“one is taken, and one is left.” This verse describes the harsh reality of what happens when Jesus Christ comes down from heaven and sets up his kingdom on earth—some people will be allowed into the Messianic Kingdom on earth and some will be destroyed in the flames of Gehenna. Jesus describes this event in different terms about 50 verses later in his explanation of what is known as “The Sheep and Goat Judgment” (Matt. 25:31-46). The people who are “taken” are the goats, and they are taken away to Gehenna. The ones who are “left” are the sheep, and they are allowed to enter the Messianic Kingdom, the “Kingdom of Heaven.” It helps to understand this section of Scripture if we keep in mind that Matthew 24:3-25:46 is all an answer to the question Jesus was asked in Matthew 24:3.
The Apostles knew some general facts about the end of the Age. For example, they knew about the Tribulation period from the many references to it in the Old Testament (Isa. 13:9-13; 24:1-6; Dan. 12:1; Amos 5:18-20; cp. Matt. 24:21). They also knew that the Tribulation would be followed by Jesus setting up his kingdom on earth (cp. Dan. 2:44; 7:13, 14; Ezek. 40-48), and that the Messiah’s kingdom would be inhabited by resurrected believers (Ezek. 37:11-14; Dan. 12:2; cp. John 5:25-29). Of course, there were things the Apostles did not understand; such as that the Messiah would have to die, be resurrected from the dead, and then ascend into heaven for a time before setting up his kingdom on earth.
The Apostles were anxious for the Kingdom to come, so in Matthew 24:3 they asked Jesus about when his kingdom would come. Matthew 24-25 are Jesus’ answer to their question. In the first part of Matthew 24 Jesus describes some events of the Great Tribulation, which occurs after the Rapture of the Christian Church and precedes his coming from heaven (Rev. 19:11ff). Matthew 24:30 begins to describe Jesus coming to earth and gathering the elect, who are the ones who will be allowed into the Kingdom. Jesus described the Judgment that will follow his arrival on earth in a way they could all understand it: the Flood of Noah. In the Flood, evil people were “taken” away, while Noah and his family were “left” on earth and repopulated the earth.
After comparing the Judgment to Noah’s Flood, Jesus tells the disciples to watch and be ready, and tells the “Parable of the Ten Virgins” (Matt. 25:1-13) about staying ready in order to be able to enter the Kingdom, and he also tells the “Parable of the Talents” about getting into the Kingdom and being rewarded by the Master (Matt. 25:14-30). Then Jesus returns to his teaching about the events of the Tribulation and Judgment. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells about how, when he comes to earth, he will gather everyone who is left alive after the Great Tribulation (“all the nations”). He will have them brought before his throne and he will judge them, dividing the people into two categories: the “sheep” (righteous) and the “goats” (unrighteous). Jesus will let the sheep into his kingdom and they will live on the earth. In contrast, the “goats” will be taken away to destruction. Although it was never stated in the Old Testament or Gospels, we learn from the Book of Revelation, that the first part of Jesus’ Kingdom on earth lasts 1000 years (Rev. 20:2-5).
It is sometimes wrongly taught by Christians that Matthew 24:37-41 is about the Rapture of the Church. But these verses in Matthew 24 cannot be wrested from their context, which is Jesus Christ’s Second Coming, when he comes to the earth in judgment and to reign as king (cp. Rev. 19:11-20:4). Matthew 24:30 says the nations will see the Messiah as he comes in power and glory, and that they will “mourn.” Then Matthew 25:31-33 speaks of the coming of the Messiah and notes that Christ will “sit on his throne” and “all the nations will be gathered before him.” These things are not associated with the Rapture of the Christian Church. At the Rapture, the Church meets the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:17). He never comes all the way to the earth. Those left on earth will be confused about the disappearance of the Christians. They will not know where the Christians went. Furthermore, at the Rapture the nations do not see Christ nor do they “mourn.” So the context shows that Matthew 24 and Luke 17 are speaking of the Second Coming of Christ to the earth to Israel when he fights at Armageddon, judges the people, and sets up his Kingdom.
