Before we move on to verses 29-41 which describe Jesus’ return, let’s briefly revisit the verses from our last correspondence. Verses 15-28 begin with the Abomination of Desolation, and then move to the immediate and severe persecution which will follow – particularly for Jews around Judea / Jerusalem / the Temple. He instructs those who see the abomination to flee to the mountains immediately. From there Jesus again warns not to believe those making claims contrary to what He is saying, and don’t fall for people claiming to be the anointed one – even when they demonstrate supernatural power “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.” Then this passage wraps up with Jesus describing His actual return (verse 27 if you have your Bible out). The actual return of Jesus is something that nobody would be able to imitate with sorcery or magic, “For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.” Jesus’ return is not going to be something that could be mistaken; this time He is returning as a conquering King rather than a suffering servant. Now, verses 29-31:
The Glorious Return
29 “But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. 31 And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
This verse is very clearly (based on verse 29) a description of Jesus’ return which takes place “after the tribulation of those days”. Here is where things are widely contested among believers and it can get really confusing. There are many schools of thought regarding precisely how things occur around the return of Jesus and their order. The debate primarily focuses around two events: the Rapture and the Millennial Kingdom. The rapture (word means “carrying away”) refers to the time when Jesus snatches His believers from the earth; and the Millennial Kingdom refers to the time described in Revelation 20 when Jesus returns to earth and reigns as King in Jerusalem before the final judgment day. Revelation is apocalyptic language (very symbolic with its imagery and numbers) so this leads to various interpretations. Since the Millennial Kingdom is described in Revelation 20, and Jesus doesn’t specifically deal with it here, we will save that detailed study for another day and stick with Matthew 24 and the rapture. Remember, Jesus is dealing with the question, “what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” Here are the cliff notes to His response: Birth pains leading up to a seven year peace treaty with Israel; then the abomination of desolation at the midpoint of the treaty, followed by three and a half years of persecution. Finally the persecution is cut short by His return described in Matthew 24:29-31. It seems rather clear cut; verses 29-31 are describing His return after the persecution; but a significant number of people see “the rapture” and Jesus physical return to earth as separate events, with the rapture taking place before “the great tribulation.” This was the view behind the Left Behind series which depicted the rapture as the event that set the world into chaos and paved the way for the antichrist. So, where does this view come from? If we skip down to verses 36- some see Jesus referring here to a rapture, where believers will be swept up to Jesus in the sky – a separate event from His return to earth:
36 “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. 37 For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, 39 and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be. 40 Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left.
This description doesn’t sound like a world in the midst of the great persecution; and it does sound like a complete surprise to all. We see a similar description in 1 Thessalonians 4:
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
Years ago when I was pastor at Floyd Baptist Church, I invited two people to come and teach on different days. I believe I had just preached through the book of Revelations and invited two people (James Coffman and Gene Pool) to give a presentation about why they hold their particular view of eschatology and specifically the rapture. James held the view of a pre-tribulation rapture, and his primary point to back up this view was that throughout the Scriptures Jesus’ return seems immanent; “be ready, because it could happen any time.” This view sees those who are believers when Jesus physically returns to earth, as those who were saved during the great tribulation and were not taken up at the rapture. This view holds that the rapture (taking up) and Jesus return are two separate events.
Gene, on the other hand, drew out a time line and went through Matthew 24 and recorded each thing that Jesus said on the time line. At the end he came up with a time line similar to a couple sentences I typed earlier but in more detail: :Birth pains leading up to a seven year peace treaty with Israel; abomination of desolation at the midpoint of the treaty followed by three and a half years of persecution. Then, persecution is cut short by His return.” The belief in a pre-tribulation rapture suggests that Jesus will return on two separate occasions. Furthermore, Gene said that the rapture view is bothersome because it causes Christians to say, “I’m not worried about what takes place, because I will be gone” and ignore Jesus’ description and instructions. I have actually had a person tell me this very thing once.
We can discuss ins and outs of the different views. I gave a thumbnail description of the two that I believe are the most prominent. There are other theories of the ordering of eschatological events. But I will allow you to examine Jesus’ words and answer for yourself this question, “Is Jesus description in Matthew 24 describing a pre-tribulation rapture of Christians? Or, are some reading something into the text that doesn’t exist?” I would be interested to hear what you think. There are very sincere theologians on both sides of this debate. Whatever view of this you happen to have, I believe the overwhelming message of the Bible is to “be ready.” Be ready to meet Jesus face to face, because nobody knows the day and the hour of His return or of our departure from this earth. Moreover, don’t place your trust in this world. This world is winding down, and if your hope is in it you will be disappointed. Don’t just see the physical but realize the spiritual. That is where you will find your true peace, joy and provision. Finally, view yourself as a child of God, rather than a citizen of this world. Belong to “His Kingdom” and not to this world. If you realize your immortality and realize that you belong to the eternal Kingdom of God; if you really realize these truths, then problems of this world seem to be diminished.