The Fall of Jerusalem
The teachings of Jesus recorded in this section, especially Matthew 24, are commonly misapplied by people looking for signs of the end of the world. They want advance warning, they don't enjoy having secrets kept from them. Many people believe that Jesus has told us when he would return and the signs of that return are recorded in this section.
The teachings here need to be kept in its proper context, so return to Matthew 23:33-39 for a moment. After numerous charges against the scribes and Pharisees for their mistreatment of God's Law, Jesus concludes his condemnation by prophesying the consequences of their sins. The Jews had killed God's prophets in the past. Though this current generation thought they were above such misdeeds, Jesus stated that they would continue to kill righteous people. They were not above the misdeeds of their forefathers, they were just as guilty. The punishment for killing God's people would fall upon this very generation.
Physical Jerusalem Will be Destroyed (Matthew 24:1-3; Mark 13:1-4; Luke 21:5-7)
As Jesus was leaving the Temple, his disciples were pointing out the marvelous architecture and construction of Temple and the buildings around it. The Temple had recently been completely rebuilt by Herod the Great. Even though Herod had died shortly after Jesus was born, the reconstruction was continuing and continued for thirty years after Jesus’ death. Herod the Great might have been paranoid and crazy, but he is recognized as an accomplished architect. The area was filled with gifts decorating the various courts. Perhaps Jesus’ discussion about bringing judgment on Jerusalem caused the disciples to attempt to prove that Jerusalem was too beautiful to destroy.
The Court of the Priests formed a 280 by 205 foot rectangle. The sanctuary was reached by climbing twelve steps up to a porch 150 feet high and 150 feet across. A 30 foot wide doorway led into a vestibule. The doorway was flanked by two square pillars composed of ten stacked stones each 6 feet on a side. On top of these pillars, 105 feet up, rested five oak beams forming a trellis. On this trellis stretched a golden vine and clusters of grapes that were the height of a man. Above the vines was a giant golden Roman eagle, much to most Jews’ displeasure. The doors to the Holy Place were made of carved wood overlaid with gold.
Five steps down from the Court of the Priests was the court of Israel, which wrapped around the Court of the Priests on three sides. A gallery 15 feet wide and supported by beautiful marble columns went round this court. East of this court, opposite the Temple, rose a very beautiful gateway, called the Gate of Nicanor. It was 75 feet high and 60 feet wide containing gates of carved Corinthian brass covered with plates of gold and silver, The gates were so heavy that twenty men were needed to move them.
From the Gate of Nicanor a semicircular stairway of fifteen steps led down to the Women's Court. This court was surrounded by a gallery on three sides. Benches were distributed around this court for sitting. This is where Jesus did much of his teaching. According to Josephus, some of the white limestones forming the Temple were nearly seventy feet in length, twelve feet in height, and eighteen feet in breadth.
Perhaps this will give an idea how shocking Jesus’ statement was to the disciples. He declared that not one stone would be left stacked on each other. It obviously bothered the disciples for when they got to the Mount of Olives and Jesus sat down, Peter, Andrew, James, and John came to Jesus and asked three questions: 1) When will this happen? 2) What will be the signs of your coming? 3) What will be the signs of the end of age? In the disciple’s mind the destruction of Jerusalem would mean the end of the world.
As we read through the gospels, we are struck with the fact that Jesus often answers the actual question asked and not the question the person thought he was asking. His answer to his disciple's questions is no different. To the disciples, all three questions dealt with the same event, but Jesus' answer shows there are two events being discussed.
Warnings Against False Signs (Matthew 24:4-8; Mark 13:5-8; Luke 21:8-11)
The times leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem would be unusual. There would be an increase in the number of wars, famines, and earthquakes. The danger is that people would arise claiming to be the Christ and using these events as “proof” that they are telling the truth. They will claim the time for the destruction is closer than it really is and thereby mislead people. Jesus did not want his disciples persuaded by such false prophets. The Jews longed so greatly for a Messiah to deliver them from the Romans that they were ripe pickings for false prophets. But none of these signs could tell anyone anything, they would only be the beginnings of sorrows.
Oddly, even today we have individuals and groups arising pointing to earthquakes, hurricanes, and wars to say that Jesus’ return is close; as if these events give proof that their claim for a particular date is true. Earthquakes, hurricanes, wars, and droughts always happen. They are not evidence that anything in particular is coming.
