The hairs on your arm will stand up
At the terror in each sip and in each sup
Will you partake of that last offered cup
Or disappear into the potter’s ground
When the man comes around
Johnny Cash, When the Man Comes Around
These verses from Matthew’s gospel form the basis for a theological concept called the ‘rapture’. This belief hasn’t been a mainstream Christian concept for very long, with the earliest reference to it coming from a Jesuit Priest in 1590 (426 years ago). It only became more prominent through the work of Joseph Darby in the 1830’s (186 years ago) and then the Scofield Reference Bible (1909). Finally, most of us know about it through more modern authors such as Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins (21 years ago) who wrote the books in the Left Behind series.
Although popular, it is hard to find any solid biblical evidence for the ‘rapture’ with only a couple of verses being used to justify it. It is in verses 40 and 41 that the term left behind comes from (in reference to one being taken and one being left) and forms part of the basis for rapture theology. The problem with this though is that it completely mis-interprets the passage and the verses. It may sound insignificant, but it can greatly effect how we live as Christians in the here and now because of a mis-interpretation of what is going to happened at the end.
Left Behind and Loving It
The rapture is the belief that Christians will be taken from the earth and everyone else will get left behind. People see Jesus telling us in v40-41 that on the day the Son of Man comes one will be taken and one will be left. Those who are righteous will be in heaven and the unrighteous left on earth to suffer the consequences. It’s a good scare story but it’s not what the verses actually say, it is not what this passage is about.
If we look at the preceding verses in this section we are pointed to the story of Noah. Jesus uses the story to emphasise the need to be prepared (more on this in a little while) but it helps us in unraveling the mis-interpretation of the ‘left behind’ verses. Noah and his family got on the boat and remained on earth while those who were unprepared were washed away by the flood.
The verses that follow also helps give us some insight in how verses 40 and 41 should be read. Jesus tells us that if a home owner knows when a thief is going to come they would stay awake so they could stop them from stealing things. They will be awake to stop their belongings from being taken.
Finally, the Greek words used by Matthew here for ‘taken’ is paralambanó which means to take, but has a sense of force attached to it and is used about those being taken to prison. The Greek word for ‘left’ is aphiémi which can be translated as forgive, particularly when the word is used in relation to sin (Matthew 6:12).
- Noah and his family were prepared and were left behind and the unprepared were taken.
- If the home owner had been prepared his possessions would have been left behind and not taken by the thief.
- The ones taken are led off as prisoners and those left behind are forgiven.
I know which group I want to be in.
To the Point
The problem with these verses being hijacked by rapture theology is that it detracts from what Jesus is actually saying. Jesus’ opening words in v36 is that no one other than God himself knows when the Son of Man will return. This is a very clear cut statement and really should put to a stop to the continuous predictions of when the ‘end’ will be. We don’t know and never will because it will come without warning.
Jesus uses the story of Noah to spell out this unexpected event by telling those listening the return will be like that day. People will be eating and drinking and getting married, all normal things to do when life seems to be going well, but then the flood hit with no warning. This is The point of the story, no one saw the flood coming (apart from Noah).
The unexpected nature of the flood is then expounded upon in v40-41 by Jesus. People will be going about their daily routine when it happens, grinding at the mill or out in the field. Normal people doing normal jobs on a normal day and then it happens, out of the blue, with no warning.
Jesus now shifts the emphasis from the unexpected nature of the event to what his followers should do in light of this information. His exact words are ‘to keep watch’ like a person who knows they will be robbed would. It is this call that is vital for us to hear today, to be ready for what might happen at any moment.
We may want to ask, what does being ready look like? What should we do to be prepared now. The answer can be found throughout scripture and especially in some of the parables that follow, particularly the sheep and the goats. For us at the being of advent the message is that as we approach Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth we need to be doing the things we are called to do.