As Bible students, we know that there are rules for reading and analyzing Scripture. One is that we go through a process of interpretation if the text requires it. If we are reading a letter from a family member, this rule is generally unnecessary because we know each other. We know the writer. We know the meaning, even with misspelled words. A relationship makes the process of interpretation much easier. However, when there is a distance in meaning, culture, context, and language between the reader and writer, a process of interpretation is needed.
Another criterion that we also need to take into account is that of what is obvious and what is not. The literal meaning, or what the text directly says to us, is something that we need to always apply first in reading. For example, Jesus passed by, called Matthew, and said to him, “Follow me” (see Matt. 9:9). There were probably many complex theological explanations of this verse; but the context is telling us something simple: Matthew was to leave everything and follow Jesus. So, beyond the complexity of the explanation, there is a simple reading reflected in the “answer” to the call, and the text says that he left everything and “followed him.” This is the literal and obvious meaning of the words.
A misunderstood text
With this in mind, we come to two well-known but often misunderstood verses: “Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left” (Matt. 24:40, 41, KJV). Many varied and complex interpretations are applied to these two verses today. But what, really, is Jesus saying here?
The context is the introductory question of the disciples. “Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (v. 4, KJV). Matthew 24 contains the answer. They were His students, Jesus was their teacher, and His words were part of Christ's answer to their question.
The text itself is clear, with no real complexities. The complexities were added through interpretations never implied by Jesus, specifically the “secret rapture”1 interpretation—which, though popular today, did not exist in the time of Jesus. But when the doctrine of the secret rapture was introduced, many started believing in it, even some Seventh-day Adventists. Then, in the attempt to avoid this “secret rapture” interpretation, others have argued that the “taken” in that passage means those taken for judgment and eternal condemnation. That view, however, does not work either.
What, then, is Jesus saying here?
The text is clear. At His coming, Jesus is going to take some people with Him. “The one shall be taken” (v. 41)—which means taken to Him. This is the plain reading of the text, which fits nicely with John 14: “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am,there ye may be also” (John 14:2, 3, KJV, emphasis added).
So first, the principle of Scripture as its own interpreter may be applied here. What this means is that we can find help in understanding difficult texts by using other texts on the same topic that are clear.2 Thus this text may be clearly correlated with the promise of Jesus in verse 3 that “I will come again, and receive you unto myself ” (emphasis added).
Wrote Gerhard Hasel: “A difficult or obscure passage must not be interpreted by the indiscriminate application of another biblical passage or text—a procedure that only leads to confusion and contradiction. In the process of using the principle of self-interpretation, comparing and interpreting passage with passage or text with text, one must be guided to study only those passages or texts which deal with the same subject.”3
Another element in the textual analysis is how others have translated the text. Different versions in John 14:3 read: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (NIV, emphasis added). “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (ESV, emphasis added). The vast majority of Bible versions translate paralambano (παραλαμβάνω) as “receiving.”
A third element is the original wording. In both cases (Matt. 24:40, 41 and John 14:3), the same original Greek word, paralambano (παραλαμβάνω), is used. The definition of paralambano (παραλαμβάνω) is “to take to,to take with one’s self, to join to one’s self.” Paralambano (παραλαμβάνω), when used by Jesus, means acceptance or receiving, not judgment or condemnation.
The Theological Dictionary of The New Testament says of paralambano:“1. With a personal object (only Gospels and Ac.), ‘to take to (or with) oneself’ (e.g., in close fellowship). In theologically significant statements this is used of the reception of Christ by the world, Jn 1:11, of acceptance into the kingdom of Christ, 14:3; Mt 24:40 f., cf. also Lk 17:34 f.”4 The meaning of receiving as in a close fellowship is also shared by J. P. Louw and Eugene Nida, Joseph H. Thayer, and William D. Mounce in their Greek dictionaries.
It is clear that the context is of a division between the two words translated as “taken” and “left.”
Meanwhile, the early Latin Vulgate translates paralambano as adsume-tur, meaning “help,” “assistance,” and“means to aid.” In contrast, it translated afietai as relinquetur, or “abandon.”
