“That day will come like a thief”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages #4

“That day will come like a thief”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages #4

Approximate reading time: 7.5 minutes.

*If new to this series, you might want to check the introduction.*

The first three installments of this series covered misinterpretations most often seen at the popular level. While today’s passage is indeed commonly misinterpreted at the popular level, it is surprisingly very often misconstrued even at the highest levels of scholarship. The passage is found in 1 Thessalonians 5, where Paul begins to discuss the “Day of the Lord” (or “the Lord’s Day”; a term denoting the eschatological “Sabbath,” when Christ will return):

1 Thessalonians 5:1–3 Περὶ δὲ τῶν χρόνων καὶ τῶν καιρῶν, ἀδελφοί, οὐ χρείαν ἔχετε ὑμῖν γράφεσθαι, αὐτοὶ γὰρ ἀκριβῶς οἴδατε ὅτι ἡμέρα κυρίου ὡς κλέπτης ἐν νυκτὶ οὕτως ἔρχεται. ὅταν λέγωσιν· εἰρήνη καὶ ἀσφάλεια, τότε αἰφνίδιος αὐτοῖς ἐφίσταται ὄλεθρος ὥσπερ ἡ ὠδὶν τῇ ἐν γαστρὶ ἐχούσῃ, καὶ οὐ μὴ ἐκφύγωσιν.

“Now, brothers, you don’t need me to to write to you about the times and appointments*, because you know full well that the Day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night—while they are saying, “Peace and safety,” then sudden destruction will come upon them like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”

*καιρῶν is rather difficult to translate here as it denotes a distinct or fixed period of time, often being used of festal holidays, special feasts, etc. It often has the notion of “the appropriate time,” but that doesn’t communicate the proper sense to an English ear in this passage. As such, I’ve chosen to translate it with “appointments,” which seems to give as close a parallel to the temporal notion expressed here as I can think of.


Standard Interpretation

This passage is most often cited as evidence that Paul taught the imminent return of Christ, that is, that Jesus was going to return at any moment, without warning. This teaching is most notable with Dispensational Evangelical theologians pushing the so-called pre-Millennial, pre-Tribulation rapture (John MacArthur, Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, et al.) but it is also surprisingly dominant in so-called “liberal” scholarship as well, making it one of the few places these two camps actually agree.

Examples:

E.P. Sanders cites 1 Thess 5:2 as evidence that “the Day of the Lord [was] expected suddenly” (he also lists Phil 1:6 and 1 Cor 5:5, neither of which have anything remotely to do with imminent expectation). (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 448)

J.D.G Dunn likewise cites 1 Thess 5:2f in a section where he argues that “the expectation of an imminent parousia was a prominent feature: it was well known that the Thessalonians’ turning to God had been a turning to await the parousia, the coming of Jesus …. Evidently Paul’s proclamation had led his converts to believe that the eschatological climaxwas very imminent indeed. … So far as Paul personally was concerned, ther was no real problem, and his own expectation of an imminent End was scarcely diminished.” (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 355)

In fact, ever since J.E.C. Schmidt’s Vermutungen über die bieden Breife an die Thessalonicher, this passage is often used as “Exhibit A” to show that 2 Thessalonians is not Pauline, since 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 clearly teaches against an imminent Parousia, laying out specific things that must happen before the return of Christ. The argument posits that some anonymous post-Pauline forger set out to remedy the problem of the “delayed Parousia” (that is, the growing disappointment that Jesus hadn’t returned right away like the first generation Christians had expected) by “correcting” Paul’s imminent theology, explaining that certain things had to happen first. (This narrative of disappointed early eschatological expectation being tempered by later New Testament writings, which push the Parousia to the distant future has been a fixture in New Testament scholarship for over a century now.)

The point of the passage is that the day will not be “like a thief” for Christians

But how could this passage mean anything other than an imminent expectation for the return of Christ? Doesn’t Paul clearly say the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night? Sure, and if that was all Paul said, the imminence interpretation would be fairly secure. But the passage doesn’t end there, despite so many interpreters stopping at that point. Yet again, a text without a context is a pretext—by not reading through the end of the passage, we arrive at a totally distorted, often entirely reversed, interpretation. Paul continues:

1 Thess 5:4 ὑμεῖς δέ, ἀδελφοί, οὐκ ἐστὲ ἐν σκότει, ἵνα ἡ ἡμέρα ὑμᾶς ὡς κλέπτης καταλάβῃ· πάντες γὰρ ὑμεῖς υἱοὶ φωτός ἐστε καὶ υἱοὶ ἡμέρας. Οὐκ ἐσμὲν νυκτὸς οὐδὲ σκότους· ἄρα οὖν μὴ καθεύδωμεν ὡς οἱ λοιποί ἀλλὰ γρηγορῶμεν καὶ νήφωμεν.

