What is the “Dead Body” where the Vultures Gather? (Luke 17:37)

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.

(For more on this topic, see the index category Prophecy.)





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10 comments:

  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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    1. Read the parable of wheat and tares and contrast what is taken first and what happens to it.

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    2. The parable of the wheat and tares may at first seem contradictory. But let’s take a closer look at what it says. “Gather first the tares and bind them into bundles for the purpose of burning them, but gather the wheat into my storehouse.” The tares are gathered, but they are not taken up. Instead, they are bound into bundles. These are then left sitting in the field to dry. Only after they are dry will they be burned. This is the implication of the phrase “for the purpose of burning them” (pros to katakausai auta). In other words, the burning will take place later. But while the tares are still bundled up in the field, the wheat is gathered out of the field and taken into the barn. So in fact, there is no contradiction. The wheat is taken away and the tares are left behind.

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  2. I have read some strange interpretations of this verse. To me it plainly means that wherever there is someone who forsakes truth (dead body), false religions (vultures, false prophets) are waiting to pounce. Look around, it's easy to see the truth of that in these last days, the rush to paganism and forsaking Christ.

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  3. Thank you for helping me to understand the passage of scripture better. I was confused with the line, in V37 Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather. Your explanation opens this up. God bless.

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  4. Thank you so much for your explanation l thought it meant that but could not put into words or the right Scriptures. This verse had been a thorn in my side for years, trying to understand the meaning Jesus was talking about Mat. 24:28 and Lk17:30 seem to have some what similar meaning but perhaps slightly differences sense
    e

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  5. The word for body in Mathew is Ptoma (dead body), the word for body in Luke 17 is soma (live body) Where will the live body be? Where the eagles are gathered, where do eagles gather? In the air up to 30000 feet, so where are the saints gathered? In the clouds, in the air where the eagles are.

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  6. You are right that a different Greek word is used in Matt. 24:28 and Luke 17:37 in reporting this same teaching. However "soma" used in Luke 17 is also often used for a dead body, as can be seen in John 19:38,40, Acts 9:40, etc. That this is clearly the meaning here can be seen from the image of birds circling the dead bodies on a battlefield, a common image often mentioned in the writings of ancient times when this was unfortunately a common event.

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  7. Ps 91 in verse 3

    "Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence." (Psalms 91:3)

    That word "deliver" here means to snatch in the Hebrew. To remove suddenly from danger.

    Verse 14 "Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name. (Psalms 91:14) "deliver" means escape, "high" to a place too high for capture.

    Both the idea to be snatched and delivered to a great height is known in the OT. Both Noah and Lot were taken away from the danger. The disciples asked where will those people be taken to and Jesus said where the body is where the eagles gather. The word "eagle" in Luke 17 is "aetos" translated eagles (which hunt live food not carrion). This Greek word "aetos" has its base in the word "aer" i.e. in English "air".

    That word "aer" is the word in 1Thess 4v17

    "Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." (I Thessalonians 4:17)

    The days will be like the days of Noah and Lot, the righteous are taken away from judgement not the wicked.

    The word "taken" "paralambano" means to take with, join to ones self. "left" "aphiemi" means to send away, divorce.

    The "left" behind appears to fit the wicked and the "taken" to believers in the context of these verses.

    The dead in Christ rise first therefore no longer "ptoma", but ""soma".

    Well that is my take on it.



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    1. You are right about the idea of being “snatched” away in the Bible. And this is in fact what Jesus is talking about in Luke 17:34-36. One will be taken along (in other words, snatched away) to be with the Lord, and the other will be left behind. The only difference between us seems to be the meaning of the birds of prey (aetoi), a word that can either be translated eagles or vultures (Luke 17:37). Is Jesus talking about the person taken along or the one left behind? If we look at the other verses in that section, Jesus is talking about what happened to the non-believers: those who didn’t listen to Noah were all destroyed (Luke 17:27), those who didn’t escape the city with Lot were all destroyed (Luke 17:29). And the same thing will happen when the Son of Man comes (Luke 17:30). Therefore, when that day comes, we should not turn back as Lot’s wife did, who was destroyed (Luke 17:31-32). So in other words, he’s focusing on the bad things that happen when people don’t trust God. This implies that in vs. 37, he’s also focusing on the same thing: the destruction of the wicked. Although it’s true that eagles soar in the air, they only gather together to a body when it’s lying dead on the ground.

      All the best.

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