Just a few verses later, He tells His disciples, "Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect" (verse 44, emphasis ours throughout). This is a massive hint that our understanding of biblical prophecy—as much as it has expanded over the last few decades—will still not be enough to remove the element of surprise from Christ's return!
Paul also warns us in I Corinthians 13:9, 12, "For we know in part and we prophesy in part. . . . For now we see in a mirror, dimly." This principle suggests that we will not know for certain how things will work out as the end approaches. We understand in part, meaning we have a vague-to-rough idea of the course of events because of our insight into God's plan, but we cannot honestly be dogmatic about any speculative scenarios we devise. Every interpretation of end-time biblical prophecy should be accompanied with a proviso such as, "This is how things seem to be headed from what we understand right now."
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
There are quite a number of interesting things to consider in Jesus' instructions here. First, this is not instruction given generally to the public, but rather it was directly to His disciples. Second, He says that we should know from the signs given that His return is near. Our predictions may not be specifically accurate, but at least in the ballpark—near. Third, He emphasizes the element of surprise, even terrifying surprise. The impression is that the world will be taken completely by surprise. Fourth, the overall point of this instruction is that by being alert to the signs and taking advantage of them, we should be ready. The fifth is a final warning in verse 44, because He feared that even the attention, the alertness of His disciples, would be threatened: "Therefore be you also ready: for in such an hour as you think not the Son of man comes."
Are we getting anxious about Christ's return? I do not mean anxious in a sense of being fearful, but anxious in terms of seeing it come to pass. First, because things are getting so bad one wonders at times whether it can get much worse, and yet we know that it can. Second, as a result of the pressures of enduring life, there is some measure of concerned anxiety because the end seems to be taking so long to come to pass. We are undoubtedly in "the time of the end," but at the same time we feel that we have been on the gun lap a very long time.
Part of our anticipation exists because we have had it drilled in our minds to watch for certain events to happen. Sometimes it looks as though those events indeed are coming to pass, and right now some of the more important events we had drilled into our minds just are not happening in a clearly visible way. If they are, they are being worked out in a way that we are not prepared for, and therefore probably do not see.
Jesus meant this admonition in the sense of a soldier on guard duty, alert to what is going on around him, and so watch we do! But what if our point of view—the perspective we are looking from—is not correct? We might be alert, diligently and sincerely looking in that direction, but at best, we are only getting a part of the picture. We might be likened to a soldier on guard duty who is alert, but looking in the wrong direction, and so the enemy sneaks up from a blind spot and surprises him, despite him looking intensely in a particular direction.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Where Is the Beast? (Part 1)
Bible students know that Scripture is about thirty percent prophecy, and preachers have cautioned that prophecy should take no more than the equivalent percentage of our study time. With some people, though, prophecy is their Bible study, and that, frankly, is a shame.
The Bible divides itself neatly into thirds: one-third doctrine, one-third history, and one-third prophecy. History, of course, gets short shrift from most, who remember Mrs. Jones' tenth-grade history class as a collection of names and dates and boring lectures on various monarchs and wars. Doctrine is just not very stimulating; studying it brings up visions of long and involved passages in dusty commentaries written by long-dead theologians, intricate studies of unpronounceable words in ancient languages, and saccharine devotional passages with little application in the real world.
Prophecy, though, is cool. Its imagery and symbolism are fascinating with its strange beasts, lurid women, armies and battles, plagues and destruction, conquering kings, and even a red dragon. It is infused with a sense of mystery and expectation. There are enigmatic numbers to ponder and riddles and word plays to solve. Beyond all this, many prophecy buffs believe that the preponderance of the Bible's predictions will come about soon, heightening the excitement.
For evangelists, prophecy makes a wonderful hook to get people interested in God's Word. For years, the Worldwide Church of God's most-requested literature had prophetic themes: "The U.S. and Britain in Prophecy," "The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last," "Who or What Is the Beast?" etc. These booklets were most often requested by those hearing the radio broadcast or seeing the television broadcast for the first time because the program itself frequently dealt with prophetic subjects. As a hook, prophecy works well, but as a staple in our spiritual diet, it produces deficiencies in spiritual health.
Yes, we should know the Bible's prophecies. Yes, we should be watching world events. Yes, we should be speculating to see how current events might fit the Bible's scenarios. But none of these things should be done at the expense of doctrine and Christian living.
What is the purpose of prophecy? Ultimately, it is to glorify God. Through prophecy, we can see God at work in His plan over millennia (for instance, the many Old Testament prophecies of Jesus Christ's first coming). We see proof of God's existence and power in fulfilling the Bible's prophecies (Isaiah 40:12-29). Prophecy exhibits for all to see that God is sovereign in the affairs of men (Daniel 4:17), and what He desires He brings to pass (Isaiah 55:11).
Is prophecy in the Bible so we can know what is going to happen? Yes, but not to the degree most people think. "Surely the Lord God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7), but this does not mean that we will have a complete or precise foreknowledge of events. Jesus Himself warns us, "But of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only" (Matthew 24:36), and just a few verses later, He tells His own disciples, "Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect Him" (verse 44).
This is a massive hint that our understanding - as much as it has expanded over the last few decades - will still not be enough to remove the surprise from Christ's return! Paul also warns us in I Corinthians 13:9, 12, "For we know in part and we prophesy in part. . . . For now we see in a mirror, dimly." This should convince us that we do not know for certain how things will work out as the end approaches. We understand in part, meaning we have a vague idea of the course of events, but we cannot honestly be dogmatic about any speculative scenarios we devise. Every interpretation of end-time biblical prophecy should be accompanied with a proviso such as, "This is where things seem to be headed from what we understand right now."
