And when He Who spake unto Moses, the Word of the Father, appeared in the end of the world, He also gave this commandment, saying, “But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another” [Matt. 10:23]; and shortly after He says, “When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place (whoso readeth, let him understand); then let them which be in Judea flee into the mountains: let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes” [Matt. 24:15]. Knowing these things, the Saints regulated their conduct accordingly.
–St. Athanasius, Defense of His Flight 
THE GREAT TRIBULATION
One of the most basic principles for an accurate understanding of the Bible’s message is that Scripture interprets Scripture. The Bible is God’s holy, infallible, inerrant Word. It is our highest authority. This means that we cannot seek for an authoritative interpretation of Scripture’s meaning anywhere outside of the Bible itself. It also means that we must not interpret the Bible as if it dropped out of the sky in the twentieth century. The New Testament was written in the first century, and so we must try to understand it in terms of its first-century readers. For example, when John called Jesus “the Lamb of God,” neither he nor his hearers had in mind anything remotely similar to what the average, modern man-on-the-street might think of if he heard someone called a “lamb.” John did not mean Jesus was sweet, cuddly, nice, or cute. In fact, John wasn’t referring to Jesus’ personality at all.
He meant that Jesus was the sinless Sacrifice for the world. How do we know this? Because the Bible tells us so.
This is the method we must use in solving every problem of interpretation in the Bible-including the prophetic passages. That is to say, when we read a chapter in Ezekiel, our first reaction must not be to scan the pages of the New York Times in a frantic search for clues to its meaning. The newspaper does not interpret Scripture, in any primary sense. The newspaper should not decide for us when certain prophetic events are to be fulfilled. Scripture interprets Scripture.
In Matthew 24 (and Mark 13 and Luke 21) Jesus spoke to His disciples about a “great tribulation” which would come upon Jerusalem. It has become fashionable over the past 100 years or so to teach that He was speaking about the end of the “Church Age” and the time of His Second Coming. But is this what He meant? We should note carefully that Jesus Himself gave the (approximate) date of the coming Tribulation, leaving no room for doubt after any careful examination of the Biblical text. He said:
Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.–
This means that everything Jesus spoke of in this passage, at least up to verse 34, took place before the generation then living passed away. “Wait a minute,” you say. “Everything? The witnessing to all nations, the Tribulation, the coming of Christ on the clouds, the stars falling… everything?” Yes-and, incidentally, this point is a very good test of your commitment to the principle we began with in this chapter. Scripture interprets Scripture, I said; and you nodded your head and yawned, thinking: “Sure, I know all that. Get to the point. Where do the atomic blasts and Killer Bees come in?” The Lord Jesus declared that “this generation” – people then living – would not pass away before the things He prophesied took place. The question is, do you believe Him?
Some have sought to get around the force of this text by saying that the word generation here really means race, and that Jesus was simply saying that the Jewish race would not die out until all these things took place. Is that true? I challenge you: Get out your concordance and look up every New Testament occurrence of the word generation (in Greek, genea) and see if it ever means “race” in any other context. Here are all the references for the Gospels: Matthew 1:17; 11:16; 12:39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:36; 24:34; Mark 8:12, 38; 9:19; 13:30; Luke 1:48, 50; 7:31; 9:41; 11:29, 30, 31, 32, 50, 51; 16:8; 17:25; 21:32. Not one of these references is speaking of the entire Jewish race over thousands of years; all use the word in its normal sense of the sum total of those living at the same time. It always refers to contemporaries. (In fact, those who say it means “race” tend to acknowledge this fact, but explain that the word suddenly changes its meaning when Jesus uses it in Matthew 24! We can smile at such a transparent error, but we should also remember that this is very serious. We are dealing with the Word of the living God.)
The conclusion, therefore-before we even begin to investigate the passage as a whole – is that the events prophesied in Matthew 24 took place within the lifetime of the generation which was then living. It was this generation which Jesus called “wicked and perverse” (Matt. 12:39, 45; 16:4; 17:17); it was this “terminal generation” which crucified the Lord; and it was this generation, Jesus said, upon which would come the punishment for “all the righteous blood shed on the earth” (Matt. 23:35).
All These Things
“Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!”
Jesus’ statement in Matthew 23 sets the stage for His teaching in Matthew 24. Jesus clearly told of an imminent judgment on Israel for rejecting the Word of God, and for the final apostasy of rejecting God’s Son. The disciples were so upset by His prophecy of doom upon the present generation and the “desolation” of the Jewish “house” (the Temple) that, when they were alone with Him, they could not help but ask for an explanation.
