Does “The Thief in the Night” Phrase Refer to the Rapture or the Second Coming?

The Second Coming is Like a Thief in the Night

As a boy I remember an evening when our church showed the movie “A Thief in the Night.” I remember the opening scene of the woman running to the bathroom looking for her husband, only to discover the electric razor running and abandoned in the sink – her husband obviously raptured all the while the radio explained the disappearance of perhaps millions of people around the world.

The basis of the movie was derived from 1 Thessalonians 5 where “the Day of the Lord comes as a thief in the night.” (1Thess 5:2 NKJV) The opening scene made a lasting impression on me and millions of more Americans that the rapture will come unexpectedly and without warning, just like a thief in the night!

It is commonly argued that “the thief in the night” must refer to the rapture and cannot refer to the second coming because that would be obvious as people would simply need to read their Bible; Dr. Dwight J. Pentecost, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, writes in his book Things to Come

If the Day of the Lord did not begin until the second advent, since that event is preceded by signs, the Day of the Lord could not come as a “thief in the night,” unexpected, and unheralded, as it is said it will come in 1 Thessalonians  5:2. The only way this could break unexpectedly upon the world is to have it begin immediately after the rapture of the church.[1]

The supposed problem is resolved in the rest of the 1 Thessalonians 5 passage. Unfortunately, many people stop reading at verse two and do not continue to see to whom Jesus will come as a thief; He is coming ‘as a thief’ to those not expecting him, that is, to those in darkness! The language is clear that “they” – the ones in darkness, are the ones to whom sudden destruction will come and “you,” the brethren, are sons of light, not darkness. The day of the Lord will not be as a thief to the brethren meaning it could not refer to the rapture itself but rather to the day Jesus comes back.

For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them…and they shall not escape. (1Thess 5:3 NKJV) But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. (1Thess 5:3-4 NKJV) You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. (1Thess 5:5 NKJV)

Jesus’ own usage of the concept of him coming as a thief is in relation to the unprepared homeowner who does not know the time that the thief would come and let his house be broken into for “if the homeowner had known at what time the thief were coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into.” (Luke 12:39; see also Matt 24:43) The timing of a thief is a complete surprise to people who are in darkness, who are sleeping and not paying attention.

The people who are not paying attention are the non-believers which Jesus exemplifies in his exhortation to the church of Sardis, the dead church, whose names are ready to be blotted out of the book of life. (Rev 3:5) Because they were considered dead and were therefore not counted as sons of light, Jesus’ coming would be to them as a thief because they were not alert. He admonished them that they must repent for if they do not and were “not alert, I will come like a thief, and you won’t know the time when I will come to you. (Rev 3:3 ISV) Again, we see that his coming will be as a thief and it will be at a time that they do not expect and when he comes, sudden destruction will come upon them. (1Thes 5:3) We must consider that the phrase “thief in the night” appears not to apply to the event known as the rapture, but applies to the actual second coming of Jesus, that is, the day that he returns.

As further evidence of this, we turn to Rev 16:14 where Satan, the Antichrist, and the False Prophet open their mouths and something like frogs come out to go to deceive the whole world to bring them together for the battle of the great day of God at the place called Armageddon. The timing therefore is toward the end of the time of Jacob’s trouble (the second half of the seven year period filled with intense suffering never experienced before on earth). The nations are getting ready for their final attack against Jerusalem for the battle known as Armageddon (explained in chapter …) It is here in the text, sandwiched between verses 14 and 16, that Jesus strongly admonished the armies of the world by saying he was coming as a thief.

