What do those verses about being taken away and left behind really teach? The answer may shock many people who have been taught only one viewpoint. I also briefly look at Matthew’s version.
Let’s explore these verses, in order to get to a clear interpretation, which brings us closer to the truth—what the apostolic community believed, as some of them were inspired to write the New Testament.
Here is my translation of Luke 17:22-37.
22 He said to the disciples, “The days will come when you will yearn to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. 23 And they will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or “Look here!’ But don’t leave, nor pursue it. 24 For just as flashing lightning shines from one end of the sky to the other side of the sky, so will be the Son of man in his day. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
26 And just as it happened in the days of Noah, so also shall it be in the days of the Son of Man: 27 They were eating, drinking, marrying, and married off, until the day Noah went into the ark and the flood came and destroyed everyone. 28 Likewise, just as it happened in days of Lot: they were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, and building. 29 And one day Lot left Sodom, and fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed everyone. 30 And in accordance with those things it shall be on the day when the Son of Man shall be revealed.
31 In that day, whoever will be on the roof and his equipment is in the house, let him not come down to get them; and the one who is in the field let him likewise not turn back to the things behind him. 32 Remember Lot’s wife! 33 Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it; whoever would lose his life shall make it live again.” 34 I say to you, “On that night two will be in one bed, and the one will be taken, and the other will be left behind. 35 Two women will be grinding at the same place, and one will be taken, and the other will be left.” [36 Two people will be in the field, and one will be taken and the other left.] 37 And in reply, they said to him, “Where, Lord?” And he said to them, “Where the body will be, there the vultures will also gather. (Luke 17:22-37)
Let’s take it verse by verse.
The audience is his disciples.
“yearn”: it is the verb epithumeō (pronounced eh-pea-thoo-meh-oh and used 16 times). It is used in Luke 16:21, where Lazarus yearned to be fed from the rich man’s table. BDAG, considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT, says it means, depending on the context: (1) “to have a strong desire to do or secure something, desire”; (2) “to have sexual interest in someone, desire.” The noun is epithumia (pronounced eh-pea-thoo-mee-ah), and BDAG says it means, depending on the context: (1) “a great desire for something, desire, longing, craving” (and one can do this with good or bad things); (2) a desire for something forbidden or simply inordinate, craving, lust” (so this is always bad).
Therefore, it is possible to yearn or long so much for the day of his return that you lose your focus. You will be tempted to believe someone who thinks he can pinpoint the day or how it will happen. “Look there! Look here!” But that’s not how the day of the Son of man will be. It won’t be a secret. It will glorious and powerful and earth shattering (so to speak).
When people yearn for the Second Coming, they are susceptible to deception. People will tell them, “There it is” or “here it is!” They might go out to pursue it.
Relax. You’ll know it when it comes, for it will be like lightning flashing from one end of the sky to the next. It won’t be a secret. Paul repeats this notion in 2 Thess. 2, where the Thessalonians were concerned that the Jesus had already come, and they missed it. Paul reassured them that the Second Coming won’t be a secret, but it will be with a visible Parousia (arrival) and a loud trumpet blast, and Jesus will destroy the man of lawlessness. The Thessalonians (and now we) will be there to see the man of lawlessness and the Second Coming. So the Thessalonians (and we) have not missed it.
So, what will the hearts and behavior of the people be like, just before his Second Coming? They will live like they did in the days of Noah (Gen. 6-9). They conducted regular business. These transactions were not sinful, but the implication, based on Jesus’s audience’s knowledge of the story, is that they were living riotously. But the text is silent probably because Jesus assumed their knowledge of the original story. He was talking to his disciples, after all. In any case, the people’s obliviousness did them in. They were not ready. The flood came, which in Greek is the noun kataklusmos (pronounced kah-tah-kloos-moss), and yes, we get our word cataclysm from it. But in the NT the noun simply meant “flood” or “deluge.”
The good news is that people who surrender to his call to discipleship will escape the cataclysm of final judgment, like Noah got in the ark, which is Christ (2 Pet. 2:5-10).
The ones who are left after the flood are Noah and his family who survived judgment, while those have been taken away go through judgment and don’t survive. The flood waters took them away.
In the town of Sodom, people conducted business, just like people will do immediately before his Second Coming. This business is not sinful necessarily, but everyone knew the full story of Sodom, though Jesus does not bring it up (Gen. 19). Why not? Does he expect that societies in the future not to endorse gang rape? Yes, but this was obvious to begin with. Whatever the reason for his omission, the people of Sodom were oblivious to their own times, just as people will be before his Second Coming. That’s the main message of these two verses. The result was a storm of fire and sulfur. Make no mistake: Jesus’s return will likewise bring the fire of judgment. It will not be a time of playing games and welcoming everyone with hugs and kisses, as modern, sleepy Westerners may believe. The good news, however, is that as Lot escaped with Abraham, so people can escape by their having already surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus and walking in his will. Then God’s negative judgment won’t apply to them. He will give them a favorable judgment (2 Pet. 2:5-10).
