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In our first article, we looked at what Jesus meant when he said “this generation will not pass away until all these things are fulfilled” and saw that he was clearly speaking about his contemporaries in his day. His predictions were meant for fulfillment within the lifetimes of those present. In our second article, we saw that the end of the age referred to the end of the Old Covenant system. Then we examined the signs of the end of the age drawing near that he predicted in Matthew 24:3-14 and saw that everything he prophesied was fulfilled in the years leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans. There were wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, and martyrdoms, yet the church still brought the Gospel of the Kingdom to the ends of the Roman Empire.
In this article, we’ll take a look at verses 15-28 and examine some of the signs Jesus speaks of here. The popular title, “the Abomination of Desolation” has been a topic of much controversy and confusion. Many have speculated who this could be – from the Pope in Rome, to Bill Gates or US Presidents, or other such modern “Antichrist” figures. So, we’ll bring some clarity to what Jesus meant. Also, we’ll examine Jesus’s instructions to flee, the dire intensity of this period of tribulation and the rise of false messiahs.
Let’s begin by reading this section:
15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, 18 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 19 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 21 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. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
What is the Abomination of Desolation? (v.15)
This phrase has captured the imagination of many fanciful would-be End-Times preachers and authors. Many have speculated as to what it could be. Some preachers, such as John Hagee, Tim LaHaye and David Jeremiah, believe that it is a reference to an End Times figure – the Antichrist – who will stand in the Temple at Jerusalem to signal the Last Days. However, the interpretation of this phrase is not that hard to figure out. All we need to do is compare this section with its parallel passage in Luke. Luke, writing to a more Gentile audience, instead of using the term “abomination of desolation” says:
“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” (Luke 21:20)
Knowing that his Gentile audience would not understand Jesus’s OT reference, Luke states it plainly – the Abomination of Desolation is “Jerusalem surrounded by armies”. Thus, when Jerusalem was surrounded by the Roman armies, the Christians knew it was time to get out of town! Dr. Kenneth Gentry comments,
“Both the historical and literary contexts of the reference “abomination of desolation” indicate a historical event surrounding the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem, not an “end-time” Antichrist. Christ’s admonition to his disciples, “when you see” the abomination of desolation or Jerusalem surrounded by armies (Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14; Luke 21:20) suggests the events of AD 70 since Jesus was talking to his disciples, “you” as in the second person plural, and the events of AD 70 were in the lifetime of the disciples.” (Kenneth L. Gentry, The Great Tribulation: Past or Future?, p. 24.)
Spoken of by the Prophet Daniel
The prophecy Jesus is referring to is found in Daniel 9:26 which foretells the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by armies. It says,
“And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed.”
The anointed one or Messiah to be cut off is obviously Christ. The prince who is to come is speaking of either the soon-to-be Roman Emperor Vespasian or General Titus who completed the siege of Jerusalem. Some commentators see the reference to the abomination as referring to the deeds of Antiochus Epiphanes – yet it doesn’t quite fulfill what is in mind here. Nolland notes,
“In Daniel the overcoming of the effects of the sacrilege will usher in the end of the age. The original Daniel ‘sacrilege’ was the erection of a pagan altar and/or image of Olympian Zeus in the Jerusalem temple by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 b.c. But in part because the Maccabean restoration was something less than the dramatic culmination anticipated in Daniel, there was the expectation that the whole thing was to be played out again on a grander scale.” (NIGTC: Matthew, 970)
Thus, while the incident with Antiochus may be in mind as something in the cultural memory of the Jews, as David Chilton comments,
“The Hebrew word for abomination is used throughout the Old Testament to indicate idols and filthy, idolatrous practices, especially of the enemies of Israel (see, e.g., Deut. 29:17; 1 Kings 11:5, 7; 2 Kings 23:13; 2 Chron. 15:8; Isa. 66:3; Jer. 4:1;7:30; 13:27; 32:34; Ezek. 5:11; 7:20; 11:18, 21; 20:7–8, 30). The meaning of both Daniel and Matthew is made clear by the parallel reference in Luke.” (Chilton, Paradise Restored, p. 89)
Chilton argues that the specific event that Jesus predicted as “the abomination of desolation” was actually the Edomites, who took advantage of the situation and attacked Jerusalem. The Edomites had ravaged the city before when it was attacked by its enemies (see 2 Chron. 20:2; 28:17; Ps. 137:7; Ezek. 35:5–15; Amos 1:9, 11; Obad. 10–16), so this was not uncommon for them. In 68 AD, the Edomites surrounded Jerusalem with 20,000 soldiers. As their army lay outside the wall, Josephus wrote that there was a terribly violent storm, strong winds and rain with lightning and thunder together with an earthquake. He saw it as an indication of a great calamity about to happen.
