In answer to the first of the disciples' questions, Jesus predicts the future destruction of Israel including the Temple. He warns his disciples to flee when they see the signs.
In answer to the first of the disciples' questions, Jesus predicts the future destruction of Israel including the Temple. He warns his disciples to flee when they see the signs.
Hello, welcome to Series 12. This is Episode 2, which is called ‘Jesus predicts the future judgement on Israel’. The text is Matthew 24: 1 - 21 and parallel passages.
Introduction and Recap
If you've been following Series 12 and you were with us in the first episode, you'll know that we're now in the teaching that Jesus gives in Matthew 24 and also Mark 13 and Luke 21, about future judgement, end-time events and the return of Jesus Christ in the Second Coming. This is what theologians call ‘eschatology’; and what Christians often call ‘end-time teaching’. This particular teaching has attracted a huge amount of interest amongst Christians and has been complex in its interpretation. There are a variety of different interpretations of this teaching. What I'm attempting to do here is to follow a very straightforward teaching, based on a close view of the text as it stands in its original context, and answering the questions that Jesus was addressing at the time that he spoke these words to his disciples.
We are halfway through the last week of Jesus' life, often called the ‘Passion Week’, and in Series 11 we looked at all the dramatic events that happened in the first half of that week - the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Sunday - ‘Palm Sunday’ as we know it. On Monday, the entry into the Temple and the very dramatic overturning of the tables of the money changers and the traders who are selling birds and animals for the sacrificial system. That was a great challenge to the religious establishment. In Series 11. We also saw very clearly that the confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders, represented by the ruling council, the Sanhedrin, was coming to a climax. Jesus was on the initiative for the most part, certainly, the Triumphal Entry, and the cleansing of the Temple were events which Jesus initiated, and were a direct threat to the religious leaders, who had, by this time, denounced Jesus as a false messiah and were actively seeking to eliminate him by arresting him, trying him and getting him executed in order to end his work and ministry, and claims that he is bringing in the Kingdom of God.
We also saw in Series 11, a day in the Temple, probably the Tuesday of that week, in which Jesus spent a lot of time teaching in the Temple. There are a lot of questions asked by Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians and chief priests and elders of the people. All different members of the establishment came and asked him tricky questions in order to try and catch him out, to make him say something unwise or foolish or even illegal, that would enable them to hand Jesus over to the Romans, or to get him condemned for religious reasons by their own ruling council. These questions failed to bring about that result. Jesus showed great wisdom in overturning the questions and putting the questioners on the back foot. He also told three parables on that day about the state of the nation of Israel, and the resistance to him: the parable of The Two Sons, the parable of The Tenants and the parable of The Wedding Banquet . We looked at those three parables in different episodes in Series 11.
Having had all that teaching and discussion in the Temple during the course of that Tuesday, Jesus then left the Temple which, is in the middle of the city of Jerusalem and as he left the Temple he was in discussion with his disciples about the Temple itself. He went out of the city, walked through the gates, down a small valley, the Kidron Valley, and then up the other side to a hill called the Mount of Olives, which overlooks the city of Jerusalem. There he sat and discussed with his disciples the future for the nation of Israel. He explained to them many other future events that were going to take place. In our first episode, we looked at some of the things that Jesus began to say and to teach them. We are studying in Matthew's account. Matthew's account is the fullest account of this discussion with his disciples. Matthew 24, and he extends it with extra material in Matthew 25, specially parables which illustrate some of the things he said in Matthew 24. For the most part, we are going to follow Matthew but we are keeping an eye on the parallel accounts in Mark 13 and Luke 21, and In our episode today we'll be drawing on some invaluable material in Luke 21 to help us illustrate the theme of God's judgement on Israel.
