Coming As A Thief
There has been much
confusion over the 'thief-like coming of Christ' mentioned in 1 Thess.
5:2. The context is concerning the state of the ecclesia in
the last days, and is shot through with allusions to the parable of the
virgins. The sleeping virgins represent the unworthy amongst
the believers who will live just prior to the second coming.
Paul's allusion to this fills out the details: the coming of Christ
to this category of 'believers' will be like a thief in the sense that
their privacy and spiritual house will be invaded by the reality of the
second coming. This will be due to their attitude of 'peace
and safety', which they will actively promulgate - 'Everything's great
within the household, we're going from strength to strength spiritually,
there's no need to fear failure in any form!' That "
they shall say, Peace and safety" (1 Thess. 5:3) suggests
that this is an attitude which they publicly disseminate amongst the brotherhood.
Bearing in mind the many prophecies and indications that there will be
a massive spiritual collapse within the latter-day ecclesia, it is reasonable
to assume that the faithful minority will speak out against this - to
be met by a barrage of 'peace and safety' reasoning.
Those who will stand
ready for their Lord will be in the light, in the day, self-aware, spiritually
sensitive and realistic, and therefore not saying " Peace
and safety" (1 Thess. 5:3-8). Christ's coming as a thief
to the unworthy is therefore in the sense of His coming being unexpected
by them, rather than being as a thief to the world. The frequent
application of the 'peace and safety cry' to the world of the last days
never ceases to amaze the present writer. Prophecy after prophecy
describes a time of global cataclysm around the time of the second coming,
even though this may be mixed with a fair degree of material prosperity.
In no way will it be a time of " peace and safety" for the world;
and their ever-increasing escapism shows that they don't exactly see it
like that either. Biblically speaking, their hearts are failing them for
fear, apprehensive concerning whatever is going to happen to their planet
earth (Lk. 21:26, see modern versions).
GATHERING TO JUDGMENT
The point has been made that when the Angels
first come to call us to judgment at the second coming (Mt. 13:39),
there will be an element of choice as to whether we immediately accept
the call to go and meet Christ. Noah and Lot were invited, not forced,
to leave the world. Those who respond to Christ's return " immediately"
will be accepted, implying that the unworthy delay. This means that the
response is optional in the first instance (Lk. 12:36).
There are other indications of this. The most obvious is in the
parable of the virgins, where the wise go out to meet their Lord immediately,
whilst the foolish delay in order to spiritually prepare themselves.
The connections between this parable and
1 Thess. 4 are strengthened by the same Greek word being translated "
meet" in Mt. 25:6 concerning the wise virgins going out to "
meet" Christ and also in 1 Thess. 4:17: " We which are
alive and remain shall be caught up...in the clouds to meet the
Lord in the air" . The picture is therefore presented
of the righteous obeying the call of their own volition, and then being
confirmed in this by being 'snatched away' to meet Christ in the (literal)
air. We will then travel with Christ " in the clouds"
(literally) to judgment in Jerusalem.
In no way, of course, does this suggestion give countenance to the preposterous
Pentecostal doctrine of being 'raptured' into heaven itself.
Every alternative interpretation of 1 Thess. 4:17 seems to run into trouble
with the phrase " meet the Lord in the air" .
1 Thessalonians is not a letter given to figurative language, but rather
to the literal facts of the second coming. Further, the 1 Thess. 4:16-18
passage is described by Paul as him speaking “by the word of the Lord”
Jesus (1 Thess. 4:15). If 1 Cor.
7 is any guide to how Paul uses this phrase, he would appear to be saying
that in this passage he is merely repeating what the Lord Himself said
during His ministry. This deals a death blow to some Pentecostal fantasies
about the passage.
It is necessary to side-track
in order to show that Paul is speaking of the faithful believers in 1
Thess. 4 and 5 rather than all the responsible:-
- He comforts them that the dead believers
really will be rewarded with immortality, and that they can take comfort
from the fact that they would live for ever (1 Thess. 4:13,14,18).
Paul is therefore assuming their acceptability at judgment.
- " Ye are
all the children of light" (1 Thess. 5:5) as opposed to the unworthy
within the ecclesia, who were in darkness. This suggests that
Paul wrote as though his readership were all faithful and assured of eternal
" Caught up"
Those wise virgins who go forth to meet
Christ immediately are therefore those who will be " caught up together"
with the faithful believers who will have been resurrected. This will
be when the Angels " gather together his elect" (Mt.24:31).
