Jesus and the Abomination of Desolation

Jesus’ reference to the Abomination of Desolation.   (RCW Edited 2024-06-23)

There are three parallel Gospel passages that record Jesus’ private discussion of the destruction of the Temple with Peter, James, John and Andrew while on the Mount of Olives, shortly before the Last Supper. This part of the Olivet Discourse was fulfilled in the context of the First Jewish Revolt, within 40 years of Jesus predictions. It is not related to His Second Coming, or to the Antichrist. It is not related to anything in the book of Revelation. It is not clearly mentioned even in the writings of Paul, though he often referred to ‘this evil generation’ or  ‘age’.  Jesus used such phrases frequently before this discussion took place.

We will start with Luke’s account, because it is the clearest and easiest to interpret.

Luke 21:20-24

20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. 21 Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are inside the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; 22 because these are days of punishment, so that all things which have been written will be fulfilled. 23 Woe to those women who are pregnant, and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land, and wrath to this people; 24 and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

Anyone familiar with the First Jewish Revolt, AD66-70, the fall of Jerusalem in AD70, or the writings of Josephus will see clearly that Luke’s account of Jesus’ words leaves no doubt that this part of the prophecy has been fulfilled. Jerusalem was surrounded by 4 Roman armies and 1 Syrian army. Over 60,000 soldiers camped around the city and besieged it. There was a brief period at the beginning when the armies were making their camps that Jews were allowed to enter the city for Passover.  It is during this brief window of crowds and confusion that a few might have been able to escape the city and get past the armies. But the Christians should not have waited even that long. They should have left before all the armies were assembled. They should have left as soon as they heard the armies were coming. If they waited to see all the armies arrive and get established, then only by extreme haste and God’s help would anyone have escaped. What if Jesus had told them to leave when a Roman entered the Temple? Gessius Florus took soldiers into the Temple’s outer Court, past the signs forbidding Gentile trespass on pain of death, and raided the Temple Treasury of 12 talents of gold. This happened in AD 66 and the revolt started immediately afterwards. In the days that followed the Jews drove Florus out, killed 3,000 Romans, and began to purge the city of Jews not supportive of the revolt. Any Christians left in Jerusalem after that were in constant danger from the Jewish rebels. Jesus was not telling them when to leave Jerusalem. He was telling them when the absolute last chance to leave had come. That is why it would be so urgent to leave quickly. They could have left any time before that, but not after.

Luke records Jesus’ accurate description of the suffering of the Jews in the Siege of Jerusalem, the captivity and diaspora which followed, and the condition of Jerusalem from AD70 until today. In 1967, when Moshe Dayan allowed the Moslems to retain control of the Temple Mount, the times of the Gentiles was extended indefinitely.  There has not been a Jewish temple since AD70, and contrary to popular opinion, not likely to be one any time soon. The Temple mount is still technically desolate, trampled by Gentiles and unbelievers.

There is an interpretative issue in Luke 21:22. The phrase “all things which have been written will be fulfilled” must be understood as limited to those prophecies concerning the destruction of the 2nd Temple and the punishment of the Jewish nation for its rejection of Jesus. To insist that this phrase means “every prophecy ever written” is a huge mistake. There is no defense for such an interpretation.

Luke was writing to an individual Gentile, so he avoided some of Jesus’ words that had meaning only from a Jewish historical perspective and would take too long to explain. That helps us also, since it makes Jesus’ meaning simple and comprehensible, but Matthew and Mark give us more of Jesus’ exact words, and it can be confusing to non-Jews.

The accounts of Matthew and Mark are almost identical. It will be easier to combine their information when discussing them.  Underlined phrases are unique to the particular gospel passage.

Matthew 24:15-28. NASB

15 “Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place—let the reader understand— 16 then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. 17 Whoever is on the housetop must not go down to get things out of his house. 18 And whoever is in the field must not turn back to get his cloak. 19 But woe to those women who are pregnant, and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 20 Moreover, pray that when you flee, it will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath. 21 For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will again22 And if those days had not been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘He is over here,’ do not believe him24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and will provide great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. 25 Behold, I have told you in advance. 26 So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them27 For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

Mark 13:14:23

14 “Now when you see the abomination of desolation standing where it should not be—let the reader understand—then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. 15 Whoever is on the housetop must not go down, nor go in to get anything out of his house. 16 And whoever is in the field must not turn back to get his cloak. 17 But woe to those women who are pregnant, and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 18 Moreover, pray that it will not happen in winter. 19 For those days will be such a time of tribulation as has not occurred since the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will again20 And if the Lord had not shortened those days, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom He chose, He shortened the days. 21 And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ’; or, ‘Look, there He is’; do not believe it22 for false christs and false prophets will arise, and will provide signs and wonders, in order to mislead, if possible, the elect. 23 But beware; I have told you everything in advance.

