Bible Study Resources - Tips, Online Bible Search, Devotions

What Does it Mean That God Will Return Like a Thief in the Night?

  • Amanda Idleman Contributing Writer
  • 2021 30 Apr
like a thief in the night

The term “thief in the night” comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:2 which says, “for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Paul is the writer of this New Testament book of the Bible. He is talking about the need for Christians to be in tune with what God is doing so we are not caught by surprise when Jesus returns.

The Bible talks of a “second coming” of Jesus that will usher in a final judgment of the Earth and its inhabitants. This season of time is both spoken of in a warning and even urgent tone but also it is looked forward to as with God’s judgment we can also look forward to the full restoration of his creation. Jesus tells his followers to be alert because the moment of his return will catch those who aren’t paying attention by surprise (Matthew 25:1-13). He wants his people to remain vigilant so we are ready for the day that we meet Jesus face to face. Life is full of distractions. The message Jesus leaves us is that we have to be careful not to let the cares of this world keep us from being people who “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

Paul, one of the most prolific writers of the New Testament, urges Christians to persevere in their faith. His message which cautioned believers to “not sleep, but keep watch” (1 Thessalonians 5:6) was relevant to those who he was personally writing to and is still relevant to our lives today. It is so very easy to lose focus in our Christian walk. We need reminders that God is real, at work, and desires us to passionately follow after him.

What Does 'Like a Thief in the Night' Mean About God's Return?

Let's break down 1 Thessalonians 5:2 so we can better understand what Paul is trying to communicate to his readers. The apostle shares a description of the coming judgment of the world. Paul says the world will be surprised when these events begin to unfold but believers will understand that God is at work.

This verse reminds believers that we have the knowledge that God will come unexpectedly back into the world. For the unbeliever, Jesus’ return will come “like a thief in the night” they will not be prepared for his arrival. This text emphasizes that for the believer the arrival of Jesus will be expected. Paul also communicates in this chapter that a Christian's focus should be on righteous living, in expectation for God to do the unexpected. 1 Thessalonians 5:6 says, “So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober.” This is an encouragement to the church to be different from the world. We are to be awake, prepared, connected to the Holy Spirit, and ready for the day that Jesus returns to bring judgment to our world.

Why Would Paul Use an Analogy Like "Thief in the Night" for the Second Coming?

Paul uses the analogy of a “thief in the night” because he wants to emphasize how disorienting Jesus’ return will be for those who are “asleep” or are not Christ-followers.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary says, “The coming of Christ will be a great surprise to men. Our Lord himself said so. As the hour of death is the same to each person that the judgment will be to mankind in general, so the same remarks answer for both. Christ's coming will be terrible to the ungodly.”

Just as unbelievers will be surprised to find they face eternal judgment at the end of their lives; the world will also be filled with terror when they realize that the systems they have depended on are at the mercy of God's judgment. The believer prepares for both eternity in Heaven as well as Jesus’ second coming by living a purposeful life that is surrendered to the Lord’s leading. While Christ-followers may not know the day that he returns, we stand ready because we know we have a place in God’s family.

What Should We Takeaway from This Verse about Jesus' Return?

As believers, we do not have to live in fear or trepidation of the day of Jesus’ return. In fact, we can hope for it, as with God’s judgment also comes the hope of a future that includes a new Heaven and Earth (Revelation 21). Our calling is to be mindful of how we use the time we are given here on Earth, to live lives that honor Jesus, and to be those who lovingly speak the truth of the Gospel to the lost of the world. We are the ones who are “awake” according to Paul (1 Thess 5:6) and therefore will not be taken by surprise when Jesus comes back to Earth. In contrast, the ungodly will be entirely confused and terrified by the reality of Jesus visible on Earth again. The world is blind to the ways of God and his judgment will cause them anguish, just as a woman who experiences labor pains (1 Thess 5:3).

Where Else Does the Bible Talk about Jesus' Return?

The return of Jesus is a topic that is discussed in many different parts of the Bible. In Matthew 24, Jesus himself foretells his second coming. He tells his disciples that there will be many times in history when people rise up saying this is the end but those will just be the early signs that God’s judgment is coming. In the end, only the most faithful will endure to the day of this world’s judgment.

Revelation 22:12 says, “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.” Jesus gives his disciple John a vision about what is to come, which John then records as the book of Revelation. This book prophesies details about what Jesus’ second coming will bring as well as details the hope we have in Heaven with Jesus as his followers. Titus 2:13 says, “Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” We can anticipate the second appearance of Jesus, as God’s plan to redeem his creation is the hope that humanity can cling to.

These are just a sampling of the many passages that give us a glimpse of what God’s plan is for the future of our world. One thing we know is that his timing and ways remain a mystery to humanity. We have to trust that He is faithful and will fulfill his promise to judge but ultimately redeem our world.

Matthew 25:31-46 says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

We can rest assured that God has a place for us in his Kingdom but also the knowledge that our choices here on Earth have eternal implications should motivate us. Jesus says that his followers are known by the way they loved and served others. We are to be the ones that feed the needy and welcome the lost into our homes. Be ready for the unexpected arrival of Jesus by being those that love others with an unreasonable God-inspired love.

Related: Listen to our podcast, How to Study the Bible! Available at LifeAudio.com. Listen to the first episode here:

Photo credit:Getty Images/Tony Rowell


Amanda Idleman is a writer whose passion is to encourage others to live joyfully. She writes devotions for My Daily Bible Verse Devotional and Podcast, Crosswalk Couples Devotional, the Daily Devotional App, she has work published with Her View from Home, on the MOPS Blog, and is a regular contributor for Crosswalk.com. You can find out more about Amanda on her Facebook Page or follow her on Instagram.


This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

"Be Still and Know that I Am God"
"Pray Without Ceasing"
"Fearfully and Wonderfully Made"
"All Things Work Together for Good"
"Do Not Fear"




Follow Crosswalk.com