Once upon a time, in the iron-age kingdom of Lydia, there was a river of gold called the Pactolus River. Whoever controlled the river was rich, and this explains why Croesus was one of the richest kings who ever lived.
Croesus, who lived about 550 years before Christ, built a citadel called Sardis to protect his wealth. The citadel sat atop sheer cliffs and was impregnable – or so Croesus thought.
But one night while the guards were dozing, a Persian soldier scaled the cliffs, opened the gate, and Sardis fell. Thus ended the reign of King Croesus.
The fall of Sardis was a pivot point in history for it brought the fearsome Persians to Ionia and the shores of Greece.
One of the changes made by the Persians was they populated Sardis with Jews. The Jews in Sardis thrived which meant that whoever brought the gospel to Sardis had a ready audience in the synagogue.
Fast forward to the end of first century and we find that Sardis had a church – one of seven mentioned in the opening chapters of Revelation. Jesus sent this church a letter and in it he said this:
If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. (Revelation 3:3b)
Telling the Sardians that he would come like a thief was a clever nod to their history. “Remember how your city fell because you weren’t paying attention? That’s what will happen to you, if you don’t wake up.”
The amazing thing is that Sardis fell twice; first to the Persians in 546BC, then to Seleucid armies of Antiochus the Great in 213BC. On both occasions the city fell because a brave soldier scaled the cliffs like a thief. (You can read the full story in my book, Letters from Jesus.)
Just as the British are famous for their orderly queues and their love of tea, the Sardians were famous for not paying attention. They would have understood that when Jesus said, “I will come like a thief,” he meant that he would come unexpectedly:
Behold, I am coming like a thief. Blessed is the one who stays awake. (Revelation 16:15a)
What does it mean to say the Lord will come like a thief? It means his return will be sudden. People won’t expect it.
How then should we live? Those slumbering in the stupor of sin need to wake up.
Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. (Matthew 24:42-43)
No one knows when the Lord will return, but we can be ready. We “wake up” by turning to God in faith. We stay alert by having a hopeful and confident expectation of his return.
But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief (1 Thess. 5:4)
The meaning is plain: be ready for the Master’s return. But you won’t be ready if you think Jesus is never coming or that he has already come.
The Lord’s return is future, not past.
Since I have written a book about the fall of Jerusalem, some people have concluded that I am a preterist. “Paul teaches that Jesus came in AD70.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t know when Jesus is coming but I can assure you it wasn’t then.
For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. (1 Thessalonians 5:2–3)
The Lord’s return will not happen during a time of war but in a time of peace and safety. No one was saying “peace and safety” before the siege of Jerusalem, and there was nothing unexpected or thief-like about the fall of Judea.
When is Jesus coming?
But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. (Matthew 24:36)
We don’t know when, but we do know how: the Lord will return unexpectedly like a thief. But his return won’t be a secret event. Everyone will know about it.
The takeaway: Don’t get caught napping like King Croesus and the slumbering Sardians, and don’t let the day of the Lord overtake you like a thief.
Get ready, live ready, and look forward to the glorious return of the King.
More articles about the return of the Lord.
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