Thief in the Night: The New Testament Contexts
by J. L. Haynes
Of the 12 uses of "thief" in the New Testament, 7 are used in connection with Jesus’ return. Paul does not casually use it in 1 Thess 5:2 as just any metaphor for the Lord’s second coming, but as a reference to the teaching of Jesus (e.g., Matt 24:43). The interesting context of the "thief" idea is that those who are caught by surprise are "taken to destruction" as in the days of Noah (see the context of Matt 24 below). Those who are left are those that remain with Christ forever, after the Resurrection, because "we are not appointed to wrath" (see the context of 1 Thess 5 below). This understanding is contrary to the view expressed in the “Thief in the Night” movie and the “Left Behind” series: those who are taken away at Jesus’ return, are not taken away to Heaven to escape, but taken away to destruction. Those “left behind” are resurrected/made new and “reign with him for a thousand years.”
The 7 "thief" passages are as follows...
- Matthew 24:43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.
- Luke 12:39 But 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.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:4 But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.
- 2 Peter 3:10 But 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.
- Revelation 3:3 Remember, 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 16:15 "Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed."
The context of the passage in Matthew 24 draws out the parallel between the days of Noah and Jesus’ return. Notice that, as in the days of Noah, those who are “taken” are taken and destroyed by the flood.
37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. 42 "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matthew 24:37-44 NIV)
The context of the passage, "we are not appointed to wrath," is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:3:
While people are saying, "Peace and safety," destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief... 8 But 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. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:3-4, 8-10 NIV)
The scene is described in Revelation 19:14-20:6:
14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. "He will rule them with an iron scepter." He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. 17 And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, "Come, gather together for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and mighty men, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, small and great." 19 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army. 20 But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. 21 The rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh. 20:1 And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. 3 He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time. 4 I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. (Revelation 19:14-20:6 NIV)
These passages harmoniously refer to the same event: the day of Jesus’ return.
On that day...
- the nations are destroyed,
- the righteous dead are resurrected,
- the saints rise to meet Christ Jesus in the air,
- the saints rule with Jesus on Earth, IMMEDIATELY, for one thousand years.
I don’t believe it is important to debate whether the Lord will return before or after the “tribulation.” As you can see, by default I believe His return is after all other prophecy has passed into history.
I do believe, however, that the purpose of prophecy is to remind us to “…be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.”
With world-events turning our attention again to the pages of prophecy, lets be sure that our lives are producing fruit of “self-control,” “faith,” “love,” and “hope,” instead of immorality, negativity, division, and cynicism.