Why Matthew 24:36-25:30 Describes the Rapture of the Church, Not the Second Coming of Christ

Pretribulationism underwent a subtle, yet significant transformation in the first half of the twentieth century. The earlier pretribulationism of J.N. Darby and C.I. Scofield began to be replaced by the pretribulationism of Henry C. Thiessen and Lewis Sperry Chafer, and later John F. Walvoord. The dividing line between these two forms of pretribulationism centers on the interpretation of Matthew 24:45-25:30. The earlier pretribulationists, while viewing Matthew 24:36-44 as describing the second coming, generally viewed Matthew 24:45-25:30 as a description of the latter Church Age, culminating with the rapture. Consequently, they saw support in the Olivet Discourse for the imminency of the rapture. The newer form of pretribulationism differed on this point; proponents insisted that not only did 24:36-44 describe the second coming, but that the descriptions and illustrations given in 25:45-25:30 (i.e., the wise servant in 24:45-51, the virgins in 25:1-13, and the servants in 25:14-30) pictured Israel awaiting the second coming, thus removing the Church and the rapture entirely from the scope of the discourse. While the new pretribulationists held strongly to the doctrine of the imminency of the rapture, they were forced to conclude that this discourse offers no support for that doctrine, since given their interpretation of Matthew 24:36-25:30, the rapture is not in view. (The earlier pretribulationists could at least point to 24:45-25:30 as support for imminency.) The latter form of pretribulationism is mostly implied in the writings of Thiessen and Chafer, and was later formally defended by Walvoord (Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come, Moody Press, 1974, pp.193-195). Its presence in Pentecost’s influential Things to Come (Zondervan Publishing House, 1958) is mainly implicit (note p.281, and the complete absence of any reference to Matthew 24:36-25:30 in connection to the rapture; also see pp.193-218).

The significance of this shift in interpretation is impossible to overstate. Why did the new pretribulationists extend the description of the second coming all the way to 25:30? One reason was purely exegetical: they correctly understood the connection between 24:36-44 and the three illustrations following in 24:45-25:30—a point the earlier pretribulationists had apparently failed to recognize. The other reason is both historical and theological. The new pretribulationists were deeply concerned about the advance of posttribulationism and partial rapturism, both of which drew support from arguments that viewed 24:36-25:30 as pertaining to the rapture. The correct solution to the exegetical problem would have been to recognize that all of 24:36-25:30 pertains to the rapture, but that would have been an uncomfortable solution since it would have acknowledged a discussion of the rapture on the heels of a discussion of the tribulation and the second coming. In the end, they opted to regard this entire section as pertaining to the second coming. Since most of the commentaries (having been written by amillennialists) supported such a view, and since the original pretribulationists had already taken the initial step in this direction by viewing 24:36-44 as the second coming, it was a convenient solution.

Unfortunately, eliminating the rapture entirely from the Olivet Discourse had unintended consequences. The new pretribulationists failed to recognize the primacy of Matthew 24:36-25:30 (or at the very least, 24:45-25:30) to the doctrine of the rapture; for both the particularity of the rapture as an event distinct from the regal appearing (the second coming), and the doctrine of the imminency of the rapture, are contingent upon Matthew 24:36-25:30. Thus, by arguing that the entire passage pertains to the second coming proper, proponents inadvertently threw out any remaining support for the particularity and the imminency of the rapture.[1]