Preliminary Events (Matthew 24:9-14; Mark 13:9-13; Luke 21:12-19)
Jesus then lists specific events that would precede the destruction of Jerusalem. The disciples would be persecuted. Such we see in Acts. Initially the persecution came from the Jews (Acts 8:1). Some chased early Christian teachers from town to town stirring of anger against them (Acts 13:50; 14:1-6, 19; 17:5). Eventually this persecution spilled over to the Gentiles. It became easy to blame Christians for problems (I Corinthians 7:26). Tacitus, a Roman historian, called Christians, "a class of men hated on account of their crimes" [Annals, 15.44]. A popular example was Nero blaming the burning of the poor district in Rome on the Christians. Many believe Nero was behind the burning to remove the slums and make way for some building projects.
While they were being put on trial, Jesus assures his disciples that they need not fear what they should say, the Holy Spirit would be with them and instruct them. Rather than dreading the trials, they are to see them as opportunities to further teach the gospel.
It was during this time that most of the apostles were killed.
The time would be long enough that many who were caught up in the excitement of becoming Christians would begin to drift away from the truth (II Timothy 2:17-18; 4:10). Others because of some perceived offense would fall completely away (II Timothy 1:15). Families would turn against each other betraying family members to the persecutors. Because of the prevalence of sin, many people would lose their faith (James 4:1-4).
It is only the ones who endure, despite the opposition, who will be saved. This is true in the immediate context of being saved from the destruction of Jerusalem. Only those who remain faithful would continue to watch for the signs Jesus gave and act upon them when they see them. But Jesus’ statement is also true in a much broader sense. Only those who remain faithful to the end of their lives will be saved (Revelation 2:10; Hebrews 3:6, 14; 10:39; Romans 2:7).
A more specific sign for which to watch would tell the disciples that the destruction of Jerusalem would be soon. Before Jerusalem would be destroyed, the gospel would be preached to the whole world. Paul stated this was accomplished (Romans 10:18; 16:25-26; Colossians 1:6, 23).
Signs That It is Close (Matthew 24:15-28; Mark 13:14-23; Luke 21:20-23)
Just prior to the destruction, the "abomination of desolation", which Daniel prophesied, would take place (Daniel 11:31). In Luke's account of these same matters, Jesus said that the Roman army would surround Jerusalem just prior to the desolation (Luke 21:20). Josephus speaks of a tyrant, named Simon, who slew the priests "as they were about their sacred duties ... many persons, who came thither with great zeal from the ends of the earth, to offer sacrifices at this celebrated place ... fell down before their own sacrifices themselves, and sprinkled that altar ... with their own blood; till the dead bodies of strangers were mingled together with those of their own country, and those of profane persons with those of the priests, and the blood of all sorts of dead carcases stood in lakes in the holy courts themselves." This happened just prior to Titus marching on Jerusalem.
These signs would give those who paid heed to them enough advance warning to avoid the destruction. When they saw the signs, Jesus urges his followers to flee Jerusalem as fast as they possibly could (. He urged them to pray that the time would not come when flight would be hindered, such as during the winter or on the Sabbath when the gates of Jerusalem would be closed. They were not to delay even to go home to get things from their homes. The need to flee would be particularly hard on those who are pregnant or traveling with nursing children as this would slow them down. Jesus also warned them not to delay because of misleading statements by people falsely calling themselves the Christ. Many people will ignore Jesus' warnings because of these people. However, the Christians have their warning. According to traditional history, Christians heeded their Master and not one Christian perished in the destruction of Jerusalem.
The urging to flee from the destruction is the clearest indication that Jesus is not discussing the end of the world in this passage. When the world comes to an end, there will be no place to flee (II Peter 3:10). People will not be able to do anything to save themselves from that destruction. Nor will it matter if a woman is pregnant or nursing on the Judgment Day.
We also see that is a local destruction. Those in Judea are to flee to the mountains. Thus the danger is focused in this one place.
The warning is not to be ignored because the magnitude of the destruction will be greater than any seen in the world. Concerning this destruction, Josephus wrote, "No other city ever suffered miseries, nor did any age, from the beginning of the world, ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness that this was." He also wrote, "If the miseries of all mankind from the creation were compared with those which the Jews then suffered, they would appear inferior."
