Light for the Last Days

Left Behind or Led Astray? Matthew 24 and the thief in the night.

Events taking place in the world today indicate that we are getting nearer to the end of this age and the Second Coming of Christ.  According to the Bible there will be a unique time of trouble on the earth, known as the great tribulation, before Jesus returns in person to the earth.  This time is prophesied by Jesus in Matthew 24.21 ‘For then there will be great tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no nor ever shall be.  And unless those days were shortened no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.’  

This tribulation period corresponds with several passages in Hebrew prophecy.  These include the ‘70th week’ of the prophecy in Daniel 9.24-27, a seven year period which begins with Israel entering into a covenant with ‘the prince to come’ (the antichrist) and ends with judgment being poured out on him and the world system in rebellion against God.  It is also spoken of as ‘the time of Jacob’s trouble’ in Jeremiah 30 and is the subject of the mini apocalypse of Isaiah 24 and a number of other prophetic passages in the Old Testament.  Some of the terms used to describe this time include: tribulation, great tribulation, day of the Lord, day of wrath, day of distress, day of trouble, time of Jacob’s trouble, day of darkness and gloom.  

Chapters 6-19 of Revelation describe the great tribulation, beginning with the four horsemen of the Apocalypse which represent the Antichrist coming to power, followed by war, famine and death (Revelation 6).  During this time God’s wrath against sin is poured out on the world in the judgements described as the seven seals (Revelation 6), the seven trumpets (Revelation 8-9) and the seven bowls (Revelation 16).  These judgements are God’s verdict on the wickedness of humanity and if they were not cut short, as Jesus says in Matthew 24.22, ‘no flesh would be saved’, in other words life would come to an end on earth.  This period will come to a close as the armies gather at Armageddon (Revelation 16.12-16) and the Lord Jesus Christ returns to the earth.  At His glorious appearing He will come with all the power of God at His disposal, as ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’ (Revelation 19) and ‘the kingdoms of this world shall become the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ’ (Revelation 11.15).  At this point He will bring to an end the reign of the Antichrist and judge the world in righteousness.  He will take all power to reign on earth during the 1000 year period known as the Millennium (Revelation 20).   

During the time of the great tribulation a great multitude will turn to Jesus Christ, firstly the 144,000 of the tribes of Israel (Revelation 7.4-8) and then ‘a great multitude which no one could number of all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues, standing before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands and crying out with a loud voice, saying ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ (Revelation 7.9-10).   These are described as ‘the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’  (Revelation 7.14).  Most of these will die in the tribulation and the persecutions of the Antichrist (Revelation 6.9-11, 13.7-10, 15-18).  The saved survivors of the tribulation will go into the Millennial kingdom to repopulate the earth after the Second Coming (Zechariah 14.16, Matthew 25.34).  Those who die during the tribulation as believers will be resurrected after the return of Christ.  They will join with the saints who return with Christ (Zechariah 14.5, Jude 14, Revelation 19.14) in the Millennial reign of the Messiah (Revelation 20.1-6).  

Also prophesied for the end of this age is the event known as the Rapture of the Church:  ‘For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.’  Paul goes on to write about the timing of this event: ‘But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you.   For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night.  For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labour pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape.’ See 1 Thessalonians 4.13-5.11

The big question on this subject is ‘When does it take place?’  Before, in the middle of, or after the great tribulation?  The pre-tribulation view is that the rapture comes before the tribulation begins.  At this point those who are saved believers in the Lord Jesus Christ will be taken supernaturally from the earth to meet the Lord ‘in the air’.  This will be followed by the 7 year period of tribulation during which time the antichrist will come to power and the judgements described in Revelation 6-19 will be poured out on the earth.  

This view is now under attack from many sources.  A new film called ‘Left behind or led astray?’ asks ‘What if the end of the world is not as so many have portrayed it?  Will the church be ill prepared to face the mark of the beast and the antichrist?  Will those who have been led astray by the pre tribulation teaching will be part of the great apostasy in the end times?  If you are a pastor who is not teaching your congregation to face the antichrist, you’re failing in your task.’