In book 4 of his Wars of the Jews, Josephus records of the Edomites who desecrated the Temple that,
“they occasioned the fulfilling of those very prophecies belonging to their own country: for there was a certain ancient oracle of those men, that the city should then be taken and the sanctuary burnt, by right of war, when a sedition should invade the Jews, and their own hand should pollute the temple of God. Now, while these zealots did not [quite] disbelieve these predictions, they made themselves the instruments of their accomplishment.” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 4:7.3)
When the Edomites broke into the city, they went straight to the Temple and slit the throats of 8,500 people. As the Temple overflowed with blood, they rushed through the streets plundering and killing everyone they met, including the high priest. Josephus considered this the beginning of the destruction of the city.
Early Church historian Eusebius (c. 260-340 AD) also writes,
“And from that time a succession of all kinds of troubles afflicted the whole nation and their city until the last war against them, and the final siege, in which destruction rushed on them like a flood [Dan. 9:26] with all kinds of misery of famine [Matt. 24:7], plague [Luke 21:21] and sword [Luke 21:24], and all who had conspired against the Saviour in their youth were cut off; then, too, the abomination of desolation stood in the Temple [Matt. 24:15], and it has remained there even till to-day, while they [i.e., the Jews] have daily reached deeper depths of desolation.” (Eusebius, The Proof of the Gospel, 2:138)
Here we see him confirm many of the previous signs we already dealt with (famine, plague, sword) and he says that the “abomination of desolation stood in the Temple” – past tense to him! Thus, the “Abomination of Desolation” is most probably in reference to the armies which surrounded and besieged Jerusalem and then burnt the Temple to the ground. When Christians saw the armies surround the city, they were to look for a way of immediate escape.
An Unusual Turn of Events
While the Roman siege of Jerusalem was happening, there were some odd occurrences that seem providential for the Christians living in the city. Josephus wrote,
“And now Vespasian had fortified all the places round about Jerusalem, and erected citadels at Jericho and Adida, and placed garrisons in them both … And now the war having gone through all the mountainous country, and all the plain country also, those that were at Jerusalem were deprived of the liberty of going out of the city; … Now as Vespasian was returned to Cæsarea, and was getting ready, with all his army to march directly to Jerusalem, he was informed that Nero was dead… Wherefore Vespasian put off at first his expedition against Jerusalem, and stood waiting whither the empire would be transferred after the death of Nero … the Roman empire being then in a fluctuating condition, and did not go on with the expedition against the Jews…” (Josephus, Wars, 4:9:1, 2).
During the siege, Vespasian received word that the emperor Nero had committed suicide and halted the siege. Also, Josephus records the governor Cestius likewise mysteriously halting his advance:
“It then happened that Cestius was not conscious either how the besieged despaired of success, nor how courageous the people were for him; and so he recalled his soldiers from the place, and by despairing of any expectation of taking it, without having received any disgrace, he retired from the city, without any reason in the world.” (Josephus, Complete Works, William Whiston (trans), p.496 ch.19, para.7)
These were odd turns of events, but for the Christians remaining in Jerusalem, it would have been just the opportunity they would have needed to escape to the mountains as Jesus had commanded them to do when they saw the city surrounded by armies.
(If you’d like to find out more about how the Romans accomplished the siege of Jerusalem, you can check out this mini-documentary: https://youtu.be/KE4hmrvZLIQ)
Josephus records that a trench was dug around Jerusalem and a nine-mile-long wall was built in three days that totally enclosed the city making it impossible for any to escape after that point (see Josephus, The Wars Of The Jews, 5:12:2). Jesus had given his disciples the foreknowledge they needed to escape this terrible fate.
