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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – No Religious Symbol Provides Refuge from Divinely Decreed Judgment (24:15)
No Religious Symbol Provides Refuge from Divinely Decreed Judgment (24:15)

The sanctuary, once desecrated, was doomed, as Jesus had earlier warned (23:38). Earlier desecrations had led others to recognize this pattern in history as well. Over two centuries earlier, a Syrian ruler had defiled the altar, causing an "abomination" that ruined the sanctuary with "desolation" (1 Macc 4:38). Daniel contains three references to an abomination that causes desolation, a sacrilege or defilement that will inevitably lead to destruction. One or two of the passages refer to events surrounding Antiochus Epiphanes, who claimed to be a deity and oppressed Israel (Dan 8:13; 11:31, 36-39); another text associates the same kind of "abomination" with the cutting off of an anointed ruler, close to the time of Jesus (Dan 9:26; compare J. Payne 1962:146; Beckwith 1981). Jewish speculation concerning the end time regularly reapplied Daniel's descriptions in various ways (see F. Bruce 1956:177; Russell 1964:198-201); Revelation may even reapply Daniel's tribulation period to the period between Jesus' first and second comings (Rev 12:1-6, 10).

Jewish people recognized that shedding innocent blood in the sanctuary would profane it (1 Macc 1:37; Jos. Ant. 9.152; so also Mt 23:35), and some saw this defilement as a desolation (1 Macc 1:39; 2:12). Josephus indicated that the shedding of priestly blood in the sanctuary (Jos. War 4.147-201; 4.343; 5.17-18) was the desecration, or abomination, that invited the ultimate desolation of A.D. 70 (Jos. War 5.17-19). Very close to three and a half years after this abomination, the temple was destroyed and violated even more terribly: the Romans erected on its site their standards, which bore the emperor's image, then offered sacrifice to them (Jos. War 6.316). But Jesus' warning must apply to the earlier (66) rather than the final (70) desecration, because shortly after the Romans surrounded Jerusalem, escape (Mt 24:16-18) became increasingly difficult (as in Jos. War 5.420-23, 449).

In Matthew, the tribulation (distress) seems to begin with the sanctuary's desecration in 66 and concludes with Jesus' return (24:29). If this observation is correct, it requires a "tribulation" longer than three and a half years or some other way to bridge the gap between 66 and the end. Scholars offer several explanations for this gap: in Matthew 24 Jesus (1) skips from this tribulation to the next eschatologically significant event, his return (G. Fuller 1966; compare Lk 21:24); (2) regards the whole interim between the temple's demise and his return as an extended tribulation period ("immediately"—Mt 24:29; see Carson 1984:507); (3) prophetically blends the tribulation of 66-70 with the final one, which it prefigures (see Bock 1994:332-33; compare Frost 1924:15-19); (4) begins the tribulation in 66 but postpones the rest of it until the end time; (5) intends his "return" in verses 29-31 symbolically for the fall of Jerusalem (see Tasker 1961:224-26; J. Wenham 1977:71; Barclay 1959; France 1985:333).

Not all these views are mutually exclusive. I currently favor option 1 or 2 with elements of 3. Although many scholars (including a number of conservative scholars) prefer option 5, the many emphatic statements about a personal, visible coming in the context probably rule out a symbolic coming the way they would a "spiritual" one. The third option may in fact deserve more attention than my current inclination has given it: certainly the prophetic perspective naturally viewed nearer historical events as precursors of the final events; see Ladd 1974b:196-201 (with Old Testament examples) and 1978a:36-37; compare Beasley-Murray 1960; Everson 1974:337; Bock 1994:332-33. Early Jewish texts also telescope the generations of history with the final generation (Jub. 23:11-32). As in Mark, the tribulation of 66-70 remains somehow connected with the future parousia, if only as a final prerequisite.

In any case, the view that the whole of Matthew 24 addresses only a future tribulation (often assumed automatically in circles unaware of the history of 66-70) is not tenable; Matthew understands that "all these things" (probably referring to the question about the temple's demise—24:2; Mk 13:4) will happen within a generation (Mt 24:34), language that throughout Jesus' teachings in Matthew refers to the generation then living (as in 12:39, 45; 16:4; 23:36; compare 27:25).

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