In John 10:1-30, Jesus speaks of Himself as the ultimate shepherd and those who truly follow Him as His sheep/flock. This is in contrast to the Jewish leaders who were rejecting Him (and thus were false shepherds).
The True Shepherd (= Jesus/God):
- enters by the door (i.e. is the authorized leader) (v. 2)
- ultimately, via Jesus’ authority (v. 9)
- calls the sheep by name (v. 3)
- lays down his life for his sheep (v. 11, 15)
- cares for his sheep (cf. v. 13)
- know the sheep (vv. 14, 27)
- gives them eternal life (v. 28)
- hear/recognize the shepherd’s voice (vv. 3, 4, 27)
- follow the shepherd’s voice (vv. 4, 16, 27)
- don’t follow false leaders (v. 8)
- know the shepherd (v. 14)
- believe Jesus = Messiah/God (v. 26)
Ezekiel 34 & John 10
Jesus’ teaching in John 10 seems a clear allusion to Ezekiel 34, where God rebukes the “leaders” of Israel as false and bad shepherds. Therefore His solution is to come to the sheep Himself and be their shepherd. And, actually, in Ezekiel 34, He goes back and forth between saying He/God will be the shepherd and the Messiah will be the shepherd (“my servant David,” v. 23). In fact, the lines are so blurred that you’d think it was God’s intent to make it sound like Messiah = God. Hint, hint!
In reality, I think this is exactly what is going on. That is, Messiah = God = Israel’s True Shepherd in Ezekiel 34. And so Jesus comes along in John 10 and adds one more factor to the equation:
Messiah = God = Israel’s True Shepherd = Jesus Himself!
Hearing His Voice
Recognizing Jesus as Messiah
In light of the above considerations, it seems clear that the meaning behind Jesus being the true shepherd of his true sheep is this:
- many might claim to be God’s sheep (or even his shepherds), but are not truly his sheep or shepherd if they don’t bow to Jesus’ authority
- his true sheep recognize Jesus as Messiah/God (and nothing less than this)
This, I believe, sums up what is meant by expressions like: “my own know me…my sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:14, 27).
Jesus seems to imagine a shepherd approaching a whole host of sheep. Some belong to him and some don’t (like the Jews of Jesus’ day). So the shepherd calls out to the whole host, and the ones who are his respond when He calls: “for they know his voice,” (v. 4).
In fact, I’ve heard it said that middle eastern shepherds would have a distinct call recognized only by their sheep. So if you have a communal place for holding different people’s sheep (as can be common), each shepherd would sound his distinct call that only his sheep would recognize, and thereby follow (see D.A. Carson’s, “Part 6: Jesus the Shepherd of God (John 10:1-21)“).
If this be the case, then Jesus goes one step further because he doesn’t merely give a distinct sound. Instead, “he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out,” (John 10:3). Not only does this show how well Jesus knows his sheep and his sheep know Him, but also shows an element of individual attention. The sheep-shepherd dynamic certainly is a communal theme, but also happens on an individual basis.
“My Sheep Hear My Voice”
With all this in mind, some teachings/teachers have focused especially on, “My sheep hear my voice.” (John 10:27). And they teach that true Christians will truly understand what “revelations” and “words” come from Jesus versus “revelations/words” that originate elsewhere.
Though this definitely does not seem to be the focus of this passage (see above on that), it could have some merit as a sound principle. But let’s use other Scriptures to help us think more through what this means and doesn’t mean.
What Does it Mean that Jesus’ Sheep Know His Voice?
Looking back to the analogy, consider that Jesus’ sheep will:
- recognize Jesus as Messiah/God
- recognize the authority his words carry
- follow Jesus on the basis of His voice
- separate His voice from the voice of others
What it Doesn’t Mean
- IT DOESN’T MEAN the sheep are hearing God’s voice as something necessarily separate from Scripture (though it can be at times, while ultimately bowing to Scripture) – see especially John 10:34-35
- IT DOESN’T MEAN the sheep instantly discern true prophecy from false prophecy (cf. Matt. 16:21-23; Acts 21:1-14; Phil. 3:15-16; 1 Thes. 5:19-22; 2 Thes. 2:1-3; Rev. 2:20)
- IT DOESN’T MEAN the sheep instantly understand the meaning of true prophecy (Mark 8:14-21; Luke 9:44-45; 1 Cor. 14:29-37)
- IT DOESN’T MEAN this is merely or mainly true of individual sheep; rather it is collective of all His true sheep (1 Cor. 14:29-37)
I could also add all of the admonitions given to the sheep of the churches in Revelation (see Rev. 2-3). These clearly show the same thing: God’s sheep don’t always discern true from false all that well–at least not always individually or instantly. But over time Jesus’ true sheep will stubbornly (in the best sense of the term) follow the true Shepherd. This happens BECAUSE we are sheep. And not the other way around.
Other Examples of “Hearing” in John
To further help us discern the meaning of Jesus’ sheep knowing his voice in John 10, I think it’s helpful to look at other examples of Jesus discussing, “hearing,” in the book of John itself.
The Greek word for, “hear/listen,” (in John 10:3, 8, 16, 19, 27) is akouo. It means “to hear; audible…comprehend” (see akouo word analysis in STEPBible).
Here is a sampling of other times it’s used in John:
- “Truly, truly, I say to you an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear [akouo] the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear [akouo] will live.” John 5:25 –this is referring to believers recognizing/believing in Jesus
- “All who are in the tombs will hear [akouo] his voice” John 5:28 –this refers to all people being called to attention by His voice
- “And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard [akouo], his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:37-40) –notice here they were studying the Scriptures and presumably would have acknowledged them as God’s word, but were not responding in faith to what He was saying.
- “you do what you have heard [akouo] from your father [Satan]” John 8:38 –here Jesus is rebuking the Jews and says their father is actually Satan (John 8:44). As such, they are influenced by–and act like–their father. You’ll notice this is never an instance of the Jews saying, “I know Satan spoke thus to me.” They recoiled at anything even remotely like that. Yet here Jesus says you hear Satan and thus follow him. This all shows that “hearing” is meant as an active response. Satan’s ways compel them, not God’s/Jesus’s. And that is what Jesus means by “hearing Satan”.
- “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear [akouo] my word.” John 8:43 –this shows that hearing and understanding have some overlap in Jesus’ economy. It is not merely hearing or being able to recognize where it’s from. But hearing in a way that you want to follow him. That, they don’t do. And thus aren’t motivated to understand his words.
- “Whoever is of God hears [akouo] the words of God. The reason why you do not hear [akouo] them is that you are not of God.” John 8:47 –shows that, ultimately, all who are born again will hear God’s word. That is, they will hear/respond/follow His ways (at least eventually).
You’ll notice that “hearing” is weighted more toward a recognition and response to the Person speaking/leading. And not necessarily an understanding that “this” or “that” comes from Satan or Jesus, for example. Though as a corollary, I do think such discernment is part of the hearing-responding process, yet with all the conditions and caveats on that mentioned above.
Guide to Hearing God Well
Finally, on a related note, for a teaching on discerning God’s voice well, we refer you to “Discerning Truth”