Flight to Safety Before the “Great Tribulation”
“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies, . . . let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains.”—LUKE 21:20, 21.
1. Why is flight urgent for those who are still part of the world?
FOR all who are part of Satan’s world, flight is urgent. If they are to be spared when the present system of things is wiped off the earth, they must give convincing evidence that they have taken their stand firmly on Jehovah’s side and are no longer part of the world of which Satan is ruler.—James 4:4; 1 John 2:17.
2, 3. What questions in connection with Jesus’ words recorded at Matthew 24:15-22 are we going to discuss?
2 In his great prophecy regarding the conclusion of the system of things, Jesus emphasized the vital need for such flight. We frequently discuss what is recorded at Matthew 24:4-14; yet, what follows it is no less important. We encourage you to open your Bible now and read Mt 24 verses 15 to 22.
3 What does that prophecy mean? In the first century, what was “the disgusting thing that causes desolation”? What did its being “in a holy place” portend? Of what significance is that development to us?
“Let the Reader Use Discernment”
4. (a) What did Daniel 9:27 say would follow the Jews’ rejection of the Messiah? (b) When referring to this, why, evidently, did Jesus say, “Let the reader use discernment”?
4 Notice at Matthew 24:15 that Jesus referred to what was written in the book of Daniel. In Da chapter 9 of that book is a prophecy that foretold the coming of Messiah and the judgment that would be executed on the Jewish nation for rejecting him. The latter part of Da 9 verse 27 says: “And upon the wing of disgusting things there will be the one causing desolation.” Early Jewish tradition applied that part of Daniel’s prophecy to the profaning of Jehovah’s temple in Jerusalem by Antiochus IV in the second century B.C.E. But Jesus cautioned: “Let the reader use discernment.” The desecration of the temple by Antiochus IV, though certainly disgusting, did not result in desolation—of Jerusalem, of the temple, or of the Jewish nation. So Jesus was evidently cautioning his hearers that fulfillment of this was not in the past but was yet future.
5. (a) How does a comparison of Gospel accounts help us to identify the first-century “disgusting thing”? (b) Why did Cestius Gallus rush Roman troops to Jerusalem in 66 C.E.?
5 What was “the disgusting thing” for which they were to be on the lookout? It is noteworthy that Matthew’s account says: “When you catch sight of the disgusting thing that causes desolation . . . standing in a holy place.” However, the parallel account at Luke 21:20 reads: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies, then know that the desolating of her has drawn near.” In 66 C.E., Christians living in Jerusalem did see what Jesus had foretold. A series of incidents involving conflict between the Jews and Roman officials led to Jerusalem’s becoming a hotbed of rebellion against Rome. As a result, violence flared up throughout Judea, Samaria, Galilee, the Decapolis, and Phoenicia, north into Syria, and south into Egypt. In order to restore a measure of peace to that part of the Roman Empire, Cestius Gallus rushed military forces from Syria to Jerusalem, which the Jews spoke of as their “holy city.”—Nehemiah 11:1; Isaiah 52:1.
6. How was it true that a “disgusting thing” that could cause desolation came to be “standing in a holy place”?
6 It was customary for the Roman legions to carry standards, or ensigns, which they viewed as sacred but which the Jews viewed as idolatrous. Interestingly, the Hebrew word translated “disgusting thing” in the book of Daniel is used principally of idols and idolatry.a (Deuteronomy 29:17) In spite of resistance by the Jews, the Roman forces bearing their idolatrous ensigns penetrated into Jerusalem in November of 66 C.E. and then started to undermine the temple wall on the north. There was no doubt about it—a “disgusting thing” that could cause complete desolation to Jerusalem was “standing in a holy place”! But how could anyone flee?
Flight Was Urgent!
7. What did the Roman army unexpectedly do?
7 Suddenly and for no apparent reason from a human standpoint, when it seemed that Jerusalem could be easily taken, the Roman army withdrew. The Jewish insurgents pursued the retreating Roman troops but only as far as Antipatris, some 30 miles [50 km] from Jerusalem. They then turned back. On arrival in Jerusalem, they assembled in the temple to map out their further war strategy. Youths were recruited to strengthen fortifications and to serve in the military. Would the Christians get caught up in this? Even if they avoided it, would they still be in the danger zone when the Roman armies returned?
8. What urgent action did the Christians take in obedience to Jesus’ prophetic words?
8 Christians in Jerusalem and in all Judea soon acted on the prophetic warning given by Jesus Christ and fled out of the danger zone. Flight was urgent! In time they made their way into the mountainous regions, with some possibly settling in Pella, in the province of Perea. Those who took to heart Jesus’ warning did not foolishly turn back to try to save their material possessions. (Compare Luke 14:33.) Leaving under those circumstances, pregnant women and nursing mothers surely found it a difficult trip to make on foot. Their flight was not hindered by restrictions of the Sabbath day, and though winter was near, it had not yet arrived. Those who had heeded Jesus’ warning to flee quickly were soon safely outside of Jerusalem and Judea. Their lives depended on this.—Compare James 3:17.
