Almost daily I get questions about prophetic topics. In most cases, I’ve already dealt with them in my books Last Days Madness, The Early Church and the End of the World, Why the End of the World is Not in Your Future, and 10 Popular Prophecy Myths Exposed and Answered. When I point people to these books for my take on a particular passage, a number of them bristle at the suggestion. A few of them want a “yes” or “no” answer right then and there. It’s almost never that simple. What they’re really looking for is an excuse not to study the issue. “If Gary DeMar doesn’t believe like I do on _________________, then I don’t want to spend money on a whole book of his errors.” Some of emailers think I push my books because I make money on them. I don’t receive a penny in royalties from anything I do at American Vision. In fact, I don’t even receive a salary. My goal is to get Christians to study these issues for themselves. We need fewer “gutter sparrows” (Acts 17:18) and more “noble minded” Christians who “examine the Scriptures” (17:11).
Anyone who has read my books knows that I walk the reader through the process of how I came to a particular interpretation. Instead of just telling someone what I believe a particular text means, it’s important to know the process. Hopefully, the reader will follow a similar process with other texts and thereby become a better student of the Bible. One question that I get on a regular basis is the “left behind” passage in Matthew 24.
To help His listeners better understand the timing and circumstances of the events leading up to and including the destruction of the temple before their generation passed away, Jesus draws on a familiar Old Testament judgment event—the flood. Jesus, teaching by analogy, shows how the coming of the flood waters and His own coming in judgment against Jerusalem are similar. In Noah’s time we read about “those days which were before the flood” and “the day that NOAH ENTERED THE ARK” (Matt. 24:38). Similarly, there were days before the coming of the Son of Man and the day of the coming of the Son of Man. The same people were involved in both the “days before” and “the day of” the Son of Man. Those who “were eating and drinking” and “marrying and giving in marriage” were the same people who were shut out on “the day that Noah entered the ark.” Noah entered the ark on a single day similar to the way Jesus as the Son of Man came on the “clouds of the sky with power and great glory” (24:30), a day and hour known only to the Father (24:36). “Some shall be rescued from the destruction of Jerusalem, like Lot out of the burning of Sodom: while others, no ways perhaps different in outward circumstances, shall be left to perish in it.”1
Jesus says that His coming “will be just like the days of Noah” (24:37). The people were doing normal things—“eating and drinking” and “marrying and giving in marriage.” Jesus is telling his audience that life will go on as usual when Jesus returns in judgment against the temple and city of Jerusalem. People had no thought of a coming judgment in Noah’s day since there were no signs. Noah was told to prepare for “things not yet seen” (Heb. 11:7). Jesus is not describing evil behavior like drunkenness and sexual sins like “‘exchanging mates’ or ‘wife swapping,’ contrary to what M. R. DeHaan and Jack Van Impe claim.2 “Marrying and given in marriage” is a phrase to describe, well, “marrying and giving in marriage” (see Matt. 22:30). People do it every day. Men and women marry and parents give their daughters away in marriage. D. A. Carson’s comments are helpful:
[T]hat the coming of the Son of Man takes place at an unknown time can only be true if in fact life seems to be going on pretty much as usual—just as in the days before the flood (v. 37). People follow their ordinary pursuits (v. 38). Despite the distress, persecutions, and upheavals (vv. 4–28), life goes on: people eat, drink, and marry. There is no overt typological usage of the Flood as judgment here, nor any mention of the sin of that generation.3
Support for Carson’s interpretation can be found in Luke’s account of the time just before Sodom’s destruction: “It was the same as happened in the days of Lot: they were eating, they were drinking, they were buying, they were selling, they were planting, they were building; but on the day that Lot went out from Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:28). Buying, selling, planting, and building describe life going on as usual without any regard to an impending judgment. Are dispensationalists willing to say that these activities “connote moral corruption”? Darrell L. Bock attempts this interpretation even though he admits that the idea of “moral corruption . . . is not emphasized in Luke’s description.”4 No one disputes that Noah and Lot lived in a time of moral corruption that brought judgment. Jesus’ point is that the people in Noah and Lot’s day went on with their lives as if the promise of imminent judgment was a lie (see 2 Peter 3:3–4).5 The same is true of those who were told that Jesus would return in judgment within a generation (Matt. 24:34).
