The Time Of Great Insecurity
There are, in human history, certain defining events which dominate the consciousness of the world affected by it for up to several generations after it. Rarely are such events positive expressions of the human spirit. For these events never come out of a vacuum - they are usually the result of years of the most bitter hatred culminating under a title which becomes a word or phrase which seems to tell a whole story at once.
No one can deny that such an event is `The Holocaust.' This deliberately planned and enforced program by the Nazi German government of the 1930's and 1940's to slaughter particularly the Jewish race in its then heart-land of Europe, resulted in the theft of property, the displacement, dehumanisation, severe suffering and brutal murder of millions. Such a hatred of man against man had hardly been committed before in this kind of overwhelming manner.
But it has certainly been done before. And it certainly has not stopped since - whether from the massacre of the Tutu's in Rwanda to the Serbian ethnic cleansing of other races in the different parts of the former Yugoslavia.
The Lord Jesus draws His disciples through now, in His teaching to them about what is yet to come, with a reference to such an event. Following on from His picturing the persecution of His followers in the future He heightens that with pointing out an event that the disciples themselves will see. This is the key to that interesting phrase in verse 15, “let the reader understand,” because then the reader would have understood it all too clearly. Especially when Matthew mentions `the abomination that causes desolation,' this distinctly Hebrew audience would know only too well of a holocaust that happened in their recent history.
The Sign of This Time
Like the key character of Adolf Hitler of our recent history, their recent history had distinctly bad memories of one called Antioches IV. Antioches IV, perhaps not so surprisingly was the son of Antiochus III, one from a line which went back to the military generals of Alexandra, who subdivided his empire between themselves after his early and heir-less death.
Antioches IV, however, seized the power of one of these areas at a time when the Roman empire was gaining its ascendancy. Without Rome's tacit support he could neither advance his territorial control - which was Syria and Phoenicia - nor even hold on to it.
If Rome said “Jump!” you ask “How high?” It was such a command from Rome that came to Antioches, just as he was about to effectively amalgamate Egypt into his possessions, that told him to retreat from Egypt back to what he already had. A command that was a severe blow to the ego.
Added to this frustration politically, Antioches had during his stay in Rome and Athens taken on some of the local religious influence. He even assumed the cult name `theos epiphanes' (the manifest god), and he replaced the image of the traditional Seleucid Apollo with that of Zeus Olympius on the reverse of the Antiochene tetradrachm.
It was during his withdrawal from Egypt, and perhaps at a time a rebellion had been put down in Judea, that Antioches plundered the temple, desecrating the Holy of holies, stealing the seven-branched candelabrum (which stood in place of the ark of the covenant), the table for the shewbread, and the incense altar. He further enforced upon the people a decree to make `all in his kingdom one people', stipulating `that each should give up his customs'. This was followed by a time of intense general religious persecution in Judea. Antioches was set upon doing away the Jewish belief and introducing Greek customs. A number of actions strongly forced this - the adoption of the name Zeus Olympius in place of `Lord of heaven'; setting up a second altar, or it may have been a holy stone, upon the existing altar of burnt offering in the temple of Jerusalem; and on top of these sacrilegious acts the Judeans were forced to sacrifice pigs. This was not even an act done in the Greek religions, so it's clear that this sacrifice was to attack the special character of the Jewish religion. Two Apocryphal books, I and II Maccabees, mention aspects of the above but colour it in a more intense way against Antioches personally, whereas from other sources it can be shown that there were a number of political forces in Judea who used this situation for their own personal ends also.
To the Jewish mind of Jesus' time the phrase `the abomination that causes desolation' brought it all back through their own spectacles. The view presented in the Maccabean books had become part of their religious framework To raise up its spectre again, and this time with no less than the accompanying distress, and in their own lifetime, certainly was heightening the Lord's word for the future.
The Fear of This Time
The words of Jesus about the coming desecration of the temple were fulfilled with its utter destruction in AD 70. The magnificent structure of cream stone and gold was barely finished (AD 64) before it was decimated by Roman soldiers. The golden candelabrum, the table of shewbread and other objects were carried in triumph to Rome, as depicted on the Arch of Titus.
How terrible this coming devastation of Jerusalem and the temple would be is shown in a series of graphic pictures from the Lord. It begins with a general warning to everyone in Judea to flee to the mountains. Jerusalem, despite all its walls and other fortifications, will fall. And you best get right out of the place!
