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 One)
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, thereyou 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
These two back-to-back examples, appearing near the conclusion of the Olivet Prophecy, squarely fit into the judgment-resulting-in-division model. In them, we see an unmistakable context of judgment on God's part as well as a concomitant division into two groups, in this case, a fifty-fifty split.
Unity and Division: The Blessing and a Curse (Part Two)
What Does 'One Taken, the Other Left' Mean (Matthew 24:40-41)?
To be properly understood, these verses—and Luke 17:34-36 as well—must be read in context. Starting in Matthew 24:21, Christ describes the Great Tribulation and the end-time events which would lead up to His return. In verses 37-38, He refers to the time of Noah. Just before the Flood, people were going about their daily business when disaster came upon them suddenly. Jesus says that in this respect the end time will be like the days of Noah (verse 39).
People will be living their usual lives, working in the fields, grinding at the mill, and so forth (verses 40 and 41) when end-time events fall upon them unexpectedly. This will be a time of such death and destruction that, unless God intervenes in world affairs, no one would survive (verse 22)! Circumstances will force people to choose to submit to God or continue their rebellion against Him. Unfortunately, Revelation 6:15-17; 16:9, 11 tells us that most will choose rebellion.
Matthew 24:40-41 can be applied in principle to another future event. At the beginning of Matthew 24, Christ's disciples specifically ask Him for a sign of His return and the end of the age (verse 3). In this light, verses 40-41 can be taken to mean that at Christ's return a separation will take place between those who attain to the first resurrection and those who do not (John 3:3-8; I Corinthians 15:50-53; Revelation 20:6).
However, a secret rapture is nowhere contemplated in either Matthew 24 or Luke 17, as some teach. See the link below for more information.
Caught Up in the Rapture
Where the Eagles Are Gathered
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Matthew 24:40: