John 9:39-10:9 (RSV)
Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this, and they said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”
This discourse takes place during the course of Jesus’ healing the man who was blind from birth (John 9:1-41), leading into His sermon regarding the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-21).
Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.”
The Lord saw that the Pharisees had harmed themselves by rejecting the benefit of the miracle they had just witnessed (i.e. the healing of the man who was blind from birth, verse 1ff.), thus deserving even greater condemnation for their disbelief. Appraising events by their outcome, He declares,“For judgment I came,” meaning, “for the greater condemnation and punishment of My enemies, “that those who do not see may see, and that those who see,” such as the Pharisees, “may become blind in the eyes of their soul.”1
It is important to observe a nuance of the Greek text for the above, which reads:
εἰς κρῖμα ἐγὼ εἰς τὸν κόσμον τοῦτον ἦλθον – For judgment I came into this world
ἵνα οἱ μὴ βλέποντες βλέπωσι – that those who do not see may see
καὶ οἱ βλέποντες τυφλοὶ γένωνται – and that those who see may become blind
The conjunction ἵνα, translated as “that” in almost English translation, does not necessarily mean “in order that”. Theophylact (a Byzantine Greek commentator) explains:
Now, understand this as well, every student of Divine Scripture: the conjunctions ἵνα and ὅπως are often used to express the outcome, but not the intended result, of the action stated in the main clause. Thus David says, Against Thee only have I sinned, … that Thou mightest be justified in Thy words [σοὶ μόνῳ ἥμαρτον … ὅπως ἂν δικαιωθῇς ἐν τοῖς λόγοις; Psalm 50:4 LXX]. The word that introduces a result unintended by David. When David sinned, he did not do so with the purpose in mind of justifying God; but his sinning did result in God being justified.2
Some of the Pharisees near him heard this, and they said to him, “Are we also blind?”
The man blind from birth sees both spiritually and physically, but those who think they see are blind spiritually. Here the Lord speaks of two kinds of vision and two kinds of blindness, but the Pharisees, who are always fixated on the material world, think He means only a material affliction.
Are we also blind? they ask, fearing a physical blindness.
Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”
The Lord desires to show them that it is better to be blind physically than to lack faith, saying, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt [Literally “sin” – ἁμαρτία]. If blindess were your natural condition, you would have some excuse for being ill with unbelief. But you insist that you can see; furthermore, you are eyewitnesses of the miraculous healing of the blind man. Because you suffer from self-inflicted unbelief, you deserve no forgiveness. Your sin remains unabsolved, and you will undergo greater punishment, because you refuse to acknowledge the truth even after seeing such wonders.”
The words If you were blind, you would have no guilt may also be understood as follows: “You seem afraid only of physical blindness, but I warn you of spiritual blindness. If you were blind, that is, ignorant of the Scriptures, you would have no guilt; that is, you would be sinning in ignorance. But since you say that you see, and consider yourselves wise and learned in the law, you condemn yourselves and have the greater sin, because you sin deliberately, with knowledge.”
Of these verses, the Russian monk Theophan the Recluse wrote,
They who could not see where the simple people who believed in the Lord in simplicity of heart, while they who saw were the scribes and learned men of that time, who due to their pride of mind did not believe and held back the people.3
Writing in the late 19th century, his observations might well also apply today:
Our clever ones think they see, and this is why they are alienated from faith in the Lord which those who are simple in heart and mind firmly hold to. Therefore, according to the truth of the Lord, they are blind, whereas the people see. They are exactly like those birds which can see at night, but not during the day. The truth of Christ is dark for them, whereas what is contrary to this truth – falsehood – to them seems clear: here they are in their element. This is so obvious, but nevertheless, they are ready to ask, Are we blind also? There is nothing to hide – you are blind. But since it is your own fault that you are blind, the sin of blindness and the inability to see the light lies upon you. You can see, but you do not want to, because you have come to love a deceptive, yet seductive lie.4
Having just rebuked the Pharisees for their unbelief, which was caused by spiritual blindness, the Lord anticipates their response: “We are not blind: we reject you because you are a deceiver.” The Lord now speaks at length about the passion of stubborn unbelief, taking examples from everyday life – e.g. the deeds of a true shepherd and a wolf:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber”
He begins with the wolf – the thief and the destroyer. The thief does not enter by the door – meaning by the Scriptures – for neither the Scriptures nor the prophets support his actions. The Scriptures are indeed a door leading to God: they deny entry to wolves and heretics; they keep us safe; they communicate whatever good thing we may desire to learn. The thief, barred from entering by the door of the Scriptures, climbs in by another irregular and illicit way.
Theudas and Judas were such thieves. Appearing shortly before Christ, they first deceived and destroyed the people, and then were themselves destroyed (Acts 5:36-37). At the end of time the chief of evil men will come – the Antichrist.
The Lord is also rebuking the scribes here, who disregarded the law God gave Moses and replaced it with man-made ordinances and traditions. Rightly does Christ say, “climbs up”, because thieves sneak in by climbing over walls [the Greek – ἀναβαίνω – literally means to “come up”, “ascend”, or “go up”].
