By Rev. Charles Cooper
“Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.” –Revelation 16:15
Some conclude that this verse appears in a most unusual place in the sequence of the book of Revelation. Because this verse occurs during the sixth bowl and “promises” the imminent arrival of Jesus Christ posttribulationalists determine that the rapture of the church must occur near the end of the Seventieth Week of Daniel.
G.H. Lang in his commentary, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (page 253-254), writes,
The exact epoch of this Bowl 6 is stated….If the coming of our Lord as a thief is to take place at any time prior to the point now reached in the End Day its mention here is beyond explanation; for their reminder would seem wholly irrelevant, the warning pointless, and the blessing beyond attainment. There can be no danger from an event already past. If the thief has come and gone the peril is already over and the loss sustained.
Lang’s point is that Rev. 16:15 concerns the rapture of the church by Jesus Christ and that the Day of the Lord’s wrath then follows. Lang bases his conclusion on the “as a thief” simile which occurs in Rev. 3:3. Lang’s error stems from a poor understanding of the New Testament use of figures of speech and a lack of appreciation for the importance of context in the process of interpretation.
The sixth bowl judgment of God concerns the demonic spirits of Satan, Antichrist and the false prophet gathering the nations to the battle of Armageddon. This event transpires several weeks after the close of the Seventieth Week of Daniel during the 30 day reclamation period. The sequence goes something like this. First, the rapture occurs possibly a year or more earlier than this event during which Jesus will be seen coming on a cloud with angelic accompaniment. Secondly, the salvation of Israel follows after the Seventieth Week of Daniel concludes. Thirdly, Christ with the 144,000 (the first fruits of Israel) stands on the Mt. of Olives to deliver the inhabitants of Jerusalem to Azel before the bowl judgments of God begin. Beginning on or about the sixth day after the Seventieth Week of Daniel concludes, the first five bowls occur.
After all of this, in what sense can Christ come as a thief?
The avenue to understanding this important text begins with the figure of speech as a thief. This simile occurs four times in the New Testament:
1. “I am coming as a thief” – Rev. 16:15;
2. “I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.” – Rev. 3:3
3. “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night,” – 2 Peter 3:10;
4. “the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night,” – 1 Thess. 5:2.
The Nature of a Simile
The basic nature of a simile is that of comparison. The comparison deals with specific issues which are indicated in the context. Unlike a metaphor which deals with more than one particular component, similes are much more restrictive. An example of a metaphor would be “I am the Door.” There are many things that can be said about a door. Without more information, the reader would have to assume that the phrase means that the person has every attribute a door has.
A simile, on the other hand, provides more information. “The picture hangs like a door,” is a good example. Without any other information one is able to discern that the way the picture hangs is compared to the way a door hangs. Instead of a wire and nail, this pictures hangs with hinges to one side the same way a door hangs. This is the only attribute of a door intended in this particular sentence.
The Modus Operandi of a Thief
The New Testament presents two aspects of a thief’s modus operandi: the purpose of a thief and how a thief comes. The first question we must answer is “how does a thief come?” Matthew (24:43) and Luke (12:39) record the saying of Jesus, “But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into.” The point seems to be that a thief comes at an unknown hour. This is one aspect of a thief’s modus operandi: he comes at an unknown hour. The Apostle Paul (1 Thess. 5:2-4) adds one other component–suddenness. The thief gives no warning or indication of his presence until he suddenly appears.
The purpose of a thief’s unknown and sudden coming is explained in John 10:10. There Jesus says, “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill and to destroy. The three characteristics or purposes of a thief are (1) to steal, i.e. to take what is not his; (2) to kill, i.e. to kill as one slaughters an animal; and (3) to destroy, i.e. to destroy in the sense of ruin. The thief comes to take your things, violently murder you or to destroy your things. Because of what a thief comes to do, he comes at an unannounced time and his presence is suddenly revealed. All of this information is necessary to understand Revelation 16:15.
New Testament Usage
In both instances where the Day of the Lord is used with this simile (2 Peter 3:10; 1 Thess. 5:2), the context is very important. 1 Thess. 5:1-11 gives the best help. Paul writing to the Thessalonians, reminds them that the Day of the Lord comes as a thief. It could be argued that the Day of the Lord will come suddenly and at an unknown time. God will then steal away the righteous, kill and destroy the wicked. The prewrath position is based on these conclusions.