This is the only place in the New Testament where the Abomination of Desolation is mentioned. According to Josephus, the books of Maccabees, and the whole tradition of Chanukah, every Jew knew that that Abomination was the statue of Zeus that Antiochus IV has set up in the Temple about 200 years earlier and that the Desolation was the period of time when the Temple stood vacant without any sacrificial or worship observances. The phrase originally was ‘the abomination that causes desolation’. Mark does not add Jesus’ words that this was a reference to what Daniel had prophesied.  Both Matthew and Mark felt it was necessary to add the strange sentence “Let the reader understand.” In Matthew this statement is more obvious than in Mark. Matthew had already quoted Jesus’ reference to Daniel, so if it only meant that the reader should look to Daniel to understand this reference, this statement is redundant. Matthew and Mark are saying that every Jew knows that Daniel’s prophecy was already fulfilled. Jesus is not saying that it was still to come or even that it would happen a second time. Which is good, since it clearly did not happen a second time. The only issue is the interpretation of the reference to the Abomination standing in the holy place, where it does not belong. This did not happen in the first Century. And there is nothing like it in Revelation or in the rest of the New Testament. The abomination, being the idol of Zeus, its worship and symbols, were present everywhere with the soldiers, Roman and Syrian. But there was never a moment when believers could ‘see’ this event happen and flee the city. I believe the problem is in the translation of the word “standing”, found in both Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14.  “Standing” is a present active participle, but the Greek word is a perfect active participle, and should be translated “having stood”.  Jesus is not saying ‘when you see it standing in the Temple…’ He is saying ‘when you see that which stood in the Temple, long ago…” Every breastplate with the image of Zeus or Jupiter, and every shield with lightning bolts on it is a fulfillment of Jesus’ warning. And it does not have to be in the Temple. As Luke says, flee if the city is surrounded by soldiers. When it happened they were wearing and carrying the image and symbols of Zeus/Jupiter.

There is no difficulty in understanding the problems of fleeing Jerusalem while it is  being prepared for a siege. The reference to the Sabbath means that you can only go a ‘sabbath’s day journey’ which is not far enough to get you to safety. It is interesting that Jesus is pointing out a single day, almost a single moment, and is implying that He Himself does not know whether it will be on a Sabbath of not. Hence, the need to pray that it not happen on a sabbath. I still think it would have been easier to have them leave earlier, but that is because I do not know the reason why believers would have  stayed in Jerusalem through the entire 4 year period of the Jewish Revolt. It may have been that their responsibilities and obligations prevented some of them from leaving until the last possible moment.

In Matthew 24:21 and Mark 13:19 Jesus says this period of tribulation will be the worst ever. The contemporary secular historians said the Siege of Jerusalem was worse than the Siege of Carthage (149-146 BC), which had previously been considered the worst event of its kind. The modern mind looks at the 20th Century and sees much greater destruction and casualties and fails to see Jesus’ intent. He is not talking about the scope or size of the event being the biggest ever, the Holocaust Jewish toll death was 7 times greater. He is talking about the intensity of the distress being experienced by the inhabitants of a city under siege during a civil war. There has never been anything else like what happened to Jerusalem in AD70, and there is nothing in Revelation to compare with it. I don’t believe that in the Holocaust they ate each other’s babies.

The days were shortened.  The term ‘elect’ is not a reference to Christians, but was Jesus’ term for the Jews. Mark quotes Jesus as saying that it is the Lord who shortens those days. What happened in AD70 was this:  Titus’s plan was to let the siege run its course until the Jews surrendered, that would prevent him from losing any soldiers. It could have lasted 3 years like the previous siege of Jerusalem by Herod the Great in 37-34 BC. Because of the civil war inside the city, it might not have lasted that long, but it is less likely that any surrender would have ever happened. Titus received orders to get it over with, so he had to make plans and preparations for attacking the walls and defeating the Jews without waiting for the siege to have its full effect. Instead of the siege lasing years, it was over in less than 6 months. Josephus says 97,000 Jewish prisoners were taken. It is fair to say that the Siege of Jerusalem was cut short on purpose, by the actions of Titus, and the result was more captives survived than might have otherwise.  

It is interesting that Jesus’ warnings about false messiahs and false prophets follow the fall of Jerusalem. Remember Bar Kochba? The history of the Jewish people since AD70 is one of being frequently misled by some of their spiritual leaders. In Mark, Jesus says, “Look, I have told you all of this in advance.” It is amazing that He was exactly right, even way beyond AD70. (Those who think the Olivet Discourse was a fake prophecy written after the fact are just obstinately denying the reality of Biblical prophecy.) To make it even clearer, Jesus said that He is not talking about His own return. He says do not believe any messianic claims by anyone, because His return will be so fast, dramatic, unique and recognizable, that His coming will not be mistaken by anyone! So much for those who say Jesus has returned spiritually. Jesus did not come back in AD70, if He did, He was a liar. I am sorry for the full Preterists whom I just offended. I know you are trying to take the whole Bible in the best possible sense, but Jesus’ warnings about false messiahs are meaningless if His coming is anything less than a tremendously obvious event.

So, Jesus answered the Disciples’ question about when the Temple would be destroyed, and what signs would precede it, but He wasn’t done. In all three accounts of this ‘Olivet Discourse’ the rest of the passage concerns Jesus’ future return and the signs that precede it. Part of Jesus’ prophecy is fulfilled and part of it is not. The temple is gone, but Jesus has not returned. There is no reason for any part of this prophecy to be fulfilled twice.