“But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
The shepherd enters [in] by the door of the Scriptures, and to him the gatekeeper opens. The gatekeeper refers to Moses, to whom God entrusted His divine commandments. Moses opened the door for the Lord by prophesying about Him. Christ Himself declares, If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me (John 5:46).
The gatekeeper also refers to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, Who likewise opens the doors of Scripture to reveal Christ our Shepherd. Fulfilling the prophesies of the Old Testament, the Lord enters the sheepfold and assumes care of us; and the sheep hear His voice.
The scribes and the Pharisees repeatedly called Jesus a deceiver, justifying the accusation by their own unbelief: Have any of the rulers of the Pharisees believed in Him? (John 7:48) But in fact their unbelief proves not that Jesus is a murderer and destroyer, but that the scribes and Pharisees have been cast out from the flock, and are no longer His sheep. “I have entered by the door,” He says, “thus proving that I am the true Shepherd. As for you, by refusing to follow Me, you have proven that you are no sheep.”
The Lord leads out His sheep from the midst of the unbelievers, just as He led the blind man out from the midst of the Jews, once the blind man heard and recognized His voice.
“When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”
He goes before the sheep, though shepherds usually do the opposite and walk behind. He goes before, because He is leading the disciples to the truth, even while sending them out as sheep among wolves (cf. Matt 10:16). Truly Christ’s pastoral service is unprecedented!
“A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Again the Savior alludes to Theudas and Judas, whom the sheep refused to follow. Even the few who were deceived rejected them after the scoundrels were executed. But the whole world is gone after Christ (John 12:16), both while He lived on earth, and even more so after His death.
Jesus is also alluding to the Antichrist, who will deceive some, but will lose all his followers after he has perished.
The words will not follow mean that no one will take notice of the deceivers once they have died. And so the Lord leads His followers through the door of the Scriptures to pasture (verse 9). What does pasture mean? It is the delight and rest of the age to come.
Do not be perplexed when you hear Jesus in the following verses refer to Himself as the door. To emphasize His care for us, he calls Himself shepherd; to show that He leads to the Father, he calls Himself door. Similarly, by a different analogy, Christ is both shepherd and sheep (Acts 8:32). The words of the divine Scriptures are a door. But the Lord Himself is the Word, and therefore also the Door.
“This figure Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”
This figure [literally, “parable” – παροιμία] Jesus spoke unto them, catching their attention by enigmatic sayings.
So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.”
Although He first spoke in parables, now He speaks clearly: I am the door.
“All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them.”
This statement applies again to Theudas and Judas, and other troublemakers (though the heretical Manichean sect proposed the above verse as a “proof text” to show that the Old Testament was heretical and not from God). The Lord makes this clear when He says, the sheep did not heed them. The sheep ignored the seditionists, but responded to every word of the prophets; they believed in Christ because of the prophets’ testimony. Furthermore, the Lord is pleased that the sheep did not heed them. If this referred to the prophets (as the Manichees suggested), it would be the only instance where Christ applauded those who refused to listen to His messengers. Everywhere else, He strongly rebukes those who do so. Take note of how He states precisely All who came. He does not say, “All that ever were sent.” The prophets were sent by God, but false prophets and seditionists came on their own initiative to deceive and destroy. God Himself affirms, I sent not them, yet they ran (Jeremiah 23:21).
“I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”
The Lord is saying, “He who enters in by Me, the door which leads to the Father, will become His sheep and be safe.” Moreover, such a man will go in and out, that is, remain completely without fear in all his doings, as did the apostles, who went in boldly before the tyrants and went out rejoicing, and unconquered (e.g. Acts 5:41).
And he shall find pasture, meaning abundant spiritual nourishment. But there is a deeper meaning here. Because man’s nature is twofold – inner and outer (as Paul says) – a man “goes in” when he cares for the inner man:
For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self
2 Corinthians 4:16
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.
He “goes out” when he mortifies his members which are upon the earth (Colossians 3:5)5 and in Christ puts to death the sinful actions of the body:
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.
Such a man shall find pasture in the age to come, according to the words of the Psalm, The Lord is my Shepherd, and I shall not want. In a place of green pasture, there hath He made me to dwell (Psalm 22:1 LXX).
Gregory the Great wrote of this verse:
He shall go in to faith. He shall go out from faith to vision, from belief to contemplation. He shall find pasture in everlasting refreshment. His sheep shall find pasture because whoever follows Him with a guileless heart is nourished with a food of everlasting freshness. What are the pastures of these sheep but the everlasting joys of an ever green paradise? The pasture of the elect is the countenance of God in person. When we see Him perfectly our hearts are endlessly satisfied with the food of life. Those who have evaded the traps of temporary pleasures rejoice in those pastures with the fullness of eternity. There are choirs of angels singing hymns, there the company of heavenly citizens.6
1 Unless otherwise noted, explanations are taken from The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to John of Theophylact of Ohrid; translated from the Greek by Christopher Stade (Chrysostom Press, 2007).
2 Thoughts for Each Day of the Year; translated from the Russian by St. Herman of Alaska Press, 2010, p.107
4 Commentary on John 9:3-5
5 KJV quoted, which is closer to the literal Greek
6 Forty Gospel Homilies, Homily XV; translated from the Latin by Dom David Hurst, Cistercian Publications, 1990.