Adapted from Studies in the Scriptures, May 1939
John 10:1 Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.
Misunderstood and misinterpreted texts of the Bible are not few in number, nor are the mistakes made in their interpretation trivial in importance; there is nothing trivial in the Holy Scriptures, and it is always to our personal loss when we misapply them. Among those verses whose real meaning is often misunderstood is the text at hand, John 10:1. Those words have been strangely wrested both by pulpit and pew, and there seems a real need to prayerfully ascertain their significance, for they contain a warning which is very timely for these days.
The reference in John 10:1 is not to unregenerate souls creeping into the Church of God, still less to their obtaining an entrance to Heaven. It is well-nigh unthinkable that any commentator should take such a view, for thieves and robbers never invade the celestial Paradise (Matthew 6:20), nor does Christ lead His sheep out of the Church, as He does from this "fold" (John 10:3). It is not fictitious sheep but false shepherds our Lord is here depicting. It is not unregenerate souls attempting to steal salvation, but unregenerate preachers seeking to fleece the flock of Christ who are represented by these "thieves and robbers." Sheep are quite incapable of "climbing up" high fences, but men who would prey upon them will stop at nothing in their determination to fatten at the expense of their victims.
Here, as everywhere, careful attention must be paid to the setting of our verse. John 10:1 forms part of a "parable" (v. 6) or proverb. It is manifestly a continuation of the previous chapter, and therefore the false teachers among the Jews were primarily intended by the "thieves and robbers" (those who had cast out of the Temple the one whose sight Christ had restored, in John 9:35). The priests and scribes demanded of Christ by what authority He acted, seeing that He had received no commission from them. Here He turns the tables upon them and insists that they had no Divine authority to officiate as the pastors of God's people. In its wider application, the appellation, "thieves and robbers" refers to all those who invade the pastoral office that are neither called nor equipped by God.
"Verily, verily, I say unto you." The "you," then, are the Pharisees of 9:40. "He that entereth not in by the door into the sheepfold"—this "door" must not be confused with that of verse 9: here it is the door into the "sheepfold," there it is the door of salvation. The "sheepfold" was Judaism, then degenerate; today it is Christendom, now apostate. The "door," into it denoted the lawful means of entrance—a Divine call: being in contrast from "some other way" by which the thieves and robbers gained access. In styling the Pharisees "thieves and robbers," Christ denounced them as false shepherds with no Divine commission, in sharp antithesis from Himself, who had (by His credentials) evidenced Himself to be the lawful and good Shepherd (John 10:2).
How diligently should they scrutinize their motives who think of entering the ministry, for thousands have abused this Divine institution through love of ease, desire for authority and reputation, or love of money, and brought upon themselves "greater damnation" (James 3:1). Thousands have invaded the pastoral office in an unauthorized manner, to fleece sheep rather than feed them, robbing Christ of His honor and starving His people. Solemn beyond words is it to observe how sternly our Lord denounced these false shepherds of His day. As Bishop J.C. Ryle rightly said:
"Nothing seemed so offensive to Christ as a false teacher of religion, a false prophet, or a false shepherd. Nothing ought to be so much feared by the Church, be so plainly rebuked, opposed and exposed" (compare Matthew 23:27-28, 33).
The Marks of a True Shepherd
In conclusion, it is pertinent to ask, what are the marks of a true shepherd, and how are God's people to identify those called and qualified by Him to minister unto His people?
Find a man (no easy task today!) who has the doctrine of Christ on his lips, the Spirit of Christ in his heart, and the example of Christ in his life, and you find one of His genuine ministers—all destitute thereof are but "thieves and robbers"!
1. The genuine pastor has the doctrine of Christ on his lips.
The ministers of the new covenant are described as those who had "renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness…" (2 Corinthians 4:2). Christendom today is infested with men who are full of guile and hypocrisy, trimming their sails according to whatever direction the breeze of public opinion is blowing. "…nor handling the Word of God deceitfully" (2 Corinthians 4:2). The true servant of Christ holds back nothing that is profitable, no matter how unpalatable it may be unto his hearers. He is one who magnifies not himself, nor his denomination, but Christ—His wondrous Person, His atoning blood, His exacting claims.
2. The genuine pastor has the Spirit of Christ in his heart.
It is the Spirit who opens to him the mysteries of the Gospel, so that he is a "wise servant" (Matthew 24:45). It is the Spirit of Christ who gives him a love for His sheep, so that it is his greatest delight to lead them into the green pastures of His Word. It is the Spirit of Christ who enables him to use great plainness or boldness of speech (2 Corinthians 3:12), so that he shuns not to declare all the counsel of God. It is the Spirit of Christ who makes him "instant in season, out of season … exhorting with all longsuffering" (2 Timothy 4:2). It is the Spirit of Christ who gives efficacy to his ministry, making it fruitful according to the sovereign pleasure of God.
3. The genuine pastor has the example of Christ in his life.
This example is a conforming of him to the image of his Master. It is true, sadly true, that there is not one of them who does not fall far short both of the inward and outward image of Christ. Yet there are some faint tracings of His image visible in all His true servants, or why do God's people love them, respect them, hear them? What other claims have they upon their attention? The image of Christ is seen in their words, spirit, actions—it may be broken, like the image of the sun in ruffled water; but it is there, otherwise we have no warrant to receive them as God's servants.