Objections are often raised that this period in history will surprise everyone like a thief in the night. This thief motif occurs often in scripture. It applies to non-believers. The Bible passages that use the thief motif teach that followers of Jesus, paying attention to him, will know the timing of his return.
Probably more frequently asked than any other question... Doesn’t the Bible say this is going to be a surprise? Like a thief in the night? That no one can anticipate? NO The Thief motif shows up in the Bible in several places. Each adds details to a pretty clear story. Let’s look at each in turn.
Many Christians believe that the return of Jesus is going to be like a thief in the night. This belief is not wrong. Jesus is going to return like a thief. The problem: this belief is incomplete. The Bible teaches that some will not be surprised by the date of his return. The thief motif applies to those not paying attention to Jesus and his ongoing affairs.
The distinction is not Christian vs. Non-Christian. Subtle and important, the distinction is those who are paying close attention to Jesus and those who are not. The best place to see this is in a passage in Revelation that we look at next.
1And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, These things says he who has the 7 spirits of god and the 7 stars. I know your works; you have a name that you are alive, yet you are dead.
2Awake, and hold fast to the things which remain, but are ready to die; for I have not found your works perfect before my god.
3Remember how you have received and heard, so hold fast and repent. And if you do not awake, I will come against you as a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come on you.
4But you have a few members at Sardis who have not defiled their names; and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.
5He who overcomes, the same will be clothed in white robes; and I will not blot his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my father and before his angels.
6He who has ears, let him hear what the spirit says to the churches.
The Church at Sardis is asleep. Resting on its reputation for doing good deeds, it is not doing the deeds that remain for it to complete. Jesus says that it is in danger of dying. He says in this letter that if it does not wake up, Jesus will come to it like a thief and that this church will not know at what time it will be visited.
This letter follows a pattern found in many other places where God speaks an opposite. In Isaiah he talks about what idols and false gods are incapable of doing. By inference, God is really telling us what He is capable of doing. Similarly, the letter to this church is following a pattern of opposites. If it does not wake up, it will be surprised. Jesus wants an opposite behavior out of the Christians at Sardis. He wants them awake. He wants them alive. He wants them not surprised like a thief.
Christians who are not asleep will not be surprised at the timing of Jesus’ at his return. Those who are awake will know.
The thief theme occurs Luke. In the middle of this account Peter asks a very important question. Is this for Christians, or for everyone? (Or is it for someone else? Translations differ in their rendering at this key point.)
35Let your belt be fastened on your loins, and your lamps lit.
36And be like men who expect their master when he will return from the wedding house; so that when he comes and knocks, they will immediately open the door for him.
37Blessed are those servants, whom their master, when he comes, finds awake; truly, I say to you, that he will gird himself and make them sit down, and come in and serve them.
38If he should come in the 2nd or the 3rd watch and find them so, blessed are those servants.
39But know this, that if the master of the house knew at what watch the thief would come, he would have kept awake and not allowed his house to be plundered.
40Therefore you also be ready; for the son of man will come in that very hour which you do not expect.
41Simon Peter said to him, Master, do you speak this parable to us or also to all men?
42Jesus said to him, Who is the faithful and wise steward, whom his master will appoint over his house to give supplies in due time?
43Blessed is that servant, whom his master will find so doing when he comes.
44Truly, I say to you, that he will appoint him over all his wealth.
45But if that servant should say in his heart, My master has delayed his coming; and begins to beat the male servants and female servants of his master, and then begins to eat and drink and get drunk;
46the master of that servant will come in a day and at an hour that he does not expect or know; and he will severely punish him, and place him with those who are not trustworthy.
47And the servant who knows the wishes of his master, and does not make ready according to his wishes, will receive a severe beating.
48But he who does not know, and does what is worthy of punishment will receive less beating. For to whom more is given, more will be required; and to whom more is entrusted, more will be required of his hand.
Jesus does not give Peter a simple answer to his question. He gives Peter a prolonged discourse. Jesus breaks the world into two categories: a manager and a servant. These two words carry some of the feel for his answer.
The manager, the one given responsibility in Jesus’ enterprise, will be found busy and not surprised at Jesus’ return. The servant, or slave, will not know. Jesus intends to share what he is doing with his friends. Like the letter in Revelation, there is an under riding tone in this passage that there will be many within the Church who should know but who are either asleep or irresponsible and who will therefore not be aware of his exact time of return.
