Wrongly Interpreting ‘A Thief in the Night’

Posted on May 11, 2021


By David Ettinger

Regarding the return of Christ, there is a variety of opinions as to when that blessed moment will occur.

Though end-time issues are often confusing, most serious Christians understand there will be a unique 7-year period at the end of this era of human history. And though no one can put all the pieces together sequentially, Christians understand that this time will include the rise of the Antichrist, the terrible persecution of Christians and of Israel, cataclysmic episodes occurring upon the earth and in the sky, and the Rapture of the Church.

This last event – the Rapture of the Church – has given rise to the most controversy. Will the Rapture – the gathering of Christians to Christ at His coming (1 Thessalonians 4:17) ­ – occur before the climactic 7-year period, after it, or sometime during? Christians hoping to avoid having to go through this period of time – wrongly called “The Tribulation” (though for expediency’s sake I will call it that here) – cite one particular verse to defend what is commonly called the “Pretribulation Rapture” view.

The verse is 1 Thessalonians 5:2, which says, “for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” However, as we will soon see, many well-meaning believers have misinterpreted this verse.

The Misinterpretation
The Day of the Lord refers to the return of Jesus when He will do two things: rapture the Church, and pour out His wrath upon unbelievers.

Pretribulation Rapturists believe this will occur before the 7-year period, based on 1 Thessalonians 5:2. The idea is that a “thief in the night” comes at a time when the occupants of a home are not expecting him. They are totally unaware that something astonishing is about to occur. Christians who hold this view believe the Lord will return to Earth at any time – that is, without notice or warning.

However, look at the context of 1 Thessalonians 5:2. Yes, Jesus will “come like a thief in the night,” but for whom? Verse 3 says: “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.”

Hmm. This doesn’t sound like the Rapture, does it? After all, verse 9 tells us, “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” But verse 3 indicates that Jesus will bring His wrath with Him.

There is no contradiction here. Notice the term in verse 3, “While people …” The King James version says, “While they …” Who are these “they”? Verse 4 reads: “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.”

Aha! This is addressed to “brothers and sisters” – believers. The unbelievers are the ones living “in darkness.” Believers, however, are not in the dark, as verse 5 affirms: “You are all children of the light and children of the day.”

So yes, the Lord will come like “a thief in the night,” but He will come this way for unbelievers, those who have no idea what is coming upon the earth. Believers, on the other hand, will not be taken by surprise at the return of Christ; we will know the time is getting close, and we will be expecting His return.

The Ramification
As misinterpreted by Christians, Jesus coming as “a thief in the night” means He can come at any moment of any day and take us to be with Him. However, the apostle Paul (the author of 1 Thessalonians) says this is not the case. The ramification of this truth is that Jesus will not be “sneaking up” on Christians. Spectacular world events will offer solid indications as to the nearness of Christ’s return.

Furthermore, Jesus Himself clues us in as to the timing of His return. The key is Matthew Chapter 24, and I encourage you to read all of it. The primary verses are 29-30:

“Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven.”

In other words, when we see cataclysmic events occurring in the sky, believers will know Jesus is about to return. There will be no coming “as a thief in the night” regarding this momentous event!

You are no doubt familiar with Jesus’ words in verse 36: “But about that day or hour no one knows …” What this simply means is that no one can pinpoint the exact year, month, and day of Christ’s return. However, according to Matthew 24, there will be unmistakable signs on Earth and in the sky which will tell us that Christ’s coming will very soon become a reality.

An Ironic Twist
There is, of course, an ironic twist to all of this. Though the Bible is clear that Christ’s return will not take Christians by surprise, believers should nonetheless order their lives as if He will return at any time. How would your life change if you lived every day with the firm belief that the Lord will be returning in 48 hours?

It would revolutionize your life, right? It sure would change mine!

David Ettinger is a writer/editor at Zion’s Hope, Inc., and has written for Zion’s Fire magazine since its inception in 1990.