Friday, January 25, 2013

The End on Hold

Prompted by being asked, Jesus informed His followers of would be the signs indicating His return, Judgement Day, and the end of the world. There would be false Messiahs, wars, and disasters. His disciples would become witnesses to the world. The most horrendous in all of history, before or after, would occur; the Siege of Jerusalem. Then He would return with great power, and great judgement on all mankind, so they had better be on guard.

The End on Hold
We know that the Gospels were written decades after Jesus had been around. Precisely when each of the four Gospels was committed to ink in its present form is a matter of debate. Most scholars suggest Mark was written first, and that his Gospel provided much of the backbone for Matthew and Luke.

As we saw in the previous series, the implication of Jesus' prophesies about the end of the world was that it would be soon after the Siege of Jerusalem. Quite interestingly, that is about all Mark has to say about timing, but Matthew and Luke appear to emphasize there being some delay before Jesus would reappear. Luke scattered these delay-references throughout his Gospel, but Matthew consolidated his chosen delay-references for us within the section we are studying now.

It started back in the last chapter. You may remember from the previous study, in Matthew 24:45-51, and much earlier in the Luke 12:42-46 parallel, Jesus gave a parable comparing wise and foolish servants. Let us take a closer look at the timing mentioned in these parables.

In Matthew 24:48 we find:
"But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, 'My master is staying away a long time,'" NIV
The phrase "is staying away a long time" weakly implies that the servant knows roughly how long the master will be away. From this perspective, we can infer a way to make sense of this: Jesus had allegedly just given them a list of signs which would forecast His return, so His followers would know that nothing would happen until these signs came to pass. This would give deviant followers living in the span between the death of Jesus and the Siege of Jerusalem decades of time to slack off in their morality before straightening up for Jesus' return, as the parable itself suggests. While the cat is away, the mice will play.

However, in the Luke 12:45 version we see:
"But suppose the servant says to himself, 'My master is taking a long time in coming,' and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk." NIV
The phrase "is taking a long time in coming" instead weakly implies that the servant had expected the master back already, but it appears that the master is delayed for some reason. From this perspective, we can infer a different situation; that perhaps the signs have all happened (up to the Siege of Jerusalem and so Jesus' return was expected) but there is an unexplained delay in Jesus' return.

Because these are only weak implications, they could easily be wrong, or both them could be taken to mean either interpretation noted above. However, if the latter version is true, it could be somewhat revealing. It could subsequently imply something about the timing of when Matthew and Luke were written, in that it could mean that these two Gospels were written after the Siege, possibly by several years, at a time when life seemed to be returning to normal. The closer you get to normal after some catastrophic event, the less it seems like Jesus' return is just around the corner, and, in turn, that means the more doubt springing up from within the community of the faithful. A message like this could be used to motivate the community to stay in the faith despite the apparent lag in manifest divine glory.

Given that Mark, the earliest of these three Gospels, did not share this sentiment anywhere, it appears that this delay may be an addition to the original story. Somewhat contrary to this theory is the fact that Matthew and Luke share this particular content nearly identically, suggesting a relatively early tradition committed to writing at some point in time earlier than the Matthew and Luke themselves. But given that we still do not know exactly when these two Gospels came into being, that "relatively early" could easily be after the Siege.

Continuing to the next chapter, in Matthew 25:1-13 there is a parable about ten virgins who "went out to meet the bridegroom." Half of them were smart enough to bring oil for their lamps just in case they needed it, but the other half did not. When the bridegroom arrived, he ultimately rejected the five virgins who were not adequately oiled. It seems a little odd that the bridegroom would kick out five extra virgins over such a trivial mistake, but let us leave that alone. ;-) The key verse for us in regards to this study is Matthew 25:5:
"The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep." NIV
In case it was not obvious, the bridegroom represents Jesus. Given that we started with these virgins going out to meet the bridegroom, you have a sense that they expected him to be there, ready for them. Instead we see that it took a long time, longer than expected, for the bridegroom to arrive. This plays into the notion noted above; that perhaps Matthew was written in a time when people were already expecting for Jesus to have returned, and so these verses were written to keep the faithful flock in line. The End was put on hold, and yet held perpetually at the threshold of occurring.

