The Thief and the Closed Door

The close of probation, and the sealing of all human destiny, an event never to be repeated, catches men by surprise like the thief in the night.

W. H. Johns is currently on study leave for graduate course work in geology at Michigan State University.

THE OTHER DAY as I browsed through a nearby religious bookstore, my attention was caught by the statement published on the cover of the best seller, The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey. It stated that there had been an astounding record of "over 3,500,000 sold." Upon opening to the frontispiece, I discovered that the book has gone through a phenomenal thirty-nine printings in three years' time. Even more amazing is the sales pace set by Lindsey's latest, There's a New World Coming. Seven hundred thou sand copies have been sold and there were seven printings between October, 1973, and February, 1974.

Right next to these books displayed on the paperback stand I came across a title 666, by Salem Kirban. It also popularizes the "rapture," and over a million copies have been sold in the three and one-half years since it first went to press. In the chapter called "I Saw the Saints Rise," Kirban breathtakingly describes how an airplane suddenly goes into a dive as the pilot and one hundred passengers are raptured. Those who remain are, naturally, in hysterics.

A more recent title by the same author called WOO caught my eye. It also injects the rapture serum. Inside was a picture of the author adding the finishing touches to this book as he sat in his study. Clearly visible on top of his desk was a sole book, the New Scofield Reference Bible, one of the key reasons for the survival of the rapture teaching in the 20th century.

Amid the lightning flashes of these titles and the profuse meteoric shower of paperbacks by the millions on such subjects, what do Adventists have to say or offer the conservative or fundamentalist who clings to the doctrine of Christ's imminent return?

Today the book of Revelation is being popularized on the newsstands, but inevitably with a literalistic slant that is at the very opposite pole of those views that echo the great reformers. For example, the mark of the beast is seen as a literal mark, Moses and Elijah as the two witnesses who revisit the earth for three and one-half literal years, and the 144,000 as 144,000 literal Jews of the twelve tribes converted by the preaching of Moses and Elijah.

The Achilles heel of the secret rapture theory is revealed in Matthew 24:40: "Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left." God has given Seventh-day Adventists a precious heritage of truth that proves to be the best inoculation against the rapture views. We have been given a glimpse of Christ, our Advocate, ministering for us in the closing moments of the awesome judgment.

Here is the answer! Here is the key! Here is the door that opens to view the true meaning of those prophetic words spoken nearly two thousand years ago by our Saviour atop the Mount of Olives. We must listen and follow Christ's command to "watch."

Watch for the golden thread that ties together the last verses of Matthew 24 and the first verses of Matthew 25. What is it? It is the closing of the door of the ark, the calling of the house holder's servants to give account, and the closing of the door to five of the virgins followed by the wedding. Couched in between are statements describing "two in the field" and "two women grinding at the mill." Is the golden thread running through these verses the Second Advent or the close of probation, or both? Is this thread composed of more than one strand?

Too often our sights are riveted as though we are looking through a surveyor's instrument exclusively upon the Second Advent, the far-off horizon of history, while the investigative judgment can slip up behind us as the "thief in the night." Notice the tenor of the warning immediately following the twice-mentioned statement, "the one shall be taken, and the other left." The owner of the house, if he had only known at what time of night the thief was to break in would have been on watchful guard. "Therefore be ye also ready" (Matt. 24:44). "Therefore" being the conclusion of all the previous verses. When two are working in the field and one is taken and the other left, the suddenness of the happening can well be compared to the coming of the thief. What then is the coming of the thief? Is it Christ coming in all His glory so that "every eye shall see him," or is it Christ coming in judgment, silent and unnoticed?

Jesus next compares Himself to the head of a large household who returns to settle accounts with His workers (verses 45-51). Again the challenge is to "watch," for the hour is unknown. The parallel account in Mark 13:34-37 repeats the same thought with the added warning, "lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping" (verse 36).