No “Rapture” Here!
Many futurists claim that the phrase “took them all away” (24:39) refers to a rapture that is still in our future. On the contrary. “In the context of 24:37–39, ‘taken’ presumably means ‘taken to judgment’ (cf. Jer. 6:11 NASB, NRSV).”6 The phrase ties the judgment of the world in Noah’s day with the judgment of the Jews’ world in Israel’s day that took place with the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the temple. Who was taken away in the judgment of the flood? Not Noah and his family. They were “left behind” to carry on God’s work. John Gill writes in his commentary on this passage: “the whole world of the ungodly, every man, woman, and child, except eight persons only; Noah and his wife, and his three sons and their wives. . . .” were taken away in judgment. And what does Gill say about those in the field?: They shall be taken away “by the eagles, the Roman army, and either killed or carried captive by them.” The Bible gives its own commentary on the meaning of “took them all away” in Luke 17:27, 29: “Destroyed them all” is equivalent to “took them all away.” Consider dispensationalist John Walvoord’s comments on “took them away.”
An argument advanced by Alexander Reese and adopted by [Robert] Gundry is that the references in Matthew 24:40, 41 should be interpreted as referring to the rapture. These verses state, “Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; one shall be taken and the other left.”
Here both Gundry and Reese violate the rule that the context should determine the interpretation of a passage. Both Gundry and Reese concede that the context deals with judgment such as characterized the time of Noah. According to Matthew 24:39 those living at that time “knew not until the flood came, and took them all away, so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be.” Those taken away were taken away in judgment. . . .
Claiming that those taken in verses 40 and 41 are taken away in the rapture, Gundry in discussing the parallel passage in Luke 17:34–37, ignores verse 37. There two are pictured in the same bed, with one taken and the other left. Two are grinding together, and one is taken and the other left. Two are in the field, one is taken and the other left. Then, in verse 37, the question is asked, “Where, Lord?” The answer is very dramatic: “And He said unto them, Wherever the body is, there will the eagles be gathered together.” It should be very clear that the ones taken are put to death and their bodies are consumed by the vultures. If the ones taken are killed, then verses 40, 41 of Matthew 24 speak of precisely the same kind of judgment as occurred in the flood where the ones taken were taken in judgment.7
But like Reese and Gundry, Walvoord ignores the time texts that run throughout Matthew 24–25, claiming that they refer to a distant coming of Christ. Since there was a judgment where Jews were in fact “taken away in judgment,” it makes much more sense to place the timing of such an event to the closest event, Jerusalem’s destruction in A.D. 70.
Mix and Match
A number of commentators (e.g., J. Marcellus Kik and Kenneth Gentry) argue that Matthew 24:35 is a “transition text.” It’s at this point, they argue, that Jesus is referring to a time period that is still in our future. Luke 17:22–37 describes five Olivet-Discourse prophetic events that are identical to those found in Matthew 24. The difference between Matthew 24 and Luke 17 is in the order of the events, a characteristic of the passages that few commentators can explain. Ray Summers writes:
This is a most difficult passage. The overall reference appears to be to the coming of the Son of Man—Christ—in judgment at the end of the age. Some small parts of it, however, are repeated in Luke 21 in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70), and larger parts of it are in Matthew 24, also in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem. The entire complex cautions one against dogmatism in interpreting.8
Taking Matthew 24 as the standard, Luke places the Noah’s ark analogy (Matt. 24:37–39) before the events of Matthew 24:17–18 (“let him who is on the housetop not go down”), verse 27 (“for just as the lightning comes from the east”), and verse 28 (“wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather”). If the five prophetic events of Matthew 24 that are found in Luke 17:22–37 are numbered 1–2–3–4–5, Luke’s numbering of the same events would be 2–4–1–5–3.9 (See accompanying chart.)
