The Rapture and the Gospels

Q – I have been studying Matt 24 and I came to a conclusion that is not popular – the rapture is after the tribulation.

I compared Luke and Mark to Matt 24 – same conclusion. All have the same sequence of events. This is why some will say “the Lord is delaying (inpatient) his coming” and they begin to be abusive….and they are the ones who will be cut asunder. Luke 21:19 In your patience possess ye your souls. Jesus proceeds with the rest of the events that are before Jesus comes with His angels. It will take great patience to wait for Jesus to come while we are being sought, jailed and beheaded.

Jim – We’re going to have to take this step-by-step because this is not an uncommon assumption. But, I think as we look at the text closely and read it in keeping with the progressive nature of God’s revelation and the attendant development of theology, we will see that it is impossible to formulate any rapture thinking from any passage in any of the gospels.

Let’s start with the big issues and then we’ll work through the details. This first point is absolutely vital, and commonly overlooked:

Jesus’ ministry was to Israel; “He came to His own and His own received Him not.” (John 1:11) The concept of “the Church,” an amalgam of Jews and Gentiles together saved by grace through faith without the works of the Law, was completely unknown during the three-and-a-half years that Jesus walked among His people. This is not to say that the salvation of Gentiles had not been prophesied; it simply did become a reality until after Calvary. The Church as a separate and distinct body of believers within Israel – which body would expand to embrace Gentile believers – was not formed until Pentecost.

So, as we read Jesus speaking among His Jewish followers, we must remember that He was neither addressing the Church, as such, nor making reference to a body of believers that had not yet been revealed in the process of time.

A partial blindness fell on Israel in order that the good news of reconciliation with God through faith in His Son would spread to the Gentiles. The apostle Paul called this process a “mystery.”

“For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.” (Rom. 11:25)

The English word “mystery” is a translation of the Greek word “musterion” – a secret or previously unrevealed truth. In other words, prior to Paul’s revelation of this process of blinding and engrafting, no one understood God’s plan and intention where the Church and was concerned. In fact, Paul concluded that section of his letter by proclaiming:

“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33)

In other words, mortal logic simply cannot figure God out. In order for Him to be understood, He must reveal Himself, as He does through His prophets and apostles. Such revelations of previously unknown elements of God’s plan are called “mysteries.”

“So,” you say, “that’s all well and good, Jim. But, what’s that got to do with the rapture of the Church?”

I’m getting there. Hang with me.

Jesus’ ministry among the Israelites took place prior to any revelation concerning the Church of Jews and Gentiles together. And the vast majority of the material recorded in the four gospels took place prior to His death, burial and resurrection. Therefore, the gospels must be viewed through that lens. When we read of Jesus speaking prophetically of future events, we must remember that His audience would have been familiar only with the canon of books we call the Old Testament. Paul was not yet converted. His letters were not yet written. And importantly, those mysteries which he revealed had not yet been publicly proclaimed.

After his conversion, the apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth about the instantaneous transformation that will happen at the resurrection. He called it “a mystery.”

“Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (1 Cor. 15:51-52)

While the idea of resurrection was familiar to most Israelites, Paul’s notion of living people being cataclysmically transformed was unknown prior to this letter. This was a previously-unheard-of event. But, it is the exact same event that Paul told the church in Thessalonica about.

“For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” (1 Thess. 4:15-18)

Again, my point is that these events were “mysteries.” Prior to the inception of the Church, any discussion of the rapture of that selfsame Church was a moot point. So, the natural question is: Was Jesus actually talking about the rapture of the Church in passages such as Matthew 24, considering the fact that His Jewish audience was not only unfamiliar with Paul’s later revelation of the mystery of the rapture, but they also firmly rejected any notion of Gentiles taking part in their particular covenant promises?

The answer, of course, is no. It’s simply untenable.

So then, what was Jesus talking about in those passages? I’m glad you asked. Let’s look at them more closely. The portion of Matthew 24 most often pointed to as referring to the catching away of the Church is:

“But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.” (Matt 24:37-42)

Because of the phrase “one shall be taken, and the other left,” people leap to the assumption that Jesus was speaking of the rapture. I am honestly surprised at the number of books and articles I have read that contend that very thing. But, the simple way to understand Jesus’ meaning is to look at the larger context, including the parallel passage in Luke. Luke’s account of this teaching reads:

“I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.” (Luke 17:34-36)

Fortunately for us, His disciples asked Jesus where exactly these “taken” ones were headed. His answer was not, “To Heaven,” “To be with Me,” or anything of the sort.

“And they answered and said unto him, Where, Lord? And he said unto them, Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together.” (Luke 17:37)

For clarity’s sake, the NIV renders that verse:

“Where, Lord?” they asked. He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.”

That same information appears in Matthew 24 as well, as part of Jesus’ appearance and the attendant tribulation on Earth:

“For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together. Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Matt. 24:27-30)

Or, as the NIV renders it:

“For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather. ‘Immediately after the distress of those days 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.’ 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.” (Matt. 24:27-31)

The fulfillment of that event is described in John’s Revelation:

“And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS. And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God; That ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great.” (Rev. 19:11-18)

The language and the details are consistent across-the-board. When Jesus returns in vengeance, bringing about the time of wrath – the Day of the Lord – the birds of the air are gathered to eat the remaining flesh. And that’s the place that the “ones taken” are taken to. They are called to Armageddon.