It is good for us to remember what the apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 13:8: "Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; . . . whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away." The point of Christianity is not to know the final score before everyone else does. God has called us to glorify Him by putting on the image of His Son (II Corinthians 3:18). We must be careful that we do not let ourselves be distracted from what is most important.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Essays on Bible Study
Though our present day rivals Noah's in corruption and evil, this meaning of Matthew 24:36-39 is actually the secondary interpretation. The primary meaning is more simple: Christ would come at a time when most of the world was busy doing its normal activities.
Notice verse 36: "But of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only." This is the subject sentence of the entire paragraph. Verse 42 repeats the thought: "Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming." Jesus rephrases it in verse 44: "Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect Him."
Luke's version makes this especially clear:
And as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man: They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed. (Luke 17:26-30)
People will be involved in their normal activities, not realizing such a momentous event is about to occur!
Paul writes that "the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, 'Peace and safety!' then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape" (I Thessalonians 5:2-3). Just when men begin to think they have a handle on society's problems, total chaos and destruction will erupt.
Peter reminds us of scoffers coming in the last days who would say, "Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation" (II Peter 3:4). The apostle goes on to cite the example of the Flood—which came on suddenly and unexpectedly—as an event that broke the natural cycle of life (verses 5-6). Such is the time of Christ's return.
All of these prophetic warnings include the admonition to watch and be ready for it when it comes. As Paul says:
But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. . . . Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober, . . . putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. (I Thessalonians 5:4, 6, 8)
Christ's return will not be sudden and unexpected to the church. We may not know the day or the hour, but we will be somewhere "in the ballpark." Jesus says His day "will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth" (Luke 21:35). But, as verse 34 says, if we "take heed to [our]selves," not being mired down by sin, we will be expecting it.
We are certainly living in times very like those of the days of Noah, so the return of Christ could come anytime soon. Knowing this, our job is to watch and pray and overcome so "that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man" (verse 36).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
'As It Was In the Days of Noah'
This passage provides a concrete description of the circumstances surrounding Christ's return, emphasizing that His return will be at an unexpected hour. We can tie this to His warnings about becoming caught up in the cares of the world, so that end-time events commence when we are spiritually unprepared (Matthew 25:13; Mark 13:35; Luke 12:39-40; 21:34).
Verses 40-41 describe two men working in a field and two women grinding at a mill. In each case, one is taken and the other is left. Subscribers to the theory of a secret rapture use these verses as support, though the only “secret” part of Christ's return will be the timing—the event itself will be visible to all. Rapture advocates also assume that taken here means “snatched up to heaven.” However, in the 49 New Testament usages of this Greek word (paralambano), nowhere does it contain that idea.
The only verse that even approaches that sense is John 14:3, but even it does not actually support the idea of being taken off to heaven: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive [paralambano] you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” Notice that He says He will come again—to earth—and receive His followers to Himself there, not in heaven. Earth is where His Kingdom will be established.
Thus, Matthew 24:40-41 speaks of a divine distinction between peoples in the future: Some will be received near to Christ and associated with Him in a familiar or intimate way. The word can even imply they assume an office.
Those under judgment, however, will be left and not allowed to accompany Christ. This “being left” may be what happens to the foolish virgins who are left outside the wedding feast (Matthew 25:10-12); to the “sons of the kingdom” who will be “cast out into outer darkness” instead of entering into the Kingdom (Matthew 8:11-12); and to others who are found to be unworthy to enter the Kingdom (see Matthew 24:48-51; 25:30; 25:31-46).
David C. Grabbe
Where the Eagles Are Gathered
No matter who or what a man is—he is never actually going to know when the return of Jesus Christ will occur. Nobody will know until it happens. So why waste time trying to figure it out? Is it not flying in the face of what Jesus says here? He is warning us, "Don't fix your mind on this."
He is not saying, "Don't be aware of events that are happening." He is saying, "Don't get distracted into an exhaustive study that will get you nowhere." It is an illustration of the kind of thoughts our Lord and Master thinks. "Keep your mind focused on the most important things." The timing of His return is secondary. No one will ever figure it out, so why waste time trying to do something that will ultimately prove futile? We can watch the world news and see the events and trends that are occurring. We know we are on track. But we should make sure it does not get out of hand.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Unity (Part 1): God and HWA
In plain words, the specific date of His return is simply not going to be known to us. And that means any day, including the Feast of Trumpets, which most people use as their end-point of their calculations as to when Christ will return. So any date that anybody chooses is simply going to be a speculation.
Many, many people have attempted to determine when Christ will return anyway. At the very least, this shows a strong measure of skepticism, and perhaps, for some, it might even be outright disbelief by those who are doing the searching. It is almost as if Jesus is not taken seriously, but the truth is He was serious about what He said.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Where Is the Beast? (Part 3)
The thrust of Jesus' message is clear beyond question. He is concerned that when He returns, people will be so focused on—and thus distracted by—the secular concerns of life that they will be unprepared for the climactic events of His return. His concern is enhanced by three parables that follow this section, each dealing with the state of urgency and readiness we need to have as that time approaches.
Why would a Christian not be prepared as the end nears, when we should know full well that we are close? The answer is fairly obvious. Those caught in this "pre-flood syndrome" have their minds on something else.
The Parable of the Sower and the Seed addresses this clearly: "Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world . . . choke the word" (Matthew 13:22). "The cares of this world" catch the people's attention as the "flood" begins and contribute to their deterioration.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Flood Is Upon Us!
This suggests that we might be able to know of the year and month, yet it also gives the impression that God has already set the day and hour. It is this precise deadline—toward which He is constantly working—that we will never discover. We can relate to deadlines because we must frequently work against one. In this case, God has set this mark for Himself.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Sovereignty of God: Part Four
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Matthew 24:36: