So much has been written of this passage! It’s kind of troubling, isn’t it? Wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes… what does it all mean?
Surely this is talking of the present day. Surely, we need to worry that the end is coming; what will we do?
First of all, don’t forget CONTEXT.
Second, why must we arrogantly assume that everything is about us? (It isn’t)
This is a great time to quote one of my boyhood heroes:
“The only thing new in the world is history that you don’t know.”
Harry S Truman
Many recent authors and speakers have made much of this passage to attempt to put Matthew 24 into the future, and out of context. Almost to a man, they write about these verses saying that they refer to a time when there have been the most wars, the most earthquakes, the most famines and so on…
Kindly take note of the less exciting fact that Jesus simply didn’t say that! And… try to force yourself to keep the context in mind: “When will these things happen…?” (The destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem)
Were there wars, rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem? Were the faithful being persecuted during this time? Were there false teachers during this time? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding YES!
When the Roman Emperor Caligula ordered his statue erected in the Temple and the Jews of the city reacted by rebelling against the Romans, do you suppose they weren’t talking about a war when the news got back to Rome? According to the first century historian Josephus, they were so concerned that many neglected to even till their fields.
Nation will rise up against nation… When the Jews and Syrians clashed in Caesarea, the Syrians drove the Jews from the city, and the death toll amongst the Jews was staggering, which is one of the reasons that the Jews attacked in Syria. Before the Roman garrison could respond, the killings numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and Josephus has recorded it all for your reading… This was not the only example of war, rumors of war and nation rising against nation in the region of Judea during this period. Also, during this period, during the short reign of Claudius, there were the beginnings of civil war in Italy and elsewhere, which would obviously make the “evening news” in Judea.
Acts 11:28 is interesting to remember: “One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.)” This fact is confirmed by Josephus, Tacitus and Eusebius among others.
Earthquakes? During the period between the Discourse and the fall of Jerusalem, history records quite a few, maybe even a record number in the Roman world: All in all, there are 15 recorded during this time, in places such as Rome, Italy, Judea, Syria, Asia Minor and Crete among others.
Persecution? OK, don’t even pretend that persecution didn’t take place during this period! It is well documented in the New Testament, along with the false teachers and the rest of it. Note verses 13 and 14:
”but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Verse 13 gives the main point: stand firm in all things, and you will be saved. In the last lesson we saw exactly how that took place; Jesus was good and reliable in His words.
Verse 14 takes us back to the Covenant priority: and the Gospel will spread throughout the world, even though there are to be difficulties.
Finally, the end will come: remember the context: the end is that of Jerusalem.
In this section, Jesus tells the disciples what the people of God will need to know when Jerusalem is besieged in 70 AD. Verses 15-16 give a sign of warning to the people regarding the time to flee the region, giving a reference to Daniel’s prophecy; that will be discussed below. When this sign appears, the people in Judea are to flee to the mountains, and along this route, they can travel through the back country all of the way to Lebanon behind the Roman advance to safety.
Verses 17-20 underscore the need for haste in their flight from the region. It is important to note that he said “in Judea” and not in Jerusalem which is the capital of Judea. This is because by the time they see the sign he referred to, it will be too late for Jerusalem, as we shall see.
Verses 21 and 22 detail just how horrible the coming siege will be, and gives the believers the hope that the horror will be cut short so that they may be able to escape destruction. In verses 23-25, Jesus warns the believers not to be fooled by rumors, and urges them to stick with what he is telling them, ending with the note that they will be spared from Jerusalem’s doom. In verse 25, He reinforces the thought that He is giving them advance warning of the situation. Our text ends with a curious section from 26-28, where Jesus warns that some will be fooled into thinking that the destruction of Jerusalem is the end of the world and the time of his coming. This is clearly not the case, and the believers mustn’t be fooled, for when He does come, it will not be in secret.
The sign in our text is “the abomination that causes desolation,” and is used by Daniel in describing military attacks on Jerusalem in chapters 9, 11 and 12. To a Jew, “abomination” would be something that defiles something that is holy. A Gentile army surrounding the Holy City would be a possibility. “Desolation” means emptiness, so what we are looking for is a gross defilement that results in emptiness.
Looking to the Olivet Discourse as recorded by Luke, we find the answer:
“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
By comparing Matthew 24 to Luke 21, we see that the sign they were to look for was when a Gentile army surrounded the Holy City of Jerusalem, and this happened in 66 AD. A question may arise as to why Matthew refers to Daniel, and Luke does not.
