“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 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. 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. Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. 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. 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. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
“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. 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. 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)
This passage predicts – some would say “maps out” – the events at the End of Days. The warnings are valid and it isn’t hard imagining something like this happening. But this is the only passage I can think of in the gospels where Jesus is speaking to a crowd (this is part of the “Olivet Discourse”) and then speaks to a presumed literary audience. In the theater it is what they call a stage whisper.
That brings up the troubling question of whether these particular words are Jesus himself speaking to the people who were present, or whether all of the people who edit Bibles these days may have these “words of Jesus” erroneously in red print.
Would it take anything away from our understanding of these particular 15 verses if they weren’t actually part of Jesus sermon on the Mt. of Olives? Let’s say, for a moment, that verse 15 is actually the beginning of commentary by Matthew on something Jesus had said in his sermon. Whoever wrote the text (most scholars say it was not Matthew the Tax Collector), it was most likely written after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. That would give the gospel writer the same perspective as someone living in Connecticut today writing about The 9/11 Event.
Read the text through again and listen for a moment to it with the ears of someone who has been through a great disaster. The “holy place” in the Temple at Jerusalem lies in ruins. Not one stone is left upon another, as Jesus had predicted. Many in Judea had fled to the mountains. In the generation after Jesus, many false Christs did indeed turn up, and some of them even performed signs and wonders. Even the fact that Matthew (and Mark as well) uses the term “The Elect” to describe believers alludes to the idea that embedded in the four gospels are not only the words and deeds of Jesus, but commentary by the early church fathers. This idea is only reinforced by Matthew’s repeated way of calling Jesus Son of Man, something borrowed from Isaiah. Just remember that sorting these things out doesn’t mean that the words and truths are not God’s Word.
But, “let the reader understand.” Every prophecy of Scripture either has or will come to pass. We lack the immediacy of a Matthew. Whoever he was, he was living in adventurous, disastrous, holy times. To him, the prophecy of Matthew 24:15-31 was “right now,” or at the very least, “just around the corner.” Do you have ears to hear the right now of the prophecy in this day? We have 20 completed centuries to grapple with. It would be easy for us to say these things must have been meant figuratively. But it is not so. And Jesus has a word for us today. It is the same word he had for that age: watch.