by Dr. Andy Woods
Did Jesus ever refer to the rapture? When this question is asked, the following passage usually comes to mind: Matthew 24:40-41. The purpose of this article is to show that although Christ did refer to the rapture elsewhere (John 14:1-4), he did not refer to the rapture in Matthew 24:40-41. He did refer to the rapture in John 14:1-4. Thus, this article represents an examination of Matthew 24:40-41 as a potential rapture passage and seeks to dissuade readers from connecting Christ’s statement in Matthew 24:40-41 to the rapture. This goal will be accomplished through an examination of the role of the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24‒25) in Matthew’s overall argument, through an examination of the textual details within and surrounding Matthew 24:40-41, and by noting the inadequacy of the arguments for a rapture interpretation of Matthew 24:40-41.
Matthew 24:40-41 says, “Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left.” It is common for popular prophecy writers to assign rapture significance to these verses.1 A popular 1970’s Christian song by Larry Norman similarly interpreted these verses as pertaining to the rapture: “A man and wife asleep in bed. She hears a noise and turns her head, he’s gone. I wish we’d all been ready. Two men walking up a hill. One disappears and one’s left standing still. I wish we’d all been ready.” However, a close examination of the passage demonstrates that it is unlikely that it is referring to the rapture.
Matthew’s Argument and the Olivet Discourse
In order to understand how the Olivet Discourse functions literarily in Matthew’s Gospel, it is necessary to comprehend Matthew’s Hebrew-Christian audience, purpose and argument, structure, and reason for including the Olivet Discourse.
Matthew’s Jewish-Christian Audience
Understanding the role of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew’s overall argument weakens the notion of attaching rapture significance to Matthew 24:40-41. Although no specific target audience is mentioned, various clues make it apparent that Matthew had a believing Jewish audience in mind.2 The Jewish nature of the book is apparent by noting several factors. First, the book contains a disproportionate number of Old Testament citations and allusions. Of the book’s 129 Old Testament references, 53 are direct citations and 76 are allusions. On thirteen occasions, Christ’s actions are said to be a fulfillment of the Old Testament. Second, the book follows a fivefold division. The five major sermons of the book are delineated through the repetition of the concluding formula “when He had finished saying these things” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). This fivefold structure would have immediately been recognizable to the Jewish mind since Jews had a tendency to categorize items, such as the Book of Psalms and the Pentateuch, according to a fivefold division. Third, although originally written in Greek, the book evidences a Hebraistic style, parallelism, and elaboration.
Fourth, tote (“then” or “at that time”) reflects a Jewish style. While this term is employed ninety times in Matthew, it is only used six times in Mark, fourteen times in Luke, and ten times in John. Fifth, the vocabulary of the book is distinctly Jewish. The following Jewish terms are found in the book: David, Jerusalem as the Holy City (4:5; 27:53), city of the great king (5:35), lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:6; 15:24), kingdom of God, and kingdom of heaven.3 Sixth, the subject matter of the topics covered is distinctly Jewish. Among the topics covered are the Law, ceremonial defilements, Sabbath, kingdom, Jerusalem, temple, Messiah, prophecy, prophets, David, Abram, Moses, scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees.
Seventh, Matthew’s genealogy (Matt. 1:1-18) reveals a Jewish audience. Matthew traces Christ’s lineage back to David and Abraham rather than back to Adam, as does Luke’s Gentile-focused Gospel (Luke 3:23-38). Eighth, Matthew places a special focus upon the Apostle Peter. Because Peter was the apostle to the circumcised (Gal. 2:7-8), Matthew’s focus on Peter harmonizes with the Jewish emphasis of his book. Ninth, unlike the other Gospels that explain Jewish customs to Gentile audiences, Matthew leaves these same Jewish customs unexplained. This is true not only with regard to Jewish rulers (Matt. 2:1, 22; 14:1; Luke 2:1-2; 3:1-2) but it is also true with regard to ceremonial cleansing (Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:3-4). The customs that Matthew does explain are of Roman rather than Jewish origin (Matt. 27:15). Although some of Matthew’s writings seem to anticipate at least some kind of Gentile audience by giving the interpretation of some Jewish words (1:23; 27:33, 46), it does seem to be a general rule that Matthew provides fewer interpretations of Jewish customs than does any other Gospel writer.
