Thieves and Robbers

In the Gospel of John, ch.10, the Apostle records the Lord Jesus warning about “thieves and robbers.” Who were these dangerous predators?

We learn five things about them:

  • they are criminal who enter the sheepfold illegally – not via the door, but by some other way (v.1)
  • they are strangers to the sheep, who won’t follow them, bur rather run away from them. They speak with an alien voice (v.5)
  • many came before Jesus, and the sheep rightly ignored them (v.8)
  • these criminals do evil; they “steal and kill and destroy” (v.10)
  • they are like hired hands, who have no true interest in the sheep and who abandon the sheep when danger threatens (v.12)

Who are these “thieves and robbers” and how is this passage relevant today?

Although there is a chapter division in our English Bibles, it’s clear that Jn.10:1 is a continuation from the previous chapter. Leon Morris:

“There is no introductory explanation of the occasion or the like. The chapter opens with Jesus fairly launched on his discourse. This indicates that there is no great break from the previous section, a conclusion that is reinforced by the reference to opening the eyes of the blind in verse 21”[1] (compare 9:39-41).

The “thieves and robbers” were the religious leaders of Jesus’ day – the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and the rest. The leaders and teachers of God’s flock. And they weren’t a recent phenomenon: they had many criminal ancestors. Through his OT prophet Ezekiel, the LORD denounced such men with words recorded in Ezek.34. Those “shepherds of Israel” (v.2) fed themselves, not the sheep; they ‘fleeced’ the sheep and did not take care of them, so that they wandered away and fell prey to wild beasts. The LORD promised that one day he would gather his sheep and be their Shepherd (vs.11-16). Every one of his sheep would then be able to say, with David, “the LORD is my shepherd.”

What is a “good shepherd” like? Unlike false shepherds, he loves the sheep. He cares for them, leading them to green pastures and still waters. With him, they have “abundant life” (Jn.10:10). Jesus as the greatest Shepherd “lays down his life” for his sheep (v.11).

Once we have grasped these things, we are in a better place to understand what the Lord meant when he claimed “I am the door (or gate) of the sheep.”

This sentence is ambiguous: on one hand, it could mean, “I am the gate for the sheep to use.” It has often been taken this way, as a parallel to Christ’s claim, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (Jn.14:6). On the other hand, it can also mean “I am the gate to the sheep.” Only through me can shepherds have legitimate access to my sheep.

The latter alternative fits the context better. Jesus is in dialogue with the Jewish leaders, whom he has denounced as guilty (9:41). He is telling them (and us) that the only legitimate shepherds of God’s flock are those who gain access through himself. He is the “gatekeeper” (v.3). The mark of such true shepherds is that they follow the example of the Good Shepherd, and devote themselves to the well-being of his sheep. Anyone who gains access other than by acknowledging the Lord Jesus is a “thief and a robber.”

Sadly, the church of God has seen many such false shepherds down through the centuries. They prey on God’s flock, masquerading as true shepherds, but their heart desire is not to serve, but to be served. They love celebrity but avoid the cross they are called to carry. True leaders labour as “under-shepherds” who seek to emulate the “Chief Shepherd” (1Pet.5:4). They don’t seek to be celebrities, with “ministries” named after them, but are happy to serve as unknown to most men, so long as they have the approval of the Lord Jesus Christ. The sheep hear their voice because they speak with the accent and content of their Lord’s words – the “word of Christ.”

This passage is not about people entering the sheepfold by Jesus as the Door: it is warning against those who claim to be shepherds of God’s flock, but who have illegitimately gained access to his people. They fail to enter by the One who loves his sheep, and who laid down his life for them.

[1] Morris, L. (1995). The Gospel according to John (p. 446). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.