Did Jesus share a parable on multiple occasions in order to explain the Rapture? Is this “Rapture Parable” his most misunderstood parable?
(This article was written in response to a request by a reader to explain the parable in Matt. 24:28)
Our traditions sometimes determine what we think a biblical parable or illustration means. This even can affect the translators of our Bibles. The short parable found in Luke 17 and Matt. 24 is a perfect example of this principle.
Let’s look at this short illustration:
And answering they said to Him, “Where, Lord?” And He said to them, “Where the body is, there also the vultures (Gk: AETOI) will be gathered. (Luke 17:37)
This is a most confusing parable. Now let’s make it even more confusing! Look up the Greek word AETOI translated “vultures” in a Greek/English dictionary and you will see:
Original Word: ἀετός, οῦ, ὁ
Part of Speech: Noun, Masculine
Phonetic Spelling: (ah-et-os’)
Short Definition: an eagle, bird of prey
Definition: an eagle, bird of prey.
If the word AETOI is best translated “eagles” or even as “birds of prey” why do our English bibles translate it as “vultures” which are carrion birds? The answer is in order to match with our traditions! Thus begins our examination of possibly the most universally misunderstood parable in all of the gospels.
A Rapture Parable
Jesus taught this illustration on at least two separate occasions to illustrate his PAROUSIA or return. These may be the only two occasions Jesus taught this parable, or it may have been a regular teaching of his. We simply do not know. The first occasion we see this parable in the gospels is in Luke 17. At that time Jesus and his disciples were heading to Jerusalem prior to his passion. Immediately before teaching the parable, he famously healed the 10 lepers. Prompted by this healing he was questioned by the Pharisees about when the Kingdom of God was to come. After this, Jesus explained to his disciples privately what His return or PAROUSIA would be like. He began by giving the sign of his coming:
For just like the lightning, when it flashes out of one part of the sky, shines to the other part of the sky, so will the Son of Man be in His day. (Luke 17:24)
Only a few days or weeks later, Jesus repeated this sign and parable as part of his teaching in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24):
For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming (PAROUSIA) of the Son of Man be. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. (Matt. 24:27-28 NASB)
It is this later version of the parable in Matt. 24 that has sparked so much misunderstanding. Pastor Jim McClarty of Florida summarizes the primary position of both Pre-Tribulation Rapture and Post-Tribulation Rapture camps on their view of this illustration:
“Jesus was not referring to those ‘taken to be with the Lord at the Rapture when He comes.’ He was speaking of a gathering of people to the place where the carrion birds would eat their flesh. We see that prophecy fulfilled in Revelation 19 (Rev. 19:17-18, where birds eat the flesh of those who die at Armageddon)[i]” –- Pastor Jim McClarty, (clarification mine)
At the heart of this misunderstanding is the mistaken notion that Matt. 24:29-31 is picturing the physical Second Coming of Jesus when he comes to fight Armageddon. This view is held by the vast majority of the Church. And again, as we have repeatedly seen in other applications, a mistaken theology leads to a misinterpretation of the Greek words in the passage. If one believes that Matt. 24:29-31 is the physical Second Coming, they will want to align the passages around it to match that belief. They will try to force a round peg into a square hole. And as we just learned, this can lead to a mis-translation of the sacred texts. This mis-translation then only further propagates the mistaken theology.
If on the other hand, one believes that Matt. 24:29-31 is the Rapture, they will not try to force scripture, but let it say what it truly says. Although there are multiple proofs that Matt. 24:29-31 is the Pre-Wrath Rapture, in this article, we will only look at the Parable of the Vultures and the Body. If you wish to continue this study in much more detail, purchase the book Rapture: Case Closed? due out this summer that contains 147 separate proofs and counter-proofs for the Pre-Wrath Rapture.
Rather than impose meaning on the parable one way or the other, however, let’s first look at what it truly says. As we have already seen, the primary misunderstood word is AETOI which means eagles (not vultures)! Now an eagle can be a carrion bird as well as a carnivore, but this passage isn’t talking about birds at all! There are five uses of this word AETOI in the New Testament; two occurrences are found in these illustrations while the final three usages refer to angels not birds (Rev. 4:7, Rev. 8:13, and Rev. 12:14). In the Old Testament, eagles are associated as a symbol of angels in Isa. 40: 31, Jer. 48:40, Jer. 4:13, Ezek. 1:10, and Ezek. 10:14; and for God himself in Exo. 19:4, Jer. 49:16, and Deut. 32:11. “Eagle” is a very common term for a heavenly being. Once it is understood that AETOI in this parable is most likely a symbol for angels, the meaning of Jesus’s short illustration begins to jump to life.
