“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” (Rev 3:3).
A thief is a reprehensible person. He is, in the very nature of things, deceptive: he needs the element of surprise on his side. So he must do his work when least expected, or when his victim is not on guard. This can involve, for example, housebreaking in the dead of night (Matt 6:19; 24:43; Luke 12:39), or springing upon his victim in a secluded place, and with superior force (Luke 10:30,36).
A thief is intent on appropriating his victim’s property, his treasures (Matt 6:19). If necessary, he may resort to killing so as to obtain what belongs to his victim (John 10:10); this amounts to “stealing” one’s most precious possession — one’s life!
Coming as a thief
How is it, then, that Jesus is plainly referred to as coming like a thief in his second advent?:
“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. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matt 24:43,44).
“You know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1Thes 5:2).
“The day of the Lord will come like a thief“ (2Pet 3:10).
“I will come like a thief“ (Rev 3:3).
“Behold, I come like a thief!” (Rev 16:15).
The element of surprise
It is true that the element of surprise is prominent in all these passages: ‘if you had known what time’… ‘in the night’… ‘be ready!’ We do well to remember that, no matter how well informed we are (or think we are) on the course of future events leading up to the return of Christ, the actual coming itself will be a surprise. It can scarcely be avoided:
“No one knows about that day or hour” (Matt 24:36; Mark 13:32).
That can hardly be made plainer:
“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).
This most definitely does not say: ‘Study harder, and you will know’, or ‘Most people won’t know, but you will’, or ‘Get all your prophetic predictions down perfectly, according to this preacher or that one, and then you will know.’ Nothing of the sort. We need to get that oft-implied idea out of our heads. The best Bible student, the most diligent follower of prophetic interpretation and the signs of the times, will most likely feel one thing when Christ finally comes: not satisfaction (‘I guessed right after all’) so much as surprise (‘Now?!’).
That’s what thieves do
But is the thief imagery only about surprise? No, it is also about losing one’s most valuable possessions. Thieves surprise you by stealing from you; they don’t surprise you by throwing you a birthday party, where they give you cake and presents.
This brings us to the key point: when the master comes “like a thief “, it isn’t just to catch his servants off guard. It is also, like a thief, to snatch away their treasured belongings.
Isn’t it extraordinary that the Son of God, who never committed a sin, will come as a thief? Stealing is a sin, and a “thief “ therefore must be a sinner — but how could Christ be a sinner?
However, there is at least one instance when a “thief “ is not committing a crime, and that is when he is simply reclaiming (by stealth or surprise) what is rightfully his. This is exactly what David and his men did when they followed the Amalekites (who were the real thieves) and retrieved their kidnapped families and stolen goods (1Sam 30).
That seems to be exactly the point in these New Testament instances also: when he returns, Christ will be merely taking back what is rightfully his. The true “thieves” will be seen to be those servants who ate their Master’s bread and drank his wine and enjoyed themselves in leisurely consuming their Master’s property (see the parable in Matt 24:48-51 and Luke 12:45-47). Their crucial mistake was in forgetting they were mere stewards or caretakers, and acting as if all their Master’s properties belonged to them.
If we are to be sure that Christ does not come like a “thief “ to us, we must not act as “thieves” ourselves now, stealing from him what is rightfully his. We must remember that all we possess really belongs to the One who is our true Lord and Master. We merely hold it in trust, to be used to serve him. If he chooses at any time to reclaim his own property, it is his prerogative.
Jesus makes this same point in a parable about coming judgment. At the end of his parable of the talents, the master speaks about one of his servants, who had done nothing with what had been entrusted to him:
“Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him” (Matt 25:28,29).
There is an apparent contradiction here: the man who has nothing will lose what he has. How can we have nothing, and something, at the same time? The answer is quite simple: when what we have belongs to another, we may seem to have it, but we really have nothing at all.
It is in this sense that Jesus will be a thief when he returns. He will summarily seize from us what we thought we had. He will show in one stark revelation that what we expressed in theory was always true in fact: we own nothing, not even our lives! All our precious delusions, about what we possess, are snatched away in the twinkling of an eye.
Storms, fires, and recessions
The last few months, especially, should have provided us some foretaste of this coming eye-opener:
- Hurricanes: Particularly here in Texas we saw close by, an awesome hurricane, reminiscent of the devastating Katrina that tore into the low-lying New Orleans three years ago. Hurricane Ike hit Galveston, on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, and to a lesser extent the Houston area just north of there. It wreaked still untold damage to property and life. The various news media showed us the terrible toll this disaster took on the lives and possessions of many Texans. The observer would have to have a heart of stone to witness such loss, and not pause for at least a moment to think: ‘That could have been my house, my possessions, my life.’
