Reading: John 10
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)
How often have we heard this scripture quoted and assuming the thief is the devil? Don't get me wrong, I am not disputing the fact that the devil is a thief. Nor that he is bent on destruction. He is indeed. But by too quickly concluding that Jesus is speaking of the devil here we might miss the more significant and relevant application for those in positions of leadership over God's people. If we read more carefully we may find a warning for leaders to beware lest they be the thief who destroys.
This scripture has a context, and the context of this verse doesn't seem to have anything to do with devils or demons. The context of this verse is all about presumed leaders of God's people who prevent the people from seeing Jesus, the Good Shepherd. The end of John 9 flows right into the beginning of John 10:
39Jesus said, "For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind." 40Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, "What? Are we blind too?" 41Jesus said, "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. 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. (John 9:39-41; 10:1)
In John 10, Jesus is speaking to the same pharisees as in chapter 9. He tells them they are guilty of sin and under judgment. The “very truly I tell you...” of John 10:1 is a continuation of the same thought. John 10 is a warning against these Jewish leaders that they are thieves and robbers.
Jesus is speaking to them in parables. In the first, Jesus is the Shepherd of the sheep (John 10:1-5). The gatekeeper opens the gate for Him. This is what the Jewish leaders were supposed to be: gatekeepers. But they weren't opening the gate for Jesus. Jesus came to give life and that more abundantly. Instead of opening the gate so the sheep might have life they were barring sheep from Jesus. They were stealing life from the sheep by keeping them from Jesus.
Then, as if He is shifting parables, Jesus is now the gate and the Jewish leaders are “all who have come before me” that are “thieves and robbers” (John 10:7-10). How is it that the Jewish leaders, teaching the scriptures as they were, were thieves and robbers? How were they keeping people from Jesus?
Though I am certain there is more than one answer to this question, I think we have a big answer in John 5. There Jesus is also speaking to the Jewish leaders.
39You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
In John 5 we discover that the Jewish leaders studied the Scripture, but refused to see Jesus in the Scripture. They were not rightly handling the Scripture (2 Timothy 2:15). All of the Scriptures are to point us to Christ (Luke 24:27, 44). The Pharisees thought they had life in the Scriptures. But they refused to go to Christ to get that life. Likewise, in their teaching they were not opening the gate of the Scriptures to lead the people to Jesus but rather were hindering their ability to see Jesus by teaching everything but Jesus from the Scriptures.
So although it may seem harmless to think that John 10:10 is talking only about the devil, I wonder if in fact it might lead to a bigger problem. If we think it is the devil, we might miss the warning that applies to any that would presume to teach the Scripture. We (those who teach God's word) better make sure we are using the Scripture to open the door to Jesus. If not, we are thieves and robbers, keeping the people from the life, the abundant life that Jesus and only Jesus can give them. (See also James 3:1.)
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
For More on John 10 and Jesus' handling of the false shepherds of Israel see I Said, “You are 'gods'”!