If one denies that Matthew 24:36-25:30 pertains to the rapture, an enormous problem results, since Matthew 24:36-25:30 contains the only explicit biblical support for imminency. This is particularly problematic since other avenues for proving the imminency of the rapture, whether historical or deductive, have been inconclusive at best.[2] Pentecost’s book, Things to Come, which since its publication in 1958 has been considered the sine qua non of dispensational eschatology, is a classic example of the new pretribulational quandary regarding support for imminency (see pages 168-169, 180-181, 202-204). Pentecost cites several New Testament passages in support of imminency (Jn. 14:2-3; 1 Cor. 1:7; Philp. 3:20-21; 1 Thess. 1:9-10; 4:16-17; 5:5-9; Tit. 2:13; Jam. 5:8-9; Rev. 3:10; 22:17-22 [sic]). However, upon examination none of these passages directly supports imminency. Pentecost does not expound any of these passages; the weight of his evidence falls heaviest on the beliefs of the early church, for which he quotes from 2 Clement and the Didache (pp.168-169). However, when the contexts of these two quotations are examined it is apparent that they were both based on statements made in Matthew 24:36-25:30, which Pentecost and all of the new pretribulationists reject as pertaining to the rapture. The immediate quotation Pentecost cites from chapter sixteen of the Didache contains no less than fourteen allusions to the Olivet Discourse, and the quote from 2 Clement chapter twelve specifically appeals to the Olivet Discourse as its source of authority. Walvoord does the same, citing the same passage in the Didache, and also Constitutions of the Holy Apostles (Book VII, Section ii, Paragraph xxxi), which contains six allusions to the Olivet Discourse (John F. Walvoord, The Rapture Question, Zondervan Publishing House, 1957, pp.53-56). Neither Pentecost nor Walvoord comments on the illogicality of appealing to early church history, while at the same time denying the validity of the biblical basis the early church gave for their belief in imminency.

How did the new pretribulationists support the contention that Matthew 24:36-25:30 refers to the second coming? Strangely, the seeds of what was to come in the new pretribulationism were sown in the old pretribulationism. Walvoord, just as Darby, took the position that Matthew 24:36-41 describes the second coming because in the illustration of Noah’s day (vv.37‑39) the ones the flood “took” were the unrighteous taken in judgment; hence, if one assumes a parallel between the ones the flood “took” away (in the Noah illustration) and those “taken” at the event described in verses 40-41, then those taken in verses 40-41 are to be taken in judgment, which could only be true if the event is the second coming. Starting from that point, Walvoord then argues that Matthew 24:45-25:30 is simply an extension of 24:36-44. Here Walvoord is correct about the connection between 24:36-44 and 24:45-25:30, but incorrect in identifying 24:36-44 as the second coming. Neither the Noah illustration nor the event described in 24:40-41 can refer to the second coming, since an appearing that is sudden, unexpected, and virtually instantaneous, and that occurs at a time when human conditions are described as being quite ordinary—a point explicitly made in the illustration (cf. 24:38-39)—cannot be the same as an appearing that is protracted, public, and predictable, and that occurs at the peak of cataclysmic global judgments at the end of the tribulation. We should also point out that Walvoord’s interpretation of the Noah illustration is seriously in error. Note that the twin analogy of Lot’s day, found in Luke 17:28-29, does not support Walvoord’s view that the unrighteous are the ones removed. Thus, the assertion that Matthew 24:36-44 describes the second coming is demonstrably incorrect.

The view Walvoord represents also implies an imminent second coming. How does he deal with this problem? Again, working from the perspective that those taken are taken in judgment, he argues from the Noah illustration that once Noah’s ark was finished and all were safely inside, the unredeemed could have known, based on Noah’s prophetic proclamation, that the flood was imminent; thus in like manner, the second coming will be imminent once all of the tribulation signs have been fulfilled (Matthew, p.193). Hence, according to this reasoning the second coming can be viewed as imminent once all of the precursory signs are fulfilled (i.e., only at the very end of the tribulation period, immediately prior to the second coming). But such an interpretation of the passage cannot be correct, since as has already been pointed out, this interpretation hinges upon 24:36‑44 being a description of the second coming, which is logically impossible, and since 24:38-39 cannot be made to fit with any biblical description of earthly life immediately preceding the second coming. Thus, the new pretribulationism was simply a logical extension of the early pretribulationists’ view of 24:36-44, extending that view to 24:45-25:30. Likely this entire string of failed interpretation began with the mistaken presumption on the part of early dispensationalists that prophecy concerning the Church would not likely be found in such close proximity to a discussion of the second coming. However, any fully developed answer to the disciples’ question in Matthew 24:3 would have been incomplete if it had not addressed the dual nature of Christ’s future appearing, necessitating a discussion of both the second coming and the rapture. Failing to see that this passage implies a dual appearing leads inevitably to the unitary view of posttribulationism. The reason is that the very concept of a dual appearing is predicated upon the fact that one aspect of Christ’s future appearing is described as imminent, while the other is definitely not imminent. When we recognize that in this discourse Jesus introduced the concept of a dual appearing, then, and only then, we are able to discern a coherent theology of the rapture and the second coming. (For an indepth discussion of the interpretation of Matthew 24:32-25:30, see: The Olivet Discourse, by the author, pp. 149-190.)

