Prophecy is powerful because it tells a story in a very impactful way. Strange images, bizarre sayings, odd symbols—it’s all there, ready to fire the imagination. The medium is so much different than a narrative like Acts, a poem like Song of Solomon, or a lawyerly argument like Romans. It captivates and draws you in, even despite yourself. What does it mean? What’s it saying?

We’re drawn to epics, myths,[1] sweeping origin stories. You might have had to read Iliad and Odyssey in high school, but have you read it since? The modern myth largely exists on film—in the multiplex or via streaming from your couch. Sagas like the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy captivated an entire generation of people around the world. They’re self-contained universes that tell tales of good v. evil, of darkness v. light, of heroes and villains, and of diabolical figures vanquished by good.[2]

In these modern-day myths, there is always a climatic showdown. This is never simply an individual contest (unlike Rocky v. Ivan Drago or Luke Skywalker v. Darth Vader),[3] but rather the fulcrum of an existential struggle against the evil system. Thus, the Lord of the Rings film saga ends with the battle at Minas Tirith and then at the black gates of Mordor. The original Star Wars trilogy ended with the Battle of Endor and the destruction of the second Death Star.

The Christian story has its own epic finale, and it occurs at the end of the great tribulation. Jesus tells some of that story here, in our passage (Matthew 24:15-28). But He also tells another story—actually two at the same time; the first foreshadows the other. Star Wars does something similar.

The Rebel Alliance did indeed destroy a Death Star battle station in the original 1977 film, A New Hope. The Empire has been shattered! Surely, it won’t ever be able to replicate this fearsome weapon. Yet, the opening crawl for the 1983 film Return of the Jedi tells us that “the GALACTIC EMPIRE has secretly begun construction on a new armored space station even more powerful than the first dreaded Death Star …”

You see, that first Death Star was but a foretaste of the more fearsome second Death Star to come. It pointed to it, foreshadowed it, gave a taste of what was ‘comin ‘round the mountain. Something like that is going on here.

This is a series of articles on what Jesus meant in Matthew 24. This article covers Matthew 24:15-28. You can read the introductory article which discussed Matthew 24:1-3, and the article on Matthew 24:4-14, and the one about Matthew 24:29-31. You can also read the entire essay as a single unit here.

Here’s where we are in the passage:

Figure 6.

Jesus speaks of two things at once; a terrible ordeal which will happen soon and another, more definitive contest which occurs much later. I’ve said too much already, so I’ll let the text speak for itself from here on out.

So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

Matthew 24:15-16

Now we’re into the difficult part of Matthew 24. Some take this whole bit (Mt 24:15-22) to refer to the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. Others see it as completely future, indicating the start of the great tribulation. Still others see a blending of both perspectives—usually with the former as a type for the latter. Some minimize Daniel’s context and speculate this “abomination” is a general reference to “every heresy which finds its way into the church.”[4] One scholar suggests this was the desecration of the temple by the Zealot faction during the Jerusalem siege of AD 66-70.[5]  

We ought to lay out the evidence, analyze it fairly to let it speak for itself, and set systems aside when they don’t fit that evidence. Two pieces of evidence are critical here:

  1. What Daniel said. Jesus even inserted a plea for us to read Daniel (“let the reader understand”) to get His point,[6] and
  2. What Mark and Luke say. Either they contradict each other, or we can harmonize them together to form a complete picture. 

The first thing we must do is figure out what “the abomination of desolation” is, so we can figure out what Jesus is saying. He’s likely either referring to Antichrist, or to events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The phrase occurs three times in the prophet Daniel.

The first of these is in Daniel 9:24-27, where the prophet provides a broad sketch of history to come:

  • A period of time which the angel Gabriel identifies as “seventy sevens” is the complete span during which God’s plan will be completed (Dan 9:24).
  • This period of time is triggered by the decree to rebuild Jerusalem by the Persians. There is a dispute about when this precisely happened, but that isn’t important for our purposes here. At this point, the exiles began to return to Israel from Babylon.
  • From the decree to rebuild the temple until the Anointed One (Jesus) arrives on the scene, 69 “sevens” will elapse. The temple will be rebuilt during this period, but in troublesome times (Dan 9:25).
  • After the 69 “sevens,” the Anointed One will be killed, and have nothing. The “people of the ruler who will come” will then destroy Jerusalem and its sanctuary. War will rage on like a flood during this time until it’s all done (Dan 9:26).

Because it happened within a generation of Jesus’ death, this last part seems to refer to the sack of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 (cf. Mt 24:1-2). The “people of the ruler” who will destroy the temple would then be the Romans, with the emperor representing a future Antichrist-like figure and the Romans Empire as a type for the kingdom of darkness—Babylon.

  • This sinister ruler will then confirm a covenant with many for one “seven.” In the vision, we’ve now transitioned from the Roman context to the kingdom of darkness—the ruler is the Antichrist and the time period of the great tribulation. In the middle of this last “seven,” Antichrist will stop religious practices in Jerusalem and erect an idolatrous figure of some sort—an “abomination that causes desolation”—inside the temple for about three and a half years (cf. Dan 12:11-12). This will continue until the Antichrist gets his just desserts and is cast into hell (Dan 9:27; cp. Rev 19:19-20).

Thus ends this great vision which sketches the decisive events of human history in four verses. Because this vision is comprehensive, capturing the entire sweep of history from the announcement of the temple’s reconstruction, through atonement for sin and unto the new tomorrow, this last “seven” is the final act. But, a whole lot of time has passed since the end of the 69th “seven,” whereas this final “seven” hasn’t yet happened—no sinister ruler has yet established a covenant with “many.” It seems Daniel hints at a “gap” between the 69th and 70th “sevens.”

It’s reasonable to conclude that when Daniel refers to “an abomination which causes desolation” here (Dan 9:27), he’s referring to the intentional desecration of a sacred space by the Antichrist.

Daniel mentions this phrase in two other places (Dan 11:31; 12:11). The first of these refers to a Syrian king named Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who persecuted the Jewish people terribly in the last quarter of the 2nd century BC. He erected a pagan altar inside the temple and prefigured the coming Antichrist in his cruelty and hatred (read 1 Maccabees 1). This action sparked the Jewish revolt and resulted in a quasi-independent Jewish kingdom until Rome came onto the scene. The second reference seems to leap forward and refer to the Antichrist himself.

Let’s return to our Matthew passage:

So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

Matthew 24:15-16

So, to which “abomination of desolation” reference is Jesus referring? He’s looking forward to the future, so Antiochus IV Epiphanes is out. It seems Jesus must be referring to Antichrist, and that would mean Jesus is telling Christians to flee when the tribulation begins. But, we must now bring in evidence from Mark and Luke to see if the evidence still points that way:

Notice what Luke does. He wrote his Gospel last, and he’s apparently interpreting Matthew and Mark for his readers.[7] Luke records Jesus as meaning that the “abomination that causes desolation” was the Roman armies which surrounded Jerusalem.[8] The “abomination” would then be Roman military standards invading the city, especially the temple proper. These pennants bore the image of the Roman emperor, who claimed a divine status. This is blasphemy, of course. It is Jerusalem’s desolation to which Luke refers, and this means it’s what Mark and Matthew meant, too.[9]  

Some might object that Luke could just as easily be referring to Antichrist’s armies encompassing Jerusalem to destroy it, but this event just doesn’t occur in any reasonable timeline. Antichrist does indeed gather an army to meet Jesus at his second advent but is defeated in quick order—Jerusalem is not destroyed (Rev 19:19). Likewise, Satan later raises an army to have a go where his minion failed but he is incinerated by a divine fireball (Rev 20:9). Again, Jerusalem is untouched.

Luke said Jerusalem’s “desolation was near,” (Lk 21:20). The word means destruction of the city—it will be laid waste.[10] This is precisely what both Antichrist and Satan will later fail to accomplish, yet it is exactly what Titus accomplished in AD 70. Josephus tells us:

There was no one left for the soldiers to kill or plunder, not a soul on which to vent their fury; for mercy would never have made them keep their hands off anyone if action was possible. So Caesar now ordered them to raze the whole City and Sanctuary to the ground … [a]ll the rest of the fortifications encircling the City were so completely leveled with the ground that no one visiting the spot would believe it had once been inhabited. This then was the end to which the mad folly of revolutionaries brought Jerusalem, a magnificent city renowned to the ends of the earth.[11]

So, we’re left with the conclusion that Jesus refers to the Roman sack of Jerusalem in AD 70. It’s also more than just that, but we’ll get there in a bit.

Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.

Matthew 24:17-20

When the Romans attack Jerusalem, Jesus says everyone must run. Immediately. Get out. Don’t stop to grab some valuables. Just flee. His reference to the Sabbath supports a reference to AD 70—“Jesus clearly expects these events to take place while the strict Sabbath law is in effect.”[12] Some Jews would be reluctant to help on the sabbath, fearful of incurring religious condemnation even as Rome’s armies massed against the city.[13] Some Christians believe this “Sabbath” reference points to some future time when the temple has been re-built, but Matthew says nothing about that.

Why does Jesus say this? Why such dire warnings?

For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.

