The third of Jesus’ illustrations is of a thief breaking into a house. “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” (v. 43).
This parable also teaches the sudden and unpredictable coming of the Lord, and is used this way in four other New Testament passages. Paul wrote, “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” (1 Thess. 5:2-3). Peter said, “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). Jesus told the church in Sardis, “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). He says the same thing later in Revelation, “Behold, I come like a thief” (Rev. 16:15). Each of these verses emphasizes the suddenness of the return.
But the image of a thief adds two additional factors.
First, it adds the matter of value, since the thief comes only to steal what is worthwhile. Almost everyone values his or her possessions. No one is careless about having his money or car or jewelry stolen. That is why we lock these things up. We have safe deposit boxes. We install anti-theft devices and alarms on our cars. We insure especially valuable possessions. If we take such great care about these items, things that will all be lost to us or decay over time, shouldn’t we take at least that much care about things that are eternal? Shouldn’t we be at least equally anxious for the salvation of our souls?
Jesus said on an earlier occasion, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). Obviously, it will be no good at all. Such a one will have lost the only thing that really matters, and in the end that one will lose the world as well.
Second, the picture of the thief adds the necessity of being watchful. That is the conclusion to be drawn from each of these pictures, of course, but it is emphasized here. “Since no one knows at what time, or during what ‘watch,’ the thief might strike, constant vigilance is required,” says D. A. Carson.1 The need to watch is explicitly stated both in the verse that precedes the words about the thief and in the one that follows. “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (v. 42) and “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (v. 44).
Are you keeping watch? Are you ready? You must get ready if you have not done so, since Jesus “will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
1 D. A. Carson, “Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, Matthew, Mark, Luke, 510.