November 17, 2013
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you’ve ever driven into Colorado, you know that the eastern part of the state is flat as flat can be. But then, off in the distance, you see the mountains rising out of the horizon. It’s some time before you actually get there, so you can take in the sight for a while. A little closer you see this mass of earth jutting up in front of you, the snow-capped peaks reaching into the sky.
But then when you finally get there, you realize that it’s not just one big mass of earth at all. There are smaller hills and valleys at first, quickly escalating to the monstrous peaks behind. Still more is hidden from view.
Approaching biblical prophecy—especially apocalyptic and end-times prophecy—is a bit like approaching the mountains. The prophet often conflates two events that are separated by a valley of time into one image. And this is what Jesus does in today’s Gospel. Luther called this a “telescoping” effect of the text.
Jesus does get quite apocalyptic here in His final discourse in the last week before His crucifixion. He even cites the prophet Daniel—himself known for confusing prophecies—as a segue into talking about the Last Days. To make sense of it all, we must be very discerning to separate the little hills from the big mountains, and so make sure that we don’t fall into error.
The first part of this section deals with immediate events that the disciples and readers of Matthew would encounter, and Daniel’s prophecy sets the stage. Therefore, when you see the abomination of desolation, who was spoken of through the prophet Daniel, standing in the Holy Place—let the reader understand— then let those who are in Judea flee into the mountains, let the one on the roof not come down to take the things out of his house, and let the one in the field not return back to take his coat. Woe to the women who have [children] their stomachs, and those who are nursing in that day. Pray for yourselves, that your escape may not be during winter neither during a Sabbath (vv 15-20).
First of all, we must make sense of the term “abomination of desolation.” An abomination is something that is utterly abhorrent, in this case in the sight of God. It is the one thing that God hates above all else. And it’s the one thing that His people Israel continued to return to, again and again. Idols. Graven images. Ever since they first melted down their golden earrings to carve a calf’s image, Israel has continued to chase after the false gods of the nations that surrounded them. God had made them a unique people, a nation of kings and priests, a peculiar treasure in all the earth, but they just wanted to be like everyone else.
The history of Israel is really a history of them adopting false gods, of God sending a deliverer in the form of a king or a judge or a prophet, of them returning to the right worship of God. Then rinse and repeat. Daniel’s prophecy of an abomination of desolation (Dan 9, 12) is a prophecy of an idol being erected in Jerusalem—in the temple. This prophecy comes to pass when Antiochus Epiphanes sets up an altar to Zeus on top of the altar in the temple, and orders the sacrifice of pigs. You won’t read about this in your Bible, because the story is included in the books of the Maccabees. These are a few books written in between the Old and New Testaments that are not entirely on the level of Holy Scripture, but contain histories and other writings that are useful for the Christian.
The first book of the Maccabees reports: Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the 145th year (167 BC), they erected a desolating sacrilege upon the altar of whole burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding cities of Judah and burned incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. (1 Macc 1:54-56 ESV). These things led to the Maccabean revolt and the cleansing and rededication of the temple in Jerusalem (these are the events that Jews celebrate at Hanukah).
When Jesus tells His disciples that they will see the abomination of desolation, or a desolating sacrilege, standing in the Holy Place, this is what they are thinking of—likewise the early Jewish readers of Matthew’s Gospel. They are thinking of the altar to Zeus set up upon the altar in the temple. But Jesus isn’t talking about the past, He’s talking about something His disciples will see—something that’s yet to come. The Maccabean revolt was just a little hill in this prophetic picture.
The hill that rises above is the desolating sacrilege of Gaius Caligula, the Roman Emperor who fancied himself a god and erected a statue of himself in the temple. This happened around the year 40 AD, just a few years after Jesus spoke the words of today’s Gospel, about ten years before Matthew’s Gospel was finished. So the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel knew exactly what He was talking about—the pagan Roman symbols that were popping up in the temple.