Matthew 24:21; cp. Daniel 12:1

This sounds pretty bad. But, God has said things like “this has never happened before” when, in fact, it had happened (cp. Josh 10:14 with Ex 8:13, Num 14:20; 2 Kgs 6:18)![14] This suggests Jesus’ words here don’t have to be literal—it may just be a colloquial way of saying “this will be really, really bad.” We do similar things when we tell someone that a certain thing was “the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.” We say that, but is it really the craziest thing? Probably not. Some interpreters suggest Jesus is using hyperbole for deliberate effect, but this is unlikely.[15]

If Jesus is primarily referring to the events of AD 66-70, when Jerusalem was destroyed, then was this really the worst period of time “from the beginning of the world until now”? The Jewish historian Josephus was present with the Roman armies at the siege of Jerusalem and tells us all about it.

It was a terrible time. Civil war had torn the city into three Jewish factions (a “suicidal strife between rival gangsters”)[16] and war broke out during Passover when the city was filled to the brim with Jewish pilgrims. One faction controlled the temple courts, while two others held the city and the larger temple complex. Josephus tells us terrified worshippers were cut down by a hail of projectiles as they ran for the sanctuary. Blood collected in pools in the courtyards. The city became “a desolate no man’s land” as guerilla warfare raged on.

The Romans did not show up as evil conquers, but arrived under the aegis of, as it were, the “Federal government” come to restore order to a city within its jurisdiction that was destroying itself. Bit by bit, the Roman general Titus conquered Jerusalem in a multi-year siege. Josephus tells of one Jewish woman named Mary, driven mad by hunger, who killed her infant son, roasted him, ate one half of him and saved the rest for later[17] (cp. Deut 28:53-57). The temple itself was destroyed by fire in a frenzy of rage by Roman legionnaires who ignored their commander’s orders.

All the prisoners taken from beginning to end of the war totalled 97,000; those who perished in the long siege 1,100,000 … No destruction ever wrought by God or man approached the wholesale carnage of this war.[18]

By all accounts Josephus wasn’t the most honorable man in the world, but he was there. He witnessed the whole thing. But, can we fairly say the sack of Jerusalem was really the worst event in the world? One thinks of the German siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. For a time, the city’s only supply line to friendly Soviet forces during the brutal Russian winter was across a frozen lake. The siege lasted nearly 900 days and, by some accounts, perhaps 1,500,000 people perished. Just as during the siege of Jerusalem so many years before, it’s likely that starving citizens resorted to cannibalism—stories were whispered about children disappearing.

While Titus’ siege of Jerusalem lasted longer, we’re at least speaking of comparable tragedies. It seems reasonable to take Jesus’ words in Mt 24:21 as referring to Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans armies.[19] But, Jesus’ pivot to His own second advent a few verses hence suggest Titus and his Romans legions don’t exhaust vv. 15-21’s meaning.[20]

In other words, Mt 24:15-21 refers to both (1) Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans, which squares with Jesus’ announcement of the temple’s destruction that started this entire conversation (Mt 24:1-2), and (2) the Antichrist’s brief reign as the ruler of the kingdom of darkness (Rev 13), later depicted by the Apostle John as Babylon (Rev 17-18). There is both a near and far fulfillment.[21] Jesus began with (1) birth pangs of persecution against the church, (2) then told of sharply escalating hostility because the church represents Jesus, to (3) the fall of Jerusalem as a type for the coming kingdom of evil via the Antichrist.

This typology is the best way to understand Jesus’ unmistakable pivot to the distant future in vv. 29-31.

If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.

Matthew 24:22

Some say “those days” Jesus speaks about here refer to (1) the specific events in vv. 15-21,[22] or perhaps (2) the entire chain of events stretching from the birth pangs to the end of the Antichrist’s brief reign (vv. 4-21; cp. v. 29).[23] I believe it’s easiest to continue the typological theme and say v. 22 refers to the siege of Jerusalem in AD 66-70, which foreshadows the seven year great tribulation in the future.

On False Alarms and Bogus Messiahs (vv. 23-28)

At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time.

Matthew 24:23-25

Jesus warns that during this this awful time—the Jerusalem siege of AD 66-70 which foreshadows the tribulation—everyone will surely die … unless He preserves His community through it all. This suggests Christians will endure the tribulation at some point in the future. There will be false sightings of the Messiah. Charlatans and Satan-empowered teachers will lead people astray.

“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. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

Matthew 24:26-28

Jesus words are just a continuation of the same, with a folksy analogy for good measure. Just as circling vultures unmistakably mark the spot of a dead creature, so too will Messiah’s coming be obvious and clear. It won’t be necessary to speculate about when Messiah will arrive, because it will be as unmistakable as lightning in the night sky. It’s no accident that Jesus refers to Himself here as “the Son of Man.” This is the figure whom the Ancient of Days crowns as eternal king in Daniel 7 just after the beast (i.e. Antichrist) is slain and tossed into the burning fire (Dan 7:7-13; cp. Rev 17:11-14). Likewise, in Jesus’ own chronology the Son of Man will appear to destroy Antichrist and establish His kingdom (Rev 19:19-21) just as the great tribulation plumbs new depths of evil.

