Jesus and the Olivet Discourse: The Abomination of Desolation…and other Cosmic Stuff (Part 4: The Jewish War Series)

A week before he was arrested by the Sanhedrin and then crucified under Pontius Pilate, Jesus of Nazareth rode into the Jerusalem on a donkey, being hailed by many as the promised Davidic Messiah. He then proceeded to do the exact opposite of what most Jews were expecting, not really confronting Rome at all, but rather continuously speaking out against the Temple priesthood and leadership and condemning the Temple itself.

And then just a day or two before he was arrested, Jesus was with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, and he made it plain to them: the Temple was going to be destroyed. This is what we find in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21—what is known as the Olivet Discourse.

In my previous post, I commented on the disciples’ initial question to Jesus regarding when the Temple would be destroyed, as well as the first part of Jesus’ reply to their question. And I made the case that everything in the Olivet Discourse fit very well into that first century Jerusalem context: in 33 AD, Jesus prophesied the Temple would be destroyed, and the Temple was indeed destroyed within a generation, in 70 AD. Just as previous Old Testament prophets were vindicated as true prophets when what they prophesied came about, Jesus’ prophecy against the Temple, and its subsequent fulfillment in 70 AD was also seen to vindicate Jesus as a prophet and as the Messiah. Only a small number of disciples witnessed his resurrection—the entire Roman world knew about the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

What Jesus prophesied had come true. I believe that was one of the fundamental things the early pre-70 AD Church declared throughout those first few decades from 33-70 AD. And therefore, when Rome finally did destroy the Temple, that was the impetus for Mark, Matthew, and Luke to put the stories and teachings of Jesus that the apostles had taken throughout the Roman Empire and put them in a definitive collection, if you will.

In this post, though, we are going to look at the more, shall we say, colorful portions of the Olivet Discourse—the portions that modern “End Times experts” love to speculate on: talk of the Abomination of Desolation, Cosmic Upheaval, and the Son of Man Coming on the Clouds.

The Abomination of Desolation
In Mark 13:14 and Matthew 24:15, Jesus tells his disciples that when they see the Abomination of Desolation standing where it should not (i.e. the holy place), that they are run for the hills—get out of Judea (and presumably Jerusalem). He also tells them there will be great tribulation at that time, and that many false messiahs will rise up and lead many astray.

Incidentally, I believe that Mark 13:20 and Matthew 24:22 should be read as Mark’s parenthetical note (obviously kept in Matthew). The reason for this is because up to that point, Jesus is telling his disciples what will happen, but then all of a sudden in Mark 13:20/Matthew 24:22, the verb tense switches to past tense, and then after that back to future tense. It’s as if Mark is inserting something to this effect, “That time of suffering and tribulation was horrific, but thankfully, those days were cut short!” That is significant, for it is telling us that at the time of the writing of Mark (and later Matthew), the events of which Jesus was speaking were understood to have happened.

In any case, the typical, what I will call the “Lindsey/LaHaye” view simply assumes the event that Jesus is talking about has yet to happen, and therefore they interpret this passage along these lines: in order for there to be an “Abomination of Desolation,” a third Temple will have to be rebuilt. Therefore, the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 is seen to be the initial “sign” that this prophecy of the second coming is about to be fulfilled. When Hal Lindsey wrote The Late, Great Planet Earth, he proclaimed that the second coming would happen in 1988—40 years after the founding of Israel. When that didn’t happen, he switched it to 2000. When that didn’t happen, well…sometime real soon!

But even without such crazy predictions, we should see that this typical interpretation simply is not feasible. After all, we are told in Mark 13:14/Matthew 24:15 that Jesus told his disciples (there in 33 AD), “you (i.e. his followers at that time) will see,” and that the authors of both Matthew and Mark clearly tell their first century readers (circa 70-80 A.D.)  that “the reader should understand.” Whatever Jesus meant by “the Abomination of Desolation,” it was meant to be understood at that time.

So, if Jesus wasn’t predicting Nicolae Carpathia declaring himself God in a newly rebuilt third Temple that was funded in part by the European Union (I’m sorry, sometimes I step back and think, “I can’t believe I have to say that!”), then what was he talking about? To the point, Jesus is making reference to Daniel 9:26-27 and 12:10-11. Ever since the time of the Maccabean revolt in 167 BC, this prophecy in Daniel was understood within Judaism to be fulfilled in the events surrounding the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who in 167 BC set up his image in the Temple and ordered all Jews to sacrifice swine to him as God (Maccabees 1:54-64).

Titus in the Temple

Hence, by Jesus’ time, Abomination of Desolation essentially became a catch-phrase that described any monumental sacrilege to the Temple. If we try to understand this reference in relation to 70 AD, Jesus’ reference to Abomination of Desolation could be a reference to a number of things. Some think it could have been a reference to when the Roman emperor Caligula attempted to put a statue of himself in the Temple in 40 AD. Of course, he died before that could be done, so that probably isn’t it. Others think it might be a reference to when the Roman general Titus walked into the Holy of Holies during the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. That certainly is a possibility.

I think, though, there might be another possibility (one that I’ll eventually write about later this year when I go through Josephus’ account of the Jewish War). I think it is possible that the “abomination” Jesus warned about came in the form of the desolations that the Jewish zealots themselves did in the Temple courts during the Jewish War. Throughout his book, Josephus repeatedly emphasizes that, because of the zealots, the Temple had been filled with abominations.

