As the TV show Mythbusters does, I want to explore and test the proposition that believers in Jesus Christ should expect him to come like a thief in the night. Is that really true? We are told to expect him at any moment, to watch and pray, and to be ready! Does the Bible really teach that to us, in our generation? Are we supposed to "stay on our toes" in anticipation of a secret sudden rapture?
Here it is. Misunderstanding this is the mother of end-time mythology: 1 Thessalonians 5:2, "For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a THIEF IN THE NIGHT."
I know this passage is quoted regularly to denote the get-ready-any-minute-end time theology, but the key for each of these passages is simple context.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-5
5 But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. 2 For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a THIEF IN THE NIGHT. 3 For when THEY say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon THEM, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And THEY shall not escape. 4 But YOU, BRETHREN, are NOT IN DARKNESS, so that this Day SHOULD OVERTAKE YOU AS A THIEF. 5 YOU are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness.
Who are "they" and who are "you"?
That's an important question if you want to understand this passage. In interpretation it is called "audience relevance". It reminds us that this letter wasn't written TO you and I. It was written to the Thessalonians dealing with the persecution that THEY were experiencing and the solution that was coming soon in their lifetime.
So who are "they"? He identifies them very clearly in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16:
14 For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, 16 forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost.
The same unbelieving Jewish system that fostered persecution in Judea, were doing the same to the Thessalonians. In case you are uncertain, notice Acts 17:
1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the JEWS. 2 Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.” 4 And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas.
5 But the JEWS who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and GATHERING A MOB, set all the city in an uproar and ATTACKED the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people.
So it was these Jews that were persecuting the saints in Thessalonica. It was to these unbelieving Jews that the Day of the Lord was coming like a thief in the night. Paul picks up this theme again in 2 Thessalonians 1:3-8. It is the same judgment that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 23:31-36.
When They Say Peace, and Safety.
Here is a verse that has been taken SO out of context that it is used by misinformed Christians to fight against any peace in the Middle East. To work for peace, as people like Jimmy Carter did, sparks every end-time arm-chair theologian to cry out "anti-Christ!" I don't have space here, but one of the main hindrances to peace in the middle east is bad theology from Christians and Jews (not to mention the theology of Islam as well.) Only an optimistic eschatology can help bring peace there.
But what does this passage mean? Let's compare scripture with scripture. Habakkuk 1:5,
“Look among the nations and watch—
Be utterly astounded!
For I will work a work in your days
Which you would not believe, though it were told you.
The prophet was declaring a soon coming judgment from the Chaldeans in Habakkuk's day, but the people refused to believe it. They expected peace and refused to consider what was about to happen to them.
So too in Jesus' and Paul's day, Rome was coming to destroy the nation, but they refused to listen and believe. Instead they expected peace when war was on the horizon. Notice how Habakkuk is quoted again for their generation (not our's) in Acts 13:40-41,
40 Beware therefore, lest what has been spoken in the prophets come upon YOU: 41 ‘Behold, you despisers, Marvel and perish! For I work a work in your days,
A work which you will by no means believe, Though one were to declare it to you.’”
So Paul was writing, under the inspiration of the Spirit, that the Thessalonians were to be awake and aware of the soon coming judgment on Jerusalem in AD 70, and reminding them that the Jews would declare peace out of their unbelief. This is exactly what happened in history.
What are The Labor Pains About?
There are numerous images of this in the Bible. This language, when applied to judgment emphasizes the suddenness of birth-pains that increase, not to the joy of a new child, but to the destruction of a city. It was applied to Babylon in Isaiah 13:8,
And they will be afraid. Pangs and sorrows will take hold of them;
They will be in pain as a woman in childbirth;
They will be amazed at one another; Their faces will be like flames.
But then Isaiah 26:17-18 prophesies about the Jewish people who were persecuting the saints in Paul's generation saying,
17 As a woman with child is in pain and cries out in her pangs, When she draws near the time of her delivery, So have we been in Your sight, O Lord.
