thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these
things from the wise
The Harvest - #I
Who Is First?
By Edgar Jones
This paper is the first of a short series that will examine the prophecies of Jesus that relate to eschatology (last things). He offers many prophetic statements and it is incumbent on his disciples to listen carefully to receive what he has given. The present approach is to take a single question from a short list and to produce a paper in response to each. The title of the series, "The Harvest" applies to all these questions and arises from parables and statements by the Lord that compare the events of the close of the age with that of the farmer harvesting his crop from the field, or a fisherman dragging his net for a harvest of the sea.
The Lord has different terms for related events of the end times. These include parousia, close of the age, resurrection, gathering, separation and judgment. Completely absent from his prophecies are some of the most common terms found in Christian eschatology -- millennium and rapture. Jesus had no use for these, and neither do we. One term, tribulation, he shares with Christians, but he means something different by it. Examining his meaning for this term will be the subject of one of the questions of this series.
Who is First?
It is appropriate to take this as our first question. What we ask is, who will be harvested first? Will it be the saints or the sinners?
Many popular Christian books of recent publication have intensified public interest in the events of the end. Those that generate the most interest (and sales to the public) contain prophecies, or interpretations of prophecies in the Bible, which encourage Christians to believe in a very complicated series of end time events. The doctrines of the Rapture (from Latin, raptus, meaning 'caught up') focus on a supposed intense end times Tribulation period, and are in several varieties. These include different Pre-trib, Mid-trib, and Post-trib times for this event, according to which the 'saints' are to be caught up from the earth suddenly and invisibly, with the result that they will simply disappear from the earth to the bewilderment of those who are left behind. Or, so it sometimes goes.
Most of the competing views of end time prophecy are complex and derive from prophetic texts from throughout the Bible. We expect to find contradictory views on that basis because they are not derived exclusively from the utterances of Jesus, our Lord, who alone is the Truth. So here we will examine the end time events exclusively in the Light of his utterances.
A major disagreement involves who will be harvested first from the earth. Will it be the saints, the True children of the Father, or will it be the wicked? Who is first?
These doctrines also relate closely to the doctrine of the Resurrection from the Dead. Jesus believed, and teaches us to believe, in the Resurrection. Here is an explicit statement.
This utterance very strongly suggests that there will be two simultaneous resurrections, that of life and that of judgment. Examining this gives rise immediately to other questions, but we must avoid becoming distracted. The only answer we seek in this paper is the answer to "Who is First?" This utterance from the Fourth Gospel does not answer the question unless the question of primacy is irrelevant because there is no first, except that he mentions first the resurrection of life. The implication, however, is that all come forth at the single cry of his voice. Therefore we find ourselves confronted with not two options, but three. The living (saints) are first, the judged (wicked) are first, or both rise together.
The Parable of the Tares
This parable is highly relevant. Here it is, together with its interpretation, also presented by the Lord.
The Lord introduces us to a gathering in vs. 30, where there is a gathering of both weeds and wheat. He identifies the weeds with all causes of sin and all evildoers in vs. 41 but, in his interpretation of the parable, he does not have a corresponding gathering of the righteous. Not only this, but the entire context makes no mention of the resurrection, either of life or of judgment as in John 5:28,29. Further, the latter utterance refers only to all that are in the tombs. It says nothing about those who may (or may not) remain in the flesh at the close of the age, when the Lord comes.
If we make the assumption that this harvest refers to that which follows the resurrection, we have a good indicator in vs. 30 of who is to be first:
'Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'
But the assumption is questionable because this parable makes no mention of tombs, or of arising or resurrection. We are inclined to apply this harvest time to the return of the Lord and to associate with the event also the resurrection due to other influences from the New Testament. However, we cannot confirm this assumption from the parable and must look further. The parable leaves wide open the thought that the weeds and wheat refer only to those yet alive in the flesh at the close of the age.
This term, close of the age is unique to Matthew among the gospels. The Lord may have reference to prophecies of Daniel, for the same Greek term is there in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament that was available in the First Century. In Matthew, we find it in the Parables of the Tares and the Net (unique to Matthew), the latter we will examine below. It appears also in the disciples question that initiated the Eschatological Discourse (Matthew 24:3) where the parallels in Mark and Luke omit to mention it. Finally, it appears as the very last word of Jesus to his disciples prior to his ascension (Matthew 28:20). None of the other evangelists include it there. He says simply,
. . . and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age
My view as to its significance is strongly influenced by its omission from all evangelists except for Matthew. From this I conclude that it does not signify a special period distinct from other events that the Lord prophesied for the end time. These include the Parousia (Second Coming of the Lord), the resurrection and the judgment. Mark and Luke each have their end time events, and if there was a separate one related to the close of the age, they surely would have brought it forth.
