By Tim Pietz, Crosswalk.com
“The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” John 10:10.
An abundant life sounds wonderful. Who wouldn’t want it? John 10:10 is the sort of “live your best life now!” verse that gives us a vague feeling of encouragement. But what, exactly, does it mean?
No Bible verse stands on its own, and John 10:10 is no exception. In fact, it’s deep within Jesus’ famous Good Shepherd narrative. Let’s dig deeper into John’s context to see what Jesus is getting at.
Who Is Jesus’ Audience in John 10:10 When He Speaks about Abundant Life?
In John 9, Jesus gets in a conflict with the Pharisees for healing a blind man on the Sabbath. After the healed man defends Jesus, the Pharisees throw the man out of the synagogue.
In John 10, Jesus is speaking in response to these events. He’s speaking to the needs of people like the man he healed: people who hunger for God but don’t understand how they can approach him—people the Pharisees had overlooked or rejected. However, Jesus is also condemning the Pharisees.
To do this, Jesus uses a metaphor which the Pharisees can’t seem to figure out—a shepherding metaphor they should have known well from Old Testament prophecy.
What Is Jesus Telling the Pharisees When He Talks about Abundant Life?
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the choice animals, but you do not feed the sheep! You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled over them” (Ezekiel 34:2b-5, NIV).
It would be surprising if this passage wasn’t on Jesus’ mind after the Pharisees’ treatment of the man born blind in John 9. But in addition, Jesus must have known the prophetic promise at the end of the chapter:
“‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Look, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out my flock…I will set one shepherd over them, and he will feed them—namely, my servant David’” (Ezekiel 34:11, 23).
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber…All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them…The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:1,8,10, NIV).
Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of being thieves, robbers, and destroyers of the flock!
Today, the word “Pharisee” means “hypocrite,” and we know them as the villains of the New Testament. But it’s easy to overlook why and how the Pharisees became the villains. In the Pharisees’ minds, they were the heroes, trying to point Israel back to a life of following God—an abundant life, one might say.
The lie the Pharisees built their “abundant life” around is a lie that many of us still believe today. It is this lie, specifically, that Jesus is challenging in John 10. But to understand the Pharisees’ fatal mistake, we need to see where they were coming from.
What Is the Yeast of the Pharisees and the Lie They Believed about Abundant Life?
No one took God’s commands more seriously than the Pharisees. They not only memorized entire Old Testament books, but they also memorized the oral commentaries on those books (which they believed were passed down from Moses).
At the time of Jesus, Israel was long past its glory days. Even though the Israelites had returned from exile and had a temple again, they were under the Roman thumb, and they hadn’t had their own king in centuries. Even worse, Israel had gone hundreds of years without a well-known prophet to give them God’s word.
Many Israelites longed for God’s messiah to come and break the Roman yoke, leading Israel into a new golden age of being blessed by God—an abundant life for all Israelites. The Pharisees thought they knew how to make this a reality.
At the beginning of their nation’s history, God promised Israel blessings for obedience and warned them of punishments for disobedience (Deuteronomy 28). Some of those punishments sounded very much like what Israel was experiencing under Roman rule.
Naturally, the Pharisees believed a renewed obedience to God’s law would lead to renewed blessings for Israel—and naturally, they believed that the better they were at keeping that law, the sooner God would send his messiah.
So, the Pharisees studied the Scriptures with intensity. They debated passionately about how to fulfill the law. For instance, in honoring the Sabbath, what was defined as “work”? To be safe, wouldn’t it be good to avoid carrying too much weight or walking too far on God’s sacred Sabbath? The Pharisees developed an elaborate network of rabbinical teachings to answer these questions and help people fulfill the law more accurately.
The Pharisees were disciplined, passionate, and worked for tangible results. Their theology was straightforward and transactional, a matter of cause and effect. If you were good to other people, they’d be good to you. If you did what God wanted, he’d do what you wanted. People who did this well would be blessed by God with health, wealth, and other blessings. People who lived in sin would reap the opposite.
This is why the Pharisees claimed the man born blind was “steeped in sin at birth” when they excommunicated him (John 9:34). It was a common belief that such physical handicaps were the result of sin—either the man’s sin or his parents’ sin (John 9:2).
To the Pharisees, people like the man born blind were red marks in Israel’s ledger with God. “Sinners” who disobeyed God’s law hurt Israel’s overall obedience and hindered God’s blessings. So, the Pharisees shunned people like the “sinners” Jesus dined with in Matthew 9. The Pharisees didn’t see lost sheep. They saw worthless livestock.