“But, brothers, you shouldn’t be surprised by that day like a thief, because you aren’t in darkness.* For you are all children^ of light and children^ of day—we are not of night or darkness. So then, let’s not sleep like the rest, but let us be alert and sober.”

*I have translated this verse rather dynamically here, rearranging the word order into more familiar and colloquial English style rather than maintaining the Greek word order. More slavishly translated, the verse reads as follows: “But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that the day should overtake you [emphatic] like a thief.” In English this “is/are not … so that X should” construction is archaic (the typical English reader is likely to misconstrue the positive “X should” at the end of the construction and actually get the interpretation backwards by not connecting it to the “are not” in the preceding clause), but it is a standard Greek way of expressing “X should not because Y…,” hence the translation above.
^The Greek has “brothers” here, but there’s little reason to retain the masculine gender in modern English, which tends to prefer “children” in such cases.

So the logic of the passage actually goes something like this:

“You already know about the times and appointments, so I don’t need to write you. You already know that it’s going to take the outsiders by surprise, since they’re living in darkness. That day will come upon the wicked like a thief in the night, like labor pains on a pregnant woman. But you won’t be taken by surprise, because you’re not in darkness. You can see clearly, since you’re in the light. So let’s make sure we stay sober and alert. …”

Summary

So, to recap,  It’s abundantly clear that this passage does not say that Jesus could return at any moment, nor that everyone will be taken by surprise by the Day of the Lord. Nor is does Paul suggest in these verses that the Day is “right around the corner.” In fact, one of the most striking things about this passage—and 1 Thessalonians as a whole, in fact—is how calm, how reassuring the tone is. There is no wild-eyed “the end is near” sense in this letter. On the contrary, after reminders of proper behavior, Paul first goes out of his way to gently reassure the Thessalonians about the fate of those who die before the Parousia—the basic message is that it doesn’t matter when that day comes, only that it will indeed come.*

*That Paul says “we who are alive and remain” in 4:17 has been overblown—it’s a basic turn of phrase. My question for those pointing to this verse to prove that Paul clearly thought he would live to see the Parousia is whether Paul would have included himself among the dead if he had expected otherwise. Paul frequently uses the inclusive pronoun “we” in this kind of generic sense. To look for technical usage in this kind of generic phrase is overreaching unless there’s other evidence that it’s not. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.*

Only after getting this basic message across does Paul turn to address the timing of the Day of the Lord. But it should not be forgotten that the timing question is still part of the same discussion as that in chapter 4. And as we’ve seen, Paul doesn’t preach immediacy or unexpectedness in chapter 5, but exactly the opposite. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that those who walking in the light will not be surprised by the Day of the Lord, since they, being awake and alert, should see it coming. The passage wraps up in the same way it began, with a reminder that the near-ness or distance of the Parousia is not the concern:

1 Thess 5:11 ὅτι οὐκ ἔθετο ἡμᾶς ὁ θεὸς εἰς ὀργὴν ἀλλὰ εἰς περιποίησιν σωτηρίας διὰ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ ἀποθανόντος ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν, ἵνα εἴτε γρηγορῶμεν εἴτε καθεύδωμεν ἅμα σὺν αὐτῷ ζήσωμεν.

“Because God has not appointed us to wrath, but to possession of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep, we live with him.”

Paul’s concluding thought on the matter is to emphasize yet again that the timing of the Lord’s coming isn’t especially relevant, that the proper concern is to live in the proper manner, since both the living and the dead will have to stand before Christ as judge on that Day. This is a far cry from the immediacy so often pulled from this passage!

