The Parable of the Thief in the Night (Matt 24:42-44)

After is conflict in the Temple, Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives and answers some questions about the end of the age.  Over the next few posts I will make some comments on the parables in Matthew 24-25, hopefully setting them more clearly in the world of the Second Temple.

This parable is often mis-applied to the Rapture of the church.  Likely as not this is a result of the use of verses 40-41 in the popular and oft-covered “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” by Larry Norman.  Two people are working in a field, one gets raptured and the other is left behind to the horrors of the Tribulation.  To my shame, I have played that song a hundred times and used it to illustrate the rapture. Sadly, Larry got this one mixed up.  Not that I am anti Larry Norman, nor am I anti-rapture, but this sort of muddled thinking about the Thief in the Night metaphor was popular in the late 1960’s, and it clearly is alive and well today.

This parable is consistent with the rest of Jesus’ parables of judgment.  Jesus is talking about the harvest of the day of the Lord, when people will be separated into the prepared and unprepared, the righteous and the wicked, those who are “in the kingdom” and “those who are not in the Kingdom.”

Jesus begins this short parable with two commands are in this paragraph: Watch and be ready.  The reason is that there is no one who knows when the Son of Man will come in judgment.  This is obvious from 24:36-38.  No one in the days of Noah knew the judgment of the flood was coming until the flood came.  They lived normal lives oblivious to the coming judgment.  The image of the “days of Noah” does not mean that the world will be wicked before the return of the Lord, but rather that people will be totally unaware of the coming judgment.  Noah was ready, he knew the judgment was coming and he prepared for it.  The rest of the world was unaware until it was too late.

The parable of the thief in the night makes this clear.  If the owner of the house knows a thief is coming, he stays awake to catch him (probably prepared with a weapon to defend his property!)  An unusual element of this mini-parable is that Jesus is represented by the Thief.  It is the thief that is coming suddenly and without warning, but the householder knows that he is coming sometime in the night so he is prepared.  The person who is unaware the thief is coming goes to be and is robbed.

Notice the householder is “awake” – a regular metaphor for spiritual alertness.  Those who will be “in the kingdom” are spiritual awake and alert, aware that the judgment is near.  The opposite of this would be people who are asleep, dreaming that they are awake.  My guess that in any American church of significant size, there are a good many people who are asleep, spiritually, dreaming that they are right with God and ready to meet the Son of Man.  Like an unprepared householder, they are in for a surprise on that glorious day!

15 thoughts on “The Parable of the Thief in the Night (Matt 24:42-44)

  1. The parable of the thief in the night goes along with the other of Jesus’ parables about judgment. The only thing that we as Christians can do is to watch and be ready. No one knows when Jesus Christ is coming back to judge. Christians are just supposed to keep living their lives in a way that is for the kingdom. When Christ does come back, you will be doing work that is glorifying Him. “Matthew 24:37-42; 43-44 reinforce the command of staying awake, with the illustrations about the unexpectedness of the flood in Noah’s day and of burglars in any day. The parables of 24:25-51 and 25:1-13 then contrast scenarios in which the master returns surprisingly early and surprisingly late” (Pg. 379). These passages tell us that the disciples needed to be ready for anything.

  2. P. Long says, “An unusual element of this mini-parable is that Jesus is represented by the Thief.” This is a strange representation of Jesus. Especially because thieves are looked down upon and they steal which is breaking a major commandment. However, in this parable it works well to show how we (as the house holders) must prepare for the thief’s (Jesus’) coming.
    This parable also keeps us in check, we hate regretting things we could have done or should have done. Because we never know when Jesus will come we want to make sure that we do everything we can for Him and for others before that time comes. I think this relates well to what P Long said about staying “awake”. When we are spiritually active and awake we are drawn closer to Jesus, we act more like him, and therefore we do not regret what we do because who we are becomes who we strive to be.

  3. In this post P. Long discusses the word awake, by saying, “Those who will be “in the kingdom” are spiritual awake and alert.” This is very interesting because Matthew 10:34 says, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Although we don’t know when the exact hour Jesus will return, we do know that he will be coming and we need to be ready for his return. How then are we supposed to live spiritually awake and alert lives without knowing when He is returning? Blomberg states, “be ready; be prepared. Be about the business of the kingdom so that whenever the end comes, however unexpectedly, you are ready” (379). I think the parable I am doing ties in to this post very well. In the Parable of the Unjust Steward it shows how we need to use our financial resources for the Kingdom’s purposes. In some ways it is very similar to the parable of the talents. The focus is, “we must use all the resources with which he has entrusted us for kingdom purposes” (Blomberg, 379). Whatever our place in life, Jesus teaches us that we need to be prepared for his coming because He will return in the night like a thief.