That Matthew 24:36-25:30 describes the rapture of the Church rather than the second should be evident from the following observations.

  1. Neither the Noah illustration (Matt. 24:37-39 cf. Lk. 17:26-27) nor the Lot illustration (Lk.17:28-29) are appropriate for illustrating the second coming. At the second coming the unrighteous will be removed, and the righteous will remain to inherit the kingdom (Matt. 13:30, 41-43, 49-50). However, in both of these illustrations the righteous are removed from the sphere of judgment, and the unrighteous are destroyed. Note this is also the case in the parable of the ten virgins, which illustrates the same truth (Matt. 25:1‑13).  It is frequently objected that in the Noah illustration it is said that the unrighteous are taken; however, that is a misunderstanding of the metaphor “took them all away” (Matt. 24:39). This metaphor does not refer to the unrighteous being taken anywhere, but to their destruction; Luke’s account of the Noah illustration (Lk. 17:26-27) and the Lot illustration (Lk. 17:28-29) make this quite clear. In contrast, the illustration of Noah’s deliverance perfectly illustrates the rapture. Noah and his family were lifted above the waters of judgment and were returned after the judgment abated. Note how this comports perfectly with the Lot illustration (Lk. 17:28-29), both of which are compatible analogies with the rapture.
  1. The conditions described in the Noah and Lot illustrations are incompatible with the second coming. In these illustrations life is described as normal, with people eating and drinking, marrying, buying and selling, planting, and building, right up to the moment that judgment falls unexpected on the unbelieving world. Such will not be the case at the second coming. At the second coming the earth will be in the midst of catastrophic judgment, with the bulk of mankind having already perished. According to Isaiah, the judgments of the day of the LORD will make men “more scare than gold” (Isa. 13:13); the earth will be “completely laid to waste” (24:3); its inhabitants “burned up” (24:6); the earth will become “a desolation” (13:9); the sun, moon, and stars will fail to give light (13:10); the heavens and the earth will be shaken from their place (13:13), and the world will be in the midst of the most destructive war in history (Rev. 9:13-17); and men will be experiencing plagues so severe that they will be in great anguish (Rev.16:1-11). So terrible will this time be that Jesus said if it were to go longer than the appointed time all flesh would perish (Matt. 24:22). How can the normalcy prominently pictured in the Noah and Lot illustrations (as well as the parable of the ten virgins) be harmonized with such a description of the late tribulation period? Clearly, it cannot, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that these illustrations pertain to a different time, which must be prior to the outpouring of divine judgment. Note, however, that the descriptions given in these illustrations fit perfectly with the rapture of the Church prior to the beginning of divine judgment.
  1. The appearing described in Matthew 24:36-25:30 is sudden, unexpected, and imminent (cf. 24:42-44), but the second coming is none of these. Why? -Because the second coming will be preceded by many signs over a period of seven years. (Is that not the principal idea communicated in Matthew 24:4-30?) Not only that, but once the abomination occurs in the temple, believers will be able to calculate the very day of the second coming (see: What the Bible Says About the Future, Chapter Seven, “Tribulation Chronology,” by the author, pp.145-174.) After the breaking of the sixth seal, even the unredeemed will know that the end is near (Rev. 6:12-17, esp. vv. 15-17). How could anyone think that believers living in the terrible last days of the tribulation would not know that the second coming is near? The view that Matthew 24:36-25:30 is a warning to believers concerning the second coming is simply nonsense.
  1. Note that in this passage Jesus likened his appearing to a thief in the night (24:43). However, that analogy would be inappropriate if applied to the second coming, for at the second coming Jesus will not appear suddenly without warning, as does a thief. He will return in unspeakable splendor with the armies of heaven to destroy his enemies and to establish his kingdom. However, the analogy of the thief is quite appropriate to the rapture when he will appear suddenly, unexpectedly, without signs or warning, to take his Church. In fact, one cognate of the word harpazō (the term used to describe the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:17) is harpagmos, which refers to a “robber.”
  1. In the parable of the virgins (Matt. 25:1-13), which illustrates the same truth as the Noah and Lot illustrations, it is the righteous that are taken and the unrighteous that are left behind. Thus, the parable of the virgins (and its analog, the parable of the stewards) cannot illustrate the second coming, since the righteous will not be removed at the second coming, leaving the unrighteous behind. Also, the mixed profession of faith (believers and unbelievers both professing a common faith) does not fit what we know of the tribulation period after the great persecution and apostasy (Matt. 24:9-10), but it fits well with the end of the Church age, just prior to the rapture; hence the warning in 2 Thessalonians 5:3-11.

