This is now the fifth video in our series on Matthew 24.
Do you recognize this musical refrain?
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, well, you might find
You get what you need…
Rolling Stones, right? It’s very true.
The disciples wanted to know the sign of Christ’s presence, but they weren’t going to get what they wanted. They were going to get what they needed; and what they needed was a way to save themselves from what was to come. They were going to face the greatest tribulation their nation had ever experienced, or would ever experience again. Their survival would require they recognize the sign Jesus gave them, and that they have the faith needed to follow his instructions.
So, we now come to the part of the prophecy where Jesus actually answers their question, “When will all these things be?” (Matthew 24:3; Mark 13:4; Luke 21:7)
While all three accounts differ from one another in many ways, they all begin with Jesus answering the question with the same opening phrase:
“When therefore you shall see…” (Matthew 24:15)
“When then you see…” (Mark 13:14)
“When then you see…” (Luke 21:20)
The adverb “therefore” or “then” is used to show a contrast between what went before and what comes now. Jesus has finished giving them all the warnings they will need leading up to this moment, but none of those warnings constituted a sign or signal to action. Jesus is about to give them that sign. Matthew and Mark refer to it cryptically for a non-Jew who would not have known Bible prophecy like a Jew would, but Luke leaves no doubt as to the meaning of Jesus’ warning sign.
“Therefore, when you catch sight of the disgusting thing that causes desolation, as spoken about by Daniel the prophet, standing in a holy place (let the reader use discernment),” (Mt 24:15)
“However, when you catch sight of the disgusting thing that causes desolation standing where it should not be (let the reader use discernment), then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains.” (Mr 13:14)
“However, when you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies, then know that the desolating of her has drawn near.” (Lu 21:20)
It is most likely that Jesus used the term, “disgusting thing”, that Matthew and Mark relate, because to a Jew versed in the law, having read it and heard it read every Sabbath, there would be no doubt what constituted a “disgusting thing causing desolation.” Jesus refers to the scrolls of Daniel the prophet which contain multiple references to a disgusting thing, or the desolation of the city and the temple. (See Daniel 9:26, 27; 11:31; and 12:11.)
We are interested particularly in Daniel 9:26, 27 which reads in part:
“…And the people of a leader who is coming will destroy the city and the holy place. And its end will be by the flood. And until the end there will be war; what is decided upon is desolations….And on the wing of disgusting things there will be the one causing desolation; and until an extermination, what was decided on will be poured out also on the one lying desolate.”” (Da 9:26, 27)
We can thank Luke for clarifying for us what the disgusting thing causing desolation refers to. We can only speculate why Luke decided not to use the same term that Matthew and Mark used, but one theory has to do with his intended audience. He opens his account by saying: “. . .I resolved also, because I have traced all things from the start with accuracy, to write them to you in logical order, most excellent Theophilus. . .” (Luke 1:3) Unlike the other three gospels, Luke’s was written for one individual in particular. The same goes for the entire book of Acts which Luke opens with “The first account, O Theophilus, I composed about all the things Jesus started to do and to teach. ” (Ac 1:1)
The honorific “most excellent” and the fact that Acts concludes with Paul under arrest in Rome has led some to suggest that Theophilus was a Roman official connected with Paul’s trial; possibly his lawyer. Whatever the case, if the account was to be used in his trial, it would hardly help his appeal to refer to Rome as “a disgusting thing” or an “abomination”. Saying that Jesus foretold that Jerusalem would be surrounded by armies would be far more acceptable for Roman officials to hear.
Daniel refers to “the people of a leader” and “the wing of disgusting things”. Jews hated idols and pagan idol worshippers, so the pagan Roman army bearing its idol standard, an eagle with outstretched wings laying siege to the holy city and trying to make incursion through the temple gate, would be a true abomination.
And what were the Christians to do when the saw the desolating abomination?