  4. I like what P. Long says at the very end of this post, “My guess that in any American church of significant size, there are a good many people who are asleep, spiritually, dreaming that they are right with God and ready to meet the Son of Man. Like an unprepared householder, they are in for a surprise on that glorious day!” (P. Long; above)
    I can see exactly what he is saying here. There are so many people who think their religion is going to save them. They think that by going through the motions of church attendance, tithing, a regular prayer life, and dare I say it baptism think they are “prepared” for the Thief. Maybe Jesus was warning against this religion-before-relationship syndrome with this parable.
    Jesus is definitely trying to tell His listeners that having a “security system” in place will be the only thing that has them prepared. That “security system” is “spiritual alertness” (P. Long; above) Do the people in our churches today have “spiritual alertness”? Are we spiritually “awake” as the household owner is? Or are we “dreaming” that our religion is our way of being prepared?

  5. Some very thought provoking questions are being asked here: Are we living life spiritually “awake?” Or are we just dreaming of being awake and in that believing that we are? Blomberg states that, “Not even the Son, in his voluntarily accepted limitations on his divine omniscience while a human being, knew the time of his return,” (379). No one knows of Christ’s return except for the Father. If we are the householders of this parable, then what are we doing while we wait for the “theif?” I was just talking with a lady about this very topic last night. There are so many people in the world who claim to be “Christian,” but are not living a life that follows Christ. If they are truly Chirstians, then they should be living their lives, striving to reach Christ-likeness. I was recently at a Catholic wedding and it was interesting to watch during the ceremony how all of the prayers and blessings, and even their communion seem more of a “habit” to them. They all say the same thing in thier prayers and blessings. How is this in any way meaningful? I kept asking myself this very question as I watched and listened to them all repeat their prayers. It felt empty as if there was no substance to what they were praying. I do not want to live a life like that. I want to live a life that is truly striving to be more like Chirst. I want to live for him everyday of my life. This is how we, as householders who know of a theif to come, should be living. We should be living “awake” in Chirst, knowing that he can return at any moment. Are we going to be ready when that day comes?

  6. What a parable, one that cannot possibly be ignored by anyone who truly grasps it’s meaning. One thing I really appreciate about this parable when wrestling with its meaning is the ability to apply its principle to multiple aspects of the Christian life. Whether it is being convicted about tithing, half heartedly battling sin, learning about parables but then not applying them, etc., there doesn’t seem to be a wrong time for the truth of this parable – NOW!. One thing that comes to mind when considering the unknown time of judgment is the matter of grace. Something that I’ve heard many hushed conversations about (unfortunately in the judgment of others, usually) is the difference between acceptance of grace and dependence on grace, the latter usually referring to an individuals continued and seemingly weak perseverance against a sin. Although “saved by grace” is a tenet of the Christian religon, what happens when grace becomes the religon? Yes, it is true that we can’t escape God’s grace, but can an unhealthy/misguided view of this grace contribute to the failure of “spiritual alertness” that is taught in this parable?

  7. This is one of the areas of scripture that I am most connected to and passionate about. The concept of people being “asleep” and not prepared for the coming of Christ is very near to my heart. It hurts me to see people thinking that they have everything figured out and are all set, but really have no relationship with Christ at all. We think that we can just get by in our relationship with Christ and not really be “all in” or completely sold out. To actually be awake means to be selfless, pursuing Christ, and obediently following him. Luke 9:23 says, “Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”” There is nothing in this verse that talks about lifelessness or being content with where we are with Christ. This involves daily movement, daily sacrifice, daily pursuit, and daily obedience. This is what it means to be actually awake. To be waiting for the return of Christ, yet actively pursuing a life with him.

  8. A parable is an example or story plucked from normal life which is used to display a moral or spiritual lesson (Strauss 447). The lesson which can be gleaned from this parable, of course, is to be ready for the second coming of Jesus. If someone finds themselves unprepared for that unknowable day, they may not be able to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Perhaps they were never fully sure or willing to take the steps necessary to believe in Jesus and follow the commands of the Bible in order to ensure their place in Heaven, or perhaps they indeed have space reserved in Heaven, but will not have many riches stored up for them due to a life devoted to earthly pleasures. The lesson Jesus seeks to teach isn’t simply about being physically ready to be raptured (in ways such as avoiding driving just in case Jesus were to begin the rapture during the commute) but also being spiritually ready. This would mean following the commands given by God and Jesus in the Bible so that a good life can be lived, and copious amounts of treasure can be stored up in Heaven.

  9. This parable mainly shows a lesson. Strauss states that a parable is a story or example that comes from normal life and is used to display a spiritual or moral lesson, (Strauss, 447). The idea of knowing when a thief is coming is sort of an interesting concept. Of course someone would stay awake if they knew someone was going to steal from them, who likes being stolen from? The more interesting part of it was when the comparison to being awake was used for spiritual awakeness. Those who are in the kingdom are awake and have a depth to their spiritual intellect. When I read through the passage I immediately thought of Jesus being betrayed by Judas. Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him and yet he stood there taking it blow by blow. Jesus was awake in the fact that he knew what was going on, but also awake in a spiritual nature. However, God requested that Jesus remain idle, or, “asleep” in the effect of stopping Judas. This kind of connection immediately came to me when I read the last paragraph because it was such an easy comparison between the scripture and the lesson of the paper. Now, thinking about myself, I hope that I am awake, however I know that part of myself is asleep because my connection with God could always be better.