Remember that Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel written for the Jews, and Luke’s was the one written for the Greeks. Frequently, Matthew refers back to prophecies that are fulfilled, while Luke just spells out what happened. This is because the Jews were aware of the prophets, and by reminding them of the prophecies that are fulfilled, Matthew is lending credibility to Jesus Messianic claim. Luke’s audience is largely ignorant of Jewish tradition, and such comparisons would be of little value to those readers; Luke spells things out that Matthew relates to Scripture. Thus, we come to see that what Jesus is giving as a signal to flee the area is the Roman siege at Jerusalem; those outside the city are to flee immediately, and those within the city will have to wait for another sign for deliverance…
This signal comes in verse 22: those days will be cut short!
History of the Siege
At this point, it is useful to give a brief synopsis of the history of the siege of Jerusalem. This history is told by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who not only wrote the history of the Jewish people from Genesis to the time shortly before their last war of destruction, (65-70 AD) Antiquities of the Jews, but another volume entitled The War of the Jews which gives his eyewitness account of the entire Roman campaign against the Jews, including his eyewitness account of the siege of Jerusalem. The war began when the Emperor Caligula commanded that his statue be erected in the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem. This so outraged the Jews that they flew to arms and began to attack Roman outposts, beginning in Syria, and spreading throughout the region. A large Roman army under Vespasian began its counter assault in that region, and then moved through Galilee destroying all Jewish opposition in its wake. After ravaging the north, Vespasian returned to Rome, where he participated in a coup that overthrew Caligula (who was insane) and was replaced by Cestius, who was the general who began the siege. Josephus tells of the horrors of this period, and to read his account is truly disturbing. The believers trapped in the city, recalling the words of Jesus must have wondered how they were going to be able to flee as the conditions grew steadily more desperate; then a miracle― The Romans suddenly withdrew!
According to Josephus, while the Jews celebrated their divine deliverance, the Christians fled to the hills and escaped.
What had actually happened was that the general Titus had arrived in the region with reinforcements. Cestius withdrew, joined up with Titus, and with Titus (the higher-ranking officer) in command, they soon returned to finish the job, only this time there were no Christians in the city: they had all fled because they had been forewarned by none other than Jesus Himself! “See, I have told you ahead of time.” (Matt. 24:25)
As Josephus tells the story, and he was no supporter of the Christians, not a single Christian died in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. The Jewish deaths were over 100,000.
By the time the Romans launched their final assault, there was no resistance, and they had only a mop up operation; murdering the last of the survivors who couldn’t get away. According to Josephus, the Romans discovered to their delight that the Temple itself was full of gold. In fact (as we know) it was inlaid with gold within the wood framework of the stone construction. To render the gold from its structure, Josephus tells that the Romans set it ablaze, and then pried the stones loose from one another to get at the melted gold that had fallen, leaving not one stone upon another. (Matt. 24:2
Putting it all together
We have at this point completed the first section of the Discourse, and a fairly awesome picture is before us:
- There will be difficulties, these are normal and a regular part of life on this earth. There will be wars, famines, earthquakes, calamities and persecutions; even false teachers, but hold firm in your faith, and you will be delivered. Most importantly, the Gospel of the Kingdom of Christ will go forth. (5-14)
- When the day of God’s judgment comes, our Lord will see you through its peril. If you are in the countryside, when you see the sign, get out. Flee through the mountains to the north. If you are in the city, hang in there for the Lord will deliver you, too. When the time comes, flee to the mountains of the north. Those who are followers of the Lord will be saved; those who are not will be judged. (15-28)
- When God’s judgment against those who have refused to follow Him comes, it will be terrible to behold for it will be sure and complete. Those who claim to follow Him, but who do not really, will be devastated, for God will not be mocked, nor will He be fooled by performing the old rituals after they have been rendered obsolete by the sacrifice of His Son on the cross. (29-33)
- This will all be completed within the natural lifetimes of those who heard Him say it, even though that is not necessarily mean they will all live to see it. (34)
- Even though this has all been accomplished by the end of the year 70, there are lessons for us to draw from this text as well. What could they be? Well, for that you’ll need to wait for the next lesson!
“The only thing new in the world is history that you don’t know.” – Harry S Truman
Another quote expressing much the same point:
“All new news is old news happening to new people” ― Malcolm Muggeridge