Jesus says that this is the harbinger of the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. And indeed, in the year 70 AD, the temple was destroyed, and even today all that’s left of it is one foundation wall. When you see these things happening, Jesus warns, get out of town. This abomination is the sign of the desolation that’s to come.
But again, the Jerusalem abomination of desolation is another small hill in the big prophetic picture. Jesus goes on from there: For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not happened from the beginning of the world until now, neither will ever happen. And unless those days were not shortened, no flesh would be saved; but on account of the elect those days will be shortened. Then, if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Christ,” or, “Here,” do not begin to believe them. For false christs and false prophets will arise and will give great signs and wonders so that they might lead astray, if they are able, also the elect. Behold, I have told you this beforehand. Therefore, if they are saying to you, “Behold, he is in the desert,” do not go out there, or, “Look in the secret place,” do not believe. For just as the lightning comes out from the east and flashes until the west, in this way will be the coming of the Son of Man (vv 21-27).
The destruction of the temple and Jerusalem is only the beginning of a new age, which is filled with its own troubles. The Jews suffered greatly at that time for their idolatries, but God cut those days short for the sake of the elect, that is, the believing Christians. We are now living in those last days, the times of the Gentiles, as Luke calls them, when the Gospel has gone out from Jerusalem to all nations. The temple remains destroyed, and what’s more, where it once stood now stands the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim house of worship.
So what about you? Where are you painted in this prophetic picture? You are one of the elect, which was revealed to you with water and God’s Word. You are the one whom Jesus warns to be on guard, because the tribulation of this time is the constant danger of false prophets pointing to false christs. “Look, here he is! Over there, look!” If I were to give even a brief history of the people who have predicted Christ’s return or the different ways in which He has been said to return, we’d be here for another four hours.
It is a temptation for the elect to follow after these false prophets because they perform great signs and wonders. And I’m not necessarily talking about healings and miracles and magic. The elect see things like the size of a congregation, the beauty of a building, the execution of a music team to be signs that Christ is there. The moguls of false Christianity build empires like Joyce Meyer Ministries and Faith Church StL, which are a wonder to behold. These false prophets point to false christs—christs of better living, of success, of power, of wealth, of self-justification. It is the old idolatry wrapped up in a shiny, new, contemporary Christian façade. The new idol is not a cow, the new image is not an Emperor. The idol is our own selves. I am the one I fear, love, and trust above all things. The definite sign of the end of this age is the abundance of false prophets pointing to false christs.
This prophetic picture is frightening, and even ends with a proverb that would be better suited a few weeks ago at Halloween. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will be gathered, Jesus says (v 28). Only, the word translated as “vultures” really means eagles. The eagle was the insignia of the Roman soldier. Could it be that Jesus is turning a phrase here and referring to the soldiers of Rome surrounding Jerusalem before its downfall?
But Jerusalem and the temple wasn’t the only Holy Place surrounded by Roman soldiers. There was one corpse that gathered the Roman eagles around it—the body of Jesus hanging on the cross. So this prophecy isn’t only about the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, but the cross of Jesus Christ looms large above this prophetic picture.
He is the new and better Temple, who was torn down in death, but rebuilt in three days in resurrection. He is the icon and the image of the Father engraved in human flesh, who became the abominable image of sin, to suffer the punishment for the sins of mankind.
The cross of Christ looms large over this prophetic picture to remind us that He did not take on human flesh, suffer, die, and rise again in order to make our lives marginally better each day. We shouldn’t expect the Christian faith to be a triumphant ascent up the ladder of success. Rather, we should expect the opposite. For the true Christ, the One who is revealed by prophets and evangelists is the One who tears down in order to rebuild, who kills in order to make alive.
The troubles, trials, and tribulations of this present age are increasing. Look around you—it’s not getting any easier to be a Christian. And when you do, rejoice. Because for your sake, for the sake of all the elect, Christ will cut short this time of trouble and return—just as the lightning flashes across the night sky—in order to rebuild what was torn down, to raise what was dead, and to restore what was corrupted.
After the Troubles of This World, Christ Will Return To Rebuild this Broken Creation
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard