by Jack Kelley
There are two popular phrases people use in connection with the End Times to discourage speculation about just when the Rapture might take place. One is “like a thief in the night”, and the other is “no one knows the day or the hour”.
It’s been suggested from time to time that I’m sometimes “overly specific” in my teaching on the subject of End Times prophecy (even though I’ve never proposed either a day or an hour) so I’ve undertaken a study of these two phrases to see if I’m guilty as charged.
Let me say from the outset that I don’t believe the day or hour of the Rapture can be known in advance by anyone on Earth because I don’t believe it’s set to happen on any specific day or at any specific hour. I believe it’s set to happen when a specific number of born again believers is reached, and I base that conclusion on my understanding of Romans 11:25.
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.
There are two Greek words in this verse that lend critical support to a proper understanding. The first is translated “full number”. It’s a nautical term that describes the pre-determined number of sailors necessary to operate a ship. Until the ship had its full number of crew members, it could not sail. This is why ship captains sometimes got unsuspecting men drunk and kidnapped them late at night and then set sail immediately. And the second, translated “come in” is also a nautical term that described the ship’s arrival at its intended destination.
By using these terms, Paul was saying that the hardening of Israel’s heart will not be fully removed until the Church reaches its pre-determined number and has been taken to heaven. There’s nothing arbitrary about God’s action here. He has already determined the number and will take the Church to its intended destination as soon as that number is reached. But as far as I can tell no one on Earth knows either the full number or the current number. All we can know is that we’ll be Raptured when the full number of Gentiles has come in and it could literally happen on any given day. Then we’ll disappear, the blinders will come off Israel and the 70th Week will commence.
Now, back to the topic at hand. What do these two phrases mean and are they intended to discourage speculation about the timing of the Rapture?
Like A Thief
When you take out the duplications, this phrase appears 4 times in the New Testament. Let’s look at each one and see what it’s telling us.
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. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. (1 Thes. 5:1-4)
This is Paul’s only use of the phrase. It’s clear He was speaking of the day of the Lord, and that while it will come as a surprise to unbelievers, events leading up to it should not surprise us. He made no mention of the Rapture here.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. (2 Peter 3:10)
Here’s Peter’s only use of the phrase, and again the reference is to the End Time Judgments, not to the Rapture.
Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But 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. (Rev. 3:3)
“Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed.” (Rev. 16:15)
John used the phrase twice, both times quoting the Lord. In Rev. 3:3 He was criticizing the Church in Sardis, who in my opinion represents the mainline Protestants of today. He was reminding them that they’ve gotten away from His word and had better wake up and get back into it. Otherwise they won’t know when He will come to them. Notice the wording. In the Rapture He comes for us, not to us, and we meet Him in the air. The people He’s talking to will not go in the Rapture, and if they don’t wake up, even the 2nd Coming will take them by surprise. (In verse 4 we see that not everyone in Sardis is asleep. There are a few among them who will be ready for the Rapture and will walk with Him in robes of white.)
In Rev. 16:15 the world is well into the Great Tribulation, so the Lord’s warning is for Tribulation believers who will be responsible for keeping themselves saved during the most terrifying and dangerous time the world has ever known. When used symbolically, as it is here, clothing always stands for righteousness, and tribulation believers will be responsible for maintaining theirs.
Day and Hour
Now we’ll look at that other popular phrase, “No one knows the day or the hour”.
“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matt. 24:36-37)
After the Great Tribulation ends (Matt. 24:29) there will be various signs in the heavens. The sun and moon will go dark and the stars will fall from the sky. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear and all the nations will mourn. After that they’ll see Him coming in the clouds with power and great glory, having gathered His elect from all over Heaven to join Him (Matt. 24:30-31). This is confirmed in both Rev. 18:14 and Rev. 19: 11-14. From both the context and the passage itself it’s clear that the Lord was referring to the day and hour of the 2nd Coming, when He’ll be coming with us not for us.
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Matt. 24:42-44)
A few verses later, the Lord repeated the same thought, again in the context of the 2nd Coming.
The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 24:50-51)
And another few verses later. There’s no way this can refer to the Rapture because the things He described will not be done to unbelievers at the Rapture. He’s speaking of the judgments that follow the 2nd Coming.
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” (Matt. 25:13)
For the fourth time in 28 verses the Lord has said that believers on Earth at the time of the 2nd Coming will not know the day or hour of His return. This one is in the context of the parable of the 10 bridesmaids.
In previous studies I’ve shown that this parable can’t be about the church. The Church is the Bride, not a bridesmaid, there’s only one bride, not 10, and the banquet follows the wedding, it doesn’t precede it. There’s no way a newly married bride can be excluded from her own wedding banquet by a husband who claims he doesn’t know her. The parable is about tribulation survivors, 5 of whom are saved and enter the Kingdom and 5 who are not and don’t.
