Part 2 – Why the “Coming” in Matthew 24:36–44 Refers Back to Verses 30–31

As mentioned in the first part, Hart views these two passages as incompatible because he construes verses 4­–35 teaching signs before Christ’s coming, while verses 36–44 teaching no signs before his coming. Therefore, he claims verses 36–44 must not be referring back to the coming in verses 30–31, instead must refer to a pretribulational rapture occurring before the events starting in verse 4. However, Hart fails to distinguish the proper nature between these two passages.

First, the natural flow of Jesus’ teaching contains two major sections. The first part, verses 4–35, is characterized by prophetic-narrative, a sequential outline for what is going to happen before his return. The second part, verses 36–44 (and through 25:46), is characterized by prophetic-exhortation, giving illustrations, parables, and other devices, warning to be spiritually watchful. Thus, after he concludes his teaching on eschatological events, he begins in verse 36 (“But as for” peri de) to shift to the topic of spiritual watchfulness. In short, Jesus teaches, “this is what is going to happen” (vv. 4–35) and “this is how you live in light of it” (vv. 36­–44). Thus it is unwarranted to divorce verse 36–44 from the coming of Christ in verses 30–31 by lifting out verses 36–44 and retrojecting it back to a so-called imminent return before verse 4. Paul uses this exact same structure in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:28 to explain the parousia of the Lord. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, he first teaches the parousia event, followed by his exhortation in 1 Thessalonians 5:1–28 to live in light of the event. It is also no coincidence Paul begins his exhortation in 1 Thessalonians 5:1 with peri de!

Further, the thrust of verses 4–35 is about historical watchfulness, which is why Jesus reinforced the point we will know his return is near when key events unfold before us:

(32) Learn this parable from the fig tree: Whenever its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. (33) So also you, when you see all these things, know that he is near, right at the door. (34) I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (35) Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Matt 24:32–35)

Then Jesus qualifies this with, “But as for that day and hour no one knows it” (v. 36). Do you see the obvious contrast? He moves from teaching on discerning the season of his return to the inability to know the exact day and hour. Those holding the preconceived pretribulational conclusion are prevented from seeing the natural flow of thought. In the parable of the fig tree, Jesus illustrates when believers see certain events (i.e., abomination of desolation and the great tribulation), they will know they are in the season and that summer (i.e., Jesus’ return) is near. Jesus then shifts from historical watchfulness to spiritual watchfulness. He warns:

(37) For just like the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. (38) For in those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. (39) And they knew nothing until the flood came and took them all away. It will be the same at the coming of the Son of Man. (40) Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one left. (41) There will be two women grinding grain with a mill; one will be taken and one left. (42) “Therefore stay alert, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. (43) But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have been alert and would not have let his house be broken into. (44) Therefore you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matt 24:37–44; cf. 45–25:30).

Verses 37–44 illustrate when Jesus comes there will immediately be a sudden separation between the prepared and the unprepared as the Noahic illustration teaches. Verse 42 provides the inference (“therefore” oun) of this teaching, which is to “stay alert, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” This is not a staying alert in the sense of making sure you do not miss a key prophetic news flash on CNN. This is speaking of spiritual watchfulness. He illustrates this with the thief imagery, followed by another warning of spiritual vigilance, “Therefore you also must be ready.” Then he reiterates the reason, “because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (v. 44). Hart does not believe these watchful-warnings refer back to the coming in verses 30–31, so he points to this latter statement as support for an imminent pretribulational rapture: “at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Incidentally, a more accurate rendering of “expect” should be “think,” dokeō.) For Hart, that statement supposedly proves Jesus is referring to an imminent return, for if a believer is suffering in the great tribulation they should certainly “expect” his soon return. But this misses the point of Jesus’ warning for believers because his intention is to teach vigilance during the great tribulation. The person not spiritually ready will have the Son of Man come at an hour he did not think he would. “If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have been alert and would not have let his house be broken into” (Matt 24:43). So this has no relevance to an “any moment” rapture. Instead, Jesus is specifically instructing his disciples that spiritually watchfulness is crucial, lest the Son of Man comes back at a time when a person is living in complacency and sin. Believers cannot let their guard down during the great tribulation, for that will be the most important time to be vigilant! Jesus warns to stay faithful since there will be deceptive temptation for believers to lose their faithfulness (vv. 23–26!). If they fail to persevere, Christ will come back to these “foolish virgins” as a thief. This “spiritual watchfulness lest the day come upon us” is expressed vividly in Luke’s account of the Olivet Discourse:

(34) But be on your guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day close down upon you suddenly like a trap. (35) For it will overtake all who live on the face of the whole earth. (36) But stay alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that must happen, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:34–36; cf. 21:25–28)

Similarly, Paul alludes to Jesus’ instruction for spiritual watchfulness:

(4) But you, brothers and sisters, are not in the darkness for the day to overtake you like a thief would. (5) For you all are sons of the light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of the darkness. (6) So then we must not sleep as the rest, but must stay alert and sober. (7) For those who sleep, sleep at night and those who get drunk are drunk at night. (1 Thess 5:4–7).

In summary, verses 36 and following is not intended to teach what event will or will not precede his coming. He already established this in verses 4–35. Instead, beginning in verse 36, Jesus shifts to exhort believers to live in light of those events, lest that day and hour overtake them. They are not to let their guard down, but to be vigilant, faithful, sober, alert, and wise.

 

 

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