Returning to the question previously posed, to whom was Jesus referring when He said that “All who came before Me are thieves and robbers” (John 10:8a). With what has been outlined from this quick trip through the preceding chapters of John, we confidently propose that Jesus was referring to previous Messianic claimants. Jesus was referring to all of those who had risen up in revolt and 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). There were very few in Israel who looked upon the Hasmonean Herods as legitimate rulers.
Jesus repeats Himself and says, “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, He will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (10:9). 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 the reason for 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 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 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 union with Him. The people would find their pasture, their land, through what it was that He was going to do, and through their believing in Him.
Turning His thoughts to the thieves and robbers, the pretenders and presumptuous usurpers that had come before Him (not Satan as the thief and robber), Jesus offers commentary on their methods, saying that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (10:10a). This was not God’s intention for His people. Then, as it is now, it was not God’s design for His chosen people to establish and extend His kingdom by force of arms and violent revolution. There was no need to steal and kill and destroy, as this is quite counter-productive to God’s plans. Rather, Jesus, speaking forth as the Messiah that came to do the will of His Father, said “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (10:10b). When Jesus speaks of this giving of life in abundance, is that gift to be thought of as being directed to Israel? Naturally, that answer is yes. However, we cannot disconnect the giving of life abundant from the statements about stealing, killing, and destroying. In that, it must be understood that Jesus is also offering that gift to the Gentiles that were then in possession of the land---the gift of the blessings of the covenant God---in His establishment of the kingdom of God, which was contrary to all the then-current ways of thinking. The people wanted their Messiah to steal from and kill and destroy the oppressors, but Jesus intended the opposite, desiring to establish the kingdom through the extension of His love, mercy, grace, and faith. Yes, Jesus intended that the hated Romans, and all Gentile nations, to have the blessings of abundant life as well.
Making the point about the nature of His kingdom and His role as Israel’s Messiah, Jesus adds to this and says “I am the good shepherd” (10:11a). This use of “good shepherd,” owing to Old Testament prophecy (the book of Zechariah), was another way of speaking about the Messiah. In this capacity, Jesus says, “The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (10:11b). This was designed to begin preparing the people for the fact that their Messiah was going to be killed at the hands of the very ones that the people thought He would forcefully overthrow. Previously, it had been the case that when a potential Messiah and king rose up, the evidence that the person in question was obviously not the Messiah was his death. Execution or death at arms was the clear signal of another failed Messiah, but this was not going be the case for Jesus.
Elaborating on this thought, Jesus presents a short analogy in reference to would-be Messiahs that had risen before Him (thieves and robbers), saying “He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (10:12-13). How many men before Him had risen up to lead the people in revolution? How many, when the pressure came and death threatened, ran away, leaving those whom he had previously led to suffer gruesome deaths? As it relates to Jesus, the scattering can be understood as another reference to the prophecy of Zechariah (13:7), while also serving to make the point that Jesus, though He knew what was in store for Him in His pending crucifixion, was not going to flee from the wolf (the Romans and their cross) and leave His sheep unguarded. No, He was going to be the shepherd that cared for His sheep, faithfully seeing His role through to the very end, for their salvation and life in His kingdom. Driving this point home, He reiterates that He is “the good shepherd” (10:14a), and says “I lay down My life for the sheep” (10:15b).