(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)
Pretribulationism and preterism assert that those in verses 40-41 who are taken are the wicked for judgment, and those who are left are the righteous. This interpretation is unlikely for the following six reasons. I will argue just the opposite, that those who are taken refer back to God’s elect in verse 31, and those who are left are the wicked for judgment.
First, if the wicked are the ones taken, it breaks the parallelism of the illustrations. Noah’s family being delivered is described first (“the day when Noah entered the ark,” v 38) then the judgment on 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 to be swept away (judgment).
Second, 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 that it is the same term used in verses 40–41 that have “taken.” This is not the case because there are two different Greek terms with very different 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 here is airō, which in this particular context of the judgment-flood illustration means to “take away, remove.” Therefore, this meaning is roughly opposite of the intimate receiving sense of paralambanō in verses 40–41.
Not surprisingly, just a few days later, Jesus uses this same term of intimate receiving when he taught reassurance to these same disciples about his return: “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). Notice: same context, same audience, same terminology.
Third, it is important to remember that the agricultural illustrations in verses 40–41 (men in field and women grinding) are not intended to illustrate the illustration of Noah and the flood in verses 37–39, but instead illustrates 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. That is the point of invoking the agricultural illustration in the first place. And the Noahic illustration relates back to the parousia, twice! (“so will be the coming of the Son of Man”).
Fourth, Luke 17 records the same illustration that Jesus gives to describe his 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 where the dead body is it will attract vultures—this judgment imagery evokes vultures hovering over dead people, who represent those deemed judged, the ungodly, not the righteous. This comports much better with those who are “left” and not with those who are taken.
Another objection to this interpretation claims that paralambanō does not always carry the sense of receiving in a positive sense. This is true, but misleading. Of the 49 times this term is used in the New Testament they will cite 3 times it is used negatively (Matt 27:27, John 19:16, Acts 23:18). But this is not a warranted reason because it is a rare meaning of the word found in a narrow specific context of a prisoner being handed over to the jurisdiction of soldiers, a context that is not related to our parousia illustration. It is a strained lexical argument to apply this unlikely meaning to our target passage (On avoiding this type of error, see D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies, “Word-Study Fallacies,” 37–41).
Fifth, Jesus gives us another illustration for being prepared for his parousia (Matt 25:1–13). The parable of the ten virgins is consistent with verses 37—41, and thus comports with our interpretation. Conceptually, the five wise virgins who were prepared were taken to be with the bridegroom; the five foolish who were not prepared were left out.
Sixth, there is no scriptural basis for the claim that there is going to be a dramatic and sudden removal of the wicked en mass from the earth. From the beginning of the trumpet judgments until the sheep and goat judgment just prior to the beginning of the temporal (millennial) kingdom–the judgment of the wicked is a progressively worsening situation. Thus, there is only one event that could possibly catch the wicked by total surprise in which one group is suddenly taken away and another group is left for judgment–the rapture.
These reasons provide us a sound foundation for our interpretation that those who are taken are the righteous, and those left behind are the wicked for judgment.