A Thief in the Night
In Defense of the Faith
Friday, November 25, 2016
By Alf Cengia
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the expression, like a thief in the night means: “secretly or unexpectedly and without being seen.”
That sounds just about right to me as well.
After all, why do thieves break into houses at night? Well, they’re unlikely to be spotted at that time. People are asleep or not paying close attention. You might eventually end up hearing or even seeing the thief if he makes too much noise. But the idea is that he comes unexpectedly.
The Apostle Paul used the term in context to the Day of the Lord in 1 Thess 5:2. The thief in the night axiom is also linked to the pretribulational rapture and its imminent quality. It’s the idea that Christ could come any time for His church.
One of the champions of imminence was Gerald Stanton (Kept from the Hour).
Non-pretribbers naturally disagree with Stanton’s view that the rapture is imminent. They argue for “expectancy” rather than imminence. The idea of expectancy in the place of imminence has been promoted by posttribulationists such as George E. Ladd and Robert Gundry.
Doug Egsti’s 36 page essay attempts responses to Stanton and other pretribulationists. He insists that some events need to occur before the rapture, although he doesn’t get into the heart of the imminence verses. In one example, Egsti notes Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s teaching that imminence is applicable only after 70 AD. Then he takes issue with the fact that Fruchtenbaum entertained the possibility that the seven churches of Revelation represented historical eras. How could the rapture then be imminent?
Alva McClain (who agrees with Fruchtenbaum regarding 70 AD) preempted this objection by pointing out that if these Historical Church Eras were a direct revelation, then the rapture couldn’t occur at any time. But he added that there was no such revelation.
Another problem cited by Egsti is the fulfillment of the Great Commission. His colleagues often insist that the 144,000 in Revelation chapter 7 aren’t evangelists. In other words the church must be still around to fulfill it. And yet Rosenthal wrote that:
“It is almost like a baton being passed between runners. The 144,000 must be sealed for protection to go through the Day of the Lord before the church can be caught up to the throne in heaven. God will not leave Himself without a people on the earth.” ~ The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church page 185
In contrast, Van Kampen wrote:
“These 144,000 will become the firstfruits of unsaved Israel (Rev. 14:4), not saved until the rapture occurs – which is why they will not be raptured with the saints…” ~ The Rapture Question Answered p 155 (Emphasis mine)
That’s rather convenient timing! One gets the feeling that all sorts of excuses have been formulated to keep the church on earth right up until the last moment. Interestingly, Rev 14:6has an angel preaching the Everlasting Gospel to those who dwell on the earth.
Non-pretribbers like to point out that the thief expression occurs in Matthew 24:43 and Revelation 16:15 (and elsewhere). They note that the former verse appears in the Olivet Discourse in context to Jesus’ coming at the end of the tribulation. The latter verse appears during the 6th bowl judgment.
That being the case, how can anyone justify using the thief idiom for the pretrib rapture?
Robert Van Kampen (p 107) even advised his readers to find a pretribber and ask them why it is not permitted to set dates. Almost everyone quotes Matt 24:36. The pretribber is then informed that v 36 is cited in context to the Second Coming verses earlier, so it cannot refer to the rapture.
In response to all this, we can make a number of observations:
That the Lord warns of coming as a thief at Rev 16:15 is a parenthetical statement warning readers of all periods. It does not mean Christ hasn’t returned by then. The verse should be compared with 1 Thess 5:2-3 where Paul says the Day of the Lord comes as a thief in the night while they are saying peace and safety. There is no peace and safety at the 6th bowl, or after the 2nd seal for that matter.
In Matthew 24 Jesus prophesied certain events and gave signs leading up to His Second Coming. Yet at v36 He tells the disciples that no one knows the hour or the day of His return. How can this be?
Non-pretribbers argue that it is the time of the events leading up to the rapture which cannot be determined; hence the timing of the Second Coming is unknown. Once the Seven-Year Covenant has been confirmed and the Abomination of Desolation enacted, we can have firm parameters – but only then. In contrast, prewrathers will switch to imminency once the Great Tribulation is under way.
Pretribulationists note that at Matt 24:36 Jesus used the word but (peri de), which introduces a new subject or idea (Fruchtenbaum, Hart etc). While He responded to the disciples’ Jewish concerns (the Temple and the end of the age etc), it was His prerogative to shift focus and add extra information.
In fact Jesus says something in vv37-38 which logically demands a different coming. How can the worst time in history (Matt 24:21-22) parallel a period of normalcy where people are eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage? He punctuates the point further by saying:
Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Mat 24:44
Yet didn’t Jesus just give the disciples a set of signs to look for? Go take another look at 1Thess 5:2-3!
But that’s not all.
Hosea 5:15 and Matt 23:39 suggest that Christ’s premillennial return is contingent to Israel’s seeking Him. If the Lord’s coming relies on Israel’s request, then He cannot return unexpectedly. Moreover, it rules out the scenarios argued by Rosenthal and Van Kampen (as noted earlier).
Given all this and considering verses which strongly imply imminence (Matt 24:42, 44, 50, 25:13; Mark 13:34-37), I believe it takes some special pleading to simply argue for expectancy.
Perhaps Jesus just means what He says – to be ready at all times because He could return for the church at any time!
“Ah! Think how would you like to be overtaken by the coming of the Saviour. Try your daily occupations – your daily state of feeling – your daily enjoyments – try them by this test: Am I doing as I would wish to do on the day of His coming? ~ Robert Murray M’Cheyne
Are you ready?