  10. It is no secret that life is very unpredictable. A person can plan out every second of their day, and they still would not be prepared for what can happen. There are so many different variables… one second everything could be going great, and then one thing could change the whole dynamic of the day. The parable of the thief in the night in Matthew is an excellent example of how imperative it is to be aware that anything could happen at any time- including the return of Christ. I think there are many people today who fall under the category of being “asleep” but thinking that they are “awake”. When thinking about the day of judgment, it is easy to say to yourself “yeah I’m a good person so I’m sure I would go to Heaven”, or “I believe that God exists so I’m sure I would go to Heaven”. In reality though, these things alone do not guarantee a person a spot in Heaven. In addition I think that some people just tell themselves that they have plenty of more time on Earth, and do not need to worry about being “awake” until later on in life. Unfortunately though for them- nobody knows their day of judgment, and this mistake will cost them their eternal life.

  11. Along with the musical illustration by Larry Norman, Donald W. Thompson’s film series “Thief in the Night” illustrates the rapture. While I do not recall hearing Larry Norman’s lyrical piece, I do remember watching the film series by Donald Thompson. The four part movie series is an extended version of a simple illustration of the rapture and tribulation period. However, the main concept I wanted to highlight was the moment the rapture happened. The main character, Patty, was living a life focused on the present and not caring about the future. In doing so, she ran out of time to accept God’s gift of salvation. The start of the first film demonstrates Patty waking up to find that her husband was gone, along with the millions of people that had been reported on the radio. In this film, Patty was unexpecting of the time that God was to rapture His children, nor was she prepared. Matthew 24:43 says, “But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into” (ESV). From this parable, the term “thief in the night” can be applicable to the rapture. While people have the ability and the level of understanding to accept salvation, to prepare for the “thief in the night”, humans tend to wait until the time is convenient for them. However, if we were to know the exact time in which the Lord would return, would we be better prepared? I often wonder if even Christians put this into perspective. This parable is a great reminder that the Lord will return in His time, and it is our opportunity to prepare our own hearts as well as guide other people’s hearts toward Christ so that He will be ultimately glorified.

  12. This parable is one that I really like because it is simple but at the same time complex and needs breaking down in order to fully understand its meaning. Although we read this and see the word “thief” it is actually referring to God. Thief is often a negative connotation so why would He be described as such? Thieves tend to break in and steal when the person is least expecting and least prepared, in the same way Jesus will return to judge the earth when we are least expecting it. Jesus will return on His own time and will do it when He pleases. We may think we are ready, but we will not be. That is why it is so important to be ready now so that when the time comes we will not be the unsuspecting homeowner who is caught off guard. The trick is, how do we know that we are ready. The Bible uses the word “awake” to describe some believers and others “asleep” because they may think they are right with God but in reality they are not and there is a deeper issue. It takes more than just going to church, opening our Bible only on Sunday and praying when we need something to be fully in tune with God and the relationship we have with Him. Those who are asleep are the ones who will be surprised by Jesus coming even thought they think they won’t be.

  13. Unlike many other parables, this one is short and sweet. Like the other parables though, it often misinterpreted when we do not understand all the elements Jesus portrays in his teaching. When reading the verse, I was prepared to know everything about this parable. Growing up, I was very much taught that this applied to the rapture. I was also taught that this applied to Christians who were doing good and those who were not. Some thought this meant you could “lose” your salvation if you were not alert. Both thoughts were misinterpreted, and I really think meant as a scare tactic to be good. What this parable does do is illuminate parts of the coming kingdom (Strauss, 450). Jesus, throughout his ministry gives us instruction on the present kingdom and gives us glimpses into the future kingdom in heaven. This parable is not only a motivator for ourselves, to be spiritually alert and confident in our salvation but it also should be a motivator to be diligent about sharing the gospel and discipling new Christians. We have no idea when Christ will return, and if we lived our life with that urgency, there should be no one left on this earth that has not heard the Gospel of Jesus. We are content with gliding through life, myself included. I do not want to step off the boat, like Peter did. The boat is comfy, it is safe, and it is what I know. Jesus did not call us to comfort though.

  14. I love that Jesus is compared to the thief in this parable because I do not think that there is any other type of surprise that so closely represent His return. I’m sure that many people will feel like they’ve been robbed when their believing family members and friends are taken from them and they are left behind. It is not going to be a fun surprise! Just picturing in my mind, the darkened sun, pitch black moon, and the sky devoid of stars makes me have goosebumps (Matt. 24:29, HCSB). Like it was mentioned in the post, I think many people are going to be in for a rather rude awakening after He returns, but I think that’s the entire point of why Jesus’s coming is like a thief in the night, He wants to wake some people up (Phillip Long)!! I think there’s going to be a great revival during the Tribulation especially because Revelation 20:4 which states that those “who had not worshipped the beast or his image and not accepted the mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with the Messiah for 1,000 years” (HCSB). It amazes me that even after all the time that these people are given that God still gives them until the very end to repent and come to Him. What an incredible love our God has…

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