Jesus warned His people to flee when the abomination of desolation occurs. Why are they to flee? Was Jesus describing the rapture—or something very different?
In the previous article in this series, we discussed Jesus’ statement about the true gospel being preached in the end time (Matthew 24:14).
Immediately after saying this, Jesus transitioned to another topic—a topic that is of vital significance to God’s people. That topic is the beginning of the Great Tribulation. The Great Tribulation is the prophetic period of 3½ years that precedes Christ’s return. Jesus described it as unequivocally the worst time in all human history (verse 22).
But before He discussed what it will be like, He discussed an event that will warn His people that the Great Tribulation is about to begin.
The abomination of desolation—a sign for God’s people
Jesus transitioned to this topic by saying: “Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place … then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (verses 15-16, see also Daniel 11:31). A few verses later He said that “there will be great tribulation” (Matthew 24:21) following this event.
What exactly did Jesus mean by “the abomination of desolation”?
It is an interesting—and somewhat complex—subject, and studying it reveals this event has happened more than once, and will happen again in the future.
Historically, the abomination of desolation referred to a tragic period in Jewish history during the time between the Old and New Testaments. During this time, Jerusalem was under the control of the Greek Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes. In 167 B.C. he banned all animal sacrifices and set up an image of Zeus (a pagan Greek god) in the Jerusalem temple. This occurred about 200 years before Jesus gave this prophecy.
It can seem confusing that Jesus spoke of a historical event in the future tense.
This topic is an example of a prophecy with multiple fulfillments. In the case of the abomination of desolation, the first fulfillment took place in 167 B.C., and a second fulfillment occurred in A.D. 70, when the Romans (like the Greeks) ended sacrifices and desecrated—and destroyed—the Jerusalem temple.
But Jesus was clearly speaking of the event in the context of the end times and Great Tribulation. The prophet Daniel also placed “the time that the daily sacrifice is taken away” (Daniel 12:11) in an end-time context. That shows that there is still one more fulfillment of this prophecy to come.
So, students of Bible prophecy watch for a third abomination of desolation in Jerusalem. For animal sacrifices to be cut off again, they will have to be resumed. There have not been animal sacrifices in Jerusalem since the Romans destroyed the temple 1,950 years ago. But there are certain groups in Jerusalem today trying to make that happen. This is something we often recommend our readers watch closely for.
So, what should we expect to take place?
To summarize: 3½ years before Jesus’ return, a powerful leader from Europe will lead armies into Jerusalem, stop Jewish sacrifices and set up a false religious system in place of Jewish sacrifices.To summarize: 3½ years before Jesus’ return, a powerful leader from Europe will lead armies into Jerusalem, stop Jewish sacrifices and set up a false religious system in place of Jewish sacrifices. Jesus also warned that we will know this event is close when we “see Jerusalem surrounded by armies” (Luke 21:20).
To learn more about this important topic, read “What Is the Abomination of Desolation?”
A time to flee
Let’s return to Jesus’ words in the Olivet discourse.
Notice what He said occurs next: “Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath” (Matthew 24:16-20).
Why will they need to flee? The abomination of desolation will trigger the beginning of “great tribulation, such as has not been seen since the beginning of the world … nor ever shall be” (verse 21). The entire world will descend into a 3½-year period of the most atrocious warfare and anguish in all human history.
This period of global catastrophe and suffering will be particularly dangerous for the Church of God. God’s people will be the target of extreme persecution—fueled by the wrath of Satan himself (Mark 13:11-13; Revelation 6:9-11; 12:13; 17:6).
That is why Jesus warns and commands His people to flee when they see the abomination of desolation. They are to leave immediately—go and not look back (reminiscent of how Lot and his family were to flee Sodom before its destruction in Genesis 19).
Was Jesus describing the rapture?
One of the greatest misunderstandings about this prophecy is the idea that Jesus will rapture Christians to heaven to be protected from the Tribulation. There are several problems with this theory, but a close reading of Jesus’ words here in the Olivet discourse sufficiently shows the idea is incorrect.
Read Mathew 24:16-20 again closely, and you’ll notice every example Jesus used shows people leaving where they are and going someplace else—on earth. None of His examples make any sense if God planned to instantaneously rapture Christians to heaven.
Think about it. If you’re to be raptured to heaven:
- Why would you go to the mountains?
- Why would you pack?
- Why would being pregnant be an issue?
- Why would winter weather be a concern?
- Why would it matter if it is on the Sabbath?
Jesus was describing something completely different from a rapture. Jesus’ words in the Olivet discourse are in perfect harmony with other prophecies that show some of God’s people will be protected from the Great Tribulation on earth.
To learn more about the problems with the rapture theory, read “Did Jesus Teach the Rapture?”
Prophecies in Revelation about end-time protection
Revelation 12:13-14 clearly describes what will occur: “Now when the dragon [Satan] saw that he had been cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman [the Church] who gave birth to the male Child. But the woman was given two wings of a great eagle [a symbol of God’s deliverance], that she might fly into the wilderness to her place, where she is nourished [protected and cared for] for a time and times and half a time [3½ years], from the presence of the serpent [Satan].”
The location where the Church is taken is called “her place” in “the wilderness” (verse 14). The Bible never refers to heaven as a wilderness. This “place” in the “wilderness” is clearly located somewhere on “the earth” (verse 16). This is the location where God “will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world” (Revelation 3:10).
So, when we put Jesus’ words together with the prophecies in Revelation, we see that a portion of God’s people will flee from their homes after the abomination of desolation and before the Great Tribulation. We don’t know exactly how God’s people will be taken there or where “her place” will be, but we do know two things:
- God’s people will have to take the initiative to flee from where they are without delay or hesitation when the time becomes obvious.
- God will miraculously deliver His people safely to this place of protection. It is not something that God’s people need to figure out, or plan the logistics of, in advance.
Our biggest concern shouldn’t be how to get there or where it will be. God will provide those answers when the time is right. The most important issue is being alert, watchful and spiritually strong—before it happens.
This is exactly what Jesus told us to do: “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36).
To learn more about God’s promise of protecting His people in the end time, read our article “Place of Safety.”
Sidebar: Why Pray That Our Flight Not Be on the Sabbath?
When Jesus was discussing the need to flee as the Great Tribulation is about to begin, He urged His followers to “pray that your flight [escape] may not be in winter or on the Sabbath.”
Fleeing would obviously be more difficult in the winter, so it makes sense to pray that our escape not occur in cold, wintery weather. But why would He tell us to pray that it not occur on the Sabbath?
The Sabbath refers to the seventh day of the week (Saturday on modern calendars). The Sabbath is the day God created for people to rest from work (and normal routine) and worship Him (Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:8-11). So, praying that we wouldn’t have to flee to a place of protection on the Sabbath makes sense.
For God’s people to genuinely pray about this, Sabbath-keeping must be a concern for them. Jesus’ urging that we pray we not be forced to flee on the Sabbath means that Jesus expected His people would be observing the Sabbath in the end time.
Neither Jesus nor the disciples ever taught the abolition of the Sabbath commandment. On the contrary, Jesus reinforced the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28) and expected that His end-time Church would be faithfully observing it.