The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus says in John 10:10. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
A quick quiz: Who is the thief?
When I ask my students this question, they almost always give the same answer: “The Devil.”
The problem is that the Devil doesn’t appear anywhere in the context of the passage, but other thieves are clearly identified.
When I ask my students how many of them believe in reading Bible passages in context, almost all raise their hands. We’ve been trained to know it’s the right answer, like knowing we should buckle our seatbelts or brush our teeth. But it’s when we see the wreck at the side of the road or hear the dentist’s drill that we realize that the “should” is not just a nicety. Reading Scripture in context sometimes simply enriches the reading, but other times it changes the verse’s meaning altogether. It protects us from reading the Bible as merely a safe, spiritual, familiar book. In John 10, there’s a wreck on the side of the road that Jesus is desperate for us to see.
The art of the steal
John 10:10 is part of a larger discourse that mentions other thieves, a flock, and a good shepherd. It’s tempting to identify the thief simply by referring back to John 10:1, which says that whoever does not gain access to the sheep by the door (Jesus), but tries to reach them some other way, is “a thief and a robber.” It’s a true answer, but an incomplete one. There are other identifying markers. In 10:5, the sheep are wise enough to not follow the voice of a “stranger.” In 10:8, all those who came before Jesus, pretending to hold the role of chief shepherd, were “thieves and robbers.” And in 10:12, wolves, like thieves, come to scatter the flock.
What do thieves, robbers, and wolves want with the sheep? They want to eat them, sell them, or otherwise exploit them. Their concern is for themselves, not for the sheep (see Ezek. 34:2). Their interest in the sheep is the exact opposite of that of the faithful shepherd, who wants to protect the sheep.
In contrast to the thief who comes to kill, John 10:10 mentions the good shepherd who comes to give life abundantly. But it will cost him something, because he will have to face off with the thieves. Some caretakers would abandon the sheep rather than risk their own safety to confront the wolves (John 10:12–13). But Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is different: He knows and cares for every one of his sheep; they also know him and recognize his voice (10:3–4, 14–15).
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus explains (10:11, 14). Jesus is so committed to his sheep that he lays down his life to protect us against the wolves, thieves, and robbers who seek to harm us (10:11, 17–18). But just as the “Good Shepherd” is a real, physical person, so are the thieves and robbers Jesus is talking about.
Will the real thief please stand up?
In John 9, one chapter back, Jesus heals a man blind from birth near a pool. This miraculous sign prompts the religious leaders to interrogate the healed man, but they don’t believe his story that Jesus must be from God. They finally dismiss the man from the synagogue. As chapter 9 closes, Jesus is defending the healed man against the disdain of the religious authorities.
That is the immediate setting for chapter 10 and the reason why the NIV adds “Pharisees” to Jesus’ address, “very truly I tell you,” in John 10:1. The original Greek text of John had no chapter breaks. Jesus was addressing the religious leaders at the end of what we call chapter 9, and he is still addressing them in chapter 10. The healed man is an example of the sheep who have heeded Jesus’ voice. Jesus is the shepherd, and the religious leaders are thieves and robbers. In this Gospel, it is conflict with the religious and political authorities that ultimately culminates in Jesus laying down his life for us and taking it up again at the Resurrection (10:15–18).
Some more background will make the point of this narrative even clearer. In the Old Testament, God’s people often appear as his sheep (e.g., Pss. 95:7; 100:3). Israel’s leaders were supposed to be their shepherds, but often in Israel’s history the shepherds exploited the sheep for their own interests instead of caring for them. Although figures such as Moses and David are called shepherds of Israel, the image of the shepherd of God’s people is most often applied to God himself (e.g., Ps. 23:1; Ezek. 34:15). God promised that someday he would himself be the shepherd of his people, delivering them from the ones who exploit them (Ezek. 34:2–16).
In John 9, the religious authorities excluded the healed man from the synagogue, treating him as if he did not belong to God’s people (John 9:22, 34). But the true shepherd of God’s people, Jesus, now affirms that this healed man is indeed one of his sheep. Jesus, as God’s Word become flesh, defends his own, even though this conflict brings him another step closer to his own execution.
