The Gathering of Mat 24:31
By Alf Cengia
”He will send out His angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” Mat 24:31
I first posted on this subject some time after I started this blog. Since reading some comments declaring that pretribulationists ignore the obvious meaning of this verse because they’re too “Israel-centric”, I thought I’d revisit the topic.
As a general rule, pretribulationists believe that v 31 is the final gathering of Israel back into the land while posttribulationists and prewrathers say this is obviously the rapture which occurs after the tribulation and coincidently with Christ’s single-stage Second Coming. Note that the prewrath position has four comings within what it refers to as a “single-parousia“.
Pretribulationists generally contend that the Olivet Discourse was meant for a Jewish audience while non-pretribs insist that the disciples represented the future church. I lean towards Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s view that the questions asked of Jesus by His disciples during the OD were essentially Jewish concerns and were addressed as such. However, Jesus exercised His prerogative by also giving some information pertinent to the future church. In other words the Jewish disciples represented the nation Israel with all its kingdom hopes, but also the future church. That is not to say that Israel is the church.
Is Mat 24:31 the rapture?
In “The Rapture Question Answered – Plain & Simple” (TRQA pp 184-185) Robert Van Kampen draws on the Greek word for “gathering” (episunago) in v 31 and the phrase “caught up” in 1 Thess 4:17 to assist his case for this being the rapture of the church in Mat 24:31. He asserts that the Greek preposition epi to the verb sunago gives an upward direction to the gathering rather than sideways, as he presumes would be the case for a gathering of Israel. He asserts that a face-value reading of v 31 and some knowledge of NT Greek should lead a Berean to conclude that this is the rapture of the church, rather than Israel’s gathering.
In response, pretribulationists point out that the word episunago was specifically used in connection with Israel’s potential gathering elsewhere in NT Scripture – once in Luke 13:34 and twice in Mat 23:37.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather (ἐπισυνÜγω episunago) your children together, the way a hen gathers (ἐπισυνÜγω episunago) her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.” Mat 23:37
Jesus drew on the OT promises of a re-gathering of Israel under certain conditions. What would have been the outcome of a technical-episunago gathering of Israel? Would that have meant Israel’s rapture and a drastic change of millennial kingdom plans? See also Mark 1:33 and Luke 12:1 where episunago is used.
According to Van Kampen (The Sign p 505), the pretribulationist’s appeal to Isaiah 27:13 fails to support a gathering of Israel in v 31 because the gathering is only from Assyria and Egypt. In addition, while he acknowledges the “trumpet”, he objects that there are no angels doing the gathering.
To be consistent in our argumentations we should then note the omission of a resurrection in Mat 24:31. The resurrection plays a major role in 1 Thess 4:16-17, which is thought by Van Kampen to parallel v 31. On the same page he states that the great tribulation is cut short. The reason given for the shortening of the tribulation is to preserve life (Mat 24:22). Dead saints are resurrected and live saints are immediately changed at the rapture. This suggests that the great tribulation is ended by God so that the “flesh” of the “elect” can be saved to populate the millennial kingdom. Hence, this isn’t likely to be when the rapture occurs. Note also that the length of the great tribulation remains at three-and-a-half years, not shorter as Van Kampen asserts.
It is noteworthy that both Isaiah 27:13 and Mat 24:31 refer to a great trumpet in connection with an eschatological gathering. Isaiah 27:9 also refers to Jacob’s iniquity being forgiven. In “Maranatha – Our Lord, Come” (p 183) Renald Showers cites Franz Delitzsch and Gerhard Friedrich. Friedrich believes Isaiah 27:13 is an eschatological day when the exiled will be brought back by the signal of the trumpet. According to Delitzsch, this verse refers to the “still living Diaspora” being “gathered by the signal of God.” Delitzsch states that Assyria and Egypt represent all the lands of exile. This is corroborated by the internal evidence that the verse is eschatological.
God has also promised Israel that – as He has scattered them to the four winds (and towards the winds) – He would likewise gather them from the four winds of heaven (see Ezek 5:10, 12, 17: 21; Zech 2:6 etc). Furthermore, Delitzsch has the gathering of Isaiah 27:13 parallel to Isaiah 11:10-12. The latter includes Assyria and Egypt; several other countries and places…and the four corners of the earth.
And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, Who shall stand as a banner to the people; For the Gentiles shall seek Him, And His resting place shall be glorious. It shall come to pass in that day That the Lord shall set His hand again the second time To recover the remnant of His people who are left, From Assyria and Egypt, From Pathros and Cush, From Elam and Shinar, From Hamath and the islands of the sea. He will set up a banner for the nations, And will assemble the outcasts of Israel, And gather together the dispersed of Judah From the four corners of the earth.
