We are studying the Olivet Discourse, looking for insight on the question: Will Christians go through the tribulation period? Matthew 24 provides a chronological outline of events from the first advent to the second advent. It is therefore an essential part of eschatological revelation. Our objective at this point is to provide some guidance in understanding the main issues in that teaching. What did Jesus reveal in the Olivet Discourse that will help us understand more about the timing of the rapture?
Last week we concluded with the Second Coming recorded in Matthew 24:29-31. To set today’s message in context we will begin by reading those verses from the New International Version. “Immediately after the distress of those days [the tribulation period] ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.' 30 At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”i
I. GATHERING OF ELECT (24:31)
In verse 31 what is included in this gathering of his elect?ii Who are the elect being gathered? The answer to that question is particularly relevant to our current study.
Pretribulationist Dwight Pentecost interprets this verse as indicating the gather of Israelites with no reference to the rapture. He provides several statements by Old Testament prophets supporting God’s promise to regather the Jews in the last days.iii For example, Isaiah 43:5-7 promises the nation, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. 6 I will say to the north, 'Give them up!' and to the south, 'Do not hold them back.' Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth-- 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”iv
John MacArthur does not identify the rapture of the church with this verse either. He writes, “The gathering ones will include the 144,000 Jewish witnesses, their converts and the converts of the angelic preachers. They will include the Old Testament saints, gathered out of their graves and joined with their redeemed spirits. Those will all be assembled together before Christ and ushered into the glory of His eternal kingdom.”v So pretribulationists usually see the gathering in our text as a fulfillment of God’s promise to restore the scattered Jews to their homeland. They do not associate the text with the rapture.
Other scholars see a reference to the rapture of the church in Matthew 24:31. Of course, this would include the resurrection of the just as well. Bruner writes, “This gathering is what the church calls the rapture. Notice that the biblical rapture occurs after the cosmic, public, and visible coming of the Son of Man. There is no such thing in Scripture as a secret rapture before his coming. The coming and the rapture happen together and, in that order, here and everywhere else in Scripture (cf., in addition to our vv. 30-31, also vv. 39-40 and 1 Thess. 4;16-17)” (emphasis his).vi Commenting on the parallel verse in Mark 13:27 Ladd writes, “This appears to be the same event described by Paul as ‘the rapture’ of the saints, when the dead in Christ are raised from the graves and the living saints shall be caught up (rapiemur) in the air to meet the returning Christ (1 Thess. 4:17).vii Posttribulationists tend to include the final gathering of the Jews back to Palestine as part of the Matthew 24:31 event.
Douglas Moo is probably right in saying this gathering is for all God’s people. This is the climatic event which concludes the current age.viii Therefore, God is not only fulfilling his promise to complete the regathering of Israel to their homeland in preparation for the millennium but is also resurrecting/rapturing the righteous.
Certainly, such a conclusion involves some interpretation which is subject to debate. But it seems strange that Matthew would leave out such an important event as the resurrection of the just in his chronological account of coming events. A pretribulation rapture would have fit in before verse 15 in this chapter. If verse 31 includes the rapture/resurrection of the church, then it is posttribulational.
Before moving on we will read Matthew 24:30-31 again to make sure we maintain the flow of thought. “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”
II. PARABLE OF FIG TREE (24:32-35)
Immediately following those verses comes the Parable of the Fig Tree. Matthew 24: 32-33: “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.”
The point of this parable is that events will transpire that alert us to the soon coming of Christ. Some see the fig tree as representative of Israel. Other passages do teach us to watch events in Israel, particularly Jerusalem, as indicators of the times.ix But in this passage Jesus is not using the fig tree to teach us to look at Israel. How do we know that? Luke’s version adds the phrase, “and all the trees.” Trees in general bear leaves as summer is approaching. So, Luke 21:29-30 says, “He told them this parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.’”
Jesus has just described the conditions that will develop near the end: the gospel will be preached in the whole world (Matt. 24:14); the Antichrist will break a treaty with Israel and set himself up in Jerusalem to be worshipped (Dan. 9:27; Matt. 24:15; 2 Thess. 2:4); there will be a time of tribulation such that the world has never seen, killing one fourth of the world’s population (Matt. 24:21; Rev. 6:8); and cosmic disturbance will follow (Matt. 24:29). Then Jesus gave this parable to illustrate the fact that there will be indications that the end is near so that we as children of light would not be are not caught off guard by his return, but be fully prepared to meet him (1 Thess. 5:4-8).
