MATTHEW 24: WHAT ABOUT THE RAPTURE?
READING MATTHEW 24
I had a football coach in sixth grade, the father of our quarterback, and I was the center. Coach Campbell said hundreds of times over the course of our season, "When you least expect it, expect it."
That's what Jesus is saying to his disciples about the end times.
The problem with understanding the end times is that when we read the Bible, their "end times" can refer to events that were coming for them but now in the past for us.
One of the key hinge texts that my explanation below hangs on is Matthew 24:34: "All these things will happen during this generation."
Every Bible text has a context, otherwise it's pretext, which is defined as "a reason given in justification of a course of action that is not the real reason." Matthew 24 is one of those often-used pretexts used to prove certain views about the end times.
No doubt there are some things about to end! The earth is about to end its longing to reverse the curse of sin and bloodshed by the blood of Jesus who gives his life as a ransom for the world. The curse is about to end, and the birth of the kingdom of God is beginning. But birth pains are inevitable!
The disciples can tell things are heating up. Jesus is condemning Jewish leaders, the disciples can tell this makes them pretty angry. Matthew tells us some of the Jewish leaders are plotting to kill Jesus.
So anything said here by Jesus is in the context of the real and certain death of Jesus and the fear of the disciples, and Jesus is speaking in Matthew 24 to them, first. He's moved from telling them the bad news about his death to now telling them the bad news about their own deaths!
Don't count on teachings of this chapter that speak of wars and events today without referring first to what Jesus was saying to the disciples. Jesus words can also refer to events to come in our future, but it's important we understand what they first meant when he said them to his disciples.
People get pretty confused reading Matthew 24. Some develop a whole doctrine of what's called "the rapture," being taken away, on verses like Matthew 24:41-44: "one will be taken and one will be left." Ben Witherington makes the point that the context is Jesus speaking about the days of Noah, and the people "taken away" were the evil doers, and Noah and his family were "left behind."
So, what you read in Matthew 24 and in the following play by play, with a little color commentary, keep in mind is about what Jesus is preparing his disciples for in their lifetimes, because, and I want to repeat, Jesus says in Matthew 24:34, "all these things will happen during this generation."
The disciples point out how beautiful the temple is (24:1). This is a set up! Why would Matthew begin this episode of Jesus and his disciples exiting the temple courts with such a non-event. Saying what the disciples said was probably as common as people approaching the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. and saying, "Wow, isn't it beautiful?! Look at that, would you?"
Why would Matthew begin with such a story? Because what is to follow is about the destruction of the temple. We don't know the exact date of the writing of Matthew, but it could have been written after A.D. 70, after the temple was destroyed. This would have made as much sense to disciples of Jesus reading Matthew's Gospel account as references to "terrorism" and "9/11" would make to us reading this blog today!
Jesus says it's all coming down, destroyed. This is a big deal (24:2).
So the disciples wanted to know when all these terrible things are going to happen (24:3).
Jesus emphasizes for the disciples to be careful not to misinterpret wars and upheavals, but within their lifetimes would come the beginning of the birth pains.
Color Commentary: I had a bedside ticket to watch the births of each of my three children. For a full two years of my wife's life, she was pregnant and expecting the coming of pain and joy. Occasionally, like many women, she would have false labor pains. By the way, why do women persist in naming these after a 19th century English male doctor named John Braxton Hicks rather than just calling them "false labor"? It doesn't take a male to tell women giving birth to babies for millennium that sometimes there's pain weeks or months leading up to the birth of their babies!
Jesus is delivering really bad news. Some of the early stuff, rumors of wars, famines. These will pale in comparison to what's coming. False prophets will appear and fool many people, but don't be fooled by any of this. People will hate you because of me, Jesus says, and they will hand you over for torture and murder you.
This is terrible news for the disciples!
Watch this video about Herod's temple to get an idea of the temple Jesus knew when he was in Jerusalem.
One of the problems of these apocalyptic texts is not only figuring out how to interpret them, but because we're trying so hard, we miss the very important very basic things Jesus says: False prophets will come. Don't be fooled like many people will be. Then in Matthew 24:13 he says, "But the person who endures until the end will be saved. This Good News about the kingdom will be proclaimed in the whole world, so that all nations may hear the truth. And then the end will come."
