The words of Jesus in this passage are intended to help us stand steadfast in trouble, they are intended to give us hope. Even in the middle of great tribulation we can have hope, knowing that God is in charge, that he cares about us, and has not forgotten us. Above all, Jesus’ promise to return again and make all things right, is something to give us hope and peace. The fact that he is already been right about some of the things he prophesied should encourage us.
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Download Matthew Part 85
Matthew #85. Matthew 24:15-34
In the very first part of this chapter, Jesus told his disciples that the temple was going to be destroyed, while some of “this present generation” were still alive. Certainly, the apostle John lived to see it happen, and survived even twenty years longer, after the event.
I also mentioned the fact that in this section of Scripture Jesus appears to be jumbling together both the destruction of Jerusalem, and what we call “the end of the world.” When we get to our text for next time, it will become clear that Jesus, remaining in complete dependence upon the Father, was not told by the Father when the end of the world would come (24:36). However, it is also clear (from verse 34) that Jesus himself did know that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was not going to be at the same time as the end of the world. Though he talks about the details of the two things together, when we examine the text closely, it is obvious that he knows that they are two different sets of events.
In our passage today, it is very helpful to understand some in-depth background. Stick with me through that, and I think you’ll find greater understanding and encouragement from these scriptures.
Much of what we know of the Jewish-Roman war of 66-73 A.D. comes from the Jewish-Born man, Titus Flavius Josephus. Josephus was a Jewish General in Galilee, who fought against the Romans in the war of 66-73 A.D.. He was captured in 67 by the Romans, after a six-week siege of the town of Jotopata, where he led the resistance. He then ingratiated himself with the Romans by claiming that it was prophesied that Vespasian, the Roman general who was leading the war in Palestine, would become Emperor. He was made the slave of Vespasian, and later Vespasian’s son Titus, and served as a translator for the remainder of the war. Vespasian did, in fact, become Emperor as Josephus predicted, in the year 69, and he granted Josephus his freedom. Josephus continued to serve the Romans, taking on Vespasian’s family name, Flavius. He became a historian, writing a very large volume about the Jewish wars, and also another volume of ancient Jewish history. I will share more from Josephus’ writings in a little while.
For now, let’s turn to our text. All throughout this passage, Jesus is using ideas and images that come from the book of Daniel, chapters 9, 11, and 12. Daniel, living in the Persian Empire, prophesied about the future tribulations of the Jewish people. Daniel 12:1 says:
1At that time Michael the great prince who stands watch over your people will rise up. There will be a time of distress such as never has occurred since nations came into being until that time. But at that time all your people who are found written in the book will escape. (Dan 12:1, HCSB)
This sounds a lot like what Jesus is saying in our passage today:
21For at that time there will be great tribulation, the kind that hasn’t taken place from the beginning of the world until now and never will again! 22Unless those days were limited, no one would survive. But those days will be limited because of the elect. (Matt 24:21-22, HCSB)
In verse 15, Jesus says:
15“So when you see the abomination that causes desolation, spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place” (let the reader understand), 16“then those in Judea must flee to the mountains! (Matt 24:15-16, HCSB)
The first time I read this, I was about thirteen years old, and I did not understand, and that bothered me. I think I comprehend a bit more today, so let me help you. Here’s what Daniel says in the prophecies to which Jesus is referring:
31His forces will rise up and desecrate the temple fortress. They will abolish the daily sacrifice and set up the abomination of desolation. (Dan 11:31, HCSB)
27He will make a firm covenant with many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and offering. And the abomination of desolation will be on a wing of the temple until the decreed destruction is poured out on the desolator.” (Dan 9:27, HCSB)
The Jewish people at the time of Jesus generally felt that Daniel’s prophecies had already been fulfilled. About 200 years prior, when the Jews were under Greek/Seleucid rule, the Greek leader Antiochus Epiphanes entered the temple and built a statue there. This desecrated the temple, making it unclean, and it was an abomination to all the Jewish people. It was the year 167 B.C. This led to the Maccabean rebellion, which led to a brief period of Jewish independence (See my first message on the book of Matthew for more background).
Jesus did not say, “Let the reader understand.” That was Matthew’s insertion. He wanted his readers to realize that Jesus was saying that Daniel’s prophecy had not yet been fulfilled.
The desecration of the temple in 167 B.C. may have been a partial fulfillment, but Matthew wants his readers to understand that something like those events was going to happen again. In fact, the Jewish war with the Romans of 66-73 A.D. looked a lot more like a fulfillment of Daniel than the events of 167 B.C., when Antiochus desecrated the temple.
In July of A.D. 70, the Roman general Titus set fire to the temple, slaughtered those within it, and had the Roman standards brought into the Most Holy Place. The Roman standards were poles with various decorations on them. The kind most likely brought into the temple sanctuary would have had a square flag, hanging from a crossbar near the top of the pole. Stitched on the flag would be the name of the unit and probably an image of a god, or perhaps even the Emperor (who was considered a god). It might also have had a carved image of the Roman Eagle at the top of the pole. These sorts of Roman standards were considered to be idolatrous by the Jews, and by bringing them into the Most Holy Place, Titus desecrated the temple, much as Antiochus Epiphanes did 237 years before him.
Therefore, to unwind these words of Jesus, and the parenthetical comment of Matthew, it is something like this: “When you see the Roman legions marching, carrying the standards of the Emperor, flee!” I think that the Jewish people at the time would have understood these things much more easily than us.
