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Why I want to be Left Behind

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.

As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
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;
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.
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.

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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13 Responses to Why I want to be Left Behind

  1. Kevin Lewis March 18, 2011 at 11:31 am #

    Thanks for this, I am often having to counter this idea of ‘the rapture’, which goes against nearly everything I think the Bible says – Gods opts into this world, not out of it; God engages with this world, he doesn’t tear us away from it; he transforms this world, he doesn’t abandon it so we wander the heavens like Battlestar Galactica.

    I want to be left behind so I can see in the new heavens and the new earth. Surely that is better…

  2. Louise Tinniswood March 19, 2011 at 9:33 am #

    Very interesting. The passages conjure up very vivid imagery don’t they? I’m assuming though we won’t all look like characters from Scooby Doo like the ones in the illustration you’ve used. The notion of us all being ‘sucked’ into the air seems to be quite a common misunderstanding. However it’s going to happen I do hope it’s not as scary as it all sounds and I’d like to be left behind too please.

  3. Jason March 28, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

    Kevin: I’ve been going through Wright’s Surprised by Hope on Sunday nights at my church and it has provoked some good conversation, especially as it pertained to the “rapture.” But I loved your final statement, and yes, it will be so glorious!

  4. Iver Larsen April 30, 2011 at 8:05 am #

    I am afraid you are misinterpreting the Matt 24 passage because you are ignoring the focus of the text and asking the wrong “key” question. The key point is that the flood came unexpectedly and when it did come it was too late for all except Noah and his family. The unbelievers had been warned, but they did not believe and continued woth life as usual. That is the point carried over to the rapture. It will be unexpected. Unbelievers have been warned, but they did not believe and continued with life as usual. I do not believe that the rapture will be secret or silent, but the NT teaches that it will be there and that the return of Jesus will be in two stages, first in the air and later on Mt. Zion. It is a pity that N. T. Wright is among those who are confusing people, but this is not the only place where he has misunderstood the teachings of the NT. This is dangerous, because he is a good communicator and a prolific writer.

    By the way, you have also misunderstood the meaning of “generation”, but that is another topic. The blame goes primarily to misleading translations.

  5. Ian Paul May 1, 2011 at 8:12 am #

    Iver, thanks for commenting. I agree with you entirely that the focus of the passage is the sudden and unexpected nature of judgement. But I think Darby and the idea that this passage teaches the rapture is focussing on something else, and it is this that I am addressing here.

    I cannot find any place where the NT teaches that the return of Jesus will be in two stages. Can you point to a passage which shows this? What Darby and others have done is take different NT passages, assume they are irreconcilable, and from this deduce that there are two ‘returns.’

    I am aware of the discussion of ‘generation’, but do remind me of it.

  6. Norah Chinneck October 12, 2011 at 9:58 am #

    I think we are trying to approach this complex subject with our finite minds. I pray that I will be constantly in touch, ready and alert, praying when my Lord returns. (as in Ephesians Chapter 6 – the armour of God) I don’t know HOW He will do it, but I pray that I will trust Him to do it and, as His child, that He won’t let me go through anything that I couldn’t bear (physical torture makes me sick even to think of it). I pray that I will stay faithful to Him always and be looking forward to a ‘new Heaven and a new earth’. Meanwhile, there is so much misery down here that we very definitely have a task. Isaiah chapter 61 is one of my favourites, and there are a LOT of broken-hearted people on this planet.

  7. Dave Laurenson October 26, 2011 at 8:07 pm #

    This is obviously a complex topic, and I do not confess to understand it in huge depth, however I do have some points that should be raised about the line of argument. To begin with, in Noah’s time, when God took away the evildoers it did not cure the core problem of sin. We are still sinners, and will still be in the same boat (pardon the pun!) as Noah’s family. The other issue is that God promised never again to wipe all life from the earth in this manner, saving only a few.

  8. David October 27, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    I read Noah as him (and family etc) being taken away to safety (in the Ark) and those remaining were left to be destroyed, which they were. This is no novel interpretation, just a matter of fact as it is written.

  9. David October 27, 2012 at 4:34 pm #

    Oh, and by the way. Jesus has already appeared twice – once as the last ‘first man’ and the second as the first ‘second man’ (after His resurrection). The ‘second coming’ of Jesus seems to me to refer to His return to judge, when the ‘first’ was to save.

  10. bobo October 31, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    I find it interesting that all the people in the rapture picture are white…

  11. Ian Paul October 31, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

    yes indeed. And wearing flairs…

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