Is Jesus Coming Like a Thief in the Night?

By Rev. Roger Best

Back a number of years ago there was a very popular Christian movie entitled, "A Thief In The Night." The film was shown in many churches and depicted the events immediately following the rapture of the church. Suddenly there was a great number of people who simply vanished from the earth, and the characters in the film came to the conclusion that the rapture had taken place and that it was time that they turn to Christ. It made for a great story. However, there was a problem; there was no solid Scriptural basis for the story. Let's take a closer look and see exactly what the Bible says about Jesus coming as a thief.

There are two key passages that address this subject. 1 Thessalonians 5:2 says, "For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night." A second passage is Revelation 3:3, "Remember therefore what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. If therefore you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you."

Pretribulationalists respond quite differently to these two passages of Scripture.

Concerning the Revelation passage, Walter Scott in his book "Exposition of the Revelation of Jesus Christ" states that the people in the church at Sardis "had been counseled to watch, and now unless they do so, they are threatened with judgment. The character in which Christ would come to them is as a 'thief in the night.' He shall come as a judge, unexpectedly, at an unknown and unlooked for hour . . . Christ comes to the church as the morning star, to Israel as the sun of righteousness, and to the world and religious profession in sudden surprise as a 'thief in the night.'" John Walvoord differs with Scott when he says in his book, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ," "the same symbolism is used at the second coming of our Lord, but here the figure is related to that event. The judgment upon the church at Sardis, however, it is going to be just as unexpected, sudden, and irrevocable as that which is related to the second coming." While Walvoord may very well be correct in seeing a specific application to the church at Sardis, it is equally necessary to see the far application to the church of all ages regarding the second coming.

The pretribulationist says that the day of the Lord immediately follows the rapture, and as a result they see the entire seventieth week as the day of the Lord or the wrath of God. And yet they see the first half of the tribulation as a time of peace when a great revival takes place. In the Thessalonian passage it clearly states in verse 3 that "destruction will come upon them suddenly." Another passage that confirms this is 2 Peter 3:10, "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up." It is clear that the question to be answered is: who is Christ coming to as a thief? In 1 Thessalonians 5:4 Paul writes, "But you brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief." It is clear in the Revelation passage that the warning is to those who are asleep. In both cases the picture is the same- for the one who is not awake the coming will be like a thief; however, for the one that is awake, the coming will not be like a thief.

There is an important passage that points out the fatal flaw of those who state that the pretribulation rapture begins the day of the Lord. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 says, "Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to Him, that you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God." In other words, it is impossible for the day of the Lord to begin until the apostasy takes place and the revelation of the man of lawlessness (Antichrist) occurs. If Scripture means what is says, then the day of the Lord begins immediately after the rapture, which takes place after the apostasy comes and the Antichrist is revealed.

Jesus, in the Olivet discourse, tells us to watch for the signs and uses the fig tree as an example. In Matthew 24:32-33 He says, "Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; even so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door." He goes on in verse 36 to tell us that we do not know the day or the hour, but as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:1, we do know the times and the seasons.

We are exhorted in that same chapter to be alert and sober. Yes, Jesus is coming like a thief to unbelievers and even to believers that are not prepared. But to faithful obedient believers He is not coming as a thief but rather as the Lord of glory. The question is: are you expecting Him, and are you aware of what takes place just prior to His coming, or will He indeed come to you as a thief?

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