Matthew 24 And The Pre-Trib Rapture - A Bible Study by Jack Kelley -
Lately I've been receiving questions again about various rapture positions. Several of these questions have to do with the claim that in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24-25) Jesus in effect said the Church will have to endure all of the seven years of Daniel's 70th Week including the Great Tribulation. In this study I will attempt to show why He could not have done so.
This won't be a verse by verse study of the Olivet Discourse, but rather a look at the verses within the passage that people use to support something other than a pre-trib view. If you want a verse by verse study you can go to my four part series entitled "The End times According To Jesus."
It's important to begin any study of this nature with a review of the overall context of the Olivet Discourse because it's the most important factor in understanding what Jesus was really saying and to whom He was saying it. It will also help us see what was going on in the disciples' minds.
It was just a couple of days before the crucifixion. Jesus and His disciples were walking over the Mt. of Olives toward Bethany where they were staying at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The sun was getting low in the late afternoon sky, casting a soft golden light on the white Temple and its surrounding buildings. It was such a beautiful sight the disciples called it to the Lord's attention.
In reply, Jesus said, "Do you see all these things? I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." (Matt. 24:2).
It was the second time they had heard Jesus say this. The first time was a couple of days earlier on what we now call Palm Sunday when He had told the people that because they didn't recognize the time of His coming, the city would be destroyed (Luke 19:41-44).
He was holding the nation accountable for their failure to understand Daniel 9:24-27 where nearly 6 centuries earlier the angel Gabriel had told Daniel of a 490 year period that would begin when they received permission to rebuild Jerusalem and culminate in the end of the age. Gabriel told Daniel that the Messiah would come 483 years into that period (Daniel 9:25). Sure enough, here He was standing in their midst right on time.
There's no indication from the Biblical record that Jesus ever spoke to the disciples about the fact that the coming Church Age would interrupt Daniel's prophecy and delay its completion by about 2,000 years. In fact from Acts 1:6 we learn that 40 days after the crucifixion they expected Him to restore the Kingdom to Israel at that time.
It wasn't until James explained things to them some 20 years later that they understood how Israel was being set aside while the Lord took a people for Himself from among the Gentiles (Acts 15:13-18). A word study on this passage will reveal a hint of the rapture, and shortly thereafter Paul became the first person on Earth to present a clear teaching on the doctrine of the rapture (1 Cor. 15:51-53, 1 Thes. 4:16-17), saying He was revealing a secret in doing so (1 Cor. 15:51).
Therefore, on that afternoon on the Mt. Of Olives all the disciples could have known for sure was that 483 years of the 490 year prophecy of Daniel had passed, there were only 7 years left and Jesus had just told them that the Temple, all of its buildings and indeed all of Jerusalem were going to be destroyed. It must have been quite a shock to hear this, and it prompted four of them (Peter, James, John and Andrew) to come to Him privately for clarification.
Comparing Daniel's prophecy with what the Lord Himself had repeatedly told them, they were beginning to understand that Jesus was about to die, and so the questions they asked Him had to do with when the Temple and the city would be destroyed, what would be the sign of His (second) coming, and of the end of the age, by which I believe they meant the fulfillment of Daniel's prophecy (Matt. 24:3)
These were Jewish men speaking with the Jewish Messiah about the future of Israel and in His 2 chapter answer Jesus referred to Israel repeatedly, but never said a single word about the largely Gentile Church or the amount of time that would pass before the final seven years were completed.
After some general observations about things that would happen, Jesus gave them this summary of the future.
"Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come" (Matt. 24:9-14).
Not only is there no mention of the Church in this summary, several of the things He said are not even relevant to the church. They were intended for Israel. For example, it's Israel that has always been hated by all nations because of Him, it's Israel that has experienced many turning away from the Jewish faith, it's Israel that has to remain faithful to the end to be saved, and it's Israel that has been promised a Kingdom on Earth as a testimony to all nations.
What Will Be The Sign Of Your Coming?
