Many people assume that the thief in John 10:10 is the devil, but they assume this because they have heard this view many times, not because they examined the text carefully in context. Of course, the devil does come to steal, to kill, and to destroy; but we often quote the verse this way and miss the text’s direct applications because we have not stopped to read the verse in context.
When Jesus speaks of “the thief,” he speaks from a larger context of thieves, robbers, wolves, and strangers who come to harm the sheep (10:1, 5, 8, 10, 12). In this context, those who came before Jesus, claiming his authority, were thieves and robbers (10:8); these tried to approach the sheep without going through the shepherd (10:1). This was because they wanted to exploit the sheep, whereas Jesus was prepared to die defending his sheep from these thieves, robbers, and wolves.
The point becomes even clearer if we start further back in the context. In chapter 9, Jesus heals a blind man and the religious officials kick the blind man out of the religious community for following Jesus. Jesus stands up for the formerly blind man and calls the religious leaders spiritually blind (9:35-41). Because there were no chapter breaks in the original Bible, Jesus’ words that continue into chapter 10 are still addressed to the religious leaders. He declares that He is the true Shepherd and the true sheep follow His voice, not the voice of strangers (10:1-5). Those who came before Him were thieves and robbers, but Jesus was the sheep’s true salvation (10:8-9). The thief comes only to destroy, but Jesus came to give life (10:10).
In other words, the thief represents the false religious leaders, like the Pharisees who kicked the healed man out of their synagogue. The background of the text clarifies this point further. In Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34, God was the shepherd of His scattered people, His sheep; these Old Testament passages also speak of false religious leaders who abused their authority over the sheep like many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and not a few religious leaders in our own day.