In the first post (Part 1) of this series, we examined the first few verses of Jesus’ famous Olivet Discourse, recorded in Matthew 24:1-3, Mark 13:1-4, and Luke 21:5-7. We saw the disciples admiring the temple, Jesus telling them it would soon be destroyed, and the disciples asking Him when that would take place. In Matthew’s account alone they asked Him about His coming and the end of the age that they were living in. In the second post, we examined a roughly 10-verse segment in each account where Jesus described some of the signs which would take place before the temple’s destruction. We saw how those signs were fulfilled between the time of His ascension around 30 AD and the temple’s overthrow in 70 AD, about 40 years later.
In this post we will look at how Jesus warned His followers living in Judea to flee to the mountains when they saw “the abomination that causes desolation” (Matthew 24:15/Mark 13:14), that is, “Jerusalem being surrounded by armies” (Luke 21:20). We will see some remarkable accounts of how the believers obeyed and did this very thing about 36 years later. We will also consider what Jesus said about a time of great tribulation that was to come.
|15 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. 22 “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25See, I have told you ahead of time.26 “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.||14 “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. 16 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 17 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 18 Pray that this will not take place in winter, 19 because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again. 20 “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.||20 “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. 22 For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. 23 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.|
THE ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION
Matt. 24:15-20/Mark 13:14-18/Luke 21:20-21, 23a – Both Matthew and Mark speak of an event which Christ’s followers were to be on the lookout for, “the abomination that causes desolation.” Both writers appeal to the reader “to understand,” and Matthew adds that this was spoken of by Daniel (9:26-27, 11:31, 12:11). Luke also speaks of an event which would lead to desolation, which he describes as “Jerusalem being surrounded by armies.” Looking at all three accounts together, we can see that these (apparently) two different signs were actually one and the same, for they were to bring about the same response: immediate flight. Luke, addressing a non-Jewish audience, makes plain what the “abomination of desolation” was to be:
|CATALYST:||“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation’…”||“When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’…”||“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies… desolation is near.”|
|RESPONSE:||“then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”||“then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”||“Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…”|
Perhaps overlooking this fact, it is often said by futurists that, at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD, nothing occurred which may have fulfilled Christ’s prophecy of a coming abomination of desolation. A number of early church writers, however, did teach that this prophecy was fulfilled at that time. These included Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD), Eusebius (263-339) Athanasius (296-372), Augustine (379), Chrysostom (379), Jerome (347-420), and Remigius (437-533). Eusebius (263-339 AD) was a Roman scholar and historian, known as the “Father of Church History.” In his work entitled “Proof of the Gospel” (Book III, Chapter VII), written in 314 AD, he said the following:
It is fitting to add to these accounts the true prediction of our Saviour in which he foretold these very events. His words are as follows: “Woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day; For there shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.” …These things took place in this manner in the second year of the reign of Vespasian, in accordance with the prophecies of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who by divine power saw them beforehand as if they were already present, and wept and mourned according to the statement of the holy evangelists…
Moreover, the people of the church at Jerusalem, in accordance with a certain oracle that was vouchsafed by way of revelation to the approved men there, had been commanded to depart from the city before the war, and to inhabit a certain city of Peraea. They called it Pella. And when those who believed in Christ had removed from Jerusalem, as if holy men had utterly deserted both the royal metropolis of the Jews itself and the whole land of Judaea, the Justice of God then visited upon them all their acts of violence to Christ and his apostles, by destroying that generation of wicked persons root and branch from among men.
…at last the abomination of desolation, proclaimed by the prophets, stood in the very temple of God, so celebrated of old, the temple which was now awaiting its total and final destruction by fire– all these things any one that wishes may find accurately described in the history written by Josephus.
Remigius (437-533 AD) tells us this:
[F]or on the approach of the Roman army, all the Christians in the province, warned, as ecclesiastical history tells us, miraculously from heaven, withdrew, and passing the Jordan, took refuge in the city of Pella; and under the protection of that King Agrippa, of whom we read in the Acts of the Apostles, they continued some time.
