Matthew 24:15-28

Fire and sword.
 "Fire and sword." 
Reprinted from Icon: Visual Images for Every Sunday, copywrite© 2000 Augsburg Fortress. Used by permission.


In the early history of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod it was customary to read the account of the destruction of Jerusalem in all the churches on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity. The Gospel for that Sunday in the old one-year series of texts was Luke 19:41-48, Jesus weeping over Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The old Kirchengesangbuch hymnbooks, which preceded our several English hymnbooks, contained a very good description of the destruction of Jerusalem on pp. 518-520. The reader of these Notes will perhaps remember that the Gospel text for Advent II in the one-year series was Mark 13: 19-27. In Notes for that Sunday a summary of the description in the  Gesangbuch was given. Perhaps the reader would like to review those Notes before studying this text.

Verse 21 of our text tells us that the severity of the distress of the destruction of Jerusalem is unparalleled in history. We have the same truth stated in Mark 13:19. Neither the great flood nor the end of the world nor any or judgment in history was, is or shall be as severe and awful as the destruction of Jerusalem. The pastor ought stress this point. The reason for this should be obvious. God made His Gospel Covenant with Abraham 2000 years B.C. God's Old Testament Covenant people were descended from Abraham. God made His Law Covenant with His chosen Israel at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. It was then that the formal worship of Jehovah began.

For fifteen centuries God patiently dealt with Israel. But most of that time Israel was stiff-necked and hard hearted. After many warnings the northern ten tribes were taken into captivity in 722 B.C. by the Assyrians. Those ten tribes disappeared. No one knows what became of them. Then, after many further warnings, the southern two tribes were taken to Babylon in 606 B.C. Many of the people repented and were allowed to return seventy years later. But again the people proved to be impenitent.

Finally the Savior came unto His own but His own received Him not. God became a man and tried again and again to call the covenant people to repentance. Most of them refused. Even after Jesus ascended into heaven God granted the covenant people another forty years of grace. But then the time of mercy was gone.

During the years 66 to 70 A.D. God sent the Roman legions to Jerusalem. Jerusalem today is nothing like it was before. The covenant people were scattered to the four corners of the earth. Though they can still be saved, their former glory is gone. What a warning for all men, especially for Christians!

Matthew 24:15 So when you see standing in the holy place  "the abomination that causes desolation,"  spoken of through the prophet Daniel--let the reader understand--

The particle "so" introduces us to the destruction of Jerusalem in particular. Wenzel points out that "abomination" is found again at Revelation 17:4.5; 21.27 where it stands for idolatry and the accompanying pollutions. He says: "This agrees with the sense in which the word is used in Daniel."

Note that Matthew says: "When you see ." It was something which they really saw. The phrase "abomination that causes desolation" is variously translated "the abomination of desolation, the desolating sacrifice, the awful horror, the abomination laying waste the land." The genitive is either adjectival or content.

Lenski: Commentators have wrestled with this word of Jesus, and many interpretations have been offered.

To a certain extent the words "which stands in the holy place" have a bearing on the interpretation. Some have concluded that this locates the abomination in the Temple. Luther and others thought that it meant a statue of the Emperor Caius Caligula which the governor placed in the Temple for adoration.

Lenski: The abomination of desolation occurred in the Temple prior to the siege under Titus. It took place when the Zealots, who held the Temple under arms, admitted the Idumeans and as a result the Temple was deluged with the blood of 8500 victims.

The interpretation which has widest acceptance in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is that of Kretzmann:

The abomination of desolation, the blaspheming horde that carried death and destruction with it, that carried out the terrible, but just sentence of God upon the Jewish people, was the army of Rome, with its military ensigns, its eagles and idols. This as Daniel describes it, 11:25.27; 9:27; 11:31; 12:11, would indicate that the Holy Place had fallen into the hands of the heathen, and that sacrifices to the living God would cease. Such a condition of affairs would be so terrible, so far exceeding all imagination, that they must force their mind to understand what that really means.

This interpretation is based on the fact that Luke's equivalent for these words is: "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then knew that its desolation is near." (NKJV) Furthermore, this interpretation assumes that the words "standing in the holy place," means Jerusalem and Judea. The words "let the reader take note" are found not only here but also in Mark 13.

This little parenthesis is obviously from the mouth of Jesus who warned that it had been prophesied in the Book of Daniel and that it would prove to be a horrible happening. The interpretation of Kretzmann (and also of Wenzel) is preferable also because of what the next verse says.

The presence of the formidable Roman legions would be their cue to flee to the mountains. A statue in the holy place would hardly be seen by all. We know from Josephus that the legions of Vespasian and his son Titus laid siege to the city from 66 to 70 A.D. and that Jerusalem finally fell on August 10 in the year 70 A.D. Rome was the most powerful nation at that time. Its legions were invincible. Because the Jews were so very recalcitrant Rome sent all the might that could be spared to Palestine. It was an army of Gentiles, rough, cursing men. The presence of this army was surely  "the abomination of desolation." Jerusalem lay desolate after this abominable power carried out the furious anger of the Lord.

