Who those left behind when Jesus’ returns may actually be.
By Dick Lentz
(All Scriptures cited come from the NIV2011 version of the Bible)
In a previous article titled “Jesus’ Return Will Be Visible to Everyone,” I discussed the importance of interpreting Jesus’ discourse about the end times in Matthew 24:1-30 and Luke 21:5-28 in light of the two questions His disciples were asking at that time: “When will the temple be destroyed?” and “What will be the signs of your coming?” I asserted that since the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. that this was most likely when the prophecies regarding the destruction of the temple in these passages as well as the one in Daniel 9:25-27 were fulfilled. I also pointed out that Jesus said that His return – His second coming – will be visible to everyone and that all will mourn when they see Him coming in the clouds (Matthew 24:30).
In this article I will provide support for my conclusion that Jesus’ return will be followed by immediate, permanent, and dire consequences for those unprepared for it, and that the “taken” when this happens will be those who do not have a saving relationship with Jesus.
One is taken and one is left
36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left” (Matthew 24:36-41).
The first thing to note about the above passage is that it begins with the words, “about that day.” I believe that the “day” it is referring to is the day when Jesus returns – the day when “all the peoples of the earth … see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 24:30). What follows is what I believe are some symbolic representations of this event and what will happen immediately afterwards.
Portions of the above passage are often used to support the belief that when Jesus returns that He will remove all believers from the face of the earth and will leave behind those who don’t believe in Him. This event is commonly referred to as the “Rapture of the Church.” Those who hold to this view often associate believers with the “taken” in the above passage and say that those who are “left” or “left behind” are unbelievers. They then claim that what follows the “Rapture of the Church” will be seven years of tribulation ending with another return of Jesus – another “second coming.”
One of the difficulties I have with the above understanding of this passage is that it requires two second-comings of Jesus: one that is unseen by those “left behind” and another seven years later. But as I noted earlier, it seems clear when reading Matthew 24:30 as well Luke 21:27 that when Jesus returns that everyone will see Him coming in the clouds; it will not be a secret nor will it will be hidden from anyone. If this is so, then either the above passage is referring to the final “second coming” of Jesus or there is only one “second coming” and the verses above as well as the ones that follow are describing what will happen at that time.
A key question about Matthew 24:36-41 is therefore who are the ones “taken” and who are those that are “left.” It should be noted that the word “taken” can have two different meanings in this respect. It can mean to be taken away – to be taken somewhere else. But it can also mean to lose something – to lose one’s life for example. We use the latter meaning when someone dies and we say that they were taken from us or that their life was taken from them.
It’s interesting when trying to understand who the “taken” are in the above passage to note how Luke records the same discourse. Here’s his version:
26 “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. 27 Then the flood came and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:26-27).
While Matthew said that the “flood came and took them all away” (Matt. 24:39), Luke said that “the flood came and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:27). It would not be unreasonable to conclude based on comparing the two versions that to be “taken” means to be “destroyed” and that therefore those who are “taken” in Matthew’s account are unbelievers – those who are not followers of Jesus.
Additional support for the conclusion that those “taken” are unbelievers and the ones “left” or “left behind” are followers of Christ comes from noting Jesus’ use of pronouns when referring to those taken. Jesus said that in the days before the flood that “people were eating and drinking … up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away” (Matt. 24:38-39). Note that the only “they” in these verses are the “people” who were eating and drinking in the days of Noah. Noah is an individual and the passage doesn’t say that he was taken away; it says that they were taken away. Although some have tried to reconcile this by noting that Noah’s family also entered the ark and that this could be the “they” the passage is referring to, this insertion of Noah’s family into the passage is arbitrary and is not supported by the text.
Although I believe that the above arguments are adequate to support the conclusion that the “taken” in Matthew 24:36-41 are unbelievers and that those “left” or “left behind” are Christians, the parables that follow provide additional support that those “taken” are unbelievers and not Christians and that therefore being among those “taken” is not a good thing.
Some Principles for Interpreting Parables
What follows Matthew 24:36-41 are five parables that describe in symbolic language what will happen when Jesus returns. The first is the parable of the thief (Matthew 24:42-44); the second is the parable of the unfaithful servant (Matthew 24:45-51); the third is the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13); the fourth is the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30); the fifth is the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46).
One principle I use when I see parables grouped in this fashion is to look for what is similar in each and to discount what is not. As I do this, I try not to get so bogged down in the details of the parables that I miss the point the speaker was trying to make. The message in this respect is not found so much in the events described but in the what point is being conveyed through them. I look for what’s common in the parables and use this to help me determine what their combined message may be.
Here are the common elements I’ve found in these five parables:
- Each describes some event that happens unexpectedly or without notice.
- Each describes a measure that is used to determine the fate of those affected by it.
- Each states or implies what happens to those unprepared for the event.
- Each states or implies what happens to those prepared for it.
In the sections that follow, I will point out how each of the above elements are in evidence in these five parables.
The Parable of the Thief
42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matthew 24:42-44).
This parable compares the return of Jesus to a thief coming in the night. What’s interesting is that this picture of Jesus coming as a thief shows up elsewhere in Scripture including in 1 Thessalonians 5:2-4, 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 3:3, and Revelation 16:15. In a future article, I intend to note how looking for where the same symbols (like the thief) show up in different passages can help us understand which ones may be describing the same event. For now I’ll just point out what parts of this parable align with the common elements described earlier:
- The Event: A thief comes in the night. No-one knows when he is coming.
