What did Apostle Paul mean when he said “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2)?
To understand better, I’ll explore the Bible verse’s context and show you other related passages. We’ll also look at how its meaning applies to us as Christians today.
I hope this post will be useful to you!
What does “like a thief in the night” mean (1 Thessalonians 5:2)?
The phrase “like a thief in the night” is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:2.
Now, I think you’ve probably gathered that Paul isn’t calling the Lord a literal thief who’s coming to steal from us. That’d be… truly weird – and frankly, heretical.
Rather, Paul is trying to caution the Thessalonian church of his time, using metaphorical language.
He’s talking about the Day of the Lord, a pivotal event that has yet to happen – but will.
But this event won’t come with a big and visible countdown timer that everyone is aware of. This isn’t New Year’s Day.
Instead, like a thief in darkness, this God-appointed Day of the Lord will come unexpectedly, catching most people by surprise.
Based on my research, New Testament mentions of the Day of the Lord are often tied to Jesus’ Second Coming.
As Christians, we know this is when Jesus will return to Earth again, not as a meek and mild savior, but as a mighty warrior King (Revelation 19:11-16).
Believers will rejoice at being redeemed. However, anyone who has chosen to reject God will face eternal separation from Him (Matthew 25:46). All of this will fulfill God’s prophesied will for humanity.
In this regard, Paul’s use of the metaphor “like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2) is meant to emphasize the truly unpredictable timing of the Day of the Lord.
You and I can – and should – stay spiritually ready for this event, which is good. Yet, ultimately, none of us will know precisely when it will occur.
In fact, Jesus himself said: only our heavenly Father knows the day and the hour of the Son’s return (Matthew 24:36).
(So, basically, you can say goodbye to any conspiracy theorists who claim to know exactly when the Day of the Lord will happen. They really don’t.)
Which additional Bible verses can help us deepen our understanding of “like a thief in the night”?
So, where else does the Bible indicate the suddenness of the Day of the Lord?
I discovered Paul isn’t the only one who alludes to this. Peter, too, wrote: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2 Peter 3:10).
In addition, Jesus directly points to our need for constant spiritual alertness: “If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (Revelation 3:3).
Likewise, the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) further reinforces the unexpected nature of Christ’s return, albeit through the use of intriguing symbolism.
In this well-known parable, ten women are waiting for a special guest, the bridegroom.
Five wise women bring extra oil to keep their lamps constantly lit while they wait. They are ready to wait as long as it takes.
On the other hand, five other women decide to go ‘YOLO’, opting not to bring any extra oil whatsoever.
Surprisingly, the bridegroom shows up without warning in the middle of the night. The women with extra oil aren’t worried though. They’re already there to meet him and get to join the big wedding banquet.
But, the unwise women are nowhere to be found. They’d gone away, looking for extra oil at the last minute. Sadly, when they get back, the banquet’s doors are closed. They can’t get inside.
Here, the bridegroom represents Christ. We, as believers, are like the women in the parable waiting for His return.
Our spiritual readiness for Jesus is like the oil in the lamp. Having an empty lamp is akin to having a surface-level religious appearance – without true inner spiritual preparedness (‘oil’). Those without enough oil will miss entering God’s Kingdom, symbolized by the banquet.
Above all, the parable ends with Jesus’ warning: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Matthew 25:13). In other words, as Paul reminds us, Christ’s return will come suddenly, “like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Other parables also highlight this.
I think this brings us to the all-important question: do we want to be like the wise women who are always ready for Jesus, or the foolish ones caught with ‘dead’ faith lamps?
So how does all of this affect modern-day Christians like ourselves?
To be direct, Paul’s words are a wake-up call for all Christians, like you and me.
It is a reminder for us to stay vigilant in our faith. We must never grow complacent in our walk with God, nor take His grace for granted. Instead, we should remain ready for Christ’s return – regardless if it occurs during our earthly lifetime or not.
But what does living a spiritually vigilant life actually look like amid the hustle and bustle of our daily routines?
Here are a few points we should all consider.
1. Daily preparedness
Today’s busy world distracts us. We often chase careers and social lives, keeping busy with material things. Technology adds complexity to an already chaotic life.
As such, spiritual matters of faith often get relegated to ‘church Sundays’. Prayer is left to a more ‘convenient time’ as God is pushed into the background.
However, Paul reminds us, “let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6).
In short, as Christians, we ought to stay active in our faith. We should constantly be willing to lean into and live out our faith at any moment, like the women in the parable with sufficient oil. This is the opposite of spiritual complacency.
2. Having good fellowship
Paul also advices: “Brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
In other words, rather than retreat into the privacy of our own faith, it is key for us to build loving bonds with fellow believers.
As an introvert myself, I admittedly struggle with socialising too much. So, I truly understand if this isn’t ideal for some people.
However, the Bible is clear. Good and healthy fellowship matters.
Why? Well, I think when we sincerely hope to help and encourage other believers in kindness, we effectively establish a daily routine to keep each others’ faith going strong.
To put it differently, a solid community helps us stay prepared for Christ’s return every day, whether it happens in our lifetime or beyond.
3. Living in love
It’s all too easy to act religious on the surface.
However, I think true faith in God is an active, consistent, and relational choice. We are also fuelled by our sincere love for Him and for others (Mark 12:30-31).
Paul captures the heart of such a faith-filled life: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). We should also seek to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
Consequently, I think living a life of active faith really helps us stay prepared for Christ’s return “like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2).
But here’s the good thing. When we genuinely strive to love others, our spiritual readiness for Jesus’ return doesn’t become trapped in a exhausting cycle of paranoia and fear.
Instead, it naturally emerges from a genuine relationship with God and care towards His people (1 John 4:18). Peace in Christ thus forms the prevalent quality of our ongoing preparedness (John 14:27).
Of course, I believe that to actually live out the above is far harder than simply saying it. However, the Bible reminds us many times that trying to undertake such a faith journey is entirely worth it. God knows best.