Tenth, various church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen, and Eusebius believed that Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience. Not only was Matthew written to a Jewish audience but to a believing audience as well. In other words, Matthew’s audience primarily consisted of Jewish Christians. Both Eusebius4 and Origen5 indicated that Matthew was written to those within Judaism who came to believe.
Matthew’s Purpose and Argument
Matthew wrote in order to accomplish three purposes.6 First, he wrote to convince his Jewish audience that the Christ in whom they had believed was indeed the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. Thus, Matthew shows that Christ was the rightful heir to the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants. Matthew appeals to a variety of literary devices to accomplish this purpose such as genealogies, fulfilled prophecy, messianic titles, kingdom teachings, and miracles. Because the Jewish understanding was that the kingdom would be immediately established upon the arrival of the king (Isa. 9:6-7; Matt. 20:20-21), the next logical question that a Jew would ask is, “if Christ is indeed the Jewish king then where is His kingdom?”
Thus, Matthew wrote for the second purpose of explaining why the kingdom had been postponed despite the fact that the king had already arrived. In order to accomplish this purpose, Matthew carefully traces the kingdom program. Here Matthew explains the kingdom’s offer to the nation (3:2; 4:17; 10:5-7; 15:24), its rejection by the nation (11–12; 21–23; 26–27), the present interim program for those who will inherit the kingdom (sons of the kingdom) due to Israel’s rejection of the kingdom (13; 16:18), and the nation’s eventual acceptance of the kingdom (23:38-39; 24:14, 31; 25:31). The notion of a past rejection and future acceptance of the kingdom by national Israel would lead to the question, “what is God doing in the present?”
Thus, Matthew wrote for the third purpose of explaining God’s interim program. Here, Matthew introduces the interim program that the sons of the kingdom will experience (Matt. 13), as well as the advent of the church (Matt. 16:18; 18:17; 28:18-20). The Church Age represents God’s present earthly program between Israel’s past rejection and future acceptance of the King and His kingdom. Since Christ’s disciples would play foundational roles in the church (Eph. 2:20), Matthew explains how Christ prepared them not only for His death but also for their new role in the Church Age.
At the time of writing, the Gentiles were becoming more prominent in the church (Acts 13:48). The Jewish believers needed an explanation for this Gentile inclusion. Thus, Matthew explains how God’s interim program would thrust the Gentiles into prominence (2:1-12; 8:11-12; 13:38; 15:22-28). In sum, Matthew selectively (John 20:30-31; 21:25) includes material from Christ’s life in order to accomplish these purposes. Therefore, the message of Matthew is the confirmation to Jewish Christians that Jesus is their predicted king who ushered in an interim program by building the sons of the kingdom into the church in between Israel’s past rejection and future acceptance of her King.
In addition to this overarching purpose, Matthew wrote to accomplish three sub-purposes. First, Matthew wanted to confirm the Jewish Christians in their faith. He wanted them to understand that the Jesus in whom they had believed was indeed the Jewish king. This was true in spite of the fact that the kingdom had not immediately materialized according to their expectations and instead God’s program had taken a new direction. Second, Matthew wrote to offer the believing Jews an explanation regarding Gentile inclusion in God’s present program. This was an explanation that the believing Jews desperately needed since the church was on the verge of becoming predominately Gentile through the advent of Paul’s three missionary journeys launched from Syrian Antioch. Thus, Matthew wrote his Gospel from this very locale for the purpose of assisting the church through this delicate transition. Third, Matthew wanted to encourage the Jewish Christians. Thus, he explained that although Israel had rejected her king, God was going to use this negative act for the positive purpose of including the Gentiles. He was also going to restore the kingdom to Israel in the future.
