation of John, p. 166; Nonnus of Nisibis, Commentary on John from the Armenian Text, p. 218; etc. Cf. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.97.
 John Chrysostom, Homily 59.3.
 Cyril of Alexandria, 61.
 Brown, Raymond, The Gospel and Epistles of John, 59.
 Theophylact, 167.
 Cyril of Alexandria, 76.
 NET Bible, Full Notes Edition, 2029.