Matt 24.36–41 is one of the two key passages used to teach the doctrine of the ‘rapture’, the idea that believers will secretly be taken up to be with Jesus at some point before his ‘return.’ (The other passage is 1 Thess 4.13–18.) But close reading shows that Jesus teaches no such thing.
The passage comes half-way through a long section of Jesus’ teaching on ‘the end’; as with each of the five sections of teaching in Matthew, it ends with ‘After he had finished saying these things…’ (26.1; compare 7.28, 11.1, 13.53 and 19.1). In the first half of his teaching, Jesus has been responding to the first of the disciples’ questions (in 24.3) and talking of the momentous events around the destruction of the temple; all ‘these things’ will happen within a generation (24.34). But the focus now
shifts to their second question, about ‘that day and hour’ of Jesus’ final return.
There is a very clear structure to this section.
The structure is: draw the comparison; indicate the time; mention activity; highlight the sudden judgement and separation. How it was then shows how it will be. The key question here is: at the time of Noah, who was taken away, and who was left? Answer: the evil were taken, and the saved were left. So, at the coming of the Son of Man, who will be taken, and who will be left? (Remember: ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.’). Answer? The evil will be taken, and the saved will be left.
So I would like to be left behind.
Interestingly, in his otherwise very good early Tyndale commentary (from 1985), Dick France slightly obscures this, by saying that ‘taken’ can have a sense of ‘taken to safety.’ But he has now changed his mind, and notes the similarity both with the earlier threat of being ‘taken’ by the advancing Roman soldiers hinted at in vv 17–18, and those same soldiers ‘taking’ Jesus in 27.27.
In the light of the preceding verses, when the Flood ‘swept away’ the unprepared, that is probably the more likely meaning here.
Tom Wright, commenting on this passage in Jesus and the Victory of God (p 366) uses more extravagant metaphors.
There is no hint, here, of a ‘rapture’, a sudden supernatural event that would remove individuals from the terra firma. Such an idea would look as odd as a Cadillac in a camel-train. It is a matter, rather, of secret police coming in the night, or of enemies sweeping through a village or city and seizing all they can.
(I actually misread that as ‘a camel in a Cadillac’ which has left me with a very strange image…but still wanting to be left behind!)
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