People of God: Flock and Fold

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At the Exodus, Jehovah made Israel a nation, i.e., a self-aware social unit, bound by a common language and culture, sharing descent from a common ancestor. More than that, Jehovah made Israel a people of God. He made them a nation devoted to the worship of the one, true, and living God, called by His name and ruled by His precepts.

Even in the Old Testament, God disclosed that His plan included many peoples. Eventually both Egypt and Assyria would become peoples of God (Isa. 19:19-25). Indeed, the poets and prophets regularly called upon all the peoples of the earth to acknowledge Jehovah as the true and living God and to worship Him (Ps. 67; Ps. 148:11). In eternity future, God will be served by many peoples (Rev. 21:3, 24, 26; 22:2).

In the meanwhile, God has created the church and called it to be His people. In 1 Peter 2:9-10, some of the same language is applied to the church that was applied to Israel. For this language to work, the church must somehow be very like Israel. Nevertheless, the church is not only distinct from Israel, it is actually a different kind of people, constituted by the Holy Spirit who, in a unique sense, places saints in Christ by uniting them to His body.

In the Old Testament, God reckoned upon two ethnic units: Israel and the Gentile nations. Between these two was great hostility. Now, however, through the cross of Christ, God has ended their hostility, at least within a particular sphere. Within the church, God has joined some who were identified with Israel and some who were identified with the Gentile nations. God has, in a certain sense, created in the church a new ethnicity in which one is no longer either Jew or Gentile, but simply Christian (Eph. 2:11-22). This one new humanity is manifested in the one body, which is the church (Eph. 1:22-23).

Jesus Himself foretold the union of Jews and Gentiles in a single entity. Rather than using the language of ethnicity, however, He used the image of believers as sheep. In John 10, He dealt with the difference between national Israel and the church by contrasting them under the figures of a flock and a fold.

The miracle story of John 9 is crucial to understanding the parable of John 10. In the earlier chapter, Jesus healed a man who was born blind. For the healing, He deliberately chose a method that He knew would provoke a reaction from the Pharisees. The result of this reaction was that the once-blind man was cast out of the synagogue by the Jewish leadership (Jn. 9:34). This was a highly significant act, for the synagogue was more than a place of instruction and worship. It was the center of Jewish life, a place of social interaction, commerce, and community life. To be cast out of the synagogue was to be regarded as a “Gentile and a renegade” (to use Jesus’ image from Matt. 18:17). Effectively, it was to be put out of Israel. Given the Roman ban on stoning, this was the worst thing that the Jewish authorities could do to a member of their community.

This ultimate degree of separation was precisely what had occurred to the man born blind. He had been cast out of the synagogue, which means that he had, for all intents and purposes, been put out of Israel. He was no longer reckoned as a member of the covenant community, no longer a recipient of the promises, and no longer an heir of the patriarchs. In terms of his standing as an Israelite, this was the worst thing that could have happened to him.

The reason that the blind man had been cast out was because of his loyalty to Jesus. The man appears to have been working out his idea of Jesus all through his conversation with the Pharisees. At first, he thought (or guessed?) that Jesus was a prophet (Jn. 9:17). Pushed by the Pharisees, he insisted that if Jesus were not from God, He could have done nothing (Jn. 9:33). This insistence is what got him cast out of the synagogue. When he actually met Jesus, the man believed on Him and worshipped Him (Jn. 9:38). By the end of the narrative, the once-blind man was clearly a disciple of Jesus.

In the parable of John 10, Jesus re-framed what had happened to the blind man, and He did it to make a point about His own intentions. He began by noting that He had come to administer judgment, both in order that the blind might be made to see and that the seeing might be made blind. The Pharisees understood these words to be a swipe at them, a perception that Jesus confirmed (Jn. 9:39-41).

Then Jesus began to talk about the sheepfold (Jn. 10:1-6). As anyone of that time would know, a fold was an enclosure into which sheep could be driven both for protection and to keep them from wandering. The point of a fold is that it is visible, tangible, and external. Sheep belonging to many flocks might share one fold. They were held together, not by any inner compulsion, but by external restraint.

One of the significant points about Jesus’ parable is that He is the shepherd. Much of the parable focuses upon this point. By way of contrast, however, thieves and robbers climb into the fold. This can only be understood as another swipe at the Pharisaical leadership that had cast out the blind man.

In Jesus’ parable, the fold contains two kinds of sheep. Some of the sheep belong to the shepherd (Jesus), while other sheep do not. This leads to the question: what is the visible, external entity in the context of John 9-10 that includes both some who follow Jesus and some who reject Jesus? The answer can only be, Israel. The story in chapter 9 culminates with the blind man being cast out of the synagogue, which was equivalent to being cast out of Israel. In the imagery of the parable, Israel is the fold.

This is the figure that makes Jesus’ words particularly powerful. Given the centrality of national Israel throughout the Old Testament, what Jesus says in John 10 is breathtaking for its daring. The shepherd calls His sheep by name, they hear His voice and follow Him, and He leads them “out.” Out of what? The only answer can be, Out of national Israel. The man born blind is the first who, following Jesus, found himself outside of Israel. Jesus makes it clear that others would follow. He would sever His flock—those who truly believed upon Him—from the fold, which was national Israel. In other words, Jesus was implying that God was about to set Israel aside and to shift the focus of His work to some other people.

Those who follow Jesus constitute a flock. Unlike sheep in a fold (national Israel), sheep in a flock are not unified by things that are external and tangible. They are kept together by something internal and organic. Each sheep hears the shepherd’s voice. Each sheep follows Him. As the sheep jointly follow the shepherd, they are constituted as a flock. The source of their unity is invisible and internal. It is their belief in Jesus.

Jesus announced an even greater surprise in John 10:16. He said that He had other sheep, in this case, sheep that were never in the fold. These could only be Gentile believers, and their presence raises an important question. What will be the relationship between Jesus’ sheep that used to be in the fold and Jesus’ sheep that were never in the fold? Jesus’ answer at this point is very clear. His sheep will constitute one flock with one shepherd. Jesus does not intend to have separate Jewish and Gentile flocks. He intends to unite all of His followers in a single flock.

The one flock of John 10 is precisely the same entity as the one body of 1 Corinthians 12:13 and the one new humanity of Ephesians 2:15. It is the church. The church consists of individuals who used to be reckoned as Jews and individuals who used to be reckoned as Gentiles. Within the church, however, those old identifiers drop away. They are simply one flock, Jesus’ sheep without differentiation.

The church is a people of God. Because it is a people of God, it is in some respects like Israel. Unlike Israel, however, which was a visible nation with visible descent from a common ancestor, the church is a spiritual nation with invisible union created by following a common shepherd. Both are reckoned as peoples of God, but they are not the same people. Indeed, they are not even the same kind of peoples, for the constituting element that makes each a nation is different.

Abuse of the Gospel
William Cowper (1731–1800)

Too many, Lord, abuse Thy grace
In this licentious day,
And while they boast they see Thy face,
They turn their own away.

Thy book displays a gracious light
That can the blind restore;
But these are dazzled by the sight,
And blinded still the more.

The pardon such presume upon,
They do not beg but steal;
And when they plead it at Thy throne,
Oh! where’s the Spirit’s seal?

Was it for this, ye lawless tribe,
The dear Redeemer bled?
Is this the grace the saints imbibe
From Christ the living head?

Ah, Lord, we know Thy chosen few
Are fed with heavenly fare;
But these, — the wretched husks they chew,
Proclaim them what they are.

The liberty our hearts implore
Is not to live in sin;
But still to wait at Wisdom’s door,
Till Mercy calls us in.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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