Those days will come like a Thief in the night

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... Does not 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.

The Thief in Revelation

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.

1"To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. 3Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. Revelation 3:1-34Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. 6He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Revelation 3:4-10
(Revelation 3:1-6 NIV)

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 in Luke

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.)

35"Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, 36like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. 37It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. 38It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night. 39But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." Luke 12:35-4041Peter asked, "Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?" Luke 12:4142The Lord answered, "Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? 43It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. 44I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 45But suppose the servant says to himself, `My master is taking a long time in coming,' and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk. 46The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers. Luke 12:42-4647"That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. Luke 12:47-48
(Luke 12:35-48 NIV)

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.

The Thief in Thessalonians

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.

1Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3While people are saying, "Peace and safety," destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-34But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. 7For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:4-11
(1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 NIV)

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 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.

The Thief in 2 Peter

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.

1Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. 2I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles. 2 Peter 3:1-23First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4They will say, "Where is this `coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." 5But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. 2 Peter 3:3-78But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:8-910But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. 2 Peter 3:1011Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. 2 Peter 3:11-1314So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 2 Peter 3:14-16
(2 Peter 3:1-14 NIV)

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 misunderstood 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.