A Local Judgment (v.16-20)
Notice Jesus’s instructions to his disciples about how to escape the calamity. Think about it. If this passage were about the end of the world, then what sense would it make to “flee to the mountains”? What would it matter? What would it matter if it is in winter? If it were the end of the physical world, why would it matter if someone was pregnant or not? Or if it occurred on the Sabbath? (v.20) Is anyone today hindered by Sabbath laws? No. But Jews in the first century would have been!
The fact that Jesus says that his followers could escape this judgment on foot simply by heading for the hills directly outside of Jerusalem to the north and east proves that this was a local judgment and not an end of the world event. In fact, this is exactly what the Christians did!
Eusebius (A.D. 260-340) records the situation thus:
“But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Peres called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3:5:3)
Here we see clearly that the Christians in Jerusalem fled to a town called Pella located to the north in the Perean foothills of the Jordan River and escaped Jerusalem’s fate. This is perhaps part of why believers in the early church in Jerusalem were so willing to sell their property and homes to distribute the proceeds (Acst 2 & 4). They knew from our Lord’s prediction that that land would be useless to them as they’d soon have to flee the city.
When is the Great Tribulation? (v.21-22)
Many Christians today expect that there will be a 7 year period of Great Tribulation before the consummation. This belief is often based on our present passage and its parallels in Mark and Luke. However, as we’ve been seeing in this exposition, Jesus’s words were fulfilled in the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Nowhere in this text does Jesus say that the Great Tribulation will be for 7 years – that has to be imported from passages elsewhere in the Bible ripped out of their context.
Furthermore, according to Christ, this Great Tribulation was to take place, not at the end of history, but in the middle. He said that nothing like this had occurred “from the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall.” If nothing like this had happened since the beginning and would not happen like this afterwards, then it means that this event happens in the middle of history not the end. Remember, from our previous articles that this was to foreshadow Christ’s coming in judgment upon the unbelieving Jews who rejected him and persecuted his Church, not in reference to his Second Coming in glory at the consummation.
For those who try to argue that there is a double fulfillment, one in 70 AD and one still in the future, they find no Biblical reason to do so. J. Stuart Russell comments,
“Here we can detect no trace of a double meaning, of primary and ulterior fulfilments, of underlying and typical senses. Everything is national, local, and near: ‘the land’ is the land of Judea – ‘this people’ is the people of Israel – and ‘the time’ the lifetime of the disciples – ‘When YE therefore shall see.” (Russell, The Parousia, p. 72-73)
Indeed, Jesus promised judgment upon the unbelieving Jews. In Matthew 23, he pronounces woes (covenant curses) upon the Jewish leadership who rejected him. After pronouncing seven woes (7 is symbolic of completion in the Bible) against the Pharisees, Jesus tells them:
“Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Matthew 23:32-36)
On them – the Jewish leadership who led the people in rejecting their Messiah was to fall the guilt of all the blood of the prophets. This was God fulfilling the terms of the covenant He had made with them in Deuteronomy 28 where it outlines the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience to the covenant. The Great Tribulation was God’s judgment and covenant curses poured out upon the covenant breakers.
The culmination of this Great Tribulation was the Roman siege of Jerusalem. The Roman soldiers
“went in numbers into the lanes of the city, with their swords drawn, they slew those whom they overtook, without mercy, and set fire to the houses wither the Jews were fled, and burnt every soul in them, and laid waste a great many of the rest; and when they were come to the houses to plunder them, they found in them entire families of dead men, and the upper rooms full of dead corpses, that is of such as died by the famine; they then stood in horror at this sight, and went out without touching anything. But although they had this commiseration for such as were destroyed in that manner, yet had they not the same for those that were still alive, but they ran every one through whom they met with, and obstructed the very lanes with their dead bodies, and made the whole city run down with blood, to such a degree indeed that the fire of many houses was quenched with these men’s blood.” (Josephus, Wars, 6:8:5).
As you can see, this was an unfathomably horrific event and why Jesus called it the “Great Tribulation”!