Why It Matters

One major reason a proper understanding of this passage is so critical is its use as perhaps the primary proof for non-Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians. But if Paul is not pushing imminence and immediacy in this passage, the eschatological scenarios of 1 and 2 Thessalonians aren’t contradictory. For that matter, I find it a bit ironic that the modern misreading of 1 Thessalonians 5 is precisely the kind of misreading that would have prompted something like 2 Thessalonians as a corrective. The author of 2 Thessalonians expresses some puzzlement that the Thessalonians think the Day of the Lord has already come (or, as most interpret this passage, is immediately imminent). Don’t they remember that it won’t be a surprise for the church, that certain things have to precede it? Once 1 Thessalonians is properly understood, it opens the door for 2 Thessalonians to be at least reconsidered as a possibly authentic Pauline epistle.

A second point of significance involves popular modern theology. Recall that imminence is a central feature of the so-called “pre-Tribulation rapture” teaching that has swept the Evangelical world in the last hundred years. But this passage clearly teaches against that concept, striking a critical blow at this shoddy end-times teaching.

Thirdly, the calm tone of this passage and its de-emphasis on the immediacy of Christ’s return calls into question the narrative of the “problem of the delayed Parousia” so often assumed in studies of earliest Christianity. 1 Thessalonians is likely either our earliest or second earliest epistle (some scholars who think that Paul wrote both Thessalonian letters have speculated that 2 Thessalonians actually came first), and if it already holds such a moderate view of the Parousia, on what ground can such a narrative stand? On the contrary, it seems that even the earliest Christian dogma, as witnessed in 1 Thessalonians 5 was prepared for a lengthy “delay” of the Parousia. As J. Christiaan Beker astutely observed:

Paul is simply not an apocalyptic fanatic who runs breathlessly through the Roman Empire because the end of the world is imminent. He spends, for instance, one and a half years at Ephesus and contemplates a mission to Spain. … It seems, therefore, that the scholarly debate on the delay of the Parousia focuses exclusively on calculating chronological time, that is, on the chronological dating that separates the Christ-event and the end time, whereas for Paul the issue is primarily not one of chronological reckoning but one of theological necessity (Paul the Apostle, 178).

16 Comments
  • Craig L. Adams
    Posted at 11:46h, 11 September Reply

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, Jason. Very helpful.

  • Unshackledtruth
    Posted at 10:01h, 10 December Reply

    You are teaching incorrectly The day of the lord will not be as a thief in the night and we will know the day and the hour and it is important that we as watchmen know this. If you read in revelations chapter 3 verse 3 Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. So what this is saying is if we are not of the light and have not received the gift of salvation we will not know the hour but if we are saved then we will know the time and hour. Also in 1 Thessalonians – Chapter 5 1-3 But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. For when THEY say PEACE AND SAFETY then SUDDEN DESTRUCTION cometh upon them. They and Them is referring to the people who believe they are saved and don’t believe that it is important to know the time of Christs return and have accepted that Christ will come as a thief in the night SO because of this sudden destruction will come upon them for not following the word of God and being awake sober and alert to his coming and the thief will come because they do not know the time nor hour of his return nor care to know. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye 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. The others are the ones who have ignored the warning. The seals have been open the book is to be revealed to the body of believers knowledge will be increased during the end times the watchmen are understanding God is giving us more information. Daniel Chapter 12 verses 1-4 And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever. But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased. The church age is ended they are being ruled by Satan’s ministers of false teaching, and have become a Antichrist Religion all who attend have received the mark of Satan, they have become his property just like a cattle man would mark his livestock to indicate they he has claimed owner ship, The true believers are also marked by the lord because they belong to God.

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 10:11h, 10 December Reply

      You didn’t read the article, did you, Unshackledtruth? Pretty sad when you’re just commenting based on the title of the blog.

      Oh, and it’s the book of “Revelation,” not “revelations.”

      • Bridget
        Posted at 15:47h, 02 March Reply

        This response speaks volumes on where you stand with The Truth. “You will know them by their fruits.” If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

  • Jim
    Posted at 15:48h, 02 January Reply

    Oh if only you had first published this in the early 1980’s. Perhaps then I would not have had to suffer through “88 Reasons Why the Rapture could be in 1988” followed by, of course, “Final Shout – Rapture Report of 1989″… and then the same for 1990, 1991, 1992, etc.
    I appreciate your thoughtful commentary and the real message of this passage should motivate us to look for ways to share the Gospel to those that are in the dark.

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 12:43h, 04 January Reply

      Amazing the kind of market that “rapture” focused stuff has; it’s not a cottage industry, it’s a mansion industry.

