Sunday 11 August 2019

The Good Shepherd - the centre of the Fourth Gospel

The extended section when Jesus speaks of the Good Shepherd* comes halfway through the Fourth Gospel, and probably constitutes the heart of its teaching.

Here Jesus seems to be telling us the 'mechanism' by which he, personally, is offering us life everlasting; here he tells us by a long metaphor-parable just how-it-works.

It is about the Good Shepherd (and no other) saving his sheep from being killed; and we know from the rest of the Gospel that this means saving Man from death, by enabling resurrected life eternal in Heaven. The Good Shepherd leads his sheep through death to Heaven.

We hear about the two-sidedness of salvation: 'I know my sheep and are known of mine'. The Good Shepherd seeks us out, and we each recognise him.

On the one hand, fake shepherds (the hireling) cannot save. On the other hand, those who do not 'know' (believe-in, love, trust, have-faith-in) Jesus will not be saved.

What is led? The soul, after death. But why does it need to be led - why can't it find its own way to salvation? Because after death the soul becomes 'helpless', lacks agency - like a young child, a ghost, a sheep.

If unable to help itself, how then can the soul follow Jesus? Because - like a young child, or sheep - the dead soul still can recognise and love; and 'follow'.

Where does this happen? In the 'underworld'. Without Jesus, the disembodied, ghostly, demented dead souls wander like lost sheep - as described in pre-Christian accounts such as Hades of the Greeks, or Sheol of the Ancient Hebrews.  

But how does Jesus save the dead souls? Everybody has known Jesus as spirits in the premortal world, so everybody can recognise him in the underworld; but only those who love Jesus will want to follow him.

So loving dead souls are the sheep that can recognise Jesus: the Good Shepherd, they can follow Jesus, and Jesus can lead them to Resurrected Life Everlasting. 

Note: Souls that do not love Jesus will recognise him, but will not want to follow him. There are significant nuances to this, relating to love of 'neighbour' and the desires of individual souls; but that is the basic model. 

Further note: This seems to be very hard for moderns to grasp; they seem to think that Jesus ought-to save people even when they don't want it - should compel people to Heaven because that is what is good for them - and if Jesus does not do this, then he is wicked. 

But this attitude is totalitarian - based on the secular ideology of utilitarianism so beloved by the modern Establishment - who like to believe that (being wiser, cleverer and more virtuous people than the masses) they are 'managing' the world, 'for their own good'. 

But Christianity is based around the creative freedom and agency of each individual person. This means that nobody can be saved against their will; each individual can, if he wills, defy the wishes of God. Whether you regard this a a good thing (I do) it is a fact of post-mortal life - Heaven must be chosen. 

*John.10 [1] Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. [2] But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. [3] To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. [4] And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. [5] And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers. [6] This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them. [7] Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. [8] All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. [9] I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. [10] The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. [11] I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. [12] But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. [13] The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. [14] I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. [15] As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. [16] And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. [17] Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. [18] No man taketh 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 commandment have I received of my Father. [19] There was a division therefore again among the Jews for these sayings. [20] And many of them said, He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him? [21] Others said, These are not the words of him that hath a devil. Can a devil open the eyes of the blind? [22] And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. [23] And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon's porch. [24] Then came the Jews round about him, and said unto him, How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly. [25] Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness of me. [26] But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. [27] My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: [28] And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

This is a very compelling reading of this chapter and makes a lot of things click into place.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - Thanks. Almost every time I feel an urge to pick up and read the Fourth Gospel, I find more depth and detail in it.

Francis Berger said...

This is an excellent post, Bruce. The point you make about moderns misunderstanding Jesus saving people who do not want it is a common one. I have encountered it many times myself. It is good that you have drawn attention to this crucial point.

Bruce Charlton said...


"I have encountered it many times myself."

Even stranger, I get the impression that those who make this criticism (i.e. that not everyone is saved, and that therefore God is not Good) include those who would not themselves want Heaven, even if they could know for sure that it was a real possibility.

Lucinda said...

I've come to a better understanding of what you call original participation versus final participation. Originally, our beliefs happen to us, a mix of what our parents believe and what we pick up from the larger society. Then we realize that the beliefs may be wrong. But how do you go about choosing what to believe without being delusional?

This is where Christ comes in. He tells us we must be discerning, we must be able to tell the difference between Him and the hireling who cannot save, and we must "believe in" Him.

Every other path has something to do with totalitarianism, captivity, reversion to unchosen belief. Meanwhile, the Christian life is LIFE, continual choosing based on intuition routed in desire, continual repentance, reassessment of how to move forward based on what has happened so far in time, zig-zags. And we continue to need the "saving grace" of Jesus to keep our believing free and living, conscious as you say.

I'd say part of the purpose for a shepherd-sheep parable is to reassure us that the path of freedom is safe. We tend to associate freedom with death because of the mortal condition. The choice to believe that death is not the end opens the way to more abundant life, i.e. freedom. I love the wording in Hebrews. "And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage."

Still, I have sympathy for those whose rejection of life and freedom is a childish affinity for problems to be already solved, or solved by someone else with more genius. My own ability to continue to do my best in family relationships despite inevitable failings is because I know it is Heavenly Father's plan to offer healing and freedom to His children. In a way I guess I wish life weren't so necessarily experimental. But I also see that so much of the joy of relationships comes through learning together through trial, error, and repentance.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Lucinda - Yes, that's what I mean.

" I have sympathy for those whose rejection of life and freedom is a childish affinity for problems to be already solved, "

I agree, and I think provision is made for such people. Because we all started out different (from eternity) presumably not everybody can achieve full divinity. I suppose that the specifics of each person's incarnation takes this into account - what era, place, family, the nature of their body etc.

Also, most people who have been incarnated died in the womb or around birth; I would assume that most of these did not need the kind of trial, error repentance experience of a fuller lifespan.