One is taken, and one left. Which is which? Jesus has been speaking about Rome invading, advising the people of Judea to head for the hills (24:16). Is he speaking of soldiers capturing one, and letting the other go?
Or is God doing the taking/releasing? The immediate context says Noah’s flood took them all away (24:39). That didn’t leave many. Is this about God taking some people in judgement, and leaving others? Or is God taking some to save them, leaving the others to be damned?
If you’ve never considered these possible meanings, you may be surprised to know that Bible commentators seriously weigh these options. The commentaries I checked were quite divided over who’s who in this brief story. Jesus didn’t spell it out for us.
That left me wondering if we’re missing the point. We’ve assumed that it must be about the godly being saved and the ungodly being lost, but Jesus’ story doesn’t have those categories. It wasn’t about a bandit and a sheriff. He drew no distinction between them:
Matthew 24:40-41 (my translation, compare NIV)
40 Then two will be in the field; one is taken and one released; 41 two grinding at the mill, one is taken and one released.
The first pair are simply working a field to grow a crop. The second pair are grinding grain to prepare food. The point is there’s no difference. They’re just trying to feed their families. There’s no logic here for why one should be taken and the other left.
Maybe that’s the point Jesus is making. Things happen that don’t make sense. Life isn’t fair. Similar people get different outcomes. Maybe the story is more about empathy than judgement.
If Jesus wanted us to focus on judging right from wrong, comparing himself to a thief would undermine that message (42:43). Hasn’t this been the way throughout the Gospel? We religious people focus on judgement, while Jesus sits with “sinners.”
Don’t misunderstand. There were times when Jesus delivered judgement. With seven declarations of woe, Jesus harshly criticized the leaders who rejected God’s leader. He said they and their city would suffer the consequences (23:1-39).
Then he used the word woe once more to speak of the sufferings his people would experience when the city fell because of its rebellious leaders. Such sufferings befall not only the wicked, but also the vulnerable. Jesus was concerned for pregnant women who find it hard to run, nursing mothers who find it hard to hide, the elderly who may not survive if it was winter, and godly people who would not travel far if it was a Sabbath (24:16-19).
Don’t you find the king’s empathy for his suffering people remarkable? Was he already preparing to bear our sufferings? Was the shadow of the cross already looming in his thoughts? Praying in a garden, Jesus himself would be … taken.
No one who sees the cross can say the world is fair.
The days of Noah
But aren’t the preceding verses about judgement? Jesus has just spoken of the days of Noah when the flood came and swept them all away. When I’ve heard preachers refer to Noah, they were usually warning the wicked of coming judgement. That’s how Noah’s story was used in Jesus’ world too. Sometimes there was an element of horror as well: in the Enoch tradition, lusting angels incubated a demonic invasion that corrupted God’s world, teaching war and seduction to men and women.
These traditions make it even more remarkable that Jesus used the story of Noah to teach hope rather than condemnation. Listen carefully:
36 But about the day or hour of that moment, no one has been informed, not the angels of the heavens, not the son, no one except the Father alone. 37 For just as the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the son of man. 38 For just as it was in those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, right up to the day Noah entered the ark, 39 unaware until the flood came and swept them all away — the coming of the son of man will be like that.
Nothing about people being corrupted. Nothing about people being wicked. He doesn’t even mention the violence of Genesis 6:11-13. Eating and drinking is not evil; it’s everyday life. Marrying and giving in marriage is not a reason for judgement; it’s how we survive across the generations. These are images of life as normal. Jesus is not making a point about God sorting the righteous (in the boat) from the unrighteous (outside). He doesn’t even mention those in the boat. The tragedy is that the flood swept them all away.
Jesus was not faulting them for wickedness but highlighting their ignorance. No one knew a divine intervention was about to take place. His key phrase is: no one knew (οὐδεὶς οἶδεν) (24:36).
The coming of the son of man is like that. What God was doing in Christ was the greatest intervention in human history: the Ancient of Days taking power from the beasts and giving it to the human descendant. Jesus has explained that it doesn’t happen all once, but it does happen. God’s intervention in raising Jesus from death to the throne ultimately changes everything, bringing the whole world under God’s kingship.
When? We’re as ignorant as the people before the flood. But just as surely as God’s intervention did save the world in Noah’s day, God’s intervention will save the world in Christ.
Until that day is fully here, we are called to take up our crosses, to suffer with him. Two people doing the same thing get different outcomes. Don’t expect the world to be fair until everything is under Christ’s governance.
And that is how the story plays out in Acts. Stephen and Philip were both taking care of the widows: one was taken, and one was left (Acts 7–8). Peter and James were both proclaiming Jesus as king: one was taken, and one was left (Acts 12:1-19). Both of these injustices were the result of people in power resisting Jesus kingship.
The Lord has already instructed his servants about this. As agents of the coming king, we can expect existing rulers to treat us as a threat to their power. As sheep sent among wolves, we can expect to be handed over to councils, called to account before governors, and betrayed by your own people — just like Paul in Acts. Servants cannot expect to be treated better than their Master. Our king knows how desperately the world needs his kingship. Don’t see yourself as devalued if you suffer: his empathy extends to the least in creation, even the sparrows (Matthew 10:16-31).
So, don’t lose heart. Let’s keep our eyes firmly fixed on the coming king and the day when his kingship will be fully here.
Open Matthew 24:37-41.
What others are saying
D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 509:
Two men are working in a field; one is taken, the other left (v. 40). Two women work their hand mill (v. 41) — one normally operated by two women squatting opposite each other with the mill between them, each woman in turn pulling the stone around 180 degrees. The two are apt to be sisters, mother and daughter, or two household slaves. Yet no matter how close their relationship, one is taken, the other left (cf. 10:35–36). It is neither clear nor particularly important whether “taken” means “taken in judgment” (cf. 24:39, though the verb “took.… away” differs from “taken” in vv. 40–41) or “taken to be gathered with the elect.”
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 941:
Some have therefore suggested that this passage speaks of a “rapture” of the faithful to heaven before judgment falls on the earth. This is not the place to investigate the complex dispensational scheme which underlies this nineteenth-century theory, but it should be noted that in so far as this passage forms a basis for that theology it rests on an uncertain foundation. We are not told where or why they are “taken”, and the similar sayings in vv. 17–18 about people caught out in the course of daily life by the Roman advance presupposed a situation of threat rather than of rescue; to be “taken” in such circumstances would be a negative experience, and Matthew will use paralambanō in a similarly threatening context in 27:27. The verb in itself does not determine the purpose of the “taking,” and it could as well be for judgment (as in Jer 6:11) as for refuge. In the light of the preceding verses, when the flood “swept away” the unprepared, that is probably the more likely sense here.