“So when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…” – (Matt. 24:15, 16, RSV).
Jesus has, up to this point, given a number of general signs which his disciples would be able to recognize as ‘the beginning of birthpangs’: wars and rumors of wars, false christs and false prophets proclaiming deliverance for the Jews, persecution and murder of the messengers of Jesus, the ‘falling away’ of many of Jesus’ followers, and even the preaching of the good news of the kingdom among all nations as a witness. These were all preliminary events leading up to the end. With the ‘gospel’ having been proclaimed throughout the Roman Empire, however, “then the end will come”. Specific events which show that “the end” has actually arrived (not just events preceding “the end”) are now given.
But what was this “desolating sacrilege” (or “abomination of desolation”) which Jesus referred to (as recorded in Matthew and Mark)? No doubt the Jewish hearers and readers who were to be directly affected by this event, and who knew and understood the prophetic writings (Daniel in particular here) would have understood what an “abomination which makes desolate” was. But in order to clarify this for ‘Gentiles’ who perhaps would not have understood the reference, Luke interprets this statement for us (Luke 21:20, RSV): “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near”. The “abomination which makes desolate” was the Roman army entering Judea, and finally surrounding Jerusalem itself. Why would the Roman army be called an ‘abomination’? That word implied, for the Jewish hearers, idolatry; and the eagle insignias which the Roman soldiers bore were actually objects of worship, considered a sacrilege by the Jews. As J. Stuart Russell said on page 73 of his book The Parousia:
“We know from Josephus that the attempt of a Roman general (Vitellius), in the reign of Tiberius, to march his troops through Judea was resisted by the Jewish authorities, on the ground that the idolatrous images on their ensigns would be a profanation of the law. How much greater the profanation when those idolatrous emblems were displayed in full view of the temple and the Holy City! This was the last token which portended that the hour of doom for Jerusalem had come. Its appearance was to be the signal to all in Judea to escape beyond the mountains…for then would ensue a period of misery and horror without a parallel in the annals of time…That these calamities were literally unparalleled, can easily be believed by all who have read the ghastly narrative in the pages of Josephus. It is remarkable that the historian begins his account of the Jewish war with the affirmation, ‘that the aggregate of human woes from the beginning of the world, would, in his opinion, be light in comparison with those of the Jews.’”
Josephus was not a Christian, so it is not likely that he was intentionally seeking to validate Jesus’ prediction in Matt. 24:21 – “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” His statement, though, does constitute confirmation, by an independent eyewitness of the events, that Jesus’ evaluation was not an exaggeration, and that it is not necessary to posit another ‘great tribulation’ still future to us in order to keep Jesus from being a false prophet. Josephus, of course, did not venture to predict that there never would be any tribulation like those horrible events in the future. Jesus’ statement (“no, nor ever will be”) certainly indicates that he did not intend to teach that this ‘tribulation’ would indicate the end of the world either immediately or in the near future (as so many people believe based on his statements concerning the sun, moon, and stars) – though it would indicate the end for Israel as a nation.
Jesus’ followers were told that in order to escape the great tribulation and destruction which would follow the arrival of the Roman army, they should immediately flee into the mountains. Wherever they were when they saw the army, they should drop whatever they were doing and flee right away. That’s why they should hope and pray that there would not be difficulties such as winter conditions that would hinder their ability to get away quickly. Sabbath day restrictions, severely limiting the distance one could travel without violating the law, would definitely be a hindrance for Jewish Christians of that time. Pregnant and nursing women would have difficulty in getting away quickly. History records that the followers of Jesus took his message to heart, were on the alert, and did in fact ‘get out of town’ when the Roman army appeared – so that no Christian suffered or died as a result of the fighting and famine during that Roman siege.
During this siege, people were more than ever open to the deceptions of the false prophets and messiahs who promised deliverance to those unfortunate Jews. Josephus tells us that there were many such false prophets at this time, and gives an account of one in particular that led to the death of a vast number of people when the Temple itself was burned. Again quoting from The Parousia by J. Stuart Russell (pages 75 and 76) – who was in turn quoting Josephus:
“Of so great a multitude, not one escaped. Their destruction was caused by a false prophet, who had on that day proclaimed to those remaining in the city, that ‘God commanded them to go up to the temple, there to receive the signs of their deliverance.’ There were at this time many prophets suborned by the tyrants to delude the people, by bidding them wait for help from God, in order that there might be less desertion, and that those who were above fear and control might be encouraged by hope. Under calamities man readily yields to persuasion; but when the deceiver pictures to him deliverance from pressing evils, then the sufferer is wholly influenced by hope. Thus it was that the impostors and pretended messengers of heaven at that time beguiled the wretched people.”
Luke‘s account (Luke 21:22) has Jesus saying concerning that ‘great tribulation’ that “these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written”. All prophecies of judgment upon the nation of Israel which had not been previously fulfilled by such events as the “Babylonian Captivity” would now be fulfilled by the Roman army, with the consequence that the Jewish people would be “led captive among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24). If all that is written concerning punishment for Israel has been fulfilled, according to the prophecy of Jesus, then there cannot be any prophecies of judgment on Israel left to be fulfilled, can there? There is no ‘double fulfillment’ in the future in which Jerusalem shall again be surrounded by armies, experience ‘great tribulation’, and the Jews again be dispersed among the nations. There is not to be (according to any Bible prophecy) another temple to be built in Jerusalem, just so it can be again destroyed. So-called ‘prophecy experts’ promoting their sensational ‘doomsday’ ideas have built their edifices on a foundation of sand.