“And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared. And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty. Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame. And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.” (Rev. 16:12-16)

Matthew 24 and its parallel passages deal exclusively with Israel’s future. They do not refer to the Church, inasmuch as the Church was not yet in existence. The events they describe are perfectly in keeping with the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Day of the Lord and the return of Christ in wrath (as evidenced by Jesus’ own reference to Joel 2 in Matt. 24:29)). And, throughout Matthew 24, Jesus utilized terminology that is so distinctly Jewish that it is impossible to apply His words to the Church. For, instance, when He said:

“When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)” (Matt. 24:15)

Jesus referred to specific prophecies which were determined on Daniel’s “people and upon thy city.” (Dan. 9:24) The “holy place” in which the “abomination that makes desolate” will stand is a direct reference to the temple in Jerusalem and the “holy of holies.” The instructions Jesus gave to those people included:

“Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains:” (Matt. 24: 16)

This obviously has nothing to do with the 20th Century Gentile Church, which is not residing in Judea, not worshipping in the temple, and therefore not likely to flee to the mountains. Jesus continued:

“Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day:” (Vs. 17-20)

Why would the Church be concerned with fleeing to the mountains on the Sabbath day? We are not under the Law of Moses or the sign of that covenant. The answer is increasingly obvious. Jesus was not addressing the Church. He was speaking to Jewish people, to whom these references would have great resonance.

“For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.” (Matt. 24:15-21)

The Jews were familiar with that language, too. Both Jeremiah and Daniel predicted that day of trouble, and all of the Israel’s prophets spoke of God’s impending Day of Judgment; the Day of the Lord. But, Jeremiah called it, “Jacob’s trouble.”

“Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob’s trouble; but he shall be saved out of it.” (Jer. 30:7)

So likewise, when Jesus spoke to Jews of the coming time of trouble, they understood that it was their trouble coming; Jacob’s trouble; Israel’s trouble. No one had a thought about the Church of Gentiles or their removal from Earth prior to the trouble. The subject simply did not come up.

Another section of Matthew 24 often used to support the notion of a post-tribulation rapture is:

“And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened. Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” (Matt. 24:22-24)

The common assumption is that every reference to “the elect” in the New Testament must necessarily refer to the Church. And if that is so, then this passage plainly tells us that the Church will still be on Earth during the “great tribulation” mentioned in verse 21. That point is driven home by Jesus’ own declaration that false Messiahs and prophets will work such great miracles that even “the very elect” would be deceived, if it were possible.

But, is that how the 1st Century hearers of this message would have understood Jesus’ words? Again, there was no Church, per se, as He delivered this prophecy. So, to whom would His listeners assume Jesus was referring when they heard Him use the term “elect”? They would have understood that word in the only Scriptural context available to them at the time:

“For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me.” (Isa. 45:4)

This passage of Isaiah accurately predicted, and called by name, the Persian king who would deliver Israel from their bondage, allowing them to return and begin rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. Though he did not know God, He called this foreign ruler by name for Israel’s sake. Why? Because Israel constituted His elect people; God’s chosen.

“For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.” (Deut. 7:6)

“Praise the LORD; for the LORD is good: sing praises unto his name; for it is pleasant. For the LORD hath chosen Jacob unto himself, and Israel for his peculiar treasure.” (Ps. 135:3-4)

“But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend. Thou whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the chief men thereof, and said unto thee, Thou art my servant; I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away.” (Isa. 41:8-9)

“Ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me.” (Isa. 43:10)

“Yet now hear, O Jacob my servant; and Israel, whom I have chosen: thus saith the LORD that made thee, and formed thee from the womb, which will help thee; Fear not, O Jacob, my servant; and thou, Jesurun, whom I have chosen.” (Isa. 44:1-2)

Given these (and several other) texts, we can only conclude that when Jesus referred to “the elect,” His Israelite listeners would naturally have understood Him to be referring to the very people on whom “the time of Jacob’s trouble” was predicted – upon Israel herself. So again, this language is perfectly in keeping with the whole of Old Testament prophecy and does not have anything at all to do with the rapture of the Church prior to the time of tribulation.

Consequently, when Jesus predicted that the Son of Man, “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” (Matt 24:31), He was referring to the oft-prophesied gathering of Israel, not the gathering of the Church.

I would only say that we must be careful when doing our Bible study on any particular subject that we concentrate on those passages that directly address the subject we’re studying. So then, when forming our understanding of the rapture of the Church, it’s best to study Paul’s letters. In that regard, I would offer my defense of the pre-tribulation position, “A Brief History of the Future.” While it is technically “still in the works,” it is available on our website.

The seventh chapter, entitled “The Chronos,” may prove especially helpful.

Thanks for writing and for continuing to dig into Scripture.

Yours in Him,

Jim Mc.