“then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains. Let the man on the housetop not come down to take the goods out of his house, and let the man in the field not return to pick up his outer garment.” (Matthew 24:16-18)
“. . ., then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains. Let the man on the housetop not come down nor go inside to take anything out of his house; and let the man in the field not return to the things behind to pick up his outer garment.” (Mark 13:14-16)
So, when they see a disgusting thing they must flee immediately and with great urgency. However, do you notice something seemingly odd about the instruction Jesus gives? Let’s look at it again as Luke describes it:
“However, when you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies, then know that the desolating of her has drawn near. Then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains, let those in the midst of her leave, and let those in the countryside not enter into her,” (Luke 21:20, 21)
How exactly were they supposed to comply with this command? How do you escape from a city that’s already surrounded by the enemy? Why didn’t Jesus give them more detail? There is an important lesson for us in this. We rarely have all the information we want. What God wants is for us to trust him, to have confidence that he has our back. Faith isn’t about believing in God’s existence. It’s about believing in his character.
Of course, everything Jesus foretold, came to pass.
In 66 C. E., the Jews revolted against Roman rule. General Cestius Gallus was sent to quell the rebellion. His army surrounded the city and prepared the temple gate to be breached by fire. The disgusting thing in the holy place. All this happened so swiftly that the Christians didn’t have a chance to flee the city. In fact, the Jews were so overwhelmed by the speed of the Roman advance that they were ready to surrender. Note this eyewitness account from Jewish historian Flavius Josephus:
“and now it was that a horrid fear seized upon the seditious, insomuch that many of them ran out of the city, as though it were to be taken immediately; but the people upon this took courage, and where the wicked part of the city gave ground, thither did they come, in order to set open the gates, and to admit Cestius as their benefactor, who, had he but continued the siege a little longer, had certainly taken the city; but it was, I suppose, owing to the aversion God had already at the city and the sanctuary, that he was hindered from putting an end to the war that very day.
It then happened that Cestius was not conscious either how the besieged despaired of success, nor how courageous the people were for him; and so he recalled his soldiers from the place, and by the despairing of any expectation of taking it, without having received any disgrace, he retired from the city, without any reason in the world.”
(The Wars of the Jews, Book II, chapter 19, pars. 6, 7)
Just imagine the consequences had Cestius Gallus not withdrawn. The Jews would have surrendered and the city with its temple would have been spared. Jesus would have been a false prophet. Not going to happen ever. The Jews were not going to escape the condemnation the Lord pronounced upon them for spilling all the righteous blood from Abel onward, right down to his own blood. God had judged them. Sentence would be served.
The retreat under Cestius Gallus fulfilled Jesus’ words.
“In fact, unless those days were cut short, no flesh would be saved; but on account of the chosen ones those days will be cut short.” (Matthew 24:22)
“In fact, unless Jehovah had cut short the days, no flesh would be saved. But on account of the chosen ones whom he has chosen, he has cut short the days.” (Mark 13:20)
Notice again a parallel with Daniel’s prophecy:
“…And during that time your people will escape, everyone who is found written down in the book.” (Daniel 12:1)
Christian historian Eusebius records that they seized the opportunity and fled to the mountains to the city of Pella and elsewhere beyond the Jordan river.[i] But the inexplicable withdrawal seems to have had another effect. It emboldened the Jews, who harassed the retreating Roman army and had a great victory. Thus, when the Romans eventually returned to besiege the city, there was not talk of surrendering. Instead, a kind of madness seized the populous.
Jesus foretold that great tribulation would come upon this people.
“. . .for then there will be great tribulation such as has not occurred since the world’s beginning until now, no, nor will occur again.” (Matthew 24:21)
“. . .for those days will be days of a tribulation such as has not occurred from the beginning of the creation that God created until that time, and will not occur again.” (Mark 13:19)
“. . .For there will be great distress on the land and wrath against this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive into all the nations; . . .” (Luke 21:23, 24)
Jesus told us to use discernment and look to the prophecies of Daniel. One in particular is relevant to the prophecy involving great tribulation or as Luke puts it, great distress.
“…And there will occur a time of distress such as has not occurred since there came to be a nation until that time….” (Daniel 12:1)
Here is where things get muddled. Those who have a penchant for wanting to predict the future read more into the following words than is there. Jesus said that such a tribulation “has not occurred since the world’s beginning until now, no, nor will occur again.” They reason that a tribulation that befell Jerusalem, as bad as it was, is no comparison in scope or magnitude to what happened in the first and second world wars. They might also point to the Holocaust which, according to records, killed 6 million Jews; a greater number than died in the first century in Jerusalem. Therefore, they reason that Jesus was referring to some other tribulation far greater than what happened to Jerusalem. They look to Revelation 7:14 were John sees a great crowd standing before the throne in heaven and is told by the angel, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation…”.