Harming the flock
Jesus is still the shepherd today, but who are the thieves and the robbers? There are still those who would exploit God’s people for their own interests. We have all heard about fraudulent preachers who promise healing or prosperity for financial gifts. Sam Lael Zulu, a friend of mine who is a Pentecostal pastor in Zambia, Africa, lamented with me about a few examples of thieves in his own context. When promises of prosperity fail to materialize, some extreme prosperity preachers attribute the blocking of blessing to demons. So they minister “deliverance” only they can provide to those who are experiencing problems. With a cheap magic trick, one South African “prophet,” Lesego Daniel, turns fuel into juice and allows his members to drink it. Another, Penuel Mnguni, had some church members munch on live snakes. Still another, Lethebo Rabalago, sprays a highly toxic insecticide onto congregants, sometimes in their faces, to heal them. Though these leaders are not representative of genuine Christianity or of most of us who believe in genuine gifts of the Spirit, their antics taint us all in some people’s eyes.
This isn’t a new idea: Already in the first century, some envisioned piety as a way to get profit (1 Tim. 6:5). Motivated by greed, some teachers made up stories or teachings so they could exploit God’s people (2 Pet. 2:3). While urging the elders of Ephesus to care for the flock that Jesus died for, the apostle Paul even warned that greedy wolves would come in among them and would harm the sheep (Acts 20:28–29). My wife’s family knew a man blessed with prophetic gifts who initially seemed to be walking with God. In time, however, the accuracy of his prophecies waned, and it was soon discovered that he had begun sleeping with some young women whose “help” he had enlisted. Like Samson or Saul, he started well but finished badly.
But thieves and robbers aren’t always so deranged, so obvious, or so far away from us. We might also think of thieves and robbers that try to gain access to the sheep without coming through Jesus (John 10:1). If Jesus claims to be the only way to the Father, those who try to lead the sheep in other ways will harm the flock (14:6). This would include not only false messiahs but also anyone who seeks to lead us away from Jesus.
Those of us who are spiritual leaders must make sure that we serve the interests of the shepherd and the needs of the sheep. In a world where messages are often driven by consumer-sensitive marketing, it can become too easy for us to forget what we are and whom we represent. We need to make sure that we are leading people toward Jesus and not just to ourselves. We can get big heads about our own ministries and neglect the fruit of the Spirit, even though Jesus never said, “You’ll know them by the size of their ministry.” He did say, “You’ll know them by their fruit”—by their obedience to the Father’s will (Matt. 7:15–23).
Hearing the voice of the true shepherd
Although I have focused so far on the thieves, the real focus of the verse itself is the shepherd. Whereas thieves come to kill and destroy, our shepherd came so we could have life (John 10:10). In John’s gospel, “life”—here described as “abundant life”—normally means eternal life. This was a familiar Jewish phrase in Jesus’ day that meant the life of the coming age, after the resurrection of the dead (e.g., Dan. 12:2). According to John’s gospel, however, we do not have to wait until the future to receive eternal life. Because the promised Messiah gave his life for us, we are able to be born from above (John 1:12–13; 3:3–6) and so begin that future life now, in the present.
So, what about the Devil? I certainly recognize that in the Bible the Devil does bad things to people. In fact, just 66 verses before John 10:10, Jesus announces that the Devil was the first liar and murderer (John 8:44). There is no reason to doubt that he was the first thief also! The same verse, however, shows that the Devil was not alone in these practices; human beings were following the Devil’s example.
But here, Jesus is telling us to beware not of the Devil but of false, exploitive teachers. The question is not whether the Devil does bad things such as those described in John 10:10, but whether John 10:10 is talking specifically about the Devil. It seems clearly not to be. And when we spiritualize such passages, we lose the urgency of addressing other real threats to the church today. Leaders and teachers who want the church’s numbers and power for themselves without submitting to Jesus’ authority are not just fallible humans who’ve “forgotten what church is really about.” They’re murderers. Thieves. Liars. Jesus used such strong language about them and about himself that many who heard it said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?” (10:20).
As Jesus’ sheep, we need to recognize his voice, distinguishing it from the voice of strangers (John 10:4–5). Sometimes we will hear his voice in prayer or through godly believers who model his teachings. And because the Bible is God’s Word, we can grow in recognizing the Lord’s voice there—especially if we read it in context.
Craig Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. His most recent book is Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost (Eerdmans, 2016).
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