All Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB).
A key chapter in determining who Christ died for, and why one person believes in Christ and why another doesn’t, is John chapter 10, about Christ’s sheep. This is a chapter that many Christians use to argue for unconditional election and limited atonement (that Christ died only for the elect — the elect sheep). They use it for good reason, because there’s definitely a consistency throughout this chapter that supports that interpretation. The view that we become Christ’s sheep upon conversion is missing the main point that Jesus makes in this chapter— which is, that this is about the call to salvation, and not about following Christ as Christians. That is, it’s not primarily about following Christ as His sheep after salvation. Nor is this a call to become sheep of Christ. That idea is not to be found in this chapter, nor anywhere else in the New Testament. No, I believe this chapter is about the call of salvation to those who are already sheep of Christ, who hear His voice in the gospel message and respond in faith. Therefore, I will make the case that Christ’s sheep are His sheep before and after conversion, as the elect sheep of God.
Before we look at John 10, note that Jesus is also referred to as a sheep (and lamb) in Acts 8:32, quoting Isaiah 53:7. That’s important because Paul said that we are chosen in Him (Eph 1:4). The point is, we are elect sheep in Him; we as His sheep are chosen in Him, who is Himself a sheep, who was led to the slaughter for His own:
(Acts 8:32) – Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth.
Hence, Scripture gives us a picture of Christ as both Shepherd and sheep.
We’ll go through the whole chapter and I’ll provide commentary on the pertinent verses. But first, it’s important to realize that everyone who comes into the world are sheep. It’s a matter of who’s sheep we are. In other words, there are the sheep who belong to Jesus, and there are the sheep who belong to Satan. Accordingly, we’ll see Jesus is primarily talking about the initial call to salvation to those who are already His sheep “whom he foreknew” (Ro 8:29) — and not about Christian discipleship. Jesus came to reveal Himself to both the Jews and to the world. This is a significant point in interpreting this chapter.
Jesus, addressing the Pharisees (John 9:39-41):
1 “Most certainly, I tell you, one who doesn’t enter by the door into the sheep fold, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.
This “sheep fold” represents the sheep fold of Israel (see vs. 16). Oftentimes, sheep belonging to different shepherds, shared the same fold. Based on the wording of verse 4, that is the likely picture that is presented here. Sheep will only follow the voice of their own shepherd (vs. 5).
2 But one who enters in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out.
The “gatekeeper” may represent God, the Father. The Father has only provided one Shepherd, and that is His Son.
The overall context of this chapter suggests that this refers to the initial call of salvation, where we’re “called out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pe 2:9) — “leads them out.” Hearing the voice of Christ begins at salvation. Therefore, the only reasonable conclusion is, if it’s only His sheep who hear His voice, then we must already be His sheep at the time of our call.
4 Whenever he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.
This begins the life of the follower of Christ at the time of our call to salvation — being “brought out” — a picture of being brought out of darkness and into the light and Kingdom of Christ (Acts 26:18; 1 Pet 2:9; Col 1:13). The sheep know His voice at the time of the call to salvation and afterwards. We begin following Him when we first hear His voice.
5 They will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him; for they don’t know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus spoke this parable to them, but they didn’t understand what he was telling them.
“They will by no means follow a stranger.” “They” refers to the sheep, the sheep of Christ. These are His sheep before they walk through the door of salvation (vs. 7-8).
The sheep who belong to Christ, hear His voice. We have to keep in mind that hearing the voice of Christ begins at conversion. Jesus reveals that only His sheep hear His voice. Hence, we must already be His sheep at the time of our call to salvation. There’s an initial call to salvation, a call by Christ that each person must respond to in faith. If the sheep of Christ only hear His voice after conversion, how do they hear His voice at the time of conversion? They must be His sheep before conversion, or they wouldn’t be able to hear His call at the point of conversion.
The “stranger” here are all who bring false teaching, false religions. In the case of the Jews at that time, it was primarily the unbelieving religious leaders of Israel. While the sheep may get involved in a false religion for a time, they will eventually end up following Christ. Jesus will call them, and they will hear His voice and be led out of that false belief system. Those who are not His sheep, will never hear His voice, though they may hear the gospel message a thousand times.
This eliminates the interpretation that this is a call to become sheep. Nowhere do we see Jesus calling anyone to become His sheep. We’re already sheep before He calls. We are Christ’s sheep before and after conversion. In other words, we are His “elect sheep” who will all one day hear His voice and His call to receive Him as Lord and Savior.
7 Jesus therefore said to them again, “Most certainly, I tell you, I am the sheep’s door. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters in by me, he will be saved, and will go in and go out, and will find pasture.
