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DALLAS (BP)--On Monday, Pastor Jeremiah Wright had the following exchange with the moderator at the National Press Club:
MODERATOR: "Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the father but through me.' Do you believe this? And do you think Islam is a way to salvation?"
WRIGHT: "Jesus also said, 'Other sheep have I who are not of this fold.'"
Wright's response clearly implies that Muslims are among the "other sheep" to which Jesus refers in John 10:16. Thus Wright affirms that people who do not have conscious faith in Christ can nevertheless have the hope of salvation -- an inclusivist position that argues there are many paths to God.
There are two questions that need be addressed: (1) Did Jesus intend to include non-believers in the group called "other sheep"? (2) What difference does it make? Let's take a look.
In context, "other sheep" cannot be credibly understood as including anyone but genuine believers in Jesus Christ. The first half of John 10 is dominated by a metaphor that Jesus uses to describe His relationship to his people. Jesus is the "shepherd," and His people are called "sheep." Jesus describes His sheep as having a number of characteristics. Sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd, and they follow Him (10:3-4). Sheep do not listen to "strangers," but only to the voice of their own shepherd (10:5, 8). Sheep find salvation only by coming to their shepherd (10:9).
The metaphor cashes out as follows. Jesus is the shepherd, and His people are the sheep. Jesus lays down His life for his people, and the only way that they can be saved is through Jesus. The people whom Jesus saves listen only to Jesus. They do not listen to the "thieves and robbers" who have come to destroy them (10:10). Thus only people who come to Jesus by faith are able to be saved.
When Jesus says that he has "other sheep who are not of this fold," it's likely that he is referring to Gentiles who would later come to faith in Christ. The sheep that are following Him at that point in the narrative are Jews, but Jesus aims to have followers from among the Gentiles as well. Whoever the "other sheep" are understood to be, they nevertheless have the characteristics of "sheep." They listen to and follow Christ, and they are saved only by Him.
To say that "other sheep" refers to unbelievers (or followers of Islam in Reverend Wright's case) simply runs roughshod over the plain meaning of the passage.
What difference does all this make? The media has been discussing how Reverend Wright's remarks affect the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama. Frankly, I am not at all concerned with that question here. Eternity is at stake in Wright's remarks, and that transcends any political campaign.
Here's the real import of what Wright said. Many people who hear Jeremiah Wright are likely to get the impression that Jesus is one of many paths that people might take to get to God. Jesus never taught any such thing. In fact, he always challenged His hearers with a stark choice. "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other" (Matthew 6:24). Jesus would brook no rivals, and He only made salvation available to those who would "honor the son" (John 5:23).
The Jeremiah Wrights of the world mislead people into thinking that Jesus Christ is one path among many that people might take to get to God. Jesus taught just the opposite. There is only one path that leads people to salvation, and it's Jesus. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me" (John 14:6). To miss that path means forfeiting eternal life. The stakes couldn't get any higher than that.
Denny Burk serves as associate professor of New Testament at Criswell College in Dallas, Texas.