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.

Background

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.

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.

4Yet 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 3:1-6 NIV

1And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. 2Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. 3Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee."ou mee" "not". 4Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. 5He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.check "nikoon". "ou mee" "not" 6He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.check "ho echoon". Revelation 3:1-6 KJV

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."

41Peter asked, "Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?"

42The 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.

47"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 12:35-48 NIV

35Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning; 36And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately. 37Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them. 38And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants. 39And this know, that if the goodman of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through. 40Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not.

41Then Peter said unto him, Lord, speakest thou this parable unto us, or even to all? 42And the Lord said, Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? 43Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. 44Of a truth I say unto you, that he will make him ruler over all that he hath. 45But and if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken; 46The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. 47And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. 48But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more. Luke 12:35-48 KJV

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.

4But 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. F. Thessalonians 5:1-11 NIV

1But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. 2For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. 3For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. 4But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. 5Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. 6Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.ARA left untagged, because KJV rendered ARA OUN together as "therefore"; the KAI from KAI hOI LOIPOI has no corresponding element in the KJV 7For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. 8But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. 9For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, 10Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. 11Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do.EIS TON hENA which KJV renders as "one another" is difficult to tag; here's my solution, which is, nevertheless, inadequate F. Thessalonians 5:1-11 KJV

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.

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.

3First 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.

8But 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.

10But 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.

11Since 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.

14So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. S. Peter 3:1-14 NIV

1This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in both which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance: 2That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour: 3Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, 4And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. 5For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: 6Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: 7But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. 8But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. 10But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. 11Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, 12Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? 13Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. 14Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless. S. Peter 3:1-14 KJV

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.

Conclusions

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.