Secret Rapture or Noisy Advent?
In some places in the New Testament, a unique analogy is utilized to illustrate the nature of Jesus's second coming. Many Christians down through the ages have experienced some confusion over it. It is the analogy of a thief unexpectedly breaking into someone's home in the night (cf. Matt 24:42–44; 1 Thess 5:1–5; 2 Pet 3:10; Rev 3:3; 16:15). This analogy has left many sincere Christians thinking that Jesus’s second coming will be secretive and unknown to many. This conceptualization of Christ's second advent has often been called the “secret rapture.” When one looks carefully at how the writers of the New Testament described Jesus's return, it is far from secret. For example, Matt 24:26–27 is clear that the second advent will be visible to all just "as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west," and everyone can see it (Matt 24:27, ESV). Lightning in no way is secret. It is visible and usually followed by very audible thunder. Jesus said that "so will be the coming of the Son of Man" (Matt 24:27, ESV). Similarly, John, the revelator, stated that, when Jesus returns, he will be "coming with the clouds, and every eye shall see him, even those who pierced him," so much so that "all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him" (Rev 1:7, ESV; emphasis added). Therefore, the second advent will be no secret. All will see the Lord when he comes. Jesus's return will also be such a glorious event that no one will be unaware of his arrival. Speaking of himself, Jesus said that "the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father" (Matt 16:27, ESV). And he will not only come in the glory of his Father and just a few of his angels. In his discourse on the Mount of Olives, he said that he will also be coming in his own glory with "all the angels" (πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι), and, at that time, "he will sit on his glorious throne" (Matt 25:31, ESV). With such gloriousness, how could it be secret? When Paul wrote about the second coming of Jesus in his first letter to the Thessalonian Christians, he indicated that it will not only be glorious and visible. It would also be audible for all to hear. Listen to all of the sounds of Jesus's return in 1 Thess 4:16 (ESV): "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God." In fact, it will be so loud on that day that Paul said it will wake the dead in Christ! Just imagine it! That does not sound very secretive to me. So, what did Jesus mean when he described his return as the coming of a thief in the night? At the beginning of Matt 24:42–44, before he gave this analogy, Jesus first stated the purpose of it so that no reader could miss its meaning. "Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming" (Matt 24:42, ESV). This statement is followed by his analogy of the thief in the night. "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" (Matt 24:43, ESV). Then he repeated his purpose of the analogy, identifying a second time what it was supposed to illustrate. "Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (Matt 24:44). In other words, Jesus was using the analogy of a thief breaking into one's home in the night not to describe his coming as secretive but as unexpected. Jesus was clear, that we do not know when he will return. We cannot calculate the day or the hour, let alone the month or even the year (Matt 24:36; 25:13; Mark 13:32; Rev 3:3). For that reason, we need to always be prepared for it. But when it happens, as when a thief does show up at one's house, we will know he is here! Without proper preparation, the second advent will surprise us by its unknown timing. This is the same purpose of the analogy of the thief when Paul employed it in 1 Thess 5:1–5. Many people will be saying, "'There is peace and security,'" but then "sudden" or unexpected "destruction will come upon them" at the time of Christ’s coming" (1 Thess 5:3, ESV; cf. Rev 3:3). These people are unprepared, and they will be surprised when Jesus's return. However, they will most certainly see and hear him when he does. “But you," Paul wrote, "are not in darkness, brothers [and sisters] for that day to surprise you like a thief" (1 Thess 5:4, ESV). In other words, we who are believers are aware that the timing (the when) of Christ’s coming is unknown and so we must remain prepared at all times, not to be surprised. Thus, as the evangelist, Mark A. Finley, has said, the New Testament used this analogy of the thief "in reference to the unexpected time of Jesus’ coming, not the manner of His coming."1 Jesus will come quickly and unexpectedly as a thief, but his coming will not be a secret. It will be visible and audible to everyone around the globe, even the dead. Unbelievers will be surprised by this noisy advent, but those who have faith in Jesus will be ready and waiting unsurprised when he returns. How? Jesus said in Rev 16:15 (ESV), "'Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!'" We prepare by wearing the meritorious robe of righteousness with which Jesus has provided us by his spilled blood on the cross. Let us pray this week that each one of us will be watchful so that we may all be prepared with Jesus's covering of righteousness to meet him in the air when he comes visibly, gloriously, and noisily.
Notes 1 Mark A. Finley, Studying Together: A Ready Reference Bible Handbook, rev. ed. (n.p.: Hart Research Center, 1995), 17.