I continue to marvel at the fantastic intrpretations men have come up with concerning this passage. Albeit, I can understand their efforts; this is a text which is somewhat confusing since it is prophetic and therefore Jesus borrows from the language of the prophets of the Old Testament to convey this prophecy. But if we understand that concept, that this is highly symbolic prophetic language even in the vein of the prophets of old, and keep that ever before us, it will help in understanding this passage.
We now hit the meat of this text where Jesus specifically mentions the fearful fate of Jerusalem. It will be a very ugly end, an horrific sight which is recorded for us in history. Nevertheless, Jesus explains why it must be so: “these are days of vengence” (v.22) brought about by the “God of vengence” (Psalm 94.1). Israel, the Jews are filling to the brim the cup of God’s wrath (see Isa 51.17; Rev 16.19) and the execution of God’s Son will fill it yet fuller. Finally, in AD 70 (just decades away from when Jesus speaks this), God’s wrath will spill over into the land and God will punish them using the Romans (in this context, the “nations” or “Gentiles” of v.24).
The Approaching Disaster
Jesus begins to enumerate the signs that would signal to his disciples that the end of the Jewish age is right at the door. First, Jerusalem would be surrounded by armies. These are the armies of Roman led by Titus. They would encircle Jerusalem and lay seige to it beginning in AD 68. It would take two years, but eventually Jerusalem will fall. Hence, that seems to be why Jesus is very specific: you see the armies of Rome and that means “desolation has come near.” It is not yet fully upon them until the end of the seige.
Jesus’ disciples are warned, then, that Jerusalem is going to be desolated, laid to waste by foreign armies. What should they do? Jesus gives guidance to them in v.21-23. If the are in Judea, run to the hills, the mountains. If they’re in the city, flee the city. And if they’re outside the city, stay out. Again, these are warnings to the disciples of Jesus and warnings for the early church. Would they listen? Indeed, not a single Christian lost their life during the Roman sack of Jerusalem. Eusebius, an early church historian, records that Christians fled to the city of Pella south of Galilee. Here is validation of the words of Jesus.
All this is happening because it is the will of God. Jesus says as much in v.22: God is pouring out his vengeance on His people for their continued unfaithfulness to Him. Where and whom has predicted this particular destruction of Jerusalem? Of course, all prophecy goes back to the mind of God, but these were uttered by Daniel in Daniel 9.26-27. I believe it is safe to make this conclusion (that Daniel is speaking of this event) because Matthew borrows the very language of that passage when in Matthew 24 he details the coming event (Matthew 24 is a parallel passage of Luke 21). Also, Barnes in his commentary cites Zechariah 14.1-2 as speaking to this time. Again, all this to say that this was according to the will of God as he serves His unfaithful people what they deserve for their evil deeds.
We catch a glimpse of the heart of Jesus as He laments for the pregnant woman and the nursing infants during this time. I wonder if he knew…I wonder if he knew just how bad it was going to get. Josephus records for us just severe the famine was going to be during this seige. In War of the Jews he details how people, young and old, father and mother, child were all scrambling for the last bits of food. Mothers snatched from the lips of their children even the tiniest morsels. Old men were beaten if they clung to any food (War 5.10.3). Josephus also records a horrific tale of a mother named Mary, a prominent woman who was daily taken advantage of by the soldiers in Jerusalem; any food she had they came and stole. One day, she had had enough and took her child, killed it, roasted it and ate half before the soldiers came. They smelled the stench and came in, hungry for anything. She uncovered the rest of her meal and these soldiers, in shock and sickness, left this woman alone (War 6.3.4). Again, I wonder if Jesus knew…
This was going to be a horror like never before. News of this would be all over the earth causing distress as God poured forth His fierce anger on “this people.” Verse 24, in the briefest of statements, sums up the carnage: many would be killed, many taken captive to “all nations,” and Jerusalem would no longer be the Jews possession. Josephus tallies the final number of the slaughtered at around 1.1 million people and another 97,000 taken captive. The nations would walk on or over. In other words, Jerusalem, the holy city, would be made common. But isn’t that the message to the Jews – God is telling them in this act, “I don’t live here anymore.” Indeed, in the church age God makes his dwelling with men (cf. Rev 21.3). Its a massive message to Jewish Christians and to Jews that this city, this temple is no longer the sole place of the presence of God. Isn’t that how this conversation got started? The disciples pointed out the temple’s beauty and Jesus uses that say, “There’s coming a time when this will no longer be important, in fact God is going to hand it over to the nations so they can walk all over it to try to get that point across.”