- The Measure: Keeping watch; being ready.
- Those Unprepared: Their house is broken into. What’s implied is that something of value is taken from them.
- Those Prepared: Unknown. What’s implied is that their house is not broken into and they lose nothing.
The Parable of the Unfaithful Servant
45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 24:42-51).
This parable describes what happens to a servant who is entrusted with his master’s household while the master is away. Here is what aligns with the common elements described earlier:
- The Event: A master who put his household in charge of a servant returns unexpectedly after a long absence.
- The Measure: How the servant treated his fellow servants while his master was absent.
- Those Unprepared: Cut to pieces and assigned a place “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- Those Prepared: Put in charge of all of his master’s possessions.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins
1 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ 7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ 12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Matthew 25:1-13).
This parable begins with the words, “At that time.” I believe that these words were included to make sure the reader knows it is linked to the event Jesus was referring to in Matthew 24:30 – the time when He returns. In this parable, ten virgins are waiting with lamps for the coming of a bridegroom so that they can attend his wedding banquet. Some have insufficient oil for their lamps and while shopping for more, the bridegroom arrives. Here are the portions of this parable that align with the common elements of the others:
- The Event: A bridegroom who was “a long time in coming” shows up without notice.
- The Measure: To be ready for his return by having enough oil for their lamps.
- Those Unprepared: They were shut out of the wedding banquet and disowned.
- Those Prepared: They were welcomed into to the wedding banquet.
I want to add one other observation about this parable before I move onto the next. I noted earlier that when interpreting parables that are grouped like this that I look for what’s common and discount what is not. Since this is the only parable in this group that mentions a wedding, the fact that it does so is not important. In my opinion, it is not describing anything that has to do with what some call the “marriage supper of the Lamb” or the “marriage of the Lamb to His bride.” The message Jesus was trying to convey through this parable is not found in the event itself but in the similarities between it and the other parables it is grouped with.
The Parable of the Talents
14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’
21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
22 The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’
23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:14-30).
This parable describes what happens when a master returns after a long journey. Before the journey, he gave each of servants some wealth (or talents). When he returns, he asks for an accounting from each of his servants regarding what they did with what he gave them. Here are the portions that align with the common elements of the others:
- The Event: A master entrusts his servants with different amounts of wealth. After a long absence, he returns.
- The Measure: What they did with what he left in their care.
- Those Unprepared: They are taken into the darkness “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- Those Prepared: They are given more.
Like the parable of the ten virgins, I believe that the event described in this passage has little to do with the point Jesus trying to make. In my opinion, it’s not a promise that our gifts will be multiplied if we use them wisely during this life. What’s important is not the event itself but how its message parallels what is being conveyed through the other parables.
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:31-46).
This passage begins with the words, “When the Son of Man comes.” Like similar terminology found in the other parables, I believe that this was included to show that it is elaborating on the event described in Matthew 24:30 – Jesus’ return – so that the reader knows it is referring to what will happen after this occurs. Here is what fits the common elements of the other parables:
- The Event: The return of Jesus and the final destination of both “sheep” and “goats.”
- The Measure: If ones’ actions are aligned with what Jesus considers important.
- Those Unprepared: They will be sent away to eternal punishment.
- Those Prepared: They will receive eternal life.
I don’t believe that Jesus’ intent when telling this parable was to indicate that our works will be used to determine our eternal destination. We are not saved by our works; we are saved by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Concluding that this parable is describing the means upon which one gains eternal life is in my opinion beyond the scope of what Jesus or Matthew intended. I don’t believe that this parable and the ones that precede tell us how we are saved. Their purpose is to warn us that if our relationship with Jesus is not right – if we is not prepared for His return at all times – if we are not saved – than we may find ourselves falling short of what is required to be able to spend eternity with Jesus and may end up spending it in a place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Considering the Message as a Whole
Here are some things that I believe Jesus was trying to communicate as a whole through what is recorded in Matthew 24:36 — 25:46:
- His return will come at a time when it is unexpected. Although there are some things that must happen before Jesus returns (the topic of my next article), there is no way to know exactly when the day or time of His return will be. It’s also impossible to know what conditions will immediately precede it. We therefore have to be prepared for His return at all times knowing that it could occur at anytime.
- What follows His return will result in immediate, permanent, and dire consequences for those unprepared. There is no gap of time between Jesus’ return and what follows; there is no second chance for those not ready for that day; there will be no additional opportunity for them to repent and do what is right in God’s eyes. There will on the other hand be immediate, permanent, and good consequences for those who are prepared for His return – those who have put their faith and trust in Him.
- When He returns, it will not be a good thing to be among those who are “taken”.
The understanding that Jesus’ return is followed immediately by a time of judgment reinforces the urgency of Jesus’ warning in Matthew 24:42 when He said, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” If we knew the day Jesus was returning, we could prepare for it at the last moment. Since we don’t, we have to be prepared for it at all times.
And so, I believe that the “taken” in Matthew 24:40-41 are nonbelievers who are taken to a place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” because of their rejection of Jesus. They, as Luke 17:37 notes, are destroyed. The ones left behind – the ones not destroyed – are those who have prepared for the coming of Jesus by putting their faith and trust in Him and by living in a way that honors Him.
That’s my understanding of Matthew 24:36 — 25:46, as I see it today.