2. THE ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION — FUTURE OR FULFILLED?
Concerning our Lord’s statement about the destruction of the temple, the disciples asked: “WHEN shall these things be? and WHAT SIGN will there be when these things shall come to pass?” (Luke 21:7). As we have seen, Jesus mentioned things of a general nature that would come to pass first. Now he gives THE sign — a specific sign that would let them know that Jerusalem was about to be destroyed. He said that they would see “the abomination of desolation” and when they saw this, they were to quickly flee, for the desolation of the city would be nigh.
Matthew: “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 that be in Judaea flee into the mountains” (24:15,16).
Mark: “When ye shall see the abomination of desolations spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not, (let him that readeth understand,) then let them that be in Judaea flee to the mountains” (13:14).
Luke: “When ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains . . . Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles” (21:20,21,24).
Now, step by step, let us notice what we are told in these parallel accounts:
1. We notice where Matthew and Mark record: ‘When ye shall see the abomination of DESOLATION . . . then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains”, Luke, in speaking of exactly the same thing, says: “When ye see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the DESOLATION thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains.” We see, then, that it was JERUSALEM that would become a DESOLATION.
We notice also that this “desolation” was that “which was spoken by Daniel the prophet.” Turning to Daniel 9, we find the passage in which Daniel spoke of this destruction: “And the people of the prince that shall come shall DESTROY the city and the sanctuary” (Dan. 9:26).
Therefore, by comparing the parallel accounts, by the fact that Jesus was answering questions about the overthrow of Jerusalem, and by our Lord’s reference to the prophecy of Daniel, it is evident that what was to become a “desolation” was JERUSALEM. There is no room for any misunderstanding here.
2. Looking again at the parallel accounts, we see that what Matthew and Mark refer to as the “abomination” that would make Jerusalem desolate, Luke (using plain language) shows that such would be armies — Gentile armies: “And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with ARMIES, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh . . . Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles” (Lk. 21:20-24).
The word “abomination” is a word that refers to anything that is especially loathsome or detestable. Certainly this fits the feelings the inhabitants of Jerusalem would have toward an idol-worshipping Gentile army advancing to destroy their city! In fact, an army (coming to destroy) is an abomination to any people or nation. And, as history has repeatedly recorded, the work of armies so often results in desolation — destruction!
3. Matthew’s account says that the abomination (Gentile army) would “stand in the holy place” and adds the words: “Whoso readeth, let him understand.” Mark’s account, because it too is given in somewhat veiled language, includes the words: “Let him that readeth understand.” BUT, looking at Luke’s account of the same passage which is given in plain language, we read: ‘When ye see JERUSALEM compassed with armies . . .“ And because he gives the explanation, he does not include the phrase: “Let him that readeth understand.”
By letting the Bible be its own interpreter, then, we see that the term “holy place” (Mt. 24:15), is a reference to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is commonly referred to as the holy city (Mt. 27:53; Dan. 9:16; etc.). According to the prophecy, Gentile armies were to compass it and finally bring it to desolation.
The word translated “place” in the expression “holy place” in Matthew’s account is topos (see any Greek dictionary or Bible Concordance such as Strong’s, Young’s, etc.). The word topos means simply a locality. Such words as topical and topography are derived from it. It is used in such scriptural expressions as “a desert place”, “dry places”, etc. (It is not the same term as that which is used in describing the holy of holies of the temple.)
What is called the holy place is explained by Luke as the area that would be occupied by armies surrounding Jerusalem. The Matthew Henry Commentary has well put it: “Jerusalem was the holy city, Canaan the holy land, the Mt. Moriah, which lay about Jerusalem, for its nearness to the temple was, they thought, in a particular manner holy ground; on the country lying round about Jerusalem the Roman army was encamped, that was the abomination that made desolate.”1
These pagan armies were to “compass” the city (Luke); they would take a “stand” there (Matthew) — the word stand indicating rebellion or hostility. Examples of the word used in this way may be seen in the following:
“A king of fierce countenance.., shall stand up” (Dan. 8:23,25). “A mighty king shall stand up, that shall rule with great dominion . . . and when he shall stand up . . .” (11:3,4). Another will “stand up in his estate, and shall come with an army” (verse 7). “Then shall stand up . . . a raiser of taxes . . . and in his estate shall stand up a vile person” (verses 20,21). A king “shall be stirred up to battle with a very great and mighty army; but he shall not stand . . .” (verse 25). Concerning persecution against the cause of Christ, we read in Acts 4:26: “The kings of the earth stood up and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord . . .”