I agree that our witness to the Lord should include encouraging people to be strong to stand for their faith in the midst of trouble and persecution, which will be a feature of the period leading up to the return of Christ.   Clearly we have seen an increase in such events over the past 100 years which is the reason we believe that we are now living in the last days.  Soldiers in the trenches during the First World War went through conditions which could be described as tribulation.  The Jewish victims of the Nazi holocaust certainly suffered tribulation, as have many in the post war period, with mass killings taking place in places like Cambodia and Ruanda and oppression of the people in North Korea.  Today the most terrible things are happening in the areas taken over by ISIS.  

These events are pointing the way to the coming great tribulation period, but they are not in themselves the great tribulation.  I believe that event is still to come and that there are good reasons to believe that the Lord will take the true believing church out of the world before the seven year tribulation period begins.  

What about Matthew 24?

The film ‘Left behind or led astray’ quotes Matthew 24.29-31 to claim that these verses gives definite proof that the rapture comes after the tribulation:  ‘Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven and all the tribes of the earth will mourn and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.   And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.’  Matthew 24.29-31.

‘After the tribulation’ the Son of Man sends His angels ‘to gather together His elect.’  Therefore before this happens, certain things must take place, including the events of Revelation 6-19, the reign of the Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast and Armageddon.  It concludes with the supernatural darkness (no light from the sun, the moon or the stars) which will come just before the Second Coming of Christ to the earth.  In fact until you see this darkness on earth you cannot expect the rapture to happen, according to this view.  When you do see that darkness it would hardly be unexpected if the next thing that happens is that Jesus comes!

However in the same chapter the Lord Jesus spoke of His coming as an imminent event which would happen unexpectedly:  ‘But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.  But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.  For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.  Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left.  Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left.  Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.  But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into.   Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’  Matthew 24.36-42.

In the parable of the ten virgins Jesus repeated the call to be ready for this event because it could happen at any time: ‘Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.’  Matthew 25.13.  

Both Jesus in Matthew 24 and Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4 compare the coming of the Lord for His people to a ‘thief’ coming to break into a house.   This is not meant to imply that the Lord is doing something bad.  The point of the comparison is that there are certain things in common with the action of a thief and the action of the Lord when he takes His people to Himself in the event known as the rapture of the church.  The thief does not give prior warning of His coming to the householder.  Any potential thief who calls you to say, ‘I am coming to your house at midnight tomorrow’ would be destroy the purpose of His coming and be caught in the act!  The whole point of His coming is that it is unexpected, without prior warning, with the intention to take something out of your house for himself.  

In this case the Lord is coming to take something, which actually already belongs to Him, His true church, the ones who have been called out from the world to be His chosen people.  So you could say that He is a ‘thief’ from the point of the world, taking something out of the world.  At the same time from the point of view of heaven He is the bridegroom coming to take His rightful bride to Himself.

Jesus gave another illustration of what happens at this event in the parable of the 10 virgins (Matthew 25.1-13).  There are five ‘wise virgins’ who have ‘oil in their lamps’ who enter in when the Bridegroom comes, and five foolish virgins who have no oil in their lamps and are shut out.  The oil represents the Holy Spirit showing that the ones who are ready are those who are ‘born of the Spirit’ through accepting Jesus as Saviour and Lord who enter in when He comes for His people.  

Changing the subject.

An article by John Hart ‘In Defence of the Pre-Tribulational Rapture in Matthew 24.36-44’ makes some interesting points on this subject.  He points out that in Matthew 24.3 the disciples ask Jesus ‘What will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?’  There are two questions and He answers the second one first and then the first one.  In verses 4-35 He describes the events which will precede His return to the earth in power and glory at the second coming, in other words the ‘sign of the end of the age’.  Verse 8 speaks of the sorrows (odin in Greek) which could also be translated ‘labour pains’, a term used elsewhere in scripture to describe the troubles coming on the earth in the final seven year period of the great tribulation.  He goes on to describe the ‘abomination of desolation’ and the ‘great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be (verse 21).’  This time will end with sun being darkened and the moon and stars no longer giving their light (verse 29), unique signs which will immediately precede the appearance of the ‘sign of the Son of Man’ in heaven and His physical return – ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.’ (verse 30).  This happens at the end of the great tribulation.