18 We have been with child, we have been in pain; We have, as it were, brought forth wind; We have not accomplished any deliverance in the earth, Nor have the inhabitants of the world fallen.
Again in Isaiah 42:14, 15 which speaks of Jesus bringing judgment on Jerusalem like a woman crying out in childbirth.
So too Isaiah 66 is directly quoted in 2 Thessalonians 1. In that chapter (Is. 66:5-9) the labor pains bring forth the new nation at the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 because of the persecution of the believing Jews (Christians) by the unbelieving apostate Jews ("your brethren"). This is one of those verses that is taken out of context and applied to Israel in 1948, when according to Paul it was fulfilled in AD 70.
5 Hear the word of the Lord,
You who tremble at His word:
“YOUR BRETHREN who hated you,
Who CAST YOU OUT for My name’s sake, said,
‘Let the Lord be glorified,
That we may see your joy.’
BUT THEY SHALL BE ASHAMED.”
6 The sound of noise from the city!
A voice from the temple!
The voice of the Lord,
Who FULLY REPAYS HIS ENEMIES!
7 “Before she was in labor, she gave birth;
Before her pain came, She delivered a male child.
8 Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things?
Shall the earth be made to give birth in one day?
Or shall a nation be born at once?
For as soon as Zion was in labor, She gave birth to her children.
9 Shall I bring to the time of birth, and not cause delivery?” says the Lord.
“Shall I who cause delivery shut up the womb?” says your God.
Remember Jesus said these important words to the Jewish people of his day. Matthew 21:43, “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it."
The nation was conceived in every born again person before AD 70. They were already being called Zion (Hebrews 12) and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). But when the natural nation/kingdom was removed from Israel, it was re-birthed in a day spiritually as the people of God/kingdom of God with both Jew and Gentile.
In other words, Paul is simply applying historic biblical language of prophetic words regarding the fall of Jerusalem. He is NOT speaking of some future event in our lives.
So Who Are the Ones Unprepared for the Thief in the Night?
Those who would be surprised, according to Paul, are not the believers. That may surprise you. They are not waiting for a sudden invisible rapture event. On the contrary, they are anticipating and watching for the Day of the Lord that would come against Jerusalem in AD 70. Jesus told them what the signs would be preceding this event in Matthew 24. So this passage has nothing to do with a secret rapture yanking Christians off airplanes and out of their clothes. 1 Thessalonians 5:4-5,
4 But YOU, BRETHREN, are NOT IN DARKNESS, so that this Day SHOULD OVERTAKE YOU AS A THIEF. 5 YOU are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness.
Let's paraphrase: But you Thessalonian believers are not in the dark about this day of the Lord. You will see it coming just as Jesus said. You are children of clear understanding, not living in the darkness of your mind.
Let me give you just one more piece of evidence. It is found in the book of Revelation (see my posts on 7 Reasons Why the Book of Revelation is Not In Your Future). Notice in Revelation 3:2-4, that the prophetic word was to a church that existed in the Apostle John's day. The Roman armies marched right through this area on their way to the siege of Jerusalem. Jesus speaks to THEIR generation as the timing for the thief to come (YOU believing Jews and some who were tempted to return to Judaism in the city of Sardis):
2 Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. 3 Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore IF YOU WILL NOT WATCH, I WILL COME UPON YOU AS A THIEF, AND YOU WILL NOT KNOW WHAT HOUR I WILL COME UPON YOU. 4 You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.
The thief in the night concept was restricted to their generation.
This myth has been "busted"! The "thief in the night" is not about a rapture that might occur in our lifetime at any moment. Rather it is an event that happened 2000 years ago in Jerusalem. Context is king in the realm of interpretation.
If you want to know about what Peter says about it check out my post called The New Heavens and the New Earth, part 1-3.
For more information about what Paul says about the Rapture click here.
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Photo from NASA