We cite these references to show how the word “stand” is used of those who assume a place of leadership or authority to rebel or fight. And in the same sense, the “abomination” — the pagan armies — were to take a stand against Jerusalem and compass it about to destroy it!
Taking then the sum of what Jesus said in this connection, we understand that Jerusalem was to become a desolation; one stone would not be left upon another. Jesus also revealed that this destruction would be caused by “armies.” Jerusalem would be “trodden down of Gentiles”, such idol-worshipping Gentile armies quite correctly being referred to as an “abomination.” Any way we look at it, according to the words of Christ, Jerusalem was marked for destruction by the hands of her enemies.
A few days after Jesus had mentioned these things, however, he commissioned his disciples to wait in this very city — to be endued with power from on high. He explained that they would receive power after that the Holy Spirit had come upon them and they would be witnesses unto him throughout the world, including Jerusalem, where their work would begin (Acts 1:8; Lk. 24:49).
But if the city was to be destroyed, what about our Lord’s disciples that would be there as a witness to that city? Were they to perish with the others — with those who had rejected Christ and cried, “Crucify him, crucify him”? Or would there be a way of escape? According to the scriptures, their witness in that city was to continue up to a certain point — only until they saw a certain sign — and then they were to FLEE and escape the horrid destruction destined for that city and people!
As is well known, the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by Roman armies in 70 A.D. But before this happened, in obedience to the warning Jesus had given, every Christian fled and thus escaped the awful wrath that befell that city and country! The account of what happened is truly amazing!
In 65 A.D., Florus, the worse of Caesar’s procurators, assumed control of Judea. He did things which brought the Jews to a place of violent rebellion — a rebellion too great for him to handle. Consequently, another man, Cestius Gallus, took over. Marching his armies into Palestine, a number of towns were subdued and he advanced toward Jerusalem. After camping for three days near the city, he began the assault.2
Seeing Jerusalem compassed with Gentile armies, the disciples now knew its desolation was nigh — according to the words of Christ. They also knew this was the sign to flee! But HOW could they flee when the city was surrounded? This had not been explained in the prophecy. But let us see what happened.
Cestius and his armies were being very successful in their battle against Jerusalem. So much so, in fact, that the Jews were ready to give up and shortly would have opened their gates in surrender — thus saving the city and temple. But prophecy had it that these things would be destroyed! When Cestius would have almost taken the city, suddenly — as Josephus says, “without any reason in the world” — he withdrew his troops and departed! This filled the Jews with courage and they pursued the retreating army, inflicting on it a major disaster.3
With the retreat of the armies that compassed Jerusalem, there was a brief interval before the armies would return and destroy the city. And in this brief interval, there was time for the Christians to flee. What happened is well summed up in the words of Thomas Newton:
Adam Clarke wrote: “it is very remarkable that not a single Christian perished in the destruction of Jerusalem though there were many there when Cestius Gallus invested the city.”5 Truly it was a marvelous escape! What confirmation of our Lord’s words! What an amazing fulfillment of prophecy!
The Christians having now made their escape, the desolation of Jerusalem was nigh. After Cestius Gallus had retreated with his troops, Nero then ordered Vespasian to take over. He, in turn, ordered his son, Titus, to go to Alexandria and bring the 5th and 10th legions from Egypt — to subdue Judea. But a crisis developed in Rome causing Vespasian to return there (where in 70 A. D. he was hailed as the new Emperor) and the job of capturing Jerusalem was left in the hands of Titus and his armies.6
We see, then, that in the place where Matthew and Mark use the somewhat veiled expression “abomination of desolation”, Luke (using plain language) shows that such was to be Gentile armies compassing Jerusalem to bring it to desolation. All three of the gospel accounts before mentioning this sign begin with the words: “When ye see . . .” and follow this with the words: “Then let them that be in Judea flee to the mountains”, etc. There can be no mistake that these are parallel accounts. By simply letting the Bible explain itself, we have seen that the “desolation” was to be the destruction of Jerusalem (city and temple); the “abomination of desolation” referred to heathen armies that would bring about the desolation; and when these armies would be seen compassing Jerusalem, the disciples were to flee.
