The Day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night. Naturally most Christians have taken this to mean that Christ’s return will be a surprise. This would make sense since it seems apparent that no one is to know the day or the hour of Christ’s return per the words of Christ himself. However, there is also the command to watch for his return. Therefore, it would suffice it to say that many believe Christians are left watching for an event that is impossible to anticipate. This is then why most Christians do not actively look for Christ’s return, if they aren’t first distracted by the cares of this world. Why watch for something that even though it might look probable, it can never be determined since no one will ever know? This would seem to be the logical conclusion with watching being limited by the surprise factor. But should not Scripture make sense of Scripture and provide a solid answer in harmony? If we are to watch for the day, should it not be possible to see that day approaching?
Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as you see the day approaching. - Hebrews 10:25
Clearly then, things have not been made clear in the study of "the coming thief in the night" and "the day no one knows". Obviously if we can see the day approaching, it should not be a total surprise. Should there then be any surprise left once the day is just around the corner? Clearly there are issues needing resolution to this study of watching for the return of Christ. Many people would insist that this day is a surprise, but as the writer of Hebrews wrote, we can see the day approaching. Knowledge will increase.
The overall problem in this study is largely due to the fact that the Lord coming as a thief is misunderstood. The common understanding is that the Lord comes as a thief to the believer. This makes sense if the common perception is that we do not know the day or hour, but that is another issue. The problem is that these misunderstandings play off each other leading to a breakdown of Scriptural study. A careful reading of 1 Thessalonians 5 will expose the fallacy. Here the division is clear.
For 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 travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But you, brethren are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. You are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. - 1 Thessalonians 5:2-6
Therefore, Paul is saying that the Day of the Lord comes as a thief in the night upon those who are in darkness and not those who are in the light. Instead of sleeping, the believer is to be watching and alert to the coming Day of the Lord. Those who are caught off guard will be the unbelievers and those who have chosen darkness. The analogy Scripture uses is that Christ is like the High Priest who returns to the temple to find two people—those watching and those sleeping. According to Alfred Edersheim and the Talmud, those who were sleeping on the Temple watch and were caught doing so were beat and had their garments burned. The Captain of the Guard was the "thief in the night" who came in the night watches to verify that all was secure. Understanding this unlocks the passages that concern the Lord coming as a thief, for the ones surprised by the thief are those found not watching—these are the ones found naked and ashamed. For a believer to think that the thief should surprise him is contrary to Scripture. After all, we do not want as our goal to have our garments stolen in a failure of duty.
But know this: that if the good man of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. Therefore you also be ready: for in such an hour as you think not, the Son of man comes. - Matthew 24:43-44
Likewise, in this parable, Christ speaks of the Day coming as a thief, but his command is to watch, to be alert, and not be caught off guard. Notice further in the parable when Christ speaks of the evil servant. That servant says that Christ’s return is delayed and begins to sin. This results in being blind-sided and being totally unaware of Christ’s impending return. Christ returns in the day when he is not looking and at the hour he is not aware. Again the breakdown is clear. Those not watching are unable to determine the time. Those who are alert will see the day approaching.
Among the Letters to the Seven Churches are critical points concerning the Lord’s return for the Church. Here there is the warning to the Church of Sardis.
If therefore thou shall not watch, I will come on you as a thief, and thou shall not know what hour I will come upon you. -Revelation 3:3b
This passage is very clear that there are two options on the table. One can watch or one can be caught unawares by the thief. This means that the time is indiscernible for those falling in the thief category. The flip side is that those who are watching will see the time and know the hour that Christ does return. Clearly then, looking for the time and being alert are not prohibitions in Scripture. Instead the opposite is true. The command is to be on guard, so as to anticipate the time.
Therefore, those who find that ignorance is bliss and somehow a proper stance in Christianity will have a rude awakening when Christ returns to find them sleeping. These will find themselves blind, naked, and ashamed at the return of Christ. Those falling into the category of the Church of Laodicea are also described with this same problem. Therefore, those who claim that Christ returns as a thief to everyone are and will be sadly mistaken. The thief comes to destroy and bring harm to those who have failed.
Truly the Day of the Lord comes as a thief, but only to those who are ill prepared. For the believer who is in the light that day does not come like a thief. Those in the light are vigilant and will be able to see the day approaching as it draws nearer. Knowledge will increase and events will line up with Bible Prophecy. We have seen some of those events and should know that available time is in short supply. But let it be known; Christ is not a thief to the believer who is prepared.