From:  Apocalyptic and History:  Matthew 24                                 Return to Home        

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2013


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(Matthew 24:37-44; Mark 13:33)







            Old Testament precedent/intended application.  Not only is there Old Testament precedent for the imagery of unpreparedness, Jesus even specifies its location--the narrative of the destruction of the human species (except for Noah and his family) by a devastating deluge (Genesis 6).    The text takes for granted that most individuals will be as unprepared as in that primeval era.  That also finds implicit root in the Genesis narrative:  only Noah and his family take advantage of the opportunity of escape.  Everyone else is unconcerned.

            Furthermore, if there is one central hallmark of canonical prophets it is their lack of “success.”  In spite of the vigor with which they spoke, in spite of the repetition of their message time and again, the vast bulk of the people remained unprepared for whatever crisis the prophet had been predicting.  Hence the unpreparedness of the people for the Lord’s return would not be anything out of [Page 239]   step with prophetic precedent.  It had been typical in the past; it would remain true in this return of Jesus in judgment, an event that the context links with the end of the world (verse 35). 


            Application to second coming.  Some see in the reference to eating and drinking an allusion to over-indulgence--excess--in such matters.[1]   However the text is totally lacking any explicit condemnation for specific forms of moral misconduct.  Nor is the speaker likely to be rebuking he enjoyment of the harmless pleasures of life.[2]   Jesus Himself had attended the marriage feast at Cana (John 3) so he was hardly in a position to condemn marrying and giving in marriage!

            What is targeted is the allowing of such matters to blot out concern for the spiritual aspect of life, as embodied in readiness for the second coming.  In Genesis (6:5) the depravity of the world is stressed; here that emphasis is lacking.  The world at that end time may be depraved; it may be quite deeply concerned with moral matters--at least as it defines such issues.  But even if the latter, society (considered as a collectivity) is utterly unprepared to explain and justify its course before Jesus.  The moral state of civilization is left totally open:  Moral, immoral, or amoral, in all of these situations it will be unprepared to justify its conduct before Jesus.  


            Fall of Jerusalem interpretative option.  If one were to take this as a reference to the more immediate danger to Jerusalem, how would the text be relevant to such a discussion?  One way would be by stressing how that even in an ominous era, it is so easy to become preoccupied with immediate concerns that one does not prepare for events taking a worse turn.  How many Jews stayed in Germany until it was too late?  How many Jews stayed in adjoining Austria until after the forcible merger of the two countries?  I took a graduate class a few years back with an elderly gentleman who was Jewish and from Austria.  As soon as Hitler took power his family made prompt arrangements to leave for safer places in the west.  Such perceptive individuals were, sadly, a minority.

            Unfortunately that frame mind seems inherent in the human species.  Hence we have every reason to believe that there were those in the Palestine of the pre-70 [Page 240]   era who missed their opportunity to escape due to one rationalization or another.  They continued about their regular daily activities until they got ground into the earth by the violence and bloodshed that spilled over their land.         

            One strong argument against interpreting the verses in a Jerusalem context is verse 39 and the emphasis on the unawareness of the people.  Jesus had just gone to considerable length to stress that their would be considerable warning signs of the coming fall of the city.  That catastrophe was not without warning.

            On the other hand the analogy made with the Flood stops just short of being a hundred percent conclusive.  The situation implied in the Genesis text forces us to concede this.  The giant ark is not depicted as supernaturally appearing out of nowhere; it had to be constructed by Noah.  The many years built in erecting such an incongruous facility had to be a topic of public conversation, debate, and derision.  By its nature it had to result in some type of teaching about it by Noah.  The New Testament depiction of Noah as a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5) is a logical deduction from the nature of the social situation that is taken for granted by Genesis.  Hence, even in the underlying analogy with the end time there is not quite an absolute lack of knowledge; only a lack of heeding that knowledge. 



2.  MANY TO BE FOUND UNACCEPTABLE (Matthew 24:40-41)


            In these verses, the emphasis is on the fact that some would accept the message of preparedness while others would dangerously delay the needed action.  “Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left.  Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left” (Matthew 24:40-41).