This interpretation is solidly built on the Bible. With it, the gospel accounts are complimentary, not contradictory. It is confirmed by history. It glorifies Christ, for it plainly demonstrates how his words were fulfilled and his warning heeded — thus providing a great deliverance and blessing for the Christian people of that time!
Having set forth what we sincerely believe to be the exact and only fulfillment of our Lord’s words, we must now consider an interpretation which has become widely believed, especially in this century. We have reference to the teaching that the “abomination of desolation” is an idol to be placed in the holy of holies of a rebuilt Jewish temple — possibly an idol of the antichrist or the antichrist himself. This interpretation has it that the “abomination of desolation” is yet FUTURE!
An example of the futurist interpretation is seen in the following: “The Jews — who will have.., restored Herod’s Temple, and be in league with Antichrist — will have a visit by the False Prophet who shall bring an image of the Antichrist into Jerusalem and wheel it into the temple . . . When this image of the Antichrist is taken into the Jewish temple, that will be the sign Jesus mentioned in Matthew 24, the Abomination of Desolation.”7
Another futurist writer says: “This image will be placed in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and is the ‘abomination of desolation’ to which the Lord made reference in his Olivet discourse.”8 According to the futurist position, the abomination of desolation will be “an idol placed in the holy of holies of the temple during the reign of Antichrist.”9
In disagreeing with the futurist interpretation, it is certainly not our intention to treat lightly the beliefs of fine men of God who hold this position. Nevertheless, we feel that the futurist interpretation will not stand up under investigation.
1. The setting up of an idol in the sanctuary is something the enemy could not do until such a time as the temple would be in the enemies’ possession. Since the magnificent temple would no doubt be the last thing to be yielded to the enemy in battle, by this time the city would have already been captured and it would be too late for the disciples to flee! Obviously then, this could not be the sign to flee. In order for something to be a warning for the disciples to escape, it would have to come before the capture of the city — not something to take place afterward!
In view of this, an idol in the holy of holies could not be the sign Jesus referred to. But the presence of heathen armies compassing Jerusalem could be — and was — the sign, such happening before the overthrow of the city (as we have seen).
2. The very prophecy indicates that the “abomination” would destroy the city and the temple — would make it desolate. This is exactly what the heathen armies did. But with the teaching that the “abomination” is to be an idol set up in the temple, there is nothing but contradiction. How could the abomination be an idol set up in the temple, when the temple was to be destroyed by the abomination? An idol could not be set up in the temple if the temple was destroyed. It should be pointed out also, that while idols are, of course, abominable, they are not desolators! It is armies that make desolate, not a powerless idol!
3. The “abomination” that would make desolate was to be something that could be SEEN by the inhabitants of Judea and Jerusalem. “When you SEE the abomination”; that is, “When you SEE Jerusalem compassed with armies”, then, “let them that are in Judea flee into the mountains.” It is evident that Jesus was not talking about an idol in the holy of holies, for such could not be SEEN by the population of Jerusalem and Judea. Only the high priest entered the holy of holies. None of the ordinary Jews would dare enter there.
It was not an idol in the Jewish holy of holies that destroyed the city and temple! It was not an idol in the holy of holies that was seen by the population of Jerusalem! When the disciples fled into the mountains of Judea, it had nothing to do with any idol whatsoever!
On the other hand, it was pagan armies that destroyed the city and temple. It was armies which were seen by the people, and it was the compassing of Jerusalem by armies that warned the disciples to flee!
The futurist interpretation regarding the abomination of desolation must teach that the Jewish temple will be rebuilt — in order to have a place for the abominable idol to be placed. But we feel this is a very unsound form of interpretation, for it completely ignores the context! What temple was the subject of our Lord’s Olivet discourse? Was Jesus talking about that temple of his day or a rebuilt temple 2,000 years later? Notice: “And as he [Jesus] went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here! And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. And as he sat upon the Mount of Olives over against the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?” (Mk. 13:1-4; also Mt. 24; Lk. 21).
In this passage, Jesus was speaking of the temple of his day; he talked about the stones which it contained, had the disciples look at it, answered questions about it! Are we to assume that he was not actually speaking of THAT temple at all, but of a “rebuilt” temple — a DIFFERENT temple, a temple made of DIFFERENT stones, a temple of about 2,000 years later? We believe the answer is evident.