And Jesus came out of the Temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the Temple buildings to Him. And He said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down.” And as He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”
Again, we must take careful note that Jesus was not speaking of something that would happen thousands of years later, to some future temple. He was prophesying about “all these things,” saying that “not one stone here shall be left upon another.” This becomes even clearer if we consult the parallel passages:
And as He was going out of the Temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another which will not be torn down.”
And while some were talking about the Temple, that it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive gifts, He said, “As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down.”
The only possible interpretation of Jesus’ words which He Himself allows, therefore, is that He was speaking of the destruction of the Temple which then stood in Jerusalem, the very buildings which the disciples beheld at that moment in history. The Temple of which Jesus spoke was destroyed in the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman armies in A.D. 70. This is the only possible interpretation of Jesus’ prophecy in this chapter. The Great Tribulation ended with the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. Even in the (unlikely) event that another temple should be built sometime in the future, Jesus’ words in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 have nothing to say about it. He was talking solely about the Temple of that generation. There is no Scriptural basis for asserting that any other temple is meant. Jesus confirmed His disciples’ fears: Jerusalem’s beautiful Temple would be destroyed within that generation; her house would be left desolate.
The disciples understood the significance of this. They knew that Christ’s coming in judgment to destroy the Temple would mean the utter dissolution of Israel as the covenant nation. It would be the sign that God had divorced Israel, removing Himself from her midst, taking the kingdom from her and giving it to another nation (Matt. 21:43). It would signal the end of the age, and the coming of an entirely new era in world history – Jesus Christ’s New World Order. From the beginning of creation until A.D. 70, the world was organized around one central Sanctuary, one single House of God. Now, in the New Covenant order, sanctuaries are established wherever true worship exists, where the sacraments are observed and Christ’s special Presence is manifested. Earlier in His ministry Jesus had said: “An hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father…. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (John 4:21-23). Now Jesus was making it clear that the new age was about to be permanently established upon the ashes of the old. The disciples urgently asked: “When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?”
Some have attempted to read this as two or three entirely separate questions, so that the disciples would be asking first about the destruction of the Temple, and then about the signs of the end of the world. This hardly seems credible. The concern of the immediate context (Jesus’ recent sermon) is on the fate of this generation. The disciples, in consternation, had pointed out the beauties of the Temple, as if to argue that such a magnificent spectacle should not be ruined; they had just been silenced with Jesus’ categorical declaration that not one stone there would be left upon another. There is nothing whatsoever to indicate that they should suddenly change subjects and ask about the end of the material universe. (The translation “end of the world” in the King James Version is misleading, for the meaning of the English word world has changed in the last few centuries. The Greek word here is not cosmos [world], but aion, meaning eon or age.) The disciples had one concern, and their questions revolved around one single issue: the fact that their own generation would witness the close of the pre-Christian era and the coming of the new age promised by the prophets. All they wanted to know was when it would come, and what signs they should look for, in order to be fully prepared.
Signs of the End
Jesus responded by giving the disciples not one, but seven signs of the end. (We must remember that “the end” in this passage is not the end of the world, but rather the end of the age, the end of the Temple, the sacrificial system, the covenant nation of Israel, and the last remnants of the pre-Christian era). It is notable that there is a progression in this list: the signs seem to become more specific and pronounced until we reach the final, immediate precursor of the end. The list begins with certain events which would occur merely as “the beginning of birth pangs” (Matt. 24:8). In themselves, Jesus warned, they were not to be taken as signals of an imminent end; thus the disciples should guard against being misled on this point (v. 4). These “beginning” events, marking the period between Christ’s resurrection and the Temple’s destruction in A.D. 70, were as follows:
- False Messiahs. “For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many” (v. 5).
- Wars. “And you will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (v. 6-7a).
- Natural disasters. “And in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs” (v. 7b-8).
Any one of these occurrences might have caused Christians to feel that the end was immediately upon them, had not Jesus warned them that such events were merely general tendencies characterizing the final generation, and not precise signs of the end. The next two signs, while they still characterize the period as a whole, do bring us up to a point near the end of the age:
- Persecution. “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations on account of My name” (v. 9).
- Apostasy. “And at that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many. And because lawlessness is increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he shall be saved” (v. 10-13).
The last two items on the list are much more specific and identifiable than the preceding signs. These would be the final, definitive signs of the end – one the fulfillment of a process, and the other a decisive event:
- Worldwide evangelization. “And this gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come” (v. 14).