This is fascinating stuff! Athanasius (296-372 AD), the bishop of Alexandria, likewise wrote this:
“And when He Who spake unto Moses, the Word of the Father [i.e. Jesus], appeared in the end of the world [age], He also gave this commandment, saying…, ‘When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place (whoso readeth, let him understand); then let them which be in Judea flee into the mountains…’ [Matt. 24:15-16]. Knowing these things, the Saints regulated their conduct accordingly” (Defence of His Flight).
When Athanasius spoke of the believers in Jerusalem living “accordingly,” it’s likely that he meant they lived simply, in order to be prepared for that time when they would need to suddenly vacate. Indeed, we read in Acts that the believers there “had all things in common,” they “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45), and “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own” (Acts 4:32). Of course, many of these believers were later scattered throughout Judea and Samaria when persecution suddenly arose after Stephen was martyred (Acts 8:1).
From Scripture it seems clear that “the holy place” mentioned by Jesus (Matt. 24:15) was not the temple, but Jerusalem, since the entire city was considered holy (Nehemiah 11:1, Daniel 9:24, Matthew 4:5, Matthew 27:53). In Daniel’s day the temple was holy, but Jesus had just pronounced it desolate (Matthew 23:38). This was the viewpoint of Chrysostom (379 AD), who wrote, “For this it seems to me that the abomination of desolation means the army by which the holy city of Jerusalem was made desolate” (recorded in The Ante-Nicene Fathers). Thomas Newton, in his dissertation titled “The Prophecy of Matthew 24” written in 1753, also took this position:
Whatever difficulty there is in these words [in Matthew 24:15-16], it may be cleared up by the parallel place in St. Luke, ‘And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judea flee to the mountains,’-xxi – 20, 21. So that ‘the abomination of desolation’ is the Roman army, and ‘the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place’ is the Roman army besieging Jerusalem. This, saith our Saviour, is ‘the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet,’ in the ninth and eleventh chapters; and so let every one who readeth those prophecies, understand them. The Roman army is called ‘the abomination,’ for its ensigns and images, which were so to the Jews.
Other commentators roughly contemporary to Thomas Newton held to the same view, i.e. that these words of Jesus were fulfilled in 67-70 AD. These included John Wesley (1754), Adam Clarke (1837), C. H. (Charles) Spurgeon (1868), and Philip Schaff (1877). For example, Charles Spurgeon said (“Popular Exposition of Matthew”),
“This portion of our Savior’s words appears to relate solely to the destruction of Jerusalem. As soon as Christ’s disciples saw ‘the abomination of desolation’, that is, the Roman ensigns, with their idolatrous emblems, ‘stand in the holy place’, they knew that the time for them to escape had arrived, and they did ‘flee to the mountains.’ The Christians in Jerusalem and the surrounding towns and villages, ‘in Judea’, availed themselves of the first opportunity for eluding the Roman armies, and fled to the mountain city of Pella, in Perea, where they were preserved from the general destruction which overthrew the Jews.
The Romans came into Jerusalem bearing standards, emblems, and banners with images of their gods and proclamations of the deity of their emperor. B.H. Carroll (1915), in his well-known work, “An Introduction of the English Bible” (1915), related an interesting incident which took place during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 AD). This incident sheds light on what was constituted as such an abomination at this time:
Pilate, at that time Roman Procurator, sent from Caesarea, the seaport of that country on the Mediterranean Sea, a legion of Roman soldiers and had them secretly introduced into the city and sheltered in the tower of Antonio overlooking the Temple, and these soldiers brought with them their ensigns. The Roman sign was a straight staff, capped with a metallic eagle, and right under the eagle was a graven image of Caesar. Caesar claimed to be divine. Caesar exacted divine worship, and every evening when those standards were placed, the Roman legion got down and worshiped the image of Caesar thereof, and every morning at the roll call a part of the parade was for the whole legion to prostrate themselves before that graven image and worship it. The Jews were so horrified when they saw that image and the consequent worship, they went to Pilate, who was at that time living in Caesarea, and prostrated themselves before him and said, ‘Kill us, if you will, but take that abomination of desolation out of our Holy City and from the neighborhood of our holy temple’ (pp. 263-264).