            A similar urban versus farming contrast is also found in verses 17 and 18 of this chapter.  (Though a female/male distinction is noticeably absent in the earlier verses.)  There the emphasis is upon the need for each one to take responsibility for oneself and to flee.  The implication is that all have a reasonable chance of escaping unharmed.  Here the emphasis is dramatically different:  here the emphasis is that all will not “escape” and the one taken/one left imagery is utilized to convey that reality.

[Page 241]                   Women are introduced into the text, pursuing a typical job of theirs in that  era--grinding grain into a usable form to bake.  The mill under discussion is not the massive grinding mill towed by oxen.  Instead the reference is to the hand operated one that women utilized to grind grain into a form where it could be utilized to bake bread.[3]    One woman poured the grain and the other moved the stone to do the crushing.[4] 


            Old Testament precedent.   The unpreparedness theme is continued in these verses.  While before, there is a “worldwide” perspective (as most appropriate with Noah as precedent), here it is “localized.”  Jesus speaks of small groups of two men and women and how they will be treated differently.  In the account of the Genesis flood only a handful are counted as faithful and entered the ark that would rescue them.  Here the proportion is fifty-fifty:  one taken/one left.  But the idea is the same:  massive unpreparedness.  Whether it be 99.9% or “only” 50%, large parts of society is unprepared.

            Jesus had already warned that “most men’s love will grow cold” (24:12) and we examined in that context Old Testament precedents for such dire warnings.  Those same warnings apply here as well.


            Application to second coming.  In an end time context, the idea most likely would be that one of the two is taken to heaven while one is not.  The reference to multiple locations (countryside versus apparent urban setting) and gender (male versus female) would carry the lesson that it would affect all individuals regardless of geographic location or sexual gender. 

            Although this is most probable in light of the intended time frame, it is not without its difficulties.  For one thing, the text does not identify whether it is the “good” people who are taken or the “evil” ones.[5]    For that matter if the “evil” are left, what happens to them?  Although the text does not exclude the possibility of them being later removed for their punishment, so far as the text directly states they are left on earth.   Is their punishment to reside in a “hell on earth”?

[Page 242]                   On the other hand if it be the faithful who are left, then the idea would be of the permanent removal of the human conveyors of the moral contagions that pollute earth.  In that approach, the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:11-13) is not a synonym for the “heaven” of traditional thought but alludes to such a dramatic purifying and alteration of the earth and its inhabitants that it becomes the permanent abode of the redeemed.  It becomes “heaven” in the sense of being the permanent home of the faithful covenant keepers.

            In spite of the possible limitations on the certainty of our interpretation the arguments in favor of an end time context remain the most compelling scenario.  The difficulty is not so much in presenting a reasonable interpretation as to being sure which was in the mind of the Speaker.


            Fall of Jerusalem interpretative option.  George M. Lasma contends that the text refers to events that grow out of the fall of a city and would, therefore, reasonably apply to the fall of Jerusalem,[6]


                        When a town is attacked and captured by enemies, all the young

women and men are taken captive.  The men of war are killed and the elderly

women are left behind.  Easterners respect women of old age and consider it

a sin to kill them.

                        Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem; the holy city and the sacred

shrines were to be defiled and destroyed, the people were to fall by the sword

and young women and men were to be carried into slavery.  The invading

forces would also enter the privacy of the home.  Even the young girl who sat

grinding wheat in the inside chamber would be dragged out while the older

woman would be disregarded and left to starve and die. 


            This approach is also not without difficulties.  There is no adjective of age to distinguish between those taken and those who are left.  Furthermore, Lasma himself identifies those working “in the field” (verse 40) as males.[7]  According to [Page 243]   him, males were either killed or taken in capture.  Here, though, we read of one being “taken” and the other “left”; although “left” could mean “left dead,” one would more normally assume that he was “left alive” such as the individual who was taken was “taken alive.”

            This is not to deny that the numbers taken prisoner were unquestionably vast.  Josephus estimated that 97,000 were taken away prisoner, though he makes no estimate of the respective number of individuals as to gender.[8] 

            A serious problem exists in the Jerusalem scenario in explaining the apparent difference between the urbanites and farmers in verses 17 and 18 as contrasted with these verses.  Those earlier verses are written as if all can escape--if they merely promptly act upon the warning of danger.  Here it is explicitly stated that some will not avoid being “taken.”  Although this is not an absolute contradiction with verses 17 and 18 since the feasibility of all escaping is merely reasonably implied rather than being required by the text, the tension between the two references would still be unexpected. 

