In the last decade I have heard the growing mantra: “I want to be left behind!”
This slogan comes from the interpreter who believes the one who is taken in Matthew 24 is taken to judgment and the one who is left behind is righteous and enters the kingdom immediately on earth.
Almost without exception, their exegesis of this passage is based on something outside the Olivet Discourse—and I am also including scholars who take this understanding. They have rarely interacted with the following exegetical points in the immediate context, as explained below.
(37) For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (38) For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, (39) and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (40) Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. (41) Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. (Matt 24:37–41 ESV)
Amillennialists, posttribulationalists, and many pretribulationists argue that the ones who are taken, are taken to judgment, and the ones who are left, are left for deliverance. This interpretation, however, violates the natural reading of the passage. Specifically, this interpretation views those who are taken are the ones taken for judgment after the battle of Armageddon, and those who are left are those who survive the day of the Lord and enter the millennial kingdom. Their argument relates mainly to the Noahic illustration in verses 37–39. They contend the judgment of “the flood came and took them [the wicked] all away” parallels the event of “one will be taken.” But identifying “the wicked” with “those who will be taken” is mistaken for the following reasons:
First, the domestic and agricultural illustrations in verses 40–41 parallel the Noahic illustration, so they are not intended to illustrate the illustration of the Noah illustration in verses 37–39.
Rather, verses 40–41 intend to illustrate the climax of the Olivet Discourse, which is the gathering of God’s people at the parousia (Matt 24:30–31). At the separation when the parousia begins in verse 31, who is being taken? It is God’s elect, which is the whole point of invoking the illustration in the first place.
Second, the other interpretation breaks the parallelism of the illustrations. Instead, Noah’s family being delivered is described first (“the day when Noah entered the ark,” v. 38), then the judgment upon the ungodly is described second (“the flood came and swept them all away,” v. 39). To preserve the parallel, a man in the field and a woman grinding at the mill is first described as taken (delivered), then the other man in the field and other woman grinding at the mill are left (judgment).
Third, some translations render the action of the flood illustration in verse 39 as, “the flood came and took them [the wicked] all away.” The rendering “took” is unfortunate because unsuspecting readers may assume it is the same “taken” used in verses 40–41.
There are two different Greek terms behind the English, containing nearly opposite meanings. The English Standard Version recognizes this and accordingly replaces “took” with “swept away” (“and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man,” Matt 24:39 ESV). The Greek term in verse 39 is airō, which in this particular context of the judgment-flood illustration means to “take away, remove.”
In contrast, the Greek term in verses 40–41 is paralambanō, carrying the sense of intimate receiving. Some claim paralambanō does not always carry the sense of receiving in a positive sense. This is true, but misleading. Of the forty-nine times this term is used in the New Testament, it is used three times negatively (Matt 27:27, John 19:16, Acts 23:18). This rare negative sense is found in a specific narrow context of a prisoner being handed over to the jurisdiction of soldiers, a context not relevant to our parousia illustration. It is a strained lexical argument to apply this unlikely meaning to our target passage. On this fallacy, see D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 37–41.
Fourth, in verses 40–41, the term for “taken” is paralambanō, which conveys a positive receiving. Further, this receiving is contrasted with the one who is “left.” The Greek term behind “left” is aphiēmi, which in this context means, “to move away, with the implication of causing a separation, leave, depart from.”
So we have a Greek positive term for “taken” contrasted with a Greek negative term for “left”; accordingly, the one who is “left” is more in keeping with the idea of separation and judgment, instead of deliverance. Not surprisingly, just a few days later, Jesus used paralambanō when he reassured his disciples that at his return, he will take them to be with him: “And if I go and make ready a place for you, I will come again and take [paralambanō] you to be with me, so that where I am you may be too” (John 14:3). It is the same context (Christ’s return), same audience (his disciples), and same terminology (paralambanō).
Fifth, in the same parousia context, Jesus provides another illustration for being prepared for his coming (Matt 25:1–13). The five wise virgins who were prepared are taken to be with the bridegroom; the five foolish ones who were not prepared are left behind. Accordingly, the parable of the ten virgins is consistent with verses 37–41, supporting our interpretation that those who are taken are for deliverance, and those left, for judgment.
Incidentally, in Luke’s account he gives the illustrations describing Jesus’ coming: “(34) ‘I tell you, in that night there will be two people in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. (35) There will be two women grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.’ (37) Then the disciples said to him, ‘Where, Lord?’ He replied to them, ‘Where the dead body is, there the vultures will gather’” (Luke 17:34–37). This last verse containing the disciples’ question of “where” is insightful, because Jesus responds that dead bodies attract vultures, judgment imagery representing the ungodly, not the righteous. So this comports much better with those who are “left” for judgment.