If you’ve done any amount of traveling, you’ve no doubt seen and maybe even stopped at a scenic overlook. Often these overlooks – no matter what they are overlooking, a waterfall, canyon, river, or mountain – contain informational signs or plaques which tell you what you are looking at, its history and detailed descriptions. These plaques are particularly valuable when you are planning a more involved visit to the place you are overlooking. They help you make sense of what you are seeing. And that’s very much what Jesus is doing for us in Matthew 24. He’s preparing us for his second coming. He tells us what to expect; the signs and signals that the end is near. He depicts the destruction of Jerusalem as a call to prepare for the end of time. When the end is near, Our Savior says, flee, pray, and beware.
Jesus spoke these words on Tuesday of Holy Week. Matthew tells us that Jesus was walking past the Temple with his disciples and telling them that at the right time, the Temple would be utterly destroyed, to the point that not even one stone will be left standing on another. (Matthew 24:1-2) Curious, the disciples asked when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? (Matthew 24:3) Jesus warns them that false prophets, wars, famines, persecution, growing wickedness, and the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the world will be signs that the end is near. In the verses before us, Jesus tells his disciples how they should react when they see the end approaching.
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. Earlier we heard Daniel’s prophecy about this abomination that causes desolation. But what is it? An abomination is a ‘detestable thing’ which defiles a holy place and causes it to be abandoned. In spiritual terms, this means the loss of true worship of God. This happened twice in Israel’s history. The first was when the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple, slaughtering pigs in the holy place and turning the temple into a brothel. But the event that better matches Jesus’ description is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 AD. When the Roman legions, led by General Titus, surrounded Jerusalem, bringing destruction and depravity like that which had never been seen (and never will be seen again). Jerusalem was besieged for 4 years. Titus used starvation as an effective battle tactic. Parents turned into cannibals, eating their own children. The Roman historian Tacitus estimates that half a million Jews died at the hands of the Romans. And when Jerusalem fell, Titus razed it to the ground, leaving not even one stone of the Temple standing. The Temple worship God had instituted for his chosen nation, Israel, was ended forever. (For proof, just see how the Islamic Temple Mount stands on the site of the Temple of God.)
What should the disciples do when they see and hear the approach of the Roman army? Run for their lives! Flee to the mountains. The unbelieving Jews, who imagined that a Messiah would arise who would protect the holy city from any and all Gentile invaders, would foolishly ignore Jesus’ advice. They would foolishly stay to face starvation and death based on a lie. But many Christians followed Jesus’ advice. They fled across the Jordan River to a place in the hills called Pella. There they were safe from harm overlooking the smoking ruins of Jerusalem.
They had to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice, ready to leave everything behind. 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! Understandably, for pregnant women and nursing mothers escape would be difficult if not impossible. Jesus’ heart breaks for these poor women and children. A horrific detail of history is that Roman soldiers showed no pity on pregnant mothers, chasing them down, assaulting and killing them.
Therefore, before that happened, they were to pray. Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. Why? Snow and ice are not regular occurrences in most of Israel. But winter rains caused rivers to flood and become impassable. On the Sabbath Day the gates of the city were shut and locked and observant Jews were limited to traveling no more than ¾ of a mile – not nearly enough to escape the swords of the Romans. They were to pray, then, that nothing would hinder their flight to safety.
And Jesus closes his guidance to his 1st century disciples with a caution to be spiritually discerning. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. In trying and troubling times, people – even those who aren’t normally religious – seek out spiritual guidance. (For example, churches were full the Sunday after 9/11.) And, that longing for comfort also makes people especially vulnerable to the deceptions of false prophets. Jesus warns his disciples not to believe these fakes. Even though they may be able to perform great signs and miracles, the disciples were to hold fast to the one, true Christ, who proved himself to be God’s Son and the Savior not only by his great miracles and powerful preaching, not only by fulfilling every last promise of Scripture, but fully and finally by his resurrection from the dead. For the first century disciples, Jesus’ message was clear: the end of Israel, the end of Temple worship, the end of life as you know it is coming. When you see the signs, when the Roman army is approaching, don’t hesitate, flee; pray that nothing, not the season, not the OT Sabbath laws restrict you; and don’t be deceived by the false Christs, they cannot save you. Trust me and my Word and your life will be spared.
But what’s the message for us? What does the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD have to do with Christians in America in 2017? How can we even be sure that Jesus is talking about his Second Coming? Jesus tells us so himself in verse 27: for as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus is clearly referring to a future event beyond the destruction of Jerusalem. Something no one on earth will be able to escape – his Second Coming in Judgment. The fact that Jesus’ prediction about Jerusalem came true in 70 AD is proof that he will return again – and, that his return is imminent. The signs are all there: wars and rumors of wars, nation against nation, famines and earthquakes, increasing wickedness and persecution of believers. But what about the abomination that causes desolation?