Fulfillment of Covenant Curses
When the Romans besieged a city, it was a terrible ordeal. The purpose was to strangle all the fight out of their enemies by cutting them off from all access to food, water, and the essentials of life until the crushing weight of famine, disease and despair made them crumble from the inside. They would enclose the city tightly and guard their barricades so that none could escape.
In book 6 of his Wars of the Jews, Josephus tells the story of a woman in the midst of the terrible famine caused by the siege of the city who took her nursing baby and killed and roasted it. She ate half of her child and offered the rest to bystanders who were horrified. Such was the desperation of this woman and many more caused by the famine! Isn’t it interesting that this is part of the covenant curses God promised to His people if they were unfaithful to Him? In Deuteronomy 28:52-53 it says,
“They shall besiege you in all your towns, until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout all your land. And they shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the Lord your God has given you. And you shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God has given you, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemies shall distress you.”
People mugged and beat each other for morsels of food and much of the population degenerated into savagery because of starvation. Some resorted to eating dung and others even despaired so much for the ills that befell them inside Jerusalem’s walls from the famine and the savage Jewish rebels who ransacked their own people that they would willingly run out of the city and cast themselves on the Roman swords. Josephus tells stories of men who even slaughtered their own families and then themselves to spare them of further suffering and of falling into the hands of the Romans.
Josephus comments on when the Temple was set ablaze:
“While the holy house was on fire, everything was plundered that came to hand, and ten thousand of those that were caught were slain; nor was there a commiseration of any age, or any reverence of gravity; but children and old men, and profane persons, and priests, were all slain in the same manner; so that this war went round all sorts of men. and brought them to destruction….” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6:5.1)
One of the things that stands out as you read his history is that Jerusalem’s collapse came from the inside – with Jewish rebels infighting and what can only be described as utter confusion and chaos within the walls before any Roman ever set foot inside. By the time the Romans entered the city and Temple, the Jews were already a defeated people. When the Romans came into the city, they would leave those who were dying of hunger to continue to suffer and they would cut open the bellies of those who seemed to have food. Josephus notes the horror of those days:
“It was then common to see cities filled with dead bodies, still lying unburied, and those of old men, mixed with infants all dead and scattered about together; women also lay amongst them, without any covering for their nakedness: you might then see the whole province full of inexpressible calamities, while the dread of still more barbarous practices which were threatened, was everywhere greater than what had been already perpetrated.” (Josephus, Complete Works, William Whiston (trans), p. 493)
Some reports said that blood ran through the streets up to the ankles and more! Whether or not this is exaggeration, it does speak to the barbarity and severity of violence in Jerusalem in those days. By the end of the siege, more than a million Jews were killed and thousands upon thousands were enslaved. Part of the covenant curses in In Deuteronomy 28:41 it speaks of their children being carried off into captivity and verses 62-63 says that,
“Whereas you were as numerous as the stars of heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God. And as the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it.”
God was faithful to His promise of curses and judgment against the covenant breakers.
The whole of Judea lay smoldering in ruins and virtually depopulated. After their victory, the Romans burned ‘the holy house itself, and all the buildings lying round about it, brought their ensigns to the Temple, and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them” (Josephus, Wars, 6:6:1). Dr. Kenneth Gentry quotes J. L von Mosheim, the great ecclesiastical historian, who wrote that “throughout the whole history of the human race, we meet with but few, if any, instances of slaughter and devastation at all to be compared with this.” (Gentry, The Beast of Revelation, p.27)
Truly, if these days had not been cut short, no human in the land would have survived. But Christ had given his elect what they needed to be saved from this judgment.
Not One Stone Left Upon Another
Jesus had predicted that “not one stone shall be left here upon another” in verse 2.
It’s interesting that in Leviticus 14:33-45, there is a provision for a priest who examines a diseased house. The first time he comes, they are to do what they can to remove the disease and replace the stones affected in the house. However, if the disease breaks out again in the house, the priest was to come a second time and examine it. If it was diseased, the house was to be totally dismantled stone off of stone down to the timber and plaster.
