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The Good Shepherd of John 10: A Cruciform Ethic for Pastoral Care

One of the most common metaphors for pastoral care is “shepherding”—and for good reason. ­­The image of a shepherd spans the arc of scripture as the stock metaphor for leaders of God’s people. In the Old Testament, several of Israel’s prominent leaders were shepherds (e.g., Moses, Abraham, and David). In the New Testament, the apostle Paul encourages the Ephesians to be “shepherds” of the church of God and to watch over their flock (Acts 20:28). Paul also lists “shepherd” in the list of roles for the church (Eph. 4:2). Most paradigmatic is Jesus Christ who identifies himself as the ultimate shepherd of God’s people in John 10. Here, Jesus embodies a cruciform ethic that becomes an example for all the shepherds who choose to follow him to the cross as a leader of his people.

The Good Shepherd of John 10: An Exposition

The confrontation between Jesus and the Pharasaic leaders in John 10 concerns Jesus’ healing of the blind man in John 9. The narrative flow of the parable of the good shepherd begins with a foundational contrast between thieves and robbers on the one hand, and the true shepherd on the other. The thieves and robbers enter the sheep pen by some other means than the door while the shepherd simply enters through the door as allowed by the doorkeeper (John 10:2-3). Furthermore, the sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice (John 10:4-5). Jesus then expands on the point: in contrast to the hired hand who abandons the sheep under threat of thieves and robbers, Jesus is the good shepherd who stays with his sheep and “lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11).

There are two defining characteristics of the good shepherd in the parable. First, the most prominent characteristic of the good shepherd is that of his self-giving sacrifice. The good shepherd lays down his life (John 10:11). This sacrifice would have been striking to 1st century listeners since rarely, if ever, would a shepherd have been expected to give his life for his sheep.[1] [1] Furthermore, this is the first time in all of the grand narrative of scripture that a shepherd of God’s people actually loses his life. Since the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus goes beyond all natural and scriptural expectation, this quality of the metaphor is accentuated as the defining characteristic of the good shepherd. The self-giving way of the good shepherd contrasts with the self-preserving way of the hired hand (John 10:12-13). Whereas the hired hand preserves his life, the good shepherd gives his life so that the sheep may also have life. The self-giving sacrificial way of the shepherd is a clear allusion to the death and resurrection of Christ since he proclaims that he lays down his life only to take it up again (John 10:17). Paradoxically, cruciform self-giving becomes the path to full life (e.g., John 10:10).

The second defining characteristic of the shepherd is his incarnational presence with the sheep. The shepherd does not care for the sheep’s life from afar rather, he is intimately present with them. He is the Word that has become flesh. In contrast to the hired hand who flees, the good shepherd is present with his sheep even when the sheep come under threat from thieves and robbers. It would be impossible for the good shepherd to lay his life down from a distance. To be sure, Christ being fully and truly divine could have accomplished his salvific work from afar, but that is not the way of the good shepherd. The cruciform way of the good shepherd assumes his incarnational presence.

A Cruciform Ethic for Pastoral Care

If Jesus is the ultimate model for shepherding, then the characteristics of self-giving sacrifice and incarnational presence provide a broadly prescriptive paradigm for pastoral caregiving. In consideration of operative decisions, the paradigm invites two questions in relation to the care of the flock. First, how does the pastoral caregiver self-give sacrificially in any given decision or situation? Second, how does the pastoral caregiver provide incarnational presence in any given decision or situation?