            One means of dealing with this difficulty would be to argue that the preceding part of the chapter refers to the earlier stage of the Roman assault, when flight was still feasible.  At the stage depicted in these verses that option will be available only to the most fortunate.



3.  THE LESSON FOR BELIEVERS:  BE READY! (Matthew 24:42-44; Mark 13:33-37; Luke 21:34-36)





            Old Testament precedent.   To “watch” is to be alert, to be ready, to be prepared.  Here again we have Jesus returning to a theme that he had introduced earlier.  In Matthew 24:13 Jesus had warned of the need to “endure to the end,” [Page 244]   which carries with it the inherent message of continuing preparedness.  Hence the Old Testament texts introduced at that point have a relevance in the current context as well.

            Both the term and the concept of “watchfulness” are found in the Old Testament.  In Proverbs 8:32-36, the imagery is of one carefully “watching daily” at the gates of true wisdom (verse 34) so that injury and death may be avoided (verse 36).  This imagery finds an echo in Jesus’ reminder that the alert property owner will avoid the loss of his possessions (Matthew 24:43).  Since the house is presumably occupied, the owner thereby avoids the danger of needless injury and death, as in Proverbs. 

            We may also see a foreshadowing of the teaching in Habbakuk where the prophet writes that, “I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower and look forth to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint” (Habbakuk 2:1).  Here the watchfulness is for the opportunity to speak with God (cf. following verses).  Since it would be impossible for him to know exactly when God would speak, Habbakuk would be in the same position as the believer in Matthew 24:42, who needs to be prepared for whenever the Lord finally acts.

            Turning to the underlying concept, we find it repeatedly presented in contexts of alertness toward one’s own potential temptations and weaknesses.   They were to “take heed” not to even discuss the various gods who were worshipped around them (Exodus 23:13).  Although no explicit reason is given, presumably it was lest they be enticed into their worship.  When the people are warned in Exodus 34:12 to “take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land” this rationale is made explicit (cf. vss. 13-16).   There was a grave danger that the pagan environment would subvert their monotheistic faith.  “Take heed lest your heart [note again the inward emphasis, rw] be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them” (Deuteronomy 11:16). 

            Since nature abhors a vacuum not only in the physical realm but also in the spiritual and ethical as well, the Israelites were taught to compensate for the danger of their environment by an intense stress upon the divine code they possessed.  As [Page 245]   summed up in Joshua 22:5 the idea was to, “Take good care to observe the commandment and the law which Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all His ways, and to keep His commandments, and to cleave to Him, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul.”  

            Outward observance was only half the protection they needed; it had to go hand-in-hand with an inward emotional/psychological commitment to the God of their nation, “Take good heed to yourselves, therefore, to love the Lord your God” (Joshua 23:11).  The two were complementary rather than contradictory; when combined it would assure their whole-hearted obedience.  When separated the result would be empty emotionalism (pseudo-love) or sterile formality (“legalism,” in its worst sense).

            To turn once again to Jesus’ remarks, He is emphasizing the danger that can be inflicted on the unprepared under cover of night.  Here it is the danger of theft (Matthew 24:43).  Job 36:20 presents an even greater danger that can come in the hours of darkness--death, “Do not long for the night, when peoples are cut off in their place.”  If the text had been in the singular (“person”), the image might have been that of death--either by natural caused or by violence.  The plural (“peoples”), however, would seem to point to a broader danger, such as a city falling to any enemy under cover of

night.  Or thieves raiding a sleeping band of traveling merchants.  


            Application to second coming.  The exegesis of Matthew 24:42-44 is easy in this context:  be prepared and stay prepared.  The reason for it is spelled out in the reality that, unlike the Fall of Jerusalem for which there were ominous preliminary signs, for the return of Jesus there would be none.  He would simply return “at an hour you do not expect” (verse 44); “you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (verse 42).