After A Long Time
Another line of evidence offered by those who believe that events following Matthew 24:34 refer to a yet future personal and physical return of Jesus is the meaning given to “after a long time” (24:48; 25:19) and the “delay” by the bridegroom (25:5). On the surface these examples seem to indicate that two different events are in view, one near (the destruction of Jerusalem) and one distant (the second coming of Christ). This is the view of Stephen F. Hayhow.
Both parables, the parables of the virgins (vv. 1–13), and the parable of the talents (vv. 14–30), speak of the absence of the bridegroom/master, who is said to be “a long time in coming” (v. 5) and “After a long time the master of the servants returned¼” (v. 19). This suggests, not the events of A.D. 70 which were to occur in the near future, in fact within the space of a generation, but a distant event, the return of Christ.10
Notice that the evil slave says, “My master is not coming for a long time” (Matt. 24:48). The evil slave then proceeds to “beat his fellow-slaves and eat and drink with drunkards” (24:49). But to the surprise of the “evil slave” the master returned when he least expected him (24:50). The master did not return to cut the evil slave’s distant relatives in pieces (24:51); he cut him in pieces. The evil slave was alive when the master left, and he was alive when the master returned. In this context, a “long time” must be measured against a person’s lifetime. In context, two years could be a long time if the master usually returned within six months.
The same idea is expressed in the parable of the “talents.” A man entrusts his slaves with his possessions (25:14). The master then goes on a journey (25:15). While the master is gone, the slaves make investment decisions (25:16–18). We are then told that “after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them” (25:19). In this context “a long time” is no longer than an average lifetime. The settlement is made with the same slaves who received the talents. In every other New Testament context, “a long time” means nothing more than an extended period of time (Luke 8:27; 23:8; John 5:6; Acts 8:11; 14:3, 28; 26:5, 29; 27:21; 28:6). Nowhere does it mean centuries or multiple generations.
The delay of the bridegroom is no different from the “long time” of the two previous parables. The bridegroom returns to the same two groups of virgins (25:1–13). The duration of the delay must be measured by the audience.
This brief analysis helps us understand the “mockers” who ask, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Peter 3:3–4). Peter was aware that Jesus’ coming was an event that would take place before the last apostle died (Matt. 16:27–28; John 21:22–23). The doctrine of the soon return of Christ was common knowledge (Matt. 24:34; 26:64; Phil. 4:5; Heb. 10:25; 1 John 2:18; Rev. 1:1, 3). It is not hard to imagine that the passage of several decades would lead some to doubt the reliability of the prophecy, especially as the promised generation was coming to a close. The horrendous events of A.D. 70 silenced the mockers.
- Thomas Newton, Dissertations on the Prophecies, Which Have Remarkably Been Fulfilled, and at This Time are Fulfilling in the World (London: J.F. Dove, 1754), 379.(↩)
- Jack Van Impe, The Great Escape: Preparing for the Rapture, the Next Event on God’s Prophetic Clock (Nashville, TN: Word, 1998), 127.(↩)
- D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, gen. ed., Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 8:509. Also see N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 365–66.(↩)
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 2:1432–1433.(↩)
- Notice the audience reference: “Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things” (2 Pet. 3:14). Peter is not describing a distant event but one that was soon to occur.(↩)
- Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 115.(↩)
- John F. Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation: A Historical and Biblical Study of Posttribulationism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 89, 90. Walvoord writes in another place: “Because at the rapture believers will be taken out of the world, some have confused this with the rapture of the church. Here, however, the situation is the reverse. The one who is left, is left to enter the kingdom; the one who is taken, is taken in judgment.” John F. Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1974), 193.(↩)
- Ray Summers, Commentary on Luke: Jesus, the Universal Savior (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1972), 202.(↩)
- See the helpful chart in Edward E. Stevens, What Happened in A.D. 70? (Bradford, PA: Kingdom Publicans, 1997). While this is not positive proof of an A.D. 70 fulfillment for chapters 24 and 25, it certainly adds credibility to the position.(↩)
- Stephen F. Hayhow, “Matthew 24, Luke 17 and the Destruction of Jerusalem,” Christianity and Society 4:2 (April 1994), 4.(↩)