What’s The Point?
Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day-and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing”. (2 Tim. 4:8)
I’ve searched the Scriptures in vain trying to find either phrase used in connection with the Rapture. But no where can I find a single verse prohibiting or even discouraging speculation about its timing.
On the contrary, I find that the Lord rebuked the religious leaders of His time for not expecting Him, and in doing so encouraged us to be aware as well. For example, commanded us to understand Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy (Matt. 24:15), He criticized the Pharisees for not being able to read the signs of the times (Matt. 16:2-4), and had Jerusalem destroyed for not recognizing the clearly foretold time of His visitation (Luke 19:41-44). Paul warned us not to let events leading up to the Day of the Lord take us by surprise (1 Thes. 5:4), and as we see above promised that the Lord would award a crown to those who longed for His appearing. How many more reasons do we need?
So where did this idea come from? It appears that some of it can be blamed on theologians who misinterpreted the 2nd Coming parables in Matt. 24 & 25. Apparently they didn’t realize that when the Lord coined the phrase, “No one knows the day or hour” He was talking about His 2nd Coming, not the Rapture. But even then it’s the disobedient who are caught by surprise in these parables, not the faithful.
Some of it is also due to the fact that for generations church leaders have actively discouraged the study of prophecy for fear that focusing on the Lord’s return would make members less enthusiastic about funding their buildings and other Earth centered programs. They developed interpretations that allegorized it all away, making it seem like a fairy tale that no body really believes. I remember when I began to take Bible prophecy seriously my pastors warned me, “Don’t become so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.” These are the scoffers Peter warned about, who say, “Where’s the Coming He promised?” (2 Peter 3:4)
But there’s still more. Even among pre-trib believers, there is a fear of the rapture because of false doctrines they’ve been exposed to. The “partial rapture” hypothesis holds that only the truly worthy will be taken, while the rest of the Church will be left behind to clean up their act during some or all of the End times judgments. Others say believers who are not also “overcomers” will be cast into the Outer Darkness at the rapture and excluded from the Millennium. These opinions erode our assurance by concluding that we won’t know if we’re good enough until it’s too late, and make us fearful that we won’t qualify.
Then there are the “secular Christians” who don’t want their so-called good life to end before they’ve had a chance to experience it all. Yes, they want the Lord to come, but not yet, not now.
And finally there are those who know that if the Lord came for us today, members of their family and circle of friends would be left behind. They don’t want the Lord to come until they know everyone they love will be taken too.
For all these reasons and more, being faced with the idea that the Rapture could be very close is not a comforting idea for lots of believers. Suggesting time frames makes it all seem too real, so they don’t like it. When they say, “No one knows the day or hour,” they mean, “I don’t want to hear about it.”
Be Quiet. You’ll Scare Them Away.
Well intended people incorrectly say that talking about the End Times confuses believers, so we shouldn’t do it. What if we get them all excited and then it doesn’t happen? they ask. It’s no secret that the church is populated by a lot of folks who have zeal without knowledge and are easily taken in by anything that promises to either make their life easier (prosperity gospel) or help them escape it altogether (rapture mania). When I came to the Lord in the mid 1980’s a book titled 88 Reasons Why The Rapture will take place in 1988 triggered some rapture mania. A year ago the so called “Blood Moon Scenario” had folks looking for the rapture during the fall feasts. And there have been several others in between. In every case a couple of hours of study proved the theories false.
Paul called the Bereans noble because they searched the Scriptures daily to verify what he taught them (Acts 17:11) And that’s the Biblically correct response to these claims. It’s not to take other verses out of context in an effort to silence them. That only introduces another false teaching. And worse, it encourages the Church to go back to sleep.
When we hear someone suggest or even insist on this time or that one, our response should not be to automatically condemn the person for “date-setting”. It should be to “search the Scriptures daily to see if those things be true” before making a decision about it.
Personally I would much rather see the Church engaged in a lively discussion about the nearness of end times events than to see us trot out the old “No one knows the day or hour” line while sticking our heads back in the sand. What subject is a more important topic for discussion today? And think of all the extra crowns the Lord would have to order. Besides, people don’t fall away when dates come and go because if they’re saved they can’t fall away. If they fall away they weren’t saved to begin with. The Lord doesn’t miss opportunities to save people because of mistakes men make. He knew those who are His before He laid the Earth’s foundations, and promised not to lose even one of us.
So come on Church. Let’s get back to our job. The Bible warns us that there’ll be false teachers and says they’ll be held accountable. But it also admonishes us to do our homework so we’ll know one when we see one. Selah 09-05-09