Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and robber. – John 10:1 (ESV)
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). This lack of understanding must have been communicated by either facial expression or verbally, because Jesus goes on to elaborate, repeating His dictum of “Truly, truly, I say to you”, and going on to say, “I am the door of 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 are 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”? About whom is He talking? 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. So we must look to the context in which this discourse about being the “good shepherd” is presented. What is it that comes before the beginning of the tenth chapter of John?
The ninth chapter of John is taken up with the story of the man who had been born blind, but who had been healed by Jesus. This story include a notation that anyone confessing Jesus to be the Christ was to be put out of the synagogue (9:22). Clearly, the idea that this Jesus fellow might very well be the Messiah, was present, with this aside accounting for that fact. As we come to the close of the ninth chapter, Jesus encounters the formerly blind man again, asks him if he believes in the Son of Man (9:35). This title carried huge significance to the people of that day. Upon confirming that he had a desire to believe in the Son of Man, and perhaps more specifically in the ideas, hopes, dreams, and aspirations of God’s people that were represented by that title “Son of Man,” Jesus tells him that “it is He Who is speaking to you” (9:37b).
Naturally, this follows from the eighth chapter, in which there has been much talk about Jesus Himself, based on His declaration that He was “the light of the world” (8:12). Though this is not our focus here, with these words, we can hear Jesus positioning Himself as the embodiment of national Israel, taking up what was to have been the task of Israel itself, as it was God’s covenant people Israel that were supposed to be the light of the world. This, of course, follows from chapter seven, in which we find the people openly asking “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs that this man has done?” (7:31b). Again, this was Messiah-speak by the people, as “the Christ” was understood to the “anointed One” of God, with such anointing hearkening back to the anointing of the kings of Israel, especially Saul, David, and Solomon.
It was these words that led to the first movement by the chief priests and Pharisees to arrest Jesus, most likely because He was creating Messianic expectations amongst the people, but had not attempted to gain the support of any of the influential factions or ruling parties. This may very well have been a political calculation, to test Jesus’ true popularity amongst the people, to bring him in for questioning, and to offer Him a deal to stand in solidarity with the chief priests and Pharisees, depending on the outcome of some private conversations. Jesus, however, as He would later declare, always spoke openly in the Temple and in the synagogues, purposely avoiding such back-room dealings and the problems that lie therein.
Finally, we look back to the sixth chapter. Though the event took place in Galilee and not in Jerusalem, there was already some type of movement afoot in regards to Jesus-as-Messiah, as upon the great and miraculous feeding that had been at His hand, the people responded by saying “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14b); and together with that statement of clear, Messianic significance they “were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king” (6:15b). This is to what Israel, almost as a whole, was constantly looking. So as we consider all of these things from the sixth chapter, on through Jesus’ shepherd statements of the tenth chapter, it must be remembered that these things are occurring in the context of the often-stoked expectations of the people, beginning with the first major revolt of the second century B.C. and the establishment of the ruling, Hasmonean dynasty, that it was well past the time for their God to enter into history, to send His Messiah, to forcibly remove the pagans from their land, to violently lift the yoke of oppression, and to exalt Israel as chief over all the nations of the world. It is such remembrance that will give full weight to Jesus’ speaking of Himself as the shepherd of the people.