What the Bible says about
Thief in the Night
(From Forerunner Commentary)
Because we read the Bible in English, puns and other wordplay are lost in translation. Understanding this vision depends on a play on the Hebrew words translated "summer fruit" and "end." Amos answers God's question by saying he saw ripe fruit. But, when God responds, He uses a similar sounding word to suggest the time was ripe for His people.
The fruit represents people. If ripe, they were ready either to be used or to rot. God says the time is ripe for picking Israel. God had tried to get the people to repent, but in their hardheaded and hardhearted way, they would not. John the Baptist uses a different metaphor for the Jews of his day: The ax is about to fall (Matthew 3:10). God's patience had run out. He would "not pass by them anymore." In their spiritually oblivious state, disaster would take them by surprise.
Could we be taken by surprise?
But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. 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. But you, brethren are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. (I Thessalonians 5:1-6)
This passage sounds strikingly similar to Amos 8. Could we be lulled into complacency? Is God's hand involved in world events, while we think we have plenty of time before the end? Are we motivated to make use of the time left to us? God says the time is ripe. He gives us time to repent, but that time grows shorter daily.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Prepare to Meet Your God! (The Book of Amos) (Part Two)
Though our present day rivals Noah's in corruption and evil, this meaning of Matthew 24:36-39 is actually the secondary interpretation. The primary meaning is more simple: Christ would come at a time when most of the world was busy doing its normal activities.
Notice verse 36: "But of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only." This is the subject sentence of the entire paragraph. Verse 42 repeats the thought: "Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming." Jesus rephrases it in verse 44: "Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect Him."
Luke's version makes this especially clear:
And as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man: They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed. (Luke 17:26-30)
People will be involved in their normal activities, not realizing such a momentous event is about to occur!
Paul writes that "the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. 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" (I Thessalonians 5:2-3). Just when men begin to think they have a handle on society's problems, total chaos and destruction will erupt.
Peter reminds us of scoffers coming in the last days who would say, "Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation" (II Peter 3:4). The apostle goes on to cite the example of the Flood—which came on suddenly and unexpectedly—as an event that broke the natural cycle of life (verses 5-6). Such is the time of Christ's return.
All of these prophetic warnings include the admonition to watch and be ready for it when it comes. As Paul says:
But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. . . . Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober, . . . putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. (I Thessalonians 5:4, 6, 8)
Christ's return will not be sudden and unexpected to the church. We may not know the day or the hour, but we will be somewhere "in the ballpark." Jesus says His day "will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth" (Luke 21:35). But, as verse 34 says, if we "take heed to [our]selves," not being mired down by sin, we will be expecting it.
We are certainly living in times very like those of the days of Noah, so the return of Christ could come anytime soon. Knowing this, our job is to watch and pray and overcome so "that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man" (verse 36).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
'As It Was In the Days of Noah'
In this parable, it is even more apparent that the Master intends for the servants to be watchful—diligent, alert, taking heed to themselves—in their work and authority rather than for His return. Twice, He says that no one knows the timing of His return—not even Himself! Here, He tells us that we do not know the "day and hour," but after His resurrection He expands this unknown variable to "times or seasons" (Acts 1:6-7).
So, even though we might be able to have a rough idea when that time draws near (see Matthew 24:32-33; Luke 21:29-31), in general, it is secret and indeterminable. Our time, then, is best spent focusing on our responsibilities before God rather than being caught up in the details of how it might unfold. These things are unknowable, but even if one could correctly anticipate them, it would all be for naught if the individual is not spiritually prepared for Jesus Christ's return (see also Matthew 24:42-44).
David C. Grabbe
'As a Thief in the Night'
In Mark 13:37, Jesus Christ commands us to watch: “And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” The Greek word here, gregoreuo, translated as “watch,” is in the imperative mood, expressing a command by the order and authority of the one commanding. Thus, it is an unequivocal command to all by the order of our authority, Jesus Christ, that therefore requires strict attention and obedience by us all.
Are we obeying His command to watch? Do we know what Christ is commanding us to do? Many do not. Because this is a direct and emphatic command by our Savior, it is vital that we know.
Christ uses this Greek word for “watch” fourteen times in the Gospels. To get a clear picture of what He means by it, notice the context each time that He commands us to watch (gregoreuo is in bold in the verses that follow):
Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matthew 24:42-44)
Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming. (Matthew 25:13)
It is like a man going to a far country, who left his house and gave authority to his servants, and to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to watch. Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning—lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch! (Mark 13:34-37)
Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching. Assuredly, I say to you that he will gird himself and have them sit down to eat, and will come and serve them. And if he should come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Luke 12:37-40)
Two clear thoughts run through all these examples where Christ uses “watch.” First, we do not know when He will return. Second, we should be watching so that we are ready no matter when that happens.
Watching is serious business and is necessary to our being ready for His immediate return in our lives. While in these verses He commands us to watch as the way we prepare for His return, He does not tell us what that means.
