Is Jesus Referring to the ‘Rapture’ in Matthew 24?

As our world continues to spiral downward, many Christians cling to the hope of a future ‘rapture’ – a day when Jesus will take his people from the earth before the world deteriorates into complete anarchy. But is this a biblical doctrine? In this paper I will examine the passage that is most commonly cited to support this belief: Matthew 24:36-41.

36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son,[f] but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.”

These verses have been interpreted by many to infer that Jesus will one day ‘rapture’ his people from the earth, leaving the world to continue on without them. But is this view substantiated by this passage? As with all biblical interpretation, context is everything. To help us understand what Jesus is describing here, we must start at the beginning of the chapter.

Matthew 24 begins with a prediction of the imminent destruction of the temple in Jerusalem:

“Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:1-2).

And they were thrown down. About 40 years later, that is exactly what happened. Jewish extremists mounted a series of rebellions against their Roman oppressors and, in response, in AD 70 the Roman army swept through Galilee and Judea destroying their towns and villages. When they reach Jerusalem, they decimated the city and completely destroyed its temple.

Historical documents tell us that most citizens fled the city, but some took refuge in the temple. So, the Romans set fire to the temple doors and soon the fire engulfed the timber framework of the whole building. The fire became so fierce that the ornate goldwork in the roof and walls melted and ran down in the cracks between the stone blocks. When the fire finally died down, the Roman commander ordered that the temple be dismantled stone by stone, to retrieve all the melted gold.  And thus, the prophecy of Jesus came to pass. Not one stone was left on top of another.

“3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

This question by the disciples is important for our understanding of all that follows in these two chapters of scripture. The disciples are asking Jesus what the signs will be of his coming and of the end of the age. In response, Jesus lists a series of signs that will typify the escalating deterioration of the world as it spirals toward its preordained end and his ultimate return:

“4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

There are six clear signs intermingled in this section:

  1. A dramatic increase in the appearance of false messiahs
  2. The worldwide persecution of Christians
  3. The escalation of wars throughout the world
  4. A marked increase in natural disasters
  5. A falling away of many supposed Christians from the faith (as a result of persecution)
  6. The gospel will eventually be preached throughout the whole world.

This section appears to be an eagle-eye overview of the end times – a snapshot of how the world will degenerate as the time for Christ’s return draws near. Having provided this general overview of the general unfolding of future world history, Jesus then focuses on a specific incident in the near future of his listeners which will have significant painful consequences for them:

15 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’[a] spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equalled again.

22 “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you ahead of time.

This section is commonly misunderstood. Jesus is here warning his listeners of an impending disaster that will befall them within their lifetime. He begins by referring to a prophecy that Daniel had uttered centuries earlier and which had already had already been fulfilled once in subsequent Jewish history. But Jesus now infers that it is about to have a second fulfilment in dire events that were about to unfold in the coming years.

The first fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecy had already occurred around 167 BC, when the Seleucid King, Atiochus Epiphanes, invaded Israel, took military control of Jerusalem, forbade the offering of sacrifices to God and set up a pagan image in the temple ­– an ‘abomination that causes desolation’.

During this period, many Jews fled from Jerusalem into the surrounding Judean hills, just as Jesus described in this passage. Indeed, the detailed prophecy of Daniel that Jesus refers to here was fulfilled in extraordinarily precise detail in the years that followed Daniel’s proclamation. His prophecies foretold the demise of the Persian empire, the rise of the Greek empire and even the coming of Alexander the Great, along with a number of other incredibly precise and impressive prophecies about events that subsequently unfolded. In fact, so extraordinarily precise was the fulfilment of these prophecies that many secular historians today believe that Daniel’s prophecies must have been written AFTER the subsequent events they described and not hundreds of years before as the book of Daniel purports. Thus, historian, Peter C. Craigie writes, “it is precisely the concurrence between the substance of the visions and the actual history of the Near East which compels many interpreters to claim that the visions must have been written after the events they describe.” (The Old Testament: Its Background, Growth and Content, Nashville: Abingdon, 1986, p. 246). Of course, for Christians, the precise fulfilment of these prophecies in the centuries that followed Daniel’s proclamations simply demonstrates the inspired nature of scripture and the omniscient God who speaks through it.

The second fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecy, alluded to by Jesus in this passage, was the suffering that was about to unfold for the Jews at the hands of the Romans. This fulfilment occurred in 70 AD, a mere few decades after Jesus uttered these words, when the Roman army, tired of continual Jewish uprisings, swept through Israel from north to south, decimating towns and villages and killing hundreds of thousands of Jews. When they reached Jerusalem, they destroyed the temple (in the manner I previously described) and then set up the royal banner of the Roman Emperor in its place as an object of worship.