One zealot leader, Menahem, tried to set himself up as king by wearing the royal robes in the Temple. Another zealot leader, John of Gischala, took the gold vessels in the Temple and used them for the war. In other words, by 70 AD, there was absolutely no one who would be wondering, “When will the Temple be desecrated and desolated by abominations?” It was quite clear to both Jewish and Christian eyes that, because of the abominations that had profaned the Temple, it had been destroyed and left desolate.

Titus and the Siege of Jerusalem

Incidentally, Luke 21:20 does not use the phrase “the abomination of desolation,” but rather says, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” Let me just as you this: if you were living in, let’s say Corinth, and you were reading Luke’s gospel in 75 AD, and you came to this passage, wouldn’t you think, “This is a reference to what just happened to Jerusalem”? Rome came in, surrounded Jerusalem with armies and destroyed the city and Temple precisely because the Jewish zealot leaders had filled the city and Temple with their abominations.

Fleeing to the Hills
Therefore, when Jesus tells his disciples that when they see this happening they should “flee to the hills,” he is telling them to get out of Judea because God’s judgment was about to come upon it at the hands of the Roman armies. As far as Jesus was concerned, it was all about a question of loyalty: which version of the Kingdom of God should be pursued? Jesus’ version or that of the Jewish zealots? Based on how he saw the Jewish leaders rejecting him, Jesus knew all too well which version the Jewish nation would choose. So here in Mark 13/Matthew 24, he told his followers that when they saw the hand-writing on the wall, when they realized destruction was immanent, that they should give up their hope that the Jewish nation would embrace Jesus’ message, and abandon Jerusalem—get out of the city, and let it be destroyed by Rome.

Simeon of Jerusalem

This is precisely what happened. Jerusalem had become the enemy of Jesus and his followers, the true people of God, and therefore Jerusalem was to suffer God’s judgment. In fact, we know that Simeon, the cousin of Jesus, became the head of the church in Jerusalem after James, the brother of Jesus, had been stoned to death by the Sanhedrin, headed by the high priest Ananus, in 62 AD. Normally, the Sanhedrin didn’t have the authority to exercise capital punishment (that is why they had to take Jesus to Pilate in 33 AD). But in 62 AD, Ananus and the Sanhedrin took advantage of the fact that the Roman procurator Festus had died, but the new procurator, Albinus had not yet arrived in Judea—that is how they were able to have James killed.

Can you find Pella?

But in any case, once James was killed, Simeon became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and, as Eusebius tells us in his Church History, at the outbreak of the Jewish war, Simeon and the Jerusalem church fled Jerusalem and went to Pella. So again, we know what Jesus said in the Olivet Discourse in 33 AD; and we know that at the outbreak of the Jewish War, that is exactly what the Jewish Christians who remained in Jerusalem did.

But what about Jesus saying that “At that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Mark 13:19/Matthew 24:21)? First, consider what happened to the church in the 60s alone: James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, was killed by the Sanhedrin in 62 AD; then within a couple of years, Paul was beheaded in Rome and Peter was crucified in Rome. Within the span of about five years, the three most prominent pillars of the early Church had been martyred.

…and then the Jewish War happened. This is how Josephus, who witnessed the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple describes the horrors that happened at that time: “Never did any other city ever suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this was, from the beginning of the world” (The Wars of the Jews 5:10:5). It seems quite clear that in the eyes of the Jews and Christians of the first century, that the events of 66-70 A.D. truly revealed the “greatest suffering since the beginning of the world” up to that time.

Cosmic Upheaval
Finally, what about Jesus’ description of cosmic upheaval in Mark 13:24-25/Matthew 24:29? Clearly the sun was not darkened, the moon did not stop shining, and the stars didn’t fall out of the heavens in 70 AD. Well, this is a simple case of just recognizing the imagery in Jesus’ speech—he was not saying that those things would literally happen, and his original audience would have known that.

This kind of imagery is basically what I call Day of YHWH language—when God would bring wrath upon the enemies of His people and salvation for His people. All throughout the Old Testament, the prophets used this sort of language when prophesying about God’s judgment upon wicked cities. Jeremiah 4:23-28 uses this type of language when prophesying about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 587 BC. Isaiah 13:6-19 uses this type of language when prophesying about the destruction of Babylon. And Ezekiel 32:5-8 uses this language in his condemnation of Egypt.

Simply put, this kind of language of cosmic upheaval is how the prophets prophesied about God’s wrath coming upon certain cities. And interestingly enough, such language is found elsewhere in the Bible. In fact, in Acts 2:14-21, Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32 when explaining how the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was prophesied about by the prophets. Now obviously the sun did not go dark nor did the moon turn to blood on that day of Pentecost in 33 AD. Peter was not claiming that these things literally happened that day.

The point to be made is this: OT prophets consistently used this sort of language to describe either God’s judgment on rebellious cites, or His salvation and vindication of His people. Since Jesus was also a prophet, we should expect that he would use the same type of language when prophesying about the destruction of Jerusalem and the salvation and vindication of his followers.

…and that is what the Son of Man coming on the clouds is really all about. But that will take another post.

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