What is usually called the ‘Great Tribulation’ is understood to be the same period of time as ‘the time of Jacob’s trouble’ and a time of ‘wrath against this people’.  When have the Jews not been subject to racial hatred and violence? Since the First Jewish Revolt in AD66 Jews have been mistreated by nearly everyone: Rome, the Church of Rome, the Moslems, Hitler, etc. I believe it is fair to say that the Great Tribulation stared in AD66 and is still continuing, and will continue until Jesus Returns. Will the 3.5 years associated with the 7th trumpet (sometimes called the ‘Great Tribulation’) be worse than the Holocaust? Even if the Antichrist captures Jerusalem, some Jews will be protected and out of his reach. The future looks bleak, but it should not be seen as separate from the last 1950 years of Jewish suffering and persecution. Luke can be interpreted as equating the ‘age of the Gentiles’ with the trampling of Jerusalem by Gentiles. I take this to mean that the suffering of the Jewish people, and the absence of their Temple, will continue until Jesus returns. The ‘Great Tribulation’ has had many distressing events, and October 7, 2023 is a reminder that the worst may be yet to come. Many Moslems around the world are committed to making it so.  We should not say that the ‘Great Tribulation’ is only 7 years long. It is not about Daniels’ 70th week. That is a fulfilled prophecy that will not be repeated. It was never about the Antichrist or the ‘Great Tribulation’.

There are two more texts that need to be mentioned in this context.

Daniel 9:26 NASB

 26 Then after the sixty-two weeks, the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined. 

Jesus died during the literal 70th Week of Daniel. Gabriel (speaking to Daniel) did not say when the city and the sanctuary’ would be destroyed, only that it would be after the Messiah’s death. It happened 40 years later, fulfilling Gabriel’s words. Also in this verse is the source of Jesus’ reference to the Abomination of Desolation. The descendants and relatives of Antiochus IV were going to be involved in the destruction of the city and the Temple. That is how Jesus knew that the image of Zeus would be present when the armies arrived from Syria. That is why He told them that they would see it before Jerusalem was destroyed, and that is why Luke’s version of the Olivet Discourse omits it, and simply mentions the armies. It is effectively the same thing but does not require a specific knowledge of Jewish history.

Before the Olivet Discourse, Jesus had on several occasions preached condemnation to the Pharisees, etc. He said several times that they were an evil, wicked, unbelieving generation, and that they would be destroyed for their unbelief. This was how He always talked about the Jewish leaders alive at that time. The fall of Jerusalem 40 years later fulfilled all of those prophecies by Jesus recorded earlier in the Gospels. This has nothing to do with the phrase “this generation” which occurs later in the Olivet Discourse in the context of Jesus’ discussion about His Return.

2 Thessalonians 2:3,4 NASB

No one is to deceive you in any way! For it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God.

 I would like to suggest an alternative translation of the second half of 2 Thessalonians 2:4: 

“…so that he displays himself as being God seated in His temple” I believe the Greek will allow for the temple to be part of the display. A literal temple is not necessary for this prophecy to be fulfilled.

Paul is discussing something with the Thessalonians that does not clearly appear anywhere else in scripture. Jesus never said anything about someone displaying himself as if he were God on His throne. Neither did Daniel. Neither does revelation. Paul said this is about something which precedes the Day of the Lord. But there was no seat in the earthly Temple. God does not have an earthly throne. The Ark of the Covenant was also called the Mercy Seat, and some may see it as a kind of throne, but it was not present in Herod’s temple at any time. There was nothing in the Holy of Holies in AD70. Scholars have pointed out that this is not about an earthly Temple but is about a representation of God’s throne in Heaven. There is only one possible connection to anything else in the Bible and that is:

Revelation 13:6 NASB

And he opened his mouth in blasphemies against God, to blaspheme His name and His tabernacle, that is, those who dwell in heaven.

The act of blaspheming God’s tabernacle in heaven may be what Paul is describing. This passage in Revelation is about the Beast and his actions before the Day of the Lord. This translation is a little ambiguous. The inserted words “that is” should be replaced by “and”. This Satan-filled man might be Paul’s ‘man of sin’. Blasphemy is a broad term, and in this context is related to things this “beast’ says. So, he says untrue and evil things about God, His name, His tabernacle in Heaven and the angels and saints in heaven. There is nothing in Revelation about the beast sitting on God’s throne or having anything to do with a temple on earth. If this is what Paul is referring to, he and his Thessalonian readers seem to know more than we know today. This is a clear case of “we will know it when we see it”.

Conclusion. Jesus’ reference to the Abomination of Desolation was for a very specific purpose, limited to the first century in meaning and application and was fulfilled in AD70. It is not related to any unfulfilled prophecy today. Revelation tells us that the Beast will be full of blasphemy, but his actions will be different from anyone who has gone before. The Antichrist will not repeat the Abomination of Desolation, but his actions will be even more evil and destructive.