Christ's Judgment on the Den of Robbers, Part 3
15 “Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand), 16 “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. 18 And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. 19 But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 20 And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. 22 And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.
23 “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand.
26 “Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it.
27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. 28 For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.
When you hear the phrase “the abomination of desolation” what do you think of? Many people think it is a reference to a figure far off in the future, who will lead world governments against Jesus. Many people think it is about “the Antichrist.” But what is it really about? What is Jesus talking about here?
As we continue through Matthew’s Gospel, we have seen Jesus fight with the leaders of Israel at the very center of Israel—inside the temple. And Jesus now, after judging the temple and finding it to be leprous, declares that it will be destroyed. And where we pick up in the story, Jesus has just told His disciples how they will experience persecution from the Jews as they preach the gospel all throughout the Greco-Roman world.
What Is The Abomination That Makes Desolate? (v. 15-28)
Jesus tells them, the end of that creation, of that world, of the Old Covenant order was at hand and they will know it when they see the “abomination of desolation” which Daniel spoke of standing in the holy place in the temple. What does this mean? Besides Daniel, is this phrase used anywhere else in the Bible? When Daniel used it, what was he talking about? An abomination is something that is extremely horrible which God hates. God hates lots of things, but abominations are at the top of this list, the very, very worst things that can be done. It is a common idea that all sin is the same, but that isn’t how the Bible speaks about it. All sin is bad and worthy of death, but some sin is worse than others. That is what abominable things are. In the Old Testament, abominations had specifically to do with worship. Israel constantly would worship the demons that the Canaanites worship, they would even set them up in the temple. The prophet Isaiah describes Israel’s idolatry and false worship this way:
“He who kills a bull is as if he slays a man;
He who sacrifices a lamb, as if he breaks a dog’s neck;
He who offers a grain offering, as if he offers swine’s blood;
He who burns incense, as if he blesses an idol.
Just as they have chosen their own ways,
And their soul delights in their abominations
And what did this false worship, bringing the worship of demons into God’s house do, exactly? Well, it brought desolation. Namely, it made God’s House desolate. The glory of the Lord that had gone into the tabernacle and the temple would depart. God had taken up residence in His house, and would abandon it when things got bad enough. That is what abominations that cause desolation are. They have to do with worship and the temple.
Many people think the abomination of desolation in Daniel is when Antiochus Epiphanes (the Greek king who ruled over the chunk of Alexander’s kingdom that included Israel) set up a shrine to Zeus inside the temple or committing other abominations. But pagans cannot do anything to desecrate the worship of God. Only God’s people can do that. The abomination that Daniel spoke of in Daniel 11 was someone who forsook God’s Holy covenant. A Greek king cannot do that, only an Israelite priest can. Antiochus deposed the legitimate high priest and replaced him with one who would make Israel’s worship acceptable to the Greeks, thereby forsaking the covenant with Yahweh and abominating the temple.
The abomination that makes the temple desolate is a priest offering worship that God hates and does not accept. This goes all the way back to Cain offering grain when he should have had a blood sacrifice. The priest is going to offer worship, he is going to sacrifice sheep and oxen, while he already is up to his neck in the blood of the saints. That is the abomination that desolates the temple. The persecution of the church by the Jews will reach its zenith and Christ will bring judgment upon Jerusalem and the temple.
And so Jesus tells them to get out of dodge. Flee to the mountains, leave in haste like the Israelites leaving Egypt, don’t grab extra clothes. It will be awful to flee this place as a pregnant or nursing woman. And hope that it is not during winter or that you don’t have to stop for the Sabbath. Because the violence that is coming will be unlike anything before or since. And if this is about Domitian and Titus leading their legions to wipe out Israel, what does Jesus mean by this? There have been greater slaughters numerically before that event and since it, so how do we make sense of what Jesus is saying?
It is because from God’s point of view, Israel, not Rome or anywhere else, is the center of the world. Political power is meaningful to history, but there is something even more important than that. Worship is what drives history. And the very center of the world in that regard was always Israel. Out of all the places on earth that God could have dwelt among men, He chose Israel. That is where the God who made the entire universe came to meet men and bless them and receive back their worship. He did not do it in Rome, or Athens, or Carthage, or any other great city on the planet. He did that in Jerusalem. So the destruction of Jerusalem is not like the sack of any other city. After Christ’s birth, death, resurrection, and ascension, the destruction of the temple is the most significant historical event in the ancient world. If we have the eyes to peer into the unseen realm, we understand the temple is not merely some big, beautiful building but it is the place where God came down to meet men and receive their worship.
After that temple was destroyed, where did God do that? Did God just stop receiving worship? No, while the temple still stood, there were other temples being erected all over the Greco-Roman world. Except they were not temples built out of stone and wood, they were temples built out of human stones. The churches, gathered together on the Lord’s Day became the new and greater temple.
