I think one of the most egregiously misquoted and misapplied biblical passages today is John 10:10! I cringe every time I hear it misquoted and misapplied. Even more distressing is the fact that the misquotes and misapplications are being done, not just by people in the pew, who have had no theological training, but also by preachers in the pulpit! I would like to suggest that this passage, this quote from Jesus, as of late, has been notoriously misquoted, misapplied, and misunderstood by too many pastors, preachers, and parishioners.
Now, let’s look at the passage:
The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. (KJV)
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (NIV)
We can see, just from just a quick glance, the glaring misquote that most people make! Jesus DID NOT SAY: The ‘enemy,’ Jesus said: The ‘thief.’ There is a substantial difference between an enemy and a thief! Perhaps the gross misapplication stems from the misquote? When the term ‘enemy’ is used, the devil quickly comes to mind. But Jesus did not say ‘the enemy,’ he said ‘the thief’ and Jesus WAS NOT REFERRING TO THE DEVIL when he used the term; ‘thief.’ (Please excuse the all caps, I realize it is interpreted as shouting, but I want to shout to get my point across!)
Now, before we get into the context of the text, I think it would be good to stop for a moment and understand why it doesn’t make sense for Jesus to have referred to the devil as a thief. There is an interesting exchange between Jesus and the devil in the wilderness temptation accounts that many have allowed to go over their heads. Let’s look at Luke 4:5-8: “Then the devil, taking Him up on a high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, ‘All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore, if You will worship before me, all will be Yours.’ And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, `You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.” (NKJ) The interesting thing about this dialogue is that Satan claimed that the authority over all the kingdoms of the world and their riches had been given to him. He also claimed to have had the right or the authority to give the authority and riches of those kingdoms to whoever he wanted. Now, the interesting thing to me is that Jesus did not dispute this claim! Surely, if the devil was lying at this point, Jesus would have known it and since the devil knew that Jesus was the Son of God, he knew that Jesus would have known that he was lying! In addition, if the devil was lying, the temptation wouldn’t have been a temptation at all! Therefore, since the devil, whom the Apostle Paul also referred to as ‘the god of this age’ has authority over the kingdoms of the world and their riches, what sense does it make for him to be trying to steal material things from believers? In fact, the more reasonable strategy (the one the devil actually uses and the one he tried on Jesus) would be for the devil to tempt us with the offer of material goods! Therefore, to say that the devil is the enemy who comes to steal, makes absolutely no biblical sense! If any thing, the devil comes, not to steal our material blessings, but to actually give material riches for the purpose of attempting to seduce us away from God! Furthermore, if the devil would want to steal anything from us, it wouldn’t be our stuff, it would be our faith and joy!
But, let’s get back to the passage! One of the primary rules of biblical interpretation is context! So, in order to put John 10:10 in proper context, we have to look at the overall conversation Jesus was having and more specifically when he first started to talk about the thief. Consequently, in order to put John 10:10 in its proper context, we have to at least, go back to John 10:1, where Jesus said: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.” (NKJ) So, we see that the thief in the context of John 10, is not trying to steal what the sheep have, but is actually trying to steal the sheep! In verse 8 Jesus said: “All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them.” (NKJ) So, we see that Jesus used the terms; ‘thief,’ ‘thieves,’ and ‘robbers’ to refer the religious leaders who came before him, who were taking advantage of people (the sheep) for their own selfish gain! The thieves and robbers were the religious leaders who sought to gain access to the sheep by some other way than Jesus; the door of the sheep (v. 7).
Therefore, when taken in its proper context, it is obvious that John 10:10 was not a direct statement about the devil, but rather it was a statement about the false religious leaders who did not care to properly instruct the sheep, but rather abused the confidence of the sheep for their own gain! The thief, who comes but to steal, kill, and destroy in John 10:10 is NOT THE DEVIL, but rather is the false prophet, the false teacher, the false religious leader who abuses and uses the people of God for selfish personal gain!
To further substantiate this conclusion, it is interesting to note that, in the Greek text, the word that is translated as ‘kill’ in John 10:10 is a word that is used only 14 times in the entire Greek New Testament and only once in John! It is not the normal word that is most often translated as; ‘kill.’ It is a word that denotes, not just a simple killing, but rather killing in the form of a religious sacrifice. Since the thief kills the sheep as a religious sacrificial offering, this further supports the identity of the thief as a religious personality!
Even after verse 10, Jesus continues his argument, but shifts the analogy of the false religious leaders from being thieves and robbers to being hirelings; mere hired-hands. The hireling, Jesus says in verses 12-13, cares nothing for the sheep, therefore, runs when he sees the wolf coming because he is in it only for the money!
Now, I hope no one gets the impression from reading this that I am a devil’s advocate! No! I am not trying to defend the devil, I am just arguing for handling the biblical text with exegetical integrity! We should be most careful to do due-diligence in reading, studying, preaching, teaching, and interpreting the biblical text! The Apostle Paul cautioned his young protégé Timothy by saying: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15 ESV)
(Just as an aside, when 2 Timothy 2:15 is quoted and referenced, most often used is the King James Version, which says: “Study to shew thyself approved . . .” But even in quoting and applying this text, there are two things that most modern biblical readers don’t realize. First, the Greek word that is translated as ‘study’ in the KJV is a word that means, ‘1) to hasten, make haste 2) to exert one’s self, endeavor, give diligence. Secondly, during the time the KJV Bible was written, the English word; ‘study,’ did not have the primary meaning it has today! Today, when we think of study, we think of intense reading, meditating, and remembering. But when the KJV was written, the primary meaning of ‘study’ was; ‘to endeavor’ ‘to try.’)
The lessons I hope to convey in this post are manifold, namely: 1) Don’t simply assume or accept a meaning or interpretation of a text simply because it’s the meaning or interpretation most people give it, even if those people are preachers and pastors who are supposedly biblically literate. 2) Remember the primary rule of biblical interpretation is context, and 3) Make every effort to become astute in handling the Word yourself! Your salvation and spiritual well-being is too important to leave solely in the hands of some pastor, preacher, Bible teacher, or any other person!