Those who are managing the affairs assigned to them by Jesus himself will understand the timing of Jesus’ at his return. Those who don’t understand Jesus will beat those servants of Jesus who do.
Paul uses the thief motif. Reiterating that thieves come at night, Paul says that those surprised by thieves live in darkness, while Christians are children of the light, able to see what is coming.
1But of the times and seasons, my brothers, you have no need that I should write to you.
2For you yourselves know perfectly well that the day of master comes like a thief in the night.
3For when they will say, Peace and tranquility; then sudden destruction will come on them, as travail on a pregnant woman; and they will not escape.
4But you, my brothers, are not in darkness, that that day will overtake you as a thief.
5You are all the sons of light and the sons of the day; and you are not the sons of the night, nor the sons of darkness.
6Therefore do not let us sleep as do others, but let us watch and be sober.
7For those who sleep, sleep in the night; and those who are drunk, are drunk in the night.
8But, let us, who are the sons of the day, be alert, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, put on the hope of salvation.
9For god has not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through Master Jesus, an anointed,
10who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we will live together with him.
11Therefore comfort one another and edify one another even as you also do.
Paul also says Christians are not children of darkness that this day should surprise us. Paul is teaching that the world is generally not going to know the hour of his return, but that Christians should know, will know, but there are going to be those who should know but don’t and are surprised by the sudden arrival of the Lord Jesus.
He also seems to suggest that avoiding a certain amount of wrath depends on being awake. Christians who remain asleep are in various dangers, not only of being surprised, but of other problems such as drunkenness. Drunkenness is a warning even Jesus used for this same time. Recall Noah, who built a vineyard and got drunk. This is a risk of all those who live through this sort of event.
Christians do not live in darkness that this day should surprise us like it will those who live in darkness.
Peter picks up on the thief theme too. In 2 Peter 3 he dwells on how we should live because the world is coming to an end. He reiterates we should be looking forward to a new heaven and new earth. Peter does not define "thief" for us, presuming we already know what it means.
1It has been a long time since I have written you, my beloved, but now I write this 2nd letter; in both of them, I have endeavored to stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance,
2that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment given through us, the apostles of master and savior;
3knowing this first, that there will come in the last days mockers who scoff, following after their own lusts
4and saying, Where is the promise of his coming, for since our fathers died all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.
5Of this they are willingly ignorant, that by the word of god the skies were of old and the land stood out of water and in water;
6and those men, because of whose deeds the world of that time was overflowed with water, perished;
7but the present skies and land are sustained by his word and are reserved for fire on the day of judgment, which is the day of destruction of ungodly men.
8But, my beloved, do not forget this 1 thing, that 1 day with master is as 1,000 years, and 1,000 years is as 1 day.
9Master is not negligent concerning his promises, as some men count negligence; but is long-suffering toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
10But the day of master will come as a thief in the night, when the skies will suddenly pass away and the elements will separate as they burn, and the land also and the works that are in it will not be found.
11Now since all these things are to be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in your holy conduct and godliness,
12looking for and longing for the coming of the day of god, in which the skies, being tested with fire, will be dissolved, and the elements will melt with fervent heat?
13Nevertheless, we, according to his promise, look for new skies and a new land in which lives righteousness.
14Therefore, my beloved, while you look for these things, be diligent that you may be found by him in peace, without spot and blameless.
Interestingly, Peter also gives some important clues as to exactly when Jesus will return. To crack his clues requires an accurate chronology and an understanding of where we are on that chronology.
We are not in darkness, nor are we asleep, that this day should surprise us like a thief. We are told in these passages that we are to keep busy, doing the various jobs that Jesus has assigned each one of us. If we do this, keeping our eyes and ears open to his leading we will not be surprised by this event.
Those who think the Thief stories prevent understanding of the times and dates of the Bible usually hold this belief so they are not asked the real question: When are the times and dates given in the Bible? This is the question this web site answers in intricate detail.
Christians who know the timing of Jesus’ return will keep busy doing the tasks Jesus has assigned.
Just because the timing of Jesus’ return has been so horribly mis-understood across the past 2 millennia, we should not think that it cannot be know. The problem is figuring out how the Bible deals with this subject, a solution far different than assumed by most Christians over the age.