In his commentary on Matthew, William Hendriksen writes: “The Lord arrives. Of two men engaged in the same kind of work, probably even toiling next to each other in the field, one is taken. By the angels he [is] gathered to be forever with the Lord. The other is left behind, assigned to everlasting perdition.”5
George A . Buttrick, in The Interpreter’s Bible, says: “Thus two men working in the same furrow are divided, or two women working at the same hand mill: one is taken and the other is left. Taken and left are words with vast though untraced horizons—the one of joy and the other of doom.”6
The Word Biblical Commentary reads: “Those who are taken are among the elect who the angels of the Son of Man are to gather at his coming (v. 31), while those who are left await the prospect of judgment.”7
W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, in A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew,state: “The first illustration concerns two men doing the same thing, the second two women doing the same thing. The divergent fates show that God’s sudden judgment annuls external similarities. . . . Why one is taken (note the vivid present) and one left is unstated but the surrounding verses supply the answer: one was prepared, the other not. . . . One is taken and one is left. But are the righteous taken to meet the Lord in the air? Or are the wicked removed by angels and cast into fire? The former is more likely. (1) Often in Matthew afiemi means abandon or forsake. (2) Paralambano means ‘take (to safety)’ in [Matthew] 2:13, 14, 20, 21. (3) The picture of angels taking the saints to meet the Son of man was probably common in early Christianity. (4) In vv. 37–39 [of Matthew 24] those taken (into the ark) are saved while those left behind perish.”8
Ulrich Luz says in his commentary on Matthew 24: “With ‘taken’ (Παραλαμβάνεται) the readers think of the taking away to the Lord of which they have just read (v. 31) and with which they are familiar from their knowledge of Jewish and Christian tradition. With being left behind they think of the consideration of being lost that comes from the final separation from God. According to v. 41 the same is true for two women presumably again from the same family, who are doing their housework together. One is taken away from the mill to Christ, the other stays behind and that means death and destruction.”9
Meanwhile, The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary says: “Shall be taken. Gr. paralambano [παραλαμβάνω], meaning literally, ‘to take to oneself,’ used in the papyri of receiving to oneself articles that belong to him. Paralambano [παραλαμβάνω] is used in [Matt.] 17:1 of Jesus taking to Himself Peter, James, and John, and with them ascending the mount of transfiguration. In Col. 4:17 it is used of a Christian minister’s receiving the gospel commission. In John 14:3 paralambano [παραλαμβάνω] is used of Jesus receiving to Himself the waiting disciples. By contrast, ‘took’ in Matt. 24:39 is from airo, ‘to carry off,’ ‘to remove.’ The ‘one’ of v. 40 is ‘taken’ by the angels as they ‘gather’ the ‘elect’ (see on v. 31). . . .
“What Jesus meant by being ‘taken’ and being ‘left’ is made clear by the context. Those who are left are the evil servants, who instead of continuing in their normal pursuit after a supposed secret rapture, are cut asunder and assigned their portion with the hypocrites (vs. 48-51). . . .
“Left. Gr. Aphiemi ‘to send away,’ ‘to dismiss.’ The Greek precludes the idea that it is the righteous who are ‘left.’ The righteous are literally ‘received’ and wicked ‘sent away.’”10
Ellen White writes: “ ‘Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken and the other left.’ ‘Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left.’ (Luke 17:36, 35. ) The righteous and the wicked are to be associated together in the work of life. But the Lord reads the character, He discerns who are obedient children, who respect and love His commandments.
“The onlookers may discern no difference, but there is One who said that the tares were not to be plucked up by human hands, lest the wheat be rooted up also. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then the Lord sends forth His reapers to gather out the tares, and binds them in bundles to burn, while the wheat is gathered into the heavenly garner.
“The time of the judgment is a most solemn period, when the Lord gathers His own from among the tares.
Those who have been members of the same family are separated. A mark is placed upon the righteous. ‘They shall be Mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up My jewels: and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him’ (Malachi 3:17). Those who have been obedient to God’s commandments will unite with the company of the saints in light; they shall enter in through the gates into the city, and have right to the tree of life. The one shall be taken. His name shall stand in the book of life, while those with whom he associated shall have the mark of eternal separation from God.
“The tares and wheat are now commingled, but then the one Hand that alone can separate them will give to everyone his true position.”11
The evidence from Matthew 24:40 demonstrates that the “taken” are those that Jesus is going to take with Him as He promised in John 14:3. The Greek use of paralambano [παραλαμβάνω] indicates that those “taken” or “received” by Jesus are the saved (see also 1 Thess. 4:17).
Despite the popularity of the “secret rapture” interpretation of Matthew 24:40, 41, a biblical and contextual reading of the texts expresses the great truth that, while the lost (those “left”) will, ultimately, face another fate (Matthew 24:28), the saved (those “taken”) will, when Jesus comes, go home to live eternally with Him.