Matthew 24 and the Olivet Discourse - Part II
In continuation of part one . . .
With v. 15 we come to a critical juncture in the discourse. To this point Jesus has referred to general signs that would characterize the period preceding Israel's collapse. Here in v. 15, though, he refers to one sign that unmistakably signals that the prophesied destruction is at hand. It would serve to alert the people of that generation as to the proximity of Jerusalem's ruin. In response to the question, "When will these things be?" Jesus now answers "When you see . . ." (v. 15).
Abomination of Desolation is literally, the abomination that causes desolation. In the OT, "abomination" = an object of disgust, hatred, something that causes revulsion; an idolatrous offense or affront to the true worship of God.
The Abomination of Desolation is referred to 4x in Daniel 8:13; 9:27; 11:31; 12:11. The first and immediate reference was to the Syrian king Antiochus who ruled over Palestine in 175-65 b.c. He called himself Theos Epiphanes ("manifest God") but his enemies called him Epimanes ("madman; the insane one").
In 168 b.c. Antiochus Epiphanes slaughtered 40,000 Jews and plundered the temple. He sacrificed a pig on the altar of burnt offering, sprinkled broth from the unclean flesh all over the holy grounds as an act of deliberate defilement. He then erected an image of Zeus above the altar. It was a sacrilege of indescribable proportions indelibly imprinted on the minds of the Jews in Jesus' day.
Jesus envisioned something of a repeat performance in his day of what happened in 168 b.c. under Antiochus. When he says "let the reader understand" he means "let the reader of the OT book of Daniel understand" the true meaning and fulfillment of the coming Abomination of Desolation. The A of D, therefore, refers first to Antiochus Epiphanes and his desecration of the temple in 168 b.c. and, second, to something that was to occur in relation to Jerusalem and the temple within the lifetime of his contemporaries.
So what, then, was the Abomination of Desolation to which Jesus referred? There are four possibilities:
(1) Some point to the Zealots, the so-called "patriotic freedom fighters" who rose up against Roman oppression in defense of Jewish traditions and religion They first emerged in a.d. 6 following the death of Herod the Great. At the outbreak of the Jewish War the Zealots stormed the city and occupied the temple area. They committed numerous sacrileges, including murder, within the Holy of Holies. In the winter of 67-68 they installed Phanni as high priest. Eventually the Zealots retreated to the mountain fortress Masada. The surviving 960 rebels committed mass suicide in May of 73 a.d. to prevent capture by the Romans.
(2) The Idumeans have also been considered as potential candidates. They occupied the territory once held by the ancient kingdom of Edom and came to Jerusalem at the request of Zealot leaders to participate in their revolution. After gaining entrance to the city, they killed more than 8,000 Jews in the outer court of the temple, including the chief priest Ananus. The Idumeans later withdrew from the city.
(3) Some argue that the Jewish religious leaders are in view, insofar as their rejection of Jesus as Messiah reduced the Jewish temple sacrifices to an abomination. One is reminded of Ezek. 5:11 - "'So as I live,' declares the Lord God, 'surely, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your detestable idols and with all your abominations, therefore I will also withdraw, and My eye shall have no pity and I will not spare.'" Cf. also Jn. 2:16 and Mt. 21:13.
(4) The most popular identification is Titus and the armies of Rome. While the city of Jerusalem was still burning the soldiers brought their legionary standards into the temple precincts and offered sacrifices there, declaring Titus to be victor. The idolatrous representations of Caesar and the Roman eagle on the standards would have constituted the worst imaginable blasphemy to the Jewish people. Identifying Titus and his armies with the A of D is most popular because it seems to parallel the actions of Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd century b.c. It is important to note that in Luke 21:20 the surrounding of Jerusalem by armies was the signal that her desolation had drawn near. We read in Josephus: “the Romans upon the flight of the seditious into the city, and upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings lying round about it, brought their ensigns to the temple, and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator, with the greatest acclamations of joy” (Book 6, Ch. 6:1). Thus, although the A of D “involves the destruction of Jerusalem (beginning with its several encirclings by Cestius, Vespasian, Simon, and Titus), it culminates in this final abominable act within the temple itself” (Gentry, 50). I find this view the most likely one.