Let's now turn back to Matthew 24, to remind ourselves of the context. This is tremendously important in order to understand what is taking place in this particular situation. At the end of Matthew 23, Jesus has denounced the religious establishment in no uncertain terms. He makes a very powerful statement in the last few verses of Matthew 23, and these verses have a direct impact on our understanding of Matthew 24, so let's read them again. We looked at them carefully when we studied Matthew 23, and again in the last episode. Let's look at Matthew 23: 36 - 39. Speaking of judgement, Jesus says,
‘“Truly, I tell you all this will come on this generation. Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you! How often I've longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look! Your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”’Matthew 23:36-39, NIV
In these words, there is a prediction of God's judgement on Israel for its refusal to receive the prophets before Jesus, refusal to receive John the Baptist and refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah, God's judgement will come, verse 36, ‘on this generation’. Verse 38, ‘your house is left to you desolate’. These two verses together help us understand what Jesus had in mind. First of all, ‘this generation’ means those living that time. A generation would be seen as about a 40-year period, and so Jesus is predicting that in that time-span, shall we say, approximately 40 years, there's going to be big judgement coming on Israel because the religious leadership has refused fundamentally to receive Jesus as the Messiah. ‘Your house is left to you desolate’. The ‘house’ could well refer to the Temple, possibly to the city of Jerusalem, but more likely to the Temple. ‘Your house’, the place of worship that had been in operation for hundreds of years since it was rebuilt after they came back from Babylon - this house was going to be left unoccupied, desolate, deserted, no longer functioning. What an incredible prediction. Jesus goes on to explain about the Temple, in Matthew 24: 2 ‘“Truly, I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another. Every one will be thrown down!”’ This is a dramatic, unexpected and very surprising prediction. It leads the disciples to ask Jesus three questions and it's these three questions that help us to understand what Jesus says subsequently. Matthew 24: 3,
‘As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us”, they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?”’Matthew 24:3, NIV
There are actually three separate questions there, ‘When will this happen?’ and this refers to the destruction of the Temple, ‘when will the destruction of the Temple take place?’ ‘What will be the sign of your coming?’ That means Jesus' return. He'd predicted many times he's going to return again. And ‘What will be the sign of the end of the age?’ The disciples may have imagined that all these events were going to take place simultaneously. We can't be sure exactly what they had in mind but these were the questions that they were asking Jesus. What I stated in the last episode is that Jesus answers all these three questions in Matthew 24 and the parallel texts.
However, he starts, in verses 4 - 14, painting a more general picture of the age of the Church, the era of the Church, those many centuries in which the Church would be functioning after he had died and risen and ascended and sent the Holy Spirit. He speaks of false religious teachers, false messiahs and prophets; he speaks of continual international warfare; he speaks of humanitarian disasters and natural disasters; he speaks of persecution; he speaks of a division in the hurch between true believers and nominal believers. He speaks of the Gospel of the Kingdom being preached to the whole world as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come. Jesus described this process as birth pains, Matthew 24: 8. This is a wonderful description of the process of suffering and yet hope that Christians experience in a complex and painful world, where disasters and war and difficulties are going on around us. We ourselves suffer very much, often from persecution, opposition and factors that resist the coming of the Kingdom. That was the subject of our last episode.
The Future of Israel
Now, I'm going to turn to the material that helps us to understand what was going to happen to the nation of Israel. How was this particular prediction that Jesus had made, that the house would be left desolate, that judgement would come on that particular generation, how was that going to be fulfilled? I'm going to turn first of all to Luke's account because Luke gives us a short and significant statement about Israel and about Jerusalem. This is in Luke 21: 20 - 24. When we've studied this passage, we'll return to Matthew, where Jesus adds more detail and we put these two together we'll get an answer to the first question: ‘When will this happen?’ - the destruction of the Temple, the first question of the disciples, will be answered clearly in the material we study today. Luke 21: 20 - 24,
‘“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you'll know that its desolation is near . Then let those who are in Judaea 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 fulfilment 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 nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”’Luke 21:20-24, NIV
Jesus predicts, in this statement, that a sign will indicate imminent judgement and that is the city of Jerusalem being surrounded by an army - besieged by an army. When the disciples of Jesus see this happen, they're called on to leave the city of Jerusalem and to flee away to safe places. It's predicted to be a time of exceptional distress and an assault on the Jewish people by an unnamed military force that will lead to the capture of Jerusalem and for it being trampled on by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled. This passage has caused a huge amount of interest, especially in modern days. Let's go back to the original context.