In “The Sign” (p 505), Van Kampen also asserts that Deut 30:1-5 only pertains to unbelieving Israel’s gathering before the 70th week commences, therefore it is not parallel to Mat 24:31. Yet a simple reading of those verses clearly contradicts Van Kampen. Israel’s gathering from captivity from all the nations and from the farthest parts under heaven (vv 3, 4) is said to be conditional to their return to God (v 2):
“and you return to the LORD your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul, that the LORD your God will bring you back from captivity, and have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the nations where the LORD your God has scattered you. If any of you are driven out to the farthest parts under heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you. – Deu 30:2-4
The word for heaven (shamayim) in v 4 means heaven; heavens; sky etc, although it is sometimes rendered “earth”. The same expression (idiom?) of heaven is used in Mark 13:27, which parallels Mat 24:31. Dr Fruchtenbaum takes “heavens” to be an allusion to resurrected OT saints along with the gathering.
“And then He will send His angels, and gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven.” – Mark 13:27
Non-pretribulationists deny the term “elect” in Mat 24:31 can refer to Israel. In Questions for a Pretribulationist:
“And how can the elect [Matt 24] (vv. 22, 24) be unsaved Israel, if the unsaved remnant of Israel does not come to know Christ until after the seventieth week is complete (Dan. 9:24; Rom. 11:25-26, cf. Rev. 10:7), and how is it that every other use of the term “elect” in the New Testament is a direct reference only to the Church, and suddenly the elect in the Great Tribulation (Mt. 24:21-22) refers to unsaved Israel” (sic).
Van Kampen assumes the “144,000 Jews who become the firstfruits of Israel unto Christ” are “saved right when the Rapture occurs” (TRQA pp 53-54). This convenient timing isn’t explicit in Scripture.
But there are a number of OT passages that refer to Israel as God’s chosen (elect) nation. For example, Isaiah 43:1-7 not only affirms Israel as an “elect” nation made by God, loved by Him, created for His glory and precious in His sight; but also that it will be gathered from the 4 points of the compass and the ends of the earth. In Deut 7: 6-7 Israel is called a holy people, chosen by Him for Himself out all the peoples of the earth and loved by the Lord. They are called chosen (elect) in Isaiah 45:4 and 1 Chron 16:13. In 2 Sam 7:23-24 we see that Israel’s status as the elect nation will be forever.
Israel is also called chosen in the NT. Acts 3:12, 13-15, 25 and Rom 11:26-29 confirm Israel’s continuous standing as a chosen nation.
“….The Deliverer will come out of Zion, And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; For this is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins.” Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they [unbelieving Israel] are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. – Rom 11:26-29
There’s another problem that many simply gloss over:
For I tell you, you will never see Me again until you say, ‘He who comes in the name of the Lord is the blessed One’!” Matt 23:39
I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me. Hosea 5:15
But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, with their unfaithfulness in which they were unfaithful to Me, and that they also have walked contrary to Me, and that I also have walked contrary to them and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if their uncircumcised hearts are humbled, and they accept their guilt–then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham I will remember; I will remember the land. Lev 26:40-42
These passages infer that Christ’s return is conditional upon national Israel’s repentance (See Fruchtenbaum’s “Footsteps of the Messiah” p 335-339). Zechariah 12 places that event at the time when the nations come against Israel (see esp. v 10). See also Zech 13:7-9.
If that’s the case and if non-pretribulationists coincide the second coming with the rapture at Mat 24:31 then Israel and the 144,000 should be raptured as well (because they are saved). Furthermore, if Christ’s “single-parousia” return really is contingent upon Israel’s calling out to Him then we have a problem with some contrary passages which seem to point to imminence (e.g. Mat 24: 36-39, 42, 44, 50, 25:13; Mark 13:34-37; 1 Thess 5:2, 6).
In summary, episunago was used by Jesus for Israel’s potential gathering as promised in the OT. There will be a final eschatological gathering of Israel (the chosen nation) as evidenced by several OT texts. That gathering will follow Israel’s refinement and subsequent request for the Messiah to return. The context of the disciples’ questions to Jesus at the Olivet Discourse was based on Jewish concerns. The tribulation period is terminated so that flesh can be saved.
Therefore, contrary to the assertion that Matt 24:31 is “simply a rapture verse”, dispensational pretribulationists have sound, biblical reasons for seeing this as Israel’s final, prophetic gathering.