Remember metaphors? My love is like a red, red rose. Oh wait, that’s a simile. A metaphor is You’re a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce. Just like You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch, John’s Gospel is full of sit-up-and-take-notice metaphors. In this post, I’d like to talk about the structure of the 7 metaphors and what that means for interpreting them. Here is the list in order of appearance:
John 6:35, 48, 51 I am the Bread of Life
John 9:5 I am the Light of the World
John 10: I am the Gate for the sheep
John 10:11, 14 I am the Good Shepherd
John 11:25 I am the Resurrection and the Life
John 14:6 I am the Way, the Truth and the Life
John 15:1 I am the True Vine
There are actually 10 statements in total because I am the Bread of Life is repeated three times, and I am the Good Shepherd is repeated twice. Any time we see the number 10, this is significant. In Genesis 1, we read “God said” 10 times, there are 10 plagues, 10 Commandments… Most commentators say this is the number of completeness. There is a complete picture, then, of who Jesus is in these 10 statements.
But what occurred to me as I looked at this list is that it, too may have a chiasm structure. Let’s take a look and see if this works. The first and last metaphors, bread and vine, are both food-related, and obviously connected to what Jesus says about his body and blood.
The second and sixth could be considered “the daily walk”. One verse that brings these two metaphors together is Psalm 119:105 “Your word (truth) is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (way).” Or, from John’s Gospel, “Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light” (John 3:21). And again, “For this command is a lamp, this teaching is a light, and correction and instruction are the way to life.” (Proverbs 6:23)
The third and fifth could be considered portals. A gate is a way into and out of the sheepfold, and resurrection is a way out of the grave into life. When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he doesn’t say, “Stop being dead!”, he says “Come out!”
But the fourth is the only one about a person. And, most important, it is repeated twice, a confirmation that this is the centre of the X to which John wants to draw our attention.
There are three further things to notice here: One, Jesus is calling us to himself, not only to his teaching. Later in the Gospel, he calls his disciples friends. This is one of the unique and compelling distinctives of the Christian faith.
Two, Jesus is a shepherd. A shepherd’s primary concern is to keep the sheep fed and healthy. He takes the sheep out to pasture, leads them to water, fends off predators, treats injury. Unlike European shepherds, who who drive their flock from behind and use sheepdogs to keep them together, Near-Eastern shepherds, at least in Jesus’ time, would walk ahead of or beside the flock, talking, singing, or even playing a flute to them, and the sheep would follow the sound. Through this metaphor we are invited to listen to Jesus’ voice and follow him.
Third, Jesus is good. Good at his job? Kind and caring? Sure, but the sentences that follow the “I am the Good Shepherd” statements explain what he means. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”(10:11) “I know my own and my own know me… and I lay down my life for my sheep.”(10:15) So Jesus is good because he lays down his life for the sheep. At the centre of the X, we find the cross.
One of the goosebump-inducing benefits of studying the literary structure of the Bible is how it leads us deeper into the truth. However, it’s not enough to know that John wants us to know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We need to know Jesus as Good Shepherd ourselves. For me, appreciating the metaphors leads me to love the Person more.
For a lot of people, the Bible is either art or truth. For me, it's both, and I hope to persuade readers in both camps to see the other perspective.