Beginning in Matt. 24:15, Jesus gave the first specific sign of His coming and once again it concerned Israel. The abomination of desolation He spoke of requires a Temple, indicating a national presence for Israel in the promised land with people adhering to their Old Covenant relationship with God. We now know that hasn't been possible for nearly 2,000 years but the disciples had no idea.
The people Jesus told to flee when they see the abomination would be living in Judea, historically the area around Jerusalem. They were told to pray their flight won't take place in the winter, when the weather in Jerusalem can be bad, or on the Sabbath, because covenant keeping Jews are uniquely forbidden from traveling on the Sabbath (Matt. 24:15-20).
Jesus said the abomination of desolation will be the sign that the Great Tribulation is beginning (Matt. 24:21). This is a time when Jeremiah 30:1-11 tells us two things will happen; all the nations among which the Jews have been scattered will be destroyed, and Israel will be purified in preparation for the promised Kingdom (Jere. 30:11).
Jeremiah called this the time of Jacob's trouble (Jere. 30:7), which is the Old Testament name for the Great Tribulation, and said it will result in David becoming their king (Jere. 30:9) something that hasn't happened yet.
The Church is nowhere in view here and in fact both Paul (Romans 5:9, 1 Thes. 1:10) and Jesus (Rev. 3:10) promised that the Church will not be present for this.
"Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he 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. 24:30-31).
Some claim this is a description of the rapture but if that's true it violates the Jewish context of the passage without any explanation or justification. It's based on the fact that the Greek word for trumpet appears both here and in 1 Cor. 15: 52. But that is not an acceptable reason to tie these verses together, because there are other factors that make them obviously different. One is that in 1 Thes. 4:16-17 the only angel mentioned is "the archangel" not some unknown number of angels scouring the heavens. Another is that it turns the rapture from a signless, secret event into one that can't happen until there is a sign for all the world to see, and until the second coming is already in progress. It would mean that while all the world is standing there watching Jesus descend from heaven in power and glory, He will suddenly scoop up the Church and return to heaven without completing His trip to earth.
It would also violate His promise, made personally and through Paul, that He will keep us from the hour of trial that's coming upon the whole world, delivering us from the time and place of God's wrath.
Those who see the rapture here claim that the Church is "the elect" the Lord was talking about. But I disagree. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel was called God's elect and since Israel was the topic of their discussion, it's much more likely that's who the Lord had in mind. Also, according to Daniel 12:2-3 Israel's resurrection will take place at the Second coming making it possible that Matt. 24:31 is referring to Old Testament saints being rounded up to receive their resurrection bodies.
Finally, there's no mention of the Church being "the elect" in the gospels. In the only times the Lord mentioned the Church at all (Matt. 16:18 and Matt. 18:17) He did not use any form of the Greek word for "elect". The first clear description of the Church as the elect did not happen until Romans 8:33 which Paul wrote over 20 years later. In my opinion, to think that the disciples would have understood the Lord to be referring to the Church in Matt. 24:22 and Matt. 24:31 is an unwarranted assumption.
So far in His answer to the disciples the Lord has given us an overview of the end times (Matt. 24:3-14) and then a more detailed chronological order; abomination of desolation, the Great Tribulation, and the Second Coming (Matt. 24:15-31).
And Of The End Of the Age?
Beginning in Matt. 24:36 He turned His attention to things that will happen after He returns. These will signal that the end of the age has come, and they provide His answer their final question. We know this because of the specific way in which He identified the day of His coming as "that day and hour" (Matt. 24:36) and "at the coming of the Son of Man" (Matt. 24.36, 39). He was speaking of the day of His return.
Some people say that no one will be eating and drinking, or marrying and giving in marriage before the Second Coming like they were in the days of Noah. They say the terrible effects of the Great Tribulation will have made that impossible. Therefore Matt. 24:36-39 has to be referring to the rapture. But I think they're missing the point. First of all, people have found a way to socialize and get married in the worst of times. But more importantly I think the Lord's point here was that just as people had no idea the world was about to end in the days leading up to the flood, no one will know the world is about to end in the days leading up to the second coming.
