One of the tragedies of contemporary American Christianity is our neglect of the Old Testament. Most Christians haven’t really read it, and don’t know what to do with it. Many people are down with Jesus, but don’t like the “angry” God of the Old Testament. But if we don’t read the Old Testament, we can’t really understand Jesus. That’s because Jesus saw himself in Old Testament terms. He saw himself as fulfilling the vision and mission laid out by the Old Testament prophets. One of the clearest and most beautiful examples of this is seen in John 10 and Ezekiel 34.
John 10 gives us the wonderful statements about Jesus being the “good shepherd” who will die for his sheep (his people).
- “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
- “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15).
When Jesus says these words, he is drawing from the prophet Ezekiel, in chapter 34. There, Ezekiel rebukes the “shepherds” (the leaders) of Israel. They have not been taking care of the people of Israel. Instead of feeding the sheep, they’ve been feeding themselves. Instead of taking care of the sheep, they’ve been eating the sheep!
- “The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep” (Ezekiel 34:1-3).
Because the human shepherds have acted unjustly, God himself promises to come rescue his sheep!
- “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ezekiel 34:11-12).
God promises that He will be the shepherd of his sheep (Ezekiel 34:15). He also promises to send the true heir of King David, to feed the sheep and take care of them (Ezekiel 34:23).
But, the chapter ends with this tantalizing promise: “And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 34:31).
All this is the context and background of Jesus’ words in John 10. This also helps explain why the Jews try to kill Jesus in John 10. First Jesus says this:
- “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).
But he goes on to make a radical claim:
- “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:29-30)
In reaction to that claim, “The Jews picked up stones again to stone him.” (John 10:31). They realize that he is identifying himself with God, the true shepherd of Israel. Jesus is the true heir of David, and he is one with the Lord God, the shepherd of Israel (Ezekiel 34:23 and 34:31). Reading John 10 along with Ezekiel 34 helps us understand both passages more deeply.
Reading the New Testament without reading the Old Testament is like trying to read (or watch) The Two Towers, without reading The Fellowship of the Ring. You’ll miss so much, and not notice the deeper themes. Of course, if you’re reading the Bible for the first time, it can be helpful to start with the New Testament. The life and words of Jesus help us to understand the Old Testament. But, as we grow in our maturity, we should want to read the Bible like Jesus did. And that means reading the “Bible” that Jesus had–the Old Testament. Christian, don’t neglect the treasures waiting there for you!