A major structural clue in Matthew’s Gospel is the repetition of the concluding phrase “when He had finished saying these things” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). This formula alerts the reader to the book’s five major discourses. Each discourse concludes with this phrase. Thus, the five major discourses include the Sermon on the Mount (5–7), the missionary discourse (10), the kingdom parables (13), the discourse on humility (18), and the Olivet Discourse (24–25).7
In order to explain to his Jewish-Christian audience how Christ can be the Jewish king and yet at the same time the Jewish kingdom is absent and the Gentiles are prominent in the mystery age, Matthew develops a well-organized argument. First, he establishes Christ’s messianic identity and traces Christ’s offer of the kingdom to Israel (1–10). Second, he shows the nation’s rejection of this offer (11–12; 20:29–23:39). Third, he explains God’s inclusion of the Gentiles in the mystery age during the kingdom’s absence and postponement (13:1–20:28). Matthew then develops the final part of his argument. Although the kingdom has been postponed in the present, it will be re-offered to and accepted by the nation in the future. Although he has alluded to this restoration earlier (17:1-13; 19:28; 20:20-28), Matthew most clearly develops the idea of the kingdom’s restoration to Israel in his fifth and final discourse section known as the Olivet Discourse (24–25).8 Matthew’s Jewish audience would have been familiar with Old Testament Scripture predicting Israel’s conversion as a result of the Great Tribulation (Jer. 30:7; Dan. 9:24-27). The Olivet Discourse is simply an amplification of these prophecies (24:15). Matthew includes this final phase of his argument in order to give his Jewish readers hope that present Gentile prominence in the mystery age does not mean that God has forsaken His covenant promises to His chosen nation.
Emphasis of the Olivet Discourse
Matthew’s emphasis upon Israel’s restoration in the Olivet Discourse grows out of the final verses of the previous chapter (23:37-39). There, Christ expressed His desire to gather (episynagō) Israel. However, the nation had rejected the kingdom offer. Christ promises that the time would come when the nation would acknowledge Him as the Messiah by chanting a messianic Psalm (Ps. 118:26; Matt. 21:9) thereby allowing Christ to return and re-gather (episynagō) His nation (23:39). Thus, the Olivet Discourse furnishes the circumstances through which Israel’s restoration and final regathering will be achieved (24:31).
If the Olivet Discourse is a natural extension of Christ’s promise to restore the nation in the future, interpreters should not be surprised to discover the Jewish nature of this discourse. After all, Christ’s promise of restoration at the end of Matthew 23 was given exclusively to Israel. Christ makes this clear through the twofold repetition of the word “Jerusalem” in Matt 23:37a. Moreover, various Jewish references, such as the destruction of the second temple (24:1-2), the offer of the kingdom (24:14), Daniel’s prophecy of the Seventy Weeks (24:15), the holy place (24:15), the desecration of the temple (24:15; Dan 11:31), the flight into the Judean wilderness (24:16), the Sabbath (24:20), the elect (24:22), the Messiah (24:23-24), and the Davidic Throne (25:31), found throughout the discourse make it clear that the Olivet Discourse primarily concerns Israel.9 Moreover, throughout the Olivet Discourse, Christ consistently refers to Himself as the Son of Man (Matt. 24:30, 36-37, 39), which is a title reminiscent of His special relationship with Israel (Dan. 7:13) rather than the church. In sum, the Olivet Discourse plays a critical role in Matthew’s overall presentation to his Jewish-Christian audience. As explained, his inclusion of the Olivet Discourse is designed to give his readers hope of a future Jewish kingdom. Such a theme should have a bearing upon how Matthew 24:40-41 is interpreted. Rather than understanding these verses as relating to Church Age truth, such as the rapture, it is better to understand them against the backdrop of the Tribulation judgment leading to Israel’s restoration.
