Why the parable of the thief coming in the night may be a warning to Christians – Matthew 24:42-44

Jesus’ return, like the coming of a thief in the night, may not be good news for Christians who are unprepared for it.

By Dick Lentz

(All Scriptures cited come from the NIV2011 version of the Bible)

In a previous post titled, “Jesus’ return will be visible to everyone,” I noted my reasons for concluding that when Jesus returns that everyone will see Him coming on the clouds. In a subsequent post titled, “When Jesus returns, it won’t be Christians who are taken away,” I provided support for my conclusion that Jesus’ return will result in immediate, dire, and permanent consequences for those not prepared for it. I also noted my reasons for concluding that those “taken” or “taken away” when Jesus returns will be those who do not have a saving relationship with Him – that “to be taken” when Jesus returns actually means, according to Luke 17:26-35, “to be destroyed.”

I now want to show in this post and subsequent ones how the appearance of the same symbol in different end-time passages can help identify those that are describing the same event and the implications this may have for those living when this event occurs. The first symbol I’ll look at is the thief in the night.

Be ready: Matthew 24:42-44 

42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 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. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matthew 24:42-44) 

I discussed my understanding of this parable – the parable of the thief in the night – in a previous post titled, “When Jesus returns, it won’t be Christians who are taken away.” I contended in that post that this parable can’t be properly understood unless it is compared with the other parables it is grouped with in Matthew 24:36—25:46 and noting what they have in common. Based on doing this type of comparison, it was my conclusion that the parable of the thief in the night, like the other parables it is grouped with, is warning that since the return of Jesus is not a predictable event and that He could return at any time that it’s imperative for us to be ready for it at all times. It is also warning as I noted earlier that the consequences of not being prepared for Jesus’ return are immediate, dire, and permanent.

A couple questions that are relevant when discussing the parable of the thief in the night are, “Who was Jesus addressing?” and, “What implication does this have for us?” To answer these questions, I’ll point out some of the other passages that compare Jesus’ return to the coming of a thief and note what I consider to be significant.

Don’t be caught napping: 2 Thessalonians 5:1-11

1 Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 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.

4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (2 Thessalonians 5:1-11)

The thief in the night is mentioned in two places in the above passage: in verse 2 and verse 4. I believe that the reference to the thief in verse 2 is referring to the same event described in the parable of the thief in the night in Matthew 24:42-44. It is also saying pretty much the same thing: that Jesus will return at a time when He is not expected. Paul elaborated on this by indicating that when Jesus returns that it will be at a time when people think the world is at peace and therefore safe (vs. 3). Paul also noted that Jesus’ return will precipitate a time of destruction from which no-one will escape – that there will no second-chance for those unprepared for Jesus’ return to come into a saving relationship with Him after He returns.

Paul then pointed out in verse 4 that Christians, as children of the light, shouldn’t be taken by surprise when this occurs. They shouldn’t be caught napping. Unlike those who live in darkness, Christians ought to be prepared at all times for the return of Jesus. To be prepared, they need to be sober-minded, to be people of faith and love, and to be confident that their hope for salvation is in Jesus (vs. 8). It seems that Paul was telling Christians not to live like those who seem to have little concern about what will happen when Jesus returns or don’t think He could come at any time. Paul was also reminding those who follow Jesus of the importance of encouraging and building up each other as they consider this, something that the Christians in Thessalonica were apparently already doing (vs. 11).

Be Prepared: 2 Peter 3:3-18

Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16 He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

17 Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. (2 Peter 3:3-18)

This is perhaps the longest passage comparing the return of Jesus to the coming  of a thief. Several things are worthy of note in it. First, when the day of the Lord comes – when Jesus returns – it will result in the immediate destruction of the world we live in (vss. 7 and 10). And there doesn’t seem to be any gap of time between Jesus’ return and the destruction that follows – no period of years for those who missed the boat the first time around to have an opportunity to get in it later on. This is consistent with my belief that when Jesus returns that what results will be immediate, dire, and permanent for those who are unprepared.

Peter noted that some will scoff at this (vss. 3-7) and will follow their own evil desires, thinking perhaps that it doesn’t matter what they do or hoping that they will have a chance to repent later on. Peter reminded those inclined to live this way that though Jesus may delay His return in order to give everyone ample opportunity to repent (vs. 9), it was imperative that followers of Jesus live as if He could return at any time (vs. 11).

Peter then elaborated on how Christians were to live in anticipation of Jesus’ return. They were to “live holy and godly loves” (vs. 10). They were to “make every effort to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with Him”(vs. 14). And they were to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (vs. 18).

Peter included a warning about what could happen if one was not prepared for the return of Jesus. After noting that some were distorting the teachings of Paul regarding this (vss. 15-16), he urged believers to be on their guard lest they be carried away by erroneous teachings and fall away from their secure position (vs. 17). I won’t elaborate in this post on what I think it means for a Christian to fall away from their secure position. But suffice it to say that the consequences of not being prepared for Jesus’ return are significant.

Repent: Revelation 3:1-6

1“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But 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.

Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 3:1-6)

The above passage is one of seven in Revelation 2 and 3 that describe the good and bad things that were occurring in some of the churches in Asia in the first century. Out of the seven churches mentioned, only two seemed to have been in good shape spiritually. The other five, including the church at Sardis, were found wanting.