Additionally, the word translated “gather” in Luke 17:37 is EPISUNAGO (“gather together upwards”), which is one of the great “Rapture-words” in the New Testament. This word is used in these other Rapture passages, where it is believers who are gathered together:
And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together (EPISUNAGO) His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other. (Matt. 24:31 NASB, emphasis mine)
Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming (PAROUSIA) of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together (EPISUNAGOGE) to Him (2 Thess. 2:1 NASB, emphasis mine)
In Matthew 22:28, the word translated “gather” is SUNAGO which also means “gather together.” (It is missing the prefix EPI which means “above” found in the Luke 17 version.) In both instances the words used by Jesus EPISUNAGO (“gather together upwards”) and SUNAGO (“gather together”), do not mean to simply “gather.” Rather they imply the process of gathering something together. Our English translations are a misapplication of the words. The way our English Bibles are translated, one would think the AETOI were gathering as in a flock. That is not the meaning. They are gathering different items together into a single group.
Finally, the version of this illustration in Luke uses the Greek word for living body and the Matthew version uses the Greek word for dead body.
Once the correct translations of the Greek words are understood, the crystal-clear meaning that Jesus had in mind for this illustration becomes apparent.
Jesus’s angels will gather together the dead saints (Resurrection) and the living saints (Rapture) together upwards into the air to meet the Lord!
This passage has absolutely nothing to do with Armageddon. The fact that both the Pre-Tribulation Rapture exponents and Post-Tribulation Rapture exponents misinterpret Matt. 24:30-31 as the physical Second Coming only intensifies the misunderstanding of the Illustration of the Vultures and the Body and a link between it and Armageddon.
Please do not be too harsh on the Bible translators. In my NASB, at least the proper translations are found in the footnotes. The translators were only trying to make the best application they could given their eschatological views. However, we must let the Bible speak for itself and not impose meaning on it.
Now that we fully understand the “sense” of the words in the parable, let’s look at the context. We can only fully understand scripture in context. If we look at the illustration in Matthew, we see it concerns the PAROUSIA (which we now know as the Rapture). Only three verses later (Matt. 24:30-31), Jesus explains this same event in clear, concrete terms (not as a parable).
Wherever the corpse (PTOMA) is, there the vultures (AETOI) will gather (SUNAGO meaning “gather together”). (Matt. 24:28)
And He will send forth His angels (symbolically AETOI in parable) with a great trumpet and they will gather together (SUNAGO in parable) His elect (symbolically PTOMA in parable) from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other. (Matt. 24:31, clarification mine)
Once viewed in this way, it is so easy to see that Jesus was clarifying his parable for the disciples. If the word SUNAGO were properly translated in the English, the use of the term “gather together” in both verses in such close proximity, would help readers properly interpret the parable. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
If we look at the illustration in context in Luke, it also helps explain the issue of “taken” and “left:”
Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other will be left. And answering they (his disciples) said to Him, “Where, Lord?” And He said to them, “Where the body (Gk: SOMA, meaning “living body”) is, there also the vultures (Gk: AETOI) will be gathered (Gk: EPISUNAGO, meaning “gather together upwards”).” (Luke 17:36-37 NASB, clarification and emphasis mine)
When the disciples ask “Where, Lord?” there are two possible meanings to their question: 1) where are “they” taken? or 2) where is this going to happen? Jesus did not answer the first question so they must have been asking the second question! We now understand that it is the righteous that are “taken,” and of course, this would be the primary concern of the disciples. They would be disturbed that perhaps they had to be in Jerusalem to be “taken.” Jesus calmed their fears. That is why in this version of the parable he used SOMA to mean body, which is a living body not a corpse. By using this term he was in essence saying, “Wherever the living body (of Christ — the Church!) is, there the angels will gather them together.”
You may have wondered about the illustration used at the top of this article. I’m sure it seemed a strange work of art — birds flying around in the lightning. Look at it again. Can you now see it is a “tongue in cheek” depiction of this Illustration of the “Vultures” and the Body as depicted in Matt. 24:27-28? The sign of the Son of Man (Lightning) will appear and Jesus will send his AETOI (Angels rather than Vultures!) to rapture the saints!
Proper timing of the Rapture as a Pre-Wrath Rapture is perhaps the most important factor in eschatological interpretation. Otherwise the temptation is to try and force a square peg in a round hole. In this article we saw how this has even affected the translation of the Holy Scriptures to the detriment of readers.
Hopefully this article has helped all of us see that trusting the English translations alone is not always adequate to provide exegesis of a passage. The actual underlying words from the original text should always be examined as well.
[i] “The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church,” Salvation by Grace , last modified:unknown , accessed April 13, 2016, http://salvationbygrace.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/The-Pre-wrath-Rapture-of-the-Church-Jim-McClarty.pdf