Some believe Matthew 24:14 is the evangelistic mandate to take the gospel of Jesus to the whole world to prompt the end, and that the world will not end until we accomplish that task. This is a great promotion for missions, but Jesus also says in verse 36, no one knows when the exact time will be. Jesus will (Matthew 28:18-20) make it clear disciples are called to go into all the world, but I would hold rather lightly the cause and effect notion that somehow Christians can bring the world to an end by our actions. That's not a concept put forward anywhere else in the Bible, so we need to be careful here.
I want to finish with an important quote from N.T. Wright's Matthew for Everyone:
All this is spoken to Jesus’ disciples so they will know when the cataclysmic events are going to happen. Watch for the leaves on the tree, and you can tell it’s nearly summer. Watch for these events, and you’ll know that the great event, the destruction of the Temple and Jesus’ complete vindication, are just around the corner. And be sure of this, says Jesus (and Matthew wants to underline this): it will happen within a generation. That is an extra important reason why everything that has been said in the passage so far must be taken to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and the events that surround it. Only when we appreciate how significant that moment was for everything Jesus had said and done will we understand what Jesus himself stood for.
But remember the composer and the music. In the long purposes of God, we who read passages like this many centuries later may find that what was said as a single statement, one short piece of music, can then be played as a string of separate parts, one after the other. I see no reason why, once we are quite clear about its original meaning, we should not then see the chapter as a pointer to other events, to the time we still await when God will complete what he began in the first century, and bring the whole created order, as Paul promised in Romans 8, to share the liberty of the glory of God’s children. As we look back to the first century, we should also look on to God’s still-promised future, and thank him that Jesus is already enthroned as Lord of all time and history.
You can read the passage in either of these ways, or both. Often the voice of God can be heard in scripture even in ways the original writers hadn’t imagined – though you need to retain, as the control, a clear sense of what they did mean, in case you make scripture ‘prove’ all kinds of things which it certainly doesn’t. It is vital, therefore, to read the passage as it would have been heard by Matthew’s first audience. And there, it seems, we are back to the great crisis that was going to sweep over Jerusalem and its surrounding countryside at a date that was, to them, in the unknown future – though we now know it happened in AD 70, at the climax of the war between Rome and Judaea. Something was going to happen which would devastate lives, families, whole communities: something that was both a terrible, frightening event and also, at the same time, the event that was to be seen as ‘the coming of the son of man’ or the parousia, the ‘royal appearing’ of Jesus himself. And the whole passage indicates what this will be. It will be the swift and sudden sequence of events that will end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
The point this passage makes comes in three stages: First, nobody knows exactly when this will be; only that it will be within a generation (verse 34). Second, life will go on as normal right up to the last minute. That’s the point of the parallel with the time of Noah. Until the flood came to sweep everything away (is Matthew remembering 7.26–27?), ordinary life was carrying on with nothing unusual. Third, it will divide families and work colleagues down the middle. ‘One will be taken and one left’; this doesn’t mean (as some have suggested) that one person will be ‘taken’ away by God in some kind of supernatural salvation, while the other is ‘left’ to face destruction. If anything, it’s the opposite: when invading forces sweep through a town or village, they will ‘take’ some off to their deaths, and ‘leave’ others untouched. The result – and this is the point Jesus is most anxious to get across to his disciples, who by this stage must have been quite puzzled as to where it was all going – is that his followers must stay awake, like people who know there are going to be surprise visitors coming sooner or later but who don’t know exactly when. What this means in detail, the next passage will explain. The warning was primarily directed to the situation of dire emergency in the first century, after Jesus’ death and resurrection and before his words about the Temple came true. But they ring through subsequent centuries, and into our own day. We too live in turbulent and dangerous times. Who knows what will happen next week, next year? It’s up to each church, and each individual Christian, to answer the question: are you ready? Are you awake?
Wright, N.T.. Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (The New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 127-128). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Dr. N.T. Wright talks about the New Heaven and New Earth.
Dr. Ben Witherington talks about the rapture.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.