Scholars want to spend so much time on the last part of v.24: “until the time of the Gentiles (or nations) are fulfilled” (ESV). They say that points to 1900 years in the future when the Jews become a nation again and when Jerusalem is theirs again. Ugh. Actually, it seems like Jesus is pointing to the fact that even though the nations (Romans) would walk all over Jerusalem, eventually their time will run out too. They have a purpose to accomplish, a very dubious purpose, but once it is fulfilled, God will punish them, too. History bears this out: Rome loses steam and eventually collapses (it limps along until the 1400s in the East but it is effectively over by the 400s) and the Muslims take over Jerusalem…then back and forth with the Crusades…then the Turks…then the British…my point is that scholars prove too much with their explanations.
The next sign is in v.25 which presents a unique difficulty. Some want to take the first part of this verse and say its literal but the second part of the verse is figurative (of the Romans). Others shove it into the future as yet to happen (that comes from the faulty interpretation of v.24 mentioned above.) However, v.24 runs right into v.25 and seems to be Jesus borrowing from the language of the prophets to communicate a sobering message to his followers. I think verses 25-27 are highly figurative (prophetic) language used by Jesus to say, “Something terrible is about to happen.” In Matthew 24.29, more detail is given about the moon and sun will not give their light and stars will fall out the sky. This is the language of the prophets (see Joel 2.10, 31; 3.15 – these passages are said to be fulfilled in Acts 2.16ff. Peter, an inspired apostle, says that what Joel prophecied was taking place in what he and the rest of the twelve were doing).
The whole earth will be in turmoil because of the sea and roaring waves. The sea in propehcy usually refers to nations, so in this case it would seem the Romans are causing the people of earth (the Jewish world?) to be in a state of total calamity and worry. Fear and foreboding enter the hearts of the Jewish people because of what is happening to the Jewish world. Truly, what must have the Jewish heart thought of all this! All three gospels record about the shaking of the heavens. In other words, this is going to rock the world of the Jew. There will be nothing solid, nothing firm for them to grab hold of. All this to mark the coming of the Son of Man. This is a term found in the Old Testament in Daniel 7.13-14 who is given the same attributes and authority as the Ancient of Days. Folks, this is Jesus, the glorified Christ who has taken his position with the Father on the throne, coming in judgment on the Jews. He had power, indeed, the same power as Jehovah God. He has great glory, indeed, the glory he suspended so he could dwell among us. And he is coming on the clouds. In prophecy, clouds are the war wagons of God (see Deut 33.26; Psa 104.3; Isa 19.1, and cf. Psa 18.7-12; 97.2). When we think of clouds, we think nice little puffs of water vapor; but when used in prophecy and poetry concerning the judgment of God, they are a terrible sight. Think dark clouds, black clouds, ready to burst with rain. Here is Jehovah God and the Son of Man when they come in judgment on men. It is a powerful sight and a glorious sight.
The Appearing Deliverer
Jesus tells his disciples that when they see all this (these signs signalling the coming of the Son of Man in judgment upon Jerusalem), stand tall. Straighten up and raise your heads. What’s implied is that they were bowed down, both body and head. And certainly with the sorrow and turmoil, heartache and heartbreak they would be down cast. But Jesus says there will be a time to rejoice as the deliverer, the redeemer has come. They can now look up “because your redemption is drawing near.” What does that mean?
First, redemption is a buying back. It carries the meaning of rescue by ransom; that is, a price is paid and a slave is set free. So it is deliverance (of some kind) that is drawing near. Second, redemption from what? Most want to shove this into the future and say it is the second coming of Jesus – that will be the full realization of redemption. I believe this is contextually dishonest. Jesus has been talking about a very specfic event (the coming destruction of Jerusalem) to a very specific audience (his disciples, the Twelve). To rip this statement from its given context and somehow apply it to a yet future event is an injustice to the text. No, Jesus says, “your redemption is drawing near” speaking specifically to those Twelve disciples standing before Him. Jesus is specfically talking about the deliverance of the Twelve (indeed, those who would also believe based on them, i.e. the Church) from the bitter and constant hostility of the Jews. Previous to AD 70, Christianity’s spread is somewhat slow, hindered by the constant persecution from the Jews. But following AD 70, Christianity faces next to no resistance from the Jewish crowd and growth is far more rapid. Therefore, Jesus’ words to his disciples are words to bolster their faith as well. Although the end is coming for the Jewish order, the deliverance of the Christian order is ready to be right at the door.