  • Two Religions, One Hysteria: Climate Change Preachers and Rapture Watchers in Unison | Professor Obvious
    Posted at 15:11h, 23 March Reply

    […] that Jesus’ return is right around the corner. As we’ve discussed on this blog before, this idea rests upon on the mistaken idea that that Jesus prophesied that earthquakes, famines, and …, when in fact he said that all these things would continue to happen throughout history but are not […]

  • Jonathan
    Posted at 11:56h, 16 April Reply

    Hi, Jason. Thank you for your articles. It’s really encouraging to see you both practically analyze the text and openly share the logic driving your interpretation of the Greek. Discussions with fellow Christians can sometimes be almost more discouraging than encouraging as you wade through bizarre assumptions and interpretations driven by prior (oftentimes pagan) intellectual commitments. And after the utterly subjective model of interpretation fostered by my English program, it’s encouraging to see the potential for shared meaning among Jesus followers using objective criteria.

    I’m trying to wrap my head around eschatology right now and understand the interpretive choices that lead to the different opinions within the church community. And your refutation of the “imminence” of Christ’s return is intriguing. I thought that, despite the 2000 year stretch between his departure and now, Jesus’ imminence was 1) clearly promised by Jesus and 2) taught by his apostles. But you seem to be asserting that the “imminence” of Jesus’ return is anchored to the fulfillment of prior signs? So that, at least for Jesus’ followers, his return won’t be a shock? And if Jesus’ return can be anticipated with some degree of confidence, how do you refute all the nonsense literature (that was already mentioned) asserting that all the signs have been fulfilled?

    Also, do you recommend any books on eschatology to grasp the range of opinion on the subject?

  • P. Espi
    Posted at 17:58h, 15 March Reply

    I find myself at odds agreeing with a known professor at a very well known liberal University. All though I don’t think most Evangelicals would disagree with Jason when you place everything in it’s context as Jason perfectly done so. I have not read all his series on the “Misinterpreted Bible Passages” I have read some, one interesting one is the “Judge not, lest you be judged” which I find again as I have always believed yet agreeing with him. I tell my 14 yr. old son when I send him off to college I am sending him off to a den of wolves. I say this because most professors, students and staff will be opposing our values and beliefs in the Lord. It is refreshing although I have not read all his publications to see great writing coming from a Liberal University professor. It would be interesting to read his views on more pressing current moral views of our day. Please, do read carefully that I did say Moral Views not Political Views as the World and media has made it out to be. It’s not PC to write things that oppose God’s nature as he intended to be, so I will say that I agree on the two posts I have read and leave it at that. I find that most people whether it be a simple layman of Gods word or a distinguished professor at a University when wrong are wrong in two areas. It’s either wrong in quoting overall context and background of the parable/story and second the essence/intention of Gods purpose. Most professors I find they present the historical part of the Bible in their own form and context to suite their audiences opinion. Yet, they disregard Gods essence, purpose and will for mankind. The opposite is true for Laymen of God’s word they get the historical context part of scripture wrong to get to a false interpretation of God’s essence,purpose and will for mankind. My point is you can’t do without the other, at the end of the day “God is a spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and truth” John 4:2. Just adding another tidbit, always read from the KJV all other translations debase Gods supremacy, There are those that believe the Catholic Church was involved in one way or another in the interpretations of those versions but I leave that to the conspirators of this world. What I do know it alters and water downs Gods written word. I said enough always seek truth and love through Jesus. Bless you saints.