To the Pharisees, holiness was a team sport—at least in the sense that, if you didn’t contribute to the team, you got cut. So, to strengthen their reputations, many Pharisees did everything they could to show everyone just how “holy” they were (Matthew 6:1-6, Matthew 23).
In the end, the Pharisees’ study of Scripture led to pride, their passion led to closed-mindedness, and their determined “obedience” added extrabiblical commands that hindered many peoples’ relationships with God.
Though they claimed to be shepherds, they became thieves, ruling harshly over their sheep and abusing the sheep for their own selfish pursuit of “perfection.” Instead of pointing people to God, they pushed people away.
Jesus warned us of the Pharisees’ mindset, calling it a “yeast”—a tiny ingredient that reshapes a whole batch of dough (Matthew 16:6). Even now, long after the Pharisees are gone, that yeast lives on, poisoning many peoples’ perceptions of God and the abundant life he offers.
So, if the Pharisees got it wrong, what is abundant life?
How Is Jesus’ Abundant Life Different?
Jesus not only preached about abundant life—he lived it out perfectly. And if we look at his life and his teachings, we see a very different picture of “abundant life” than many people preach.
Until age 30, Jesus worked in carpentry and seemingly didn’t accomplish anything noteworthy. Though Jesus won the praise and admiration of many crowds, he didn’t place value on this popularity; he knew that popularity could turn sour in an instant (John 2:23-25, Luke 4:16-30, Matthew 27:22). Instead of demanding the honor and respect he was due, Jesus came as a servant, and he called his followers to do the same (John 13, Luke 22:25-27).
Jesus grew up poor (Luke 2:22-24, Leviticus 12:7-8). In fact, he stayed poor, and he warned his followers that following him wouldn’t be a life of comfort (Luke 9:57-58). Jesus didn’t promise wealth to his followers. Instead, he warned them against loving money, seeing it as a potential idol (Matthew 6:24, Matthew 19:16-30).
Despite many reasons for the Jewish people to be upset with Rome, Jesus refused to become a political leader—even when it was handed to him on a silver platter (John 6:14-15). He even refused to give a clear political answer to the question of Roman taxation (Luke 20:19-26). When his followers asked him about when he would return political power to Israel, he instead pointed them to the power of the Holy Spirit and the work of the Great Commission (Acts 1:6-7, Matthew 28:16-20).
Social advancement, wealth, and political control were the blessings the Pharisees sought from God, and they are the blessings many Christians seek today. Yet the abundant life Jesus offers isn’t dependent on our social, economic, or political power. In fact, Jesus warns us against making that power our idol.
But what about obedience? Were the Pharisees somehow wrong about that, too?
Some Christians paint Jesus as a rebel, pointing out how he flaunted Sabbath laws, but that doesn’t catch the whole picture. Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to God—an obedience far higher than the Pharisees’.
The Pharisees obeyed by following rules. This is why the Pharisees got angry at Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. He’d done work on the Sabbath! That was against the law!
But Jesus pointed to a higher law: “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9, NIV). Jesus knew the purpose of the Sabbath was to give humanity a time to rest, to be refreshed, and to grow closer to God. It was a gift with a purpose, not merely a rule (Mark 2:27).
While the Pharisees obeyed by following rules, Jesus obeyed by pursuing God’s mission—the purpose behind God’s commands. Jesus understood God’s commands with far more depth than the Pharisees had because Jesus knew the two commands that were the source behind all the others: to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:34-40; Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18).
Jesus not only preached these commands, but obeyed them, even when it caused him great personal pain—even when it led him, the Good Shepherd, to lay down his life for his sheep.
The Meaning of Abundant Life in the Bible
After all their studying and memorization of God’s law, how could the Pharisees miss these greatest commandments? How could they take God’s Word, the key to abundant life, and use it to lock so many people into a prison of fear?
The Pharisees thought of God in terms of transactions. God was a means to their end. Sometimes, even Christians think of Jesus as a ticket to heaven. But having an eternal paradise to look forward to doesn’t lead to an abundant life in the here and now.
An abundant life is an eternal life, but it’s not just about living forever—it’s about Who we’ll be living with. It’s about the Good Shepherd.
He is the source—not only of eternal life, but of abundant life.
That is what the Pharisees missed.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Digitalskillet
Tim Pietz is a recent graduate of Taylor University, where he earned degrees in strategic communication and professional writing—in other words, he can talk and write. He currently works as a freelance editor and writer for both nonfiction and fiction. In his free time, Tim enjoys roleplaying games, ultimate frisbee, and cheering on his favorite football team, the perpetually heartbreaking Minnesota Vikings.