‘Left Behind’ in Matt. 24 — Good or Bad?

In the midst of all the Rapture talk (read: ridicule) over the weekend, I thought it was interesting — even providential — that on Saturday night I came to Matthew 24 in my Bible reading. As you know, chapters 24-25 of Matthew comprise the Olivet Discourse during Christ’s Passion Week, in which Jesus teaches concerning the destruction of the temple, the close of the age, the abomination of desolation, and the final judgment.

By all accounts this is a tricky passage, with numerous points of easy misinterpretation, as we saw over the weekend. I’m starting to think that one of those places is Matthew 24:40-42, where Jesus is talking about the coming of the Son of Man:

Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

This has been an oft-used image to depict the abrupt and unexpected nature of Jesus’ second coming, what some would call the Rapture. It’s also, to my knowledge, the only place in the New Testament where the well-known words (thanks to Jerry Jenkins and Tim Lahaye) “left behind” are used.

The typical interpretation goes something like this: Two guys are working in the field when one gets raptured, and the guy left behind is left for judgment. Likewise two women are working at the mill, and one is taken while the other is left. So: you want to be the guy/girl taken away, because there’s judgment coming for the one left behind.

Except, there’s context here. Jesus prefaces his illustration of the two men and the two women in verses 40-42 with a little mention of “the days of Noah” in verses 37-39.

For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

What does this tell us? Clearly, Jesus is paralleling the two judgments — the judgment in the days of Noah, and the coming judgment from the Son of Man. Noah is of secondary importance here — the subject is the “they.” They were eating and drinking (v. 38), they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away” (v. 39). Who’s they? The judged, the ones who are swept away in judgment. The one who isn’t judged (Noah) isn’t really the point here; the ones who are judged are “swept away.”

Perhaps you could say they were taken. In fact, that’s exactly what Jesus says in vv. 40-42: one is taken away to be judged while one is left behind.

We want to be left behind.

As I thought about this passage, I was reminded of a post on Justin Taylor‘s blog last week about this exact issue. JT linked to Benjamin Merkle’s excellent article in Westminster Theological Journal, which I would encourage you to read here. Merkle’s thesis: “Although many assume that those taken in Matt 24:40-41 andLuke 17:34-35 are taken to be with Jesus and those left behind are left for judgment, this interpretation should be rejected.”

There are objections to Merkle’s interpretation, which he deals with pretty convincingly. In Matthew, some have connected Jesus’ “taken away” illustration with his comment in verse 31 that the Lord’s angels will “gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” They argue that those who are “taken” are the same people who the angels “gather.”

Except (and Merkle talks about this more extensively), the words for “gather” and “taken away” are different, which you can even observe in English. Moreover, the direct context is the preceding verses about Noah and the judgment of those “swept away,” which seems too explicit to get around.

Similarly, in the parallel passage*, Luke 17:20-37, Jesus mentions a few things that aren’t in the Matthean account (like Lot’s family leaving Sodom in addition to the Noah reference, etc.). After responding cryptically to the Pharisee’s question about the kingdom of God, Jesus speaks privately to the disciples about the coming judgment of the Son of Man, about which the Twelve ask, “Where, Lord?” (Lk. 17:37) and Jesus replies: “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”

It’s a little more complicated here than in the Matthew passage. Ostensibly, it seems that Jesus is indicating that Noah and Lot were rescued from the place of judgment, and those left behind are the ones who are judged.

But there is a crucial distinction, as Merkle observes, between the Noah/Lot story and the two men/two women illustration in the Luke passage. In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus uses the language of God actively taking one of the two men/women away.

But Noah and Lot aren’t taken away; they flee. This corresponds with verse 31, right at the center of the passage, where Jesus says “let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back.”

Why? Because just like in the days of Noah and Lot, judgment is coming, and you should flee. And it’s going to be sudden, too: for two people will be going about their daily business (indicating the absolute unexpected nature of this judgment, like “a thief in the night”) and one will be abruptly taken. The disciple’s question “Where, Lord?” could refer to where the judgment will occur, but it seems more likely that it means, “to where will they be taken?” If that’s the case, Jesus’ answer certainly doesn’t indicate a rapture “to a better place” or anything, but instead gruesome judgment.

I’m not sure what the implications for our theology of the Rapture are. I’m not sure what I think about most of that. But certainly, a couple things are pretty transparent:

(1) We ought to be careful how we read the Bible. I’ve always assumed the people left behind were left for judgment, and a careless reading might have encouraged that interpretation. We should actively question our assumptions, weighing them carefully with the text to see if they’re legitimate. I’m convinced the reference to Noah and the Flood here makes the typical Rapture interpretation unlikely.

(2) In verse 36 of the Matthew passage, Jesus says: “But concerning the day and our no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” Now, there’s some debate as to whether “nor the Son” should be included because it’s omitted in a few manuscripts, but I think the point is the same: the Father has appointed a time for the Son’s return and date we pinpoint is either speculation or overt false teaching (I think Harold Camping, considering his teaching that the Church should disband on account of apostasy, probably fits into the latter category).

(3) What we believe about the Last Days matters. I’ve observed that (either because it’s too complicated or so many teach wrongly about it) eschatology has taken the back seat in evangelical theological thinking. In a sense, this is a good thing: it’s not as critical as our belief about Jesus and the Gospel, nor as central as our conviction that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone through the propitiatory and atoning sacrifice of Christ alone and His righteousness imputed to us through union in Him.

But the promise of Jesus’ return is not a peripheral issue. Matthew devoted two chapters of his Gospel to Jesus’ teaching on the Last Days, Paul and Peter both wrote at length about Christ’s imminent return, and then of course we have the whole book of Revelation.

Eschatology matters, and instead of avoiding all discussion because there are so many interpretations, we should discuss the specifics Christ’s return with brothers and sisters, studying the Scripture deeply, rooting our conversation in the text itself and constantly evaluating our opinions and suppositions against the Word.

Even more, we should “encourage one another with these words” (I Thess. 4:18) about Christ’s promised return and resurrection of our bodies, all the while looking heavenward and praying “Even so come, Lord Jesus.”

*Except it can’t be a direct parallel, since in Matthew Jesus is teaching his disciples on the Mount of Olives on Tuesday of Passion Week, while in Luke Jesus is speaking with the Pharisees then his disciples probably somewhere between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem (cf. Luke 17:11) at least several days before the Triumphal Entry. There are probably different ways to explain this apparent discrepancy, but it’s clear that these are two seperate events and Jesus probably just uses the same illustration a couple different times.

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2 thoughts on “‘Left Behind’ in Matt. 24 — Good or Bad?

  1. Fascinating thoughts. I’d never thought about it like that before, but it makes sense. I must say, however, that it doesn’t much matter whether we think we’ll be taken or left; as long as we’re believers God can make that call, and I’m glad I don’t have to understand every little thing!

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