As you read the Bible, you may occasionally come across something that makes you stop and say to yourself, “Now, what’s that supposed to mean?” One of the instances of that phenomenon that always caught my eye was something in the Olivet Discourse of Jesus, as recorded in both Matthew and Mark:
Matt 24:15-16: “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.” (NIV)
Mark 13:14: “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong– let the reader understand– then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” (NIV)
Notice that both passages contain the phrase, “let the reader understand.” I always found myself wondering, understand what? Let’s consider that.
First, notwithstanding what a red-letter Bible may indicate, Jesus did not utter those words. On the Mount of Olives that day He was speaking to his disciples, not writing to them. Had He said something like that, He would have referred to listeners, not readers. Obviously, the gospel writers inserted that phrase into his monologue.
Both Matthew and Mark thought Jesus had said something important enough to call special attention to. Unfortunately, neither writer seemed to think that any further explanation would be required for the reader to get the point. Unlike other places in the gospels where the writers explained what Jesus meant when He said something, or why He said it (Mark 3.30, or John 12.33, for instance). In this case neither gospel writer seemed to think that would be necessary.
What were they trying to point out? What was so obvious to them that they thought their readers would “get it” immediately?
To answer that, let us look first at the prophecy Jesus was referring to, and then at the audience he was speaking to.
Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is talking about the prophecy of the seventy weeks, recorded in Daniel, chapter nine:
Daniel 9:24-27: “Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy. Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,” and sixty-two “sevens.” It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble.
After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.” (NIV)
Now that we have identified the subject of Jesus’ words, let us consider both his audience when he mentioned the abomination of desolation, there on the Mount of Olives, and the audience of the writers of the gospels.
Both the disciples and the first century readers of the gospels were familiar with the history of the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, also known as Antiochus Epiphanes. He had trashed both the Jewish temple and the city of Jerusalem about 200 years before the Olivet Discourse. Antiochus had entered the temple, stole everything of value he could find there, set up a statue of the Greek god Zeus, and ordered the Jewish priests to start sacrificing pigs. He also set fire to numerous buildings within the city of Jerusalem, and took a healthy stab at tearing down the city walls.
After Antiochus had died and the temple had been cleaned out and rededicated some years later, the Jews had instituted a celebration that has been observed annually ever since. That celebration is called Hanukah.
Those Jewish disciples listening to Jesus on the Mount of Olives had been celebrating Hanukah all of their lives. They knew that what Antiochus had done was said to have fulfilled the prophecy given to Daniel. Imagine their surprise when Jesus uttered the words, “When you see…”
Jesus had just told them that the prophecy recorded in the book of Daniel had not yet come to pass. It still lay in the future. Even though what Antiochus had done may have looked like the fulfillment of the prophecy, Jesus had just indicated that it was not.
And thus we have our answer.
Everyone listening to Jesus on the Mount of Olives that day knew about the actions of Antiochus, because they were memorialized on a yearly basis. Since everyone knew, it was common knowledge at the time. Therefore, no explanation was deemed necessary by the gospel writers. All they had to do was call special attention to the fact that Jesus had indicated that, contrary to popular belief, Daniel’s prophecy still awaited fulfillment.
The Jews of Jesus’ day had fallen into a trap. They had taken what superficially looked like the fulfillment of prophecy, and assumed that it actually was the fulfillment. They failed to notice that although the actions of Antiochus came close, they didn’t actually fit.
Look again at the words of the book of Daniel, above. The actions of the ‘prince who will come’ appear to occur after the sixty-ninth week of the prophecy. That would be at least 483 years after the command is issued to rebuild Jerusalem.
The actions of Antiochus happened a lot sooner than that.
The angel’s words were, “From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem…” That decree was issued in about 444 BC. The ravages that Antiochus visited upon the temple and the city of Jerusalem happened in about 175 BC. That’s only about 270 years later, not 483.
The disciples had an erroneous understanding of the prophecy’s fulfillment until Jesus corrected them.
Have we, as Christians, repeated their mistake?
The disciples, along with the rest of the Jews, had looked at what Antiochus did, and had ignored the fact that it hadn’t happened after the sixty-ninth week. Likewise, many Christians today look at the AD70 destruction of the temple by the Roman legions of Titus, and assume that to be the destruction of the city and the sanctuary referred to in the book of Daniel.
In fact, it has become common for those who study prophecy to examine the soldiers who were in those Roman legions, and to then attempt to draw conclusions about the future antichrist, the ‘ruler who will come.’
Is it reasonable to do that? Were those Roman legions actually the ‘people of the ruler who will come?’
Daniel’s prophecy indicates that the ‘ruler who will come’ will make a seven-year treaty, then, three and a half years later, he will put an end to the sacrifices and set up the abomination that causes desolation. Titus made no such treaty. Neither did Antiochus.
Also, the ruler’s people will destroy the sanctuary and the city. Any common-sense reading of the prophecy would presume that the ‘people of the ruler to come’ would be alive at the same time he was. Not a couple of thousand years earlier.
Were the American soldiers who wintered at Valley Forge in 1777 Barack Obama’s people? Uh…no. Nor were they Ronald Reagan’s people or Abraham Lincoln’s people. They were George Washington’s people.
Similarly, were the soldiers of Antiochus, or the soldiers of Titus, the ‘people of the ruler who will come?’ Again, the answer is no, and the reason is because neither man was the prophesied “ruler who will come.”
The men who constituted the Roman legions that destroyed the temple lived about two thousand years ago. The antichrist, the ‘ruler who will come,’ has yet to make his presence known. When he does come onto the scene, he will have his own people, contemporary with him. It will be unnecessary to winnow through the annals of history to find them. The “people of the ruler who will come” will be visible to all, and easily identifiable to everyone. They will proudly display his name or his number, and they will gladly worship him and his image.
And then, when they finally make their appearance, at some time that is still in the future, the “people of the ruler who will come” will destroy the city of Jerusalem and the sanctuary of the Jews.
That is what the reader should understand.