In the next parable the point was briefly emphasized again. Matthew 25:14-28 contains the Parable of the Talents, which somewhat similar to the Parable of the Ten Minas which we studied before from Luke 19:11-27. As noted in the previous study, the many differences between these two parables combined with a similar backbone suggests that this was an oral tradition carried on verbally for a considerable amount of time before being written, much longer than the parable we started this study with, as well as perhaps some intentional "enhancement" of the parable by Luke. Anyway, there is one particular difference we should focus on relevant to the timing aspect. In Matthew 25:19 we find:
"After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them." NIV
"After a long time" also appears to be preparing believers for a longer than expected time frame for Jesus' return. If the comparison with Luke's version of the parable is valid, it appears that Matthew may have deliberately inserted the "long time" into the story, as Luke 19:15 does not mention anything about how long it took for the master to return. Luke also used this parable to speak about timing, but explicitly did so to explain that Jesus did not intend to establish the Kingdom of God the first time He was on earth in the flesh (Luke 19:11).

Matthew was generally pretty good at aggregating and consolidating information, and here we can see an example of his work. Back to back to back, we have seen three references where Matthew was trying to communicated that, contrary to what we may have guessed from the previous chapter, Jesus' return would not be immediately after the Siege of Jerusalem. In short, we have seen here how Matthew prepared his followers for a long wait; a wait which may have already been in progress at the time of writing the Gospel.

How about we end on a somewhat positive note? Closing out this chapter, in Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus relayed how, on Judgement Day, He would reward people according to what they had done. He explained that such good deeds as feeding the hungry, clothing the needy, and visiting people in prison were actually done to Him vicariously. On the other hand, if you did not help out these people in need, you vicariously rejected Jesus.

On the good side, this is a great way to motivate people to help other people. Followers should literally be thinking that what they are doing to help they are doing to Jesus Himself. Even if Christianity was a deliberate hoax (which I think is an inaccurate, or at least incomplete, assessment), with messages like these it is hard to say that it was a completely malignant hoax. You could argue that church leaders may have been becoming wealthy and powerful as the movement grew, but you would also have to acknowledge that the movement did, and still does, aid the marginalized people in society to some extent.

On the other hand, this message is the proverbial gun-to-the-head situation. Help the needy, or get punished. And it is not a proportional punishment, either. Matthew 25:41 sends those who provide no aid "into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels," and Matthew 25:46 confirms that this will be an "eternal punishment." This is one of the most explicit references to the eternally torturing fires of Hell that you find in Matthew. Some Christians who do not like the concept of eternal torture will instead argue that this just means either an eternal "separation from God" or an annihilation (as in, if you cease to exist, that is an eternal punishment). Eternal punishment, of any flavor, for not visiting people in prison seems a little bit extreme to me.

Finally, from another perspective, note that this is explicitly a works-based Salvation plan. Merely having faith in Jesus will not save you if you do not take action to feed the hungry, visit prisoners, clothe the poor, etc.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The End Back Then, Part 5: Be Ready

A long time ago, Jesus was asked the questions which are on the minds of many believers even today: what would be the signs indicating His return, Judgement Day, and the end of the world. He warned of upcoming false Messiahs, wars, and disasters. He explained that His disciples would become witnesses to the world. He described the event which would be the most horrendous in all of history, before or after; the Siege of Jerusalem. That terrifying tribulation was promised to soon yield the His return and a powerful judgement on all mankind.

This is Part 5 of a five part series entitled "The End Back Then." The series entries are:

The End Back Then, Part 5: Be Ready
Can you imagine the utter ecstasy faithful Christians will have the day that their Savior, Jesus Christ, returns? The God that they love more than any person in the world will come for them, and Jesus, who loved them enough to sacrifice His own life for them, will be overjoyed to finally destroy the metaphysical barriers keeping them from living together happily ever after. Should you be on guard for such a joyous occasion? We will find the answer to that question in our study.

