"'Therefore when you see the "abomination of desolation," spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place' (whoever reads, let him understand), '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. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened.'"
Jesus refers to the "abomination of desolation" that was written about in the Old Testament (cf. Dan. 9:27). The event Daniel spoke of was the surrounding of Jerusalem by the Roman army (this fact is made plain in Luke 21:20). The Romans were considered to be an abomination to the Jews because they were heathens, and their intent was to besiege and destroy Jerusalem (i.e., bring desolation).
It is a fact that Cestius Gallus (the Roman general) and his troops withdrew from Jerusalem in A.D. 66. It appears that the Romans were making good progress in conquering Jerusalem, but they departed the city for some unknown reason. This gave those Christians who were present time to escape, for they realized that the "abomination of desolation" had taken place.
Fleeing to the mountains would be an absurd course of action to suggest if Jesus was speaking about the end of the world. However, this instruction makes perfect sense when one understands that Jerusalem was the object of destruction, not the entire world. Additionally, it would be foolish to enter into one's house and burden himself with various things to carry. This would only impede one's progress and make it more difficult to escape the doomed city quickly.
It would be hard for nursing mothers and pregnant women to flee quickly at that time. Also, if the people tried to escape on the Sabbath they would be hindered by the gates of the city, which would probably be closed (cf. Neh. 13:19-22). If it was winter, poor weather could make a quick and safe departure difficult.
"For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be" (Matt. 24:21). Josephus, a first-century historian who was not a Christian, made a similar comment when he wrote, "If the miseries of all mankind from the creation were compared with those which the Jews then suffered, they would appear inferior." According to Josephus, 97,000 Jews were captured and 1,100,000 perished during the entire siege and destruction of the city (some historians believe these numbers to be inflated). His description included gruesome things, such as a story of a woman who actually killed, roasted, and ate her nursing child in order to avoid starving to death. Cannibalism was evidently a serious problem during the siege. He also writes about the numerous tortures and slayings, as well as the crucifixions (supposedly there were so many of them that finding crosses and places to put them all was a challenge).
Undeniably, what Jesus spoke came to pass - "And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (Luke 21:24; cf. Rom. 11:25). Also, from Luke 21:22 - "For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled" (cf. Dan. 9:26,27; Deut. 28:49-57).
"And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened" - The days were shortened providentially by God's hand. As General Titus was conquering Jerusalem in A.D. 70, after a three-year siege started by his father Vespasian, he received news from Rome. His presence was needed there immediately. Thus, he shortened his attack on Jerusalem and not all of the inhabitants perished.
Our Lord continued in Matthew 24:23-26:
"Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. Therefore if they say to you, 'Look, He is in the desert!' do not go out; or 'Look, He is in the inner rooms!' do not believe it."
Jesus is here reiterating His points from 24:5,11. He wants to clearly warn them and to prevent them from being deceived.
We will continue studying this context in our next lesson.