In the middle of the Olivet Discourse is a strange illustration about vultures and a corpse that the church does not fully understand. Matthew 24:28 (NASB) says, “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” It’s my opinion that whenever we don’t comprehend a passage it is likely that a mistaken theology is blocking our understanding. That is the case with this verse. The Church does not grasp this illustration because it refers to the resurrection that will occur after the great tribulation. Their view that the resurrection and rapture occur prior to the tribulation prevents them from seeing what this verse truly means.
In order to properly understand what Jesus was teaching by means of this short illustration or parable, we need to place the verse in context. It occurs in two different contexts within scripture. The first context is within the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24. The second context is found in Luke 17 immediately after healing the ten lepers while he and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. Like many of Jesus’ teachings, he may have taught this short illustration many times.
One thing is certain however. In both instances it occurs at the very end of that portion of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus obviously viewed it as important.
In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus places this illustration at the conclusion of his teaching about the Great Tribulation (verses 9 thru 28 of Matthew 24.) In the preceding verses Jesus had just warned the disciples about the False Messiah and False Prophet that would try to deceive the world with false wonders.
Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance. So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them. (Matt. 24: 23 -26 NASB)
Immediately after this, Jesus gives the one true sign of his return, his coming on the clouds in great glory. Jesus tells us that his Shekinah glory will shine like lightening from the east to the west. This is one sign Satan’s false messiah and prophet will not be able to duplicate.
In the very next verse, Jesus us tells us the Illustration of the vultures and a corpse. The context obviously indicates the illustration has something to do with the return of Christ.
Luke’s account of this illustration places it in almost the exact same context. In Luke’s telling Jesus begins with the same warning about the false messiah and false prophet. He then gives the same sign of his actual return, his coming on the clouds in his Shekinah glory. Prior to giving the illustration of the vultures and a corpse in Luke, Jesus first gives several other teachings which are all related to his return.
The first two teachings show that Jesus’ return will be like the Days of Noah and the Days of Lot. In the first example Noah is taken to safety in the ark while the unrighteous perish in the flood. In the second example, Lot and his family are taken to safety by angels to a mountain while the unrighteous are burned with fire and brimstone. Jesus then warns the disciples that on that day (the day of Jesus’ return when his followers are taken to safety) they are not to return for their possessions or look back on what they had. Jesus then gives the warning, “Remember Lot’s wife” who looked back on Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt.
Jesus then further instructs us that there will be a division; some will be taken and some will be left. Jesus gives two examples: people in a bed or in a field. Jesus is obviously implying that those who are taken will be taken to safety just as Noah and Lot were taken to safety prior to the judgments of those days! This common sense interpretation, flies in the face of those like Benjamin Merkle, who believes that those taken are the wicked taken away to judgment and those who remain are the righteous. Obviously the linkage to the stories of Noah and Lot implies the righteous are raptured to safety.
The disciples were confused as well as we are today and asked Jesus, “Where Lord?” By this they meant, where are the righteous taken? As a capstone to this entire passage Jesus then gave us the illustration of the vultures and a corpse in order to make his meaning completely clear.
The problem is the meaning is not clear to most today. What do vultures and a corpse have to do with Jesus’ return? The illustration is actually easy to understand but faulty theology will block the clear and simple meaning.
Some believe this illustration is just an idiom like “where there’s smoke there’s fire.” These teachers interpret it as a phrase that means “what I’m telling you should be as obvious as the nose on your face.” The fact that no such idiom is known from that time period does not deter these teachers.
Others, like Dr. Thomas Ice, believe it is a judgment reference to Rev. 19: 17-21 where after the battle of Armageddon, an angel summons the birds of the air to feast on the armies of the Beast. The fact that the word translated “vultures” in Matthew and “birds” in Revelation are not the same does not deter these teachers.
Interestingly it is the word translated vultures that is one of the keys to understanding the true meaning of the illustration. The Greek word used means “eagles.” In Revelation this same word is used to symbolize angels in Revelation 4:7, 8:13 and 12:14. Why is it mistranslated “vultures?” if its clear meaning is “eagles?” This translator error is another example of the translator allowing his preconceived theology to color Jesus’ clear meaning. He was speaking of angels.
To further reinforce this meaning, the word translated “gather” is the Greek word that means “gather together.” I am sure you recognize this word! Just a few verses later in Jesus’ vision of the rapture in Matthew 24: 31, the angels “gather together” the elect from the four winds. In 2 Thess. 2: 1 Paul uses this same word to describe the rapture, ” with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him.” This short illustration in Matthew 24:28 pictures the same event, angels gathering the living and the dead in Christ and catching them up into the air to meet our Lord.
It is critically important to note in Matthew the angels are gathering the dead who died knowing Christ (the corpse), which is the resurrection. This occurs before the rapture of the living (1 Thess. 4:16). In Luke the word for body means a living body, in Matthew it means a dead body. Looking at both versions of this illustration in combination gives the meaning that angels will gather together the Christians who are alive and those who died knowing Christ. This is the rapture and resurrection!
The context of this short illustration occurring after the Great Tribulation is further overwhelming proof that the rapture and the resurrection occur after the great tribulation at the sixth seal of Revelation. It disproves a Pre-tribulation rapture in one short, one verse illustration!