Left Behind?: R. T. France on the rapture in Matthew 24

This past Sunday in my message, “The Unknown Hour,” I made a side comment about verses 40-41 and the rapture. The verses are:

“Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” (Matthew 24:40-41)

I basically said that while some take Jesus’ teaching in these verses to refer to the rapture, a close reading of this specific text doesn’t really support that. In case someone had further questions about this, I thought I’d share the wise words of biblical scholar R. T. France on these verses in his wonderful commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.

What could be more normal and unthreatening than working on the farm or grinding grain? Yet in those routine situations there will be a sudden crisis which will result in one being ‘taken’ while the other is left behind. But where are the unlucky (or lucky?) ones ‘taken’ and for what purpose? The verb is paralambanō rather than a simple lambanō, and if the compound is more than just a stylistic variation, it might be understood to mean ‘take to oneself’ (as in 1:20; 17:1; 18:16; 20:17). If the passive verbs are understood as ‘divine passives,’ that would mean the God has taken selected people to himself, leaving the rest to continue their life on earth. Some have therefore suggested that this passages speaks of a ‘rapture’ of the faithful to heaven before judgment falls on the earth. This is not the place to investigate the complex dispensational scheme which underlies this nineteenth-century theory, but it should be noted that insofar as this passage forms a basis for that theology, it rests on an uncertain foundation. We are not told where or why they are ‘taken,’ and the similar sayings in vv. 17-18 about people caught out in the course of daily life by the Roman advance presupposed a situation of threat rather than of rescue; to be ‘taken’ in such circumstances would be a negative experience, and Matthew will use paralambanō in a similarly threatening context in 27:27. The verb itself does not determine the purpose of the ‘taking,’ and it could as well be for judgment (as in Her 6:11) as for refuge. In the light of the preceding verses, when the Flood ‘swept away’ the unprepared, that is probably the more likely sense here.

The different fates of two apparently similar people (as also the different fates of Noah and his contemporaries) raise the issue of ‘readiness’: what is it that will determine who is and who is not ‘taken’? The example of Noah suggests that it is not purely arbitrary, and the rest of the discourse will explore the basis of the division between the saved and the lost, which reaches its climax in the separation of good and bad in the judgment scene in 25:31-46. For the moment saved and lost live and work together (as in the parable of the weeds, 13:30), but when ‘that day’ domes, the separation will be made and will be final.

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 940-941.

One thought on “Left Behind?: R. T. France on the rapture in Matthew 24

  1. In Noah’s day, life was going on as usual and the Flood took away all the unrighteous people, with the few righteous ones being saved on the Ark God provided so that they could continue their lives on earth after the flood.
    In a similar way, before the glorious coming of the Lord at the end of the 7 year Tribulation, also known as the time of Jacob’s Trouble, God will remove from earth in judgment the unrighteous wicked ones and save the righteous, those who come to salvation in Jesus Christ as Savior during the 7 year Tribulation, to be left behind to populate Christ’s Kingdom on earth at His glorious coming.

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