Our inspired commentary indicates what event it is that is portrayed here. After quoting verses 35-37, Ellen White explains: "We are waiting and watching for the return of the Master, who is to bring the morning, lest coming suddenly He find us sleeping. What time is here referred to? Not to the revelation of Christ in the clouds of heaven to find a people asleep. No; but to His return from His ministration in the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary. . . . When Jesus ceases to plead for man, the cases of all are forever decided. This is the time of reckoning with His servants." —Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 190, 191.

It is a coming into the judgment halls of heaven, not down the corridors of Orion to this planet. This "pre-advent coming" as described in Daniel 7:13, 14 refers to Christ coming to His Father's throne to receive His kingdom. Here is the marriage of the Lamb. Here too is the coming of the thief in the night.

The closing work of judgment becomes the golden thread linking the last verses of Matthew 24 and the first verses of Matthew 25 together. The closing of the door of Noah's ark was not the end of the world, for business went on as usual. The Inspired Word describes the plight of the unwary multitudes who "knew not until the flood came, and took them all away" (Matt. 24:39).

Like those on a powerless boat who failed to observe the warning signs above Niagara Falls and drifted too far, the antediluvians continued their usual activities for seven days, unaware that they had passed the point of no return and that certain destruction would overtake them.

Pitiful are the cries of those who pound upon the closed door in desperation: "Lord, Lord, open to us," as in the parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:11). The mournful response echoes back, "I know you not" (verse 12), indicating that the closing of the door is the close of probation. (See The Great Contro versy, p. 428.) The closed door of the ark parallels the closed door at the wedding feast. "Watch therefore" is the conclusion, "for ye know not what hour" probation shall close, when the Son of man cometh to the Ancient of days (Dan. 7:13,14) to be married to His bride, His kingdom, a sight that no mortal has the privilege of witnessing (ibid., pp. 426,427). This is what is meant by "the thief in the night."

Another question usually raised by those who cling to the "rapture" theory revolves around Matthew's statement: "Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come" (Matt. 24:40-42).

Does this scripture deal with Christ's coming in glory or His coming in judgment at probation's close? The context indicates judgment; rapturists say in glory. The key is found in Luke's report of this same teaching, which ends with a very significant question, "And they [the disciples] answered and said unto him, Where, Lord?" (Luke 17:37). The disciples were attempting to fill in the missing pieces of the prophetic puzzle. Jesus gives no word as to where the one group will be taken. The other group, it is assumed, will be left on earth to continue the work at the mill or in the field. The force of the question, "Where, Lord?" in the original language is "whither" or "in what direction?" It can be best applied only to the "taken" ones, and not to the ones that are left. The puzzling answer our Lord gives has been traditionally referred to the ones who are left: "Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles [vultures] be gathered together" (verse 37). But the disciples wish to know where the "taken" ones have gone. The answer points toward destruction, the vultures being a symbol of ominous doom. Could it be that the meaning of "taken" is "taken in a snare," a common Old Testament symbol of the work of judgment? (Jer. 48:43, 44; Eze. 12:13; 17:20; Amos 3:5). The only direct quotation in the Spirit of Prophecy of the passage, "the one shall be taken, and the other left," first applies the final fulfillment of these words to the Second Coming when the "complete separation" is made between the righteous and wicked (see Testimonies to Ministers, p. 234). The next paragraph makes a comparison of the wheat and tares and calls the work of separation "the time of the judgment." The tares are separated from the wheat, then the righteous gathered into the kingdom.

Close of Probation

Then follows the revealing statement: "They shall enter in through the gates into the city, and have right to the tree of life. The one shall be taken. His name shall stand in the book of life, while those with whom he associated shall have the mark of eternal separation from God." Ibid., pp. 234, 235. The separation takes place at the close of probation when the mark is placed on one and the seal on the other. It could be said that both groups are "taken," in a general sense.

