“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly..” – John 10:10
This passage is a favorite of preachers who would have us believe that while Satan wants to steal, kill, and destroy,the material blessing and prosperity God promises the child of God, physical prosperity and blessing should be normative in the lives of believers.
There are several ‘companion’ passages that are used to further support the prosperity gospel, but I will leave further research to the spiritually curious reader of this short article. Back to our passage.
What is John 10:10 really talking about?
We can find the answer to that question by asking two additional questions and them examining the context of this wonderful passage of warning and promise:
- Who is the ‘thief’?
- What is meant by ‘abundant life’?
Who IS the thief?
The verses around our passage provide the identity of the ‘thief’. Jesus wrapped the spiritual truth that He is the true shepherd around the easily understood concept of sheep and shepherds. It was common at the time for herds of sheep to be kept in walled pens with a single gate, guarded by a gatekeeper whose duty was to only permit the real shepherds to enter the pen call the cheep and and lead them out to pasture. Jesus told his listeners:
“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 a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” – vv. 1-5
The ‘thief’ is a false shepherd and stranger who enters the sheepfold by whatever means he can other than the gate the true shepherd (Jesus) uses. It shouldn’t be difficult to see the analogy being drawn in these passages.
The Tyndale New Testament Commentary summarizes the passage that leads up to John 10:10:
“Those who are really “His own” listen to His voice. They recognize that He has been sent from God, and are ready to follow Him as the good Shepherd, who by His sacrificial love rescues His flock from evil and death, and leads them into the best of all pasturage where they can enjoy a richer and a fuller life (9,10).
The sheep are God’s people. Shepherds are pastors, preachers and teachers entrusted with the care and feeding of the ‘sheep’. True shepherds of God’s flock preach and teach sound doctrine based on carefully exegesis and exposition of Scripture, ‘drawing out’ and explaining the meaning of the text.
False shepherds look and sound like the real thing, but they twist scripture to suit their own ends, robbing the flock of genuine truth, killing true peace and joy, and destroying the faith of those who believe their false promises. They are false teachers who are nothing more than ‘wolves in sheep suits’ selling spiritual snake-oil to the masses.
What is really meant by abundant life?
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary says this about John 10:10:
“Jesus’ main purpose was the salvation (health) of the sheep, which he defined as free access to pasture and fullness of life. Under his protection and by his gift they can experience the best life can offer. In the context of John’s emphasis on eternal life, this statement takes on new significance. Jesus can give a whole new meaning to living because he provides full satisfaction and perfect guidance.”
Barclay’s Daily Study Bible adds,
“Jesus claims that he came that men might have life and might have it more abundantly. The Greek phrase used for having it more abundantly means to have a superabundance of a thing. To be a follower of Jesus, to know who he is and what he means, is to have a superabundance of life. A Roman soldier came to Julius Caesar with a request for permission to commit suicide. He was a wretched dispirited creature with no vitality. Caesar looked at him. “Man,” he said, “were you ever really alive?” When we try to live our own lives, life is a dull, dispirited thing. When we walk with Jesus, there comes a new vitality, a superabundance of life. It is only when we live with Christ that life becomes really worth living and we begin to live in the real sense of the word.”
John 10:10 should not be used as though it gives some promise of an improved physical life for the Christian – your ‘best life now’. Such a view, in light of the context, is shallow, and falls well short of the deeper truth of the passage. Just as real sheep have a wonderful abiding relationship with their shepherds, Christians have a precious relationship with their Savior, and a ‘superabundant’ spiritual life in Him.
If you have bitten the poisoned apple of prosperity teaching, or if you have been tempted to bite because of the circumstances of life, pause and think for a moment of all of those who through the centuries have been martyred for their faith and are even now being driven from their homes and killed for their confession of Christ. Think about believers who live in seemingly unending poverty, malnutrition and disease in third world countries. You don’t even have to send your thoughts to the third world. Just look at the ordinary Christians all around experiencing the ‘tough stuff of life’ who nonetheless exhibit joy and peace that can only be explained by resting safe in the True Shepherd’s arms.
As for the wolves in sheep suits? I have a word for them. Nothing profound or prophetic, but just a bit of advice I heard somewhere:
“If you can’t preach it everywhere, don’t preach it anywhere!”