Why did Matthew use the terms "A of D" whereas Luke identifies it explicitly as the activity of the invading Roman armies? Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience and wanted to link up the 70 a.d. prophecy with the prophecy in Daniel. Luke, on the other hand, was writing to Gentiles outside the borders of Judea. Thus, the terminology "Abomination of Desolation" would have been confusing and enigmatic to them, prompting Luke to graphically identify precisely what Jesus had in mind: the Abomination that brings desolation to Jerusalem and its temple is the invading Army under the leadership of Titus.
Remember: Jesus is answering the question of the disciples concerning "these things", "this temple", "these stones that you see", all of which would occur in the lifetime of "this generation" (v. 34).
Here Jesus gives them a plan of escape. The appearance of the A of D was the sign for immediate flight from Judea. Luke even includes the warning not to enter the city at this time (21:21). As Wright observes, “the disciples are not to stay and fight for the physical survival of Jerusalem. They are not to be implicated in the coming war. Jesus will die at the hands of the Romans on the charge of being a Jewish rebel, but they are not to do so. No mistaken sense of loyalty must sway them into trying to bring the kingdom after all by means of the sword. Rather, they are to waste no time: they must run away” (Victory, 359).
1. V. 16 - Those in the countryside of Judea must take to the hills as the Romans come to ravage farmlands and villages (this is, in fact, precisely what occurred; pillaging/killing was widespread).
2. V. 17 - Jewish houses within walled cities were flat-roofed structures that often formed a continuous terrace extending to the outer walls of the city, making it possible to quicken one's departure by following this "elevated highway" to the gates of the city.
3. V. 18 - Working men will have to get by with the clothes they have on. There will be no time to go home and pack.
4. V. 19 - Nursing mothers and pregnant women are obviously ill-prepared for hasty escape.
5. V. 20a - In Palestine during the winter, roads were practically impassible because of mud; harsh weather and cold temperatures would slow down one's journey and make mountain hideaways unbearable.
6. V. 20b - On the Sabbath, gates would be closed; it would be difficult to obtain provisions (Jews prohibited anything more than a one-day's journey on the Sabbath); buying and selling were not permitted; one travelling on a Sabbath would receive no assistance from the Jewish populace.
These instructions were in fact followed by Christians in Judea and Jerusalem. Some point to the fact that, in late 66 a.d., the Christian community, under the leadership of Symeon (a cousin of Jesus), withdrew to the village of Pella in Perea, a mountainous region east of the Sea of Galilee. History records that the commander Cestius inexplicably and without warning ordered his troops to withdraw. This gave the Jewish believers an opportunity to flee the city in accordance with Jesus' advice (Lk. 21:21). According to Josephus, after Cestius’s siege and retreat the Jews left Jerusalem like swimmers from a sinking ship (Book 2, Ch. 20:1). By all accounts, no Christian died in the holocaust that engulfed Jerusalem shortly thereafter. William Whitson (1737), Josephus’s best-known English translator, writes:
“There may be another very important, and very providential, reason be here assigned for this strange and foolish retreat of Cestius; which, if Josephus had been now a Christian, he might probably have taken notice of also; and that is, the affording the Jewish Christians in the city an opportunity of calling to mind the prediction and caution given them by Christ about thirty-three years and a half before, that ‘when they should see the abomination of desolation’ [the idolatrous Roman armies, with the images of their idols in their ensigns, ready to lay Jerusalem desolate], ‘stand where it ought not;’ or, ‘in the holy place;’ or, ‘when they should see Jerusalem encompassed with armies,’ they should then ‘flee to the mountains.’ By complying with which those Jewish Christians fled to the mountains of Perea, and escaped of Cestius, this destruction” (Book 2, Ch. 19:6b).