The next paragraph speaks of those associated with the tares being "taken in the snare." The snare is the judgment. An animal is caught in a snare, but it may be days before it expires while the vultures soar above. The falling of the snare like the coming of the thief is the close of probation, but the final death is not for many days (see Fundamentals of Christian Education, pp. 335, 336, 354, 355). So in the last days the vultures are a symbol of the final destruction of the wicked whom the Lord "shall destroy with the brightness of his coming" (2 Thess. 2:8).

A pearl of truth is hidden within the saying, "the one is taken, the other is left." Below the surface meaning of both verbs are deeper, more specialized meanings that both point to the investigative judgment. Notice first the use of the word "taken" (paralambano in the Greek). Else where in the New Testament it is applied to the arrest of a person, "taken away for judgment" (John 19:16, and the Western reading of Acts 16:35). Outside the New Testament it is used to mean "take by force, seize, capture" in a variety of Greek literature.* One is taken by surprise, captured, and put under arrest as a result of the investigations of the divine judgment. Used for "Forgiveness"

Next we notice an even more significant meaning for the individual who is "left" (aphiemi in the Greek). As every student of the Greek knows, aphiemi has another very prevalent usage in the New Testament as well as the Septuagint, and that is the meaning "to forgive" (Ex. 32:32; Ps. 25:18; Isa. 55:7; Matt. 6:12-15; 12:31,32; Luke 5:20-24; 17:3,4, etc.). It is used a number of times for "forgiveness, pardon" by Matthew and Luke, and thus the judgment-day sayings can be interpreted, "the one is put under arrest, and the other is pardoned."

The sins of the last group are blotted out from the judgment records eternally, while the sins of the others are retained unalterably. Here one of the greatest events of all history and all eternity takes place. The close of probation and the sealing of all human destiny, an event never to be repeated, catches men by surprise like the thief in the night. The texts in Matthew and Luke, instead of adding fuel to the fires of rapturism, add bright rays to the glory of Adventism!

Picture the conditions on earth during that final moment when the books are closed in heaven, when all destinies are sealed. Men know it not. There is no loud peal of thunder to mark the time, no sound of celestial bells on earth, no darkening of the sun or rolling back of the sky, no roar of cannon or quaking of the earth. Nothing. Business continues as usual. "While the man of business is absorbed in the pursuit of gain, while the pleasure lover is seeking indulgence, while the daughter of fashion is arranging her adornments it may be in that hour the Judge of all the earth will pronounce the sentence: 'Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.'" —The Great Controversy, p. 491, cf. p. 38.

"Silently, unnoticed as the midnight thief, will come the decisive hour which marks the fixing of every man's destiny, the final withdrawal of mercy's offer to guilty men. 'Watch ye therefore: . . . lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.' " —Ibid., p. 491.

What a challenge to Seventh-day Adventists to arouse a sleeping world! What a message God has granted to us. Soon probation is to close and at any moment the thief could be silently stealing upon us. (See Fundamentals of Christian Education, pp. 354, 355; Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 129, The Desire of Ages, pp. 635, 636.)

Any who have had their home broken into while asleep and have awakened to hear the muffled sounds of the intruder know the element of surprise. There was no way to know in advance, and there is no last-minute opportunity to secure oneself and get one's house in order. Any who have had a very close friend or member of the family meet a sudden and tragic end can feel that desperation to know that probation's door for an individual, perhaps unprepared, has been closed and locked. If only more could have been done for him. If only the right words would have been said to him at the right time.

Multiply the close of probation's door a million times, subtract the tragedy of thousands of deaths, but add the eternal loss of thousands and millions for whom Christ died, who are yet alive but dead in their sins, and the sum total is a brief glimpse of the most terrifying moment for the unsaved and the most solemn moment for the saved ever faced in human history this side of the coming of Christ Himself. This is the coming of the thief. We know not the day nor the hour. "Watch therefore."

* Testament of Levi 17:4, 6, I Maccabees 15:30, Herodotus 7.211, Polybius 392.6.

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W. H. Johns is currently on study leave for graduate course work in geology at Michigan State University.

August 1976

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