Matthew 24:32-51, Mark 13:28-37, and Luke 21:29-36 (plus Luke 17:26-35) further suggest an imminent Judgement Day way back then, but emphasize being prepared for the Second Coming. So we find in Matthew 24:32-33, and similarly in Mark 13:28-29 and Luke 21:29-31, Jesus saying:
"Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that [the Kingdom of God] is near, right at the door." NIV
You see the tender twigs, summer is near. You see "all these things" (contextually false messiahs, the wars, war rumors, natural disasters, the Gospel preached in the [known] world, and the siege of Jerusalem), then the Kingdom of God is "right at the door." We all know about how long it takes to enter the threshold of a door. It does not take about 2000 years.

The final nail in the prophesy-timing-failure coffin is recorded identically in Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, and Luke 21:32 from Jesus' own mouth:
"I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." NIV
As we saw in the previous study, Jesus' Second Coming was part of "all these things" which were described. The generation living at that time has long since turned to dust, but we are still waiting for Jesus to deliver us. Well, some of us are, anyway. ;-)

You should be aware that there is some disagreement among scholars as to what is meant by "this generation." As we saw in the previous study, John Gill did not think that Matthew had been referring literally to the Second Coming of Jesus, so here he would essentially, and ironically, agree with me, saying posthumously:
" respects that present age, or generation of men then living in it; ... and must, since all these things had their accomplishment, in and about forty years after this..."
However, the word interpreted as "generation" here can also refer to "a people," so the scholars who instead agree with me that Matthew had previously described Jesus' return, such as John Darby, suggest alternately that the generation not passing away means something like things like:
"Unbelieving Jews should exist, as such, until all was accomplished."
So there you can see cognitive biases in two different polarities, and yet both are used to preserve their versions of the same truths. It is not the Bible that has contradictions; rather it is the Bible interpretations which are in contradiction. ;-) Each one drifts from the more obvious, more literal meaning, because to believe the words as they are written would mean either that God had failed to keep His word or that Jesus was not as advertised. Either option is unconscionable for the devoutly committed believer.

Moving on, Jesus said that His words would never pass away (Matthew 24:35, Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33), which is essentially just a promise from Jesus/God that this prophesy would indeed come to pass exactly as described. But it has not gone according to plan...

Jesus then went on to explain how only God, the Father, knows when the exact day and hour will initiate Judgement Day and establish the Kingdom of God (Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32). This is quite interesting, because it is an explicit differentiation between God the Father and Jesus. Jesus does not know something that God does know. That would seem impossible if Jesus was also God, so this verse (among others) has been used by those sects which claim that Jesus was not divine, or that Jesus was a creation of God instead of being part of God.

From there, the three accounts diverge a little in content, but focus on the same overall message: be vigilantly watchful for Jesus' return. Mark 13:33 puts it as:
"Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come." NIV
Now if you subscribe to any of the modern mainstream Christian teachings, this is a really dissonant verse. Modern Christianity harps on having a close, personal relationship with Jesus Christ, who is abounding with forgiveness and love. But if that is the case, why would you need to be "on guard" for when He shows up? What real close, personal friendship do you have with anyone in which you have to be on guard for when they show up, other than perhaps a sparring partner? The call for being on guard is because this is not a message of reconciliation and love, but rather a message of potential punishment and fear.

Mark 13:34-37 continues on with a parable about a master who left a servant in charge of his house, and how that master had better not find the servant sleeping, implicitly due to the punishment to be rendered. And with the parable portraying a master who goes away, how can you have a personal relationship with someone who is gone? (Mind you, this is before Facebook and cell phones, or even the post office.) Jesus never intended to have a close, personal relationship with anyone in this life, which is the reason for this warning about drifting from the faith. Matthew 24:42-51 has an "enhanced" version of this same parable, where the master will take such a deviant servant and "cut him to pieces."