Whether the Jews will build another temple in Palestine is not the issue. The point is that Jesus was speaking of the temple of his day and it was that temple which was to be destroyed by heathen armies — a prophecy which was fulfilled in 70 A. D.
Concerning the destruction of the temple, the disciples asked when it would be destroyed and what sign would be given in warning. The Bible says: “And Jesus ANSWERED . . .” But those who think the prophecy of Matthew 24 refers to a future temple are at a complete loss to show one verse in this chapter where Jesus ever answered these questions! The disciples asked about the destruction of the temple that stood in Jerusalem, and then (according to the futurist interpretation) Jesus started talking about something altogether different — a temple that was yet 2,000 years in the future! If this is true, then Jesus never answered the very questions the Bible says he answered!
On the other hand, when we understand that the abomination that would make desolate was heathen armies that would destroy Jerusalem, there is harmony. Then, and only then, did Jesus really answer what he was asked.
The teaching that the abomination of desolation is something yet future, not only requires a future and different temple, but such a temple — instead of being destroyed — is pictured as a place where the antichrist would set up an idol to be worshipped. If so, instead of the temple being destroyed, it would be preserved as a shrine of false religion.
Obviously these ideas cannot possibly fit in with the context of Matthew 24 or the other accounts. To try to force a preserved temple (instead of one that was to be destroyed) into the Olivet discourse is to put something there for which there is no basis whatsoever.
In view of these things, we reject the idea that the abomination of desolation is something yet future. It was fulfilled in those events surrounding the desolation of Jerusalem in 70 A. D. — fulfilled fully and completely.
Continuing now, we read the scriptures which told the disciples to flee.
Matthew: “Then let them which be in Judea flee into the mountains; Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take anything out of the house; neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. And 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” (24:16-20).
Mark: “Then let them that be in Judea flee to the mountains; and let him that is on the housetop not go down into the house, neither enter therein to take anything out of his house. And let him that is in the field not turn back again for to take up his garment. But woe to them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! And pray ye that your flight be not in winter” (13:14-18).
Luke: “Then let them which are in Judea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries [fields or farms] enter thereinto. For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!” (21:21-23).
When the time came, the disciples were to flee without delay. They were not to try to take their possessions with them. Such actions might have been questioned and the escape hindered.
They were told to pray that their flight would not be in winter lest the elements delay and hinder; neither on the sabbath. Making their escape on the sabbath, could have easily brought them into suspicion by those who held that only a short distance (at a slow pace) could be traveled on that day. Naturally, there would also be problems for those with small children.
The area from which they were to flee was Judea and especially Jerusalem. They were to flee into the mountains. The setting is definitely Palestine, and the time — as indicated by the prophecy itself, as well as the historical fulfillment — was back in the first century!
Not understanding that the “fleeing into the mountains” has already taken place, William Blackstone, in 1935, sent workers to Petra where they placed Hebrew Bibles (encased in copper boxes) in some of the caves in that area. He believed the Jews would flee into these mountains during the tribulation period and read his Bibles!
Another futurist writer says that the passage under consideration refers to “atomic warfare”, that safety will only be found in the mountains for those in Judea, and that when they flee to the mountains, they should not take their clothing because it will be “dangerously radio active.” The “woe” to those with child and that give suck, is taken to mean that due to atomic explosions, even the mothers’ milk may be “harmfully radio active.” The verse that says, “Pray ye that your flight be not in winter, neither on the sabbath day”, is interpreted to mean that the weekends, especially in winter, will be times of the greatest danger. It is pointed out that Hitler chose weekends for his big surprises and that the Japanese did so at Pearl Harbor. Finally, the writer says: “if a surprise attack comes, therefore, it is most likely to be on a weekend. It would be good insurance to be particularly well prepared at such times, especially in winter”!10
In all due respect to fine men who have taught such things, we must say that only by taking this passage out of its context and by minimizing (or ignoring) the historical fulfillment, can these words be thus applied.
Why were the disciples told to flee out of Jerusalem and Judea prior to 70 A.D.? The passage continues with the explanation: “For then shall be great tribulation”!
Copyrighted material used by permission of the Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association.
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