Later, Jesus says:
19Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days! 20Pray that your escape may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 21For at that time there will be great tribulation, the kind that hasn’t taken place from the beginning of the world until now and never will again! 22Unless those days were limited, no one would survive. But those days will be limited because of the elect. (Matt 24:19-22, HCSB)
You might think that Jesus has begun talking about the end of the world again, but I don’t think so. First, he encouraged his followers to pray that it wouldn’t happen in winter. That doesn’t make sense for the end of the world: the weather really won’t matter. But in 1st Century Israel, winter rains made most roads impassible with mud, and cold could kill those forced to camp outside with no shelter. Perhaps many people did pray, because, in fact, the worst part of the war was in spring, and the temple was not desecrated until July, and not fully destroyed until after that.
Historian Josephus, although somewhat familiar with the life of Jesus of Nazareth, was not a Christian; Christianity remained illegal in the Roman empire during his lifetime. Even so, the way he describes the war sounds very much like what Jesus predicted. Jesus said, “Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers!”
In a section about the siege engines used by the Romans against him in Jotopata, Josephus writes (warning: these words contain matter-of-fact graphic violence):
And any one may learn the force of the engines by what happened this very night; for as one of those that stood round about Josephus was near the wall, his head was carried away by such a stone, and his skull was flung as far as three furlongs. In the day time also, a woman with child had her belly so violently struck, as she was just come out of her house, that the infant was carried to the distance of half a furlong, so great was the force of that engine. (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews. Book 3, chapter 7, paragraph 23).
Josephus describes many such terrible and heart-wrenching events. It was a brutal, horrific conflict. When Jerusalem was besieged, people became lawless, and many took food and other things from mothers and babies, and did violence to them. In fact, some historians have described the Jewish-Roman War as the worst massacre of ancient times. Jesus is not wrong to call it a “great tribulation.”
Josephus also describes the kinds of natural disturbances that Jesus mentions:
There broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continued lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and any one would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming. (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 4, chapter 4, paragraph five)
Some of the language that Jesus uses in our passage today is probably exaggerated imagery (in other words, he did not mean everything literally), but given the writings of Josephus, I think it is worth noting that Jesus predicted a horrific, unbelievable tribulation, and that is exactly what happened.
In verses 23-30 it seems clear that Jesus turns to talking about the end of the world. In fact, he is warning his disciples not to confuse the coming turmoil in Israel with his own return at the end of the world. This is the second time in the same discussion that Jesus has warned us not to be taken in by false prophets and deceivers who claim that the end of the world has come, or who claim to be Jesus himself, returned for his people. He makes it clear that when he comes back again, no one can miss it:
27For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matt 24:27, HCSB)
In verse 32, he may be returning to the discussion about the coming destruction of the nation of Israel. The fig tree is a useful analogy: just as we can tell the season from looking at the trees, those who hear him should be able to recognize the signs that these things are about to take place. For my part, I would think that as soon as I heard of the Jewish rebellion that led to the war, it would seem to me a sign that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed.
Verse 34 clearly refers back to the first part of the discussion, about the coming tribulation to the Jewish nation. This is clear both from what Jesus said about his own return (it will be unmistakable) and also what he says later on in verse 36 when he insists that the Father has not revealed the day or the hour to him. If the Father hasn’t told him when the end of the world is, Jesus certainly can’t claim to know it will happen before the present generation passes away. Therefore that comment must refer to the events of verses 15-22. The short discussion from verse 32-33 is a warning not to be mistaken about the coming of Jesus.
Even though much of our passage today is concerned with events that have already occurred, I think we can learn a great deal from it, and be encouraged by it.
First, as I said last time, this is very good evidence that Jesus is reliable when he speaks prophetically. Since he also prophesied that he would return, and that we would recognize his return, I think we can bank on that, and look forward to it. Though there may be difficult times we have to endure, we can trust his promise to deliver us, and to bring us into his eternal kingdom.
A second thing gets my attention from this text. Jesus told his followers to pray that these events did not happen in winter. As it turns out, they did not happen in winter. I can’t help wondering if many Jesus-followers did, in fact pray, and so influenced the events to happen in summer. It encourages me to believe in the power of prayer.
Another thing I get from the text is this: If we find ourselves in the middle of trouble and tribulation, it isn’t wrong to try and get out of it. We may not be able to escape it; it may not be God’s will for us to escape it. Even so, it isn’t wrong to try (as long as it does not involve sinning).
The analogy of the fig tree is also helpful for me. As we will see next time, it is absolutely pointless to try and build a timeline for the end of the world. Even so, verses 32 and 33 show us that it is possible to recognize the “signs of the times.” In other words, we can look at history, and culture, and current events, and evaluate them with wisdom.
Overall, the words of Jesus here are not intended to scare us. They are intended to help us stand steadfast in trouble, they are intended to give us hope. Certainly, many Jesus-followers left Jerusalem before all this took place. They escaped this terrible tribulation. And even in the middle of great tribulation we can have hope, knowing that God is in charge, that he cares about us, and has not forgotten us. Above all, Jesus’ promise to return again and make all things right, is something to give us hope and peace. The fact that he is already been right about some of the things he prophesied should encourage us.
Allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you about all of this right now.