Matthew 24:37-41 plays expands this theme of judgement, likening Jesus' return with the Flood of Noah. Just like the Flood, Judgement Day would come unexpectedly (despite all of the signs previously noted).

Luke 17:26-27 draws that same Flood comparison, but Luke 17:28-31 goes further in judgement references by citing the destruction of Sodom as a similar, unexpected, disastrous event. Luke 17:32-35 goes further still, reminding Jesus' followers that if they do not forsake this life, they will lose the eternal one. Punishment will come with Jesus, so be ready, or else...

And for anyone who still thinks that I err, and that this whole series has nothing to do with the Second Coming, the parallel of Luke 21:34-36 should dispel that notion:
"Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man." NIV
So what have we discovered in this series?

The timing is explicit: The fruition of these signs would occur in close proximity to the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, though the precise day was unknown.

The scope is defined: These signs would ultimately herald in Jesus' Second Coming, Judgement Day, and the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

The failure is obvious: The Siege of Jerusalem did happen, but it did not usher in Judgement Day, Jesus' return, or the Kingdom of God. And that siege certainly was not the worst event in human history.

The way that Jesus ends this prophesy is significant. It is not with flowery words about how He will be looking forward to rejoining the love of His faithful followers, and bemoaning the losses of those who just would not yield to the light. It is a message of fear. It is a warning that they (Jesus' own followers) had better keep their act together, or else they would be severely punished. There is no hint of God's grace here at all.

It is funny that you do not commonly hear that message from the pulpit.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The End Back Then, Part 4: Jesus' Return

We are tracing through the verses where Jesus described the events leading up to the end of the world. First He warned His disciples of upcoming false Messiahs, wars, and disasters. Then He explained that they would become witnesses to the world. He then went on to describe the ultimate in distress which would occur in the Siege of Jerusalem; horror which would never be equaled again. All of that terror would culminate in the return of Jesus...

This is Part 4 of a five part series entitled "The End Back Then." The series entries are:

The End Back Then, Part 4: Jesus' Return
It would be impossible to mistake the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, right? I mean, that would be a major event worldwide... no, universe-wide! One way to mistake it would be to misinterpret metaphors; to change what the text means in order to suit your own beliefs. While some may accuse me of doing just that, I think we should turn to the text and let it define itself. And if that does not match reality, that does not necessarily mean that the interpretation is wrong. There is another possible outcome, as we will see while we examine the signs of Jesus' Second Coming.

In Matthew 24:23-31, Mark 13:21-27, Luke 17:22-24, and Luke 21:25-28 we find verses all describing when Jesus will return. Matthew 24:23, which is nearly a word-for-word copy of Mark 13:21, begins with a reference to timing:
"At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or, 'There he is!' do not believe it." NIV
"At that time"? When was that? This is conjoined to the preceding text, where it was describing the Siege of Jerusalem, so we should logically conclude that this means at a point in time in relatively close proximity to then.

Matthew 24:24-25 and Mark 13:22-23 go on to warn not to follow miracle-working false Christs who will try to trick the Elect, which is impossible, but they will try anyway. Of course, if tricking the Elect is impossible, then why bother warning them not to follow these miracle workers?

Wait just a minute. Miracle-working false Christs? Who, exactly, is giving them the power to work miracles?

The knee-jerk Christian reflex would be to say that it is Satan who is behind this, but that is just because most Christians either do not know or selectively ignore parts of the Bible. The deceivers likely come from God Himself.

What?!?! Oh yes. First, from where does all power ultimately come? God. But if that is not enough proof, I should remind you that tests of deception, up to and including miracle-working prophets, are part of God's playbook (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). So when you read in 2 Thessalonians 2:9-11 that "God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie," you know what we are talking about here.

Now you may have noticed that I have been silent on Luke's account. There is a reason for that. While Luke does warn of being led to false Christs, he wisely edited out the thought that they would be able to work miracles (Luke 17:23). That is not all the editing he did. Luke apparently was not a fan of the concept of the Elect, because he edited out that reference from his Gospel; both here and everywhere else!

