My sister and I recently discussed her cool epiphany regarding “thief in the night” references to Jesus and his kingdom. Because it can be a confusing subject and her insights made great sense, I did some digging.
I discovered that (1) the NT uses two different Greek words that mean “thief,” and (2) the oldest Bible translations often blurred the distinction. They are:
Kleptes: a thief who steals by stealth, in secret as opposed to openly and/or by violence. This describes the pickpocket in a crowd, the cat burglar who slinks in shadow, and implies clueless victims robbed blind. It’s where our English “kleptomaniac” comes from.
A few usage examples: “Store up treasures in heaven, where thieves do not break in…” (Mat. 6:20, Luk. 12:33) and “The thief comes only to kill and destroy…” (Jhn. 10:10). Judas Iscariot (Jesus’ betrayer) was the pilfering keeper of the disciples’ money. He complained about expensive perfume poured on Jesus’ feet instead of being sold to raise money for the poor, not because he cared, but because he couldn’t steal the money. (Jhn. 12:4-6)
Lestes: a thief who plunders and steals openly and often violently; a marauder, a brigand. The plural describes a gang of bandits or an army that pillages entire communities. Usage examples: “…you’ve turned my Father’s house into a den of thieves” (Mat. 21:13, Mrk. 11:17, Luk. 19:46), the two thieves crucified with Jesus (Mrk. 15:27, Luk. 23:33), and the severely beaten victim who “fell among robbers” in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luk. 10:30).
The idea behind the first word is unexpectedness. When Jesus says he’s coming like a thief in the night, he uses kleptes. This is usually followed by warnings to keep watch, stay awake, and maintain awareness so as not to be surprised. The second word is about fearsome, overwhelming strength. Both involve taking something that doesn’t belong to the thief.
Or does it?
Fast forward now to “the rapture,” a hugely popular Christian theory that I believed for many years. It claims that before Jesus physically returns to Earth in blazing glory, he secretly sneaks back to steal away his followers in stealth mode. It’s also greatly debated because Scripture doesn’t actually say this. People have simply inferred it based solely on kleptes verses (1Thes. 5:2, 2Pet. 3:10, Rev. 3:3 and 16:15).
I rejected this belief about 20 years ago because it presents several problems and doesn’t really make sense. For one, it adds a third visit. For another, it fails to consider lestes verses. And it conflicts with vivid descriptions of the overwhelming obviousness of Jesus’ return.
But a divine marauder—not slinking in shadows, but openly thundering in on a white horse with lightning and a mighty army—lessens the confusion and fits much better. Although Jesus personally used kleptes, such a Thief would bring both unexpectedness and fearsome strength (based on context and other Scriptures), evoking either terror or hope. And if Jesus is both the Alpha and the Omega, the root and the offspring, couldn’t he also be the “kleptes” and the “lestes” who takes back all that belongs to him, which is everything?
I believe that’s what the thief-in-the-night model intends to convey—like a cosmic Robin Hood robbing from robbers to restore what they stole, only on an epic scale. So, for citizens of Sherwood Forest, the thief is great news.
Not so much for the Nottingham sheriff and his impostor king!