Let's also be grateful for the fact that we have a very good historical source that tells us about something that happened in Israel within one generation of Jesus dying - a war that took place between the Jews and the Romans, which I've mentioned on a number of occasions as we've gone through our teaching. This is the moment for me to pause and say a little more about this. The writer in question is Josephus. His full name Josephus Flavius, who was a Jew but worked for the Romans during the exact period of time that these events took place. He wrote a book called ‘The Jewish War’, which describes a war that mostly took place between 66 and 70 A.D. It took another three years to deal with a few outposts of Jewish resistance. What happened in 66 A.D. is that there was a rebellion amongst the Jews against Roman Imperial rule. They organised themselves into militias and armed groups. They set up their own government, took over the city of Jerusalem, threw the Romans out. This provoked an enormous reaction from the Roman Empire. Military units were mobilised from all sorts of different parts of the Empire, and the Romans came through the land of Israel, fought many battles, first of all in the north in Galilee, and then they came down to the south and surrounded the city of Jerusalem, exactly as is stated here in verse 20. Josephus was an eyewitness. He was in Galilee and he came with the Roman forces to Jerusalem. He wrote a very detailed account of this event which exactly matches up with the statements that Jesus made in prophetic prediction all these years beforehand. The city was surrounded and there was approximately four months of siege in 70 A.D. under the Roman general Titus. The city was captured amidst great bloodshed, and finally the Temple, which was fiercely defended by the Jews, was captured. The city was destroyed, and the Temple in particular was knocked down, so no stone was left standing on top of another. The exact thing that Jesus had said in Matthew 24: 2 was fulfilled in 70 A.D. ‘“Not one stone will be left on another”’. He said that in about 33 A.D. By 70 A.D., within one generation, that exact reality had taken place. Many Jews died and many Jews were sent into exile to other nations. They were dispersed. This is what they call a ‘diaspora’ or a ‘dispersion of the Jews’. There'd been one when they were exiled by the Assyrians and Babylonians in their earlier history and this is known as the ‘second dispersion’ or the ‘second diaspora’, where Jews - tens of thousands of Jews - were exiled to all parts of the Roman Empire and beyond. Jerusalem was taken over by the Romans; Jewish identity was stamped on; and the Jewish religion ceased to function in any formal sense. This is a sobering reality.
Matthew goes on to describe a particular aspect of this which relates to the Temple in his account. We're going to read Matthew 24: 15 - 21, where Matthew is describing an aspect of this particular siege and destruction. We need to put these two passages together because they relate to the same event. Matthew 24:15,
‘“So, when you see standing in the holy place the abomination that causes desolation spoken through the prophet Daniel, let the reader understand, then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down and take anything out of the house, let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in the winter, or on the Sabbath, for then there will be great distress unequalled from the beginning of the world until now, and never to be equalled again!”’Matthew 24:15-21, NIV
The instruction here is directed to the disciples, to the Christian community who would be living in Israel at this time. There was a large Jewish community who had come over to the Christian faith in Israel at the time and Jesus is saying to them, ‘When you see these events in Jerusalem, you need to flee because you don't want to get caught up in this persecution of the Jews’. The Church historian Eusebius, writing about 300 years later, recounts the tradition that the Christians from Jerusalem and the surrounding area fled to the north and to the east to a town called Pella, which is across on the other side of the Jordan River, out of the way of the trouble. The message here is a warning that when you see these terrible things happening, you need to get out of the way because you don't want to get caught up in this conflict between the Jewish people and the Roman armies. But what is this ‘holy place’?, and what is ‘the abomination that causes desolation’? The ‘holy place’ is undoubtedly the Temple. It's very hard to imagine what else Jesus could be referring to.
