Jerusalem Surrounded by Armies

24 Jun

Roman ArmiesIn Luke 21:20 of the Olivet Prophecy, Jesus predicted that Jerusalem would be surrounded by armies just before its destruction. At this time his people were to flee to the mountains. Josephus tells us that this occurred in 66 AD. The Roman general, Cestius, had taken the city and destroyed part of its walls. He burned the new city and had taken the upper city and encamped at the foot of the Temple wall. Josephus claimed that had he continued, the war would have come to a quick conclusion,[1] but “…without having received any disgrace he retired from the city, without any reason in the world…”[2] It was after this time that “…the most eminent of the Jews swam away from the city, as from a ship when it was going to sink.”[3]

A short time later no one in the city was permitted to leave. The window of opportunity to leave the city was very limited, and only those who took Jesus’ words seriously were saved from the horrors that took place in the city both before and during the siege of Titus that would come later.

Some conclude that, because believers were warned to flee Jerusalem after they saw the Roman army surround the city, and were also warned to flee when they saw the abomination of desolation set up in the Temple, that both Luke and the other two Synoptics point to the same event and time. That is, the abomination of desolation and the Roman army are one and the same. While they are, indeed, related, they are not the same thing; neither do they point to the same period of time. The abomination is what causes the destruction of Jerusalem, while the Roman army is what brings that destruction about. The abomination is what causes Jesus to judge Jerusalem and the Temple, and the Roman army is what Jesus uses to bring that judgment about.

I think there is a great deal of confusion in Christian circles over what the abomination means. Some conclude it was the Roman army, while others say it refers to setting up an idol in a newly rebuilt Temple at Jerusalem in our age. Could either of these conclusions be true? The short reply is, no such understanding could be taken from Scripture, and for several reasons.

In the first place, Jesus was speaking of that generation that rejected him in the first century AD, so redefining the Olivet Prophecy to reveal future events that must transpire at Jerusalem 2000 years hence has no foundation at all here. Secondly, the Apostles and writers of the New Testament understood Jesus’ words were for their generation and expected lifetimes. If they misunderstood Jesus’ words in the Olivet Discourse, how can we conclude they understood anything Jesus told them? On the other hand, wouldn’t our redefinition of the times be an obvious rejection of what the New Testament clearly teaches?

Finally, and, perhaps more conclusively, such modern day interpretations run opposite to what the ancient Jews concluded concerning how the abomination should be viewed. Most Biblical scholars correctly point to the days of Antiochus Epiphanes as a type of Daniel’s prophecy and what would occur later in Jesus’ prophecy. The problem is, many scholars point to Antiochus’ sacrifice of swine’s flesh as the abomination, but this isn’t true according to the Jewish interpretation of events. Notice:

“Jason… brought his own nation to Greekish fashion… putting down the governments which were according to the law, he brought up new customs against the law… For he built gladly a place of exercise under the tower (Temple) itself, and brought the chief young men under his subjection, and made them wear a hat. Now such was the height of Greek fashions, and increase of heathenish manners, through the exceeding profaneness of Jason, that ungodly wretch, and no High Priest. That the priests had no courage to serve any more at the altar, but despising the temple, and neglecting the sacrifices, hastened to be partakers of the unlawful allowance in the place of exercise, after the game of Discus called them forth. Not setting by the honours of their fathers, but liking the glory of the Grecians best of all.” [2Macabees 4:7-17 – parenthesis and emphasis mine].

And so haughty was Antiochus in mind, that he considered not that the Lord was angry for a while for the sins of them that dwelt in the city, and therefore his eye was not upon the place. For had they not been formerly wrapped in many sins, this man, as soon as he had come, had forthwith been scourged, and put back from his presumption, as Heliodorus was, whom Seleucus the king sent to view the treasury. Nevertheless God did not choose the people for the place’s sake, but the place far the people’s sake. And therefore the place itself, that was partaker with them of the adversity that happened to the nation, did afterward communicate in the benefits sent from the Lord: and as it was forsaken in the wrath of the Almighty, so again, the great Lord being reconciled, it was set up with all glory. [2 Maccabees 5:17-20 (emphasis mine)]

Notice that it was not an idol or the sacrifice to an idol that made the Temple desolate. According to Jewish understanding, i.e. the writer of Maccabees, the abomination was the wholesale rejection of the way of God led by a corrupt high priesthood. Similarly, this is what occurred in the 1st century AD, beginning with the crucifixion of Jesus and reinforced by the later murder of Stephen and the persecution that followed (cf. Acts 8:1-4).

Just as in the days following Stephen’s death when believers fled Jerusalem at the time of a corrupt priesthood set themselves up in rebellion against God, so believers fled at an opportune time, when armies under the Roman general, Cestius, surrounded Jerusalem but then retreated.

These two events, the flight of believers following the death of Stephen and that following the retreat of the Cestius, are separated by decades. Yet, both flights can be interpreted to have occurred as a result of heeding Jesus’ warning in the first century AD (Matthew 24:15; Luke 21:20). Isn’t it possible, even probable, that we ought to rethink what we believe about prophecy pointing to our own day, subjecting it to the shifting sands of the opinions of men?

[1] Josephus: “Wars of the Jews” – 2, 19, 4.

[2] Josephus: “Wars of the Jews” – 2, 19, 7.

[3] Josephus: “Wars of the Jews” – 2, 20, 1.


Posted by on June 24, 2011 in Last Days


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2 responses to “Jerusalem Surrounded by Armies

  1. Eddie

    September 27, 2015 at 07:41

    Greetings Shari, and yes, we are in agreement at this point. It was indeed “far more obvious to first century believer than to us”, and this is why it is essential for us today to understand the context of what is going on in the Bible before we can properly understand God’s word. While it is, indeed, true that a child could understand the point of salvation, it is also true that the contents of the Bible is able to hold the attention of the most brilliant among us, if that one approaches it as a child, rather than as someone who already knows the truth and judges its context from that arrogant point of view.

    I like the way this discussion has gone. We simply searched for the truth rather than made the truth fit our understanding. Lord bless you.

  2. librarygeek

    September 26, 2015 at 18:31

    I think the answer to my question posted on your Caligula & Antiochus Epiphanes page might be answered here: “Why did Jesus use such veiled references in His warning? How would His followers recognize that this was the abomination and they should flee Jerusalem?…Where does Jesus tell what the abomination is so they can act on His warning?”

    If the Jews of that time already had an understanding of what Daniel’s “Abomination which causes desolation” was, then it was clearer to them than us. If they knew that Jesus was saying “When you see the priesthood leading the people away from the way of God, it is time to flee” then perhaps they were able to recognize every time a symptom of this came up – Stephen’s murder, the Apostle James’ murder and the murder of James the brother of Jesus. As you have said, the liberal Helenistic believers, moderate believers and conservative believers all did take warning from these events and flee after each of them. So it is a pattern we can look at to identify how 1st century believers interpreted this warning. If the believers understood Jesus’ warning, when did they act upon it? Always after persecution escalated to the martyrdom of one of their leaders.

    It appears that Christ’s warning was far more obvious to first century believers than to us.

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