Sunday, March 21, 2010

Christ the Gate; Christ the Shepherd

Is it possible to take a belief too far? Every denomination, every church, and even every individual believer has their own beliefs about certain subjects. Most are based on some kind of sound biblical doctrine or teaching, or at the very least are supported by sound or tolerable exegesis. Is it possible, however, to take a belief too far, and go beyond what the text really means? We can certainly see that with various heresies that are out there, but I discovered one surprising example when I came across an article by Tim Staples. It attempted to find scriptural passages to confirm the supremacy of Peter, and it was here that I discovered this particular section, which simply shocked me:
5. John 10:16

Jesus prophesied: "And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd." Who is this prophetic shepherd? The answer seems simple. And on one level it is. Jesus declared himself to be "the good shepherd" (Gk. poimein, "shepherd" or "pastor") in John 10:14. Jesus is the Shepherd. Yet, if we dig deeper into the text we discover another meaning as well. In the context of prophesying about this "one flock" and "one shepherd," Jesus says he must gather "other sheep," referring to the Gentiles. Who does our Lord use as the shepherd to bring this prophecy to pass? The answer is found in two texts, which we’ll look at next. [source]
My jaw nearly dropped to the floor when I first read this. Was Staples sincerely suggesting that when Christ spoke of the shepherd, He meant someone other than Himself? I read it two or three times to make sure I hadn't misread it. Although he does profess that Christ is the good shepherd, he suggests it could be read another way. This is often a common strategy of Muslims, Mormons, and other heresies to try and fit their founders or prophets into biblical text when, in reality, they are merely distorting the original context.

In fairness to Staples, here is the prime "additional text" he was referring to, so that I can present the full gist of his argumentation:
6. John 21:1-17

...In this context Jesus then asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?" When Peter responds in the affirmative the second time, Jesus responds by commanding Peter to "tend (Gk. poimaine, "shepherd") my sheep" (v. 16). Jesus the Shepherd here commissions Peter to be the prophetic shepherd of John 10:16 to shepherd the entire people of God. [ibid]
Can we really consider Peter the shepherd of John 10:16? Let's look at the full context of what Christ is speaking about in John 10:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them.

Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. 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. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd. Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.” [John 10:1-18]
Christ identifies Himself with two titles: the Gate of the Sheep, and the Shepherd of the Sheep. We'll deal with the former first.

Christ is the Gate for the Sheep; He is where the sheep enter to find salvation. Christ states: "If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture" (10:9), for "through Him we both have access by one spirit to the Father" (Eph 2:18), and "no one comes to the Father" except through Christ (John 14:6). It is only through this door that the sheep enter and leave, and it is only through this way that the Shepherd comes, for any who "climbs up some other way" is "a thief and a robber" (10:1).

Yet an interesting connection is made between the gate and shepherd, for Christ states "he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep" (10:2). Our Lord therefore identifies Himself both as the means of salvation, and the cause of salvation. In this manner, and more importantly, Christ is also the Shepherd of the Sheep. He is not a hired hand, who "sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees" (10:12), for as the good shepherd he "gives His life for the sheep" (10:11). This refers to the crucifixion, for Christ states, "As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep" (10:15), for the crucifixion is the will of God, and the authority to carry through the crucifixion has been granted by the Father (10:18).

Neither is Christ "a thief and a robber" (10:1) who comes only "to steal, and to kill, and to destroy" (10:10). Christ is the shepherd whom the sheep know and follow (10:14), and if they encounter any one different they recognize it is a stranger and flee (10:5). As for "the other sheep" which must be brought into the fold, Christ states plainly: "And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd" (10:16). Note the specific nature of this statement: "other sheep I have...them also I must bring...they will hear My voice." Later on, Christ will tell the disbelieving Jews, "My sheep hear My voice, and 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" (10:27-28). Therefore, the context of the shepherd is speaking of a direct relation between Christ and the sheep - not the sheep and anyone else.

Now, let's ask certain questions about Peter...
  • Is Peter the gate through which the sheep enter to find salvation? 
  • Does Peter have the power to lay down his life and take it back up again? 
  • Will it be his voice that Christians hear to find salvation? 
  • Will it be he who gives that salvific sacrifice for all the sheep, as commanded by the Father? 
  • Can Peter grant the sheep eternal life so that they will never perish? 
Most of all, can we really apply the statement, "And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd," to Peter, let alone the Roman pope? We have already established that this statement refers to a direct relation between Christ and His sheep (meaning believers), therefore how could it possibly apply to anyone else? Staples and many others attempt to take the idea of "one flock and one shepherd" and include someone else as the shepherd, but that is far from the context of which Christ speaks in John 10.

Staples asks, "Who does our Lord use as the shepherd to bring this prophecy to pass?" The answer is clearly there in the text: God uses the Lord as the shepherd. Again, Staples admits this, but he then twists the meaning to suggest there is another shepherd. That is eisegesis. The traits given to the shepherd (as well as the parallel title of "the gate") cannot apply to the pope, unless we expect to place the pope on equal with Christ.

I would like to, on the same note, briefly address the argumentation that Staples provides in an effort to connect John 10 with the redemption of Peter in John 21. I would concede that there are other uses of the word "shepherd," however what are they in relation to Christ? Peter himself answered that for us in his first epistle:
The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. [1 Peter 5:1-4]
Peter speaks not as a high-ranking shepherd, but as a "fellow elder" (5:1), asking that the teachers in the church should "shepherd the flock of God" (5:2), not caring about wealth or fame because their "crown of glory" will come with the return of the "Chief Shepherd" (5:2-4). Christ is the Chief Shepherd, that which is described in John 10. The lesser shepherds - being those in the ministry - submit to Him, and tend to His flock granted to them. They are His flock and His flock alone, for the entire group of believers have been called "the flock of God." Therefore when Christ asks Peter to feed His sheep (John 21:16), He is not at all assigning Peter as Chief Shepherd nor is He associating Peter with the Shepherd of John 10, but merely granting Peter the ability to be a shepherd of God's flock in service to the Chief Shepherd.

To attempt to state such an argument as the one made by Tim Staples is a destructive road to follow, as it leads to heresy and the degradation of Christ's status within scripture. The Good Shepherd and Gate of the Sheep is Christ and Christ alone, for the traits associated with this shepherd cannot be associated with Peter. The apostle was most definitely a shepherd, yes, but he is not the Shepherd, who lays His life down for the sheep to carry out the will of the Father and bring the sheep eternal life. To suggest he is (even unintentionally) is an exegetical error...and a very dangerous one at that.