The process defined by the parable of the tares is highly questionable as a practical matter. If the Lord means that the weeds are to be put to the sickle first while the wheat is to be left for a second pass of the field, it is not a procedure that one is likely to have found in practice. As a farm kid in West Tennessee who harvested wheat as well as other plants, though generally not with a sickle. I utilized horse drawn equipment for the harvest, but was also familiar with the sickle. If I had passed over the field and collect the weeds first, then returned for the wheat, I would have trampled and destroyed much of the wheat in the first pass, no matter the equipment. This adverse effect on the harvest of the wheat is precisely what the Lord would avoid by waiting until the harvest of both, followed by the separation of the gathered weeds and wheat.
How to accomplish the separation?
The parable removes both wheat and weeds from the field -- the weeds for the fire, the wheat for the barn; also, the entire plants are being removed. It would not be practical to bind only the seed pods or seeds in bundles but the entire plants would bundle nicely. For this separation to be efficient, the harvesters must put all the plants to the sickle with each swath of the sickle, then make the separation and bind the wheat and weeds into two separate bundles. In this case, the actual harvest of weeds and wheat is simultaneous -- equivalent to the opening of the tombs of both the living and the judged in Matt. 5:28,29. It is only the bundling of the weeds that is first. This is a workable proposition and is consistent with the text.
The Parable of the Net
Looking further, we find this parable, also in Matthew 13, commonly called The Parable of the Net.
This parable lends itself to precisely the same interpretation. Both the evil and the righteous are harvested at once, as the net drags through the sea. Then, having drawn the net with all its contents to shore where men make the separation, they then throw away the bad. We have this sequence in all the above: First, gather all, both the good and the bad; next, make the separation; finally, put the bad to the fire (or throw it away).
The Parable of the Tares and that of The Net both introduce the process of gathering. The Parable of the Net leaves open the question of when the gathering occurs. It might even refer to a process ongoing in history. But if we choose the simple option and assume that both parables speak of a single gathering to be performed at the close of the age, we will not err. You will nevertheless want to keep this question in mind as we proceed.
The Parousia of the Son of Man
Much later, the Lord tells many thing concerning the event(s) he designates the coming of the Son of man, the days of the Son of man, or the day when the Son of man is revealed. Both Matthew and Luke witness to the following utterance, so we present them side by side.
If -- and I emphasize 'If' -- this coming of the Son of man (Matthew) and days of the Son of man (Luke) is a reference to the close of the age to which Matthew witnesses, then we have a clear indicator here of who will be first. Noah, the righteous one was taken up (from the land) with his family and gathered into the ark. Thereafter those who remained on the land (the earth) were destroyed by the flood. The pattern is the same in the case of Lot, which Luke also cites. Lot and his family were taken out of the city of Sodom by two 'angels' (Genesis 19:1f) after which the cities were destroyed together with all the wicked ones who dwelt there. However, there is the prominent absence of any gathering action for the wicked ones in these stories. They are simply left behind, to be destroyed.
If we seek to learn who is first from this utterance, it must be the righteous. In the case of both Noah and Lot, the righteous ones were first gathered, then left the wicked ones behind and so escaped the wrath of the Lord. But this utterance continues as follows:
Two men in a field, two women grinding together at the mill, and two in one bed -- one is taken and the other left. We are not told which is the righteous and which is the wicked, but the implication is that those taken are, like Noah and Lot, to be counted among the righteous, and those left behind are the wicked. Thus we have metaphors added to reinforce the lesson drawn from the stories of Noah and Lot. This is contrary to the implication of the Parable of the Tares!
Where are the ones from the grinder, the field and the bed to be taken? This is precisely what the disciples ask, and Jesus answers with an enigmatic utterance, concerning the body and the vultures. (The Greek word can be either 'eagles' or 'vultures' but in context must be vultures.) This causes some to identify the one's taken as the wicked; their vision of vultures gathered around a carcass is not an attractive one such as the righteous would merit. In that case those who remain are the righteous, and the presumption is that the wicked are removed from the earth on the day of the Lord. This thought is also consistent with the implication of the Parable of the Tares (Weeds) according to which the weeds are to be gathered first and bound in bundles to be burned, the wheat remaining to be gathered into the masters barn.
Further strengthening their case, we find this in the KJV at Isaiah 34:15:
Some conclude that this prophetic passage lies behind the Lord's words. Those taken must therefore be the wicked ones, even though this stands in a direct contradiction to the cited examples of Noah and Lot in the same context. But, in this case, we have an inconsistency, don't we? It contradicts the images we receive of the destruction of the wicked in the Great Flood and the destruction of Sodom after the departure of Lot, his wife and his two daughters who were taken to safety by angels of the Lord. In those cases, the wicked are taken nowhere, but left to be consumed by the wrath of God.