“Aha! They exclaim. See! The same words are used—“great tribulation”—so it must refer to the same event. My friends, brothers and sisters, this is very shaky reasoning upon which to build an entire end-times prophetic fulfillment. First of all, Jesus doesn’t use the definite article when answering the question of the disciples. He doesn’t call it “the great tribulation” as if there is only one. It is just “great tribulation”.
Second, the fact that a similar phrase is used in Revelation doesn’t mean anything. Otherwise, we’d have to tie in this passage from Revelation as well:
“‘Nevertheless, I do hold [this] against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and misleads my slaves to commit fornication and to eat things sacrificed to idols. And I gave her time to repent, but she is not willing to repent of her fornication. Look! I am about to throw her into a sickbed, and those committing adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds.” (Revelation 2:20-22)
However, those promoting the idea of a secondary, major fulfillment will point to the fact that he says this great tribulation will never occur again. They would reason then that since worse tribulations than what befell Jerusalem have occurred, he must be referring to something even greater. But hold on a minute. They’re forgetting the context. The context speaks of only one tribulation. It doesn’t speak of a minor and a major fulfillment. There is nothing to indicate there is some antitypical fulfillment. The context is very specific. Look again at Luke’s words:
“there will be great distress on the land and wrath against this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive into all the nations”. (Luke 21:23, 24)
It is speaking about the Jews, period. And that is exactly what happened to the Jews.
“But that doesn’t make sense,” some will say. “Noah’s flood was a greater tribulation than what happened to Jerusalem, so how could Jesus words be true?”
You and I did not say those words. Jesus said those words. So, what we think he means doesn’t count. We have to figure out what he actually meant. If we accept the premise that Jesus cannot lie nor contradict himself, then we have to look a little deeper to resolve the apparent conflict.
Matthew records him saying, “there will be great tribulation such as has not occurred since the world’s beginning”. What world? The world of mankind, or the world of Judaism?
Mark choses to render his words this way: “a tribulation such as has not occurred from the beginning of the creation.” What creation? The creation of the universe? The creation of the planet? The creation of the world of mankind? Or the creation of the nation of Israel?
Daniel says, “a time of distress such as has not occurred since there came to be a nation” (Da 12:1). What nation? Any nation? Or the nation of Israel?
The only thing that works, that allows us to understand Jesus words as accurate and truthful is to accept that he was speaking within the context of the nation of Israel. Was the tribulation that came upon them the worst they as a nation had ever experienced?
Judge for yourself. Here are just a few highlights:
When Jesus was taken to be crucified he paused to say to the women who were weeping for him, “daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but for yourselves, and for your children. (Luke 23:28). He could see the horrors that would come upon the city.
After Cestius Gallus retreated, another General was sent. Vespasian returned in 67 CE and captured Flavius Josephus. Josephus won the general’s favour by predicting accurately that he would become Emperor which he did some two years later. Because of this, Vespasian appointed him to a place of honor. During this time, Josephus made an extensive record of the Jewish/Roman war. With the Christians safely gone in 66 C.E., there was no reason for God to hold back. The city descended into anarchy with organized gangs, violent zealots and criminal elements causing great distress. The Romans didn’t return to Jerusalem directly, but concentrated on other places like Palestine, Syria, and Alexandria. Thousands of Jews died. This explains Jesus warning for those in Judea to flee when they saw the disgusting thing. Eventually the Romans came to Jerusalem and surrounded the city. Those who tried to escape the siege were either caught by the zealots and had their throats slit, or by the Romans who nailed them to crosses, as many as 500 a day. Famine seized the city. There was chaos and anarchy and civil war inside the city. Stores that should have kept them going for years were torched by opposing Jewish forces to keep the other side from having them. The Jews descended into cannibalism. Josephus records that opinion that the Jews did more to harm each other than did the Romans. Imagine living under that terror day after day, from your own people. When the Romans finally entered the city, they went mad and slaughtered people indiscriminately. Less than one out of every 10 Jews survived. The temple was torched despite Titus’ order to preserve it. When Titus finally entered the city and saw the fortifications, he realized that if they had held together they could have kept the Romans out for a very long time. This caused him to say perceptively:
“We have certainly had God for our existence in this war, and it was no other than God that ejected the Jews under these fortifications; for what could the hands of men, or any machines, do toward overthrowing these towers![ii]
The Emperor then ordered Titus to raze the city to the ground. Thus, Jesus words about a stone not being left upon a stone came true.
