Jesus warned His disciples of an “abomination of desolation” who would defile the temple. Is this a figure we should still expect, or has he come already? Today, Barry Cooper turns to the context of Christ’s warning to give clarity to this figure’s identity.
What is an abomination? Personally, I think you could make a good case that glitter is an abomination. Receive a card with glitter on it, and you know instantly that you will be finding that very same glitter all over your face, your food, and your elderly relatives, for years – possibly decades, given that it has a half-life that is longer than plutonium.
But that is obviously to use the word “abomination” lightly. An abomination is much more serious: it’s a thing that causes profound disgust or hatred. It’s an obscenity, a great evil. The term “abomination” appears more than 100 times in the Old Testament, and only a few times in the New Testament. And most commonly, the word refers to significant violations of the covenant, especially idolatry.
You see it in Matthew chapter 24 verse 15, and Mark chapter 13 verse 14, where Jesus refers to “the Abomination of Desolation”, meaning an abomination that causes desolation or destruction. He says this to his disciples:
…when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place… then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 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.
There’s been some speculation about who or what this “abomination of desolation” is, but things are made clearer by Jesus when he says that the prophet Daniel had already spoken about it.
Sure enough, there are three places where the prophet Daniel speaks about it. In Daniel chapter 9, he says “on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate”. Daniel chapter 11 says, “they shall set up the abomination that makes desolate.” And in chapter 12, Daniel again talks about “the abomination that makes desolate”.
Daniel speaks of a prince who will destroy Jerusalem, together with its temple and its sacrifices. He says that “forces from him shall appear and profane the temple and fortress, and shall take away the regular burnt offering. And they shall set up the abomination that makes desolate”.
Who is the “him” in that sentence, this person who will profane the temple and the fortress? As is often the case with Old Testament prophecy, there is a long-term fulfillment of the prophecy, and a short-term one. In the short-term, Daniel’s prophecy was fulfilled by a king called Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who ruled Palestine from 175-164 B.C.
He treated Israel so terribly that Israel rebelled against him, and when he arrived to suppress the rebellion, his forces went into the temple in Jerusalem, set up an altar for Zeus, and offered pigs as a sacrifice. Not only was this idolatry, of course, but it defiled the Holy of Holies, the most sacred inner part of the Temple, where God was said to dwell. Hence the abomination that causes desolation – desolation for the people of Israel.
But when Jesus talks to his disciples about the abomination of desolation, he speaks of it as a future event. He says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” And typically in Scripture, a “generation” is 40 years.
So if Antiochus Epiphanes was the short-term fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecy, who was the longer-term fulfilment, the one Jesus spoke of two hundred years later?
Well, sure enough, within 40 years of Jesus’ words, the temple in Jerusalem was again desecrated. It happened in 70AD, and this time, it came from the Romans, led by their commander Titus. His armies were an abomination because they carried with them idolatrous images of their Emperor. And they brought desolation because they destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and its Temple. And once again, the Holy of Holies was defiled.
The Jewish historian Josephus claimed that 1.1 million people, most of them Jewish, were killed during the siege, so that bodies were literally piled up around the altar. The usual population of Jerusalem was likely enlarged given that many had come to the city to celebrate the Passover, which was to occur right as the siege was being launched. Prior to the siege, the Romans had allowed Jewish worshippers to enter the city for the feast, but they did not allow them to leave.
In love, then, Jesus spoke to his disciples about this horrendous event in advance to prepare them for what was coming, to warn them ahead of time so that they could flee the city.
Thankfully you and I were not alive to see such things, but Jesus’ loving warning here is still relevant to us. It reminds us that although He spoke, again and again, of things yet to come, his warnings – again and again – have proved to be trustworthy. You can, quite literally, stake your life on them.
Just a few verses later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus presents us with another loving warning. He speaks of his own second coming, as judge of the whole earth. He forewarns his disciples to make sure that they are living in obedience to him when he comes – which will be at a time they don’t expect.
Let’s be ready.