Tuesday, September 10, 2019

From One End of Heaven

“He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

There are various schools of thought about what the Lord Jesus meant with this rather difficult statement. The phrase “from one end of heaven to the other” is admittedly an unusual one. A literal reading may lead us to think of people being plucked out of the skies all over the world and gathered to one place. For what reason, we wonder? And who exactly is this “elect” of which the Lord is speaking?

Lofty Considerations

On its own, the word “heaven” does not help us clarify our thoughts. In the New Testament, ouranos is used of the sky, of space, and of the dwelling place of God. Add in the reference to the “four winds”, however, and the latter two options no longer seem quite so viable. Some place within earth’s atmosphere is almost surely in view; we can say that much at least without looking too far afield.

But it is this reference to the sky that encourages some interpreters to associate this gathering of a yet-to-be-determined “elect” with the gathering of both dead and living Christians at the coming of the Lord described for us in 1 Thessalonians 4, in which the apostle Paul says, “[T]he dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

That is indeed one possibility, though it is not without its difficulties, not least that Matthew 24 is a profoundly Jewish passage in a profoundly Jewish book. Obvious references to the Church in Matthew are not thick on the ground. That doesn’t completely rule us out, of course, but it should lead us to consider other more obvious possibilities.

The “Elect” Considered

Who else might be meant by the “elect” gathered by the angels in Matthew 24:31? Well, the vocabulary the Lord Jesus used is of limited assistance in thinning our options. As Richard Perry has rightly pointed out, the word eklektos (“elect” or “chosen”) is used by the writers of the New Testament at various times to refer to (i) Jesus’ disciples, (ii) Jewish believers, (iii) Gentile believers, (iv) angels, (v) members of the Church and even (vi) Christ himself. That’s a fairly dense field, though we can safely eliminate (iv) and (vi), since the Son of Man himself is doing the gathering, and doing it through the agency of angels (or “messengers”).

Yet if we are not quite certain which of the above believing groups may be in view, one thing we can say with finality is that the Lord was not speaking of unbelievers being selected out of the kingdom for the purpose of God’s judgment. The word eklektos is never once used with a negative connotation in the New Testament. Nobody is said to be “chosen” or “elect” to damnation. The expression is always a favorable one. For this reason, an otherwise-intriguing interpretation of Matthew 24:31 found here (in brief, that the Lord was speaking of unbelieving Jews being gathered out of the kingdom) must be rejected out of hand. While clever and carefully developed, it simply doesn’t jibe with the way the word is used by any New Testament writer or by the Lord himself. Unbelieving Jews would never be referred to as “elect”.

Another Possibility

One interesting possibility is raised by the Lord’s use of the expression “from one end of heaven to the other”. This does not come out of nowhere. Jesus is using the precise language of Moses in his speech to the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 30:
“If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you.”
When we compare the Greek Septuagint translation of Deuteronomy 30:4 to the Greek of Matthew 24:31 in the Textus Receptus, it cannot easily escape us that the phrases translated “in the uttermost parts of heaven” and “from one end of heaven to the other” are almost word-for-word identical. If the Lord is not directly quoting Moses, he is at very least using theological language that would have been exceedingly familiar to those who knew their Old Testament, employing a figure of speech they would all have recognized.

Standing in the Sandals of the Disciples

So what would the expression “from one end of heaven to the other” have meant to the disciples? Well, they certainly would never have associated it with any sort of Christian meeting in the Earth’s atmosphere, nor would they have for a moment imagined that the Lord meant some kind of spiritual “gathering” (that is to say, non-physical; nobody would actually move), as is postulated here.

Here is what that curious turn of phrase would have evoked for Peter, James, John and the other  followers of Jesus. In Deuteronomy 30, Moses is addressing Israel, twelve tribes physically and literally descended from Abraham via his grandson Jacob. In the previous few verses, Moses has just announced to a new generation of his nation that they are a stubborn people, bound to rebel against the Law of God, and as a result will eventually become dispersed by the judgment of God among the nations of the world. Chapter 30 begins with the words “when all these things come upon you.” When, not if. The prophet spoke truly: this is precisely what happened to Israel in several phases, first in the Assyrian dispersion, then in the Babylonian, and finally in AD 70 with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. Though millions of Jews have returned to Israel since the end of WWII, millions more, along with millions of descendants of ancient Israelite tribes, remain dispersed all across the world today. God’s elect are literally scattered to the four winds.

Repentance and Return

Will the descendants of Jacob eventually repent? Of course they will. Moses said so. As surely as they were once scattered, God will gather them again, when they return to the Lord their God with all their heart and soul. The process of physically returning to the land of Israel is already well underway, though for political rather than spiritual reasons, but it will surely be completed by God when his people repent and return to him in their hearts.

It is in this very specific context that Moses said Israel could count on being gathered by God from “the uttermost parts of heaven”. He did not mean from the skies. He meant from the furthest corners of the earth; from places that Moses didn’t even know existed at the time. 7.5 million Jews currently reside in the U.S., Europe and Canada, millions more than reside in Israel itself. That’s not taking even into account the descendants of the Assyrian dispersal of the ten tribes who have yet to return to their ancestral homeland. Many of these are thought to be scattered throughout Europe and South Africa, and many would not currently identify as Jews or Israelites at all.

The Old Testament promises about this gathering of God’s elect are not limited to Moses. Similar language is used in the Prophets. Isaiah says, “He will raise a signal for the nations and will assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” Micah says, “I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob; I will gather the remnant of Israel; I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture, a noisy multitude of men.”

Note the reference to “all of you” in Micah. What the prophets are telling us in hyperbolic language is that no believing, repentant Israelite will be left out of this gathering. Not one. There is no place the elect can travel, from Greenland to Bora Bora to Venezuela to New Zealand, that will cause them to be left out of God’s plans for them.

No partial return to Israel in times past has ever fulfilled this prophecy. It cannot be ascribed in its totality to any known historical event.

Questions, Questions

When the disciples heard the Lord speak of gathering of his elect from the four winds and from one end of heaven to another, it is inevitable their minds were on the prophecies of the Old Testament restoration of their nation. How could they not be? Whether they were right or wrong in this, we can be very sure they were not picturing the Rapture or anything like it. For the disciples, nobody was flying through the air, either dead or alive.

It may be that we cannot know with 100% certainty what the Lord Jesus meant. What we can say is that the expressions the Lord used strongly evoke Old Testament promises that are not the least bit Church-related. What we can say is that no unbelieving group was or is in view. What we can say — and say with conviction — is that the genetic descendants of national Israel cannot and should not be ruled out as prime candidates for such a regathering.

That’s not, by the way, to suggest that I have the slightest doubt about the reality of the coming Rapture of the Church and its clear teaching in scripture. I don’t.

I just don’t think the gospel of Matthew is the place we find it.

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