They then " meet the Lord in the air" literally, perhaps connecting
with Rev. 11:12: " They (the faithful, persecuted saints of
the last days) heard a great voice from heaven (cp. " the voice"
of 1 Thess. 4:16)
saying unto them, Come up (cp. " caught up..." ) hither.
And they ascended up to heaven in a cloud (cp. " caught up...in clouds"
); and their enemies beheld them" . It may well be that
Rev. 11:12 is speaking of the faithful Jewish remnant of the last days,
who will be snatched away along with us.
" So great a
This cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1) will
then go with Jesus to judgment, which must be located on earth for the
glimpses of the judgment seat which we are given to be realistically fulfilled.
It is reasonable to guess that this assembly of faithful believers will
visibly reflect God's glory, giving the impression of a 'shekinah' cloud.
This may be due to the physical presence of the Angel with us during our
time in this cloud. Such a picture is presented in Dan. 7:9-14;
Jesus comes with the faithful, symbolized as clouds, along with the Angels,
to the judgment seat. It is at this stage that the responsible
from all nations come to the judgment (Matt. 25:32) so that there can
be a separation of sheep and goats. The 'coming down' of the
righteous responsible to Jerusalem will be at the
same time as the judgment of the wicked nations in that same place:
" Thither cause thy mighty ones to come down" (Joel 3:11) occurs
in the context of Armageddon. " Saviours shall come up
on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau" (Obad. v 21), i.e. Israel's
Arab enemies. The sequence of events here suggested chimes
in with the thought so often expressed by generations of believers - that
our initial reaction to the knowledge that our Lord is back will effectively
be our judgment, although this will be formally confirmed at the judgment
seat before which all the responsible must appear (2 Cor. 5:10).
With Jesus to judgment
The key passage in our reasoning, 1 Thess.
4:15-18, begins with " For..." . This is explaining
1 Thess. 4:14, which states that " them also which sleep in Jesus
will God bring (up) with him" . This will thus be true
both spiritually, in that they will share His victory over death, and,
literally, in that they will come with their judge to judgment.
John 14:3 may also become easier to handle with this understanding:
" I will come again, and take you to be with me" (N.I.V.).
Initially, this will mean a literal ascent into the sky, followed by a
return to earth to be with Christ eternally in the Kingdom.
" That where I am, there ye may be also" may be the spirit's
basis for 1 Thess. 4:17,
" And so shall we ever be with the Lord" .
The idea of literally travelling through
the sky to the judgment seat was plainly taught by our Lord in His explanation
of how " one shall be taken (literally disappear) and the other left"
at His coming; " Wheresoever the body is, thither will the
eagles be gathered together" (Luke 17:36,37).
The point of this allusion is to show that as the eagle travels through
the air with a natural homing instinct, without fear or worry as to correct
direction, so there should be no apprehension in the mind of the believer
concerning the mechanics of how he will be taken away to meet his Lord
The chronology we have
suggested can now be summarized:-
- The Lord is
revealed; the resurrection.
- An Angel
invites each of the responsible to go and meet
- The unworthy
delay, whilst the worthy go immediately.
- The worthy
are snatched away into the air, forming a cloud
of glory which is visible
to all. They are physically with
- Along with Him they come to Jerusalem.
- The unworthy
are then gathered there.
- There is a tribunal-style
judgment. The sheep and goats are together before the judgment
seat. They are then finally separated by Christ's judgment, and receive
- The wicked are destroyed along with
the nations then surrounding Jerusalem.
The time scale for all
this is unimportant - it could well be just a few seconds, if the meaning
of time is to be collapsed, although there presumably must be a period
of time for the cloud of witnesses to be beheld, and for the unworthy
to desperately try to slap themselves into spiritual shape.
The tremendous encouragement offered by the scenario here presented should
not be missed: we will come with our judge, possibly already reflecting
His glory, to the judgment. This in itself should give us
a sense of humble certainty as we come before His tribunal.
So much will depend on our reaction to the Angel's coming - our faith
in acceptance, our degree of concern for the things of this life - all
will be revealed in that instant.
(1) See Bible Basics
Digression 14 for more on this (Nottingham: The Dawn Book Supply, 1992).
(2) The objection that
a carcase is an unseemly figure for the Lord Jesus surely becomes insignificant
once it is recognized that the Bible often speaks of God and the things
of His Truth in what we would consider inappropriate language (e.g. Mt.
13:33; Ps. 78:65).