The typology or prefiguring still holds. This is advice both for the residents of Jerusalem about 40 years hence, and for believers enduring the great tribulation sometime in the distant future.

Notice again that there is nothing here about Jesus returning twice, once to rapture the Church out of this world, and again to establish the kingdom. Jesus only tells of one single return.

[1] Oxford English Dictionary (online), s.v. “myth,” noun, no. 1a, (accessed March 11, 2023). “A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.”

[2] One theologian suggests the popularity of these stories is a Gospel echo from people who otherwise have no “script” into which to slot deeper human themes. See Joshua Chatraw, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020). 

[3] See Rocky IV and Return of the Jedi, respectively. 

[4] This is from an anonymous commentator. See Simonetti, Matthew, in ACCS, pp. 191-192. 

[5] Alford, New Testament, p. 1:165.

[6] I think Carson is correct to see the “let the reader understand” as Jesus’ remark for folks who read Daniel to pay close attention (Matthew, p. 500). However, many see it as Matthew’s editorial insertion. 

[7] Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, trans. H. de Jongste (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1962), p. 492. 

[8] Robertson, Word Pictures, Mt 24:15; Johann Albrecht Bengel, Gnomon of the New Testament, vol. 1, ed. M. Ernest Bengel and J. C. F. Steudel, trans. James Bryce (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1860), p. 1:420. A.B. Bruce writes, “The horror is the Roman army, and the thing to be dreaded and fled from is not any religious outrage it may perpetrate, but the desolation it will inevitably bring,” (“Synoptic Gospels,” in Expositor’s Testament, p. 1:292). Bruce doesn’t see the Roman military standards themselves as the desolating sacrilege, but he’s on the same basic page as me.

[9] R.T. France suggests this abomination cannot be the Roman military standards invading the temple, because by then it would be too late for people to flee (Matthew, p. 913). It’s unnecessary to see the abomination as being actuated the very moment the ensign enters the temple compound. It’s enough to see the phrase as referring to the general siege and conquest of the whole city.

[10] See (1) G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1937), s.v. “ἐρήμωσις,” p. 179, (2) Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), p. 172, (3) Walter Bauer, Frederick Danker (et al), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), p. 392.

[11] Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. G.A. Williamson, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1969), 7:1 (p. 361). Chrysostom suggests, “And let not any man suppose this to have been spoken hyperbolically; but let him study the writings of Josephus, and learn the truth of the sayings. For neither can any one say, that the man being a believer, in order to establish Christ’s words, hath exaggerated the tragical history,” (“Homily 76,” in NPNF 1.10, p. 457).

[12] Carson, Matthew, p. 501. 

[13] See Grant Osborne, Matthew, in Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010; kindle ed.), KL 23617, and Chrysostom, “Homily 75,” in NPNF 1.10, p. 457. 

[14] Keener, Bible Backgrounds, p. 108. Broadus, writing in 1886, suggests the siege of Jerusalem really was the worst thing which has ever happened (Matthew, p. 488).

[15] France, Matthew, p. 915.

[16] From G.A. Williamson’s introduction to Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. G.A. Williamson, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1969), p. 7. 

[17] Josephus, The Jewish War, 6:199-219 (pp. 341-342). 

[18] Josephus, The Jewish War, 6:420f. See ch(s). 13-21 (i.e. 3:422 – 6:429).

[19] Broadus, Matthew, p. 486.  

[20] Ridderbos, Kingdom, pp. 493-497. Henry Alford remarks, “Our Lord still has in view the prophecy of Daniel (ch. 12:1), and this citation clearly shews the intermediate fulfilment, by the destruction of Jerusalem, of that which is yet future in its final fulfilment: for Daniel is speaking of the end of all things,” (New Testament, p. 1:166).

[21] Osborne, Matthew, KL 23639. Broadus remarks that vv.15f “apparently refers both to the destruction of Jerusalem and to the final coming of Christ,” (Matthew, p. 485). Glasscock, a dispensationalist, also agrees (Matthew, pp. 468-471).

[22] Osborne, Matthew, KL 23639.

[23] D.A. Carson, Matthew, in EBC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), pp. 502-503; Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, in Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), pp. 605-606; contra. Broadus, Matthew, p. 488. Craig Blomberg defines this entire period as the “great tribulation.” He writes, “Far from this age being a millennium, as in traditional amillennialism, the New Testament era in which we have been living is better characterized as tribulation for believers,” (Matthew, in New American Commentary, vol. 22 (Nashville: B&H, 1992),p. 359).

2 thoughts on “Gangsters and Abominations of Desolation

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