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The abomination that causes desolation
Matthew chapter 24, verses 15-25
“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time.
So far, the signs Jesus has given us are global. Now he narrows the focus to Judea and Jerusalem. But even as he describes events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem, he provides invaluable instruction for believers who are anticipating the Last Day. We might say that he describes first the “Great Tribulation” and then the “Great Deception.”
There are at least three passages in the book of Daniel that Jesus seems to have in mind: Daniel chapter 9, verse 27, chapter 11, verse 31, and chapter 12, verse 11. It seems that a preliminary fulfillment of this prophecy occurred in 168 B.C. when Antiochus IV Epiphanes set up an altar to the pagan god Zeus Olympius in the temple at Jerusalem. Now Jesus says that Daniel’s prophecy also points to a similar desecration of the temple that will precede the destruction of Jerusalem. Some commentators think this happened when the Roman emperor Caligula tried to have a statue of himself set up in the temple—an order that fortunately was never carried out. There seems to be a connection between Jesus’ words here and his prediction, “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near” (Luke chapter 21, verse 20). This happened when Titus and his Roman legions destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70. And so her house was left desolate (see Matthew chapter 23, verse 38).
The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, however, did not exhaust Daniel’s prophecy. Like this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Daniel pointed both to the fall of the city and to the Last Day. Both the city of Jerusalem and the temple are prophetic pictures of the church. And just as the abomination that causes desolation was set up in the temple, so the Antichrist “sets himself up in God’s temple” (2nd Thessalonians chapter 2, verse 4).
In the Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther did not hesitate to say, “The pope himself is the very Antichrist” (Part II, Article IV, paragraph 10). Despite their ordination vows, many Lutheran pastors today are uncomfortable with such direct language. They label it “a Lutheran tradition” or “a historical judgment.” But what often gets overlooked is the fact that, for Luther and for the apostle Paul and for Jesus, the appearance of the Antichrist is a sign of the end. The threat of the Moslem Turk and the ravages of the Plague aroused in Luther a lively hope that the Last Day was imminent. Perhaps our modern hesitation to subscribe to his confession is a measure of our own lack of a sense of urgency about the end.
The Antichrist is not merely a political or military tyrant, but a figure in the church who “exalts himself” (2nd Thessalonians chapter 2, verse 4) contrary to Jesus’ warning, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled” (Luke chapter 14, verse 11). Thus he is “anti” Christ in the Latin sense of the word anti; he is against Christ. Paul says, “He will oppose . . . God” (2nd Thessalonians chapter 2, verse 4). But the Greek word anti is also characteristic of him; he puts himself “in the place of” Christ, or “instead of” Christ. He exalts himself “over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2nd Thessalonians chapter 2, verse 4).
To say that the pope is the Antichrist is not to say that all Roman Catholics are going to hell. If the papal Antichrist sets himself up in God’s temple, the Christian church, then there certainly are true believers in the Roman Catholic Church, in spite of the errors and deceptions of the papacy. It is by the grace of God, through faith in Christ, that we are saved. Denominational affiliation is neither synonymous with nor a substitute for faith in Jesus Christ. At the same time, we don’t want to take the matter of denominational affiliation lightly. Matthew chapter 7, verses 15-23 warns us of the threat that false teaching always poses for our faith.
Jesus’ advice that those who were living in Judea should “flee to the mountains” was taken literally by the Christians who fled to Pella, a city in the Transjordan mountains, shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
When Jesus warns the man who is up on the roof of his house not to go down and get anything out of the house, this reflects the fact that the typical home in Jerusalem had a flat roof that was accessible by an outside staircase. It was customary to go up there to relax in the evening. So if destruction fell suddenly upon the city, the man who went down into his house to retrieve some of his belongings before fleeing might well end up being captured or crushed. The same holds true for the man working in the field. If he rushed back to his home to get his cloak, he might end up losing his liberty or his life. We recall the urgent instructions the two angels gave to Lot and his family as they were fleeing from Sodom—and the consequences for Lot’s wife when she disobeyed (see Genesis chapter 19, verses 15-17 and 26).
Snow and ice were not the reason Jesus told his disciples to pray that they would not have to flee in the winter. In Judea the winter was the time when heavy rains caused the streams to become swollen and often impossible to cross. Of course, the danger would be multiplied for pregnant women and young children.
Since the Sabbath was supposed to be a day of rest, for the conscientious Jew “a Sabbath day’s journey” was only about three quarters of a mile. The distance from the Mount of Olives to the city of Jerusalem is called “a Sabbath day’s walk” (Acts chapter 1, verse 12). If they had to flee for their lives on a Sabbath Day, this restriction probably would not stop them. But once the flight was over, the more sensitive consciences might have been disturbed by what they had done.