Please note that these verses about judgment in the time of Lot, applied here to the end time, come after the verse about the visible Second Coming (v. 24). So these verses refer to life just before the Second Coming, and when the verses bring up the fire and sulfur from heaven, the focus shifts to the final judgment—after the Second Coming. There is no secret rapture here. Everything hinges on the Second Coming.
The ones who are left behind and escape survive the fire and sulfur, while those who do not survive it are the people of Sodom. They were “taken away” by the fires of judgment.
This is the verse about the Second Coming. In case the audience—his disciples—missed the point—Jesus summarizes the two stories about Noah and Lot. The days before the Second Coming will be like the day in those Old Testament stories.
The ones who are left behind after all the flood and fire and sulfur are the survivors: Noah and his family and Lot and his family. The others are taken by the flood of judgment and the fire of judgment.
If you’re on the roof, don’t go back and get your belongings or equipment or supplies for travel. Instead, use the outer stairs and run. If you are in the field working, don’t turn back and get the things you left behind. So why would people be tempted to do this when Jesus is coming back and it will be majestic and glorious? His point is that attachment to possessions is a distraction that will not ready his followers. Yes, you can farm your land, but attachment to it to the point of being neglectful about the kingdom is misguided.
Another possible reason for talking about not going back and packing up your things: He is referring to the coming judgment on Jerusalem, which happened in 70 A.D., when the Romans conquered it. So Jesus is shifting the focus just a bit and condensing the two incidents of the conquest of Jerusalem and his Second Coming and teaching us that the act of turning back to pack your belongings is useless.
However, I don’t think he was condensing the two events. He is simply teachings us, as noted, that our attachment to our things will end.
Jesus reminds the disciples of Lot’s wife’s big mistake (Gen. 19:26). Don’t look back and turn into a pillar of salt! This refers to the previous verse about not packing up. Don’t look longingly for your old life. It is now gone, forever.
Jesus talks about the everyday life of people in an agricultural society—and society generally, in his day. At the Second Coming, one will be taken and the other left. This entire pericope (pronounced puh-RIH-coh-pea) or section says that the visible Second Coming—like flashing lightning that shines throughout the sky—happens in v. 24 and v. 30, before these verses about being taken and left, so these verses (34-35) cannot refer to the rapture as it is commonly taught, which is said to take place before the Second Coming. There is no rapture here.
“taken”: it is the verb paralambanō (pronounced pah-rah-lahm-bah-noh), and BDAG says it means, depending on the context: (1) “to take into close association, take (to oneself), take with / along”; (2) “to gain control of or receive jurisdiction over, take over, receive … someone a prisoner” (John 19:16b); (3) “sometimes the emphasis lies not so much on receiving or taking over, as on the fact that the word implies agreement or approval, accept.” In other words, the verb has a “negative” connotation (take over) or a positive one (accept). So the context determines the best definition or best translation. Whichever translation you choose, remember that the taking happens after the Second Coming (v.v 24, 30), while the rapture, as commonly taught, is said to happen before the Second Coming. So these verses are really about the final judgment, after the Second Coming.
“left”: it comes from the verb aphiēmi (pronounced ah-fee-ay-mee), and BDAG says it means, depending on the context: (1) “to dismiss or release someone or something from a place of one’s presence” … let go, send away”; (2) “to release from legal or moral obligation or consequence, cancel, remit, pardon”; (3) “to move away, with implication of causing a separation, leave, depart from”; (4) “to have something continue or remain in a place, leave standing / lying”; (5) “to convey a sense of distancing through an allowable margin of freedom, leave it to someone to do something, let, let go, allow, tolerate.” Clearly the best option in this context is the third one. But whichever one you choose, the Second Coming happens before being left (vv. 24, 30), so it does not refer to a secret rapture, as it is taught, before the Second Coming. So, once again, these verses are about final judgment after the Second Coming. These is no rapture here.
“vultures”: it could be translated as “eagles,” because eagles scavenge, for example, during the salmon run in Alaska. But the translation of “vultures” is better here, as the Shorter Lexicon says.
“body”: it is the standard Greek word for body: sōma. Matt. 24:28 calls the body a carcass. They will not feast in the afterlife, but they will be feasted on! The people who are taken will be destroyed.
Bottom line: It is better to be left behind rather than taken away to be judged.
But even if you believe the ones taken away will feast, then this taking away still does not support a rapture in the pretribulation timing.
