by David Weimer
Even among those of us who view the rapture as imminent (the pretribulational view) there remains disagreement concerning whether Jesus Himself ever prophesied of this blessed hope. The debate primarily involves the Lord’s Olivet Discourse—in particular, verses 36-51 of Matthew 24.
Few deny that Jesus, in His humanity, knew of the rapture and alluded to it at least once in the Upper Room to comfort His disciples: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto Myself, that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:3). Many, however, insist that the Messiah’s sermon on the Mount of Olives was meant exclusively for the nation of Israel and not the “church”, so He could not have been referring to the rapture. This argument fails to acknowledge that the message He preached was in response to questions raised by His disciples—those believing Jews whom He would one day receive unto Himself “in the clouds… in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
Some might also argue that the rapture was a “mystery” until the apostle Paul revealed it later in his letter to the church at Corinth. But of all the various mysteries presented in the New Testament, each refers to doctrines not previously disclosed in the Old Testament—none preclude prior New Testament teaching of some facet of that doctrine. By divine design, “clues” are needed to unveil this mystery concerning certain details of the rapture. Although the apostles supply many of these clues, some essential pieces of this puzzle can be obtained only from our Savior’s teachings.
For clarity and brevity, allow me to assign definitions to the following terms: “Phase 1” will refer to the first part of Christ’s future appearing, which we call the rapture. This is His return for believers (occurring prior to the tribulation period) to resurrect and/or glorify their physical bodies and take them back to Heaven with Him (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-53). “Phase 2” will refer to the second part of Christ’s future appearing, which is often called the “second advent”. This is His return with believers (occurring at the end of the tribulation period) to destroy Satan’s armies, rescue His chosen people, and establish His earthly kingdom, reigning over all nations from the Throne of David in Jerusalem (see Isaiah 9:7 and Daniel 9:24b for starters).
I believe that Jesus prophesied both Phase 1 and Phase 2 in the Olivet Discourse. To assert that He spoke only of Phase 2 requires the explaining away of many “apparent” contradictions. But the inspired Word of God is without error. And since our faith is entirely reasonable, it is unreasonable to settle with interpretations of Scripture that are full of logical contradictions.
Verses 4-34 of Matthew 24 speak, indisputably, of signs pointing to both the tribulation period and Phase 2. There are both definite and indefinite signs that must precede Phase 2. A definite sign, for example (a major one), that is implied in this passage (and explicitly declared elsewhere) is the reestablishment of the nation of Israel. Another is “the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet” (verse 15). Examples of indefinite signs that “must come to pass” can be found in verse 7: “nation shall rise against nation…and there shall be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes…” This type of sign is more general in nature and is measured by increased frequency and/or severity. In this portion of His sermon, I believe the Lord clearly answers the disciple’s second question, “What shall be the sign of Thy coming, and of the end of the age?”
When we come to verses 35 and 36 the literary intent is unmistakable—a transition takes place. In verse 35 Jesus takes us beyond the Millennium to when the heavens and Earth will be destroyed and remade, but He reminds us that the words He spoke would never be destroyed; His Word would stand true forever (see also Psalm 119:89, 152, and 160). Surely, the Creator’s words can never fail and therefore can never be contradictory. But He continues His sermon with words that would be just that—contradictory—if not understood correctly.
The very next words He speaks, “But of that day” could have been easily translated from the Greek as follows: “But concerning that day...” Which day? Of course, He is not speaking of the day when the heavens and the Earth pass away. He gives us a clue: No one will know “that day and hour” (verse 36), but many will know the day and hour of Phase 2—“when ye shall see all these things [signs], know that it [Phase 2] is near, even at the doors“ (verse 33).
At this point in His sermon, it seems clear that Jesus is introducing a new subject. This same sense is felt in Mark 13:31-32 and Luke 21:33-34. It is here, I believe, that Jesus begins to answer the disciples’ first question: “When shall these things be?” He prefaces His answer by telling them that no one knows when. Apparently, we should always be ready for that day to take place, always “watching”, just as the “master of the house” needed always to watch because he did not know when “the thief would come” (verse 43). It is no wonder that both the apostles Paul and Peter warn, “the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2, see also 2 Peter 3:10).
Consider for a moment the concept in verse 36 that “no one knows”. Is this true of Phase 1? Yes. What about Phase 2? No one? What about those who dwell on Earth during the tribulation? They can know from the Bible how to calculate in advance the exact number of days that will elapse from the day Antichrist confirms a covenant with Israel (a major definite sign) to the very day of Phase 2. That is, Phase 2 will occur exactly 2520 days after the tribulation period starts (360 days per prophetic year x 7 prophetic years). Again, when they see all these things (signs) that precede Phase 2 they will “know that it is near—even at the doors” (verse 33).
Jesus begins to present the last days from a broader perspective. “That day” mentioned in verse 36 refers to when all “these things” will be, starting with Phase 1 of His return—not Phase 2. Although no one knows when that day will occur (or when it won’t occur), Jesus offers some indefinite clues (because we cannot know definitely) as to its timing by comparing the societal conditions that will precede that day with those conditions that existed prior to the day of the Great Flood: “But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be” (verse 37). See also Luke 17:26-27 and 21:34-35. It is worthwhile to reiterate that Jesus does not specify definite signs prerequisite to that day. Instead, indefinite signs—indeterminate moral conditions—are given so as to maintain an imminent view of that day.