            Fall of Jerusalem interpretative option.  These verses are especially difficult to fit into a Jerusalem format.  First of all, those in that situation did have warnings [Page 246]  the catastrophe would occur.  In the early part of the chapter they are spelled out in detail.  Furthermore, the illustration used here of a thief breaking in is of an avoidable disaster.  Indeed, the double admonition to be prepared for it (verses 42, 44) also imply this avoidability.  As depicted in the text leading up to verse 34, the Jerusalem disaster was inevitable.

            The parallel account in Luke 21 has been appealed to as evidence that this section relates to the fall of Jerusalem.[9]  In Luke 21-34:36 there is the admonition that early believers not “be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare.”  Instead they are to “watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”  Since this is an allegedly obvious reference to the fall of Jerusalem and since it concludes the account, then Matthew’s concluding words should also be interpreted as referring to the fall of Jerusalem. 

            Although both texts stress the need to be watchful (prepared), a mere comparative reading of Matthew 24:42-44 and Luke 21:34-36 shows that the development of the theme is entirely different.  In Luke the emphasis is on watchfulness against our own human weaknesses (Luke 21:34); in Matthew 24 the illustration of watchfulness against other people (the potential thief) is used to drive home the same message of preparedness for the second coming.   Although found in the broad context of the same sermon, what we have is a different and additional argument to drive home the same message of preparedness.  Assuming two different events (Jerusalem versus end time) are under discussion in the two texts, because of this fact it proves nothing, one way or another, as to the intent of Matthew 24:42-44.  All the two texts have in common is the element of watchfulness; nothing beyond that.  That plea would be relevant to both the fall of Jerusalem and the second coming as well and could appropriately be discussed in both contexts. 

            Furthermore, it is far from certain that even in Luke the reference is to the fall of Jerusalem.  In that book, the admonition comes after the shift from the short term (“this generation will not pass away till all has taken place”) to the long term [Page 247]   (the passing away of  “heaven and earth”) (verses 32-33).  Hence the same transition from Jerusalem to a far more distant event is also introduced.  What is lacking is Matthew’s reference to no one knowing the day and hour of that event.  Yet, even lacking that, one can reasonably expect that the frame of reference has shifted to that a much latter time.  And in Matthew 24 that event is identified at length as the final coming of Jesus.  Hence, it is likely that the same time period is under discussion and that both accounts present differing parts of Jesus’ admonition to watchfulness.  In Luke it is grounded in personal weakness and in Matthew in the danger it holds if one is unprepared.  Hence supplemental arguments are being made to make even strong the case for personal alertness.      






            Unlike Matthew--who introduces the precedent of the Noahanic flood and the odd reference to one being taken and one left--Mark immediately passes from the unknowability of the final hour (Mark 13:32) to the need for constant preparation for it because of its unknowability.   Hence, in a straight beginning to end reading of Mark we have nothing to distract from the division of the text between short term (fall of Jerusalem:  Mark 13:5-30), a transition section pointing out the shift in time frame (Mark 13:30-32) to long term (Mark 13:33-37).  Hence it is even clearer on the matter than Matthew because it lacks the unexpted taken/left reference.

            Mark leaves out any mention of the broken in home as a warning to alertness that is found in Matthew 24:43-43.  Instead, he immediately passes to the parallel of a master who has left on a journey and left various servants in charge of different responsibilities and how important it was for them to be ready for whatever hour of the day or night he ultimately returned (Mark 13:34-37).  This story reminds one of the story that follows next in Matthew 24: 45-51:  there again servants are left behind with certain responsibility, but in Matthew a distinctive “twist” is added [Page 248]   concerning the servant who misuses his liberty of action provided by the master being away to take advantage of others.  That servant is threatened with the severest punishment when the master returns (Matthew 24:50-51). 

            This is completely lacking in Mark’s parable:  In Mark the story is starkly simple, you are like a servant left to manage on your own--accept that responsibility and opportunity and be prepared for the master’s return.  In contrast, in Matthew, the premise is taken one step further--but don’t you dare take advantage of others for as sure as your master will return he will punish you for it.

