A Thief in the Night

Memling, 1471. "Last Judgment."

Lo, I will come like a thief!  Yes, we all know that this is a biblical turn-of-phrase. But what exactly does it mean, and in what context is this language used in the bible?

In the Old Testament, the term “thief” [κλέπτης] is used in derogatory fashion.  a passage from Zechariah 5:1-4 is instructive:

Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, a flying scroll! And he said to me, “What do you see?” I answered, “I see a flying scroll; its length is twenty cubits, and its breadth ten cubits.” Then he said to me, “This is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole land; for every one who steals shall be cut off henceforth according to it, and every one who swears falsely shall be cut off henceforth according to it. I will send it forth, says the LORD of hosts, and it shall enter the house of the thief, and the house of him who swears falsely by my name; and it shall abide in his house and consume it, both timber and stones.”

In this passage, the agent of the Lord is the scroll, which will “consume” the house of the thief and the slanderer.  The Book of Zechariah is apocalyptic, and as we shall see, the New Testament readings will borrow the imagery of the thief, and completely turn it on its head.

It is interesting to note that the phrase to come like a thief in the night has no parallel in the Old Testament.  It is a New Testament phrase used by multiple sources.  Matthew and Luke attribute it to Jesus, Paul uses the term, and it is also found in Johannine writing.

Matthew the Evangelist uses this metaphor to describe the return of the Son of Man in an account known as the “mini-apocalypse,” or the “rapture” by evangelicals. Here is Mt 24: 42-44.

Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into.  Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

Matthew equates the coming of the thief in the night with the arrival of the day of the Lord. Typically, the Lord’s day is Sunday. But in an eschatological sense, the day of the Lord is the day on which Jesus will return.

St. Paul uses both the thief and the day of the Lord imagery in his letter to the Thessalonians.  This image is presented in very explicit fashion in Paul’s first letter to the I Thessalonians, 5:3:

But as to the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape.

What is notable is that Thessalonians is regarded as Paul’s oldest letter. Thus Paul, who was not one of the Lord’s disciples, knew of this Jesus tradition by 50-51 a.d.  While Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians does not have a lot of material in common with the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, a few scholars are so taken by the thief and day of the Lord parallels that they have (wrongly) speculated that Thessalonians was later redacted to reflect the thinking in Luke and Matthew.

The Gospels and Paul’s letters are not the only books in which we find the thief in the night imagery.  In chapter 3 of the Book of Revelation, John writes to the fifth of the seven cities (Sardis), using the same imagery found in Paul and the Gospels,

Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.

The message in Revelation is virtually identical to that in the Gospels and in Thessalonians: stay awake, for the Son will return like a thief in the night.  And John repeats the admonition at 16:15,

“Lo, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is he who is awake, keeping his garments that he may not go naked and be seen exposed!”

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