The NT records that Jesus cleanses the Temple twice in his ministry. Firstly, in John 2:11-12 after his first miracle at the wedding at Cana. He examines what’s going on in His Father’s house and immediately drives out the moneychangers with a whip. Then, three years later, he returns to His Father’s house to examine it a second time(cf. Matt. 21:12-23), but finds it still corrupt with the same issue – diseased – and pronounces judgment against it… it will be destroyed – totally dismantled stone off of stone. As the true Priest, Jesus pronounced judgment upon the diseased house of God.
The Roman general, Titus, who completed the siege after Vespasian had left, did not want to destroy the Jewish Temple because of its beauty and significance as a wonder of their time. He pleaded with the Jewish rebels who defended the city,
“I appeal to my own army, and the Jews that are now with me, and even to you yourselves, that I do not force you to defile this sanctuary; and if you will but change the place whereon you will fight, no Roman shall either come near your sanctuary, or offer any affront to it; nay, I will endeavor to preserve you your holy house, whether you will or not.” (Josephus, Wars, 6:2:4).
However, the Jewish rebels would not back down, being deceived by false prophets that the Lord was on their side. After Titus had taken the city, he
“Now as soon as the army had no more people to slay, or to plunder, because there remained none to be the objects of their fury: (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other work to be done:) Cæsar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city, and temple… But for all the rest of the wall, it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground, by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to, by the madness of those that were for innovations. A city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind.” (Josephus, Wars, 7:1:1).
Thus, Jesus’s fateful words were fulfilled, and also those of the prophet Micah, “Therefore because of Zion shall be plowed like a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the mountain of the temple like the bare hills of the forest” (Micah 3:12). The Puritan Bible commentator, Matthew Henry remarks:
“No wonder that the ruin of Jerusalem was an unparalleled ruin, when the sin of Jerusalem was an unparalleled sin—even their crucifying Christ. The nearer any people are to God in profession and privileges, the greater and heavier will his judgments be upon them, if they abuse those privileges, and be false to that profession, Amos 3:2.” (Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, p. 1742)
False Christs (v.23-26)
Another of the signs that Jesus warns his disciples to look out for are false Christs (Messiahs) who would come in his name and try to lead them astray (verses 4-5). Many people today think that this refers to a time future to us where there will be Messianic pretenders claiming to be the reincarnated Christ in the end times. However, we don’t need to look that far from the first century to see that this was a real issue back then.
John Nolland in the New International Greek Commentary comments that, “Though the information is sparse and our sources often tendentious, the first and second centuries no doubt produced a number of prophetic figures who made eschatological claims…” (NIGTC: Matthew, 962) He then notes as examples: “Acts 5:37–38; 21:38; Jos., War 2.258–63, 433–56; 6.285–87; 7.437–50; Ant. 17.271–85; 20.97–98, 118, 167–72; y. Taʿan. 4:5; b. Sanh. 93a. Horsley, ‘Messianic Movements’, 484–86, among others, has argued that the figures in Jos., War 2.39–79; Ant. 17:254–98, were posing as messianic pretenders in the period after the death of Herod the Great.”
There are a number of examples of great pretenders who almost certainly made Messianic claims, such as the magician, Simon Magus (Acts 8:9, 10). The Church Historian Eusebius records Justin Martyr as mentioning him and others:
“And after the ascension of the Lord into heaven the demons put forward certain men who said they were gods, and who were not only allowed by you to go unpersecuted, but were even deemed worthy of honors. One of them was Simon, a Samaritan of the village of Gitto, who in the reign of Claudius Cæsar performed in your imperial city some mighty acts of magic by the art of demons operating in him, and was considered a god, and as a god was honored by you with a statue, which was erected in the river Tiber, between the two bridges, and bore this inscription in the Latin tongue, Simoni Deo Sancto, that is, To Simon the Holy God.” (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 26 – as quoted in Philip Schaff, NPNF, vol. 2, 1:13).
Josephus also mentions the “deceivers and impostors, who under the pretense of divine inspiration fostering revolutionary changes” (Josephus, Wars, 2:13:4).
In the years leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, concerning false Christs, Josephus records that,
“there was an Egyptian false prophet that did the Jews more mischief than the former; for he was a cheat, and pretended to be a prophet also, and got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him; these he led round from the wilderness to the mount which was called the Mount of Olives, and was ready to break into Jerusalem by force from that place.” (Josephus, Wars, 2:3:5).