It is in times of such stress and distress that people tend to be especially vulnerable to the deceptions of false prophets. When a man with a magnetic personality comes along and promises to deliver you from your desperate situation, it can be tempting to listen to him. But Jesus warns us that when it sounds too good to be true, we can be sure that it is not true. Some of them will be able to “perform great signs and miracles.” Some faith healers may actually help some people. But don’t let them fool you. If he says, “Look, here is the Christ!” or “There he is!” do not believe it.
Read Paul’s prophecy of the coming of the Antichrist: “The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie” (2nd Thessalonians chapter 2, verse 9-11). When the NIV says “counterfeit miracles,” that seems to imply that they are not really miracles. But it would also be possible to translate this “deceptive miracles,” and that would fit the context very well. Just as Satan “masquerades as an angel of light” (2nd Corinthians chapter 11, verse 14), so his prophet, the Antichrist, performs great signs and wonders in order to deceive people (see Matthew chapter 24, verse 24). This fits together with the warning Jesus gives us at the close of his Sermon on the Mount (see chapter 7, verses 21-23).
The good news is that “the Lord Jesus will overthrow [him] with the breath of his mouth” (2nd Thessalonians chapter 2, verse 8), which could also be translated “the Spirit of his mouth.” We notice that there is a close connection between the breath of Jesus’ mouth and the Holy Spirit on that first Easter evening when “he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John chapter 20, verse 22). This fits together with what Jesus said earlier: “The Spirit gives life. . . . The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John chapter 6, verse 63). So it is the Holy Spirit, working in and through the words of Jesus, who will overthrow the Antichrist (see Revelation chapter 19, verse 20).
Christ will appear to the whole world at once
Matthew chapter 24, verses 26-28
“So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were evidently hidden away by a community that withdrew into the desert. They thought they knew something other people did not know. Likewise, the secret societies and lodges that gather behind closed doors claim to have some kind of esoteric knowledge that is not generally available. But Jesus says we should not be led astray by enthusiastic invitations from people who make such claims. They may tout the thrill of discovery, but the most excited people are not usually the most trustworthy. The most zealous people are not often the most spiritual.
When Jesus comes back, you won’t have to go anywhere else to see him. Christ will appear to the whole world at once according to Revelation chapter 1, verse 7. It will be as clear to us as a dead animal is to a flock of vultures. It doesn’t take them long to notice a carcass. In fact, they often start circling before their prey is completely dead. This illustration suggests another way to understand this proverbial saying: the returning Christ will be as easy to spot as a flock of vultures circling over their next meal. Either way it is a macabre image that may have been chosen to emphasize the death that comes upon this world as a consequence of the false prophets Jesus warns us against.
Signs in the heavens
Matthew chapter 24, verses 29-31
“Immediately after the distress of those days “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.
Jesus combines two passages from the book of Isaiah (chapter 13, verse 10 and chapter 34, verse 4). What Jesus is describing are not just natural events, such as eclipses or meteors falling into the atmosphere, but the dissolution of the universe when he returns on the Last Day.
Jesus’ entire sermon on the signs of the end was precipitated by the disciples’ question, “What will be the sign of your coming?” (chapter 24, verse 3). Jesus has given them a laundry list of signs, but so far he has not used the word “sign” himself. Finally, as he is coming to the end of his sermon, Jesus says the sign of his coming will be his coming! “The sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky.” This is the same sign Jesus referred to during his trial before the Sanhedrin (chapter 26, verse 64).
Christ will appear with his angels, who will gather the elect into his heavenly kingdom (see chapter 13, verses 39-42, 49, and 50; chapter 16, verse 27; chapter 25, verse 31). The “loud trumpet call” reminds us of Paul’s familiar description of the Last Day, “The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God” (1st Thessalonians chapter 4, verse 16).
The lesson from the fig tree
Matthew chapter 24, verses 32-35
“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
Most of the trees in Palestine are evergreens, but the almond tree and the fig tree do lose their leaves during the heavy rains of the winter season. Leaves return to the almond tree in early spring, but the fig tree waits until late spring. Therefore, the fig tree is the one to watch if you want to know whether summer is coming. And since the summer is the season for much of the harvest, and the harvest is used as a symbol of the Last Day (chapter 13, verses 30 and 39; Revelation chapter 14, verses 14-20), the fig tree provides a perfect parable for Jesus at this point.