Textual Details Within and Surrounding
Not only does Matthew’s overall argument mitigate understanding Matthew 24:40-41 as the rapture, but the details of the text within and surrounding Matthew 24:40-41 also weaken a rapture interpretation of these verses. Such details include the passage’s connection with Noah’s day, the order of the other Matthean judgments, and the Lukan parallel passage.
The Connection to Noah’s Day
The context of Matthew 24:40-41 relates directly to what transpired in Noah’s day, which is described in the immediately preceding verses (Matt. 24:37-39). These earlier verses say, “For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the Flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:37-39). These verses are then followed by verses 40-41, which say, “Then [tote] there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left.” The connective tote, which begins verse 40 links verses 40-41 with verses 37-39. Because of this connective, if we can understand who was taken in Noah’s day, it will help us understand who will be taken in verses 40-41.
When verse 39 says, “the flood came and took them all away,” it is a reference to the unbelievers who did not enter the Ark and consequently were taken away by the Flood. While the unbelievers of Noah’s day were taken away in judgment, Noah was preserved from being swept away in judgment thereby allowing him to enter the next dispensation of Human Government. Thus, by way of analogy, the man taken from the field and the woman taken from grinding at the mill (vv. 40-41) are unbelievers being taken away into judgment at the Lord’s return. While the unbelievers will be taken away in judgment, the believers will be left behind thereby allowing them to enter the next dispensation of the millennial kingdom. Such an order is the exact opposite of the rapture, which will take believers away into eternal bliss and leave the unbelievers behind upon the earth to experience divine judgment (1 Thess. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:50-58). Thus, the more verses 40-41 are connected with the events of Noah’s day as depicted in the same context, the less probable it is to ascribe to verses 40-41 a rapture interpretation.
This view that Matthew 24:40-41 refers to judgment at the Second Advent rather than the rapture is held by numerous credible Bible interpreters. Walvoord notes:
According to Matthew 24:40-41, “Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left.” Because at the rapture, believers will be taken out of the world, some have confused this with the rapture of the church. Here, however, the situation is the reverse. The one who is left, is left to enter the kingdom; the one who is taken, is taken in judgment. This is in keeping with the illustration of the time of Noah when the ones taken away are the unbelievers.10
Feinberg also explains:
It will be a taking away judicially and in judgment. The ones left will enjoy the blessings of Christ’s reign on earth, just as Noah and his family were left to continue on earth. This is the opposite of the rapture, where those who are left go into the judgment of the Great Tribulation.11
Jesus was not referring to the Rapture of the church in Matthew 24. When that event takes place, all the saved will be removed from the earth to meet Christ in the air, and all the unsaved will be left on the earth. Thus, the rapture will occur in reverse of the order of things in the days of Noah and, therefore, the reverse of the order at Jesus’ coming immediately after the Great Tribulation.12
Toussaint similarly notes, “Since it is parallel in thought with those who were taken in the judgment of the flood, it is best to refer the verb to those who are taken for judgment preceding the establishment of the kingdom.”13
Order of the Other Matthean Judgments
Matthew’s description of the flood of Noah’s day, which depicts the unbelievers being taken in judgment while the believers are left behind to enter the new dispensation, is by no means an isolated case. All of the Matthean judgments follow the same pattern. For example, in the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24-30), it is the tares or the unbelievers that are first gathered to be burned (Matt. 13:30a, 41-42). Then the wheat or the saved are left behind to enter the kingdom (Matt. 13:30b, 43). Moreover, in the parable of the dragnet (Matt. 13:47-50), it is the bad fish or the unbelievers that are first gathered to be thrown away (Matt. 13:48b, 49-50). Then the good fish, or the saved, are left behind to enter the kingdom (Matt. 13:48a). In addition, in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46), it is the goats, or the unbelievers, that are first cast off the earth into judgment (Matt. 25:41-46). Then the sheep, or the saved, are left behind to enter the kingdom (Matt. 25:34-40). Matthew’s consistent pattern of judgment found throughout his book is that the unsaved are taken into judgment while the saved are left behind to enter into the kingdom. Thus, the same order of events is likely in view in Matt. 24:40-41. Such an order would contradict the order of the rapture where the exact opposite chronology will transpire.
