‘I AM’ the Gate

Of the ‘I am’ statements made by Jesus, the two-fold statement, “I am the gate for the sheep” and “I am the gate,” is by far the least known about, talked about, and understood among laypeople.[1] Yet, as with the other well-known I AM statements, this proclamation is one of power, meaning, and hope and, in the most literal sense of the term, is an alarming epiphany. As Leon Morris points out, “There is something exclusive about the [ gate ].”[2] This assertion, at first look, seems to make the interpretation about the meaning of Jesus’ statement simple: He is the only way in or out. Though such a view is correct, it neglects the statement’s profounder and fuller truth as it relates to the original audience. Jesus is using an analogy and terminology that is not as easily perceived by contemporary western minds as contemporary western minds like to think. There is a deeper, more profound, and insightful reality behind Jesus’ claim than can be understood without connecting Jesus claim, “I am the gate,” to the culture and events surrounding it, its Old Testament roots, its implication of Jesus’ deity, and its contemporary applicability.[3]

The allusiveness of Jesus’ two-fold ‘I am’ claim in John 10:7 and 9 is based in the seemingly inextricable nature of the Scriptural context. This difficulty is set straight by the cultural context. The first acknowledgment that must be made in order to clearly appreciate Jesus’ claim to be the gate is the connection between the shepherd in John 10:1-5 and the gate in John 10:7-9: they are one. F.F. Bruce believes “It will not help to invoke the possibility that the shepherd himself lay across the entrance to the fold, making himself a sort of living door.”[4] Bruce’s reasoning is faulty because Bruce has recognized the connection between the two sections but not the disconnection. Bruce believes that the shepherd in v.1-5 and gate in v.7-9 cannot be synonymous because v.1-5 speaks of a “doorkeeper whose business it was to guard the entrance.”[5] Bruce’s opinion does not take into consideration the cultural context of the audience that realized Jesus was speaking of two different pens.

As is revealed by George Beasley-Murray, the ancient Near Eastern shepherds used two different sheep pens.[6] One sheep pen was a communal pen in the town and had a gatekeeper (v.1-5). The other sheep pen was in the open field for those shepherds who had to spend the night in the field. This pen in the field was without a gate and the shepherd himself had to be the gate (v.7-9). Therefore, when cultural context is applied, the difficult transition from shepherd (v.1-5) to gate (v.7-10) to shepherd (v.11) is clear. Jesus is, even as the gate, the shepherd. Which means Jesus is more than the only way: He is the only protector and provider of the only way.

After realizing the cultural meaning of ‘the gate’, an exposition of the scriptural context must be done to further understand the purpose and power of Jesus’ claim. Kostenberger gives an informative rundown of the scriptural context of Jesus’ claim:

“In the preceding chapter, Jesus’s healing of the blind man led to the man’s excommunication from the local synagogue (9:34). Jesus saw in this provocative act an arrogant assertion of usurped authority that called for further comment.”[7]

In reply to the arrogance of the Pharisees, in v.1-5 Jesus outright calls the Pharisees thieves because they have not gone through Him to get to His sheep. The Pharisees made their own door to Jesus’ sheep. As Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg states, “They claimed that they alone were the proper entrance to the sheepfold. They were the door. If someone was to enter, he must come through them. Jesus says that this is most definitely false.”[8]

When Jesus calls Himself the gate it is to better help the Pharisees and other people listening to understand what Jesus had meant in v.1-5. By further expounding on His shepherd analogy, Jesus is clarifying that those who were opposed to Him are nothing more than thieves. Not only is He the true shepherd, He is the true gate to the pen in the wilderness. The purpose and power of these claims are ardently expounded on by Jesus’ summative and transitional verse, John 10:10. Jesus bluntly reveals the nature of the Pharisees’ excommunicatory work against the man who had been healed in John 9 as thievery. Jesus opened the gate that is Himself in John 9 and let the blind man into life “more abundantly”[9] The Pharisees were nothing more than thieves who sought “to steal and kill and destroy” all life, especially abundant life.[10] Often, the thief in John 10:10 is thought of specifically as Satan. The true enemy in John 10:10, however, is any enemy that tries to replace the shepherd.

Jesus’ juxtaposition of Himself, the gate, with the “worthless shepherd[s]”, the Pharisees whom he considers thieves, actually is an allusion to various Old Testament passages from Zechariah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah.[11] It is likely that the Pharisees would have understood this connection and likely that Jesus used this analogy because the obvious messianic undertones of the prophecies in which God speaks against the pretentiously self-serving shepherds of Israel:

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?… For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them… I will tend them in a good pasture.’”[12]

As above, after citing from Ezekiel, Kostenberger proposes, “Clearly, Jesus placed himself squarely in the context of this messianic portrait.”[13] The cultural context and immediate scriptural context of Jesus’ claim to be the gate clearly align with Ezekiel’s prophecy and Jesus’ harsh words against the Pharisees clearly aligns with Ezekiel’s prophecy. As the gate, the shepherd cannot care for Himself. As the thieves, the Pharisees only care for themselves. Jesus claimed to be the prophesied One by whom all of God’s sheep would find pasture, while the “worthless shepherd[s],” the Pharisees, sought their own foretold interests.[14]

Moreover, there is an even more potent part of Jesus’ gate claim that, in its derivation from the Old Testament, gives the gate claim its overall deeper, more profound, and insightful reality: “I am.”[15] As Morris points out, Jesus’ prepositional use of the phrase from which the ineffable name derived “leads us to think of deity.”[16] And it rightly should, for this is the very purpose of Jesus using ‘I am’. Bruce makes a profound observation as it relates to Jesus’ use of ‘I am’ in John 8:58 that truly helps shape its use in John 10:7 and 9: “And if we suppose that the conversation was carried on in Aramaic or even in Hebrew, then Jesus could have uttered the very words ani hu, as though he were applying them to himself.”[17] It is very likely that Jesus had this conversation in Aramaic or Hebrew and, if so, there would be no mistaking that Jesus was “speaking in the style of deity.”[18]