At first glance, this seems incredible. Could the gospel have been preached to the whole world within a generation of these words? The testimony of Scripture is clear. Not only could it have happened, but it actually did. Proof? A few years before the destruction of Jerusalem, Paul wrote to Christians in Colossae of “the gospel which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing” (Col. 1:5-6), and exhorted them not to depart “from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (Col. 1:23). To the church at Rome, Paul announced that “your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world” (Rom. 1:8), for the voice of gospel preachers “has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world” (Rom. 10:18). According to the infallible Word of God, the gospel was indeed preached to the whole world, well before Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70. This crucial sign of the end was fulfilled, as Jesus had said. All that was left was the seventh, final sign; and when this event occurred, any Christians remaining in or near Jerusalem were instructed to escape at once:
- The Abomination of Desolation. “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), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; let him who is on the housetop not go down to get the things out that are in his house; and let him who is in the field not turn back to get his cloak” (v. 15-18).
The Old Testament text Christ referred to is in Daniel 9:26-27, which prophesies the coming of armies to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple: “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… and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out upon the desolate.” The Hebrew word for abomination is used throughout the Old Testament to indicate idols and filthy, idolatrous practices, especially of the enemies of Israel (see, e.g., Deut. 29:17; 1 Kings 11:5, 7; 2 Kings 23:13; 2 Chron. 15:8; Isa. 66:3; Jer. 4:1; 7:30; 13:27; 32:34; Ezek. 5:11; 7:20; 11:18,21; 20:7-8, 30). The meaning of both Daniel and Matthew is made clear by the parallel reference in Luke. Instead of “abomination of desolation,”
But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are in the midst of the city depart, and let not those who are in the country enter the city; because these are the days of vengeance, in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled.
The “abomination of desolation,” therefore, was to be the armed invasion of Jerusalem. During the period of the Jewish Wars, Jerusalem was surrounded by heathen armies several times. But the specific event denoted by Jesus as “the abomination of desolation” seems to be the occasion when the Edomites (Idumeans), the agelong enemies of Israel, attacked Jerusalem. Several times in Israel’s history, as she was being attacked by her heathen enemies, the Edomites had broken in to ravage and desolate the city, thus adding greatly to Israel’s misery (2 Chron. 20:2; 28:17; Ps. 137:7; Ezek. 35:5-15; Amos 1:9, 11; Obad. 10-16).
The Edomites remained true to form, and their characteristic pattern was repeated during the Great Tribulation. One evening in A.D. 68 the Edomites surrounded the holy city with 20,000 soldiers. As they lay outside the wall, Josephus wrote, “there broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continual lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and anyone would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming.”
This was the last opportunity to escape from the doomed city of Jerusalem. Anyone who wished to flee had to do so immediately, without delay. The Edomites broke into the city and went directly to the Temple, where they slaughtered 8,500 people by slitting their throats. As the Temple overflowed with blood, the Edomites rushed madly through the city streets, plundering houses and murdering everyone they met, including the high priest. According to the historian Josephus, this event marked “the beginning of the destruction of the city… from this very day may be dated the overthrow of her wall, and the ruin of her affairs.”
But woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days! But pray that your flight may not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath; for then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall.
Luke’s account gives additional details:
Woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land, and wrath to this people, and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.
As is pointed out in Matthew, the Great Tribulation was to take place, not at the end of history, but in the middle, for nothing similar had occurred “from the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall.” Thus the prophecy of the Tribulation refers to the destruction of the Temple in that generation (A.D. 70) alone. It cannot be made to fit into some “double-fulfillment” scheme of interpretation; the Great Tribulation of A.D. 70 was an absolutely unique event, never to be repeated.
Josephus has left us an eyewitness record of much of the horror of those years, and especially of the final days in Jerusalem. It was a time when “the day-time was spent in the shedding of blood, and the night in fear”; when it was “common to see cities filled with dead bodies”; when Jews panicked and began indiscriminately killing each other; when fathers tearfully slaughtered their entire families, in order to prevent them from receiving worse treatment from the Romans; when, in the midst of terrible famine, mothers killed, roasted, and ate their own children (cf. Deut. 28:53); when the whole land “was all over filled with fire and blood”; when the lakes and seas turned red, dead bodies floating everywhere, littering the shores, bloating in the sun, rotting and splitting apart; when the Roman soldiers captured people attempting to escape and then crucified them – at the rate of 500 per day.
“Let Him be crucified! Let Him be crucified! His blood be on us, and on our children!” the apostates had cried forty years earlier (Matt. 27:22-25); and when it was all over, more than a million Jews had been killed in the siege of Jerusalem; close to a million more were sold into slavery throughout the empire, and the whole of Judea lay smoldering in ruins, virtually depopulated. The days of vengeance had come with horrifying, unpitying intensity. In breaking her covenant, the holy city had become the Babylonish whore; and now she was a desert, “the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird” (Rev. 18:2).