The New Testament is the record of this. The Apostle Peter makes that point explicitly: 1 Peter 2:5 “you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The church is the new people of God. The vineyard has been taken away from Israel and given to others. That’s what the 40 year period of the overlap between the Old and New Covenants was about. It is a time of great tribulation and calamity and bloodshed. The Old Covenant was not gonna be replaced easily.
Many of the riots that started when Paul went to a city were because the Jews worshipped in Synagogues and there was no singing (despite what you might have seen in movies) and no sacramental food, just prayers and some Bible reading. The synagogue was really just a Bible study. Real worship happened in Jerusalem. There you sang. There you feasted on the sacrifices. But here comes Paul and the Christians, often setting up shop in a church right next to the synagogue, where they belt out psalms and hymns, and feast on the sacrifice that ended sacrifices, the body and blood of Jesus. Here true, temple worship was taking place. The riots started because they despised the church and were envious of her being able to worship in ways they were forbidden to. Instead of worship being localized in one sanctuary—the holy place in Jerusalem, now the church was bringing that holy place to the entire world. The fight in the New Testament is between the New Covenant that is taking over, and the Old Covenant which is dying. The new wine is bursting the old wineskins.
So the destruction of Israel at the end of this period is a huge deal. It is far bigger than any historian can fully comprehend. Worship drives history. And the place where God has always been worshipped being destroyed is a pivotal event. There is nothing like it, before or since. Even the tabernacle and first temple being destroyed were not like it, God brought them back out of exile and let them rebuild. This temple is never going to be rebuilt. The last pagan Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, who rejected his baptism and hated Christ and His church devoted money to rebuilding the temple in order to spite the church. And Pagan and Christian sources both tell us that when construction began balls of fire came out of nowhere and killed the workers and others were swallowed up by earthquakes. God is not going to allow what He made desolate to be rebuilt.
That is what the Son of Man’s coming is about, just as Yahweh came to Jerusalem in judgment in the form of the Babylonian army, Jesus comes in the form of the Roman army. They are His instrument of destruction even if they do not acknowledge Him or worship him. And that is what the reference to eagles (rather than vultures) gathered around the carcass. The eagle was the symbol of the Roman legion. They will descend upon Israel like a flash of lightning and reign destruction down upon an apostate people.
What do these things mean for us? If the things Jesus describes already happened nearly two-thousand years ago, is this just a curious historical study? The overall point is still very applicable to us. And we have seen it play out over the past two years.
Worship is central to history. It is the thing that drives history. It is what God wants to spread throughout the whole earth and it is the thing that the enemy seeks to stop and to subvert and pervert. Satan doesn’t want people to gather into God’s presence and receive blessings from Him and offer praise. He doesn’t want God’s people to worship God the way that God has instructed them to worship Him. He wants either no worship or perverted worship. He wants worship that is dulled and made impotent.
So it is no wonder that the very first thing that ruling powers who have set their face against God in so many ways, when a highly politicized response to a public health crisis happens they shut down worship. And worship is one of the last things they allow to happen when the crisis begins to resolve. They are terrified of worship. They don’t want Christ to be glorified. They don’t want people to have a greater and higher cause they devote their lives to. They want people to be hopeless and terrified of whatever they tell them to be terrified of. They cannot abide people who do not fear death. They cannot abide people who live with hope that Christ will reign and His enemies will be defeated. They cannot have that.
But think of the reason they were able to desolate our churches. It is not because Tim Walz or Joe Biden are powerful enough to mock God. Remember, pagans do not provoke the desolation of the temple, God’s people do. We brought this on. That so many Christians were elated to switch over to livestreams, and so many have never gone back to actual worship is an indication of what I am talking about. We do not regard worship the way God wants us to regard it. It is the reason you exist on this earth. We have such a low view of it. We so treat it like it is a big marketing scheme to entertain people enough to fill seats. That is the question that dominates the overwhelming majority of liturgical practice in the church today, not “how does God want us to worship Him?” but “What things can we do that will get people to show up.” Such an attitude toward the worship of Almighty God is why God would have them shut us down so flippantly. We abominate the temple with our contempt for holy things.
The way out is repentance. The way out is reformation. Of asking “how does God want us to worship?” And cheerfully conforming ourselves to His standards rather than our own. Happily singing from the songs He Himself spoke to us, and songs that sound like them. Doing what the apostle tells us and eating whenever we come together to worship. Preaching His word unashamedly, not fearing the wrath of men but seeking the approval of God. This is what drives history. These are the things that change the world. Worshipping faithfully, doing our very best to obey God in something God thinks is so incredibly important—this changes the world. Even if we are not hundreds or thousands of people, even a few people worshipping faithfully throws mountains into the sea. So know, that as you gather into the Lord’s presence each and every Lord’s Day that you are doing something far more important and consequential than the most powerful heads of state can do. What you do here impacts everything. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!