There has been a lot of speculation in the online environment about COVID-19 and the end of the world, but the connection between the two is more subtle than it first appears. It has been suggested that the pandemic is only the tip of the iceberg, that it is one of the seven last plagues of Revelation, or that it is the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse.
But to me, COVID-19 and the end of the world are meeting in a different realm. The crisis caused by the current pandemic has been described by the mayor of the most affected city in Latin America (Guayaquil, Ecuador) as “an unexpected bomb on a quiet town“. Instead of anticipating a foreseeable end, the new coronavirus is the perfect illustration of the great end, the coming of Christ. Jesus Himself declares in Revelation 16:15: “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.” In the following section, I would like to explain three things from the quoted text: the metaphor of the thief as an expression of the end of the world, the significance of guarding clothes, and the shame to be avoided.
This trend has been called “an epidemic of apocalyptic prophecies“. In a way, rightly so. Do you remember the shepherd in Aesop’s fable? Out of boredom, one day he began to frantically shout that a wolf had come to eat the sheep. The villagers hurried to help him, only to be met with the hysterical laughter of a boy who had made a really bad joke. He repeated this trick until the day when a real wolf attacked the sheep. He then cried at the top of his lungs, but the snares of the past cost him dearly: the villagers no longer believed him.
“Behold, I come as a thief”
In the Scriptures, there are two terms to indicate someone who steals: “thief” and “robber.” These two words are used in different ways. The thief steals from the house, while the robber plunders outside, on the highway (Hosea 7:1). The thief prefers the night, the robber strikes in the light of day. In other places, ancient literature, biblical or non-biblical, does not make a clear distinction between the two terms. For example, Jesus tells those who come to arrest Him on Black Thursday (in the evening, which is usually associated with the thief): “Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs to take Me?” (Matthew 26:55).
The image of the thief as a description of the coming of Jesus is found in several places in Scripture. In the Old Testament, the prophet Joel symbolically presents the Day of the Lord as the invasion of an army, whose soldiers “run to and fro in the city,
they run on the wall; they climb into the houses, they enter at the windows like a thief” (Joel 2:9).
In the New Testament, Jesus presents His coming as a thief sneaking into the stillness of the night (Matthew 24:43-44; Revelation 3:3). Also, for the apostles Peter (2 Peter 3:10) and Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:2), the Lord’s Day comes like a thief.
Rich man, poor man
To better understand the metaphor of the thief as a symbol of the end of the world, I will briefly describe what ancient Greek-Roman literature said about this “occupation” of thief or robber.
First, it was said that robbers were not a threat to beggars or the poor. No one would rob someone from whom he had nothing to steal. The image of Jesus coming as a thief suggests that unfaithful mankind is rich (at least, that’s what mankind believes). In Revelation 3:17 we learn that the man of the end says, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing”. The wealth referred to here is that of moral character. It represents the man who thinks he is good and who believes that he needs neither God’s forgiveness nor transforming power. This is the first lesson of the thief metaphor: when he comes, Jesus will find many good people who will not be saved. It’s just not enough to be merely “good”.
Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast teaches that “both good and bad” people were invited to the banquet at the end of history (Matthew 22:10), but some, in order to be accepted, needed a garment. This garment is a kind of entrance ticket. It represents the moral character. To be accepted by God, says Revelation, the character must be washed like a garment in the blood of Jesus (Revelation 7:14). Simply put, in order for the end not to catch you like a thief, you need to understand that your goodness cannot save you. Jesus said that the rich (literally) will hardly enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23). But when you’re rich in your own eyes, when you think you’re good enough, being saved isn’t just hard, it’s impossible. Christianity teaches that the salvation of the sinner is accomplished only through the forgiveness of Christ. And the forgiven man changes—not in one sudden change, but over time, continuously.
When the master is not home
Second, the thief looks out for when you’re not home. It is said that a thief was lurking around the home of the great Greek orator Demosthenes, but he was annoyed and frustrated because much of the night Demosthenes’ lamp was on and he was awake, writing. A different story is that of the ancient author Lucian, who was traveling to Athens with a friend. They had found a host for the night in the port city of Amastris (today Amasra, Turkey). While they were out shopping, some thieves forced open the door of their room and stole all their belongings, leaving them without the money needed to pay for the day.