The Jews lost their nation, their temple, their priesthood, their records, their very identity. This was truly the worst tribulation every to occur to the nation, surpassing even the Babylonian exile. Nothing like it will ever occur to them again. We are not talking about individual Jews, but the nation which was God’s chosen people until they killed his son.
What do we learn from this? The writer of Hebrews tells us:
“For if we practice sin willfully after having received the accurate knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice for sins left, but there is a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a burning indignation that is going to consume those in opposition. Anyone who has disregarded the Law of Moses dies without compassion on the testimony of two or three. How much greater punishment do you think a person will deserve who has trampled on the Son of God and who has regarded as of ordinary value the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and who has outraged the spirit of undeserved kindness with contempt? For we know the One who said: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again: “Jehovah will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:26-31)
Jesus is loving and merciful, but we must remember that he is the image of God. Therefore, Jehovah is loving and merciful. We know Him by knowing His Son. However, being the image of God means reflecting all his attributes, not just the warm, fuzzy ones.
Jesus is depicted in Revelation as a warrior King. When the New World Translation says: “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay’, says Jehovah”, it is not rendering the Greek accurately. (Romans 12:9) What it actually says is, “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay’, says the Lord.” Jesus isn’t sitting on the sidelines, but is the instrument that the Father uses to exact vengeance. Remember: the man that welcomed young children into his arms, also fashioned a whip from ropes and drove the money lenders out of the temple—twice! (Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 9:36; John 2:15)
What is my point? I’m speaking not only to Jehovah’s Witnesses now, but to every religious denomination that feels that their particular brand of Christianity is the one that God has chosen as his very own. Witnesses believe that their organization is the only one chosen by God out of all of Christendom. But the same can be said for pretty much every other denomination out there. Each one believes theirs is the true religion, otherwise why would they remain in it?
Nevertheless, there is one thing we can all agree upon; one thing which is undeniable for all who believe the Bible: that is that the nation of Israel was God’s chosen people out of all the peoples on earth. It was, in essence, God’s church, God’s congregation, God’s organization. Did that save them from the most horrific tribulation imaginable?
If we think that membership has its privileges; if we think that affiliation with an organization or a church grants us some special get-out-of-jail-free card; then we are deceiving ourselves. God did not just punish individuals in the nation of Israel. He eradicated the nation; erased their national identity; razed their city to the ground as if a flood had swept through just as Daniel predicted; made them into a pariah. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
If we want Jehovah to smile favourably on us, if we want our Lord, Jesus to stand up for us, then we must take a stand for what is right and true no matter the cost to ourselves.
Remember what Jesus told us:
“Everyone, then, that confesses union with me before men, I will also confess union with him before my Father who is in the heavens; but whoever disowns me before men, I will also disown him before my Father who is in the heavens. Do not think I came to put peace upon the earth; I came to put, not peace, but a sword. For I came to cause division, with a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a young wife against her mother-in-law. Indeed, a man’s enemies will be persons of his own household. He that has greater affection for father or mother than for me is not worthy of me; and he that has greater affection for son or daughter than for me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not accept his torture stake and follow after me is not worthy of me. He that finds his soul will lose it, and he that loses his soul for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:32-39)
What is left to discuss from Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21? A great deal. We haven’t talked about the signs in the sun, moon, and stars. We haven’t discussed the presence of Christ. We touched on the link some feel exists between “great tribulation” mentioned here and “the great tribulation” recorded in Revelation. Oh, and there’s also the singular mention of the “appointed times of the nations”, or “the gentile times” from Luke . All of that will be the subject of our next video.
Thank you so much for watching and for your support.
[i] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III, 5:3
[ii] The Wars of the Jews, chapter 8:5