Question: "What does it mean that the thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10)?"
Answer: John 10:10 records Jesus saying, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” This verse sets up a contrast between “the thief,” the destroyer; and Jesus, the life-giver.
Looking at the verse in context, we see that Jesus is presenting Himself as the Good Shepherd. He is essentially telling the Pharisees that He is Messiah, the same Lord that David called “my Shepherd” in Psalm 23:1.
Just prior to Jesus’ discussion of shepherds and sheep, He had healed a man born blind (John 9). The man was taken to the Pharisees, who investigated the healing but refused to acknowledge Jesus as the healer; in fact, they mocked the healed man for trusting Jesus. When Jesus heard what happened, He went to the previously blind man, revealed Himself as the Son of Man, and accepted the man’s worship of Him. Then Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind” (John 9:39). Some Pharisees overheard this and, taking offense, asked, “What? Are we blind too?” (John 9:40). Jesus replied, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep” (John 9:41—10:2).
Jesus continued talking about the gatekeeper and how the shepherd calls out his sheep and how the sheep will only follow the shepherd whom they know (John 10:3–5). Jesus then interpreted His words: “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:7–10). With these words, Jesus declares that He is the only way to salvation and the fullness of life. But who is the thief? And what does it mean that the thief “comes only to steal and kill and destroy”?
The Greek word for “thief” used in John 10:10 means “one who steals” (see Matthew 6:19–20); figuratively, the same word is used to refer to false teachers. Anyone who claimed a way of salvation other than Jesus was “robbing” the people of truth. Just as a thief clambers over the wall of the sheepcote, bypassing the gate, false teachers attempt to bypass Jesus. Those who, like the Pharisees, put manmade requirements on people for salvation are false teachers who “steal” people’s ability to see the true means of salvation. The result of such thievery is death and destruction, as Jesus said the thief’s plan is to “kill and destroy.” It should be stated that the Law and the Prophets, though they came before Jesus, are not thieves and robbers. The Law and the Prophets did not offer another way of salvation but pointed forward to the one way of salvation (John 5:39).
False teachers are thieves who may claim to offer salvation, but their intentions are not good. Jesus had earlier told some unbelievers, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Ultimately, these false teachers/thieves are carrying out Satan’s intentions. Rather than bring life, they bring death. Rather than give, they steal. Rather than build up, they destroy.
Dealing with spiritual thieves is a serious matter. Twice, Paul told the Galatians that “if anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:8–9). There is only one gospel, and that is the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3–5). Any other so-called gospel is to be rejected.
We are not free of false teachers today. Peter wrote, “There will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping” (2 Peter 2:1–3).
Praise the Lord, God’s sheep are protected from the thief by their Shepherd. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The sheep “follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice” (John 10:4–5). It is by knowing truth, knowing God’s voice, that we defend against the deceptions of those who would seek to steal, kill, and destroy. Life is in Jesus and Him alone.