Verse 34 is the most debated portion of the Olivet Discourse. It has been interpreted in a variety of ways.x “So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near — at the doors! 34 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” In this study we can only deal with a few of the more popular explanations. (1) Preterists rigidly identify “this generation” as the people living at the time Jesus spoke the Olivet Discourse. In favor of this interpretation is the fact that it usually means that in Matthew (11:16; 12:41-42; 17:17). However, we have seen some of the serious problems associated with the preterist approach.xi
Even worse than the allegorizing of the events in verses 29-31 is the conclusion drawn by some liberal theologians that Jesus simply gave a false prophecy. It is obvious that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was not tribulation (thlipsis) “unequaled from the beginning of the world until now-and never to be equaled again” (24:21). It is obvious that Jesus did not return “on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory” for all the world to see him (24:30). Since, these scholars contend, “this generation” in verse 34 must—absolutely must—mean those in the first century, then they surmise that Jesus thought he would return then, but he was wrong. He gave a false prophecy!xii Could anything be more contradictory to the message of the New Testament? If Jesus was wrong in 24:34, then what else was he wrong about? What can we rely on?
But in the next verse Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (24:35). It is interesting that these erroneous teachers put all the emphasis on verse 34 but do not show the same confidence in verse 35. In verse 36 Jesus does say, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” But there is a vast difference between not knowing while knowing you don’t know, versus making a false prediction. The idea that “this generation” is only those in the first century simply does not fit with the rest of the discourse.
(2) Another explanation is that Jesus was speaking in terms of imminence in much the same way Paul spoke in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 and 1 Thessalonians 4:17. This interpretation of verse 34 has considerable merit. Since we discussed it in chapter 8, we only mention it here.
(3) Some understand genea (“generation”) in verse 34 as a reference to a race, in this case the Jewish race.xiii This is a possibility, especially when we consider Satan’s tenacious efforts to exterminate the Jews.xiv However, the context makes this interpretation unlikely. Dale Allison writes, “But, given that our verse immediately trails the parable of the fig tree, surely the chronological sense of ‘generation’ is more natural.”xv There are competent theologians who teach this approach. But the weight of evidence is against it.
(4) Perhaps the best interpretation is to understand “this generation” as a reference to those living at the time all these signs appear. After all, that is the context in which Jesus is making the statement. He gives the metaphor of the fig tree for watching events as indicators of the end, then says in verse 33, “So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near — at the doors!”
The key to understanding verse 34 is “all these things” in verse 33.xvi The Moody Bible Commentary says, “All these things (vv. 33, 34) refers to the signs mentioned in vv. 4-31. When these signs begin to come to pass, the people alive at that time can be assured that they will see His second coming as well . . . All these things probably include the world-wide preaching of the gospel message followed by the end (vs 14), the future abomination of desolation (vv. 15), the unparalleled world-wide tribulation for which God limits the days (vv. 21-22), the increase of false messiahs (vv. 24), followed immediately by cosmic upheaval (v. 29), the militaristic sign of Jesus’ coming (v. 30), and then, presumably, His second coming which follows hard on the heels of these signs (probably v. 30; v. 33).”xvii This is simply the most natural reading in the context. Commending this view, Darrell Bock writes, “What Jesus is saying is that the generation that sees the beginning of the end, also sees its end. When the signs come, they will proceed quickly; they will not drag on for many generations. It will happen within a generation.”xviii
III. WARNING ABOUT UNCERTAINTY OF TIMEING (24:36-41)
In verses 36 Jesus begins warning his followers about the uncertainty of the timing of his return.xix He provides signs to watch, but then pivots to the fact that even he does not know the day or hour. This creates a tension between watching the signs on the one hand and recognizing an element of uncertainty on the other. Our understanding of imminence must include both sides of this tension of truth.