Moving on, we hit one of those really odd patches of verses where Matthew and Luke both have content that Mark does not have. In Matthew 24:27-28, Jesus told His disciples that His return would be visible all over the world like a flash of lightning, and that vultures gather around corpses. I am not really sure what that last part about the vultures is supposed to mean, and I am not particularly satisfied by any of the explanations given in the classic commentaries. However, Luke takes a crack at it for us.

In Luke 17:24, Jesus also explained about His lightning-like visibility on His return. Then, a little later in Luke 17:37, we find a similar vulture-related comment. Luke 17:35-36 does provide some contextual meaning for these vultures, because in those verses Jesus explained that when He returned, certain people would be "taken." So when we get to Luke 17:37, a disciple asked "Where?," as in where will these people be taken? It is then that Jesus replied about vultures gathering around corpses, which still leaves the verse a bit open for interpretation despite Luke's added context, because, for example, we do not know if it is the good people or the bad people who are "taken". The idea of the gathering of the Elect (which we will see a little later) would suggest it is the good ones who are taken, but then, metaphorically, they are the vultures gathering around the corpse, which seems exceedingly odd.

Next we come to the shared sentiment of Matthew 24:29 and Mark 13:24-25:
"Immediately after the distress of those days
  'the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
  the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the Heavenly bodies will be shaken.'" NIV
Note the time frame again: immediately following those days, referring to the Siege of Jerusalem. Immediately is a relative term, for sure, and within the span of five or so years could be a reasonable interpretation, but two thousand years... not so much.

Besides the timing, what does the rest of that verse mean? Sun darkened? Moon not giving its light? (That, by the way, is another tell of bad Biblical science, given that the moon does not produce light of its own.) Stars falling? Heavens shaking? Sounds like some miraculous metaphysical manipulation! While this could be meant literally, like the Plague of Darkness on the Egyptians, this is most likely to be metaphorical, but what does the metaphor mean?

Classic Bible commenter John Gill suggests that the darkened sun refers to "...the Shekinah, or the divine presence in the temple...", i.e. God leaving the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and the darkened moon refers to "...the [Jewish] ceremonial law, the moon, the church is said to have under her feet, Revelation 12:1 so called because the observance of new moons was one part of it..." The problem is that Jesus already took care of this. God left the Temple when the curtain was torn (Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45), and Jesus allegedly ended ceremonial law too. So that is a nice try, but let us let Scripture guide the interpretation instead.

In Isaiah 5:30, Isaiah 13:10, Ezekiel 32:7, Joel 2:10, Joel 2:31, Joel 3:15, Amos 8:9, and Micah 3:6 you find similar references to these celestial signs. In fact, let us take a look at Ezekiel 32:7 for example:
"When I (God) snuff you (Egypt) out, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light." NIV
Given that this language is applied to Egypt, we can know with some certainty that this is no allusion to God leaving the Temple or the end of Jewish ceremonial law. ;-) However, what you probably picked up on in this verse is God's judgement of condemnation.

Darkening the sun, the moon, and the stars is a metaphor which is connected with God's judgement, and it means that essentially that the subjects of this judgement are without hope. There is no sun to light their path by day. There is no moon to track the months to tell the seasons. There are no stars to guide them. In short: at that point, there is no way that they can escape their judgement.

You may have noticed the multiple references above in Joel. Take a quick read through Joel 2 and you will see that this metaphor here in the Gospels was most likely meant as a reference to the Judgement Day.

Continuing on, Matthew 24:30 and Luke 21:27-28 both share the sentiment of what Mark 13:26 concisely expressed:
"At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory." NIV
Again we see that this is to occur at "that time." By Biblical prophesy standards, all of these time references are pretty darn precise, and all point to the time around the Siege of Jerusalem and the time soon thereafter.