As the Emperor was believed by Romans to be the incarnate god, his image lofted high in the place where the temple had once stood was referred to by the Jews as an “abomination”. In this second fulfilment, as in the first, the residents of Jerusalem fled into the Judean hills just as Jesus described, and there was much misery and suffering.

Will there be a third fulfilment of this prophecy, in the end times? Many people believe that there will be. But this is a view that is imposed upon the passage from people’s preconceived eschatological beliefs. There is nothing in this passage, itself, that would indicate such a view. Indeed, the language of this passage directly contradicts this view. The very personal language that Jesus uses here to describe these impending events to his disciples indicates that he was speaking of events that would be fulfilled in their lifetime and not referring to some distant ‘end times’ event that we are still waiting for. Note Jesus’ use of personal pronouns:

Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath” (v.20)

“At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.” (v.23)

“See, I have told you ahead of time” (v.25)

It is very clear from Jesus’ personal language that he was speaking of events that his listeners were about to go through. Thus, the reference to the abomination that causes desolation (v.15) is not some futuristic ‘end times’ event that we are still waiting for, but the dire warning of a compassionate shepherd who foresaw the terrible suffering that the first century Jews were about to undergo in their own lifetime.

In the next section of Matthew 25, Jesus uses this impending Jewish disaster to pivot to a discussion of his second coming in the distant future. He starts by warning his followers about impending false claims of his secret return:

26 “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 

It is important that we understand what Jesus is saying here. He is predicting that the terrible suffering about to be caused by the impending Roman invasion will precipitate an unprecedented desperate desire by the Jews for God to send his promised Messiah, and this, in turn, will lead to an escalation of false claims of the Messiah’s appearance. History tells us that this is indeed what happened. The Jewish Talmud and other later first century writings record an outpouring of desperate hope and false claims in response to the suffering of the Jewish people at the time of the Roman invasion in AD 70. Jesus here warns his followers ahead of time and tells them not to give credence to these claims of his return. He urges them, “do not believe it” (v.26). Once again, this personalised exhortation to his disciples implies that he is speaking of events that his listeners will live to see and experience.

Jesus then contrasts these impending false claims of his return with a vivid description of what his eventual return at the end of history will really be like. It is an impressively contrastive statement. When he finally returns, it will not be to a small group of people “out in the wilderness” (v.26) or to a huddled group of believers “in the inner rooms” in a besieged city (v.26). Jesus assures his followers that no one will miss his return. It will be cataclysmic and universally visible:

For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (v.27).

This statement is the pivot point of the whole narrative of Matthew 24. From this point on, Jesus jumps ahead to the final events immediately surrounding his second coming, initially quoting imagery used by the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel and Joel:

“’29 the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’”

It is an incredibly vivid picture. When the moment of Christ’s return eventually arrives, it will be immediately preceded by cataclysmic astronomical signs that will be seen by everyone, globally. The exact nature of these signs is not clear, but it will be an unmistakeable supernatural light show that will grab the attention of the entire world. Then, immediately following this, Jesus will return:

30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

This is no secret return. This is the cataclysmic, universally visible return of Christ at the end of history. At this time Jesus states that two things will happen: he will gather his people to himself (v.31) and those who have rejected him will be condemned and judged (v.30). More detailed descriptions of this condemnation and judgment will appear in the verses that soon follow, but verse 30 foreshadows it with the foreboding words: “and then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory” (v.30). Their ‘mourning’ will be due to their sickening realisation that they are about to suffer the wrath of the King of Kings, against whom they have rebelled. The reference to Jesus “coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory” (v.30) also leaves us in no doubt that this is his visible second coming at the end of history for the judging of the world and the glorification of the saints, and not some secret return to rapture Christians from the world.

There follows a brief general statement by Jesus, urging his followers to watch for the signs of his return:

32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

His statement in verse 34, that “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” is a source of puzzlement to some. Clearly, Jesus’ return has still not happened, and yet his first century audience has long since died. What are we to make of Jesus’ words here? One solution is that the word for “generation” (“genea”), was also commonly used to denote an entire race of people. Thus, Jesus could simply be assuring his listeners that despite the sufferings that the Jews were about to endure, they would not be entirely wiped from the face of the earth: God would fulfil his promise to perpetuate their existence as his chosen people until the end of history. This interpretation is the one that is held by the majority of Bible scholars.

We then come to the passage in Matthew 24 that is most commonly misinterpreted:

36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son,[f] but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.”


