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.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today