The city had been captured twice in its history, once in 549 B.C. by Cyrus of Persia and again in 195 B.C. by Antiochus the Great, while its inhabitants were indifferently resting in its supposed impregnability. Would Christians there allow the same to happen to them at the hands of one whom they had made their spiritual opponent?2Some believe the immediate context of the letter argues for understanding this threat as pertaining to a localized spiritual coming in judgment:
The context of Rev. Rev. 3:3+ requires that the term like a thief in the night does not here refer to the rapture, but rather to Christ coming in judgment like that threatened to the church at Ephesus (Rev. Rev. 2:5+), for this coming can be averted by repentance, but that cannot apply to the rapture. Here the thief aspect is a reminder drawn from the embarrassing history of the city.3At a time when the Sardian church least expected Him, judgment would fall on the local assembly. Yet even here when a local application appears in view, we find Scripture teaching a general principle which will apply at the time of the end. The threat here is not related to His second coming, but is that the Lord would come and destroy the Sardis church if there is no revival. It can also be extrapolated into a warning of the judgment that faces all dead churches at Christs return.4 There are indicators that the coming could be eschatological: In other alleged cases of Christs coming for special judgment (cf. Rev. Rev. 2:5+, Rev. 2:16+, Rev. 2:22-23+), consequences are explicitly stated, but here no such penal result is given. Apparently it is understood to be Christs punishment of disloyalty at His second advent.5 Elsewhere, Scripture relates that the Day of the Lord will come in a similar manner:
For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, Peace and safety! then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. (1Th. 1Th. 5:2-10) [emphasis added]
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. (2Pe. 2Pe. 3:10) [emphasis added]On the Day of the Lord, Jesus comes as a thief in judgment upon an unsuspecting world:
But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Mtt. Mat. 24:37-44)6 [emphasis added]
Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is. It is like a man going to a far country, who left his house and gave authority to his servants, and to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to watch. Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is comingin the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch! (Mark Mark 13:33-37)
Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching. Assuredly, I say to you that he will gird himself and have them sit down to eat, and will come and serve them. And if he should come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Luke Luke 12:35-40)7 [emphasis added]
Christs coming as a thief has no reference to His coming for the church at the rapture. His thief-like coming occurs at the day of the Lord. Since Paul tells the Thessalonians they were well acquainted with the prophetic truth concerning the day of the Lord, this day is not to be identified with the Rapture, about which Paul did need to write to clarify their understanding. The day of the Lord begins with the Great Tribulation, and ends with the close of the Millennium. Those who shall not escape (1Th. 1Th. 5:3) are those who are not brethren, who fail to watch and pray (Luke Luke 21:36), are not counted worthy to escape, and therefore go on into the tribulation period.8Paul said much the same thing to the Thessalonian church as Jesus says here to the church at Sardisto the faithful who remain watching, Christ will not come as a thief:
For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, Peace and safety! then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do , but let us watch and be sober. (1Th. 1Th. 5:2-6) [emphasis added]See Trouble Ahead.
3 Monty S. Mills, Revelations: An Exegetical Study of the Revelation to John (Dallas, TX: 3E Ministries, 1987), Rev. 3:3.
4 John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11 : The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 114.
6 This passage does not describe the Rapture of the church as Lukes account makes especially clear: I tell you, in that night there will be two men in one bed: the one will be taken and the other will be left. Two women will be grinding together: the one will be taken and the other left. Two men will be in the field: the one will be taken and the other left. And they answered and said to Him, Where, Lord? So He said to them, Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together (Luke Luke 17:34-37). Those who are taken are like those who perished in the flood of Noah. Jesus indicates they are taken in judgment as many parallel passages which describe birds feeding on carrion make plain: Deu. Deu. 28:26; Job Job 39:30; Eze. Eze. 39:4, Eze. 39:17-20; Jer. Jer. 7:33; Jer. 12:9; Jer. 15:3; Jer. 16:4; Jer. 19:7; Mtt. Mat. 24:28; Luke Luke 17:37; Rev. Rev. 19:17-18+.
7 Once again, the context of this passage is judgment as can be seen by the verses which follow: But if that servant says in his heart, My master is delaying his coming, and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and be drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant who knew his masters will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. . . . I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! (Luke Luke 12:45-49).