9. How soon did the Roman forces return, and with what result?
9 The very next year, in 67 C.E., the Romans renewed war operations against the Jews. First, Galilee was subdued. The following year, Judea was dismembered. By 70 C.E., the Roman forces encircled Jerusalem itself. (Luke 19:43) Famine became extremely severe. Those trapped in the city turned on one another. Any who tried to escape were slaughtered. What they experienced was, as Jesus had said, “great tribulation.”—Matthew 24:21.
10. If we read with discernment, what else will we take note of?
10 Did that fully satisfy what Jesus had foretold? No, more was to come. If, as Jesus advised, we read the Scriptures with discernment, we will not fail to take note of what is yet ahead. We will also think seriously about its implications in our own lives.
Modern-Day “Disgusting Thing”
11. In what other two passages does Daniel refer to “the disgusting thing,” and what time period is there being discussed?
11 Note that, in addition to what we have seen at Daniel 9:27, there are, at Daniel 11:31 and Da 12:11, further references to “the disgusting thing that is causing desolation.” In neither of these latter instances is the destruction of Jerusalem being discussed. In fact, what is said at Daniel 12:11 appears just two verses after a reference to “the time of the end.” (Daniel 12:9) We have been living in such a time period since 1914. So we need to be alert to identify the modern-day “disgusting thing that is causing desolation” and then to be sure that we get out of the danger zone.
12, 13. Why is it appropriate to describe the League of Nations as the modern-day “disgusting thing”?
12 What is that modern-day “disgusting thing”? The evidence points to the League of Nations, which went into operation in 1920, shortly after the world entered its time of the end. But how could that be a “disgusting thing that causes desolation”?
13 Remember, the Hebrew word for “disgusting thing” is used in the Bible principally with reference to idols and idolatrous practices. Was the League idolized? Indeed it was! The clergy put it “in a holy place,” and their followers proceeded to give it passionate devotion. The Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America declared that the League would be “the political expression of the Kingdom of God on earth.” The U.S. Senate received an avalanche of mail from religious groups urging it to ratify the Covenant of the League of Nations. The general body of Baptists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians in Britain lauded it as “the only available instrument for attaining [peace on earth].”—See Revelation 13:14, 15.
14, 15. In what way did the League and later the United Nations come to be “in a holy place”?
14 The Messianic Kingdom of God had been established in the heavens in 1914, but the nations proceeded to fight for their own sovereignty. (Psalm 2:1-6) When the League of Nations was proposed, the nations that had just fought in the first world war, as well as the clergy who had blessed their troops, had already demonstrated that they had forsaken the law of God. They were not looking to Christ as King. Thus they assigned to a human organization the role of the Kingdom of God; they put the League of Nations “in a holy place,” a place where it did not belong.
15 As a successor to the League, the United Nations came into being on October 24, 1945. Later, the popes of Rome hailed the United Nations as “the ultimate hope for harmony and peace” and “the supreme forum of peace and justice.” Yes, the League of Nations, along with its successor, the United Nations, truly became an idol, a “disgusting thing” in the sight of God and of his people.
Flee From What?
16. Out of what do lovers of righteousness need to flee today?
16 On ‘catching sight’ of this, on recognizing what that international organization is and how it is being idolized, lovers of righteousness need to flee to safety. Flee out of what? Out of that which is the modern-day antitype of unfaithful Jerusalem, namely, Christendom, and out of all of Babylon the Great, the worldwide system of false religion.—Revelation 18:4.
17, 18. What desolation will the modern-day “disgusting thing” cause?
17 Remember, too, that in the first century, when the Roman army with its idolatrous standards made its way into the holy city of the Jews, it was there to bring desolation to Jerusalem and its system of worship. In our day the desolation is going to come, not merely upon one city, nor only upon Christendom, but upon the entire worldwide system of false religion.—Revelation 18:5-8.
18 At Revelation 17:16, it is foretold that a figurative scarlet-colored wild beast, which has proved to be the United Nations, will turn on harlotlike Babylon the Great and violently destroy her. Using graphic language, it says: “The ten horns that you saw, and the wild beast, these will hate the harlot and will make her devastated and naked, and will eat up her fleshy parts and will completely burn her with fire.” What this will mean is awesome to contemplate. It will result in the end of false religion of every kind in all parts of the earth. This will indeed show that the great tribulation has begun.
