Matthew 24 (spring AD 30, Tuesday of Passion Week)
This passage contains one of the most hotly disputed passages in the Bible:
“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel…then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak…How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women…Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath…” (v.15-21).
The Old Testament reference is Daniel 9:27, 11:31 and 12:11.
Many insist that it refers to a prelude to Christ’s return. Passages pulled in from Revelation and Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians are said to support this, but the verses make no explicit reference to anything beyond predicting.
Some see this passage as therefore referring purely to the the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. As Dr. Dan Doriani expressed it, “It cannot possibly apply to Jesus’ return. When he comes it will be pointless for an unbeliever to try to flee. And a believer will not want to flee”[i]. That’s particularly important when thinking of verse twenty, which specifically assumes the flight of the Christians.
When the Romans arrived thirty-seven years after this prophecy, at the first sign of the armies and with Jesus’ prophecy in mind, “many Christians did flee, sparing their lives…Eusebius, the first great historian of the church, says that when the Romans fell upon Jerusalem, “the church at Jerusalem . . . left the city, and moved to a town called Pella.” So Jesus, ever the Good Shepherd, told the first Christians how to survive those most harrowing years of the church’s infancy” [ibid].
Jesus and the apostles were very clear in avoiding specifics about the Second Coming. Therefore, we don’t know when or what it will look like, simply that everyone will know about it – immediately – when it happens (v.27).
However, against the idea that Jesus is speaking only of AD70, bear in mind that Jesus was replying to the disciples’ question in verse three: “Tell us…when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”. Jesus’ reply can therefore be seen as a two-part reply – the terrible events referenced in verse one of the destruction of Jerusalem, are separate to Jesus coming again (so no contradiction of Doriani’s point about fleeing Christians), and Jesus tells them about both.
Notably, verse twenty-nine’s “Immediately after the distress of those days…” seems to indicate that the predicted terrible events immediately precede the Second Coming. David Turner says that, “…there is no warrant for supposing that the predicted desecration of Matthew 24:15 will be fulfilled solely by either the past AD70 destruction or by the future antichrist…”[ii]. Rather, he says, the prophecy is about both of those – and other – historical events.
So with all of that controversy in mind, and the open question about how much of that God expects the average person to delve into, what can we possibly learn? Can God teach us through passages when we’re not sure of the meaning?
With passages as opaque as this, and with so few other references that might clear it all up for us, I tend to think that God – who could have made it as straightforward as John 3:16 – deliberately didn’t. Partly because while we don’t need to know the details, but we do need to certain truths brought to mind by this passage:
- God knows exactly what will happen, when it will happen, and to whom it will happen
- Even armies are under the sovereign control of God
- We need to heed God’s warnings
- A miracle on its own does not prove someone’s identity (v.24)
- No-one going around claiming to be Jesus, is Jesus.
- WE DON’T KNOW WHEN HE’S COMING (v.36-51)
- BE READY!!!! (v.36-51)
That’s the big takeaway from all of this – not the somewhat academic to-ing and fro-ing of which events are (more) in view, but Jesus’ explicit words to be prepared at all times for his inevitable return of and giving of judgement. A day that will be terrible for those who rejected, and a going home for those of us who are safe in him.
[ii] ‘Matthew; Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament’ by David L Turner