Further consider verse 37 regarding the “days of Noah”—does this fit best with Phase 1 in view or Phase 2? The final 3½ years of the tribulation period will especially be a time of great turmoil, judgment, and persecution. Multitudes of Jews will be running for their lives and going into hiding. God will be pouring out His just wrath upon all the nations of the Earth. Some judgments will be so horrific that men will attempt to kill themselves to escape it (Revelation 9:6), but God grants no escape to the unrepentant soul. The conditions characterizing the tribulation period do not seem to have as much in common with those prior to the Flood as they do with the conditions during the Flood. So, I believe this verse speaks of times prior to Phase 1, not phase 2.
Verse 38: “…they were eating and drinking, marrying, and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark…” Luke 17:28-29 adds, “Also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from the heavens and destroyed them all.” If this describes the conditions just prior to Phase 2, then it is obviously inconsistent with the conditions we find in Revelation. Certainly, Christ is speaking of an increasingly ungodly world caught up in everyday life, denying in their hearts the reality of impending judgment. This describes the times we live in today—prior to Phase 1. Even in many of our churches, people are so preoccupied with prosperity, health, and entertainment that there is little time left over for meditation on God’s prophetic Word, self-denial, sacrifice, prayer, and proclaiming the Gospel message. Christ warns, “…take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting [overindulgence], and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares” (Luke 21:34).
Verse 39: “…the flood came and took them all away, so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be.” In the Greek, the word for “taking away” used here is not the same word used in verses 40 and 41, so the same meaning should not be applied to both. In fact, a distinction is being made. In this verse it means put away. In the subsequent verses the term that’s used, paralambano (Strong’s #3880), means “to receive near, i.e. associated with oneself (in any familiar or intimate act or relation)… receive, take (unto, with)”.
Verse 40: “Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken [paralambano], and the other left.” Question: Near the end of the tribulation, will men be in the field (I assume working, as if nothing unusual were about to take place) or will they be hiding out, struggling to survive, or joining Antichrist’s army to prepare for battle against Jesus and His chosen people? It is important to recognize a pattern followed here and in several other passages throughout Scripture. God, in His grace, often postpones His judgment or wrath upon nations or cities until those persons who have “found grace in the eyes of the Lord” have been moved out of the way to safety. For example, God tells His chosen people, “Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers… Hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation is past. For, behold, YHVH cometh out of His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity” (Isaiah 26:20-21a).
Verse 41: “Two [shall be] grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken and the other left.” A similar observation is made in Luke 17:34 “…in that night, there shall be two on one bed; the one shall be taken and the other shall be left.” Christ’s disciples inquired as to where the “one shall be taken”, and He answered, “Wherever the body [is], there will the eagles be gathered together”. This verse might be better understood as “the body (of the one taken and made whole) will be where the eagles gather (i.e., in the sky).” Although some render the Lord’s response as, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather”, this does not answer the disciples’ question, and based on the definitions of the Greek given in Strong’s Concordance, we cannot be dogmatic of either translation.
It seems extremely doubtful that Phase 2 could apply to verses 40 and 41. Some may attempt to explain these verses by identifying the situation as dividing the sheep from the goats. But the actual passage that describes this dividing, which occurs after Phase 2, states the Lord will “set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left” (Matthew 25:33). It does not say that the Lord takes them away. On the contrary, the Lord speaks, “Depart from me, ye cursed” (Matthew 25:41) and “these shall go away into everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46).
Verse 42: “Watch, therefore…” Watching is always associated with Phase 1, because we ought to watch for the Christ—not the Antichrist or the tribulation. We must always watch, otherwise we are prone to think that the Lord delays His coming, possibly even until after the tribulation begins. If we fail to watch, we will likely be surprised (or unprepared) when He suddenly appears. You see, if Christ is actually instructing us to watch for Phase 2, then we must first be watching for all these things that “must come to pass” (Matthew 24:6) before Phase 2. In contrast, however, we are told to “Watch... that ye may be counted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36). The only way to be counted worthy (or “ready”) is to accept by faith the Person (Yeshua) and His Provision for my sin according to the Scriptures, and the only escape (besides death) is Phase 1.
Verse 44: “Therefore be ye also ready; for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh.” If this statement, too, is a reference to Phase 2, an inquisitive mind might inquire as to why the “hour” is so important if a person dwelling on Earth during the tribulation can know in advance from Daniel’s prophecy the precise day of this event. Many will be preparing for that very day, so why can’t they wait until perhaps a week prior to be ready for that “hour”? The reality is that neither the day nor the hour can be known in advance because that is the day and hour of Phase 1. To claim otherwise suggests, on the one hand, there is no way for anyone to know when that day will take place, but on the other hand, multitudes living through the tribulation hour, whether believers or unbelievers (including Antichrist, False Prophet, and Satan) will be planning an appointment (the campaign of Armageddon) with the Messiah of Israel on the exact same day as Phase 2. Herein lies the most blatant contradiction.
And so the “Phase 2 only” interpretation of the Olivet Discourse will continue to confound me. I believe, however, that the contradictions and the confusion go away when we acknowledge Christ had both phases of His appearing in view—He just happened to talk about Phase 2 first, which is His prerogative.