Matthew 24:16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

"Then" is very pointedly "on that occasion."  He does not say "those in Jerusalem" but "those in Judea." The legions were camped around Jerusalem. "Let them flee" means that they should get away as quickly as possible.

Hendriksen: We know that the Jews in general rushed into Jerusalem, resulting in a horrible blood bath. Josephus referred to the city's overcrowded condition (Jewish War; VI.420).

Wenzel points out that Roman legions often traveled fast, especially their calvary, and that, therefore, flight must not be delayed.

Lenski: These mountains lay outside of Judea, beyond the Jordan, in Perea. The Christians followed Jesus' bidding. Eusebius, 3.5, reports that the congregation migrated to Pella in Perea.

Were any of the apostles among them? We know not. Paul was already dead. Obviously the apostles passed this word on to the Christians in Judea.

Matthew 24:17 Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house.

Houses in Judea and Jerusalem had flat tops and people often sat up there on the roof. So dire and terrible was the onslaught of the Roman legions that, at first notice of their coming, the man who was relaxing on the roof should not even try to pack a few things for the flight.

Wenzel: Some would be inclined to think that a fortified city would be a safer place of refuge than the open country. Not so in this instance. The only place of safety is outside Jerusalem.
Kretzmann: Anyone that happens to be on the flat housetop when the news comes should not even endeavor to make his way out through the house, but should use the stairway leading down into the street immediately in order to lose no time. . . . Precipitate flight is the one way to be saved.

Matthew 24:18 Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak.

To tell a person "Don't even stop to get a coat" certainly denotes utterly dire circumstances.

Lenski: Life is worth more than many robes.

By the way, the destruction of Jerusalem is a type of the end of the world. It will come suddenly and demands constant preparation. And it will be utterly final.

With the destruction of Jerusalem came the end of all claims by the Jews to Palestine. In His fury the Lord scattered them far and wide. And to this day, even though they try to hang on to the land of Israel, there is constant strife which reminds all of us that the Jews do not have Israel by divine right. Their "rights" ended in 70 A.D.

Matthew 24:19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!

Three of our versions translate "Alas!" TEV and NIV have "How terrible (dreadful) it will be etc."  It is difficult for pregnant women to move quickly. Likewise with women who are nursing their babies. Pregnancy and care for infants would prove to be a hindrance for rapid movement and also for living out in the wilds, away from civilization. Wenzel calls "how dreadful" an expression of sorrow.

Lenski: Jesus' heart melts at the thought of the hardships that such flight from the doomed city and country will bring.

He is compassionate even midst words of judgment.

Matthew 24:20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.

"Pray"  is imperative in the present tense, denoting constant prayer.  "Winter" means when the weather would be cold, wet and disagreeable. Does "sabbath" mean "the Sabbath Day" or "a Sabbath Year?" AAT and NEB seem to allow for the latter. All others plainly make it "Sabbath Day." Kretzmann says that if it were to occur during a Sabbath Year, when the land was lying fallow, they might have trouble in obtaining the necessary food on the way. But, very likely, it means "Sabbath Day." How could that cause difficulty? It implies that strict Jews would not allow travel on a Sabbath Day. Or, Christians who knew that the Sabbath was no longer in force, under such dire circumstances might have scruples of conscience for making such a long journey (east of the Jordan). In any case, it would be a drawback.

But why then must they pray over this? Could not the Lord make provision so that Rome would not strike in the winter or on the Sabbath? He could, of course. But God wants His children to exercise their faith in asking Him to avert all evil. Wenzel thinks it implies that, while Jesus was in the state of humiliation, He did not know the exact time when the Romans would strike.

Lenski: In 'keep praying' there lies the veiled promise that God will hear.

Often Jesus' commands contain promises.

Matthew 24:21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now--and never to be equaled again

Lenski: No nation had ever piled up a guilt such as that of the Jews who were chosen of God, infinitely blessed, and yet crucified God's Son and trampled upon all his further grace. . . . In the history of the world no judgment can be compared with this that wiped out the Jews as a nation.
Wenzel: This then means that even the tribulations at the end of the world shall not be as great as those at the destruction of Jerusalem. To be sure, they too shall be great, for Daniel says so, (Daniel 12:1), but they shall not reach the height of the latter, for the crime of the world is not so great as the crime of Jerusalem when it killed Christ. . . The world before this time has seen great calamities, as the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the drowning of Pharaoh's men, even a former destruction of Jerusalem, but none of these can be compared with the terrific tribulation which Jerusalem underwent in 70 A.D.

Matthew 24:22 If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.

