Without rehearsing the history of attempted rebellions under Israel’s various oppressors, a simple acknowledgement that a long line of attempts at violent overthrow (most of which came to naught) backed by messianic claims and provided tenuous foundation by hopes concerning their God responding to rebellious actions by acting on behalf of His people to legitimize the activity and establish His kingdom will suffice. That acknowledged, it is possible to confidently propose that when Jesus speaks of thieves and robbers that came before Him, He was making a reference 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 the Creator 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 and dynastic family, as Jesus adds “the sheep did not listen to them” (John 10:8b). Certainly, there were very few in Israel who looked upon the Herods as legitimate rulers of the covenant 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 the Creator God’s covenant faithfulness by participating in the kingdom of God, the renewal of creation (by those living at the time of its expected in-breaking), or the resurrection of the righteous dead (by those who had died as people faithful to the covenant), the covenant people were in constant expectation of the re-establishment of national sovereignty and subsequent superiority to the surrounding nations, as in the halcyon days of David and Solomon.
By and large, the covenant people 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, and the associated revolutionary activities. Many 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 their 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 the Creator God was going to be provided through Him and through following on the path of love and self-sacrifice 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 as Lord and KIng, and through their loyally adhering to His instructions and examples concerning the way that He was presenting---which would ultimately be the way of the shame and suffering and the cross.
Presumably turning His thoughts to the thieves and robbers who were the pretenders and presumptuous usurpers that had come before Him (in no way at all is the Satan in view here as the thief and robber), while also considering those that would have followed after Jesus and been known to the Johannine community (especially considering the fact of the destruction of the Jewish revolt of 66-70, the destruction of the Temple, and the burning of Jerusalem), Jesus offers commentary on their methods by saying that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (10:10a). This method was not the Creator God’s intention for His people and His kingdom. Then, as it is now, it was not the Creator 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 such would be quite counter-productive to His plans. That is the method of the thieves and robbers.