The characteristic of self-giving sacrifice considers the ways that one may be able to self-give sacrificially for the other’s flourishing. Anemie Dillen has rightly drawn attention [2] to the way that self-sacrificial language can be a guise for power and a self-validation. As Dillen suggests, since sacrifice is such a highly valued virtue in Christian theology, it can serve as a way to gain recognition and legitimize an imbalance of power between the pastoral leader and the flock. However, pastors must not remove the characteristic of self-sacrifice altogether in their practice. For as shown above, self-sacrifice is a core characteristic of the model shepherd himself. Instead of disavowing the self-sacrificial characteristic altogether, it is the explicit vocalization of sacrifice that needs to be removed. Pastors need not vocalize their sacrificial actions and postures in order to embody the characteristic effectively. Furthermore, it would be theologically myopic to propose self-sacrifice as a characteristic merely for the sake of sacrifice. Jesus indeed sacrificed himself, but his sacrifice was so that his people would have life (John 10:10). In some of the final conversations with his disciples, Jesus explained that he must go so that the Holy Spirit will come (John 14:15-16). In this way, Jesus gave up his power sacrificially so that his followers would be empowered through the Spirit to continue his work. The same must be characteristically true of our pastoral caregiving. Sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice does not contribute to the other’s flourishing or empowerment. Rather, the foundational posture of self-giving sacrifice considers where one can give themselves away so that the other may have a fuller life with God.

The application of self-giving sacrifice into concrete embodied practices for the pastoral caregiver leader is wide-ranging and dependent on the context of the situation or decision. When someone is in need financially, the self-giving sacrifice may include monetary giving or other material resources. Furthermore, one may be invited to self-give sacrificially with their time to provide counsel or comfort. In each situation, the goal must not be to sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice but to self-give for the flourishing of the other. In these examples, one can begin to see how the self-giving characteristic overlaps with the characteristic of incarnational presence.

The characteristic of incarnational presence considers the ways in which a pastoral caregiver can intimately be with his or her people. As demonstrated above, a foundational characteristic of the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep is his presence with the flock, even in the face of danger. In this way, the good shepherd enters into the world of his sheep and experiences their suffering with them. More so, through shared suffering, the shepherd in some way actually redemptively bears the pain and confusion of the flock. This posture can be adopted in pastoral caregiving. The pastoral caregiver can strive to enter into the world of the flock’s story and become available to their experiences. Through presence, the pastoral caregiver may also even bear the projections and transferences of the counselee onto the counselor. Through this process, eventually, as David Benner notes [3], the counselee will actually feel empowered to begin to own the projected material since the pain is being borne by another. It is when truly bearing the pain of another that one sees the cruciform ethic arrive at its most complete expression since it is when bearing the pain of another that the characteristics of both self-giving sacrifice and incarnational presence are active in care.

A potential pitfall of the characteristic of incarnational presence is the enmeshment of identities between the pastoral caregiver and the flock. It is important to note that while the good shepherd of John 10 shared the experiences of his flock, he also remained distinct from his flock. In the incarnation itself, even though Jesus identified and shared with humanity in suffering, he did not cease to be God (Phil. 2:5-8). In this way, Jesus is the ultimate example of entering into the world of another without enmeshing identity with the other. To be sure, it is a delicate and context dependent balance for the pastoral caregiver both to enter into the world of another without becoming another. However, a way to develop an awareness of enmeshment is to be persistently reminded that even from the midst of the experiences of another, those experiences are still another’s experiences.

Similar to the application of self-giving sacrifice, the application of incarnational presence into concrete practices is highly dependent on context and situation. However, the most basic expression of incarnational presence is just that—presence. That is, presence is quite literally prioritizing time with the flock, especially in time of need and trouble. In conversations, pastoral caregivers can be present through the practice of empathy. As Benner notes, the practice of empathy entails entering into another’s experience and sharing it “without losing sight that it is still truly the other person’s experience.”

The good shepherd is truly good. He is good not only because he laid down his life for our salvation, but because he also laid down a pattern for future shepherds to care for his flock. That pattern includes both self-giving sacrifice and incarnational presence. Inspired by the ultimate shepherd, may the shepherds of God’s people today be inspired to a cruciform ethic.

Devin Arinder is a New Testament student at Denver Seminary who strives to think critically and theologically about contemporary questions. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, newborn daughter, and dog. He and his family find belonging in the International Anglican Church of Colorado Springs, a community that aims to receive and release the gospel that heals together.


[1] [4]See, e.g., Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary [5], 233. The sacrifice of the shepherd would leave the rest of the sheep defenseless.