The ‘abomination that causes desolation’ is a quotation from the prophet Daniel, who several times refers to this phrase in a description of certain events, hence, Jesus saying, ‘Spoken of through the prophet Daniel’, let the reader of Daniel understand the connection between the two. As we go back to Daniel, we'll find that there are three references to this phrase and ‘abomination that causes desolation’. The first is in Daniel 9: 27, then in Daniel 11: 31, and then in Daniel 12: 11. Daniel is a hard prophecy and prophetic book to understand but we can be confident to say that the reference in Daniel 11: 31 to an ‘abomination that causes desolation in the Temple fortress’ is undoubtedly a reference to an event that happened between Daniel writing and the time of Jesus. It happened over 150 years before the time of Jesus, where a gentile king by the name of Antiochus Epiphanes took over the Temple. He abolished Jewish worship, and installed the worship of the Greek god Zeus. He overthrew the whole Temple worship. It is this Daniel described as an ‘abomination that causes desolation’, an abomination to God that defiles the Temple in a fundamental sense. That event had already happened but in Daniel 9: 27, we have a similar situation in an extended prophecy which goes from Daniel 9:24 through to Daniel 9:27. That extended prophecy is in fact about the times of the Messiah, and when the Messiah will come and events that will happen after that Messiah. He predicts another ‘abomination that causes desolation’ in the Temple. It goes beyond the scope of what we're doing here to identify exactly what Daniel is talking about in that particular reference but, what we can say, is that what happened in the Temple at the time of the Roman siege in A.D. 70 was an ‘abomination of desolation’ in a similar nature to the ones predicted by Daniel. What is an ‘abomination that causes desolation’? This is supposed to be the holy place; it's supposed to be the place where God meets mankind, where his presence is felt on earth, where his covenant is celebrated, where his glory is felt and where his grace is revealed to the Jews and subsequently to mankind as well. It appears that what Jesus is prophesying here in Matthew 24, is that at the time of the Romans surrounding Jerusalem and destroying the Temple, they'll actually set up a hostile religious symbol in the Temple, an abomination, something that speaks of the worship of other gods and defiles the Temple even as they are destroying. Interestingly enough, Josephus, the eyewitness of this event, who wrote an extended history, speaking of this very moment when the Roman armies broke into the Temple, said, and I quote, ‘As the Jewish partisans had fled the city and flames were consuming the Sanctuary itself, the Romans brought their standards into the Temple area and, setting them opposite the gate, sacrificed to them there, and with thunderous acclamations hailed Titus as Emperor’. That was an act of abomination in the Jewish Temple, and it may be what Jesus was referring to. It's the only historical account of any credibility that we have of what happened on that particular occasion.
What we can say is that these verses in Matthew 24: 15 - 21 refer to the same events as Luke 21: 20 - 24. They refer to this terrible tragic judgement that came over the Jewish nation within one generation of Jesus dying on the cross and rising again from the dead.
The theme that we've been following through this whole series, which has been gathering momentum particularly in Series 11, the theme of conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment, turns out to be one of incredible importance because the Jews were given by God the unique responsibility of being a chosen people who should, over time, in different ways, communicate the grace of God, the message of God and the revelation of God to all the Gentile nations around. In order to do that, they had to receive the Jewish Messiah; they had to receive Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah into their nation at the time that he came, so that their nation, their people, could get behind the mission of the Church and go to the nations of the world to spread the Gospel. That was the ultimate purpose of God but it wasn't fulfilled in a whole way, because the religious leaders were absolutely determined that they were not going to believe in Jesus. They did not believe in him and they did their best to turn the nation against him, so only a minority of Jews actually became followers of Jesus and they were the founders of the Early Church. The nation as a whole was left in unbelief even after Jesus had died, had risen again and ascended to heaven, in and around Jerusalem; the majority of the people did not believe.
My final reflection is that there are two significant things happening in this passage. First of all, a real warning to the Early Church to be ready for this very major series of events taking place in the land of Israel within the lifetime of some of the people who would be listening to Jesus. The Early Church needed to respond quickly, to avoid getting involved in this conflict between the Jews and Romans. The second reflection is that this gives us a vital perspective on the Jewish people. There was a disastrous failure at a national level at the time of Jesus, leading to judgement.
The interesting thing is that the story doesn't end there. Luke 21:24 says that
‘“Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”’Luke 21:24, NIV
This is a prophetic indication that sometime in the future, the reconnection between the Jewish people and the city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel will take place. If we connect this to teaching that Paul gives us, particularly in Romans 11: 25 - 29, when he speaks of a great end-time returning to the Messiah amongst the Jewish people, if we add all these things together, we realise that this disaster in the first century would be changed in centuries to come. It so happens that in our own era, we are seeing first of all, the reconnection of the Jewish people to the land, and secondly, we're seeing an unprecedented number of Jewish people returning to Jesus as the Messiah. This makes it possible for us to believe the words of Jesus in Matthew 23: 39 when he says,
‘“For I tell you,”’ (the Jewish people), ‘“you'll not see me again until you say ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’”’,Matthew 23:39, NIV
and the expectation of Jesus was that when he returned again, to the earth, many Jewish people as believers would be welcoming him back in the Second Coming. The Second Coming is the theme of our next episode and I hope you'll join us for that episode.