  • David Freeman
    Posted at 16:22h, 23 October Reply

    Even if indeed you’re right, but wrong in the WAY you are right. You’re still wrong. Before I exhort you, know I happen to agree that “we” is much more than an elementary child would “see” it to mean and expands to a theological understanding of Y’Shua/Jesus the Groom adoringly loving “we”, the gift his/our /the Father has given Him, namely, we his Bride- the single whole with many parts; and also to we, us the whole bride, the whole church throughout the generations as desribed in Ephesians 1-3 that *hint,hint* lovingly, as fellow bridemaids dote on each other; primping on each other if you will (more like iron sharpenimg iron) to be as glorious a “collective bride” for when our Groom sees us for the first time “face to face” when we shall behold him & be like Him… Yet your demeanor is condescending, biting, cutting, and flat out arrogant in the tenor of your comments and a gong show. How you judge so also do you not see you have been guilty of not including the whole counsel of the Word of God and the traditions of hebrew culture which are directly and indirectly, but nonetheless addressed in scripture. So as I agree with your gramatical assessment, However, you complety blow it like an elementary child from what I read (all the way through on this one example) on the historocity of the references to Hebrew culture given throughout the Old and New Testaments. So your study is hardly that more of an opinion to bring glory to your studious efforts spicing us with pompus words for direct and indirect self adulation and whatever idol of the heart that would lead you to such. Worship God and get off His throne. He is loving and yet does not pamper. He very obviously is coming soon. May14th,1948 is almost a generation ago. We know feasts are here and the signals and signs and the Hebrew calendar and how it matches up from Dan 9:24. Yet no one knows the exact time ,but we do, and are to known, the season, hence Jesus levied hard words on Jerusalem for not knowing the day of His visitation.

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 18:42h, 27 October Reply

      This is one of the most condescending, biting, cutting, and flat out arrogant comments I’ve seen.

  • Kimberly Bernhard
    Posted at 14:06h, 25 February Reply

    I liked what you had to say. I was looking up all the places in Bible where it and Jesus speaks of “coming as a thief in the night” and saw your blog. His Word is so amazing! When the Holy Spirit opens the Word, the” Rhema” Word to us His children can’t read it enough! I had missed that meaning in Rev.3:3 that if ( Jesus says “if” you do this “I” will do this for you-He doesn’t want His children in the dark about what He’s doing, because He’s the light. We’re to walk in the light of His presence then we have fellowship… (IJohn 1:5-7) instead of arguing and hurting one another. Blessed are the peacemakers -there’s a promise for those that are such.) Yes, we can know the hour if we’re receiving, hearing, laying to heart(not head)and repent–those things He has told His children. It says it again in IThess.5:2-4.As Jesus told one of His servants years ago,” it’s all in the book”. Problem is we don’t take the time, and it requires time( those who don’t love Jesus are accursed and thus those who don’t permeate and feast on Him, the Living Word, are accursed (ICor.16:22)). Again it takes feasting on the Word day and night(Josh.1:8)The implanted Word has the power to save your soul! James 1:21. Thanks again, I benefited from what you shared.

  • Randall Fleming
    Posted at 19:54h, 31 August Reply

    I see you are very scholarly, I agree that some verses are poorly understood and lack of context equals pretext. As I started reading, I noticed a lack of application to context in your 1st asterisk, The seven feast of Leviticus 23 are God’s “appointed times”. The timing or fulfillment of all prophecy concerning Christ is seen in God’s “appointed times” that the nation has kept for 1400 years not knowing that Jesus would be the fulfillment of all seven feasts. The day of the Lord is fulfilled in the feast of Trumpets.
    Also what does Scripture mean when it refers to the church as a bride and Jesus as a bridegroom? Context: Understanding ancient Jewish wedding practices makes the meaning of Scripture clear. The wedding is a picture of the covenant Jesus made and reveals His plans to return for His bride, the church. The people of ancient Israel would have understood what Jesus was going to do because they understood the image of the wedding. The analogy is described in Ephesians 5:31-32 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
    BRIDEGROOM COMES FOR HIS BRIDE One of the traditions was for the bridegroom to come for his bride as a thief in the night with a load shout and blow the shofar, so with a shout and the sound of a shofar, so the Lord will come for His bride. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night… 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17…at God’s appointed time that they have been rehearsing for 1400 years. They you for your work for the Lord and His love for man that when we accept Him, it is as if we are to be His bride, what love!!!!

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 08:39h, 13 September Reply

      There are a number of problems with your statements here. For one, “the people of ancient Israel” were not present to understand what Jesus was going to do. Israel had not returned from exile, though the Samaritans did claim Israelite heritage. Jesus was mostly speaking to Jews, not “ancient Israel.”

  • damien
    Posted at 10:47h, 28 February Reply

    Great article. I am so thankful that a friend woke me up from Dispensationalism about 5 years ago. I have always searched for truth and our Gracious Father continues to open my eyes every day. I’m not worthy of His grace, but hope that I can be a light for others. Something else that goes along with this article is the theme in the Bible about who inherits the land. If you notice it’s always the righteous that inherit the land and the wicked removed from it. Matthew 13:24-30 was the nail on the head for me. Grace and Peace brother!

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