All who came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. (Jn. 10.8)
Just recently I was reading a learned scholar who struggled with the meaning of Jesus’ statement about the thieves and robbers prior to Jesus’ arrival. The scholar thought Jesus might have been somehow referring to biblical writers before the time of Christ. This is not the case. If we remove the reference numbers from our versions and observe the discourse as a whole, we can see our Lord is addressing the Pharisees (see 9.40) in a parable .
The following is a reproduction of Mt. 13.10-15 (NET) and shows the rationale for the parables, namely to hide spiritual truth from the superficial and hypocrites.
Then the disciples came to him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He replied, “You have been given the opportunity to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but they have not. For whoever has will be given more, and will have an abundance. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. For this reason I speak to them in parables: Although they see they do not see, and although they hear they do not hear nor do they understand. And concerning them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘You will listen carefully yet will never understand, you will look closely yet will never comprehend. For the heart of this people has become dull; they are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes, so that they would not see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.'”
In the very next verse (Mt. 13.16) Jesus says “but your eyes are blessed, for they see” (speaking to the disciples). So Jesus knows His disciples and rejects these punctiliously observant religious leaders (who were really hypocritical), who were not His. Further in Matthew’s Gospel (ch.23), Jesus calls them snakes and offspring (seed) of vipers. This expression hearkens back to Gen. 3.15 where it indicates the two groups of people now inhabiting the world: the seed of the serpent and the Seed of the woman (who is Christ and they who belong to Him).
Jesus was God’s mystery Who has cut the New Covenant (see Jer. 31.31-34) which promised knowing His people intimately: My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2.2-3 NIV). The Covenant of Works-“do this and you will live” (Lev.18.5), was condemnatory and faulted people who followed it ( see Heb. 8.8-13).
ASIDE: The One and the Many
In biblical thought “seed” refers to a singular as well as a collective. Without going into the how or why this conception operates in this manner, perhaps it is best illustrated from an instance in scripture. There are several times this occurs in the O.T. but Paul’s explanation in Gal. 3.15-29 presents the idea the fullest. In Gal. 3.16, Paul says the seed is referencing a singular: Christ. Yet all who belong to Christ are Abraham’s seed (vs. 29). We see the same term is used in vss. 16 and 29 to refer to the singular and the collective to show the closest connection of Jesus with His people. Christians are “in Christ” (Rom. 8.1, Phil. 1.1, Col. 3.3, 1Pet. 5.14, et al). Christians are crucified with Christ and Christ lives in them eternally. While in this body, Christians still struggle with sin; but, after the earthly sojourn, will be like holy angels completely controlled by Christ. For a full explication of the idea, please see John Sailhamer: The Meaning of the Pentateuch.
Now back to the thieves and robbers in John 10: notice that Jesus identifies these as “climbing up some other way” besides the door as the thieves and robbers in verse 1. This cannot refer to biblical writers since they were showing the true way in counter distinction to the false the prophets in their days. So in our verse 8, these same thieves and robbers appeared before Jesus was on the scene. The verb tense is present (not “were” but “are”), so the translation: “all who came before are thieves and robbers.” This use of the present tense at least identifies those living are the referents since the now departed false prophets in previous times are not now thieving and robbing. The prime candidates for the moniker would be the Pharisees before Him but it may also refer to the Herods and Herodians (who were closely connected to the Sadducees). The messianic pretensions of the Herods however is for another post.