They are demonic spirits that perform signs. They go to the kings of the whole earth and gather them for the war of the great Day of God Almighty. “See, I am coming like a thief. How blessed is the person who remains alert and keeps his clothes on! He won’t have to go naked and let others see his shame.” The spirits gathered the kings to the place that is called Armageddon in Hebrew. (Rev 16:14-16 ISV)

It is no accident that Jesus’ admonition is placed there – He has graciously warned the rebels one last time of what will happen at his return and anyone who does not have a garment of Yeshuáh on at that point will be in a world of hurt and will suffer exposed to his glory forever because he will have to go naked and others see his shame.” (See Appendix: Garment of Yeshua) The fact that Jesus directs the exhortation to those gathering together for the day of battle demonstrates that the Day of the Lord coming as a thief in the night can only be a reference to the second coming of Jesus which is the very day that he returns to planet earth in a blaze of glory and flames of fire. The basic thesis of the movie “A Thief in the Night” has incorrectly applied the phrase to the rapture. The day coming like a thief is coming to those who are not anticipating the Lord’s return. Coming like a thief means it is sudden and is a big surprise!

All the nations of the world will be in utter shock and dumbfounded by Jesus coming because they arrogantly and boastfully gather themselves together against Jerusalem in order to lay it waste. The following verses demonstrate how all of the nations will be coming against Jerusalem in order to (successfully) destroy it and hence when Jesus comes back, they will be sorely surprised.

  • I will make Jerusalem a heavy weight; so everyone who burdens themselves with it will be crushed, even though all of the nations of the earth gather themselves against it. (Zech 12:3 ISV)
  • Let the nations be awakened and come to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; because I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations. Put in the sickle, because the harvest is ripe. Come and go down, because the winepress is full. The wine vats are overflowing, because their evil is great! (Joel 3:12-13 ISV)
  • Now many nations have gathered against you, saying, ‘Let her be defiled,’ and ‘Let’s look down on Zion.’ (Mic 4:11 ISV)

They fully anticipate that they will be victorious in their battle efforts just as Pharaoh imagined he would be when he mustered his army against Israel by the Red Sea. Imagine the incredible surprise he felt as the walls of water came crashing over him. So too will the nations of the earth be utterly shocked when the heavens roll back and there stands Jesus. Habakkuk records that at Jesus’ return, “He stood up and shook the land; with his stare he startled the nations.” (Hab 3:6 ISV) The nations are startled because they were not expecting him, which only serves to prove that His second coming is like a thief in the night.

The book of Zephaniah also records how the day of God’s wrath will bring a sudden end to the nations which will come as a terrible surprise.

in the Day of the Lord’s wrath; but the entire land will be consumed by the fire of his jealousy, for he will bring the inhabitants of the land to a sudden end…the Day of the Lord’s wrath [which] surprises you (Zeph 1:18; 2:2 ISV)

The Thief in the Night in 2 Peter

The element of the surprise is confirmed in 2 Peter, perhaps the most significant passage concerning the day of the Lord. Because the heavens pass away in the passage, Dr Pentecost and others argue that the Day of the Lord must include the millennium because they understand the heavens to pass away afterward. However, our study of 2Peter 3:10 will prove that the heavens pass away the day that Jesus returns.

First of all, we need to consider the context of the chapter: Peter is discussing the return of Jesus and answering the mockery of the skeptics who ridicule “What happened to the Messiah’s promise to return? Ever since our ancestors died, everything continues as it did from the beginning of creation.” (2Pet 3:4 ISV) Peter then reminds his readers that the mockers have “deliberately ignore the fact that long ago the heavens existed and the earth was formed by God’s word out of water and with water, by which the world at that time was deluged with water and destroyed.” (2Pet 3:5-6 ISV) The judgment of God is absolutely certain, Peter concludes because just as the world was destroyed by water, a future judgment will destroy it by fire. “Now by that same word, the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire and are being kept for the day when ungodly people will be judged and destroyed.” (2Pet 3:7 ISV) Concerning Jesus’ apparent tardiness, Peter says that in the Lord’s economy a day is like a thousand years and vice versa. His delay is due to his patience and desire that all should come to repentance. However, just like the unsuspecting people in Noah’s day who, according to Jesus “were unaware of what was happening until the flood came and swept all of them away – that’s how it will be when the Son of Man comes.” (Matt 24:39 ISV)

Peter obviously took his cues from Jesus and so he tells his readers that just as people were caught off guard on the very day the flood waters came and swept them away, so too the very day Jesus returns, will be as surprise, it will come like a thief.