Thankfully, Christ practices what He preaches. By His example, He shows us what He means by watching, and we are to follow that example (I Peter 2:21). Notice the remainder of the fourteen uses of “watch” by Jesus in the Gospels (again, gregoreuo is in bold in the verses that follow):
Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.” He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” Then He came to the disciples and found them asleep, and said to Peter, “What? Could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, a second time, He went away and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.” And He came and found them asleep again, for their eyes were heavy. So He left them, went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words. (Matthew 26:38-44; an additional three usages appear in Mark 14:34-39)
Here, we see that Jesus is watching and asking the disciples to watch along with Him. Just as He commands us to watch to be prepared for the biggest event in our lives, He watched to be prepared for the biggest event in His human life.
Conversely, His disciples did not watch but instead slept! Learn the lesson. They did not watch. They did not prepare. As a consequence, they failed miserably (Matthew 26:56, 69-75; Mark 14:50-52).
What did Jesus do while watching that His disciples did not do? How did He watch? We see here that watching is about spiritual preparation that, in this case, consists of intense prayer. On a broader scale, He spent a lifetime watching His human nature so closely that He never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). In these last hours, He intensified His watching in the extreme, as recorded in Luke 22:41-44:
And He was withdrawn from them about a stone's throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
By His example, Jesus shows us that watching is about spiritual preparation. He also stresses that same point the last time in the Bible He uses the word “watch,” gregoreuo: “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame” (Revelation 16:15).
Just as He does in the many verses we saw above, He warns us that He comes as a thief, in a day and hour we know not. Here, He emphasizes what we are to watch—our garments, our character. We are to be removing every spot and wrinkle from them (Ephesians 5:27; II Peter 3:14). We want to be sure there are no holes in our character (James 5:2) when He returns.
Therefore, here in Revelation 16:15 and by His example, we see that watching is all about spiritual preparation. He consistently links watching with His return. There is no hint of anything else in Jesus' use of the word “watch” (see also Revelation 3:3, where He underscores watching as required spiritual preparation for His sudden return). Thus, we see that when Christ says “watch,” He is commanding us to be spiritually prepared for His return no matter how sudden and unexpected it may be in our lives.
In verses 37-38, Jesus pronounces a blessing on those whom the Master finds watching when He returns. It is not that they have their noses pressed to the glass, watching for His return. Instead, those who are vigilant and careful in their responsibilities will be blessed. They are watching over the Master's house, ensuring that all is in order, even if it means sleepless nights. "Be ready" in verse 40 is a simple summation of the "watching" He desires.
Verse 38 warns that He might return in the second watch or in the third. Regardless of whether the Master returns early or late (from our perspective), He wants His servants to be ready and His household in order. He wants them to be maintaining the house, diligent in their duties, so that all is prepared for His return. If they spend their days staring out the window, watching the road for His return rather than fulfilling their duties, they will be neglecting what He has charged them to do.
The duties of a typical servant include many mundane, monotonous, and repetitive chores. It is easy for a servant to think, "What is the use? Do I really have to do this right now? Since there is no sign of the Master right now, perhaps I can just relax, and prepare quickly when His return seems near." Such a servant would be inclined to spend more time watching from the window for the Master's return than he would be performing his assigned tasks. Yet, a servant's responsibility is to be prepared and to make sure the household (the church) is prepared, not to anticipate the timing of the Master's return.
Jesus says repeatedly that we will not know. If we believe Him, our focus will be on being faithful and vigilant in the things He has given us to do. His return will take the household by surprise—there is no other way to understand His many statements. The critical point is the state of readiness and the usefulness of the household and the servants when He returns. If the household is not ready, or if the servants have been sleeping rather than working, they will face His wrath.
David C. Grabbe
'As a Thief in the Night'
Jesus' comments about the thief point out that His disciples must be ready because the Son of Man will come unexpectedly (Matthew 25:13; Mark 13:33; Revelation 3:3). The story as a whole, not the individual characters in it, provide the comparison. The unwise servant makes two mistakes. First, he says, "I'll do whatever I want while my master is away," forgetting that the day of judgment must come. Human beings have a habit of having two different attitudes toward God. Sometimes, we remember that God is present, and at others, we may not think of Him at all. Second, he says, "I have plenty of time to put things right before the master comes." Nothing may be more harmful than to assume we have more time (I Thessalonians 5:3). Jesus says, "I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work" (John 9:4).
Martin G. Collins
Parable of the Faithful and Evil Servants
Here, Christ's instruction to watch continues. However, this time Jesus focuses specifically on the responsibility of the steward—the one given authority over the household while the Master is away. His theme is preparation and faithful continuance of duty. He tasks the steward—a type of the ministry—with giving the household "food in due season."
Similarly, Paul outlines the responsibilities of church leadership in his letter to the Ephesians. Notice that the focus is on the church, not on the world: "And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry [service], for the edifying of the body of Christ. . ." (Ephesians 4:11-13). Church leaders are responsible for feeding and preparing God's household and encouraging them to watch themselves.
If the steward does not properly watch, however, the human proclivity is to let down—and abuse. The steward in Luke 12:45 is focused on the Master's return—or lack thereof—rather than on his own alertness and attention to his duties. As a result, he falls into excesses of eating and drinking (rather than providing food for the household). He ends up beating those he was supposed to watch over, as if he thought they belonged to him. Clearly, those who have stewardship responsibilities in the church have an added weight to "take heed to themselves" lest they neglect or even damage those for whom they are supposed to be providing spiritual food.