Jesus is talking about the door of salvation. He says that He is the door of who? The door of the sheep! Therefore, the “anyone” can only refer to the sheep. It’s all-important to realize that Jesus is talking about His sheep before and after salvation. The whole context reveals this, as we’ve already seen. The sheep didn’t listen to the others who came before Him. However, when Jesus came, they heard His voice and they walked through the door of salvation. This is the initial call to walk through the door of salvation. We know this because those who walk through the door get “saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” “Pasture” refers to life after we, as His sheep, walk through the door. That’s the life as a Christian, as a follower of Christ, as those who will eventually enjoy the pastures of Heaven.
I want to address the idea that the sheep here were Jewish believers under the Old Covenant, who would all hear Christ’s voice and His call to follow Him. While that is certainly true, it can’t refer to them only. Consider that there must have been many Jews at that time who were not yet true believers, but turned to Christ when they heard Him preach and saw His miracles. They too would still be sheep, because it’s only His sheep who hear His voice. Otherwise, how would they hear the initial call of the Shepherd to follow Him? Hearing Christ’s voice begins with the initial call to receive Him as Lord and Savior.
Furthermore, Jesus is still the door of salvation today. Therefore, if it’s His sheep who walk through that door to obtain salvation, then His sheep must be elect sheep, chosen by God for salvation. The identity of Christ’s sheep is further confirmed in verse 16.
10 The thief only comes to steal, kill, and destroy. I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.
“They” refers to those who are already Christ’s sheep at the time of the call to follow Him through the door of salvation. He came so that His sheep could have “life and have it abundantly.” Over and over we see Christ’s sheep before and after conversion.
11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Jesus came to “lay down His life for His sheep.” The question is, did Jesus lay down His life only for His sheep? Let’s first deal with what should be obvious, but normally overlooked. Notice who is on the cross. It’s the “Good Shepherd!” If it’s the “Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep,” then it must be for His sheep only that He gives His life for. A shepherd only gives his life for his own sheep (if necessary). Each shepherd cares for their own sheep. It only makes sense (see also He 13:20; 1 Pe 2:24-25).
Furthermore, in order for a shepherd to lay down his life for His sheep (in order to protect them from “wolves,” etc.), He must already be their Shepherd watching over them. They must already be His sheep. Therefore, the only reasonable way to understand this, as it relates to Christ and His sheep, is that we were already His sheep when He laid down His life for us upon the cross.
By the time we conclude this, I think you’ll find that Christ’s sacrifice was specifically for His own sheep — who come into the world as His elect sheep. So far, we have every indication that the atonement was limited to them.
12 He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who doesn’t own the sheep, sees the wolf coming, leaves the sheep, and flees. The wolf snatches the sheep, and scatters them. 13 The hired hand flees because he is a hired hand, and doesn’t care for the sheep.
Only the true shepherd of the sheep will risk his life – and give it up if necessary – in order to protect his sheep from vicious animals, such as wolves. Each shepherd cares for and protects his own sheep. Accordingly, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus must have died for His “own” sheep only:
14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and I’m known by my own; 15 even as the Father knows me, and I know the Father. I lay down my life for the sheep.
Jesus says, “I know my own, and I’m known by my own, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” Jesus and the Father have known each other throughout eternity. Likewise, Jesus has known His own throughout eternity. There’s never been a time when Jesus has not known His people. Therefore, when one of His own hears His voice, they will respond in faith, for they know the voice of their Shepherd. If Jesus laid down His life for everyone, then everyone would hear His voice as their Shepherd. But not everyone hears, because not everyone is His sheep.
16 I have other sheep, which are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will hear my voice. They will become one flock with one shepherd.
This is a key statement in interpreting this chapter. The “other sheep” refer to the Gentiles. The Gentiles had not yet come to faith in Christ, at least not in any significant way. That would not happen until after Pentecost. In the early days of the Church, the believing Jews were scattered among the Gentiles. Paul especially was sent to the Gentiles with the gospel message. Once faith came to the Gentiles, believing Jews and believing Gentiles became “one flock.” This one flock is the Church, for whom Christ died and purchased with His own blood (Eph 2:13-16; Eph 5:23, 25-27; Acts 5:9; Rev 5:9; Rev 14:3-4).
We see both corporate election and individual election. God chose a people out of this world unto Himself, and that is the Church in Christ. This is the corporate election of God’s people. Furthermore, this election was unconditional. It was God’s sovereign choice. This must apply the same way individually. Reason being, is that in electing the Church, He was also electing each member of the Church. The Church is not just a concept, but a living organism, composed of real people. Therefore, the unconditional election of the whole, must also be applied to the individual members — the elect sheep. Or perhaps stated more clearly, the unconditional election of the whole must be the same for the individual members that make up the whole. Like begets like.
