The Abomination of Desolation

Jesus’s disciples have asked when the end of the Temple will come, when will not one stone be left upon another? When will Christ judge Jerusalem? Jesus has already made it clear that the judgment upon Jerusalem will happen within their lifetimes (Matthew 23:36). He will repeat His timeframe in Matthew 24:34. He is revealing the warning signs that will indicate the time of judgment so that those who listen to Him can flee the city and be saved—some physically and some spiritually.

  Jesus continues:

Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. Whoever is on the housetop must not go down to get the things out that are in his house. Whoever is in the field must not turn back to get his cloak. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! But pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath. For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will (Matthew 24:15-21).

In Daniel 9:27; 11:31; and 12:11, we see the Prophet’s prediction of an abomination of desolation. Jesus is here declaring that it will be set up and the sacrifices of the Temple will be stopped. The abomination of desolation will be set up, and the Temple will be destroyed. The generation standing before Him will witness this horrifying event. He tells them that, when they see this warning sign, they need to flee into the mountains without returning to their homes or fields because there will be great tribulation at that time—such tribulation the world has never and will never again see. Pregnant and nursing women will find life very difficult. Winter will make the flight from Jerusalem into the mountains harsh. On the Sabbath, the Temple would be full of people who would doubtless perish as the great idol is being set up.

So, Jesus places the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy in the First Century, within the generation standing before Him as He teaches. Jesus also states that this event is the greatest tribulation there had ever been or ever would be after that throughout the whole of the world. Nero, who will be Emperor until AD 68, will be notorious for burning Christians in his garden, having Christians slain in Roman theaters, crucifying Christians, and oppressing Christians under Roman Law for being too revolutionary. One Roman Historian, Tacitus, Describes Christians and their treatment under Nero:

“But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called “Chrestians” by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all (Christians) who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44).

While I couldn’t find a number of Jews or Christians likely killed under Nero, Nero’s notoriety stemmed from his murder of his mother and sister, the political murders of senators in Rome who spoke against him, and the massacre of people groups who did not worship him as a god. Considering the Jewish revolt, which began in AD 66 under Nero, the death toll likely rivaled the holocaust. According to Roman and later Christian sources alike, Nero outperformed Hitler, Stalin, and Kim Jung Un. This man regularly plans orgies and watches his enemies be shredded by viscous dogs—such a persecution that was worse than any tribulation before and any tribulation after, especially for people who refused to worship him. We can trust Jesus’s words—never again will there be quite a tribulation as leads up to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

When Nero is assassinated in AD 68, Vespasian, who is crushing the Jewish revolt in several territories, is called upon to succeed Nero as Emperor. He appoints Titus to lead the Roman campaign in the Jewish territories. Josephus records what Romans found upon entering Jerusalem after their siege, slaying the people within her walls, and setting fire to her structures. They found corpses of people killed by famine and evidence of desperate cannibalism. Entire families died together of hunger or pestilence. They found many of the upper rooms full of dead men (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 6.8.403). Titus took 97,000 prisoners of war to be enslaved or participate in “the theater” (slaughtering games). Throughout the siege, he killed 1,100,000—that is just over ⅙ of the number of Jews killed throughout the entire holocaust in one event (Ibid. 6.9.420). Imagine the death toll from AD 64-70 throughout all the Roman territories, unimaginable horrors worse than Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. Upon the burning of the Temple, Titus offered his sacrifice to Mars, the Roman god of war (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, William Whiston, A.M., Ed. 6.6.1)—the abomination of desolation predicted by Daniel and Jesus being placed in the First Century just like Jesus is predicting in Matthew 24. What a disgrace to have a pig burned at the Temple as the Temple burns to the ground. What’s worse, Titus claims that the Jewish and Christian God is on the side of Rome—else it would not have been so easy to penetrate Jerusalem’s wall. 

Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance. So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them. For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather (Matthew 24:22-28).

Jesus now speaks about this event, which is future for Him, in the past tense. It is already decided that the days of tribulation and the siege of Jerusalem will be cut short. If God does not make the siege go quickly, no lives will be spared—the death toll will be more than 1,100,000. God is cutting those days short for the sake of the elect (a term meaning the chosen). God cares for His people. Though there must be tribulation, God intervenes to save His people physically because He cares for them. Even this great tribulation is not as bad as it could be because God’s intentions are kind. He is both just and kind. He truly will aid Rome so that the siege will be quick and not drag on so to prevent the death of everyone in Jerusalem. Titus was not incorrect in saying God must have aided them. 

Jesus tells His disciples not to listen if anyone claims to be the Christ. There will be no deliverance for Jerusalem or the Temple from destruction. Jesus does not want His disciples getting involved in a pointless war when the outcome has already been decided as a matter of divine judgment against Jerusalem. False Christ’s and false prophets will mislead many by their signs. Those people will die horrifying deaths within the walls of Jerusalem or embattled against Rome. Do not believe anyone who says he has come to deliver you from Rome. If possible, though, these false deliverers (appointed ones), will mislead even the elect. They will not flee to the mountains. They will either be slaughtered in Jerusalem or captivated for slavery or Rome’s death games. Jesus is telling them 40 years in advance so that they will not be misled when the time comes (Matthew 24:4).

Just as the lightning flashes, so is the coming of the Son of Man, an Old Testament phrase referring to God’s judgment on worldly people like those in Sodom and Gomorrah at the times of their swift destruction. When God judges a nation, it is swift like lightning. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. At this point, Jerusalem is a corpse and Rome is the vulture. Rome is coming. Be ready to flee to the mountains. Destruction will be swift.

There are many people who use Matthew 24 to predict some judgment in our future even though Jesus provided the time for His predictions to be fulfilled (Matthew 23:36; 24:34). I don’t feel a need to argue against a future tribulation or judgment, but Jesus is describing a First Century tribulation, not the end of the world from our Twenty-First Century perspective. Yet, the application for our lives remains the same. Jesus is the just judge. We seek to honor Him with our lives. He desires to save His people. He does not desire His people to suffer under tribulation. Even if we must go through some tribulation, God cares to cut it short because He is not only just, but also compassionate and merciful. Further, we see a promise to be encouraged by in our time. Jesus is so saving the world; we can be optimistic about our futures rather than pessimistic. If there will never again be a tribulation as terrible as the Roman persecution under Nero, then we can be confident that God is keeping the promise He made to Noah—never again to destroy the earth on account of people (Genesis 8:21). In fact, He is making all things new—saving the world rather than condemning it (cf. John 3:17). One day, this former way of things shall altogether pass away (Revelation 21:1). God is good.

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