As we read verses 32-41 watch for this tension. “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” He has given us instruction for watching the development of events so that we are properly prepared for his coming. Now in the next few verses he balances that with the fact that the day and hour will be unknown so that we should always stay ready. 36 "No one knows about that day or hour, 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.”
Verses 40-41 are particularly relevant to our study on the rapture. Scholars differ as to whether the one “taken” is taken in salvation or taken in judgment.
Pretribulationist John Walvoord argues they are taken in judgment. He writes, “In the illustration from ‘the days of Noah,’ those who are taken away by the flood are the ones who are drowned, and the ones who are left are the ones who are left in safety in the ark.”xx
Posttribulationist Gundry concedes this is the context but gives reasons the one taken is taken in salvation. He points out the difference in the Greek word (airo) used for taken in verse 39 and the Greek word (paralambano) used in verses 40 and 41. He says, “The same word could easily have been employed had an exact parallel between the two takings been intended. Instead, we have the employment of another word which only two days later describes the rapture (John 14:3).”xxi John 14:3: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take [paralambano] you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
These men are representative of their respective camps. Both scholars recognize Matthew 24:40-41 as happening at the Second Coming. Walvoord sees those taken as Christ’s enemies destroyed at his coming and those left will be godly people in their natural bodies who enter into the blessings of the millennium.xxii Gundry sees Matthew 24:40-41 as a description of the rapture/resurrection of the just that occurs at the Second Coming.xxiii
The suddenness of the event and the immediate separation of the godly from the ungodly should not be overlooked. These people in the days of Noah (vs 37-39) and described in verses 40-41 are simply going about their daily business. They are not sitting on a mountain somewhere waiting for Christ’s return. Bruner points out how similar two people were at work (vs 40-41) and how dissimilar at the judgment! The wheat and tares may stand side by side up until the day of the Lord (Matt. 13:24-30). But on that day the godly will be saved, and the ungodly will be destroyed. We must not miss the main point Jesus is making. “The most obvious meaning of our text,” Bruner writes, “is the surprise of the last day and the incalculability of that day’s coming. The day of the Lord is both a surprising day and a separating day (Henry, 361)” (emphasis his).xxiv
IV. EXHORTATION TO STAY READY (24:42-44)
In verses 42-44 Jesus drives home the primary point of his sermon: stay spiritually alert and ready for his return. It is a foolish thing to try to calculate the days and somehow beat God at his own game. The signs will point us to his coming. But the primary thing is to simply live in a way that keeps you prepared to welcome him.
Matt 24:42-44: “Therefore [this is to be our response to everything he has said] 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.”
The exhortation to “keep watch” draws on the image of a watchman at his post.xxv It is essential that a watchman stay alert and fulfill his assigned duty. If we are obediently doing the assignment the Lord gives us, we will be ready for his return. We are not to abandon our natural responsibilities; we are not to retreat and isolate ourselves from the harvest field. We are to be light and salt (Matt. 5:13-16). We are to be about our Father’s business.xxvi We are to be fulfilling the great commission given to us by the Lord (Matt. 28:19-20).
In Titus 211-14 Paul describes the way we are to wait for the blessed hope of Christ’s coming. He writes, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. 12 It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope-the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”
If we live in that mode, we will be ready for his appearing. Keep your hand to the plow and your eye toward heaven. Your redemption draws nearer every day.
i All Scripture quotes are from the New International Version unless indicated otherwise.
ii The word translated elect (eklektos) is the same word used in 24:22 and 1 Peter 1:1.
iii Pentecost, Things to Come, 425, 504-505.
iv In Deuteronomy 30:4 God promises Israel: “Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back.”
v John MacArthur, Matthew 24-28, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: IL: The Moody Bible Institute, 1989) 58. Moody Bible Commentary takes a similar position on this verse. While conceding the possibility this refers to a rapture, that commentary says: “The phrase will gather (episynago) is used in the LXX in Ps 105:47 (English translation 146:2) for the regathering of the Jewish people to the Holy Land following God rescuing them (also the point of the sounding of the trumpet in Is 27:13, cited by Matthew in v. 31). In the OT, this gathering was not a ‘rapture’ in which God’s people would receive their resurrected, glorified bodies but appears to be an event experienced in natural bodies in which God gathers them into the millennial kingdom.”