Notice that He said that the “other sheep” (Gentiles) would “listen to His voice.” Remember, only His sheep hear His voice. Yet, they had not yet experienced salvation. Hearing or listening to the voice of Christ begins at the time of the call to salvation.
“I must bring them also,” has to refer to bringing His sheep with Him into His spiritual kingdom (Col 1:13). This is the kingdom we’re born into at the point of salvation. Thus, He brings with Him those who are already His sheep, both believing Jews and believing Gentiles.
That Jesus refers to the Gentiles, eliminates the interpretation that Jesus is talking only about the Jewish sheep who were already believers under the Old Covenant, who would hear the voice of Jesus when He called in His day. While that of course is true, it’s clear by now that His sheep were not limited to them, nor even to those who were alive at that time. In referring to the “other sheep that are not of this fold” and the “one flock,” He most certainly was talking about the Church in its completed form — as revealed in Revelation 5:9-10; 7:3-10; 19:6-9; 21:1-3, 9-11.
So we see that Jesus was referring to future believers as His sheep, and in the present tense — as though He already knew them. And that, of course, we know to be true, for there’s never been a time when He did not know His own. Therefore, it follows that we must recognize these sheep as being elect sheep, those who come into this world as the the elect of God.
The interpretation that the sheep refer to those only after conversion, doesn’t take enough into account.
17 Therefore the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. 18 No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down by myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. I received this commandment from my Father.”
Jesus continues to talk about laying down His life. Here He includes His resurrection. This is the gospel message. This helps to confirm that throughout this discourse, Jesus is talking primarily about the call to salvation to His sheep, and not about life as a Christian — although that is obviously part of the whole picture.
19 Therefore a division arose again among the Jews because of these words. 20 Many of them said, “He has a demon, and is insane! Why do you listen to him?” 21 Others said, “These are not the sayings of one possessed by a demon. It isn’t possible for a demon to open the eyes of the blind, is it?” 22 It was the Feast of the Dedication at Jerusalem. 23 It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in Solomon’s porch.
24 The Jews therefore came around him and said to him, “How long will you hold us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you don’t believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name, these testify about me. 26 But you don’t believe, because you are not of my sheep, as I told you.
Jesus basically says the same thing in John 8:46-47:
(John 8:46-47) – 46 Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47 He who is of God hears the words of God. For this cause you don’t hear, because you are not of God.”
Therefore, those who are “of God” are of His sheep.
Verse 26 is one of the most revealing statements in the whole chapter, because Jesus reveals that if these people were among His sheep, they would have believed — referring to the initial call to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior.
The interpretation that the reason these Jews didn’t believe is because they weren’t post-conversion sheep, makes no sense. Think about it. That’s like saying, “I don’t believe because I’m not a believer,” or “I believe because I’m a believer.” That really doesn’t tell us much. This merely describes that which characterizes a believer and non-believer. Yes, a believer in Christ believes, but that is not the reason he believes. Likewise, it’s true that an unbeliever doesn’t believe in Christ, but that is not the reason he doesn’t believe in Him. It’s the reason these Jews didn’t believe that Jesus was addressing. In other words, He was revealing why a person doesn’t believe in Him. Jesus provides a very clear revelation, that the reason a person doesn’t believe in Him, is because they are not among His sheep. Only the elect sheep hear His voice and believe unto salvation. This is in harmony with John 6:37,44-47,64-65. Indeed, it reveals who it is that are “given” and “drawn” to Jesus. It’s His elect sheep.
Consider those who may have been there who were not already believing Jews, but upon hearing the truth of Christ’s words for the first time, did believe. This was likely a common situation during Christ’s ministry. Based on Jesus’ words, we can only conclude that they believed because they were His sheep — His elect sheep whom He foreknew.
Only those who hear, believe. Only His sheep, hear:
27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
It bears repeating, based on the overall context of this chapter, Jesus is not primarily talking about the walk of a follower of Christ post conversion. He’s primarily talking about the call to salvation, the call to follow Him as Lord and Savior. Those who are His elect sheep will hear His call and believe, and they will be given “eternal life,” which is the very next statement:
28 I give eternal life to them. They will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all. No one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
Note the statement: “My Father, who has given them to me.” This is the same giving of the Father that we see in John 6:37 and John 17:2. Thus, we know that those given to Jesus are the sheep in this passage, who we know now are elect sheep — those chosen by God for salvation. When one considers the overall message of this chapter, it makes interpreting John 6:37-45 a lot easier to interpret. It’s these elect sheep chosen out of “all flesh” (Jn 17:2), out of the whole world, that the Father “gives” and “draws” to Jesus. It’s these that are given understanding — those who “hear and learn” (Jn 6:45). It’s these who hear the voice of the Savior. Only the sheep truly hear the truth of the gospel message — that is, with understanding, with full conviction of the truth. Everyone who truly hears and understands, go to Jesus. They do this willingly, because sheep naturally follow their Shepherd when they hear him call. That means when the elect sheep are drawn to Christ, they are not forced. They follow the shepherd because that’s what sheep do by nature.