Now, what does that phrase "see the Son of Man coming in clouds" mean? Well, our friend John Gill thinks that it is a metaphor; that "...he (Jesus) shall appear, not in person, but in the power of his wrath and vengeance, on the Jewish nation which will be a full sign and proof of his being come." Indeed, there are other verses where God's vengeance came with clouds, such as Isaiah 19:1, Isaiah 30:27, Lamentations 2:1, and the above-quoted Ezekiel 32:7.

So Gill's suggestion on this verse is reasonable and closer to the mark, but he is still way off target. God's vengeance would be displayed, but in the much larger context Judgement day. The verse itself was likely inspired by and intended to allude to Daniel 7:13-14:
"In my (Daniel's) vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed." NIV
Does that sound like anyone we are supposed to know? ;-) Conveniently for us, this prophesy is explicitly explained in Daniel 7:23-27, with another reference to 3.5 years ("a time, times and half a time") like we saw in my earlier post on the Temple destruction which quoted a different prophesy from Daniel. Daniel's prophesy stated that at the end of this three and a half years there would be a swift act of judgement, and then God's eternal kingdom would be established!

Make no mistake. What Jesus allegedly prophesied here is the end of the world, and the timing was explicitly claimed to be shortly after the fall of the Temple. In fact, stepping up to the earlier verse with the celestial signs, there is the curious mention that the stars would fall from the heavens. There is only one Old Testament reference to stars actually falling: Isaiah 34:4. Isaiah 34 is a prophesy of judgement against all nations. This was an explicit reference to Jesus coming back, in person (Revelation 1:7), initiating the final Judgement Day.

Closing out this prophesy, that is why in Matthew 24:31 and Mark 13:27 you see that at that time Jesus would send forth angels to gather the Elect from the four winds (another bad Biblical science reference). The Elect would be saved from experiencing the intense tribulation of that dreadful day. This is but an echo of prior Old Testament prophesies, as we see in Ezekiel 34:12:
"As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I (God) look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness." NIV

Friday, January 4, 2013

The End Back Then, Part 3: Temple Tragedy

Jesus told the disciples who had been impressed by the Temple in Jerusalem that it would be utterly destroyed. Shocked, the disciples soon asked Jesus when that would happen, when would He return, and when would be the end of the world. Jesus replied in somewhat vague, but lengthy detail. First He warned them of upcoming false Messiahs, wars, and disasters. Then He told them how they would become witnesses to the world. The worst was yet to come...

This is Part 3 of a five part series entitled "The End Back Then." The series entries are:

The End Back Then, Part 3: Temple Tragedy
Never again. Powerful, defiant words. They are a steadfast resolution and a promise of a better future. If spoken by God, they should have even more significance, because we know that God would never go back on His word. Ironically, that is how we know Jesus' words to be false, as we will see in this study.

In the sections of Matthew 24:15-21, Mark 13:14-19, and Luke 21:20-24 we find Jesus' "prophetic" words regarding the Siege of Jerusalem which would occur 70 CE. However, this was allegedly not prophesied by Jesus originally, as Mark 13:14 infers and Matthew 24:15 directly alludes to like so:
"So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— " NIV
An abomination that causes desolation? Mentioned by Daniel? What is that about? I went into this particular prophesy of Daniel's in detail in an earlier post, so check that out if you want a bigger picture, but let me give you a quick breakdown here of the esoteric prophesy to "let the reader understand":

This is a reference to Daniel 9, and particularly the prophesy contained in Daniel 9:24-27, which is known as the Prophesy of Seventy Weeks. The "weeks" are normally interpreted as groups of seven years, so we are referring to a prophesy of 490 years here. At the end of this time, sins would be atoned for and there would be everlasting righteousness.