Those who teach that Matthew 24:36-25:30 pertains to the second coming sometimes object that the Church did not exist when the discourse in Matthew 24-25 was spoken, and consequently the truth revealed there cannot pertain to the Church, rather they claim that it pertains either to the Jews, saved Jews, or Christians generally, during the tribulation. This argument is completely devoid to merit on the following grounds: 1) As we have seen, it is impossible that the description in Matthew 24:36-25:30 could be the second coming since none of the details are compatible with the second coming. 2) Since Jesus knew that his appearing is to be a dual event (rapture/second coming), in order to give a proper answer to the disciple’s question concerning his coming (Matt. 24:3) it was necessary to broach this truth. 3) The disciples to whom Jesus was speaking would become the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:19-20) in less than eight weeks. Since Jesus had already prophesied the future existence of the Church (Matt. 16:18), it is entirely appropriate that he would address a truth pertaining to the Church at this point. (Just two days after this discourse Jesus instituted the observance of the Lord’s Supper; few would argue that the Lord’s Supper does not pertain to the Church.) Thus, the objection that the rapture cannot be in view because the Church did not yet exist is without merit.

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[1] This crucial error has resulted in the virtual demise of pretribulationism in theology, at least at the scholarly level. However, this error didn’t just jeopardize pretribulationism, it jeopardized all dual appearance views, that is, any view other than the unitary view of posttribulationism—which sees the rapture and the second coming as the same event. (Interestingly, it may have been the tension between imminency and non-imminency in this very discourse that gave rise to modern pretribulationism in the mid-1800s.) The new pretribulational solution also resulted in another significant problem: Matthew 24:36-25:30 is explicit in teaching the imminency of the appearing it describes. Thus, if one claims that the passage pertains to the second coming, they must conclude that the second coming will be imminent at such a time as described in the passage (i.e., when people are going about the ordinary activities of life, unaware that they are in imminent danger of impending global judgment). Clearly, given the prophesied conditions of the tribulation period just prior to the second coming, such an interpretation is impossible from the standpoint of a normal/objective hermeneutic. Nevertheless, this is the interpretation offered by the new pretribulationists (for examples see: Chafer’s Systematic Theology, vol.4, p.367; and vol.5, pp.129-140; and John F. Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation, Zondervan Publishing House, 1975, pp.22-24).

[2] Some of the new pretribulationists point to passages such as 1 Corinthians 16:22, 1 Thessalonians 1:10, James 5:7-9 and others as support for the imminency of the rapture; however, while these passages are compatible with imminency, and may reflect the truth dimly, none are suitable as primary proof texts. For example, the fact that Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 stated that believers were “waiting” for Christ’s appearing would be just as true and commendable whether imminency were true or not. In fact, the use of such week arguments has undoubtedly been part of the reason that some have abandoned imminency altogether.

(Adapted from: The Olivet Discourse: A Reconstruction of the Text from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, 2009, by Sam A. Smith, pp.149-190 and 251-264. To download the abridged PDF e-book click or tap here, for the print edition, click or tap here, and What the Bible Says About the Future, 2011, by Sam A. Smith, pp. 323-331. Click or tap for the print edition, [350 pages] or the e-book edition [233 pages-abridged],  Also, for a more complete discussion of the Rapture see: A Biblical View of the Rapture, by Sam A. Smith, 2011. To download the PDF e-book click or tap here, for the print edition, click or tap here.)

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