The Bible is loaded with the metaphorical use of language through, for instance, the use of analogies, figures of speech and hyperbole. The biblical writers understood the power of rhetoric and the creative use of words. In both ancient times and in the present, the effective use of language can grab attention and make a point with the power of poetic persuasiveness.
Today’s message from John 10:1-10 is a case in point, where the writer compares Jesus to a gate through which shepherds and sheep enter. Jesus is not a literal gate, but the suggestion is that Jesus functions as the portal or entrance through which people must pass if they want salvation. One of the issues in John’s writing is his comparison of diverse religious leaders and followers to a flock of sheep. The mention of sheep and shepherds complicates the issue for many in today’s audience. The reason is that references to a nomadic lifestyle have lost some relevance to a modern audience, especially among a primarily urban population who do not regularly interact with sheep, shepherds or a pastoral lifestyle.
John instructs his readers to enter the sheepfold (heaven) by the gate (Jesus). He warns that anyone who tries to find another way other than through Jesus will be treated as a “thief and a bandit” (John 10: 1). All of this implies that Jesus is the sole way through which people gain salvation. John then speaks of the shepherd, suggesting that the gatekeeper (God the Father himself?) opens the gate to the legitimate shepherd. The analogy is completed as John refers to the sheep (anyone called by God). In this way, the sheep hear and respond to the shepherd’s voice.
Jesus clarifies and cuts-through the metaphorical use of language when he flatly states that he is the gate where the sheep pass (John 10:7). Remarkably, Jesus then dismisses all other spiritual and religious leaders by saying that “[a]ll who came before me are thieves and bandits” (John 10:8). Wow! That’s a provocative statement which arouses all sorts of responses. The implications and ramifications of Jesus language are significant, especially when we read that only those who enter by Jesus will be saved (John 10:9).
John’s verses remain highly controversial. How and when should we take John literally and was Jesus quoted correctly? Are the Bible’s words simply an interpretation of the person who wrote them and if so how can we always, absolutely tell the difference? It is not comfortable to open such troubling issues but they are forever there and how a person deals with such issues may dramatically impact spiritual vitality. Rather than coerce people or force-feed only one perspective, it might be more productive to invite people to sample each as a way of producing new insights that otherwise would be missed by only allowing one narrow interpretation.
In the midst of all the heated controversy there is a consoling verse that provides relief while the debate rages over what Jesus really said and meant. Jesus says that “I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). What comprises an abundant Christian life? This is worth figuring-out because most people can benefit from a life of wellbeing, one which is holistic in that all areas of life (e.g., spirit, body, mind and emotions) come together.
As you may have guessed, even abundance is something Christians argue about. Some suggest that abundance refers exclusively to inner peace and joy while others claim that an abundant life can include worldly prosperity. Can both types of abundance exist together? Rather than choose just one type of abundance over the other, we can celebrate both. In other words, the diverse benefits of loving God are not mutually exclusive. Often, the same attitude and behavior which provides, say, inner vitality also produces other types of blessings in the world. This means that an abundant life can also be a life full of depth, in all areas of existence. Claim the presence of God and in so doing you can live a comprehensively triumphant life.