Who are the "other sheep" in John 10:16?

“And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” — John 10:16

Christians have traditionally viewed the above passage as a reference to the Gentiles who would soon be presented the Good News of salvation and engrafted into the Christian fold. Mormons, however, have used John 10:16 as a proof-text to support the existence of one of the people groups in the Book of Mormon. According to LDS Apostle James E. Talmage, “The ‘other sheep’ here referred to constituted the separated flock or remnant of the house of Joseph, who, six centuries prior to the birth of Christ, had been miraculously detached from the Jewish fold in Palestine, and had been taken beyond the great deep to the American continent” (Jesus the Christ, p.419).

Some Mormons deny the Christian interpretation by insisting that Jesus meant these “other sheep” would actually hear His literal voice. Since Jesus did not specifically address the Gentile people, they argue that He must have been speaking of someone else. On the surface this might seem like a plausible argument. The problem lies in the fact that the Bible often uses this type of language to portray the idea that a thought or message could be transmitted by some other means than by the actual speaking of a person. For instance, time and time again the children of Israel were commanded to listen to “the voice” of the Lord (e.g., Deuteronomy 27:10; 1 Samuel 12:15; 2 Kings 18:12). Despite this warning, rarely do we find the children of Israel ever actually hearing the voice of the Lord Himself. Instead, God used Moses and other prophets as His mouthpiece.

There are good reasons why the Christian church has understood Jesus to be speaking of the Gentiles in John 10:16. Though Jesus’ specific ministry was directed toward the Jew, this is not to say that Christ ignored the Gentile people living in Palestine during His mortal ministry. A classic example is Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well in Sychar (John 4:7ff).

In Matthew 12:9ff Jesus heals a Jewish man’s hand on the Sabbath. When challenged by the Pharisees for performing such a deed on the Sabbath, Jesus again spoke of ministering to His sheep. When the Pharisees made it clear that He was not welcome, Jesus quoted from Isaiah 42:1-4, a prophesy that speaks of God’s servant who “shall show judgment to the Gentiles” in whose name they will trust (vs.18-19).

In Matthew 15:22-28, we find our Lord heeding the request of a Canaanite woman whose daughter was “vexed with a devil.” When Jesus tested her faith by explaining that He was “sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” she humbly replied that even lowly dogs “eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” In response, Jesus told the woman that her request was granted (vs. 28).

Our Lord’s use of the word sheep cannot be ignored since it is the same language he used in John chapter 10. Jesus’ actions in these accounts fulfill perfectly what was spoken of Him long before. In Isaiah 11:2ff, God’s prophet predicts the day when the “root of Jesse” shall stand as a banner to the people, and “the Gentiles shall seek him” (6:10). In Romans 15:8ff, the apostle Paul refers to this passage as being fulfilled in Christ.

In Isaiah 55:5, God calls unto all of those who are spiritually thirsty, including those who were not recognized as a nation. In Isaiah 56:5,6 the Lord promises to give an everlasting name that is better than that given to “sons and daughters.” This name would be given to the “sons of the stranger,” an expression used to speak of foreigners in Israel who did not have inherited rights (Exodus 12:48; 22:21; Leviticus 17:15; Acts 7:29).

In the sixtieth chapter of Isaiah, it is predicted that a day would come when a deep darkness would cover the people while at the same time “the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (vs. 3). The prophet Malachi also foretold of the day when God’s name shall be “great among the Gentiles” (1:11).

Following Christ’s death and resurrection, the disciples carried on the tradition of taking the Gospel to the House of Israel. However, when the Jews rejected Paul’s message on his first missionary journey to Antioch of Pisidia, he declared that he would take his message to the Gentiles. In doing so, he quoted from Isaiah 49:6 which reads, “I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the ends of the earth.”

This emphasis is further realized in Ephesians 2:14. Speaking of how the blood of Christ has brought together those Gentiles who were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, Paul stated, “For He is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us.” It is difficult to ignore the similarity between this passage and that of John 10:16.

In his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul reiterated the fact that the nation Israel had rejected the Gospel message thereby opening the prophetic door for the Gospel to be preached to the Gentiles. In Romans 10:12 he goes on to point out that as far as God is concerned, “there is no difference between Jew and Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon Him.” He then reminds his readers that Moses prophesied that God would “provoke [Israel] to jealousy by them that are no people…I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me.” The pagan nations of the ancient world had no desire to seek after the God of Israel; yet God, in His mercy, was going to seek after them. Such a description would disqualify the people mentioned in the Book of Mormon since the so-called Nephites were a people who had a history of seeking after the Lord.

We find in Romans 11:13 that Paul spoke of himself as the “apostle of the Gentiles.” He then warned his Gentile readers to be careful lest they allow pride to enter their heart over the fact that Israel had been “broken off” of the tree while they were “grafted in.” This distinction between Jew and Gentiles fits perfectly with what Jesus predicted in John 10:16.

In Ephesians 3:3-5 Paul revealed a mystery that “in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men,” but had only recently been revealed to God’s people. According to Ephesians 3:6, this mystery was the inclusion of the Gentiles as “fellow heirs” who would partake of His promise in Christ by the Gospel. Though the Old Testament gave scattered hints to such a time, these references, like that of the ministry of Christ Himself, was not fully understood until it actually happened. It was only within the context of Christ’s sacrifice did the passages become clear. The once-separated Gentiles were now on an equal footing with their Jewish counterparts. Through the acceptance of the Gospel, they too could experience the intimate love and personal relationship with their Creator.

Such biblical evidence compels us to reject the LDS conclusion that John 10:16 is a reference to the people mentioned in the Book of Mormon. There is no more biblical evidence that says this passage refers to Nephites and/or Lamanites than there is to say it points specifically to any other obscure or “lost” people group. On the other hand, there is plenty of biblical support to show this passage speaks directly of non-Jewish Gentiles.

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