Most of the exciting stuff in the prophesy occurs in the final "week," and that is precisely the time period Jesus referred to here. In those final seven years:
  • The anointed Jewish ruler will be cut off, replaced by a foreign ruler (or at least a non-anointed ruler)
  • That foreign ruler will rule for seven years
  • That foreign ruler will make promises to many
  • That foreign ruler will put an end to sacrifices and offerings in 3.5 years
  • That foreign ruler will set up an "abomination which causes desolation" in the Temple which will remain there until the ruler's preordained end.
  • Jerusalem and the Temple will be destroyed at some point by this foreign ruler's people
  • At the end of this seven-year rule, God will make atonement for the Jewish people, put an end to sin, and establish everlasting righteousness.

Cognitive bias being the issue it is, most Christians focus on the foreign ruler (the Romans), the stopping of sacrifices (Jesus rendering sacrifices unnecessary), the promise with many (Jesus new covenant), the atonement for sins (Jesus' sacrifice), and the Temple's destruction by a foreign army (Romans, 70 CE) and think that this is a miraculously accurate prophesy.

And it does seem that way... if you ignore some very important details, such as the fairly major points that Roman dominion lasted far longer than seven years, that the Jewish sins would have been atoned for way back when Jesus died, and that there has yet to be any end of sin, or the start of everlasting righteousness for that matter, in roughly 2000 years afterward. :-)

As for what the "abomination which causes desolation" means, and what this "prophesy" is actually referring to, it probably has much more to do with what occurred under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175 to 164 BCE) which lead to the Maccabean Revolt. In fact, in the Catholic canonical Bible book of 1 Maccabees, verse 54 explicitly refers to such an abomination:
Now the fifteenth day of the month Casleu, in the hundred forty and fifth year, they set up the abomination of desolation upon the altar, and builded idol altars throughout the cities of Judea on every side; KJV
Of course, that episode did not end with eternal righteousness either, but even a cursory glance over that history reveals a much better match with Daniel's prophesy overall than the siege in 70 CE.

Anyway, the rest of Matthew 24:15-21, Mark 13:14-19, and Luke 21:20-24 primarily describes just how boot-shakingly terrifying this time period will be, such that you are better off just fleeing the area without worrying about gathering up your prized possessions. Then, in Mark 13:19 we find an incredible statement, which is echoed more succinctly by 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." NIV
Did you catch that? This was going to be the absolutely most distressing event to ever occur! The Flood of Noah? The plagues on Egypt prior to the Exodus? Pssh. They were to be merely children's nightmares compared to the real distress of that time. Furthermore, and most importantly, Jesus said that the distress of that period would never be equaled again! So all of the horrific events prophesied in Revelation could not possibly take place unless it has already take place back during the siege of Jerusalem, because the terrors described therein from chapters 6-20 would undoubtedly cause not only equal, but outright greater distress than what happened during that siege.

From this, we can discern either that Scriptures, including Jesus' own alleged words, are wrong, or that God is a liar. Given that I am fairly certain that this God does not exist, I suspect the former option is the right one, but either one is not good for Christianity.

Just in case you think I am misunderstanding the scope of distress here, we should check out the next verse. Matthew 24:22 says essentially the same thing that we see in Mark 13:20:
"If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the Elect, whom He has chosen, He has shortened them." NIV
No one would survive! God would not even be able to keep His Elect alive! That is a time of some serious tribulation!

Curiously, Luke, "the editor" as I like to call him, wisely redacted this sentiment. Not only that, but if you really compare Luke 21:20-24 to Matthew 24:15-21 and Mark 13:14-19, you see that that is not the only important change Luke made. He also recast this event as "the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written." So this was to be a judgement day of sorts, where God unleashed His wrath on the Jews, but only on the Jews. This was not to be the Judgement Day. The fact that Luke could differentiate the Siege of Jerusalem from the real "end" suggests that Luke was writing his Gospel at some considerable amount of time after the siege and Temple destruction took place.

In contrast, the lack of discernment on this matter in Matthew and Mark suggests rather that they were written much closer to the time of the Siege. However, Matthew has not proven himself to be much of an editor in his Gospel, so he may have written it much later like Luke, but, like a high-school cheater, got caught copying the wrong answer off of Mark who was "sitting next to him," so to speak.