The meaning of “one is taken, and one is left” is made clear by the words themselves, the context, and the scope of Scripture. The time of Christ’s coming in judgment will be similar to the time of the judgment in the days of Noah when the flood came and “took” people away. Note that Matthew 24:39 specifically says that the flood “took” the unrighteous, while the righteous—Noah and his family—were “left.” That is historically correct. The flood took all the unrighteous people away and left Noah and his family alive on earth. So too in Matthew, the ones who are “taken” are taken for judgment and then “taken” off the earth and sent to the “fire prepared for the Devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41 NIV). Being “taken” is not a blessing. At the Sheep and Goat Judgment, the unrighteous are “taken” to punishment in the flames (Matt. 25:41, 46), while the righteous are “left” on the earth and inherit the Kingdom. Spiros Zodhiates writes:
In Matt. 24:40-41; Luke 17:34-35, paralambano in the passive form is used as the opposite of aphiemi, “to let be.” In these verses, those who are taken are not to be misconstrued as those whom the Lord favors, as if they were the same saints spoken of in 1 Thess. 4:17 who will be raptured (harpazō, “to seize, catch away, as if by force”) to meet the Lord in the clouds. The verb paralambano in most cases indicates a demonstration in favor of the one taken, but not always. In Matt. 4:5, 8, it is used of Satan “taking” Jesus up to tempt him. In John 19:16 it is used of “taking” Jesus to lead him to the cross. It is used to refer to those in the days of Noah who were taken away, not being favored but being punished, while Noah and his family were “left” intact. Therefore, in this passage in Matthew and the parallel passage in Luke, paralambano must not be equated to the believers who are to be raptured at the coming of the Lord for his saints. It refers rather to those who, as in the days of Noah, are taken to destruction. The others are left alone (aphiemi) for the purpose of entering into the blessings of Christ’s kingdom (identified by some as the Millennium) and the righteous rule of Christ upon earth (The Complete Word Study Dictionary New Testament; entry on paralambano p. 1108).
Robert Mounce writes:
“The man working in the field (Matt. 24:40) and the woman grinding meal (Matt. 24:41) will be taken away in judgment (not to safety; cf. parallel in Matt. 24:39 with those ‘taken away’ by the flood)” (New International Biblical Commentary: Matthew p. 229).
Another way we know that Matthew 24:37-41 is not about the Rapture is by comparing it to its parallel Scripture in Luke 17:26-27. As in Matthew 24, in Luke 17 Jesus was asked when the Kingdom would come (Luke 17:20). Luke 17 gives a much shorter answer than Matthew 24, and includes different information, but it speaks of Noah’s Flood and says when the Flood came, it “destroyed them all” (Luke 17:27). Luke also then compared the coming of the Son of Man to the days of Lot, when fire fell on Sodom and Gomorrah and “destroyed them all.” This parallel teaching shows that Jesus was not teaching about the Rapture because in the Rapture Christians will be taken from the earth while the unrighteous who are left on earth to experience the Tribulation. The unbelievers will not be destroyed at the Rapture, but will continue their lives.
People sometimes doubt that there will be the “Rapture” because Jesus did not mention it in this teaching about the end times. Jesus did not teach about it because it is part of “Sacred Secret,” of the Administration of God’s Grace (see commentary on Ephesians 3:2). The Rapture is not found in the Old Testament or the Gospels but is part of the revelation of the Church Epistles. The revelation that is addressed specifically to the Christian Church is written in the seven epistles (letters) of Paul to the Church, known theologically as the “Church Epistles.” The fact that these seven epistles (Romans through Thessalonians) are especially important to the Christian Church is not often taught, yet it is of vital importance. Israel will not be Raptured but will be resurrected and then return to the land of Israel (Ezek. 37:11-14).
One last thing to cover is the objection of those Christians who say that the scholars quoted above are wrong and that “take” refers to those who are taken for a blessing in the Rapture while “left” refers to those who are left for judgment. Even though this interpretation ignores the context, there is another, more important point that needs to be made. The context of Matthew and Luke are crystal clear about the circumstances of Christ’s coming, such as the nations mourning and being gathered to the Judgment, and this is plainly his Second Coming and not the Rapture. Therefore, no matter which group is blessed and which group is judged, neither group is Raptured. One is blessed and left on earth to enter the Kingdom (Matt. 25:34) while the other is judged and taken away (Matt. 25:41). [For more on Matthew 24:40 not being about the Rapture, see, John Schoenheit, The Christian’s Hope: The Anchor of the Soul, chapter 3].
In this video John Schoenheit examines the debate over whether Jesus was specifically talking about the Rapture in Matthew 24.