If, as is proposed above, Jesus’ gate claim is synonymous with and a further explanation of the role of Jesus as the shepherd in v.1-5, a closer look at who the Shepherd of Israel is in the Old Testament will provide clarity and emphasis to the deified nature of Jesus’ use of ‘I am’. The most familiar scripture concerning the ‘I am’ as Shepherd in the Old Testament is Psalm 23. Even though this portion of Scripture is speaking of the ‘I am’ as the Shepherd of an individual and not all Israel, it gives the reader an understanding of who the King of Israel, David, considered to be his Shepherd. As for a Scripture concerning the Shepherd of all Israel, the prophet Zechariah supplies a vividly relevant verse: “The Lord their God will save his people on that day as a shepherd saves his flock.”[19] Though there are numerous examples, these two verses reveal an important fact to be applied to understanding Jesus’ gate claim. The Shepherd and, in the particular context of John 10:7-9, the Gate of all Israel and the individual Israelite according to Old Testament Scripture is ‘I am’. In a sense, Jesus’ claim, “I am the gate,” is a double claim to deity: a double ‘I am’ claim.[20]

After examining the meaning behind Jesus’ gate claim in Jesus’ contemporary culture, it is clear that Jesus was emphasizing the extent to which He, the ‘I am’, is willing to go for His sheep. This claim is meant to be a source of hope for the followers of Jesus that were listening to the disputation. Yet, in order for the modern western Christian to fully appreciate the authority and hopefulness of the claim, the applicability of the claim must be shown to transcend cultural and epochal limitations. Most modern western Christians are not sheep farmers and those that are, do not use themselves as human gates. For this reason, interpreting how to apply such a powerful and hopeful claim in the modern western day to day life can be difficult. Also, comprehending the true power and hope of the claim can be allusive. The question must be asked, “What is the unchanging truth behind the claim?”

The unchanging truth behind Jesus’ gate claim is not found in temporal salvific ends, as Morris seems to develop; it is found in eternal kingdom ends.[21] It is the eternal pasture of “the Shepherd-King” by which the sheep “go in and out and find pasture” (provision and safety), albeit through salvation, that is the real unchanging power and hope of Jesus’ gate claim.[22] The claim is salvific in that to get in the sheepfold one must heed the Shepherd’s call. But, it is more specifically kingdom related because the emphasis is not getting into the pen by the gate. It is that the gate allows the sheep to travel in and out in assured safety. Jesus is ‘the gate’ that blocks the enemy from snatching the sheep from eternal life, whether they are in the pen of the open field or in the open field.

In summary, Jesus’ gate claim transcends culture and time because, although the original setting is seemingly irrelevant and antiquated, the claim itself is about an eternal kingdom with an eternal king that provides eternal peace and safety. Jesus is the gate by which all mankind, through all time, finds peace and safety in a land outside of the present temporal world. The power and hope of this message is what men truly seek. It is this kingdom for which men were made and the future assured hope of this kingdom in Jesus is the power on which Christianity and Christians endure daily. Jesus is the gate into eternal life and the gate in the eternal kingdom that allows the glorified sheep to “go in and out and find pasture.”[23]

Understanding the profound truth behind Jesus’ gate claim by examining its Second Temple Jewish cultural context, the Johannine order of events, its Old Testament roots, its “style of deity,” and its contemporary applicability aids the reader of John, specifically the Christian, in interpreting the claim and realizing that the claim means more than “He is the only way in or out.” [24] Jesus’ gate claim is multifaceted in intent and meaning. Jesus’ gate claim was given to apply the contrast of v.1-5 between the shepherd and the thief to Himself and the Pharisees in v.7-9 in order to reveal the Pharisees’ thievery. Yet, Jesus’ gate claim is also intended as a source of eternal hope for His sheep. Furthermore, as Leon Morris points out, “There is something exclusive about the [gate].”[25] Jesus’ claim, “I am the gate,” reasons that Jesus is the exclusive way by which the sheep may enter His fold in this life and the exclusively true protector of His sheepfold in this life and the next. This ‘I am’ statement of Jesus is profoundly important in grasping the fullness of who Jesus is as “the Shepherd-King.”[26]

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical references are from the New International Version, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005). Jn 10:7, 9.

[2] Leon Morris, Jesus is the Christ: Studies in the Theology of John, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 113.

[3] Jn 10:9.

[4] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, and Notes, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), 225.

[5] Ibid.

[6] G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 2nd ed. (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 169.

[7] Andreas J. Kostenberger, Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2013), Kindle, Loc. 2280.

[8] Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of all Israel, (Tel Mond, Israel: Israel Study Center, 2015), Kindle, 160.

[9] Jn 10:10, (NKJV).

[10] Jn 10:10

[11] Zech 11:17.

[12] Ez 34:2, 11, 14.

[13] Kostenberger, Encountering John, Loc. 2949.

[14] Ez 34:14, Zech 11:17, and Jn 10:9.

[15] Jn 10:7, 9.

[16] Morris, Jesus is the Christ, 114.

[17] Bruce, The Gospel of John, 206.

[18] Morris, Jesus is the Christ, 107.

[19] Zech 9:16.

[20] Jn 10:9.

[21] Morris, Jesus is the Christ, 114.

[22] Kostenberger, Encountering John, Loc. 2928. Jn 10:9.

[23] Jn 10:9.

[24] Morris, Jesus is the Christ, 107.

[25] Ibid., 113.

[26] Kostenberger, Encountering John, Loc. 2928.

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