Here we see the reason for the extreme urgency of escape. The reference is to the events of April-September in 70 a.d. Flavius Josephus (37-100 a.d.) was a Jewish author and historian who wrote a comprehensive (200 pages) eye-witness account (“The Wars of the Jews”) of the Jewish revolt (66-70 a.d.) and the fall of Jerusalem. His book was first published in 75 a.d. when the facts of this holocaust were still vividly in the minds of many. See William Kimball's book, The Great Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), pp. 94-109, for a more complete account of these events. What follows is a brief summation.
The war that broke out in 66 a.d. between Rome and the Jewish people was simply an intensified continuation of hostilities that had been brewing for years. Jerusalem, the last Jewish stronghold, was the focus of Rome’s most brutal rage. Multitudes of thieves, zealots, and murderers had flocked to the city seeking refuge. The city was without law and order. Chaos and anarchy reigned. The city divided into warring factions who took turns attacking each other. In one incident, more than 12,000 of the city’s nobles and leading citizens were tortured and killed by the zealots. Those who tried to escape had their throats slit and their bodies were left to rot in the streets. Burial became an impossibility. Huge piles of cadavers filled the streets or were thrown from the city’s walls. Josephus:
“The noise of those that were fighting was incessant, both by day and by night; but the lamentations of those that mourned exceeded the noise of the fighting. . . . They, moreover, were continually inventing pernicious things against each other; and when they had resolved upon anything, they executed it without mercy, and omitted no method of torment or of barbarity” (Book 5, Ch. 1:5).
It was the Passover season, and a momentary lull in hostilities led to the city’s gates being thrown open for all those who desired to observe the feast. The population of the city swelled and contributed to the tremendous slaughter that was to take place.
The Roman general Vespasian was recalled because of Nero’s death and was himself soon declared Emperor. His son Titus assumed responsibility for the battle. He repeatedly offered clemency to the Jews and often sent Josephus to the walls of the city to appeal for their surrender. Famine soon set in. The city’s granaries and storehouses were deliberately burned and the water reservoirs were polluted. Again, Josephus:
“The madness of the seditions did also increase together with their famine, and both those miseries were everyday inflamed more and more; for there was no corn that appeared anywhere publicly . . . it was now a miserable case, and a sight that would justly bring tears into our eyes . . . insomuch that children would pull the very morsels that their fathers were eating out of their mouths . . . so did mothers do to their infants” (Book 5, Ch. 10:2,3).
People not only sold their homes but their children as well to obtain food. People regularly ate from the public sewers, cattle and pigeon dung, leather shields, hay, clothing, and things that scavenger dogs would dare not to touch! Unbelievable forms of torture were inflicted on those suspected of hiding food:
“It is impossible to give every instance of the iniquity of these men. I shall therefore speak my mind here at once briefly: that neither did any other city suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this was, from the beginning of the world” (Book 5, Ch. 10:5).
In desperation, some left the city at night to hunt for food but were captured by the Romans. Thousands were crucified in plain sight of the city walls, often at a rate of 500 per day. So many were killed in this manner that “room was wanting for crosses, and crosses wanting for bodies” (Book 5, Ch. 11:1).
After several unsuccessful assaults on the city, Titus ordered his troops to surround the city with a wall to cut off any remaining avenues of escape, seemingly in fulfillment of Jesus’ word: “Thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee on every side” (Luke 19:43). This served to intensify the famine. Josephus explains:
“Then did the famine widen its progress, and devoured the people by whole houses and families; the upper rooms were filled with women and children dying of the famine; and the lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged; the children also and the young men wandered about the market places like shadows, all swelled with famine, and fell down dead wherever their misery seized them. . . . Thus did the miseries of Jerusalem grow worse and worse every day . . . and indeed the multitude of carcases that lay in heaps one upon another was a horrible sight, and produced a pestilential stench, which was a hindrance to those that would make sallies out of the city and fight the enemy” (Book 5, Ch. 12:3; and Book 6, Ch. 1:1).
Josephus tells of one woman who killed her son, roasted his body, ate half of him and hid the remaining half. When the smell drew others desperate for food, she offered to share his body, inciting horror among the multitudes.