Jesus had told those living in Judea to head to the mountains, predicting such urgency that they weren’t even to grab what was inside their homes. It would be especially difficult for those who were pregnant or nursing. Neither winter (according to Matthew and Mark) nor the Sabbath (said Matthew) would be an ideal time to have to flee. George Peter Holford, in his 1805 book, “The Destruction of Jerusalem, An Absolute and Irresistible Proof of the Divine Origin of Christianity,” notes a very sad situation predicted in the words of Jesus Himself:
The day on which Titus encompassed Jerusalem, was the feast of the Passover; and it is deserving of the very particular attention of the reader, that this was the anniversary of that memorable period in which the Jews crucified their Messiah! At this season multitudes came up from all the surrounding country, and from distant parts, to keep the festival. How suitable and how kind, then, was the prophetic admonition of our LORD, and how clearly he saw into futurity when he said, “Let not them that are in the countries enter into Jerusalem” (Luke 21:21).
Nevertheless, the city was at this time crowded with Jewish strangers, and foreigners from all parts, so that the whole nation may be considered as having been shut up in one prison, preparatory to the execution of the Divine vengeance; and, according to Josephus this event took place suddenly; thus, not only fulfilling the predictions of our LORD, that these calamities should come, like the swift-darting lightning “that cometh out of the east and shineth even unto the West,” and ” as a snare on all of them (the Jews) who dwelt upon the face of the whole earth ” (Matt. 24:27, and Luke 21:35) but justifying, also, his friendly direction, that those who fled from the place should use the utmost possible [speed].
There is also a significant note to be made concerning Jesus’ instructions to pray that their flight from Jerusalem would not be on a Sabbath (Matthew 24:20). Prior to 70 AD the Jews who controlled the city would close the city gates on the Sabbath and there would be no way to escape (See Nehemiah 13:15-22). It’s significant to note that this is not a practice in modern Israel; if it was, it would be helpful to the Futurist view which says that this will happen soon. As one can see from the quotes above, this Futurist view is a new one that doesn’t reflect what has been taught in church history.
Matt. 24:21/Mark 13:19/Luke 21:22-23 – All three writers define this time as one of “great distress.” This is the phrase used in the NIV, quoted above. In most other translations, the phrase used by Matthew and Mark is “great tribulation.” That time would be more distressful than any other time since the world began. Matthew and Mark add that it was “never to be equaled again.” This statement by Jesus is one more indication that the tribulation He spoke of is already past. For if this refers to a supposed end of the world in the future, and not 67-70 AD, why would Jesus say such a thing? It wouldn’t make sense to use the expression “never to be equaled again” when referring to an event that brings humanity to the very end of time. Instead this phrase implies that a significant period of time would follow the great tribulation Jesus spoke of, which makes sense if it took place in the first century. This passage has several parallels in Scripture, as can be seen from the following chart:
|JEREMIAH 30:7||DANIEL 12:1-7||MATTHEW 24:21||LUKE 21:22-23||REVELATION 7:14|
|“Alas! That day is so great there is none like it; it is a time of distress for Jacob;||“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble,||“For then there will be great tribulation,||“Alas… For there will be great distress upon the earth [or ‘this land’] and wrath against this people.”||“And he said to me, ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation’…”|
|“…there is none like it…”||such as never has been since there was a nation till that time.||such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.”|
|yet he shall be saved out of it.”||But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.”|
|“And someone said…, ‘How long shall it be till the end of these wonders?’ And I heard…it would be for a time, times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end all these things would be finished.”||“for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written” (verse 22).|
So among the things which we see are that this tribulation was to be for Israel, it would last for 3.5 years (“time, times, and half a time”) and would end when the power of that people had been shattered (Daniel 12:6-7), and the followers of Christ would experience deliverance. We already saw that God delivered the believers of the first century when they obeyed and fled to Pella. The Roman campaign against Israel did in fact last for 3.5 years, from the time that Nero declared war in February 67 AD and dispatched Vespasian as his general (Revelation 6:2) until Jerusalem fell in August 70 AD (Revelation 18:9-24). This accomplished the shattering of the power of “the holy people” (Daniel’s phrase).
Josephus vindicates the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:21 (“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.”) with his own firsthand report: “If the misfortunes of all nations, from the beginning of the world, were compared with those which befell the Jews, they would appear far less in comparison; No other city ever suffered such things, as no other generation, from the beginning of the world, was ever more fruitful in wickedness.”