19. What elements have been part of the United Nations since its formation, and why is this significant?
19 It is noteworthy that since the United Nations began operations in 1945, atheistic, antireligion elements have been prominent in its membership. At various times all over the world, such radical elements have been instrumental in having religious practices either severely restricted or completely banned. In the past few years, however, there has been a letup in many places in government pressure on religious groups. To some people it may seem that any danger to religion is gone.
20. What sort of reputation have the world’s religions made for themselves?
20 The religions of Babylon the Great continue to be a violently disruptive force in the world. News headlines frequently identify warring factions and terrorist groups by naming the religion that they espouse. Riot police and soldiers have had to force their way into temples to stop violence between rival religious factions. Religious bodies have financed political revolution. Religious hatred has frustrated efforts by the United Nations to maintain stable relations between ethnic groups. In pursuing the goal of peace and security, elements within the United Nations would like to see the elimination of any religious influence that stands in their way.
21. (a) Who will determine when Babylon the Great is to be destroyed? (b) What is it urgent to do before then?
21 There is also another important factor to consider. Although the militarized horns from within the United Nations will be used to destroy Babylon the Great, that destruction will really be an expression of divine judgment. The execution of judgment will come at God’s appointed time. (Revelation 17:17) What should we do in the meantime? “Get out of her”—get out of Babylon the Great—the Bible answers.—Revelation 18:4.
22, 23. What does such a flight involve?
22 This flight to safety is not a geographic move, such as Jewish Christians made when abandoning Jerusalem. It is a flight out of the religions of Christendom, yes, out of any part of Babylon the Great. It means completely separating oneself not only from false religious organizations but also from their customs and the spirit they engender. It is a flight to the place of safety within Jehovah’s theocratic organization.—Ephesians 5:7-11.
23 When Jehovah’s anointed servants first identified the modern-day disgusting thing, the League of Nations, after World War I, how did the Witnesses react? They had already severed their memberships with the churches of Christendom. But they gradually realized that they were still clinging to some of Christendom’s customs and practices, such as the use of the cross and the celebration of Christmas and other pagan holidays. When they learned the truth about these things, they acted promptly. They took to heart the counsel at Isaiah 52:11: “Turn away, turn away, get out of there, touch nothing unclean; get out from the midst of her, keep yourselves clean, you who are carrying the utensils of Jehovah.”
24. Especially since 1935, who have joined in the flight?
24 Especially from 1935 on, a growing crowd of others, people who embraced the prospect of living forever on a paradise earth, began to take similar action. They too have ‘caught sight of the disgusting thing standing in a holy place,’ and they recognize what it means. After making their decision to flee, they have had their names removed from membership rolls of organizations that are part of Babylon the Great.—2 Corinthians 6:14-17.
25. What is required in addition to breaking off any ties that a person may have with false religion?
25 However, fleeing out of Babylon the Great involves much more than abandoning false religion. There is more to it than attending a few meetings at a Kingdom Hall or going out preaching the good news in field service once or twice a month. A person may be physically outside of Babylon the Great, but has he truly left it behind? Has he separated himself from the world of which Babylon the Great is a prominent part? Does he still cling to those things that reflect its spirit—a spirit that flouts God’s righteous standards? Is he treating sexual morality and marital faithfulness lightly? Does he emphasize personal and material interests more than spiritual interests? He must not allow himself to be fashioned after this system of things.—Matthew 6:24; 1 Peter 4:3, 4.
Let Nothing Impede Your Flight!
26. What will help us not merely to start the flight but to complete it successfully?
26 In our flight to safety, it is imperative that we do not look longingly at the things behind. (Luke 9:62) We need to keep our minds and hearts fixed firmly on God’s Kingdom and his righteousness. Are we determined to demonstrate our faith by seeking these first, with confidence that Jehovah will bless such a faithful course? (Matthew 6:31-33) Our Scripturally based convictions should incite us to that end as we eagerly await the unfolding of significant developments on the world scene.
27. Why is it important to think seriously about the questions asked here?
27 The execution of divine judgment will start with the destruction of Babylon the Great. That harlotlike empire of false religion will be forever blotted out of existence. That time is very near! What will be our position as individuals when that momentous time arrives? And at the climax of the great tribulation, when the rest of Satan’s wicked system is destroyed, on which side will we be found? If we take the needed action now, our safety is ensured. Jehovah tells us: “As for the one listening to me, he will reside in security.” (Proverbs 1:33) By continuing to serve Jehovah loyally and joyfully during this system’s conclusion, we may qualify to serve Jehovah forever.
a See Insight on the Scriptures, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Volume 1, pages 634-5.
Do You Remember?
◻ What is the modern-day “disgusting thing”?
◻ In what sense is “the disgusting thing . . . in a holy place”?
◻ What is involved in flight to safety now?
◻ Why is such action urgent?
[Picture on page 16]
To survive, Jesus’ followers had to flee without delay