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.
29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” – Matthew 24:15-31 ESV
In this chapter, which has come to be known as the Olivet Discourse, we have Jesus giving His disciples a glimpse into God’s plans for the end of the age. As His upcoming death and eventual departure drew nearer, He prepared His followers to set their hopes on the future. It was all in response to their question: “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3 ESV). Jesus was providing them with an expansive overview of the things to come. Some of what He had to say would take place in the not-so-distant future, including the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, which occurred in 70 AD. But much of what Jesus told them has still not happened.
Jesus’ reference to the abomination of desolation refers to a passage from the Old Testament book of Daniel. In chapter 9, Daniel records a message he received from the angel, Gabriel. It was in response to a prayer Daniel had prayed on behalf of all his fellow Jews who, like him, were living in exile in Babylon. He had been reading the prophecies of Jeremiah and saw that God had promised to return the people to the land of Canaan after 70 years in captivity. Daniel knew that the 70 years was quickly approaching, and he longed to see God fulfill His promise.
Gabriel delivered the following message to Daniel:
“Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time.” – Daniel 9:25 ESV
Daniel had been thinking about the fast-approaching date of Israel’s return to the promised land. But God was giving him a much broader, longer-term view of the things to come. Yes, a remnant of the Israelites would return to Judah at the end of the 70 years of exile. And they would rebuild Jerusalem and reconstruct the temple. But then, God told Daniel that a period of seven sets of seven (49 years) and sixty-two sets of seven (434 years) would pass, once the people had been restored to the land. That adds up to 483 years. Once the people had returned to the land, it would be 483 years until the Anointed One came. This was a prediction of the coming of Jesus in His incarnation. But Gabriel also predicted that the “anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing” (Daniel 9:26 ESV). This was a reference to Jesus’ eventual death.
But what Gabriel shared next has yet to occur. He was giving Daniel a glimpse into the distant future, the end times.
26 “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. 27 And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.” – Daniel 9:26-27 ESV
And this is what Jesus referred to in His Olivet Discourse. He too mentioned a time yet to come. The prophetic words of Jesus describe a series of future events, and they are complex, confusing, and controversial. Jesus told the disciples that there would be difficult days. When these future events occur, those living in Judea should run for their lives (vs. 16). They should not bother packing (vs. 17). If they’re away from the house when it happens, they should not go back for any reason (vs. 18). It would be best not to have small children when these things take place (vs. 19). Those who are alive at that time should pray that nothing hinders their departure, including bad weather or the Sabbath itself (vs. 20). Why? Because these will be the worst days the world has ever known or ever will know (vs. 21). Then Jesus stated that unless God intervenes, no one will survive (vs. 22). And while all these things will leave the impression that Jesus’ return is near, no one knows the actual day (vs. 23-28).
“But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” – Matthew 24:29 NASB
Here, Jesus describes what is known as the Great Tribulation. It will be a literal seven-year period of great persecution and evil on the earth. But before this all takes place, the Church will be removed or raptured. Jesus will return to the earth in order to gather all the believers who remain. Paul encourages us about this in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18. The removal of believers will result in the removal of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the One who restrains evil in the world. And the removal of the stabilizing influence of believers and the presence of the Spirit will result in a time of unrestrained and unadulterated evil on the earth. This period of tribulation will be accompanied by the coming of the Antichrist, described by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2. It will be a time of intense persecution of the people of Israel, greater than anything they have ever experienced. But it will end with the second coming of Christ.
The Return of the King!
These difficult days will end with the second coming of Christ. The tribulation will culminate with the return of Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
“And then at last, the sign that the Son of Man is coming will appear in the heavens, and there will be deep mourning among all the people of the earth. And they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” – Matthew 24:30 NLT
The disciples would not live to see this day. Neither will we. And Jesus informs us that no one knows when this day will happen.
“However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows.” – Matthew 24:36 NLT
Just like in the days of Noah, Jesus’ return will catch those who are living at the time unprepared and off guard. It will come suddenly and unexpectedly. But during the period of tribulation, there will be those who, by the grace of God, come to faith in Jesus Christ. There will be 144,000 whom God will save and appoint as His missionaries to the nations. They will lead countless people to Christ from every tribe, nation, and tongue. Then Jesus will return.
“And he [the Son of Man] will send out his angels with the mighty blast of a trumpet, and they will gather his chosen ones from all over the world – from the farthest ends of the earth and heaven.” – Matthew 24:31 NLT
Jesus says that there will be two men working in a field. One will be taken, the other left. Two women will be grinding flour, one will be taken, the other left. He says that the chosen ones or the elect will be taken. This clearly indicates that there will be those who come to faith in Christ during the Great Tribulation. And His second coming will include a dividing between believers and non-believers – all those who are alive at that time. This is NOT a rapture passage.
Even though the disciples would not live to see these events, they were to live in readiness. And, as we make new disciples, we are to pass on this attitude of preparedness. We are not to allow ourselves to be dulled by the world and lulled into complacency. Jesus warns:
“Watch out! Don’t let your hearts be dulled by carousing and drunkenness, and by the worries of this life. Don’t let that day catch you unaware, like a trap. For that day will come upon everyone living on the earth. Keep alert at all times. And pray that you might be strong enough to escape these coming horrors and stand before the Son of Man.” – Luke 21:34-36 NLT
What difference should all this make to us today? Do you find yourself dulled by the worries of this life? Do you live in a state of readiness for the Lord’s return? Do you have a proper understanding of what is to come? Jesus was preparing His disciples to keep their eyes focused on the end. Their immediate future was going to be difficult. He was going to die, resurrect, and then leave them. And they would be responsible for carrying out His commission to share the gospel with the world. They would suffer as a result, and many of them would die martyr’s deaths. But He wanted them to know that God had a plan in place. Their immediate circumstances would not be an indication of how things were going to end. Jesus would eventually leave them, but He would also return.
And, as modern-day believers, we need to share the same long-term perspective, focusing our attention on the end that God has in store. Jesus has promised a future day that will feature “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30 ESV).
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.