Luke, in his account, adds a couple of very revealing expressions, saying that this great distress would be “in the land” and that the wrath would be “against this people.” The phrase “the land” is not only a common expression in Scripture indicating “the promised land” (Israel), but Judea and Jerusalem are explicitly mentioned in verses 20, 21, and 24. Luke’s use of the phrase “this people” is also a clear reference to the Jews who lived in that land, who were left behind because they didn’t flee. Those who view the “great tribulation” as future tend to view it as a worldwide event, but these are very clear indications that this judgment was localized to Israel. We also have highly detailed historical records showing how utterly devastating Israel’s downfall was at this time in history (67 – 70 AD). To learn more, see this fascinating timeline here.
Another profound statement is made by Luke. He says that this time of punishment would be “in fulfillment of all that has been written.” It has been said by some futurists that the preterist (past fulfillment) position is anti-semitic, because it takes away prophetic significance from modern-day Israel and the Jewish people (over and above other peoples). Ironically, though, it’s the futurist position which is looking forward to mass devastation for Israel and the Jewish people, a time which will supposedly be even worse than what took place in 70 AD.
Matt. 24:22/Mark 13:20 – Matthew and Mark record that the destruction during this time of tribulation would be so great that no one would survive if it was allowed to continue for long. This would be done, says Matthew, for the sake of the elect. Jerusalem was under a very tight siege for five months, from April through September 70 AD, before the whole city was burned (Matthew 22:7). The famine became so great that mothers even ate their own babies. Dead bodies were piled everywhere, and those who tried to escape the city were crucified by the Romans at such a rate that Josephus tells us more than one Jew would often be nailed to the same cross.
Luke 21:24 – Luke tells us that many would be killed “by the sword” during this time. This, of course, is indicative of ancient warfare rather than 21st century style warfare. It is this section of Luke’s account (Luke 21:20-24) which many futurists admit took place in the first century. At the same time, they often insist that Luke’s phrase “this generation” in Luke 21:32 means a future (or present) generation which will see all these signs come together at once. This position is highly contradictory, for at least the following reason.
In the previous post, we saw that a number of signs precede “the abomination of desolation” and “great tribulation” in the accounts of Matthew and Mark:  imposters claiming to be Christ  wars and rumors of wars  nations and kingdoms clashing  earthquakes  famines  persecution and martyrdom  betrayal and hatred. Without a doubt, these exact same signs also appear in Luke’s account before Jerusalem is surrounded by armies and there comes a time of “great distress.” According to the Futurist interpretation, then, the above seven signs precede two entirely different time periods; i.e. in Luke they refer to a time period in the first century, and in Matthew and Mark they supposedly refer to our own generation. As we will see in the next post, however, Jesus says in each account that “this generation will not pass away until ALL these things take place.” The Futurist who admits that the “great distress” in Luke 21:20-24 took place from 67-70 AD, but who says that the rest of the prophecy remains unfulfilled, has already stretched out the definition of a generation more than 1900 years.
Luke also speaks of many being taken as prisoners “to all the nations.” We learned from the previous post that when Jesus spoke of all nations (Matt. 24:14, Mark 13:10), this was a reference to the Roman Empire. The same is true here. Josephus tells us that nearly 1.2 million Jews were killed in Jerusalem, and that the Romans carried off 97,000 Jews into international slavery.
Luke tells us that the end of Jerusalem’s trampling by the Gentiles would also be the end of “the times of the Gentiles.” Perhaps the most popular Futurist position is that “the times of the Gentiles” began in 70 AD, that this continues until today (i.e. it’s the Church Age), and that “God’s program with the Jews will one day soon be resumed.” I believe this to be false, and that “the times of the Gentiles” ended in 70 AD instead. Without taking up more space here on this subject, I’d like to point to an article by Mike Blume, whom I believe does an excellent job showing that the times of the Gentiles began with Babylon’s affliction and domination of Israel, followed by that of Medo-Persia and Greece, and finally ending with Rome’s destruction of that nation. He also shows that Luke 21:24 is parallel to both Romans 11:25 and Revelation 11:2, which shows that Jerusalem was to be “trampled underfoot” for 42 months. Again, 42 months = 3.5 years, which is precisely how long Rome took to invade and destroy Jerusalem (February 67 AD – August 70 AD).