There is a difference between the signs Jesus is talking about and what they point to. So Jesus says, “When you see all these things happen, you know that it is near.” The question is: what is “it”? The destruction of Jerusalem or the Last Day? The next verse makes the choice relatively easy. The generation that heard this sermon did not pass away until after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Another possibility, however, is granted by the footnote in the NIV, which suggests an alternate translation. Perhaps Jesus meant to say, “This race will not pass away until all is fulfilled.” The Jewish people will survive until the Last Day. From this perspective, the failure of Hitler’s “Final Solution” was foreordained.
When Jesus asserts the eternal endurance of “my words,” he clearly and unambiguously claims to be God (Isaiah chapter 40, verse 8). In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law” (chapter 5, verse 18), which could be interpreted to mean that the Law will pass away on the Last Day. But in contrast to the Law, Jesus says, “My words will never pass away.”
Toward the end of World War II, downtown Warsaw was virtually leveled. On the main street only the skeleton of one building remained standing. Many devout Poles considered it something of a shrine. It was the badly damaged headquarters of the British and Foreign Bible Society. The words on its only remaining wall were clearly legible from the street: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
The day of judgment will come suddenly and unexpectedly
Matthew chapter 24, verses 36-44
“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
Having just asserted his divinity in the previous verse, Jesus now asserts his humanity. Although his words will never pass away, he does not know when the Last Day will dawn. The mystery of the God-man surpasses all understanding. Jesus is the One who will be coming back on the Last Day, but he does not know when that day will be. Once again he puts himself in our place because we do not know either. Instead of trying to figure out when it will happen, Jesus urges us to be ready.
Peter heard this sermon with his own ears, and Jesus’ words must have made a lasting impression. The same comparisons appear in Peter’s description of the Last Day: it will be like the flood and it will come like a thief (see 2nd Peter chapter 3, verses 6-10).
The difference between the flood and the Last Day is that God used water the first time, but he will use fire at the end. It is interesting that when John the Baptist contrasts himself with Jesus, he says, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke chapter 3, verse 16).
Jesus says the people who perished in the flood “knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.” But it certainly was not because they had not been warned. First of all, God gave them 120 years of grace between the time when he determined to send the flood and the day when it actually started raining (Genesis chapter 6, verse 3). Then the construction of the ark must have attracted some attention. People must have wondered why Noah was building such a big boat, especially when he did not live anywhere near a body of water that was big enough to float it. It was a natural conversation starter. We know that Noah was “a preacher of righteousness” (2nd Peter chapter 2, verse 5). It is typical of God to warn people before he pours out his wrath upon them. It is typical of us to ignore the warning and be caught by surprise when his judgment descends. That is why, from our point of view, the Last Day will come like a thief.
Labor faithfully as you await Christ’s return
Matthew chapter 24, verses 45-51
“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This sermon was addressed first of all to the disciples. So it is not surprising that many commentators have seen this parable as being addressed to the ministers of the church, as almost an ordination sermon. He says the way to be ready for the Last Day is not to concentrate on the sky but to feed those whom God has placed under their care. We might think of the daily distribution of food, which got to be such a big job that it was committed to the seven deacons (Acts chapter 6, verses 1-6). The administration of the Lord’s Supper must also be part of the picture here. And we think of Jesus’ charge to Peter, “Feed my sheep” (John chapter 21, verse 17).
But the application of this parable need not be restricted to ordained ministers. Jesus says to all Christians that the proper way to be prepared for the Last Day is to carry out your God-given responsibilities faithfully. Feed your family. Paul puts it very bluntly: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1st Timothy chapter 5, verse 8).
We who have the benefit of nearly two thousand years of hindsight can see a hint in the words, “My master is staying away a long time.” Is Jesus here implying a lengthy interval between his first and second comings? (Similar expressions occur at Matthew chapter 25, verses 5 and 19.) Perhaps the hint was subtle enough that the disciples missed it and thus maintained a healthy sense of urgency. We who can see the implication dare not permit it to lull us into complacency. Sufficient time has elapsed to fulfill the prophecy of this parable. If we presume upon his forbearance, we risk being cut to pieces and assigned a place with the hypocrites, where there will be eternal weeping and gnashing of teeth.
In the 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer, there is a “Prayer for Grace” that eloquently expresses the point of this parable: “Imprint upon our hearts such a dread of Thy judgments, and such a grateful sense of Thy goodness to us, as may make us both afraid and ashamed to offend Thee. And, above all, keep in our minds a lively remembrance of that great day, in which we must give a strict account of our thoughts, words, and actions to Him whom Thou hast appointed the Judge of the quick and the dead, Thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”