Josephus “has given the following account of one part of the massacre when the city was taken: "And now rushing into the city, they slew whomsoever they found, without distinction, and burnt the houses and all the people who had fled into them. And when they entered for the sake of plunder, they found whole families of dead persons, and houses full of carcasses destroyed by famine; then they came out with their hands empty. And though they thus pitied the dead, they had not the same emotion for the living, but killed all they met, whereby they filled the lanes with dead bodies. The whole city ran with blood, insomuch that many things which were burning were extinguished by the blood." Jewish Wars, book vi. chap. 8, paragraph 5; chap. 9, paragraph 2, 3. He adds, that in the siege of Jerusalem, not fewer than eleven hundred thousand perished (Jewish Wars, book vi., chap. 9, paragraph 3)--a number almost as great as are in the whole city of London. In the adjacent provinces no fewer than two hundred and fifty thousand are reckoned to have been slain; making in all whose deaths were ascertained, the almost incredible number of one million three hundred and fifty thousand, who were put to death. These were not indeed all slain with the sword. Many were crucified. "Many hundreds," says he, (Jewish Wars, book vi. Chap. xi Chap. xi. paragraph 1) "were first whipped, then tormented with various kinds of tortures, and finally crucified: the Roman soldiers nailing them (out of the wrath and hatred they bore to the Jews) one after one way, and another after another, to crosses, by way of jest, until at length the multitude became so great that room was wanting for crosses, and crosses for the bodies." So terribly was their imprecation fulfilled--" His blood be on us, and on our children," Mt 27:25. If it be asked how it was possible for so many people to be slain in a single city, it is answered, that the siege of Jerusalem commenced during the time of the Passover, it is estimated that more than three millions were usually assembled. See Josephus, Jewish Wars, book vi., chap. ix., paragraph 3, 4.
“A horrible instance of the distress of Jerusalem is related by Josephus. The famine during the siege became so great that they ate what the most sordid animals refused to touch. A woman of distinguished rank, having been plundered by the soldiers, in hunger, rage, and despair, killed and roasted her babe, and had eaten one half of him before the deed was discovered. Jewish Wars, book vi., chap. 3, paragraph 3, 4. This cruel and dreadful act was also in fulfillment of prophecy, De 28:53,56,57.
“Another thing added by Luke (Lu 21:24) was, that "they should be led captive into all nations." Josephus informs us that the captives taken during the whole war amounted to ninety-seven thousand. The tall and handsome young men Titus reserved for triumph; of the rest, many were distributed through the Roman provinces, to be destroyed by wild beasts in theatres; many were sent to the works in Egypt; many, especially those under seventeen years of age, were sold for slaves. Jewish Wars, book vi., chap. 9, paragraph 2,3.
The only reason it did not become worse is that God would limit how long this destruction would last. Therefore, no one should allow themselves by anyone nor trust in anyone claiming to be the Christ and offering a false sense of peace or protection. The disciples had been forewarned. When Jesus brings his judgment on Jerusalem, no one will miss it. It will be as noticeable as lightening in the sky.
Read Ezekiel 21:28-32 concerning the destruction of Ammon where the polished sword of judgment flashes like lightning in the hands of the Maker. Notice here, too, is a warning to the people not to listen to false prophets. Lightning and thunder is often used to describe the coming of God in judgment (Psalm 18:4-17, take note of verses 13-14; Psalm 144:3-7). In the discussion of the overthrow of Greece, Israel will be arrows falling like lightning to bring Greece down (Zechariah 9:13-14).
Vultures gather around the dying and Jesus uses this image with a twist. Where the dying is, the eagles will gather. The symbol of the Roman army was the eagle and Judaism was a dying religion (Hebrews 8:13) and nation. Some alter the word for “eagle” to “vulture” in this text based on the illustration. Eagles go after live prey. Vultures feed on dead bodies. But the Greek word is literally “eagle” and it is clear that Jesus was purposely using it as a part of his warning. The twist makes it stand out.
