What can a Thief Teach us About the Rapture?
By Jonathan C. Brentner
A recent news story about a thief in Rochelle Park, NJ caught my attention. In the process of robbing a home, he woke up the couple who lived there. Not wanting to get caught, he climbed back out of the window through which he had entered the house and fled from the scene.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. He had previously arranged with a car service to meet him in the neighborhood to unwittingly provide his way of escape. However, in his haste he climbed into the backseat of a police car parked a block away from the home he had attempted to rob.
“A burglar who fled a Rochelle Park couple’s home after waking them became an easy grab for police when he mistook a police vehicle for a Lyft ride.” Rochelle, NJ tweet.
Okay, perhaps there’s not much we can learn from this guy, but we know he greatly surprised the couple who awoke to find a thief in their home. They will never forget the sudden fright they felt that night.
The Apostle Paul also talked about the arrival of a thief at night, “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). Paul says just like the arrival of this robber, the day of the Lord will arrive with “sudden destruction” (v. 3).
What is the Day of the Lord?
First, let’s clarify what the apostle means by the “day of the Lord.” It’s an Old Testament term that refers to God’s wrath that He will pour out on the earth prior Jesus’ Second Coming. This day includes Jesus’ glorious return to earth, the signs preceding it, and the kingdom He establishes after His return.
Will believers experience the wrath of God during the day of the Lord? No, we will not. In 1 Thessalonians 5:9, Paul promises that Jesus will come for those of us in Christ before this terrible time begins, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The context tells us this is wrath specific to the day of the Lord, not the final judgment of sinners in hell.
Does the Day of the Lord Include the Tribulation?
In Revelation 6-16, the Apostle John describes a series of terrible events that come upon the earth during the tribulation; these judgments closely reflect what the Old Testament prophets prophesy will happen during the day of the Lord. The question then becomes this: will the church miss all the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments of the book of Revelation? Do Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:9 promise this or not?
There is disagreement regarding this among premillennialists (those who believe Jesus returns after the tribulation to set up His millennial reign on the earth) regarding how much of the tribulation to include within the day of the Lord. Some delay its start until the “trumpet” judgments while others further postpone it until the bowl judgments.
Does 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3 provide any clues to help us resolve these differences as to when exactly the day of the Lord wrath begins? I believe so.
Can the Thief Help us Resolve this Matter?
Paul’s comparison of the arrival of the day of the Lord to a thief helps us understand how much of the tribulation to include within the day of the Lord.
Just like finding a burglar in one’s house in the middle of night represents an unwelcome surprise, so will be the “sudden destruction” that characterizes the beginning of the day of the Lord. Paul says this time will come when people are saying “peace and security” (1 Thess. 5:3). There has to be some reason for people to think they are living in a time of relative calm and safety when the day of the Lord arrives like a thief.
Let’s go back to Revelation. Could we say that the day of the Lord begins after the seals? Would people be surprised then or would they be saying “peace and safety?” Hardly! We know from Revelation 6:1-8 that at least one-fourth of the world’s population perishes with the seal judgments. One could scarcely say that the day of the Lord would surprise anyone as a thief after such catastrophic destruction and loss of life. Nor will they be saying peace and safety.
For the day of the Lord to arrive with the abruptness and surprise of a thief, it must come simultaneously with the start of all the afflictions detailed in Revelation 6-16 or it will not surprise anyone as a thief in the night.
Do you see what this says about the timing of the rapture? Since the Lord promises, through Paul, to come for us before the start of the day of the Lord, this means the rapture must occur before the seal judgments, since they signify the beginning of God’ wrath.
The rapture happens before the day of the Lord, what we call the tribulation.
What Did the Thessalonian Believers Expect?
The next question is this: did the Thessalonians regard Paul’s promise in 1 Thessalonians 5:9 as signifying that the Lord would come for them before the day of the Lord? Yes, it’s clear from 2 Thessalonians that they believed they would miss all of the day of the Lord.
After Paul wrote his first book to the believers in the city, someone claiming to act on the authority of the apostle told the Thessalonians that the day of the Lord had already begun.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 tells us that the receipt of this message put the believers in a state of total panic. The verbs of verse 2 reveal that they were visibly shaken and overcome with great fright at the news. If Paul earlier had told them that they would go through this time, they would have expected this news and regarded it as a sign that Jesus’ second coming was that much closer.
Instead, these saints already enduring great persecution and hardship because of the Jews in Thessalonica succumbed to overwhelming fear at the thought that the day of the Lord had begun necessitating Paul’s second letter to assure them this was not case. The only explanation for their fright is that they regarded Paul’s promise in 1 Thessalonians 5:9 to mean they would miss all of the day of the Lord.
Just like these believers from so long ago, our expectation is the same. We watch for Jesus’ appearing, not the day of the Lord, aka the tribulation. Yes, at some point in the future God will pour out His wrath on an evil and unsuspecting world during a time known as the day of the Lord or the tribulation. However, we will be safely with our Savior when that time begins.
As believers, however, we have God’s solemn promise in 1 Thessalonians 5:9 that we will not endure the wrath of this time. Jesus will take us to His Father’s house ahead of this time just as He promises us in John 14:2-3.