This is the first part of six. In my book, Antichrist Before the Day of the Lord, I have an appendix entitled, “The ‘Big Three’ Proof Texts for Imminence.” The three proof texts I address are James 5:7–9, Titus 2:11–14, and Matthew 24:36. It is the latter proof text that I will split up in a six part series. This first part is the introduction explaining the argumentation for their interpretation. In the next five parts I will give five reasons why the “Coming” in Matthew 24:36–44 refers back to verses 30–31, maintaining the coherency and cohesiveness of Jesus’ teaching.
I can hear some of you saying, “Of course the coming in verses 36–44 refers back to verses 30-31. The context is clear.” I agree, but many pretribulationists attempting to maintain that verses 36–44 refer to the “any-moment rapture” disconnect its cohesiveness from verses 30–31 and thus retrojects the coming in verses 36–44 to have it happen before verse 4. Yes, you heard me right, before verse 4. Fundamentally, they are trying to avoid the church having to go through the great tribulation, which is why they must have verses 36–44 happening sometime before the great tribulation, so they argue it happens before verse 4.
Not all pretribulationists interpret it this way, and I have interacted with the other pretribulationist interpretations in my book. But I decided in this series to focus on this particular interpretation because I have noticed that in recent years it is being used by more and more pretribulational teachers. So I want to equip prewrathers with a substantive response to this particular interpretation.
So here we go.
Many pretribulationists interpret at least part of the Olivet Discourse applying to the church, starting with Matthew 24:36 teaching a rapture. They argue verse 36 does not refer back to the Lord’s coming to gather his elect in verses 30–31. In fact they claim verses 36–44 do not have any connection with verses 4–35! They argue if it did refer back to the events in verses 4–35, especially verses 30–31, it would undermine an imminent return of Christ because it situates it after the great tribulation. Thus they will maintain verses 36–44 refer to a pretribulational rapture, but the coming of Christ in verses 30–31 refers to the battle of Armageddon at the end of the “tribulation period.”
First, I want to respond to the fundamental premise their whole argument rests upon. I will interact with the argumentation represented by pretribulationalist John F. Hart in “Should Pretribulationists Reconsider the Rapture in Matthew 24:36–44? Part 1 of 3.”[i] He claims the “coming” in verse 36 does not refer back to the “coming” in verses 30–31. He claims the disciples’ first question back in verse 3 argues for two separate comings: “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt 24:3). Hart posits that these two questions in verse 3 are answered in a chiasm, which is a rhetorical or literary device repeating concepts or words in reverse order. The second question, he says, is answered first by Jesus in verses 4–35, and the first question is answered in verses 36–44. He assumes this chiastic structure because he thinks Matthew edits his gospel account elsewhere with chiasms. This is weak reasoning on Hart’s part for several reasons. First, one must prove the intention of a chiasm, which in our case requires showing Matthew was consciously intending a reverse-order structure—a very subjective claim. Hart simply assumes this, and claims Matthew does this elsewhere, thus, he argues, Matthew must be doing this here as well.[ii] This is circular reasoning. Even if there were a chiasm, which there is no evidence for, he arbitrarily chooses his chiastic structure.
For the sake of argument, let us assume Hart’s chiasm to see if it holds up under further scrutiny. How does he relate the coming in verses 36–44 to the question, “when will these things happen?” He says, “In the Matthean context, the disciples’ use of ‘these things’ [v. 3] gathered into one thought the temple’s destruction (‘your house is being left to you desolate!’ 23:38) and Christ’s Second Coming (‘you will not see Me until . . .’ 23:39).”[iii] Hart is mistaken because “these things” in Matthew 24:3 is not referring back to Matthew 23:38–39. Instead, the immediate antecedent to “these things” in verse 3 refers to “these things” in verse 2, which in turn refers to the temple buildings in verse 1 (note the plural in “temple buildings”).
Another reason Hart gives for his interpretation is he claims verses 32–35 and 36–44 are incompatible with each other. He sees the former passage conveying signs before Jesus’ second coming and the latter passage conveying no signs before his return. The way he resolves this supposed incompatibility is by positing these two passages as referring to different comings of Christ. Verses 32–35 refer to the second coming depicted in verses 30–31, which contains signs, so his disciples can know he is near; but verses 36–44 refer to the “imminent” rapture without signs occurring before the events in verse 4, so his disciples cannot know that he is near. Hart states, “The theme of ‘not knowing’ recurs throughout 24:36–25:13 and is set in full contrast with the fact that the disciples can ‘know that he is near’ (v 33 ESV) according to vv 32–35.”[iv] He construes these “two comings” as separated by seven years.
Attempting to bolster his radical detachment of verses 4–35 from 36–44, he appeals to a Greek expression in verse 36, “But as for (peri de) that day and hour no one knows it—not even the angels in heaven—except the Father alone.” He claims peri de (“But as for”) indicates a sharp transition showing Jesus introducing an unrelated subject of what came immediately before. However, he overstates his case by reading too much into this expression. Peri de does not have any technical meaning requiring what came before it to be unrelated to what comes after. Instead, the phrase simply means Jesus is beginning to shift to another perspective or topic, which can be related to what came before—only context can inform us, not the mere phrase itself. In this context, we will see in verses 36–44 Jesus introducing an expanded concern to the parousia event of verses 30–31.
Hart’s bifurcation of Jesus’ discourse is seriously flawed, disrupting the natural flow of the text and the intent of Jesus’ words. Consequently, it removes Jesus’ fervent exhortation for the church concerning the Antichrist’s great tribulation. My aim in the following five parts is to show the natural relationship between verses 4–35 and 36–44, thus demonstrating verse 36 is a reference to the parousia event in 30–31, instead of the pretribulational rapture supposedly happening before verse 4.
[i] John F. Hart, “Should Pretribulationists Reconsider the Rapture in Matthew 24:36–44, Part 1 of 3,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 20 (autumn 2007): 47–70. Craig Blaising argues in a similar fashion in Three Views on the Rapture: Pretribulation, Prewrath, or Posttribulation, 2nd ed., ed. Alan Hultberg (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 41–58.
[ii] Hart, “Should Pretribulationists Reconsider,” 53–54.
[iii] Hart, “Should Pretribulationists Reconsider,” 51.
[iv] Hart, “Should Pretribulationists Reconsider,” 60.