Listen again to Paul’s description: Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God…The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. Do we see anything today that matches Paul’s description? One who opposes the true God, sets himself up in God’s temple (the church), proclaims himself to be God and is accompanied by counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders? Martin Luther’s confession in the Smalcald Articles of 1537 still stand: This teaching shows forcefully that the pope is the true Endchrist or Antichrist. He has exalted himself above and opposed himself against Christ. For he will not permit Christians to be saved without his power…Even the Turks [Muslims] do not do this. They take bodily tribute and obedience from Christians, but they allow whoever wishes to believe in Christ. The pope, however, bans this faith. He says that to be saved a person must obey him. (SA IV, 10-12) For 500 years the Lutheran Church has identified the Roman Catholic pope as the ‘abomination that causes desolation’ for two reasons. First, he directs sinners to their own works (or the works of saints) for salvation instead of the completed work of Christ. And, secondly, because the pope urges faith in himself, his word, his declarations in place of and instead of the Word of God. While there are certainly other antichrists in this world – those who claim to be Christ or proclaim a false Christ – none is so clearly positioned in God’s church on earth, proclaims himself to be the way to salvation, and displays the work of Satan in counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders. So yes, the abomination that causes desolation is here.
Which means that all the signs are here. The end is near. What should we do? Flee! Run and don’t look back. But to where can we flee? What mountain can shelter us from the wrath God will pour out on this wicked world? Psalm 121 tells us: I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2) The only shelter from the awful tide God’s wrath is the fortress of God’s grace. As more and more people merge onto the wide road that leads to hell; as more and more of our friends and neighbors, more and more of our own families, run away from Christ; as we hear about impending wars and church shootings; as our city and nation grow increasingly wicked and godless – run away and run to God. Take shelter in his Word and Sacraments. Run to Jesus. Hide yourself in his wounds – the nail marks in his hands, the spear hole in his side – because they are the proof that he has satisfied God’s wrath for you, in your place. Find your shelter in God’s mercy – today, see his mercy in warning us that things are going to get very bad before Christ’s return. And know that is a warning of love. When the end is near, flee to Jesus, his Word, his Sacrament, his sacrifice. Only he can shelter you on the great and terrible day of the Lord.
And pray. Pray that nothing would hinder your flight. Today we aren’t hindered by wintry weather or Sabbath laws, so what might hinder our flight to Christ, his blood and righteousness? Unbelieving family members who reject God’s truth to go their own ways pull us away from our Savior. Materialism, immorality, and earthly distractions draw us away from Christ. Pray that nothing; not your job, your children, your hopes and dreams, your wealth and health and logic keep you from running to God and his Word for shelter. Remember your Savior’s loving warning to keep your priorities straight: what good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? (Matthew 16:26) Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. (Matthew 6:33) God promises to provide everything else you need for life in this world – even if Jesus doesn’t return for another 2000 years. Flee to Jesus and pray that nothing would hinder your flight.
And, finally, be spiritually discerning. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible. Before the fall of Jerusalem, many rose up claiming to be the Messiah, who could lead them to victory over their Roman enemies. Perhaps today the danger is not as much people claiming to be Christ but teachers who proclaim a false Christ. Those who proclaim Christ as simply one option among many or merely a good example or a therapist or a wish granting genie or a cuddly teddy bear who isn’t really serious about sin are false prophets. Do not believe [them]. This, Christ’s command, is why we don’t shy away from identifying the pope as the antichrist even though it might be offensive to some. Christ’s command is why we not only proclaim the truth but expose and refute false teaching. They and their lies must be exposed because they are so seductive that even the elect can fall under their spell for a time. Beware of the lies that are out there. The one true Christ is not gay-affirming, does not condone lifestyles that are contrary to his will, does not promise believers health and wealth and happiness, and his objective is not to be your buddy or your life coach. The one true Christ left heaven to come to this earth to spill his blood on a cross to pay for your sins against a holy God. He came to be your Savior. Don’t be deceived. Beware of false teachers and false teachings. How? Compare everything, everything, you read, see, and hear to the written Word of God.
Why? Why the urgency? For as lightning that comes from the east is visible in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. No one knows the day or the hour – and when Jesus arrives it will be too late. The signs are all here. Christ will return and it could be today. Should we be afraid? No! Because Christ has warned us and Christ has prepared us. The end is near: flee to his Word and take shelter in his forgiveness, pray that nothing would hinder you, and beware of false teachings and teachers. And when you see the signs, look forward to your Savior’s second coming – because he is bringing the day of your redemption. Amen.