Jesus and the future: The Temple’s Destruction (Part 6)

In the next part of Jesus’ revelations regarding the future, He turns His attention to Jerusalem in 70 AD. Matthew 24:15-20 finally answers the apostles’ initial inquiry: when will the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem take place?

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.”

Notice how geographically and culturally specific Jesus is. People in Judea should run when they see something awful in the holy place of the temple. Therefore, this section is for the generation of Jews in the first century.

Jesus prophesied that the sign to observe was “the abomination that causes desolation.” In other words, a detestable, or offensive, thing that destroys would stand in the Temple. When that occurred, people should run for their lives, not bothering to pack a bag or retrieve items left behind. Obviously, pregnant women would have difficulty fleeing, as would parents of small children. Inclement weather would make their flight, or escape, challenging. Another challenge would be escaping on the Sabbath. Faithful Jews believed that they could only travel a prescribed distance on the Sabbath of about three-quarters of a mile, based on rabbinical interpretations of Exodus 16:29, Numbers 35:5, and Joshua 3:4. Whatever the circumstance of these first century believers, Jesus was clear: get out of Jerusalem.

Christ referenced the prophet Daniel when He made this announcement about the “abomination that causes desolation.” In Daniel 11:31, it says, “His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation.” He was prophesying about Antiochus Epiphanes, a Greek ruler in power from 175-164 BC. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, records that in 168 BC, Antiochus Epiphanes did indeed plunder the temple. In blasphemy, he built an altar to Zeus inside. Furthermore, he sacrificed pigs, continuing the desecration. Josephus says,

He also spoiled the temple, and put a stop to the constant practice of offering a daily sacrifice of expiation for three years and six months…Now Antiochus was not satisfied either with his unexpected taking the city, or with its pillage, or with the great slaughter he had made there; but being overcome with his violent passions, and remembering what he had suffered during the siege, he compelled the Jews to dissolve the laws of their country, and to keep their infants uncircumcised, and to sacrifice swine’s flesh upon the altar.

In approximately 536 BC, Daniel said this “abomination that causes desolation”, a detestable thing that destroys, would invade Jerusalem’s Temple. In 168 BC this prophecy came true. In approximately 30 AD, Jesus declared that history would repeat itself. In 70 AD, His prophecy came true as well.

Titus Vespasian, who would eventually rule Rome from 79-81 AD, surrounded and attacked the city of Jerusalem. He plundered and burned the temple, entering the Holy of Holies before it was engulfed in flames. Josephus recorded the details:

At which time one of the soldiers…set fire to a golden window, through which there was a passage to the rooms that were round about the holy house, on the north side of it…And now a certain person came running to Titus, and told him of this fire, as he was resting himself in his tent after the last battle; whereupon he rose up in great haste, and, as he was, ran to the holy house, in order to have a stop put to the fire…And now, since Caesar was no way able to restrain the enthusiastic fury of the soldiers, and the fire proceeded on more and more, he went into the holy place of the temple, with his commanders, and saw it.

The greatest fear of the Jews, that the temple would become desolate again and the people taken into captivity, was exactly what Jesus was foretelling. Yet He was also telling His apostles when to escape. Luke 21:20 records Jesus saying, “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near.” Thankfully, later disciples took Jesus’ prophecy to heart. “The apostolic church remembered Jesus’ words. When it became clear that Rome was going to use great force to put down the ever-growing Jewish rebellion in the latter part of A.D. 66-67, those Christians remaining in Jerusalem did indeed relocate to the hill country to the northeast in the Transjordan.”

How terrible was the Roman attack on Jerusalem that these Christians avoided? Besides the massive casualties, Josephus said 1.1 million people were killed in the overall campaign. Another 97,000 were hauled away as slaves. Eusebius, a 3rd century church historian, records that the Christians escaped Jerusalem, going specifically to the city of Pella as the Roman armies approached. These early Christians were an example of faithful obedience to the words of Christ. And faithfulness will be needed again as events unfold before Christ’s Second Coming.

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