Question: "What did Jesus mean when He said 'I am the door' (John 10:7)?"
Answer: The statement “I am the door,” found in John 10:7, is the third of seven “I am” declarations of Jesus recorded only in John’s Gospel. These “I am” proclamations point to His unique, divine identity and purpose. In this “I am” statement, Jesus colorfully points out for us the exclusive nature of salvation by saying that He is “the door,” not “a door.” Furthermore, Jesus is not only our Shepherd who leads us into the “sheepfold,” but He is the only door by which we may enter and be saved (John 10:9). Jesus is the only means we have of receiving eternal life (John 3:16). There is no other way.
To get a clear picture of Jesus’ meaning in this statement, it is helpful to understand a little of that ancient culture, especially of sheep and shepherding. Of all domesticated animals, sheep are the most helpless. Sheep will spend their entire day grazing, wandering from place to place, never looking up. As a result, they often become lost. But sheep have no “homing instinct” as other animals do. They are totally incapable of finding their way to their sheepfold even when it is in plain sight. By nature, sheep are followers. If the lead sheep steps off a cliff, the others will follow.
Additionally, sheep are easily susceptible to injuries and are utterly helpless against predators. If a wolf enters the pen, they won’t defend themselves. They won’t try to run away or spread out. Instead they huddle together and are easily slaughtered. If sheep fall into moving water, they will drown. However, sheep do fear moving water and will not drink from any stream or lake unless the water is perfectly still. This is why David in the 23rd Psalm tells us of the shepherd who “makes [us] to lie down in green pastures, he leads [us] beside the still waters . . . though [we] walk through the valley . . . [we] will fear no evil. For You [the Shepherd] are with [us].”
Sheep are totally dependent upon the shepherd who tends them with care and compassion. Shepherds were the providers, guides, protectors and constant companions of sheep. So close was the bond between shepherd and sheep that to this day Middle Eastern shepherds can divide flocks that have mingled at a well or during the night simply by calling their sheep, who know and follow their shepherd’s voice. Shepherds were inseparable from their flocks. The shepherd would lead the sheep to safe places to graze and make them lie down for several hours in a shady place. Then, as night fell, the shepherd would lead the sheep to the protection of a sheepfold.
There were two kinds of sheepfolds or pens. One kind was a public sheepfold found in the cities and villages. It would be large enough to hold several flocks of sheep. This sheep pen would be in the care of a porter or doorkeeper, whose duty it was to guard the door to the sheep pen during the night and to admit the shepherds in the morning. The shepherds would call their sheep, each of which knew its own shepherd’s voice, and would lead them out to pasture.
The second kind of sheep pen was in the countryside, where the shepherds would keep their flocks in good weather. This type of sheep pen was nothing more than a rough circle of rocks piled into a wall with a small open space to enter. Through it the shepherd would drive the sheep at nightfall. Since there was no gate to close—just an opening—the shepherd would keep the sheep in and wild animals out by lying across the opening. He would sleep there, in this case literally becoming the door to the sheep.
In this context, Jesus is telling us that He is not only the shepherd of the sheep, but also the door of the sheep. In doing so, He is vividly contrasting Himself with that of the religious leaders of His time whom He describes as “thieves and robbers” (John 10:8). When Jesus says, “I am the door,” He is reiterating the fact that only through Him is salvation possible. This is far removed from the ecumenical teachings popular in today’s liberal religious circles. Jesus makes it clear that any religious leader who offers salvation other than the teachings of Christ is a “thief” and a “robber.”
One who believes the gospel (Hebrews 11:6) and repents of sin (Luke 13:3) is assured of being in “the fold” and of having entered by “the door.” As followers of Christ, Jesus is both our Shepherd and the Door to the sheepfold who provides for all our needs. Knowing that the world is full of predators whose sole intent is to destroy us (1 Peter 5:8), we are always under His protection. More importantly, we are fully confident that “when the Chief Shepherd appears, [we] will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away” (1 Peter 5:4).