Proponents of the doctrine of the rapture point to this passage as proof that Christians will be taken to glory while the rest of the world continues on (possibly for a thousand years). But this interpretation completely disregards the immediate context of these verses. Consider the following:

  • Firstly, note Jesus’ opening words:About that day or hour, no one knows …” About what ‘day’? What ‘day’ is Jesus referring to here? Surely it is obvious: the great day of his return that he has just described in the preceding verses! The day when the sun will be darkened and the moon will turn to red and the heavenly bodies will be shaken (v.29). The day when he will return on the clouds of heaven in all his glory and all the people of the earth will tremble in fear and mourn their terrible mistake (v.30). The day when the trumpet of heaven will sound and the angels will gather Christ’s people to himself (v.31)!.There is absolutely no doubt about what ‘day’ Jesus is referring to here. Indeed, his use of the term “About that..” is a clear linguistic link to the ‘day’ he has only moments before described. He is still talking about the same day – the day of judgment at the end of history! Yet despite this, determined ‘rapturists’ disregard this clear and unequivocal context and claim that this is referring to a completely different day – a ‘secret’ return of Christ to take his people from the world. This defies all accepted principles of hermeneutics.
  • Secondly, consider also the language of judgment used here. This ‘day’ is likened to the flood of Noah (v.37) when the vast majority of mankind were judged and destroyed. This is not a description of some kind of soft judgment where God merely removes his people and his presence from the world and allows it to go on as before. No. Just as God judged and utterly destroyed those living at the time of Noah, so Jesus tells us that those living on the day when God’s people are “taken” will also be judged and destroyed. The inference could not be clearer!
  • Thirdly, notice the language used to describe Christ’s return here. The phrase, at the coming of the Son of Man, is used twice, in verses 37 and 39. This is a direct reference back to the description of his visible and final return, mentioned in the previous section: “when they see the Son of Man comingon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (v.30). Exactly the same language is used: the “coming” of the Son of Man. This is no secret return. It is the universally visible return of Christ on the great and terrible day of judgment that Jesus has only just referred to a few verses earlier!

This ‘taking’ of God’s people, described in this passage, is therefore simply the vertical separation of the saved from the unsaved on the day of judgment. This accords with Jesus’ subsequent reference to separating the sheep from the goats (in Matthew 25:31-33) and also with Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians about believers who are still alive at the return of Christ being lifted up from the earth to meet him in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:17). I remain astonished and perplexed that so many people impose their own pre-existing beliefs upon this passage in Matthew 24 and completely disregard the clear and obvious context! That context continues in the verses that follow:

42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Once again, the language of the Lord ‘coming’ (v.42) and the Son of Man ‘coming’ (v.44) in this section is the same language previously used to describe the ‘coming’ of the Son of Man on the day of judgment (vv.30-31). As if to remove all doubt about this, Jesus then tells a parable to further describe what will happen on the day when he ‘comes’ and his people are ‘taken’:

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Here, we are left in no doubt that Jesus is speaking about (and has been continually speaking about!) his return at the end of history to judge the world. On that ‘day’, those who have rejected him will be sent to a place of torment “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v.51).

It is difficult to imagine how Jesus could have been any clearer throughout this whole chapter. There is only one ‘coming’, and only one ‘day’ of his return, not two. This passage does not, at any point, indicate a twofold return – a secret return with a secret rapture followed by a final return a thousand years later. That view is a gross imposition on the text and exhibits a monumental disregard of the basic principles of hermeneutics.

Matthew 25

In the chapter that immediately follows, Jesus tells a series of parables, each one giving a similar perspective on the day of his return.

The parable of the ten virgins finishes with those who were unprepared for his return missing out on a great banquet and being shut outside locked doors – a theme of judgment that Paul develops further in 1 Thessalonians:

“They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (2 Thessalonians 1:9)

The parable of the servants with bags of gold finishes with the master returning and throwing a “worthless servant outside into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v.30) – another depiction of frightening final judgment.

The parable of the sheep and the goats concludes with those referred to as goats being brought to judgment and “going away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (v.46).

In each of these parables, the Master goes away for a time and then returns suddenly to execute final judgment. There is no intermediate secret return where those who are favoured by him are suddenly removed for a period of time while the rest of the people continue on. Jesus tells these parables to illustrate the truths he has just iterated in chapter 24 about the ‘day’ of his return.

The ‘day’ Jesus has consistently spoken about in chapter 24 is the final day of the world, at the end of history, when he will return in visible glory, judge mankind and usher in his eternal kingdom. Those who attempt to impose a secret intermediate return of Christ and a sudden rapture of Christians into these two chapters do so via the most extreme and naive hermeneutical gymnastics.

There are, of course, other Bible passages that people point to as justification for belief in the supposed coming ‘rapture’ of Christians from the world. For a full discussion of these and an analysis of the origin of the doctrine of the rapture, see my PowerPoint presentations, “The Doctrine of the Rapture”, “Interpreting the Book of Revelation”, and “Signs of the End Times” available for free at .