There is another way to understand the gathering of the vultures. I will again call on my youthful experience on the farm and the recollection of many, many long days spent in the fields. There, it was very common to look up to the sky and see buzzards, usually flying solo and very high. They seemed so graceful, so effortless as they soared, riding the thermal currents of which I knew nothing. My elders informed me that they were seeking dead animals -- carrion - as that was their preferred food. They appeared to be very high and I wondered at their keen eyesight. I later learned that these buzzards had an extremely acute olfactory sense that led them to the dead bodies. Most often it was a single bird soaring above, but sometimes it was several circling about together and lower than usual. I understood that they had spotted carrion on the ground and were gathering their companions to the body for a feast.
Still I wondered. It remained an enigma to me. How did they know, so many of them, where to gather for the feast? How did they locate the carcass? Time passed during which, more than once, I was able to discover a number of buzzards gathered on the ground, feasting. This was always near the road, and I now speculate that they were feasting on road kill -- rabbit, coon, opossum -- perhaps a dog or a cat. They were black, ugly creatures who took flight as soon as I was discovered and I remember being very impressed with their size -- big -- and how graceful they were as soon as they became airborne. This was evidence that what I had been told about them was true, but still I marveled. How did these vultures find the food they sought -- dead bodies of animals -- from so high in the sky, and how was it that so many of them would then gather at the body for the feast?
It was surely the same in ancient Israel. How did the vultures know where to gather? How did they know where the body was? I was a mystery, and Jesus utilized this enigmatic element to answer the question, "Where, Lord?" He was not indicating anything about the location where those who are to be taken gather, but only utilizing the mystery of it. The fact is that his disciples will gather at the body, wherever it's located.
Where, Lord? Don't be concerned, he was indicating to his disciples and to us. Your gathering will be where I am.
I conclude, therefore, that this gathering of the vultures that Jesus mention refers only to the fact that the disciples -- those taken from field, bed, and grinder and anywhere they may be -- all will be gathered about the body. We do not need to know the where and the how -- not now. That was and remains an enigma.
Wherever the body is, there the eagles (vultures) will be gathered together.Who is first? If we opt for the wicked, we have a seeming contradiction in the comparison with Noah and Lot, when the righteous ones were taken and the wicked were left. But if we opt for the righteous, as the immediate context indicates, we have a seeming contradiction with the Parable of the Tares with its "Gather the weeds first" emphasis.
The Son of Man Coming
Like the above, this is part of the Eschatological Discourse that we discussed in the last edition of The Voice of Jesus. We examine it again only to determine what contribution it makes to the resolution of our question, Who is First? You will find the relevant utterances emboldened below.
This speaks only of the coming of the Son of man with great power and glory, which we have no reason to believe is other than the Parousia, or Second Coming that all anticipate. The Lord speaks here only of the gathering of the elect, his chosen ones from the earth. The pattern is the same as that of the examples of Noah and Lot previously examined. It is the Close of the Age and the elect (righteous, wheat, etc.) are being gathered, with no mention of the category of the wicked ones. We can make no conclusive determination as to who is first here. Why does the Lord make no mention of the wicked? Have they already been gathered? Do they remain to be gathered for the judgment?
Who is to be first?
The Parable of the Pounds
This Parable, of the Pounds (Luke) or the Talents (Matthew) also speaks to our question.
The relevance to our question arises from the essence of the two parables, which is that the Lord is coming, and when he comes he will mete out rewards and punishment. The only relevance to our question, Who is first? is in the sequence. The rewards are announced first, then the judgment of the unprofitable slaves (servants) -- in Luke, it is these enemies of mine. The good and profitable slaves (the righteous, the saints, etc.) receive their rewards before the unprofitable slaves hear their judgment.
The Last Judgment
Of the Synoptic Gospels, only Matthew has preserved the Lord's graphic description of the Last Judgment. It also contains a sequence that is relevant to our question. We see that he is speaking of the coming of the Son of man in his glory, so that we can safely conclude that this is the same event to which he has been pointing all along.
This suggests a single gathering, followed by a separation of the sheep and the goats. This part of the process is simultaneous for all. Then, as with the preceding Parable of the Pounds (Talents), it is the sheep (the righteous) who first receive their rewards, and it is the goats (the wicked) who then hear their sentence.
Who is first? As to the gathering, neither! This accords with the parables of the Net and of the Tares. As to the separation of the two, it is necessarily simultaneous. As to the rewards/judgment, the righteous are first.
If we must provide and answer to the question, "Who is first?" at this point, we must say that neither the just nor the wicked are to be harvested first -- both will be gathered, like the fish in the net, then hauled to shore and separated.
The Evidence of the Fourth Gospel
Unlike the others, the Fourth Gospel shows little interest in the event variously called elsewhere the Coming of the Son of Man, the Close of the Age, the Last Day, the Day of the Son of Man, or the Parousia. The following utterances are the only ones that even mention this event, and they give no clue as to who is to be first gathered and judged or rewarded.
