“(Look! I will come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays alert and does not lose his clothes so that he will not have to walk around naked and his shameful condition be seen.)” (Rev 16:15 NET)
Posttribulationists frequently use Revelation 16:15 to support their position.
Just before the sixth bowl concludes there is an editorial exhortation: “(Look! I will come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays alert and does not lose his clothes so that he will not have to walk around naked and his shameful condition be seen)” (Rev 16:15). Even in the midst of this apocalyptic portrayal there is a warning to be spiritually prepared to avoid God’s wrath. The book of Revelation warns us before (Rev 1:7), during (Rev 16:15), and after (Rev 22:12, 20) the narrative.
This parenthetical exhortation in Revelation 16:15 is not intended to give a temporal indicator to when the Lord will return, as is often interpreted. It does not mean that his parousia has not occurred up to this point with the church still on earth. Nor does it mean that his parousia will start to occur at Armageddon. So it is a mistake to read into the expression, “I come like a thief,” as meaning that he has not returned yet. A few observations are called for.
We learned that the parousia begins shortly after the sixth seal. The trumpet judgments follow after the opening of the seventh seal, and the bowl judgments begin at the sounding of the seventh trumpet. This takes us up to where we are right now at the sixth bowl for the preparation of the battle of Armageddon.
It makes no sense to say that Jesus is coming back as a “thief” after the world just experienced his previous earth-destroying judgments. Accordingly, translators recognize this verse as an aside, placing parentheses around the statement. In a study note, the New English Translation comments: “These lines are parenthetical, forming an aside to the narrative. The speaker here is the Lord Jesus Christ himself rather than the narrator.” This is not a unique instance in the book of Revelation for there are three other instances of Jesus coming soon without giving us any temporal indicator (Rev 1:7; 22:12, 20).
So then how should we understand this parenthetical statement that seems to be arbitrarily placed at this point? The exhortation is immediately followed by the reference to the battle of Armageddon (v. 16). And since Armageddon occurs near the end of the culmination of God’s wrath, the likely meaning is that the warning represents the whole-complex of the day of the Lord’s wrath. This is consistent with Jesus and Paul’s use of the thief imagery representing the whole of God’s wrath, but in their case there is an emphasis on the inception of wrath (Matt 24:43–44; 1 Thess 5:2–5; cf. 2 Peter 3:10). In short, it is unintelligible to think that Revelation 16:15 only intends to apply the thief warning to Armageddon but not to the previous trumpet and bowl judgments. And we must remember when we speak of the return of Christ, it does not refer to an instantaneous simple event, instead, it encompasses the whole-complex of his return.
The meaning of “I will come like a thief!” is followed by a qualification, “one who stays alert and does not lose his clothes so that he will not have to walk around naked and his shameful condition be seen” (cf. Rev 3:18). What is the implication of this statement? There are basically three interpretations. (1) It means that the one who does not stay alert is seen to be a false believer, who will be found on the receiving end of God’s wrath. (2) It refers to a believer who was not spiritually alert; nevertheless, this person will be delivered before the day of the Lord’s wrath in a shameful condition. (3) It refers to a believer who loses their salvation because they lose their faith and will be judged as an unbeliever along with the rest of the wicked. This latter interpretation will point out that this warning is not meaningful if there is not the possibility of losing one’s salvation.
Whether believers can lose their salvation is not going to be determined by this single verse. My theological conviction is that Scripture consistently teaches the perseverance of the saints, God graciously giving persevering grace to his chosen ones. I do not think it is a sound argument to conclude that the warning is not meaningful if there is not the possibility of losing one’s salvation. I take this warning, as I do with othersimilar warnings in the Bible, as a means by which God perseveres his people by warning them to be spiritual vigilant. This warning is similar to Luke 21:36, “But stay alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that must happen, and to stand before the Son of Man.” God’s sovereign grace will persevere believers, but it is our responsibility to be praying that we may have strength to escape all these things that must happen.
The second interpretation above also contains a deficiency, which sees the faithless “believer” who will not be spiritually alert to be, nevertheless, delivered before the day of the Lord’s wrath. However, the thrust of the book of Revelation is on those who will have victory through faith. Revelation does not entertain luke-warm Christians as victorious, “So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth!” (Rev 3:16). In the parable of the ten virgins, there are only two groups: wise and foolish virgins. All five wise virgins were spiritually alert when the bridegroom arrived (Matt 25:1–13). Jesus is going to refine his bride through the great tribulation so that he comes to a blameless people (Rev 14:12). So to answer the question above, the false believer is the one who will lose his clothes and walk around naked and in a shameful condition. Being in a naked and shameful condition, therefore, indicates the person who will be exposed in the day of the Lord’s wrath. Faith is the true mark of a believer. But a person with a veneer of Christianity will find themselves thief-exposed in the midst of the Lord’s wrath.
In summary, this parenthetical warning within the apocalyptic narrative teaches us that those who are not spiritually watchful as the Lord comes back will find themselves shamefully on the wrong side. It is a warning to anyone who reads or hears the book of Revelation before the day of the Lord. But those who are spiritually watchful at the Lord’s return will find themselves fighting alongside the divine alliance: “[The kings of the world] will make war with the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them, because he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those accompanying the Lamb are the called, chosen, and faithful” (Rev 17:14).