The Lukan Parallel Passage
Luke 17:26-37 offers the parallel passage to Matthew 24:40-41:
And just as it happened in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: they were eating, they were drinking, they were marrying, they were being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. It was the same as happened in the days of Lot: they were eating, they were drinking, they were buying, they were selling, they were planting, they were building; but on the day that Lot went out from Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just the same on the day that the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, the one who is on the housetop and whose goods are in the house must not go down to take them out; and likewise the one who is in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other will be left. There will be two women grinding at the same place; one will be taken and the other will be left. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other will be left.” And answering they said to Him, “Where, Lord?” And He said to them, “Where the body is, there also the vultures will be gathered.”
In addition to Matthew’s description of one man taken from the field and the woman taken away from grinding, Luke adds the one taken from the bed and the other left. Luke also records the disciples’ question “Where, Lord?” (Luke 17:37a). This inquiry relates to the locale to where those taken will go since Christ made it clear that those not taken will be left upon the earth. Christ answers, “Where the body is, there also the vultures will be gathered” (Luke 17:37b). “Vultures” refers to those birds of prey that gorge on the flesh of corpses.14 Such imagery connotes judgment where the birds of prey will feast upon carcasses of the deceased (Ezek. 39:4-5, 17-18; Matt. 24:28; Rev. 19:17-18, 21). By using such imagery, Christ explains that those taken in Luke 17:34-36 are those taken into destruction and judgment. Of course, the rapture involves the opposite. At the rapture, those taken are taken into glory rather than judgment. Thus, the Lukan parallel passage with its emphasis upon being taken into judgment substantially weakens the rapture interpretation of Matthew 24:40-41.15 In sum, the connection with Noah’s day, the consistent order of the other Matthean judgments and the Lukan parallel passage all negate a rapture interpretation of Matthew 24:40-41. ■
1. Dave Hunt, How Close Are We? Compelling Evidence for the Soon Return of Christ (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1993), 210-11.
2. Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew (Portland: Multnomah, 1980; reprint, Grand Rapids, Kregel, 2005), 15-18.
3. Interestingly, “kingdom of heaven” appears thirty-one times (3:2; 4:17; 5:3, 10, 19, 20; 7:21; 8:11; 10:7; 11:11, 12; 13:11, 24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47, 52; 16:19; 18:1, 3, 4, 23; 19:14, 23; 20:1; 22:2; 23:13; 25:1) and “kingdom of God” (6:33; 12:28; 19:24; 21:31; 21:43) appears only five times. These terms are synonymous (Matt. 19:23-24). However, the multiple references to the former and the scant references to the latter also reflect a common Jewish reluctance of mentioning God’s name directly.
4. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.24.6.
5. Ibid., 6.25.4.
6. Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew, 18-20.
7. Ibid., 24-25.
8. Ibid., 265-66.
9. Ibid., 277; Renald Showers, Maranatha Our Lord, Come!: A Definitive Study of the Rapture of the Church (Bellmawr, NJ: Friends of Isrel, 1995), 184.
10. John F. Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come (Chicago: Moody, 1974), 193.
11. Charles L. Feinberg, Israel in the Last Days: The Olivet Discourse (Altadena, CA: Emeth, 1953), 27.
12. Showers, Maranatha Our Lord, Come!: A Definitive Study of the Rapture of the Church, 180.
13. Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew, 281.
14. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., ed. Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 22, 382.
15. Showers, Maranatha Our Lord, Come!: A Definitive Study of the Rapture of the Church, 184-86.
Part 2 in the next edition of the GFJ (Summer 2017) will address the inadequacy of arguments used by some to claim that the Rapture is described in Matthew 24:40-41.
Dr. Andy Woods is the Senior Pastor of Sugar Land Bible Church in Sugar Land, TX, and President of Chafer Theological Seminary. He is also a well-regarded conference speaker, author, and contributor to a number of journals and books.