The wall of the city was finally breached. The temple was set aflame. Josephus:
“While the holy house was on fire, everything was plundered that came to hand, and ten thousand of those that were caught were slain. Nor was there commiseration of any age, or any reverence of gravity; but children, old men, profane persons, and priests were all slain in the same manner. . . . Moreover, many, when they saw the fire, exerted their utmost strength, and did break out into groans and outcries. Perea also did return the echo, as well as the mountains round about Jerusalem, and augmented the force of the noise. Yet was the misery itself more terrible than this disorder. For one would have thought that the hill itself, on which the temple stood, was seething hot, as if full of fire on every part, that the blood was more in quantity than the fire, and that the slain were more in numbers than they who slew them. For the ground did nowhere appear visible because of the dead bodies that lay upon it” (Book 6, Ch. 5:1).
Josephus reports the activity of numerous false prophets who misled the people and contributed to their demise, again in fulfillment of the words of Jesus in Mt. 24:23-26. When the Romans finally penetrated the heart of the city the slaughter continued until the soldiers “grew weary of killing.” Josephus stated that the soldiers
“went into the lanes of the city with their swords drawn and slew those whom they overtook without mercy, and set fire to the houses whither the Jews had fled, and burnt every soul in them . . . they ran everyone through whom they met with, and obstructed the very lanes with their dead bodies, and made the whole city run down with blood, to such a degree indeed that the fire of many houses was quenched with these men’s blood” (Book 6, Ch. 8:5).
Almost 100,000 Jewish survivors were sold into slavery. Others were consigned to die in the gladitorial exhibitions or were selected to be paraded in Titus’ triumphal procession through the streets of Rome. According to Josephus, more than 1,100,000 died during the siege of the city! The destruction was so complete that not one stone was left standing on another, even as Jesus had prophesied (Mt. 24:2). In fact, Josephus describes how “Caesar gave orders (after the siege) that they should now demolish the whole city and temple . . . (and) it was laid so completely even with the ground, by those who dug it up to the foundation that there was nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited” (Book 7, Ch. 1). Here is Josephus’ final verdict:
“The afflictions which befell the Jews were the greatest of all those, not only that have been in our times, but, in a manner, of those wherein cities have fought against cities, or nations against nations . . . it appears to me that the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to those of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were” (Preface, 1 & 4, p. 427-28).
In v. 21 Jesus describes this event to be “such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall.” Many insist that this "great tribulation" cannot refer to the events of 70 a.d. because worse and more severe tribulations have since followed (WW II and the Holocaust, Stalin, etc.). Response:
(1) Assuming Jesus is speaking in strictly literal terms, it is unlikely he is referring to a time of tribulation at the end of the age, because of the phrase "nor ever shall be." In other words, this phrase envisions a time following this tribulation in which other, albeit less severe tribulations, might occur. But if the supposed future tribulation is followed immediately by the millennium or the eternal state, it would be pointless to say that a tribulation of such magnitude will never take place again, for there would be no remaining time to prove the assertion.
(2) Once one grasps the dimensions of what occurred in 70 a.d., one realizes that the savagery, cruelty, and the monstrosities that occurred were beyond comparison. Also, never so high a percentage of one city's population was destroyed. Everyone was either killed or sold into slavery. As noted earlier, approximations are that 1,100,000 people were killed and 100,000 were enslaved.
(3) It may well be, however, that the statement in v. 21 is deliberately hyperbolic, a stock saying for an indescribably horrendous time. In other words, it may be proverbial, designed to emphasize how truly horrible an event it was. Biblical scholars have long recognized that oracles of judgment are often couched in language that is universal and radical. “Such judgment is often framed in terms of prophetic hyperbole, a common apocalyptic device used by the writers of Scripture” (Gentry, 52). For example:
“There shall be a great cry in all the land of Egypt, such as there has not been before and such as shall never be again” (Exod. 11:6).
“Behold, about this time tomorrow, I will send a very heavy hail, such as has not been seen in Egypt from the day it was founded until now” (Exod. 9:18).