In fact, forget about bothering to get anything out the house that day. Nowadays we would say - not even the photographs! Anything material which is your nearest and dearest has to be left behind. Your life is at stake. It was because of the risk to lives, in a town affected by a landslide after severe flooding, that homeowners weren't even allowed back for those precious memories in the photo albums.
The picture of the one on the roof not going down to take anything out of it may seem strange to us. We have to go through the house if we have a balcony on the top. But not in Palestine then. There was an outside stairway - the same as when the four friends of the paralysed man got him up to the roof so that they could break it open and lower him to Jesus, so that he could be healed.
Nor even would a man working in the field have time to get his jacket from the other side of the field, before he had to flee. There is an awesome sense of judgement here. That's why to those who would say that here Jesus has a most un-gospel like message to his followers, there needs to be a pointing to both the faith in the Master at that time, and the change in time, for all that had been valued in the physical temple, and in the physical city, up until that time, would be changed for all time. We shouldn't forget that Jesus is still explaining his prophecy in verse 2 that not one stone in the temple will be left upon another.
The next picture, of the pregnant women and the nursing mothers in verse 19, is an interesting dilemma. Does it mean what it seems on face-value, that these are the people least able to move out quickly, and so the Lord is particularly concerned for them, in the way of the most kindest love. Or could it be, as Hosea foretells of a time for the inhabitants of Samaria, that while they would die by the sword, their young children would be dashed to the ground and their pregnant women ripped open (13:16). Whichever one it would be there would definitely be a terrible insecurity.
Then Jesus goes into which time or day it might occur. This will be so bad that if it happened in winter or on the Sabbath, you were a goner! Winter speaks for itself, with its exposure to the cold elements. The Sabbath speaks of exposure to another element - the religious fundamentalism which proves itself at a time like this to be totally unreal. All those rules and regulations aren't going to save anyone - especially when the end is upon us like this! In a cutting response to the Pharisees Jesus shows how they will only hinder people from safety.
The Time of This Time
The picture of devastation is quite clear - but so also is its shortness. Relatively, that is, because whatever the Church may undergo in this last Millennium before Christ's coming again, will be nothing compared with the surpassing glory which is to come! The Lord will not extend us beyond what he knows we can bear. He is the loving God. And He's got it all in His hands!
This is what Jesus continually made a point of saying. Only His Father knew this world's timetable. While the disciples still looked towards a physical restoration of Israel, even after the resurrection and even asking Him just before the ascension, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”, Jesus confirmed yet again, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” (Acts 1:6f)
But the coming signs of the end of the age will bring out all kinds of messiahs. The change of a millennium has brought even more lunatics out of the woodwork. This is another `sign' which they will press out until the last possible dollar has been bled out of a gullible Christian public. If they are not genuine, and Jesus makes it quite clear they're not, then we should be quite clear on what contact we have with them - none whatsoever! And we must warn other believers in the same vein. Don't let anyone fall into the same fear which the Pharisees held over the Jews with all their conspirital manipulation. They were the sect after all, and not the Christians - much as they tried to label the early New Testament Church this way.
And one should not be taken in by what appear to be real signs and miracles. There were those magicians in Egypt who could do what Aaron could do in changing a staff into a snake. The point here is the same as that of YAHWEH through Moses then. For it was Aaron's snake which swallowed up their staffs. And while these impostors seem to have the goods and may even appear to produce the goods, they are only there because it is a time when they can carry out their deception. They are the vultures which gather around the carcass (v28).
It is interesting how Jesus also points out two key approaches of such false messiah's and the movements they lead. In verse 26 He warns about the messages from them that Christ is either out in the desert or in the inner rooms. Like many sects today, there is a focus of being right outside of this society you're cut off, or so exclusive within it that you can't get outside it. Any false movement will have either of these two aspects dominating it.
The appearing of the Lord, however, will be totally different than either. You won't be able but to see it - and everyone, everywhere! As the lightning is seen one end of the sky to the other, so Christ will be seen by all. How much further it will be than some arid wasteland or dark corner. Our passage which began with one who so much set Himself against the LORD God, has ended in no more a definitive way than with the completed reign of God the Son Himself.