Execution of Judgment (Matthew 24:29-31; Mark 13:24-27; Luke 21:24-28)
“After the city was taken, Josephus says that Titus "gave orders that they should now demolish the whole city and temple, except three towers, which he reserved standing. But for the rest of the wall, it was laid so completely even with the ground by those who dug it up from the foundation, that there was nothing left to make those believe who came hither that it had ever been inhabited." Maimonides, a Jewish writer, has also recorded that "Terentius Rufus, an officer in the army of Titus, with a ploughshare tore up the foundations of the temple," that the prophecy might be fulfilled, "Zion shall be ploughed as a field," Mic 3:12. This was all done by the direction of Divine Providence. Titus was desirous of preserving the temple; and frequently sent Josephus to the Jews to induce them to surrender and save the temple and city. But the prediction of the Saviour had gone forth; and, notwithstanding the wish of the Roman general, the temple was to be destroyed. The Jews themselves first set fire to the porticoes of the temple. One of the Roman soldiers, without any command, threw a burning firebrand into the golden window, and soon the temple was in flames. Titus gave orders to extinguish the fire; but, amidst the tumult, none of his orders were obeyed. The soldiers pressed to the temple, and neither fear, nor entreaties, nor stripes, could restrain them. Their hatred of the Jews urged them on to the work of destruction; and thus, says Josephus, the temple was burnt against the will of Caesar.--Jewish Wars, book vi., chap. iv. 5, 6, 7. “ [Barnes Notes]
The destruction of the city and temple was so complete that those who visited it afterwards could hardly believe that it had ever been inhabited [Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 7.1].
They, the Israelites, would see Jesus coming in judgment with power and glory. God rides in on the clouds (Deuteronomy 33:26; Psalms 68:4; 104:3). It is a measure of his swift approach, not only to rescue, but also to bring judgment (Jeremiah 4:13). Like a storm cloud gathering above, people tremble at the potential destructive forces (Zephaniah 1:15-18).
The destruction prophesied, while severe, was limited only to Jerusalem and the nation of Israel (Matthew 23:25; 24:1-2). Descriptive terms are used to show the severity of this destruction which are similar to the terms used for the destruction of Babylon (Isaiah 13:9-11, Joel 2:10) and of Egypt (Isaiah 11:12; 19:1). The use of failing heavenly lights represents the destruction of government and the chaos (darkness) that follows (Isaiah 13:9-13 - Destruction of Babylon; Ezekiel 32:7-9 - Destruction of Egypt, Pharaoh being the light put out; Joel 3:11-16 - Judgment on the nations surrounding Israel; Amos 8:9-10 - the captivity of Israel). A light going out is a way of talking about death or destruction (Job 18:5-6). A person or a nation's light is its influence in the world (Matthew 5:14-16); therefore, a light being put out is a removal of that person or nation's power and influence in the world. Luke’s account makes it clearer that the shaking of heaven and the extinguishing of lights deals with upsets in the powers in government.
Despite the severity of the destruction, Jesus promises protection for his people. Earlier Jesus expressed his longing to gather in the people of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37). It was used in prophesy of gathering people to shelter them from harm (Isaiah 11:12; 27:13; 43:4-7).
Pay Attention to the Signs (Matthew 24:32-35; Mark 13:28-31; Luke 21:29-36)
The disciples need to learn the lesson taught by the fig tree. We know when summer approaches because we see the leaves coming out on plants like the fig tree. In the same way the disciples will be able to see the signs and know that the destruction of Jerusalem is near. But, they need to pay attention to the signs and act upon them if they are to be saved from the destruction.
Jesus warns his disciples that the destruction of Jerusalem would be soon. In fact it would occur in their generation (Matthew 23:36; 24:34). The words translated "this generation" do not refer to an age, but to the people living at the time Jesus was speaking. For example, in Matthew 11:16-19, Jesus scolds the people of that generation for not giving heed to John and Jesus. Later, Jesus said there would be some of that generation who would not see death before Jesus' kingdom was established (Matthew 16:28).
Jesus assures his listeners in Matthew 24:35 that these things will happen and God will not alter what Jesus has just prophesied. It is more likely that the world will come to an end first than for Jesus’ prophecy to fail.
The danger is that people will get caught up in this world with its cares and sins. They will be distracted from the signs and warnings and thus be caught in the destruction. But if they remain faithful, then they will escape the judgment and be able to stand with Jesus, that is they will have no concerns about their safety (Psalm 1:5; 130:3; Romans 14:4).