And notice how the Lord compared "the days before the flood" in Noah's time to "at the coming" of the Son of Man rather than the days before His coming. The worst time ever to come upon mankind will have just ended. Man's natural tendency after any catastrophe is to believe things will return to normal, but when they actually see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with power and great glory they will finally know things will never be the same again. That's why they will mourn when they see him coming (Matt. 24:30).
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 (Matt. 24:40-41).
These verses are often used to support a rapture after the Great Tribulation. Aside from the fact that seeing them this way violates the context and chronology of the Lord's message, as well as His promise to the Church, there's a translation problem here. The Greek word translated "taken" means to "receive unto oneself" and a form of this word provides the clue of the rapture I mentioned in Acts 15:13-18 where it's translated "take for himself" (Acts 15:14). It literally means "to take for the purpose of carrying away." Before the Lord turns back to Israel to fulfill the missing 7 years of Daniel's prophecy, He will take for Himself a people from among the Gentiles and carry us away.
So the word "taken" in Matt. 24:40-41 is not a problem, but the word translated "left" means to "put away" and was often used in the context of a divorce.
Rather than being a description of the rapture, where Paul's definitive teachings never even mention unbelievers, let alone their disposition, these two verses are a summary of the Sheep and Goat judgment (Matt. 25:31-46). Both take place after the Second Coming and both involve the final destiny of believers and unbelievers who will survive the Great Tribulation and live to see the Lord's return. Believers will be received into the kingdom but unbelievers will be put away into a place of eternal punishment.
The Lord finished his explanation of things that will mark the end of the age with several parables that describe the judgments He will conduct after He returns. I devoted an entire study to the subject of these parables that you can read in my two part posting, "Understanding the Olivet discourse Parables." For the purpose of this study let's just review the clues as to their timing to help you see they cannot be meant for the church.
Matt. 24:29 begins "Immediately after the distress of those days" and refers to the end of the Great Tribulation. Matt. 24:30 signals the Second Coming, with more detail contained in Matt. 24:36-44 including the first warnings that people on Earth will not know the exact day or hour of the Second Coming in advance. I believe this is due to the fact that both the Sun and Moon will have gone dark (Matt. 24:29) and it will be difficult to keep track of time.
Matt. 24:45-51 contains the parable of the faithful and wicked servants and describes how the Lord will deal with them "when He returns". It ends with another warning that people won't know the day or hour of His return in advance (Matt. 24:50).
Matt. 25:1-13 is the parable of the Ten virgins (bridesmaids). The opening sentence begins with "at that time". Everything from Matt. 24:30 forward has been about the Second Coming, so the phrase "at that time" refers to the time following the Second Coming. There are many other reasons why this parable can not be about the Church that are detailed in the study I referenced above. Like the others, this parable ends with a similar warning about the unknown day and hour of the Second Coming (Matt. 25:13).
Matt. 25:14-30 is the Parable of the Talents. By the opening word "again" we know that the Lord was referring to the same time as the previous ones.
And in Matt. 25:31-46 the Parable of the Sheep and Goats gives us the clearest indication of timing yet. It begins with, "When the son of Man comes in all His glory, and all the angels with Him ...". As I pointed out earlier it's the judgment of tribulation survivors, some of whom will be believers and will be welcomed into the Millennial Kingdom, while the others will be taken away to eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46).
The Church is the Bride of Christ, the most highly regarded group in the history of humankind, and the one with whom Jesus is closest. Failing to mention us even once in His signature discussion of the end times can only be explained by the fact that throughout the Olivet Discourse the Lord was focused on Israel and not the Church. Therefore any attempt to use this passage in reference to the rapture of the Church requires taking portions of it out of context, and in some cases a reinterpretation of the text is necessary as well. The Pre-Trib Rapture of the Church remains the only position that is consistent with a literal interpretation of the Scriptures. You can almost hear the footsteps of the Messiah.