Note the reference in verse 3 to Jesus coming “like a thief” at a time “you will not know.” Note as well who was being warned. It doesn’t seem to be unbelievers. It appears that the ones being warned were those who seemingly had a saving relationship with Jesus. God promised that if they held fast to what they had already received and repented (vs. 3) that their names would not be blotted out of the book of life (vs. 5). This seems to indicate that their names were already in the book of life. It also seems that God was warning them that if they didn’t hold fast to what they’d received and didn’t repent that that their names could be removed from that book.

The passage also notes that though the church in Sardis had a reputation for being alive, based on its deeds, God considered it dead (vs. 1). That didn’t mean it couldn’t be revived. Something remained within it that could be strengthened (vs. 2). But if it didn’t wake up and take action, Jesus was going to return like a thief  and take what was left away from it.

Stay Awake: Revelation 16:1-21

1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.”

2 The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly, festering sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.

The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood like that of a dead person, and every living thing in the sea died.

4 The third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood. 5 Then I heard the angel in charge of the waters say:

“You are just in these judgments, O Holy One,
you who are and who were;

6 for they have shed the blood of your holy people and your prophets,
and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.”

7 And I heard the altar respond:

“Yes, Lord God Almighty,
true and just are your judgments.”

8 The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. 9 They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.

10 The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in agony 11 and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.

12 The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East. 13 Then I saw three impure spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. 14 They are demonic spirits that perform signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty.

15 Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed.”

16 Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.

17 The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, “It is done!” 18 Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since mankind has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake. 19 The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath. 20 Every island fled away and the mountains could not be found. 21 From the sky huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, fell on people. And they cursed God on account of the plague of hail, because the plague was so terrible. (Revelation 16:1-21)

I find the reference to the thief in verse 15 in the above passage to be challenging and perhaps the most difficult to understand. It is placed in the middle of a description of the seven bowls of judgment – seven instruments of God’s wrath – yet doesn’t appear to be placed in chronological sequence with the events described. It seems to be parenthetical in nature. It’s as if Jesus was saying:

“Look – I am coming, but not yet. What you need to understand is that you are going to be affected in some way by the terrible events that precede My return. When they occur, stay alert. Don’t lose heart. Don’t give up or give in. Keep your spiritual clothes on.  And keep them clean.”

The above is a personal and somewhat long paraphrase of Revelation 16:15. But as I try to make sense of the events described in Revelation 16:1-21, it seems to me that though Jesus is promising in verse 15 that He will return that it won’t be during these horrible events. In the meantime, Christians finding themselves living in the midst of them need to stay awake and remain faithful.

Keep in mind as you consider this my contention that the book of Revelation actually includes three separate but overlapping accounts of the return of Jesus. The first account is in chapters 4-11; the second is in chapters 12-14; and the third is in chapters 16-19. Revelation 16:1-21 is at the beginning of the third account of Jesus’ return and may be elaborating on events mentioned in one or both of the previous accounts.

Do The Will of the Lord: Luke 12:35-48

35 “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, 36 like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. 37 It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. 38 It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. 39 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

41 Peter asked, “Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?”

42 The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? 43 It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. 44 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 45 But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. 46 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.

47 “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:35-48)

I noted earlier the importance of interpreting the parables in Matthew 24:36—25:46 as a group and when doing so to look for what they have in common. Luke makes this a bit easier by taking pieces from each of these parables and combining them into one narrative. Here are some things he noted when he did this:

  • Jesus could come at any time, but it will be at a time when He is unexpected.
  • Since the time of His return is unknown, it’s best to be prepared for it at all times.
  • Those prepared for His return will be rewarded; those unprepared for it will be punished.

Luke included in his narrative a question Peter posed regarding this.  Peter asked,

               “Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?” (vs. 41)

Jesus responded that He was addressing the manager who has been put in charge of his master’s servants (vs. 42) as well as the servant who knows his master’s will (vs. 47). Jesus was warning that if the manager treats his master’s servants poorly that he will suffer the same fate as unbelievers (vs. 46). Jesus also warned that the servant who knows his master’s will and doesn’t do it will suffer a worse fate than one who doesn’t know his master’s will (vss. 47-48).

In an indirect way, Jesus was telling Peter that these parables weren’t addressed to everyone. They were addressed only to those who were followers of Him, those who knew His will, and those who would be given the responsibility to carry on His work while He was away.

A call for Christians to wake-up!

When considering these passages together and what they seem to be saying when they compare Jesus’ return with the coming of a thief in the night, it seems to me that they are addressed primarily to Christians – to those who claim to be followers of Jesus – and not to unbelievers or to those who are not followers of Him. They appear to be a call for Christians to wake-up and understand the implications of what is up ahead. And they are warning that since the day of Jesus’ return is unknown and that He could come at any time that Christians must be prepared for His coming at all times lest they find themselves wanting when He does return.

These passages also note what is required if Christians want to be prepared for the return of Jesus. Included is being loving and faithful, doing the will of God and what is commendable in His eyes, striving to be spotless, and repenting of those things that are contrary to what God says is right and good.

One other thing that’s important is for Christians to be an encouragement to each other. The author of Hebrews noted the importance of this when he wrote:

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24-25)

And so, as we wait for the coming of Jesus and prepare ourselves for that day, a good use of our time may be to spend more of it considering how we can “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”

And that is how I see it today.

For further reading on this topic, check out these posts:

Is Revelation describing events that will occur PRIOR to the return of Jesus?

Warning to Christians: You may be here for the duration

Three things that must happen before Jesus returns

The Mark of the Beast may be a concern only for Christians

Jesus’ return will be visible to everyone

The three accounts of the return of Jesus in Revelation

Why the Church may not be the Bride of Christ

When Jesus returns, it won’t be Christians who are “taken away”


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