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The Last Days Duncan Heaster  
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17-2.  Christ's 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).


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 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 life.

" 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 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 cloud..."

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 (2).

The chronology we have suggested can now be summarized:-

-  Persecution of believers.

-  The Lord is revealed;  the resurrection.

-  An Angel invites each of the responsible to go and meet Christ.

-  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 Jesus.

-  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 their rewards.

-  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).