Notice, For (This little Greek word indicates the reason for verse 2. Paul will now give the explanation concerning why the Day of the Lord will come as a thief.) when they (Unbelievers, the opposite of the brethren who have been taught by Paul as to what to expect and when.) say, “Peace and safety!” (This is the slogan of the wicked men days before the sign of the sun, moon and stars and is given to indicate the beginning of the Day of the Lord’s wrath. Jesus indicated in Matthew 24:38 that wicked men will be eating, drinking, marrying and given in marriage up to the very day His parousia starts. After two and a half years of killing, enslaving and driving God’s people to live in the wilderness, the wicked men of the earth will feel that Antichrist’s program has worked. They will not have experienced any of God’s wrath.) then sudden destruction comes upon them (Irreversible ruin is sudden. This is the way in which the Day of the Lord’s wrath comes as a thief. One of the reasons a thief comes is to destroy. It is done suddenly without and notification.) as (Indicates another simile.) labor pains upon a pregnant woman. (Again, the emphasis is on suddenness, the sudden onset of delivery. The women is expecting the baby, but the time of delivery comes suddenly.) And they shall not escape. (Because they will not have time to escape).
Paul instructs the Thessalonians that the Day of the Lord will come suddenly upon unbelievers and the result will be destruction.
Peter indicates the exact same thing in 2 Peter 3:10. The Day of the Lord will come suddenly for the “scoffers” who will experience total destruction. Peter explains in greater detail the destruction associated with the Day of the Lord.
In Revelation 3:3, Jesus states that He will come “as a thief.” We learned earlier that a thief comes at an unknown hour and suddenly and that a thief comes to steal, kill and/or destroy. The reason Christ will come at an unknown hour for the Sardis church is because they would not repent of their sins nor engage in righteous deeds in anticipation of Christ’s coming. Matthew 24:10-13 relates the fact that many believers will severely compromise their faith during the persecution of Antichrist. So much so that at Christ’s coming they will be ashamed before Him rather than having confidence at His appearance, (1 John 2:28).
Revelation 16:15 is the last occurrence of the “as a thief” simile in the N.T. Christ states, “Behold, I am coming as a thief.” Given that the Day of the Lord (Rev. 6:12-17) has been going on for at least five months (Rev. 9:5), and the wrath of God has fallen in the form of seven trumpets and five bowls, we can rule out “unknownness,” in a general sense. Christ’s coming at Armageddon, however, will be sudden. The second sentence in Rev. 16:15 is helpful: “Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.” It supports the conclusion that the simile refers to “suddenness.” Those who are watchful would know that the event is coming and would prepare for its any moment arrival. “Suddenness” is no disadvantage for those who are watching.
The suddenness of the event will prevent anyone from making arrangements. It will be too late to get ready once the armies of Christ appear. To walk naked and they see his shame is a figure of speech. The image is of a person who undresses for the night and goes to bed only to be suddenly awaken and taken away without being allowed to dress. The point of the verse is that only the prepared will escape the sudden coming of Christ.
The final question concerning Revelation 16:15 is the audience, that is, who is the intended audience? The hasty decision to associate this promise with the Church has lead some to argue for a traditional posttribulational rapture. Pretribulationalists argue that the verse applies to believers living on earth prior to Christ’s coming at Armageddon. I personally have a hard time believing that any believer will be unfaithful to God once the bowl judgments start. This verse is not a promise, but a warning. A warning to the unbelieving world concerning the battle of Armageddon.
The suddenness with which Christ will come will leave no room for escape. Verse 15 focuses on suddenness and destruction. Rev. 16:15 begins with a Greek interjection which is a command. It is usually translated behold. It literally means “look!” It is primarily used in the N.T. to enliven a narrative by arousing the listener’s attention or introducing something new. Sometimes the point is to call the reader to a closer consideration or contemplation of a matter. In Rev. 16:14, we are told that the whole world (many nations) are “gathered to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.” The idea of the verb “to gather” is one of a building up. In other words, the nations do not all arrive at the same time, but slowly build up the numbers as the days pass. Some nations will arrive in a couple of days and some in a week, but some nations will take even longer to arrive. But the coming of Christ will be like a thief. It will be sudden. Jesus will not build up his forces. He will appear suddenly. Rev. 19:14 indicates that the armies of heaven follow Christ from heaven on white horses. The verb “to follow” means “to accompany someone who takes the lead in determining direction and route of movement.” Jesus Christ sets the direction and movement of this great army. Unlike, the Day of the Lord which is introduced with the sign in the sun, moon, and stars, the battle of Armageddon will have no such introduction. Christ will suddenly come. His coming will be one of judgment. The unprepared will be put to shame.
Therefore, Revelation 16:15 is located in the right place. It is a warning concerning the coming of Christ at Armageddon. It will be sudden and the destruction will be sure. Only those who recognize the situation and does the right thing will escape. The right thing in this case would be to stay away from this battle. It will be too late to decide to leave once Christ appears.