Matt. 24:23-26/Mark 13:21-23 – Here Matthew and Mark essentially repeat Jesus’ earlier warning (see previous post) about false prophets and false messiahs. Jesus’ 1st century listeners are told to be on their guard (this really did have meaning for them), because these deceivers would even perform great signs and miracles. As David Chilton reminds us, in his 1987 book, The Days of Vengeance (p. 340),
“The Book of Acts records several instances of miracle-working Jewish false prophets who came into conflict with the Church (cf. Acts 8:9-24) and worked under Roman officials (cf. Acts 13:6-11); as Jesus foretold (Matt. 7:22-23), some of them even used His name in their incantations (Acts 19:13-16).”
Matt. 24:27-28 – Jesus compares His coming (which, again, He promised would take place while some of His disciples were still alive – Matt. 16:27-28) to lightning which comes from the east and is also visible in the west. This statement appears only in Matthew’s account, the only account to have specifically mentioned His coming up until this point (in verse 3). Adam Clarke, in his 1810 commentary on this verse, interpreted it this way:
“It is worthy of remark that our Lord, in the most particular manner, points out the very march of the Roman army: they entered into Judea on the EAST, and carried on their conquest WESTWARD, as if not only the extensiveness of the ruin, but the very route which the army would take, were intended in the comparison of the lightning issuing from the east, and shining to the west.”
Then Jesus adds, “Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.” Some translations say “eagles” instead of “vultures.” George Peter Holford (in 1805) noted that not only was Israel fit to be described as a carcass in 70 AD; being spiritually, politically, and judicially dead; but it was also a curious fact that the eagle was the principal figure on the Roman ensigns which were planted throughout the city of Jerusalem in 70 AD and finally in the temple itself. Albert Barnes, in his commentary on these two verses in 1832, agreed:
“The words in this verse are proverbial. Vultures and eagles easily ascertain where dead bodies are, and come to devour them. So with the Roman army. Jerusalem is like a dead and putrid corpse. Its life is gone, and it is ready to be devoured. The Roman armies will find it out, as the vultures do a dead carcass, and will come around it, to devour it… This verse is connected with the preceding by the word “for,” implying that this is a reason for what is said there, that the Son of man would certainly come to destroy the city, and that he would come suddenly. The meaning is, he would come by means of the Roman armies, as certainly, as suddenly, and as unexpectedly, as whole flocks of vultures and eagles, though unseen before, suddenly find their prey, see it at a great distance, and gather in multitudes around it.”
Quotes to Note
Jonathan Edwards (1736): “Thus there was a final end to the Old Testament world: all was finished with a kind of day of judgment, in which the people of God were saved, and His enemies terribly destroyed.”
Philip Mauro, scholar and US Supreme Court bar lawyer (1859-1952): “It is greatly to be regretted that those who, in our day, give themselves to the study and exposition of prophecy, seem not to be aware of the immense significance of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, which was accompanied by the extinction of Jewish national existence, and the dispersion of the Jewish people among all the nations. The failure to recognize the significance of that event, and the vast amount of prophecy which it fulfilled, has been the cause of great confusion, for the necessary consequence of missing the past fulfillment of predicted events is to leave on our hands a mass of prophecies for which we must needs contrive fulfillments in the future. The harmful results are twofold; for first, we are thus deprived of the evidential value, and the support to the faith, of those remarkable fulfillments of prophecy which are so clearly presented to us in authentic contemporary histories; and second, our vision of things to come is greatly obscured and confused by the transference to the future of predicted events which, in fact, have already happened, and whereof complete records have been preserved for our information.
“Yet, in the face of all this, we have today a widely held scheme of prophetic interpretation, which has for its very cornerstone the idea that, when God’s time to remember His promised mercies to Israel shall at last have come, He will gather them into their ancient land again, only to pour upon them calamities and distresses far exceeding even the horrors which attended the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This is, we are convinced, an error of such magnitude as to derange the whole program of unfulfilled prophecy” (Seventy Weeks and the Great Tribulation, 1921, emphasis added).