A Secret Coming
A Thief in the Night
therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
In this text Jesus forewarned his disciples to be watchful through the age, and the advice applies to all of his followers who anticipate Christ’s second advent. “What I say unto you I say unto all, Watch” (Mark 13:37). We are now in the days of the Son of man, and the watching ones, waiting for his return, have received the blessing promised, the banquet of truth, the “faith once delivered unto the saints,” restored and augmented with prophetic testimonies. Never have the Lord’s people had so much spiritual bounty available to them as now. How appropriate for the Lord to advise the Laodicean church to “anoint thine eyes with eyesalve” to see the beauties of the truth clearly.
Matthew 24:42,43 was evidently the source for statements by the apostle Paul and the apostle Peter likening Christ’s return to a stealthy, thieflike return. Paul wrote to the brethren at Thessalonica, “Yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Peter wrote, “The day of the Lord will come as a thief … in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10).
Both texts emphasize that the Lord’s people were to watch by attending to their Christian faith and duties as devoted stewards, keeping their eyes on the prophecies and circumstances portending the end of the age. Contrariwise, “If … thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief” (Revelation 3:3), unexpectedly, and they will be unprepared.
In the Night
A thief generally comes at night. Jesus incorporates this feature into his warning by intimating his appearance would be during a “watch” in the night. Peter does not mention the night (“in the night” is spurious in 2 Peter 3:10), but Paul does in his epistle to the Thessalonians cited above. At night people would generally be sleeping, and Christ warns, “Watch … lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping” (Mark 13:35,36).
In Mark 13:35 he also specifically mentions four parts of the night, “at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning”—four designations which touch some point of each of the four night watches. In Luke, however, he narrows the field to two watches in particular: “And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants” (Luke 12:38).
Interestingly, in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, all these aspects come together. The cry “behold the bridegroom” went out “at midnight” (Matthew 25:6)—exactly the junction of watch two and watch three—and this call roused the virgins who had “all slumbered and slept” as our Lord warned.
These connections are augmented further in Psalm 119:62, “At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee because of thy righteous judgments.” A few verses later in the same psalm the lamps so necessary for the virgins of the parable are interpreted as the word of God: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (verse 105).
In another passage, the faithful bride of Song of Solomon 3:1-3 is so earnest in her longings for the Lord “by night upon my bed” that she rises while it is still dark to search the ways for any news of her beloved, even passing by the “watchmen that go about the city” during the night. Afterward, “it was but a little that I passed from them, but I found him whom my soul loveth” (verse 4).
All these texts are consistent about our Lord’s return during a night period: in particular “midnight” is specified in two of them. The Jewish day, like the night, was divided into four periods—the morning (prenoon) and evening (afternoon), each subdivided into lesser and greater portions. Thus the lesser morning, greater morning, lesser evening, and greater evening—four parts (see Reprints, p. 2953, and the diagram below).
Therefore, beginning at daybreak, to reach midnight one passes through four parts of the day and two parts of the night—six periods total. There one enters a seventh period. The Scriptures often speak of the Gospel age journey of the church as in seven divisions—the seven stages of the church (Revelation 2,3), the seven days’ consecration of the priesthood (Leviticus 8:33,35), the seven circuits of Jericho (Joshua 6:3,4), the seven days consecrating the altar for the world (Ezekiel 43:25-27).
This may show that the return of Christ comes after six periods of the church, at the opening of the seventh period. Indeed, Luke 12:36,37 says at the return of Christ the saints would hear a knock, and if responsive, would be fed a rich repast of truth—precisely the promise to church seven, Laodicea: “I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).
The prophetic marker of “midnight,” therefore, points to the return of Christ at the opening of the Laodicean phase of the church. This is the time when the nominal systems are spewed forth (Revelation 3:16) and the saints called to come out from them (Revelation 18:4). It is the time of harvest when the wheat is separated from the tares, supervised by Christ at his return with a sickle in his hand (Revelation 14:14).
Gideon’s band of three hundred attacked the Midianites “in the beginning of the middle watch; and they had but newly set the watch: and they blew the trumpets, and brake the pitchers that were in their hands” (Judges 7:19). Gideon represents our Lord, the three hundred the redeemed saints, the trumpets represent the announcement of the truth, and the earthen vessels broken to let their lights shine represent the humanity of the saints, broken in their service. All of this speaks of the harvest message going out through the brethren, the first front in the onslaught against Christendom, the fray later joined by others. The conflict begins within the middle watch, shortly after it began. Presumably the middle watch is the watch which began in the middle of the night. It is midnight, at the opening of the seventh church, the Harvest Church.
with this is another reference in the gospels to the end of the third watch
(period seven from daybreak), and the approach of the next, which would
bring us into the kingdom. The episode is Jesus’ walking across the stormy sea
of Galilee to join his disciples, rescuing them from the peril and bringing
about a great calm. The incident is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and John.
6:48 says it was “about the fourth watch of the night,” but Matthew 14:25 is
more definitive. The King James version says “in the fourth watch,” but the
word “in” is not in the Greek text. The words “in the fourth” come from
the single Greek word tetartee, which is rendered by both the Concordant
Interlinear and New World Interlinear as literally “to fourth.” Moulton’s
Analytical Greek Concordance says this is the Dative, singular, feminine case of
tetartos. Dative case, in grammar, denotes “in many languages approach
toward something” (Webster’s Unabridged, 1973).
episode represents Christ rescuing his saints at the close of the time of
trouble, after which there is a great calm as the kingdom rule stills the waves
of trouble which bring us into the kingdom. This occurs at the close of the
seventh phase of the church. It is here represented by the close of the seventh
period of the day, the third watch of the night.
Jesus has now come, and is present with regal authority during the last phase of the church, Laodicea. But his return was stealthy, unobserved by the world, known only to those who have been awake to the prophecies and alert to the change of dispensation at hand. During this period the saints are separated from Christendom and nourished with the Divine Plan. They constitute a voice to represent the Lord’s program to all who have an ear to hear.