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Emphatic Elements in the Greek: Matthew 24 (part 4)

The following is section two from a series on emphatic elements in the Greek New Testament, written by biblical language expert Justin Alfred. Previous blog entries in this series:

Section IV – Matthew 24:15-28

Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; 17 let him who is on the housetop not go down to get the things out that are in his house; 18 and let him who is in the field not turn back to get his cloak. 19 “But woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days! 20 “But pray that your flight may not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath; 21 for then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall. 22 “And unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days shall be cut short. 23 “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,‘ do not believe him. 24 “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. 25 “Behold, I have told you in advance. 26 “If therefore they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go forth, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them. 27 “For just as the lightning comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be. 28 “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather (Matthew 24:15-28)

The “Abomination of Desolation” and the Antichrist

This passage is clearly talking about something that will be a sign of the soon return of Jesus, and that has to do with the “abomination of desolation” that is going to be once again erected in the “holy place.”  I say once again, because this first occurred in December, 167 BC, under the Seleucid King, Antiochus Epiphanes:

 In 167 b.c., Apollonius, his (referring to Antiochus – my note) chief tax collector, was dispatched with 22,000 men and attacked Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Most of the male population was killed and the women and children enslaved; those few who could left the city. The city walls were demolished and the old city of David refortified (the Akra) and furnished with a military garrison (1 Macc 1:29–36; 2 Macc 5:24–26). There followed the prohibition of all Jewish rites and the rededication of the high temple to Olympian Zeus. A monthly check was made, and anyone found with a copy of the Book of the Law or a child who had been circumcised was put to death (1 Macc 1:54–64; Ant 12.5.4–5 §§248–64). In December 167 b.c. (on 25 Kislev) the first pagan sacrifice was performed on the altar to Zeus which had been erected over the altar of burnt offering in the temple: this is “the abomination of desolation” alluded to in Dan 11:31 and 12:11 (cf. 1 Macc 1:54; Mark 13:14 in a GK version).1

However, the next time this occurs, it will be in relation to the Antichrist enthroning himself as not only the world ruler, but according to 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, proclaiming himself to be God: “Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4).  Thus, according to Jesus, this will usher in “a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall.”  Jesus then goes on to describe in general terms the horror of that time period, which will include, once again, “false Christs and false prophets” who will, through the power of Satan “show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.”

Jesus Will Return like Lightning

Further, they will furthermore tell people that the “Christ” is in a special place, but Jesus tells His disciples to “not believe them.”  Jesus then says that His coming will be like “lightning,” and “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather,” and this last prophetic has conflicting interpretations.  The word “vultures” (ἀετός aetos) may also be translated as “eagles,” and this in particular is what has caused a difference of interpretation.  Some see the “eagles” as referring to the Roman Army, whose insignia was the eagle, while others see this as a parabolic reference to the signs of His return in comparison to one seeing vultures in the air indicates that a dead body is near – thus, when the signs begin to occur that He just enumerated, one should know that His coming is near:

This proverbial saying about vultures recalls Job 39:30:

“Where the dead are, there it [the vulture] is.” It may be understood either (a) from the point of view of the vultures or (b) from that of the observer. (a) Vultures are able to discover a carcass from far away because of their keen sight (Job 39:29), and once they have seen it they take action. This could be a parable of the keen-eyed disciple who reads the significance of events and acts on it, perhaps reflecting the “when you see … then escape” of vv. 15–16. (b) Anyone who sees a gathering of vultures knows that there must be a carcass. This could be applied in two quite different ways, depending on whether it is a reflection on the whole preceding paragraph (when you see all the horrors of the siege you may be sure that Jerusalem is doomed) or merely on the preceding verse (the parousia of the Son of Man will be as obvious as the presence of the carcass). The placing of the saying after v. 27 supports the last option, as does the fact that Luke uses it in a context referring to the parousia (Luke 17:37), but the saying remains enigmatic. Its gruesome subject-matter suits this ominous context, but to allegorize it as depicting the “corpse” of Jerusalem surrounded by the “eagles” (military standards) of the Roman armyis to look for too literal a reference in proverbial language.2

Regardless of which interpretation of ἀετός (aetos) one might lean toward, the important thing for us to note is that even in this dire warning He is giving to His disciples, Jesus makes it explicitly clear that NO CAN PREDICT ACCURATELY when His return will be—which includes, of course, the rapture of the church prior to God’s wrath being poured out (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10; 5:9), for His coming will be “as the lightning comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” – that is, suddenly and without knowing when.

[1] David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 270.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew:  The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), 918.