The abomination of desolation (Matt 24:15-28)

We’re continuing in our look at Matthew 24, where Jesus is answering his disciples’ question about (a) when the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, and (b) when Christ would come, and the signs of the end of the age. (If you’re just joining us, see the previous two posts for the full story.)

At the bible college I teach at, the staff kitchenette is essentially an altar to fine coffee. (Our Old Testament and Christian Thought lecturer is its high priest, who alone is worthy to plunge.) So you can imagine the horror when one day we discovered that someone had put some sachets of International Roast brand instant (alleged) coffee. It quickly became known as the “abomination of desolation set up where it ought not to be” and necessitated a cleansing ceremony before the kitchenette could again be used for its holy purpose.

Ah, the shenanigans.

Now, of course, we weren’t interpreting this little desecration of our kitchen as the abomination of desolation referred to in Daniel 9 (or the one in Matthew 24, for that matter). We were describing an event in terms of a previous event as a way of drawing out the similarities.

We do this all the time: for example, since Watergate, we now append the word “-gate” to political scandals, describing the new in terms of the old. Or we describe someone’s final, insurmountable challenge as their “Waterloo,” after Napoleon’s decisive defeat.

In Matthew 24:15, Jesus does likewise, describing the future desecration and destruction of the temple (by the Romans, in AD70) in terms of a past desecration, with which his audience would have been familiar:

Matthew 24:15 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—

What was the “abomination that causes desolation” spoken about in the book of Daniel? He mentions it a few times (Dan 8:13; 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). For example:

 

Daniel 11:31 “His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation.

Given the details, and the context in which Daniel was compiled (early second century BC), it seems to refer to the desecration of the temple by the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes. In 167BC, he erected an altar to Zeus in the Jewish temple and sacrificed unclean animals on it. It was interpreted this way in the history book called Maccabees:

1 Maccabees 1:54 Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-fifth year, they erected an abomination that causes desolation on the altar of burnt-offering.

(It was an “abomination” because it was something unclean invading holy space, and caused “desolation” since God’s presence could no longer be in the temple. In the Maccabean revolution, the Jews fought and reclaimed the temple and rededicated it in a now commemorated by Jews as Hanukkah.)

So Jesus is warning his followers to look out for a similar abomination that would lead up to the temple’s being destroyed. This could refer to a number of things that occurred during the war with Rome; probably the setting up of the Roman standard (the eagle) in the temple by Titus, late in 68AD.

In other words, when you see Gentile armies defiling the temple again… get out!

Matthew 24:15-16  “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.

Rather than fight for the temple (like they did during the Maccabean revolution) Jesus is telling them to abandon the city and its temple to destruction. A bit like how Lot and his family fled Sodom. God had decided that Jerusalem should be judged, and his people should flee or get caught up in the destruction.

The third century Christian historian Eusebius records that Christians in Jerusalem fled to the stronghold of Pella in response to a prophecy – quite possibly this one – during the brief break in the siege after Nero’s death. 

Jesus continues, showing the urgency with which they should do this:

Matthew 24:17-20 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. 

Don’t go back to pack, just go! Run! A time difficult for those who can’t move fast (like pregnant women and nursing mothers). A situation that would be made worse by the harsh travelling conditions during winter, or the restrictions in force on the Sabbath (like not riding a horse, and perhaps the city gates even being closed).

Matthew 24:21-22 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.

Although this sounds like the end of the world, it doesn’t have to be read that way: it’s common to use exaggerated language in prophetic speech (see, for example,  Ex 10:14; Dan 12:1; Joel 2:2). And note the recurring theme of God limiting his destructive judgement to protect his people.

Matthew 24:23-26 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. 25 See, 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.

Jesus warns his followers not to be caught up in the messianic fervour that characterised the decades before the fall of Jerusalem: people claiming to be sent by God, but leading the people down the path of rebellion against Rome, and eventual destruction.

Jews expected the messiah would appear in the wilderness (hence their interest in John the Baptist); Jesus warns his followers not to be deceived. Nor should they be caught up with the political and military plotting of the zealots in the inner rooms.

Jesus’ coming would be visible and obvious:

Matthew 24:27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

It’ll be so momentous an event, you’ll even see the carrion birds – today, think news media drones – circling overhead from a long way off:

Matthew 24:28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

(Although the word “vultures” could also be translated “eagles” – which could be a cheeky reference to the gathering Roman army around Jerusalem…)

So what?

Again, we ask, what’s all this got to do with us?

And again, the first answer is more historical and theological: it’s still part of the story of God’s judgement against a city and its people who rejected his rule, and his messiah. Like Sodom, the faithful should abandon it to its fate. The time for defending the city, or looking for more messiahs, has passed.

The second answer is to notice the message to believers caught up in this judgement: although there will be great distress (let’s not sugar-coat this), God still acts in mercy. He provides a warning to flee. He “cuts short” the days of judgement. He warns against potential deception. Even when he’s at work judging his rebellious world, he still looks after his own. Not making them immune from the effects of it, but preserving them in the midst of it. (Interestingly, we see this pattern during the seven seal judgements in Revelation 6 – which are strikingly similar to Jesus’ “birth pains” – where God’s people are sealed for protection, in Revelation 7. More on that tomorrow.)

So even though this isn’t referring directly to our situation, we still serve the same God. As God judges his world by allowing it to reap the consequences of its rebellion against his rule, God protects and preserves us as we endure it.

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