In the Scriptures, being at home symbolically means being in a good relationship with God (see the parables in Luke 15). When he leaves home, the prodigal son loses his relationship with his father. When he returns home, do you know what he gets first? A robe: the garment of forgiveness that makes him a son again. The fact that Jesus comes as a “thief” is a warning to many prodigal sons to return home before He does.
In good times, as in bad times
Third, in antiquity, the thief took advantage of the holidays, or misfortunes, when people felt threatened and disoriented. For example, in the time of the Christian emperor Theodosius I (4th century), Antioch was devastated by the Persians, so people emigrated en masse. Doctors left (epidemics multiplied), teachers left (schools were deserted), artists emigrated (theaters emptied), and finally ordinary people took refuge. The city was without music, weddings, games and good cheer. The context of a mass exodus created a golden opportunity for predators.
Both the celebrations and the hardships of life remind us of Christ’s statement, “But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly” (Luke 21:34). Jesus also said that in the end it will be like the days of Noah and Lot. Then people “were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage (…) buying and selling, planting and building” (Luke 17:27-28). What do all these verbs tell us? They tell us that the joys and the challenges of life keep us busy, inattentive. When the flood came, it was beautiful outside. The hour of Sodom’s judgment came at sunrise. What could the city expect other than another ordinary day? Many had no idea that life was about to come to an abrupt end. In the ordinary whirlwind of everyday life it is easy to lose sight of what really matters.
Clothes and shame
Revelation 16:15 reminds us that what matters most is what we are “wearing” (of course, in the symbolic sense that we discussed earlier). The message is that what will matter in the end is the character we form now. The ancient thief would leave their victim without clothes. Jesus tells of a man robbed and beaten by robbers who “stripped him” (Luke 10:30). A wealthy second-century Latin writer (Apuleius) recounts how he was robbed on a journey and calls the bandits who left him a coat “good robbers.” But it seems that Jesus does not want to play this role of “good thief” in the end. Either He gives you everything, or He takes everything from you.
The relationship between clothes and shame echoes the story of Adam and Eve. At creation, the two, although naked, were not ashamed, but after the fall they were ashamed, covering themselves and hiding from God. The shame of being naked is a result of sin. The shame of the end of time refers to the fact that the true character of people will be revealed. And most will be left naked. I say it again, one of the truths that the Scriptures emphasise is the idea that no one is good without Christ’s garment of righteousness, His forgiveness.
What an irony! When Jesus first came to earth, they did not recognize Him. Jesus was arrested just like a thief would be arrested, competed for release with a thief (Barabbas), and was crucified between two thieves. At the end of the world, the One whom the world considered a thief will come as a thief—not for the pleasure of “catching” unprepared people. But He Himself said, “with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Matthew 7:2).
We must look at the present pandemic as an illustration of the end that will come like a thief. In the middle of the 19th century, a group of young intellectuals met regularly in Russia. The members of the group met somewhat clandestinely, because alongside topics pertaining to literature, history and science, they also discussed politics. Belonging to this group was a young anonymous writer named Feodor Dostoevsky. No one suspected that, in their midst, was also a man of the system, who perfectly played the role of being one of them. The agent conscientiously took notes of what was being said and who was saying it, after a while, revealed everything to the authorities. As a result, in April 1859, Dostoevsky, along with 22 other young men, was arrested. He did not know how long he would be imprisoned or what would happen to him.
Eight months later, the sentence came: the death penalty for all 23, ordered by the tsar. They men were dressed in white, brought to a public square and tied to some pillars. A firing squad stood at the ready. A man read out the indictment, and an Orthodox priest gave them their last opportunity to repent. Three were to be executed; Dostoevsky was in the second group. Imagine the tension. The soldiers lifted their rifles and, just as the triggers were about to be pulled, a drummer hit the drums and a serious voice announced that the death sentence had been commuted to prison terms in Siberia.
The young people did not know that everything had been orchestrated by the tsar to re-educate them. Dostoevsky would later write that the annulment of the death penalty was the moment of greatest joy in his life. Then, when he was on the brink of eternity, as he put it, he understood time and the human being better.
Now, as it has not yet passed, let us look at the present crisis as a rehearsal for the Day of the Lord, so that, obtaining forgiveness for our sins right now, that day may not take us by surprise.
Laurenţiu-Florentin Moţ, PhD, is associate professor and rector of Adventus University.