vi Fredrick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Vol. 2, The Churchbook Matthew 13-28, rev. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2004) 514. Keener comments, “The gathering here is probably understood as ‘a rapture to heaven’ as in 1 Thess. 4:17, but employing language from Jewish eschatology (Davis and Allison 1997: 364).” Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1999) 587. Cf. George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishers, 1956) 73.
vii Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 205.
viii Cf. Douglas Moo, “A Case for the Posttribulation Rapture,” in Blaising, Hultberg, and Moo, The Rapture, 222.
ix For example, the abomination of desolation (vs 15) occurs in Jerusalem.
x For a history of interpretation of “this generation,” Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, 519 cites Martin Kunzi, Das Naherwartungslogion Matthäus 10:23: Geschichte seiner Auslegung (1970) 213-224. See 432-433 for a brief summary of the major views see Dale C. Allison, Jr., ed., Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, (New York: T & T Clark International, 2004) 432-433.
xi See chapter IX.
xii For example, McNeile comes to this conclusion. A. H/ McNeile, Matthew (1952 ) 355 as quoted by Fredrick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Vol. 2, The Churchbook Matthew 13-28, rev. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2004) 519.
xiii Cf. William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973) 868.Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. IV, 1948 (Dallas, TX: Dallas Seminary Press, 1974) 316; W. Farrar, The Gospel According to St. Luke in Greek: with Maps, Notes and Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910) 364; Leon Morris, The Gospel According to St. Luke: An Introduction and Commentary,
The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, R. V. G. Tasker, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1980 ) 301.
xiv For example, we see this diabolical effort and God’s protection of the Jewish race in Esther 3-9. Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the race is another example. Daniel 12:1 addresses the conflict: “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people-- everyone whose name is found written in the book-- will be delivered.” God does promise to preserve the Jewish people.
xv Dale C. Allison, Jr., ed., Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, (New York: T & T Clark International, 2004) 433. Carson responds to interpreting “this generation” as the Jewish race or some other group identification by saying, “such broad senses, even if they were lexically possible [I contend that they are lexically possible], would offer no help in response to the disciples’ question ‘when.’” D. A. Carson, “Matthew” in Matthew, Mark, Luke, EBC, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, F. E. Gabelein and J. D. Douglas, eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1984) 930.
xvi “The near-demonstrative pronoun is often refers to that which is near in the mind of the writer or speaker (cf. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 325. . . .” Moody Bible Commentary, Matt. 24:31.
xvii Moody Bible Commentary, Matt. 24:31. MacArthur writes, “Matthew 24:34 is an explanation of the parable of the fig tree. The idea is that, just as the budding fig leaves means it is not long until summer, so the generation alive when the signs occur will not have long to wait for Christ’s appearance.” John MacArthur, Matthew 24-28, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: IL: The Moody Bible Institute, 1989) 85.
xviii Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, 1691-1692.
xix “While believers should have Christian certainty on the central topics of the faith, debatable end-time knowledge is not one of those central topics. The true orthodoxy here is sanctified ignorance” (emphasis his). Bruner, Matthew A Commentary, 523.
xx John Walvoord, The Rapture Question, 188.
xxi Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation, 138.
xxii Witherington associates these verses (40-41) with Noah’s experience rather than Jesus’s statement in verse 31. He says, “The ‘taken ones’ are the unfortunate ones, swept away by judgment.” Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, M. K. Elroy, sr. ed. (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishers, 2006) 455. Cf. MacArthur, Matthew 24-28, 75.
xxiii “But one is taken, to share in the blessings of being with the Lord (it is possible to understand taken in the sense ‘taken for punishment,’ but this seems less likely)” (emphasis his). Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1992) 614. France writes, “Taken is the same verb used, e. g. , in 1:20; 17:1; 18:16; 20:17; it implies to take someone to be with you, and therefore here points to the salvation rather than the destructin of the one ‘taken’. No indication is given of where they are ‘taken’ to; the point is simply the sharp division which the parousia will entail” (emphasis his). R. T. France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1985) 348.
xxiv Fredrick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Vol. 2, The Churchbook Matthew 13-28, rev. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2004 ) 527.
xxv Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 592.
xxvi Cf. Luke 2:49; John 4:34-35.