Jesus makes a rather cryptic reference in John 10:16 that has sometimes baffled the casual Bible-reader. After speaking about how He will lay down his life for the sheep, Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Who are these “other sheep?”
Because the reference to “other sheep” seems to come out of thin air, not a few have attempted to capitalize on its vagueness. For example, the Mormons suggest that the “other sheep” were the fabled Nephites in the Americas! But there is no need to reach for such extravagant answers.
This verse contains a clue to the real identity of these “other sheep.” Jesus says that these “other sheep … do not belong to this fold.” The word “fold” (Greek, aule) means a courtyard for animals. It is a gated area where the sheep can safely wander, being walled in from the wild. The “other sheep” are apparently outside the walled enclosure.
Jesus’ reference to the Jews being sheep within a fold is quite apt. They were a people separate and distinct from the other nations because of the ceremonial law, which included ritual circumcision, dietary regulations, regulations on ritual cleanness, temple sacrifices and so on. Even the Jerusalem temple marked off the Jewish worshipers from gentiles.
The temple court was divided into the outer court of the gentiles and the inner court where Israelites alone could worship God and offer sacrifices, and a literal wall separated the two. The gates leading into the inner courts had signs posted warning gentiles that if they entered, they’d face the death penalty. If the Jews of the first century were sheep, the temple with its boundaries made them sheep in a fold. And this is not something that is bad. The Old Covenant was designed for the sanctification of Israel, so that they could be separated from paganism, purged of idolatry, and to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. And as we will soon see, once the Messiah had come and instituted the New Covenant, the division between Jew and gentile is removed.
Another clue that the “other sheep” refers to the gentiles is found in verse 15, where Jesus says, right before mentioning the “other sheep,” that He will lay down His life for the sheep. Christ’s death and the leading of the “other sheep” are associated together. Jesus makes a similar statement a few chapters later, when He says, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (John 12:32). Being “lifted up from the earth” refers to Christ’s crucifixion (John 12:33). And what happens through Christ’s death? “…I will draw everyone to myself.” Christ’s death will draw all people, Jews and gentiles, to Himself.
Elsewhere, Paul, alluding to the wall that separated the court of the gentiles from the inner court, says Christ’s death destroyed the “wall of enmity” between Jews and gentiles, gathering both into one Body, the Church (Ephesians 2:14-16). The sheep who were once walled off are now part of one flock.
The Old Testament confirms that the Messiah and the New Covenant includes gentiles as well. For example, “On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10). Isaiah also predicted that the Messiah, God’s servant, would minister not only to Israel, but as a light to the gentiles as well: “It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
So don’t be sheepish about identifying the “other sheep” in John 10. There are no longer gates in the New Covenant; all people, both Jew and gentile, are welcome in.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.