Who is the thief in John 10:10?
In most of the preaching and teaching that I hear, as of late, the thief in John 10:10 is portrayed as being the devil, seeking to rob the believer of his earthly possessions. But is this interpretation supported by the text? Is this the meaning that Jesus was seeking to convey when he uttered these words? I believe that a careful, honest, exegetical study of the text would lead us to a much different conclusion.
Context: This text is part of a discourse by Jesus in which he is likening himself to being the Door of the sheep (v.7) and the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep (v. 11). He is somewhat veiled as the door in verse 1, but he reveals himself plainly in verse 7. So, the contrast is between one who would enter the sheepfold by the door and one who would seek to come in another way (the thief). It is between the Good Shepherd, who gives his life for the sheep and the hireling who runs at the first sign of trouble. So, it seems obvious from the text that Jesus is not speaking of demonic forces, but rather it seems to be a polemic argument directed against the religious rulers of his day.
Note that the “thief” is first introduced in this discourse in John 10:1, where he is described as one who does not enter by the door into the sheepfold, but seeks to enter in by some other way. The sheepfold was an enclosed area where the sheep were kept during the night. In ancient times, sheep from various folds would all be mixed together in a sheepfold during the night. In the morning, the various shepherds would call their sheep and the sheep in turn, upon hearing their individual shepherd’s voice, would go out, separating themselves into various flocks, according to the dictates of each individual shepherd’s voice and call. So the thief is one who would attempt to gain illegal access to the sheep in the sheepfold during the night.
Word Study: Performing a word-study on significant words in verse 10 provides valuable insights to the identity of the thief. So, let’s start with the word for “kill.”
A word study on the word, “kill” reveals the following: In the English, the word “kill” in any form, is found only 10 times in the entire Gospel of John. Of those 10 times, 9 times, the Greek word, “apokteino,” which means, “to kill in any way whatever,” is used. However, in our text, the word for kill is “thuo,” which means, “to sacrifice.” This definition holds true for the usage of the word in the NT. It only occurs 13 other times, besides in our text in the NT and our text is the only occurrence in the Gospel of John. In every case, the word is used to denote the killing of an animal for the purpose of offering up a sacrifice or of eating a meal in connection with a sacrifice.
Now, the fact that this particular word for “kill” is used our text, seems to suggest that the thief does not just kill, but rather the killing is for or in connection with making a sacrifice as an act of worship. With that being the case, we can surmise that the “thief” is a religious person. This ties in perfectly with Jesus’ depiction of the thief being the religious leader, who was sacrificing the people for his own personal benefit and profit.
In contrast to some modern teachings on this text, the thief is not the devil, but rather the thief is that religious leader, that pastor, that bishop or whoever would destroy people by taking advantage of them.
Another word study that would give even more credence to our original hypothesis is a study of the Greek word for “life” in this text. In the Greek NT, “zoe” is used to denote a higher form of life, the quality of life. “Bios” is used to denote the “stuff” of life, that which is needed to sustain life physically, wealth, possessions, and the quantity of life. Contrary to the modern teachings, Jesus did not come to give us more “stuff” in life. If this was the case, the author would have used the word, “bios” but he used the word “zoe.” When the widow cast in her offering, as is recorded in Mark and Luke, Jesus said that she cast in more than any one else because the other offerings were from the surplus or the extra that people had. But the woman gave all that she had, even her living (bios).
Jesus specifically said that a man’s life (zoe) does not consist in the abundance of the things he might possess. So, to make his coming to be for the purpose that we might have more stuff and that more abundantly, is totally a blatant disregard for what the text actually says and a direct contradiction of what Jesus said! It is a demeaning mockery of the Cross!
Conclusion and Application:
So from this exegetical study, we can confidently say that the thief in John 10:10 is not the devil, but rather a religious leader who sacrifices the flock for personal gain. To be even more specific, the thief was the Pharisee or scribe who was using his position to take advantage of the people. Instead of helping the man in chapter 9, they kicked him out of the synagogue! Instead of helping him, they sought to destroy him because of his association with Jesus. And then finally, Jesus did not come so that we might have more “stuff,” he came that we might have eternal (zoe) life!