David C. Grabbe
'As a Thief in the Night'
1 Thessalonians 5:1-9
Like us, the return of Christ was much on the minds of first-century Christians, yet Paul tells them he felt no need to write concerning its timing. Why? Because they should have known that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. There was no point in Paul trying to outline it all, as it will happen at a time that nobody can anticipate.
However, he writes something that seems contradictory in verse 4: Since they are not in darkness, that Day should not "overtake [them] as a thief." What is actually meant is that the day of God's wrath would not possess them—literally, "take them over." God's wrath would not swallow them up, or the destruction of that Day does not need to have power over them. He does not mean that it would not surprise them, but as a parallel verse clarifies, "For God has not appointed us to wrath" (verse 9), even though they will be surprised.
Verse 6 contains the same admonition seen elsewhere to be awake, to be sober, and to watch. Though we are not appointed to wrath, other verses show that we can certainly still incur it if we are not taking heed to ourselves (see Hebrews 10:26-31). So we are instructed to watch—to be vigilant about our spiritual state, to have continuous and wakeful concern over fulfilling our part of the covenant, to be on guard against spiritual dangers, spiritual drowsiness, and deception. Those who do these things, along with praying always, will be accounted worthy to escape the wrath. Simply watching down the road for a sign of the Master's return really does not prepare us for anything at all.
David C. Grabbe
'As a Thief in the Night'
After essentially calling the members of the church in Sardis the "church of the mostly dead," Jesus Christ instructs them to "be watchful." He complements this with, "strengthen the things which remain," which qualifies the meaning of "watch." There is still a glimmer of life within this church, but the letter gives the impression that they have relaxed in their spiritual responsibilities so much that they are nearly comatose. They have not been vigilant in their core responsibilities or on guard against deception, apathy, or neglect. They have not had sleepless nights over their standing with God.
Interestingly, in the Bible's first mention of the Day of the Lord (Isaiah 2:12), it says that it "shall come upon everything proud and lofty, upon everything lifted up—and it shall be brought low." The primary target is the proud—the self-assured. The ironic thing is that this state of spiritual near-death could easily come about even while they are avidly watching world events. They could be quite adept at following the news reports and may know better than anyone what is really going on in the world and how it fits with prophecy.
But that does not fulfill Christ's and the apostle's commands to watch! It is not that it is wrong to keep tabs on world news, but watching world news is chiefly about observing. True watching emphasizes diligence; it is being alert to spiritual dangers more than physical ones. It is about faithfully carrying out our God-given responsibilities, like a servant in the Master's house. None of that results from simply being a news- or prophecy-addict.
In verse 3, He tells them to call to mind the previous lessons and instructions they have heard. He tells them to repent and to guard and maintain their position so they backslide no further. As before, His description gives little indication of spiritual vibrancy or zeal. There probably is a great deal of activity, since He says that they have a name—or reputation—for being alive. Yet, in the areas that truly matter—like growth, faith, seeking God, and overcoming—not much is happening.
He also warns them that, if they will not watch themselves and their covenant responsibilities to their Master, He will come upon them like a thief. He implies that they will not be counted worthy to escape. They may not be appointed to wrath as the world is, but they certainly are not immune to it. In fact, they stand a good chance of experiencing some of it, having not been vigilant and alert in watching over the things that God has given them.
Plainly, Christ will return when we do not expect Him. We may be able to observe some general indicators when key prophecies are fulfilled, but the overall timing will be a mystery. His coming will be like a thief in the night, purposefully hidden from all. Rather than trying to discern the timing, we are instructed to "watch"—not world events, but to watch over all that God has given to us, so that when that Day arrives, we are ready. He knows that if we are faithful in little—in the mundane, the monotonous, the unexciting—we will also be faithful in the truly great things that lie ahead.
David C. Grabbe
'As a Thief in the Night'
Here is an explicit warning: that Christ will come as a thief. In the midst of disaster upon disaster and global war, some in God's church will be surprised by it. It seems ironic how that could happen, but it is apparently going to happen that way.
Here also is a conditional promise: Those who watch and keep their garments will be blessed.
Revelation 16 does not just reveal prophetic information about the future like some type of crystal ball. No, the prophecy is capped with a command to act: to "watch" and to "keep." Choosing not to remain vigilant, choosing not to guard our spiritual condition from atrophy, we can become complacent. We can become neglectful. Our obedience to the commands to watch and to keep is what is truly important to this particular scripture—not a full understanding of every nuance of this chapter.
In fact, what God wants to see—and in fact, expects to see—is our obedience in faith to the commands of this passage notwithstanding our lack of understanding of the details. In this sense, the blessing promised in verse 15 comes in spite of our full understanding of this prophecy, or lack thereof. Knowledge is not a prerequisite to receiving the blessing. Obedience is.
We believe God's word of prophecy, though we may not always necessarily understand it. Nevertheless, God wants the prophecy to motivate us to obedience, and our obedience will bring a blessing with it.
To Watch and Keep
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