Here is just the simple statement, I will come and take you to myself.
The Fourth Gospel uniquely designated this event as the last day. We see it in the sixth and twelfth chapters.
We have a gathering, a judgment and a sentencing to the fire. We cannot learn who is to be gathered first, if anyone, from this.
We summarize all the above in tabular fashion in a table. Each utterance is referenced and than categorized in a manner relevant to our question, which, if you recall, is "Who is First?"
In the above table, the first column is self explanatory. The second column, labeled 2nd Coming has been included to provide clues, if they exist, indicating that the Lord, in these prophecies, is speaking of more than one event. My conclusion, taking everything into consideration including the information in the other columns, is that there is no reason to think that the Lord is speaking of anything other than the single event of his Parousia (Second Coming) and the related events associated with it in any of these ten prophecies.
The third column, Gathering, is the most directly related to our question. Will the Lord first gather the saints and leave the wicked as many believe?
There are ten prophecies. Of these, half (5) make no mention of "gathering." In the case of two of these, one can say that they imply some sort of gathering by the context. This leaves half (5) remaining that mention gathering. Of these, two (the Parable of the Net and The Last Judgment) speak of a simultaneous gathering to be followed by a separation of the good from the evil. Of the three that yet remain, one (The Parable of the Tares) speaks of first gathering the weeds (evil); one (The Son of Man Coming) speaks of gathering only the good (the elect), and the final one (the Vine) speaks only of gathering the unfruitful branches (evil ones) that are to be burned.
My conclusion is that this column, which is central to our question of who is to be gathered or taken up first, does not provide a single indicator strong enough to dictate a decision. When one is 'first' as in the Parable of the Tares, I conclude that this does not suggest a sequence of events but only reflects the emphasis of that particular utterance. The Parable of the Tares begins with the information that the tares (weeds) have been discovered with the wheat, and the focus is entirely on them and what is to be done with them. The primacy of the Son of Man Coming prophecy, according to which only the good (elect) will be gathered, has a similar explanation.
We cannot, on the basis of the prophecies of the Lord, determine who is to be gathered first. If I must reach a conclusion at this point, I would necessarily conclude that the two prophecies that have a simultaneous gathering (the Parable of the Net and the description of the Last Judgment) must be our guide. They are very specific and leave no grounds for doubting a simultaneous gathering, followed by the separation.
Are we able to learn anything more from the Separation column?
Eight of the ten make no mention of a separation, although in some cases we are at liberty to see an implied separation accomplished by first gathering either one or the other of the two groups. This, standing alone, gives us no clue as to who will be gathered first. Two clearly declare a separation after a simultaneous gathering -- the Parable of the Net and the Prophecy of the Last Judgment.
Do the Punishment and Reward columns to the right side of the table tell us who will be gathered first? I have added them because six of the ten prophecies clearly state a sequence of reward and punishment. Of these, only one, the Parable of the Tares, indicates that the tares (wicked) will receive their sentences first. Five speak first of the rewarding of the elect, good, righteous, etc. However, we cannot say that a single case or all of them together gives any firm data to inform as to who is to be gathered first from the earth, if either. In every case, the mentioning first of either group may simply reflect the focus of the Lord's attention; it need not indicate a chronological sequence and, I conclude, it does not. That the Lord mentions them sequentially does not indicate a chronological order.
Our final conclusion from this study must be drawn, not from what the Lord prophesied, but from what he did not prophesy.
Who is first? The question is irrelevant. If it were relevant, the Lord would not have left us with this uncertainty.
There is no category of 'first gathered ones.' That is because the Parable of the Net and the description of the Last Judgment gathers all simultaneously, after which there is to be a separation. If this is not the case, then these two prophecies are very misleading and cannot represent the expected events as the Lord has described them. Other considerations point to the same conclusion. The Resurrection statement in the Fourth Gospel (John 5:28,29) strongly reinforces the event seen as a common gathering at the coming resurrection, in which neither is first, to be followed by a separation.
Many believe and teach, on the basis of other New Testament texts including the gospels but not limited to them as in this case, that there is to be a Pre - Tribulation Rapture that will be the gathering, first, of the saints. Then, from their fertile imaginations, they prophesy other wonders to follow. This brief study exposes those ideas as mere speculation with no basis in Truth.
And what is Truth?
Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. (John 17:)
. . .but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. (John 8:40)
Only the Lord Jesus is the Truth personified. All else is mere speculation. He does not give a clear answer as to who is to be first -- because, as indicated by the Parable of the Net and the description of the Last Judgment, all will rise together. All will be drawn to the shore, there to be separated the one from the other, as the sheep are separated from the goats.
Now we know.