But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief. On that day [en he ἐν ἡ] the heavens will disappear with a roaring sound, the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be exposed. (2Pet 3:10 ISV)

Peter is not telling his readers anything new; he is simply reiterating either what is in the Hebrew Scriptures (his Bible back then) or, in this case, what Jesus directly said: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming. (Matt 25:13 NKJV)

Jesus ties then known day and hour specifically to when “Heaven and earth will pass away…” (Matt 24:35 NKJV) It is the day that the heavens and earth pass away will be completely unannounced and unheralded. The event will be a big surprise to everyone – even to the angels. “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” (Matt 24:36 NKJV)

The day in question is not referring to a pre-tribulation event (such as the rapture) but specifically to the day that Jesus returns which aligns perfectly Peter’s reference to the heavens and earth passing away on the Day of the Lord.  Peter then follows up his exposition of the Day of the Lord with a similar exhortation to watch or look because that is the day when (in which) the heavens will be set ablaze and the elements of the earth dissolved.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, think of the kind of holy and godly people you ought to be as you look forward to and hasten the coming of the day of God, when the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved and the elements will melt with fire. (2Pet 3:11, 12 ISV)

He closes his exhortation with the hope that we have that once Messiah comes he will set up a new era including a new heavens and new earth. “But in keeping with his promise, we are looking forward to new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” (2Pet 3:13 ISV) His reference to righteousness dwelling in the new age appears to be a reference to Isaiah 11 where Messiah Jesus will rule over a new creation in which even the animals are at perfect harmony with mankind.

But with righteousness he will judge the needy, and decide with equity for earth’s poor. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and the wicked will be killed with the breath of his lips. Righteousness will be the sash around his loins, and faithfulness the belt around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb; the leopard will lie down with the young goat. The calf and the lion will graze together, and a little child will lead them. At that time, as to the root of Jesse, who will be standing as a banner for the peoples, the nations will rally to him, and his resting place is glorious. (Isa 11:4-6, 10 ISV)

Peter was looking forward to the new heavens and earth, specifically mentioned in Isaiah 65:17, as well as the general abundance of righteousness described in Isaiah 11 and other passages.  There will be an obvious need for new heavens because the (current) heavens and earth will pass away at Jesus coming, which Jesus, Peter, Isaiah (Isa 34:4) and others have said. The next question however, is what exactly does it mean that the heavens will pass away?

The Heavens Pass Away

According to Peter, the surprising and unexpected day Jesus comes back (“the Day of the Lord will come like a thief”) is when the heavens will pass away (“on that day [en he ἐν ἡ] the heavens will disappear with a roaring sound,”). It is also the day that the creation will begin to melt like wax and all of man’s works will be destroyed by fire (“the elements will be destroyed by fire”), and the earth and everything done on it will be exposed. (2Pet 3:10 ISV)

This verse clearly shows the unexpectedness of the day in which end-of-the-world events will take place! The heavens will pass away, the elements (stoixia στοιχεῖα), the base materials of the world,[2] will dissolve, and the works of men will be exposed to God.

where we discover that in (or on) the Day of the Lord, which comes like a thief, the heavens will pass away and the earth will be destroyed by fire.  We must not miss that it is on that very day (not a seven year period and not one thousand years) on that very day that the heavens will disappear.

But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief. On that day [en he ἐν ἡ] the heavens will disappear with a roaring sound, the elements will be destroyed by fire… (2Pet 3:10 ISV)

The evidence is overwhelming that the Day of the Lord is the day that Jesus comes back and is not referring to a pre-tribulational event, regardless of what we believe about the timing of the rapture itself. Another look at 2 Peter 3 will help us to understand the events of that day better.

 


[1] Dr. Dwight J. Pentecost, Things to Come, pp. 230.

[2] BDAG στοιχεῖον “basic components of something, elements of substances underlying the natural world, the basic elements fr. which everything in the world is made and of which it is composed”