Since Jesus died specifically for His elect sheep, their redemption is assured. Their salvation is forever secure. Accordingly, it’s not possible that they be “snatched” out of the hands of the Father or Son. The atoning sacrifice of Christ accomplished exactly what it was meant to accomplish. Redemption was not just a possibility, because it was specifically for the purpose of saving His elect sheep — all of them.
31 Therefore Jews took up stones again to stone him. 32 Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from my Father. For which of those works do you stone me?” 33 The Jews answered him, “We don’t stone you for a good work, but for blasphemy: because you, being a man, make yourself God.” 34 Jesus answered them, “Isn’t it written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods?’ 35 If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture can’t be broken),
36 do you say of him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You blaspheme,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God?’ 37 If I don’t do the works of my Father, don’t believe me. 38 But if I do them, though you don’t believe me, believe the works; that you may know and believe that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” 39 They sought again to seize him, and he went out of their hand.
Jesus came to reveal Himself to Israel, both to those who were already believers and to those who weren’t. Both groups needed to recognize Jesus as coming from the Father. Both groups needed to recognize Him as the Savior of the world.
40 He went away again beyond the Jordan into the place where John was baptizing at first, and there he stayed. 41 Many came to him. They said, “John indeed did no sign, but everything that John said about this man is true.” 42 Many believed in him there.
That the sheep of Christ are elect sheep, foreknown and chosen by God before we even come into the world (Ro 8:29; Eph 1:4; 1 Pe 2:9-10), there should be little or no doubt by now. I believe that a fair and unbiased look at this chapter results in such an interpretation. This chapter is not primarily about those who were (are) already sheep of Christ. It’s not primarily about following Christ as believers. It’s not solely about those who were believers under the Old Covenant, who would believe in Christ. It’s certainly not about the call to become sheep. No, a careful and reasonable look at this chapter reveals this to be about the call to salvation of those who come into the world already as His sheep — His elect sheep. Accordingly, this also reveals that Jesus died only for His sheep, for His Church (Eph 5:23-27; Acts 20:28), which supports limited atonement (particular redemption).
Finally, I want to address the argument that “just because Jesus died for His sheep or for His Church, doesn’t mean that He didn’t die for everyone else.” In other words, from that point of view, it would be like Paul saying, “Christ died for me” (Gal 2:20), and then drawing the conclusion that He didn’t die for anyone else. That’s an understandable argument. However, I believe that for the reasons given in this study, that argument proves invalid. It doesn’t take enough into account. If you’re still not convinced, then I encourage you to read the following article. I believe it takes more than enough into account. The points made by the author are powerfully convincing:
Last word: For those who have always believed that Jesus died for every individual who comes into the world, limited atonement can be hard to accept. But it helps to realize that God is all-knowing, and therefore, He has always known His people. Therefore, when God chose His people, it’s not possible that He simply set aside His knowledge of them. He lives from eternity to eternity, bound neither by time nor space. His omniscience co-exists with all the decisions He makes. They function together in perfect harmony, as one. And of course, that is true of all God’s attributes. God never does anything that violates any of them. They all function in perfect unity. But how God chose His people in the context of His omniscience, we have no clue. Therefore, I think it’s an error to assume that one came before the other, when they exist side by side. It’s beyond our capacity to understand such things about God.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that God merely looked into the future to see who would receive His Son, and then chose them. That’s not only too simplistic, but it turns election into something meaningless, inauthentic, non-actual. The point I’m making is that God’s choosing was not independent of His knowledge of all things, for that would be impossible. We have no insight into the actual process of election, so this is something that we must simply accept and trust God for. Our responsibility is to believe, while leaving the details to Him.
We must bear in mind that God is loving and just and holy and good and righteous and blameless in all that He does. That is what we must trust in, because there are so many things about God and how He works that we can’t even begin to comprehend. We must be willing to follow truth where it leads, whether it’s our preferred interpretation or not.
I find the biblical evidence compelling that the doctrine of election is about the unconditional, corporate and individual choosing of a particular people from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4-5), where we come into the world as His elect among the non-elect, and that it’s God’s elect for whom Christ died (Acts 20:28; Eph 5:23-27).