Then Jesus changes the subject in Matthew 24.36 ‘But of that day and hour no one knows’.  This verse is introduced by the Greek phrase ‘peri de’, translated as ‘but’.  John Hart writes ‘It is well established that when peri de stands absolutely at the beginning of a sentence (and followed by the genitive) it marks a new section of thought that reaches back to previous material, often to resume an unanswered or unspoken question.’  In other words it shows that at this point Jesus is changing the subject.  In the verses that follow He answers the first part of the disciples’ question, ‘When will these things be?’  

He says what will happen immediately before the great tribulation begins, the gathering together of the saints or the rapture of the church.  This will be the sign that ‘these things’ (i.e. the events of the great tribulation) are about to happen.  This worldwide event happening will certainly be a sign to those who are left behind that the Bible is true and the remaining verses of prophecy are about to take place, leading to the physical return of the Lord Jesus to the earth.  Revelation 7 shows that many will turn to Christ as a result.  There will also be a multitude of false prophets going out into the world to give a false explanation of what has happened in the rapture of the church.  At the head of these will be the Beast and the False Prophet of Revelation 13 who will persecute those who turn to Christ at this time.  

Concerning the events which follow verse 36 Jesus refers to the unknown date which no one can know in verse 36, the unexpectedness of the event coming, like a thief in the night, the need to be ready for this event to happen suddenly without prior warning (verses 42-44).  He compares the event to the Flood at the time of Noah and the destruction of Sodom.  Both of these were universal judgments in which unbelievers were left behind for time of wrath / destruction while believers removed prior to destruction (note Genesis 19.22).   

The Greek words used in Matthew 24.40, ‘one will be taken and one will be left,’ are significant. The word for taken is paralambano.  This means to take alongside, in company with another person, or to receive someone or something.  It is the word used in John 14.3, a passage which also describes the rapture of the church: ‘I (Jesus) will take you to myself.’     The word for Left is aphiemi.  This means either to let go or forgive (positive) or to forsake or leave (negative).  If the latter (negative) sense for aphiemi is used the sentence means that the one taken departs in the company of the one who comes for him (i.e. Jesus), while the other is left behind.   The one taken is under God’s protection from the flood / tribulation, while the other is left to endure the conditions of the great tribulation.

Therefore these verses are describing the rapture of the church which could happen at any time, without prior warning, unlike the coming of the Lord to the earth at the end of the great tribulation.  The event of Matthew 24.36-44 and 1 Thessalonians 4 happens without prior warning, unexpectedly, as life is going on as normal, whereas the event of Matthew  24.29-31 does not take place until conditions on earth have reached a state of extreme abnormality, particularly when the sun, moon and stars stop giving their light.  This raises the possibility that there are two events in view, firstly the pre-tribulation rapture of the believing church at an unknown date, secondly the gathering together of the elect at the end of the tribulation.  

The event of Matthew 24.29-31 which takes place at the end of the tribulation corresponds to the dispersed remnant of Israel being gathered as prophesied in Isaiah 27.12-13:  ‘And you will be gathered one by one, O you children of Israel, so it shall be in that day that the great trumpet will be blown, they will come, who are about to perish in the land of Assyrian, and they who are outcasts in the land of Egypt and shall worship the Lord in the holy mount of Jerusalem.’

It is also significant that Jesus tells us that at His return He is going gather all nations before Him:  ‘When the Son of Man comes in His glory and all the holy angels with Him, then He shall sit on the throne of His glory, all the nations shall be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.’  Matthew 25.1-3.  So actually all nations surviving the tribulation will be gathered before the Lord Jesus at His coming for the sheep and goats judgement.  The sheep (the elect), who are saved and go into the Millennium, and the goats (the non elect) who are not saved and are cast off the earth into hell.  

Be ready.

In the light of all this Jesus tells His disciples to be ready now for His coming:  ‘Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect Him’ (verse 44).  ‘Watch therefore for you neither know the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.’  (Matthew 25.13).   We should be ready for the coming of the Lord, ‘redeeming the time because the days are evil’ (Ephesians 5.16) and making known the good news, that Jesus the Messiah has come to save us from our sins through His sacrifice on the cross.  

We are to be ready for Jesus to come to take us into His Presence living in constant expectancy, readiness and hope, watching, waiting and looking for His arrival. This ’blessed hope’ is designed to motivate us to holy living and evangelism: ‘For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.’ (Titus 2:11-14).

Tony Pearce

Tony Pearce

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