If the pretribulation rapture were such an important doctrine, then one would expect it to be taught as clearly as the Second Coming is. “Ah, but it’s a secret rapture!” (some may say). In reply, if it is not taught clearly, as it is not in this pericope, then a believer has to import this notion into this entire pericope.
In contrast, the mighty and visible Second Coming will appear suddenly, like a thief in the night, so in a sense the exact timing of the Second Coming is stealthy or unknown or a secret, such that even the Son of man didn’t know the exact timing (Matt. 24:36), but the Second Coming is still taught clearly—very, very clearly, as here in this pericope (v. 30). There is no need to split this passage up into complicated moving parts: one a secret rapture and the other the Second Coming.
The visible, cannot-be-missed Second Coming is described in vv. 24 and 30, while vv. 34-35 (and 36) about being taken (supposedly the pretribulation rapture) and left come after vv. 24, 30. Yet the rapture is said to take place before the Second Coming. So something doesn’t work. The reason it does not work is that people have to import this doctrine into the passage. That’s a bad idea when the flow and meaning get disrupted. Therefore Luke 17:22-37 does not teach the pretribulation rapture, but it clearly teaches the Second Coming. In fact, though the next statement will be shocking to many American Christians, the pretribulation rapture is not taught clearly or at all, throughout the New Testament, as the related article teaches:
Once again, according to Luke 17:22-37, it is better to be left behind and not taken away to judgment. So “taken away” does not refer to a rapture. Instead, it refers to the day when people are hauled off to undergo the final judgment, as the people in Noah’s and Lot’s days experienced their final judgment.
In modern terms, “taken away” bears the image of a police officer handcuffing a suspect and taking him away in his police car to wait in prison until he stands before a judge.
Quick Look at Matthew’s Version
Here’s my translation:
40 At that time two men shall be in the field, and one shall be taken and one left. 41 Two women shall be grinding grain at the mill, and one shall be taken and one left. 42 Watch therefore because you don’t know which day your Lord comes. 43 But this you do know: that if the head of household knew at which watch the thief was coming, he would have watched and not permitted his house to be broken into. 44 For this reason, you also be prepared because at the hour you don’t expect, the Son of Man is coming. (Matt. 24:40-44)
In Matthew’s version the verb taken is the same Greek verb as Luke’s version: paralambanō. And the verb for left is also aphiēmi, same as above. The parables and the scene of judgment from here to 25:46 may help clarify what this taking means.
Here is the bigger context of the “taking away” imagery.
In the Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Servant (Matt. 24:45-51), the bad servant was behaving foolishly and abusively, and the master put him with the hypocrites in punishment. In the Parable of the Ten Maidens (25:1-13), when the bridegroom arrived, five of them were unprepared and were shut outside, while the five wise girls were prepared and enjoyed the wedding feast, and a feast often symbolizes the final Messianic victory and era. In the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30), the master returns and sends away into outer darkness the servant who did nothing with his master’s talent. In 25:31-46, the majestic passage about final judgment, some people will be the goats and sent away in a negative judgment, while others will be the sheep and remain with the son of Man and enter with him into the kingdom prepared for them before the foundation of the world.
In these four verses, the ones sent way or taken away or shut out were the unwatchful and unproductive and abusive, not the watchful and productive and obedient. Therefore, the natural inference here in vv. 41-42 is that the ones taken away were sent away to judgment.
As noted, in modern terms, “taken away” has the imagery of being handcuffed and taken away in a police car, to stand before a judge. It’s not where anyone wants to be or to have happen to him.
There is no pretribulation rapture here because it supposedly will happen before the Second Coming, and in vv. 40-44 Jesus is now talking about expecting his parousia (Second Coming) and its aftermath.
So how does this post help me grow in Christ and wait in purity for the Second Coming?
At God’s command, he will send his Son to the planet. At that moment the dead in Christ will rise first; that is, people who have already died will be reunited with their bodies, which will have been transformed into their new glorified bodies. God holds the entire universe by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3). With one word from him, every decayed body, whether decomposed in the grave or lost at sea and consumed by the salt, will be reconstituted and reunited with its rightful owner. This event will shatter the earth’s surface. The old, natural order will be done away with and destroyed, and a new creation will be established, all with one command by God (2 Pet. 3:10).
1 John 3:2-3 says:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3).
The Second Coming will happen in God’s time. We don’t need to be scared of it, nor do we get to live a life of sin, because we think we can get away with it. No, the Scriptures tell us everywhere to live godly lives. And we don’t need to be scared into living such lives, either. John 3:3 says it is the hope (not the fear) of his appearing that causes us to purify our lives.
Luke 21:5-33 Predicts Destruction of Jerusalem and Temple (Luke is by far the clearest on this topic)
Three Options for Interpreting Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21 (I discuss two other interpretations)