The first half of this verse is a past contrary to fact conditional sentence. The second half of the verse gives us God's reason for shortening those days, the days of the great affliction, from 66 to 70 A.D. Lenski understands "those days" as physical annihilation. And he understands "no one" as the believers in all generations since that time. In other words, if God had not cut short that great "affliction" the Jewish nation would have been destroyed. But as a sign to all believers since that time God cut those days short and thus preserved enough of the Jewish nation to keep them as a sign through all generations.

Kretzmann and Wenzel, however, understand "those days" as ultimate salvation. They understand "the elect" of Jewish believers in the city of Jerusalem, or the elect in Jerusalem who became believers later.

Wenzel: This is a very comforting lesson for the Christian, to know that God keeps them in mind even when He is punishing the world for its disobedience.
Kretzmann: God would be pouring out the vials of His wrath in full measure upon their city and nation. If God would not temper justice with mercy and pity, all the people would be consumed in the general destruction. But even in the midst of His anger He has compassion; for the sake of His people, the believers in Him, He will shorten the time of punishment, lest all perish.

Matthew 24:23 At that time if anyone says to you,  "Look, here is the Christ!"  or,  "There he is!"  do not believe it.

On this verse compare Luke 17:21.23. Evidently the same kind of false teaching lies behind that reference. The word "at that time" indicates that we are still talking about Jerusalem. The condition here is future more vivid which means that it is very likely to happen. The word "look" means that someone is attempting to get attention.

"Do not" with the aorist subjunctive prohibits beginning to do something. As verse 24 indicates verse 23 is speaking about false Christs. In times of stress false Saviors arise. In desperation people follow them to their own destruction. This happened just before 70 A.D. and still happens today. Think of Jim Jones and the Peoples' Temple in 1978. Think of the Moonies and their leader in Korea. Think of the many and various cults and sects.

Matthew 24:24 For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect--if that were possible.

The verse is explanatory. Here compare 1 John 2:18. The closer the end, the more false Christs. The destruction of Jerusalem began ushering in the end. The curtain of history was beginning to fall. Theologians debate the question whether or not Satan and false teachers can actually perform great signs and wonders. We won't try to answer the above question. But one thing is certain. So terrible is their deception that all except those who are firmly grounded in the faith are subject to be deceived. This verse, on the one hand, is Law, warning us of the terrible deception. On the other hand it would seem that the thought of John 10:28 hovers in the background.

Matthew 24:25 See, I have told you ahead of time.

Jesus uses the very word,  "look"  used by the false teachers. Jesus is saying:  "forewarned is forearmed." No one will ever be able to plead ignorance. Christians cannot foretell the future but they do know enough about it to be forewarned about false teaching and false teachers.

Matthew 24:26 So if anyone tells you,  "There he is, out in the desert,"  do not go out; or,  "Here he is, in the inner rooms,"  do not believe it.

"So" points back to the reason given in verse 25. We have another future more vivid condition repeats verse 23 in greater detail. Note that we again have two instances of not with the aorist subjunctive, prohibitions not to start something. The two adverbial locative "in" phrases evidently point to bizarre types of false teaching, or maybe they point to the false teaching of monks and nuns who feel that living apart from society makes one more righteous. Or perhaps the text is speaking of gurus who want to establish an ideal type of culture away from all contact with ordinary society. In any case verses 23-26 make us conscious of the many possibilities of false Christs and false prophets.

Matthew 24:27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

"For" is again explanatory. Here finally Jesus answers the question which the disciples had asked in verse 3. The words "Son of Man" clearly means that Jesus is speaking about His second coming. The point that Jesus is making is that His second coming will be sudden, universal, a happening which no one will question. And the implication is that we should constantly have one eye on His coming. Over and over Scripture tells us that we should be prepared.

Matthew 24:28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

Like verse 15, this verse has received a number of explanations.

Lenski: Jesus indicates the hopeless state of the Jewish nation; carrion is death gone into purification. It is fit only for vultures. When the Jewish nation is so far gone, it is fit for nothing but false Christs and false prophets who are to finish the horrible job of removing that nation from existence. . . . We find the governing thought in verse 26, a warning not to listen to false messianic claims. The adage then would mean that wherever a carrion is found, vultures are sure to gather. The carcass thus would be the pseudo-messiahs and prophets and their doctrines, and the vultures eagerly devouring the carrion, the fools and dupes who readily, yea, greedily, fall for false doctrines. This also takes into consideration the general trend of verses 23-26. . . . Be ye not like vultures that gather about carrion.
Kretzmann: Where Christ is, there shall His elect be.
Wenzel: Before the meaning of the adage can be determined, the question must be answered: Is it to be connected with verse 27 or verse 26?

Lenski and Wenzel answer this question according to verse 26. Kretzmann answers the question according to verse 27. It is difficult to decide between the two explanations. Is it a warning or a promise? It seems to be warning rather than a promise. Just as carrion draws the vultures, so sin attracts the judgment of God.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A Matthew-John Sundays After Pentecost Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1981, pp. 95-99. Used with permission.

Return to top

Return to Buls' Notes Index