I tell you the solemn truth, the one who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, is a thief and robber. – John 10:1 (NET)
As we sit and listen to the story of Jesus as presented in John, the tenth chapter does not break off from the events of chapter nine, but continues in the same location in which the events of the ninth chapter unfolded (information useful to keep in mind as we progress). If we consider the fact that love is a controlling motif in this Gospel, remembering that there is a narrative flow of the whole that is not broken up by chapter divisions provides us with remarkable insights into the author’s definition of love as it relates to His telling of the story of Jesus. The tenth chapter commences with “I tell you the solemn truth, the one who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, is a thief and robber” (John 10:1).
Now, as we hear what follows, we are absolutely forced to consider that while it is highly likely that Jesus uttered these very words as words of warning to the assembled people in Jerusalem due to the highly charged political situation in Israel and that they would have carried great weight for His original hearers, these words, as part of this narrative compilation of the life and words of Jesus, would have carried even greater weight for a Christian community near the close of the first century, living and serving and worshiping after the fall and destruction of Jerusalem and the knowledge of the events that brought about that fall, and attempting to live out the ethic of Christ-modeled love that had gained ascendancy for this particular community.
So, having put forward this thought, Jesus embarks on a series of statements about entering the door as the shepherd of the sheep, about gatekeepers, about sheep hearing the voice of true shepherd, about their not following strangers, and about sheep fleeing from that voice. It is then said, not surprisingly, that “they did not understand what He was saying to them” (10:6b). However this lack of understanding was expressed (in the absence of an omniscient third-party narrator to provide the type of explicit instructions that the hearers and readers are able to receive), Jesus seizes on the lack of understanding and goes on to elaborate, repeating His dictum of “I tell you the solemn truth”, and going on to say, “I am the door for the sheep” (10:7). He then makes a slight change to His previous statement in regards to those that climb in by another way, and by doing so, makes it more direct and applicable, saying that “All who came before Me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them” (10:8). What does Jesus mean when He said that “All who came before Me are thieves and robbers”? Who is He talking about? He is obviously not talking about the prophets. He is probably not talking about humans in general, and it is unlikely that He is referring to the leaders of Israel in that day.
Without rehearsing the history of attempted rebellions under its various oppressors, we simply acknowledge a long line of attempts at violent overthrow (most of which came to naught, especially in and around the fifty years on either side of Jesus’ lifetime) backed my messianic claims, and provided tenuous foundation by hopes concerning God responding to rebellious actions by acting on behalf of His people to legitimize the activity and establish His kingdom. That acknowledged, we confidently propose that Jesus was referring to previous messianic claimants. Jesus was referring to all of those who had risen up in revolt, in efforts to overthrow the nations that ruled over the land of Israel, grasping at that which was not theirs to take and attempting to set themselves up as kings and rulers of God’s land and people. Not only could this be directed towards all of those that could be looked back upon as potential and failed messiah figures, but it could be rightly applied to Israel’s then current ruling, dynastic family, as Jesus adds “the sheep did not listen to them” (10:8b). Certainly, there were very few in Israel who looked upon the Herods as legitimate rulers of God’s people. In many ways, they were as despised as the Romans.
Jesus repeats Himself and says, “I am the door. If anyone enters through Me, He will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (10:9). Keeping in mind that the notion of being “saved” had everything to do with participating in the fullness of God’s covenant faithfulness by participating in the kingdom of God, the renewal of creation (by those living at the time of its in-breaking), or the resurrection of the righteous dead (by those who had died as people faithful to the covenant), the people were in constant expectation of the re-establishment of national sovereignty and subsequent superiority to the surrounding nations, as in the days of David and Solomon. They were expecting their God to break in upon history and set up His kingdom in and through them.
This was a motivating force behind the repeated messianic movements and claimants. They looked to the long-held promise of a land of their own in which they ruled themselves, knowing that as long as the present situation of being ruled by foreign powers continued, that they were still in a state of exile from God’s promises to them. It is in this context that Jesus informs the people that the way in which they were attempting to regain control of their land was not the way that their God had intended for them. It was not the door, so to speak. Jesus told them that He was the door, and that entrance into the kingdom of God was going to be provided through Him, and through following on the path that He was forging. The people would find their pasture, their land, through what it was that He was going to do, through their believing in Him, and through their loyally adhering to His instructions and examples concerning the way that He was presenting.