- Fires: Very recently, many of us have heard of fires in southern California, which destroyed individuals’ homes and belongings, including those of some of our brethren and friends. ‘What a tragic thing,’ we think, ‘to lose so much.’
- Financial woes: Lately, we have watched, perhaps with fear and foreboding, as a serious financial crisis swept through investment companies, mortgage companies, and banks. What started in the United States created a ripple effect that engulfed the world’s financial markets. Other nations, and other industries here, are seeing their wealth, and “market value”, melting away — like snowmen when the temperature rises. The crisis has touched most of us in some degree, with layoffs, foreclosures, declines in investments and pension funds, and inability to obtain loans we might have taken for granted only a few months ago.
Job’s “friend” Eliphaz taunted him:
“Your words have supported those who stumbled; you have strengthened faltering knees. But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged; it strikes you, and you are dismayed” (Job 4:4,5).
It has been said, rather cynically, that nothing is quite so interesting as seeing someone else’s calamity from a safe distance. As believers in the literal return of Christ, we may fall too readily into a sort of trap. We may see the problems of the world as signs of his imminent coming, but think somehow that those same problems are ‘out there’, that they may be observed from a safe distance. But as such problems creep closer to us, touching our neighbors or our brothers, we may begin to wake up. We may think, ‘That really could be my family, or myself!’ Our concern for others’ losses naturally increases as we identify more with them.
We may come to an even greater test, as did Job, with the loss of his own wealth, children, and health. How do we react then? Do we feel that all those things rightfully belonged to us, and that somehow they have been wrongfully stolen away?
If not the loss of homes or jobs, we may well have felt wealth of one kind or another — money in the bank, investments, market values — slipping away from us over the last few months. It was not tangible in the same way as other things, but it seemed “real” enough to us. How do we react?
Do we feel, quite naturally, that someone has “stolen” from us? The list of suspects is long:
- Government officials may have made bad decisions, as we see it, decisions which trickled down to affect us adversely.
- Executives of financial companies may have exercised poor judgment, or even have lined their own pockets, while driving their businesses into the ditch. Now they want to be “bailed out”, and we the poor people will pay for it.
- Oil companies at home, or oil-producing nations abroad, may have gouged the consumers. Every time we fill up, we feel like someone is stealing from us.
- Poor people, or immigrants, legal or illegal, seem to ‘work the system’ to their advantage, and we — the hardworking middle class — pay the bill, in increased taxes or insurance costs.
We ought to stop and consider the words of Paul:
“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).
Financial adversities, while they may be blamed superficially on some human agency, are part of the “all things” through which God is working for our good.
Is God, or Christ as His agent, acting like a thief? Is Christ, with the Father’s authority, stealing what we think we own, but which really belongs to him only?
Perhaps — difficult though it may be — we should endeavor to see the “losses” of this life as little foretastes of the return of Christ. How do we feel when a storm blows away our home? Or a forest fire burns it to the ground? How do we feel when illness or disease takes away loved ones, shortens our life expectancy, or cripples our lifestyle? How do we feel, for that matter, when 10 or 20 percent of our net worth evaporates from one month to the next?
Are these some of Christ’s methods, to remind us of the brevity and uncertainty of everything in this life? Is he whispering in our ears?:
‘You foolish disciples! You sang platitudes like “Take my hands, my life, my silver and my gold”, but you didn’t mean it. This very night all you think you possess will be stripped from you. I am the One who is coming like a thief. Then you will stand in my presence, finally realizing for the first time that in my hands I hold your life. Tell me again: where are your true riches?’ (cf Luke 12:19-21; Hymn 163).
If we believe the words of Jesus, then, when the storms of life beat upon us, we ought to feel, not fear, but gratitude. We are being shown something of what the Judgment Seat of Christ will be like. At a time we least expect, our daily lives and all our worldly possessions will be snatched away from us, and wewill stand before the Judge of all the world.
“A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21; cp Luke 12:34).
“The day of the Lord will come like a thief… Since everything will be destroyed… what kind of people ought you to be?… Live holy and godly lives… make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him” (2Pet 3:10,11,14).