Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What is the “Dead Body” where the Vultures Gather?

Birds of Prey in Israel

“Where the dead body is, there also the vultures will be gathered together” (Luke 17:37, also Matt. 24:28).

Have you ever wondered what this verse means?  The picture it paints is familiar from old Western movies:  vultures circling in the sky over a dead body that slowly descend to feed on it.  Yes, vultures do gather around a dead body.  But Jesus mentions this at the end of some teaching about the time of his return (Luke 17:22-37; also in Matt. 24:23-28).  A dead body and vultures don’t seem to fit the subject.  Even the disciples had trouble following him.  The full verse says (in Greek), “And answering, they said to him, ‘Where, Lord?’  But he said to them, ‘Where the dead body is…’” (Luke 17:37).  They were expecting an answer to their question.  But instead he mentioned a dead body and vultures.  

This wasn’t the only time something like this happened in the teaching of Jesus.  He often takes the conversation in a different direction than the disciples (and we, the readers) expect him to go.  So what did he mean by this saying?

This section starts with Jesus talking about the time he will be away, when his disciples will long to see him (Luke 17:22).  During that time, many will be tempted to look for him in all the wrong places (Luke 17:23).  But those false leads must be avoided.  For when he returns, it will be as obvious as the lighting flashing out across the sky (Luke 17:24). 

Then, when he returns, it will be just like in the time of Noah (Luke 17:26).  People were “eating, they were drinking,” with life going on as usual, right up until the last moment (Luke 17:27).  Then suddenly, the Flood came and destroyed them all. 

It will also be like the time of Lot (Luke 17:28).  Then, too, life was going on as usual right up until the last moment.  Then suddenly, fire and sulfur fell from the sky and destroyed them all.  It will be just the same when Jesus returns (Luke 17:30).  All will be destroyed suddenly except those brought to safety by the Son of Man. 

When that day comes, we must not be like Lot’s wife, who turned back and was destroyed (Luke 17:32).  Rather, “in that day, he who is on the housetop and his things are in the house, let him not go down to get them; and the one who is in the field, in the same way let him not return for the things that are behind him” (Luke 17:31).  When Jesus sends for us, we are to go straight ahead to him, no questions asked.  “Whoever tries to preserve his life will lose it; but he who perishes will preserve it alive” (Luke 17:33). 

Then, to explain this teaching more clearly, he gives the illustration of two men sleeping in one bed.  One of these, he says, will be “taken along, and the other will be left” (Luke 17:34).  Two women will be grinding grain at the same place.  One will be “taken along, but the other will be left” (Luke 17:35).  Many translations give no sense as to which of the two is better:  being taken or left.  But the Greek words used here clearly indicate that being taken along (or “received,” paralambano) means to be accepted by God, while to be left behind is to be abandoned by God (aphiemi).  This is a reference to the catching away of the Church in the resurrection (sometimes called the “rapture”) mentioned in 1 Thess. 4:15-17.  Jesus will descend from heaven, the trumpet will blow, and we will be caught up to meet the Lord with all the believers from all time.  Those “taken along” are those who will be caught up to participate in this incredible event.  Those “left behind” will face God’s fiery destruction of the wicked (2 Thess. 1:6-8).

This is when the disciples ask their question, “Where, Lord?”, in other words, where will the one who is taken be taken?  But Jesus says, “Where the dead body is, there also the vultures will be gathered together” (Luke 17:37, also Matt. 24:28). 

So what could Jesus be talking about?  Instead of talking about the one taken along, Jesus addresses the fate of the one left behind.  To do this, he quotes Scripture to make his point.  Here he quotes from Ezekiel 39:17, a prophecy of that same moment in time when Messiah will return and destroy the nations that come up against Israel (Eze. 39:1-4).  “And you, son of man, this is what the Lord GOD has said, ‘Say to every kind of bird and to every beast of the field, “Assemble and come, gather from all around to my sacrifice that I am slaughtering for you, a great sacrifice on the mountains of Israel; and you will eat flesh and drink blood”’” (Eze. 39:17).  The picture painted here is of a field of battle in which thousands of bodies lay dead, and the birds and wild beasts come to feast on the bodies.    

This is the same moment mentioned in Rev. 19:17,18,21:  “And I saw a lone messenger standing in front of the sun and he cried out in a loud voice saying to all the birds flying high overhead, ‘Come, gather to the great banquet of God that you may eat flesh of kings and flesh of military commanders and the flesh of the strong and the flesh of horses and those sitting on them and the flesh of all, free as well as slaves and small and great’…. And all the birds were filled with their flesh.”

Some teach that when Messiah returns only the armies coming up against Jerusalem will be destroyed.  But Revelation has something else in mind.  The birds of prey will eat the “flesh of all,” both great and small, free and slaves—in other words, everyone not caught up by the Lord. 

This is exactly what Jesus himself taught.  When the Flood came, it “destroyed them all” (Luke 17:27).  When the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah came, it “destroyed them all” (Luke 17:29).  “It will be just the same way,” Jesus said, “on the day the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:30).

This means the “body” Jesus taught about where the “birds of prey will be gathered together” is the body of the one left behind when Jesus comes, destroyed in his destruction of the disobedient nations of the world. 

Updated 2/18/14.  

1 comment:

  1. I am reading Luke right now and am now at this section. I've heard my pastor say before that the ones left behind will be the blessed ones and enjoy the new earth. He flips it from what I've always believed. Thanks for shedding light on the vulture part. That makes sense. My Bible commentary says, "One vulture circling overhead does not mean much, but a gathering of vultures means that a dead body is nearby. Likewise, one sign of the end may not be significant but when many signs occur, the second coming is near." Thank you for your more Biblical answer. See why I love your teaching? I'm so glad you started putting these teachings online. I have it fed to my yahoo homepage. Zena

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