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John 10:26-30 (NIV):

26 But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: 28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. 29 My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand. 30 I and my Father are one.

Is John 10:27 talking about a literal audible voice, some sort of "telepathic" communication or inner voice, or does it mean something altogether different?

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In a sense, Scripture preserves for us the voice of God.

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son – Heb 1:1-2 (NASB)

That the story of the sheep and the shepherd is a parable indicates that the individual elements are not meant to be taken literally. Rather, the analogy of the sheep and the shepherd calls attention to the relationship between the two. The role of the shepherd is to care for and protect his sheep. Psalm 23 offers a glimpse of what this looks like from a spiritual perspective.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. – Psalm 23:1-3 (KJV)

Though the sheep can hear other voices, they recognize the voice of the shepherd and can distinguish it from all the others. Likewise, the shepherd knows the sheep. Theirs is a relationship based on mutual knowing. That the sheep can hear the voice of the shepherd is a reflection of their familiarity and trust in the shepherd. This hearing of the shepherd’s voice can therefore serve as an analogy for faith.

In the passage of John 5, the interplay between hearing and believing goes beyond the parable and factors into the discourse between Jesus and his opponents. While they can physically hear Jesus, they are said to be unable to hear his voice or, in other words, they do not believe him.

v 25-27 (KJV) – Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness of me. 26 But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me

“But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep.” Being “of My sheep” is shown to be the key to believing in the shepherd. To further understand what Jesus means by being “of my sheep,” it helps to examine a similar discourse in John 8.

43 Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot listen to My word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father… If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? 47 The one who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God. – Jn 8:43-47 (NASB)

“My word” and the “words of God” correspond to “my voice,” and being “of God” corresponds to being “of my sheep.” In John 10, those who cannot hear Jesus’ voice are those who are not of his sheep. In John 8, those who cannot hear his word and God’s words are those who are “not of God.” From the context “not of God” means they follow a will that is in direct opposition to God’s will (Jn 8:44).

Returning to the OP’s question, hearing the shepherd’s voice is a complex process that goes beyond physical (or perhaps even mystical) hearing. It is closely linked to faith and is rooted in how each person aligns himself with regard to the will of God. The notion of hearing yet not hearing is an important theme of the text and echoes of it can be found throughout Scripture (cf Ps 135:17, Is 42:20, Jer 5:21, Ez 12:2, Is 6:10, Acts 28:24-28).

This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. 14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah." – Matthew 13:13-14

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John 10:1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

It is the divine voice of God that believers hear by faith. God speaks to people's heart. In contrast, the Phrisees literally heard the physical sound waves of Jesus with their ears, yet, they refused to believe. Why? Because of their lack of faith. They didn't listen with their heart. There is nothing magical about the voice. It has to do with the spiritual condition of the hearers. It is interesting too that Jesus compares the hearers to the innocent sheep as opposed to the stubborn Pharisees.

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Jesus' remarks about His followers hearing and obeying "my voice" is a direct allusion to several such uses in the OT such as:

  • 1 Kings 19:12 - After the earthquake there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a still, small voice. [That is the voice of instruction and lead from God.]
  • Isa 40:3 - A voice of one calling: “Prepare the way for the LORD in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert. [This is quoted by Matt 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23 - the voice of God as quoted, in this case by the prophet John, is the voice of leading and instruction.]
  • Ex 19:19 - As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. [Again, this voice of God relayed by the prophet Moses, is the voice of instruction about to speak the 10 commandments.]
  • Deut 4:33 - Has a people ever heard the voice of God speaking out of the fire, as you have, and lived? [God only speaks to His people as per above.]
  • Deut 5:24 - and you said, “Behold, the LORD our God has shown us His glory and greatness, and we have heard His voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that a man can live even if God speaks with him. [Same comment as above.]
  • Eze 10:5 - The sound of the wings of the cherubim could be heard as far as the outer court, like the voice of God Almighty when He speaks. [The voice of God speaks from the temple with instruction and leading.] See also Rev 16:1, 2 Peter 1:17, etc.

The "my voice" is Jesus claiming to speak (as did the prophets of old) as the voice of God. Jesus confirms this when He comments that (John 12:50) -

And I know that His command leads to eternal life. So I speak exactly what the Father has told Me to say.” (See also John 8:38)

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First we need to understand what Jesus used for his illustration. Shepherds back then used a community pin for nighttime and community wells to water the sheep. The way the shepherd separated his sheep from the rest was to call them, similar to how we would call a dog or cat today.

His legitimacy is further validated by the fact that the sheep listen to his voice. The relationship between the shepherd and his sheep is so deep and longstanding that he can call them by name. The depiction here is of a shepherd beginning the workday by gaining entrance through the night watchman and calling each of his beloved sheep by names he has given to them (Fuzzy? Wooly? Sparky?). They respond to his summons, and he leads them out to their daily grazing area. The story pictures a community sheep pen where several flocks are housed together. During the night the sheep from various flocks may have intermingled. This shepherd does not separate his sheep by walking through the pen, but by standing at the gate and calling their names. -- Bryant, B. H., & Krause, M. S. (1998). John (John 10:2–3). Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co.

What Jesus said about his voice outside the figure of speech (τὴν παροιμίαν):

  1. Jesus laid down his life for those who believe in him (v.11).
  2. Jesus equates the words he spoke during his earthly ministry with “his voice” in the figure of speech (vs.25-28).
  3. John 16:8-14 points to the ministry of the Holy Spirit as being “his voice.”

8 And when he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. 12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:8–14, ESV)

Thus, Jesus’ voice is his words as recorded in the Bible and the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our lives to believe his word.

Note: We can make this too simple if we only take this as mental belief. That is hearing Jesus' voice but not necessarily responding to it. Responding to Jesus' voice means doing what he said.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:15–17, ESV)

Comforting however is Jesus searches for his lost sheep. None of us are perfect.

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You asked, "Is John 10:27 talking about a literal audible voice, some sort of "telepathic" communication or inner voice, or does it mean something altogether different?"

Something altogether different.

John 10:26-27 (lit.): "But you do not believe because you are not of my sheep: my sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me ..." That is, "But you do not hear my voice because you are not of my sheep: my sheep here my voice..." To hear the voice of the good shepherd appears to be a figure for believing in Jesus.

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  • Whatever any other "voice" or "hearing" passages might mean in their own contexts, the first port of call in seeking the answer to this question of John 10:27 should be the context of 10:27. Before reaching for the concordance, just read 26 and 27 together.
    – John Rowse
    Apr 21, 2021 at 11:27

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