“And the locusts came up over all the land of Egypt and settled in all the territory of Egypt; they were very numerous. There had never been so many locusts, nor would there be so many again” (Exod. 10:14; cf. Joel 1:1-4).
“A day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness. As the dawn is spread over the mountains, so there is a great and mighty people; there has never been anything like it, nor will there be again after it to the years of many generations” (Joel 2:2).
“And because of all your abominations, I will do among you what I have not done, and the like of which I will never do again” (a reference to the impending Babylonian Captivity; Ezek. 5:9; cf. Mt. 24:21).
“Thus He has confirmed His words which He had spoken against us and against our rulers who ruled us, to bring on us great calamity; for under the whole of heaven there has not been done anything like what was done to Jerusalem” (Dan. 9:12).
“Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time . . .” (Dan. 12:1).
Look also at similar terminology in the following two texts:
“He [Hezekiah] trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel; so that after him there was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among those who were before him” (2 Kings 18:5).
“And before him [Josiah] there was no king like him who turned to the Lord will all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to the law of Moses; nor did any like arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25).
Gary DeMar makes this point:
“In 2 Kings 18:5 it is written of Hezekiah that there would be no king after him who would show the same devotion to the Lord as he showed. When we get an assessment of Josiah’s reign, which follows Hezekiah’s reign, we are informed that ‘there was no king like him who turned to the Lord.’ How can Hezekiah’s reign be the greatest (even considering the reign of a future king like Josiah) and Josiah’s reign be the greatest (even considering the reign of a past king like Hezekiah)? Is this a contradiction? There are no contradictions in the Bible. The phraseology is obviously hyperbolic, emphasizing complete devotion to the Lord and His law” (Last Days Madness, 110). Cf. also 1 Kings 3:12 with Mt. 12:42.
V. 22 - The destruction will not run its full course. The days will be shortened, either to allow the elect to survive or perhaps because the presence of the elect in the world mitigates the divine wrath (i.e., common grace).
Don't look for the second coming of Christ in the chaotic events surrounding Jerusalem's fall. Such troublesome times would prove to be a golden opportunity for false prophets to lead people astray with false expectations of Christ's appearance. But Jesus says, "Don't be swayed by their miracles or their message" (v. 24).
They must be careful "not to entertain the rumors that the Jewish Messiah had returned and was waiting in some secluded desert location for them, or in some inner chamber in the besieged city" (v. 26; Kimball, 142-43).
Josephus actually records several instances of impostors who enticed people into the desert and elsewhere with promises of the Messiah's appearance. But,
"contrary to the claims of these false prophets, Christ's advent will not be shrouded in secrecy or obscurity. It will be spectacular, patent, and universal. Christ's second coming will not only be obvious, it will be as instantaneous, unexpected, and unannounced as the flash of lightning. Though no one will foresee it, all eyes will see it" (v. 27; Kimball, 144).
It should be noted that not everyone interprets v. 27 as a reference to the second advent of Christ. Gentry and other preterists understand this “coming” to be the judgment of Christ that appears like a destructive lightning bolt against Jerusalem. “The direction of this judgment coming of Christ in Matthew 24:27 apparently reflects the Roman armies marching toward Jerusalem from an easterly direction. Josephus’s record of the march of the Roman armies through Israel shows they wreak havoc on Jerusalem by approaching it from the east” (54).
The enigmatic saying in v. 28 may be taken in one of three ways, depending on one’s interpretation of the “coming” in v. 27. a) Either the second coming of the Son of Man will be obvious and unmistakable, just as one unmistakably infers the presence of a corpse from the presence of vultures, or b) "it will be as impossible for humanity not to see the coming of the Son of Man as it is for vultures to miss seeing carrion" (Carson, 504). Or, if the “coming” (v. 27) is the judgment of Jerusalem in 70, c) the “vultures” = “eagles” refer to the Roman “eagle” found on the ensign at the head of every Roman legion. If this be the case, it is the Roman “eagle” (vulture) that gathers over the corpse of Jerusalem to pick it clean.