This instance was no small movement as 30,000 men were deceived by this imposter. This was not the only instance of this either. Josephus also tells about Theudas, a magician, through false signs deluded the people into thinking he was a prophet and, “that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:5:1)
The Eagles Gathering (v.27-28)
Lastly for this section of our passage, we have Jesus’s seemingly mysterious saying that, “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” What does he mean by this?
Well, there is a bit of a translation issue here as well. The word translated by the ESV as “vultures” (ἀετοί) is actually more properly rendered as “eagles” as the KJV does. This potentially exposes a bias of many modern translations – which can be influenced by the desire to not turn off Dispensational Evangelical buyers – most of which translate the word here as “vultures”. However, in the other NT uses (Revelation 4:7, 8:13 and 12:14) they render it correctly as “eagles”. Warren Carter argues that ἀετός “does not refer to vultures, for which there is a separate word gups,” explaining that, “ancient writers generally do not equate eagles and vultures.” (Carter, “Imperial Texts”, 469). Even in Job 39:26-30 the Greek Septuagint distinguishes “the eagle (ἀετός) that mounts up” from the “nesting vulture”. Therefore, “eagles” is the better translation.
Why is this significant?
The Roman army used the eagle as their standard. Josephus records for us that the Roman ensigns set up by Titus in the holy of holies in the Temple were eagles,
“Then came the ensigns encompassing the eagle (ton aeton), which is at the head of every Roman legion, the king and strongest of the birds, which seems to them a signal of dominion and an omen that they shall conquer all against whom they march; these sacred ensigns are followed by trumpeters.” (Josephus, Wars, 3.6.2; 5.2.1)
Again, this style of language of judgment is not foreign to the Bible. In Hosea 8:1 it says,
“Set the trumpet to your mouth! He shall come like an eagle against the house of the LORD, Because they have transgressed My covenant And rebelled against My law.
The Roman army was the coming of God’s judgment against his unfaithful house. As R.C. Sproul notes,
“The carcass where the eagles will be gathered refers to the guilty and devoted children of Israel who will be destroyed by the Roman legions. The carcass is Israel, and the eagles are Rome.” (R.C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, p. 41)
According to verse 27, the coming of the Roman armies will be a destructive judgment, “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west” so too judgment would come upon apostate Israel. It is also interesting that, due to the route they took, the approach of the Roman armies to Jerusalem came from East to West – which is unusual, since Rome is West of Jerusalem. This was the sign of the Son of Man coming in judgment. In the Bible, lightning is a frequent symbol of destructive power: see 2 Sam. 22:15; Job 36:32; Psa. 18:14; 78:48-49; 140:6: Ezek. 19:16; 20:18; 21:10; Zech. 9:14; Rev. 11:19; 16:18. Also, it is not uncommon of God to use pagan nations to judge His unfaithful people as He did when He used Assyria and Babylon in the OT (Jer. 25:9; Hab. 1:6; Isa. 10).
A Powerful Apologetic
Today, many end times speculators are still looking forward to the fulfillment of these prophecies from Jesus. However, Early Church writers used to point to these events as the fulfillment of Jesus’s prophecies in order to prove the truth of Christianity! Indeed, Eusebius writes,
“If anyone compares the words of our Savior with the other accounts of the historian [Josephus] concerning the whole war, how can one fail to wonder, and to admit that the foreknowledge and the prophecy of our Savior were truly divine and marvelously strange (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:7).”
We must forsake the erroneous interpretations of modern-day eschatology writers and regain the true meaning of this text as it continues to be a powerful apologetic to the veracity of our Lord’s predictions. Truly, he was and is who he said he is. Also, for those who use this passage of scripture to advance a pessimistic outlook on the future, they must seriously reconsider their position. If the Great Tribulation is already past, then what is in our future?
In our next article, we will consider verses 29-35 and what they have to say about the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven.
Articles in this series:
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | Which Generation Would See the End?
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The End of the Age
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | Signs: Wars, Famine, Persecution
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The Abomination of Desolation
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The Coming of the Son of Man
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The Rapture – Left Behind?