            The emphasis on four different times of the night (evening, midnight, cockrow, morning) fits in well with the theme that the parousia could potentially come at any time.  Nothing is ruled out.  The Romans were used to keep four night watches such as alluded to in the text,[10] while the Jewish custom was three[11] and an allusion to either would have made the same point.[12]

            The closing word is literally an emphatic “Watch!”  “The Greek word indicates a call not to be surprised or unprepared, not to be caught off guard, not to be insensitive to the situation at hand.”[13]  There is always the danger that only  veneer of faithfulness will be found there, but not the substance.  Of being “faithful” but not “dedicated.”[14]  






            As in Matthew, Mark’s reference to one being taken and one left is omitted in Luke’s recounting.  Also missing (again as in Mark), is Matthew’s reference to the unpreparedness of the world in the age of Noah as precedent for its unreadiness for the final end.  Luke shifts immediately from the reality of the heavens and earth eventually passing away and the abiding authoritativeness of Jesus’ message (Luke 21:32-33) to the abiding need to be psychologically prepared and to reign in those [Page 249]   self-destructive temptations that would destroy that readiness.  Matthew presents this need through the example of the chief servant who yields to his baser desires and becomes a plague on his fellow servants.  In Luke there is no mention that one might have a lower or higher status.  Instead the emphasis is upon human weakness as a danger in and of itself.

            The danger is pictured as coming from more than one direction:  “dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life” (Luke 21:34).  The first two may grow out of self-hatred--as is so often the case in our world--or may be the result of the “cares of this life” overwhelming one.  Even if the worries and difficulties of living do not drive one to such excesses, they may still gut one’s individual spirituality to the point where only an empty shell is left.  That person, the implied warning is clear, will be as unprepared for the return of Jesus as the one in open sin and rebellion.

            “Dissipation” renders the sole New Testament usage of a word that literally means “drinking-bout.”[15]  “Partying to excess” might be our contemporary equivalent concept.  Presumably the difference here between “dissipation” and “drunkenness” is either that the former is a periodic binge while the latter is an on-going lifestyle or that the former is the means of accomplishing the latter.[16] 

            As Jesus’ words are recounted in this text, there is no magic solution to the problem of self-destructiveness and despair.  To the extent that a solution is to be found it will be through “praying that you may have strength to escape” all the evils life can bring on (Luke 21:36).  Our modern world has provided various medications and therapies that can assist in overcoming one’s own physical and emotional weakness.  Even in our technologically advanced age, however, there is an intangible something that still gnaws away at the inner psyche and which prayer remains an essential component for healing.  Otherwise one has only hidden the problem or placed a figurative band aid over it. 

            The message of all three gospel accountings of Jesus’ apocalyptic message is that harm, hurt, and injury can come.  But it is also that they can be triumphed over.  


[Page 250] 





[1]See Brunner, 881, who embraces this approach and cites others who share it. 


[2]Johnson, 553. 


[3]Morris, 615, and Newman and Stine, 757. 


[4]Bruce, Hard Sayings of Jesus, 232.  Boles, 474, argues that the two women would be jointly pushing it at the same time, which would imply one of moderate size.  


[5]Williams, 442.


[6]George M. Lasma, Gospel Light:  Comments on the Teachings of Jesus from Aramaic and Unchanged Eastern Customs (Philadelphia:  A. J. Holman Company, 1936), 136.   For a similar view, from a much earlier date, see John J. Owen, 326.


[7]Lasma, 135. 


[8]Wars VI:9:3.


[9]Dawson, [n.p.]


[10]Mitton, 107.


[11]Lane, 483. 


[Page 251]   [12]Augustine Stock, The Method and Message of Mark (Wilmington, Delaware:  Michael Glazier, 1989), 346-347, believes all four watches are specified to prepare the reader for the betrayal of Jesus that follows:  In the evening He has the last Supper; around midnight He is arrested; at cockcrow Peter denies him, and in the morning the trial is held.  On the other hand it makes a perfectly fine point in its own right without such considerations entering the picture.


[13]Mitzi Minor, The Spirituality of Mark:  Responding to God (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 70.


[14]Cf. Donald H. Juel, A Master of Surprise:  Mark Interpreted (Minneapolis, Minnesota:  Fortress Press, 1994), 85. 


[15]Johnson, 329. 


[16]I. Howard Marshall, 782, suggests that, in addition to its literal meaning, the warning was also a “metaphorical warning [of] disciples against succumbing to the intoxicating attractions of the sinful world.”