Jesus comes like a thief in the night, the Bible teaches. What does that mean? And when exactly will He return to earth? Will he come once at the beginning of the tribulation just to take Christians in the rapture and then return again after the tribulation to rule on earth for 1000 years?
Jesus Himself provided the illustration of a thief sneaking into one's house in the middle of the night.
But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. – Luke 12:39,40, NKJV
A thief is someone we don't expect. He or she would totally catch us off guard and scare us. In this verse, Jesus said He will return at an hour you do not expect. But why does He tell us that? So that we will expect His coming and so that we don't get caught off guard.
One of the favorite reasons why people believe that Christians will be raptured off the earth before the tribulation is because Jesus is returning when we don't expect Him–or at any moment. They call it the imminent return of Jesus Christ–because it could happen any time. Therefore, they have used that as one of their proofs that the second coming of Christ comes in two phases–once at the beginning of the tribulation (because we would never expect Him then) and once at the end of the tribulation. They say that if the rapture takes place at the end of the tribulation, the return of Christ would not be imminent because we will know too many signs and will therefore expect Him. …But that is why Jesus told us–so that we would know the signs and not be caught off guard. Jesus comes like a thief in the night upon those who are not expecting His return.
While referring to one of only two passages in the Bible used to prove a pre-tribulation rapture (that clearly talks about the resurrection/rapture, I Thes. 4:13-18), the apostle Paul continued his message, saying, "that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night." So the day that believers will be resurrected or raptured is the same day that Jesus comes like a thief in night.
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. …But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. …For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. – I Thessalonians 4:16,17; 5:1-10, NKJV
Who does the above verse say will be surprised by Christ coming like a thief? Unbelievers! Destruction will suddenly (imminently) come upon them and they won't escape. However, believers will not be overtaken as a thief. Believers are told to watch so that we recognize the time of His coming because "God did not appoint us to wrath." The doctrine of the imminent return of Christ has been misinterpreted by those who think there is a pre-tribulation rapture. But does this really prove that Christ comes like a thief at the end of the tribulation and not the beginning?
All we have to do is look at the rest of the scripture that talks about the "imminent" return of Jesus Christ, and we will see that Jesus comes like a thief at the end of the tribulation. Believers will indeed expect Him–even if we don't know the exact day or hour. We will still know the signs that it is near. Believers are supposed to. We are supposed to watch and be ready.
The following is the scenario that Jesus described concerning the last day (John 6:37-54)–or His second coming. Notice the similarities to the rapture described by Paul to the Thessalonians.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. – Matthew 24:29-31, NKJV
Okay. Jesus returns "immediately after the tribulation" with His angels and the sound of a trumpet and "they will gather together His elect". One thing that is happening at Christ's return is the resurrection of believers. Also, people will be mourning when He suddenly comes upon them. Why? Because they are not expecting Him. Those are the unbelievers who were not raptured. The scenario continues below:
“Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors! …“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect." – Matthew 24:32-44, NKJV
Jesus is making a point that believers will know when the time of His return is near just like a person can tell when summer is near. "When you see all these things, know that it is near." Unbelievers will not expect "the thief" and will experience the wrath of God at Christ's return at the end of the tribulation–just like the rest of the earth were swept away by the flood after Noah's family was saved. Noah's family knew when the flood was coming. They were watching. Today, believers are to watch for the thief so He doesn't catch us off guard. If alive, we will be taken in the post-tribulation rapture like the man in the field and the woman at the mill.
Even Christians will be caught off guard when Jesus returns if they aren't watching for the signs. Many will realize that the theory of a pre-tribulation rapture is false when they are going through the tribulation. Then they will start watching more closely.
In describing that same sermon of Jesus Christ, the apostle Mark (13:24-37) included this quote from Christ. "Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning— lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” (Mark 13:35-37, NKJV)
Again, during the same sermon, the apostle Luke (21:25-36) added this quote from Jesus. "Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.” (Luke 21:28, NKJV) Our redemption is what we are all waiting for from the time we first believe in Christ. Our redemption happens when we are resurrected. The day of the Lord (when Jesus returns like a thief) is the day of redemption.
you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession. – Ephesians 1:13, 14, NKJV
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. – Ephesians 4:30, NKJV
…the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. – I Thes. 5:2
The day of the Lord is when everything comes together. It is the day of redemption (our resurrection with glorified bodies) for believers and the day of wrath upon unbelievers. (See the article, "What happens after death?"). There is only one resurrection for believers (Rev. 20:1-6). It does not come in two phases. Every reference to the coming, the appearing, or return of the Lord is talking about one event on the same day.
The apostle Peter said, "the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat?" (II Peter 3:10-12, NKJV)
Again, we are told to look–another word for watch–for the coming of the day of God (so we won't be caught off guard like everyone else). Peter was describing the day of the Lord–the only second coming of Jesus Christ (like a thief) at the end of the tribulation. He was talking about the astrological, atmospheric, and earthly disturbances that will occur when Christ returns on the last day at the end of the tribulation (Isaiah 13:9-13; 24:16-23; 34:1-10; Rev. 6:12-17; Joel 2:1-11,30,31; 3:14-17; Matt. 24:29,30; Heb. 12:25-27).
Lastly, the apostle John was also given a revelation of when the Lord will return like a thief. He is told about the seven bowls of God's wrath that will be poured out on the earth at the end of the tribulation:
Then the sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, so that the way of the kings from the east might be prepared. And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs coming out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. For they are spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty. “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.” And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon. Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” – Revelation 16:12-17, NKJV
Again, Jesus says He is coming like a thief during the same period of time as God pours out the bowls of His wrath at the end of the tribulation. If we watch, His return will not catch us off guard. Then God will say at the last day – "It is Done!"