Is our Lord Jesus Christ a king? The Bible certainly says so when it tells us “Jesus is Lord,” that he is enthroned in the heavens, seated at the right hand of his Father, and that he reigns in the world. The Gospels tell us that Jesus preached the “gospel of the kingdom,” and that his coming kingdom is already breaking into the here and now.
On the other hand, the New Testament turns our ideas of a king and kingdom upside down. This king is not a monarch, president, or dictator who rules by force, and his kingdom is not like our worldly empires that occupy or colonize by military power or economic domination.
His throne is a cross, his crown made of thorns, and the last time we saw his kingly robes, his executioners were casting lots to see who could take them home. He certainly didn’t accumulate the type of wealth, castles and estates associated with a successful monarchy. Even in his glory, “King Jesus” seems like a parody of today’s monarchs. an ironic “king” who reigns only by love, without compulsion, and very, very quietly. Almost sneakily!
When the New Testament (including Jesus) describes his “coming” (both now and in the future), there’s this sense of stealth. One metaphor is that he comes, not as a triumphant monarch who parades in with fanfare. Rather, the Lord of the Universe is also a “thief in the night.” Four key texts make the comparison: Matthew 24:43, 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and 4, and Revelation 16:15.
The emphasis in these verses is not on thievery, as if Jesus is breaking and entering illegally to steal something. No, that’s “the thief who steals, kills and destroys” (John 10:10), the enemy of our souls. Jesus is not that kind of thief. He’s a life-giver, not a death-dealer, and his grace is abundant.
So then why the comparison to a thief in the night? It’s important not to read more into it than is being offered. Namely, it is about (1) how Jesus comes to us and (2) how we should be “awake.”
First, while Jesus is Lord and truly reigns, his way of ruling reflects his nature. Love reigns by consent, never by force. Divine love is absolutely committed to our free and willing response. Where belief in and obedience to a monarch is coerced, that is not love, so it cannot be God.
A century ago, a philosopher named Nikolai Berdyaev insisted that God’s love implies that he must come to us quietly, in whispers and on tiptoe. Why? Because anything so overt that it “proves” God (like a miraculous flashing billboard in the sky or signs and wonders) would remove our freedom to believe. Our confession would either be coerced OR our questions would be rebellion. And that’s not how God’s love is. It’s why Jesus says in John 20:29, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.”
Second, having heard the good news of Jesus’ furtive reign, of a kingdom that is “within us,” of a King who rules by love alone, the thief-in-the-night imagery asks us to stay awake and alert. This is not about literally staying awake through the night in case the “second coming” dawns on the far side of the world. Nor is it a call to fearfully watch lest we be “left behind” (as in the 1972 B-horror flick, “Thief in the Night.” Then what does wakeful waiting look like?
It looks way more like good news! We are invited to be alert to the ways that God’s grace permeates our lives and to be grateful for his quiet presence and subtle gifts of mercy. He welcomes us to identify his lovingkindness in our daily lives, not assuming that Jesus is revealed in the hoopla, but in and through the beauty of the world, peace in our lives, love in our relationships, and comfort in our trials. He says, “Stay awake! Don’t overlook me in the hustle-bustle of your busy lives. Don’t assume that the quiet breath of my Spirit and ‘socked-feet’ movements are signs of absence.”
Lord, open our eyes to watch for the One who is with us always, to be alert for our ever-present Friend, and for our Father, who meets us “in the secret place” (see Matthew 6:6-13). For blessed is our thief-king, now and unto ages of ages. Amen.