The Siege of Jerusalem
Today’s Text: Matthew 24:15-28
Last week we ended class with the elimination of the literalist method of interpretation, and the understanding of verses 29-33. This week we move to the preceding section, 15-28. In this section, Jesus tells the disciples what the people of God will need to know when Jerusalem is besieged in 70 AD. Verses 15-16 give a sign of warning to the people regarding the time to flee the region, giving a reference to Daniel’s prophecy; that will be discussed below. When this sign appears, the people in Judea are to flee to the mountains, and along this route, they can travel through the back country all of the way to Lebanon behind the Roman advance to safety. Verses 17-20 underscore the need for haste in their flight from the region. It is important to note that he said “in Judea” and not in Jerusalem which is the capital of Judea. This is because by the time they see the sign he referred to, it will be too late for Jerusalem, as we shall see. Verses 21 and 22 detail just how horrible the coming siege will be, and gives the believers the hope that the horror will be cut short so that they may be able to escape destruction. In verses 23-25, Jesus warns the believers not to be fooled by rumors, and urges them to stick with what he is telling them, ending with the note that they will be spared from Jerusalem’s doom. In verse 25, he reinforces the thought that he is giving them advance warning of the situation. Our text ends with a curious section from 26-28, where Jesus warns that some will be fooled into thinking that the destruction of Jerusalem is the end of the world and the time of his coming. This is clearly not the case, and the believers mustn’t be fooled, for when he does come, it will not be in secret!
The sign in our text is “the abomination that causes desolation,” and is used by Daniel in describing military attacks on Jerusalem in chapters 9, 11 and 12. To a Jew, “abomination” would be something that defiles something that is holy. A Gentile army surrounding the Holy City would be a possibility. “Desolation” means emptiness, so what we are looking for is a gross defilement that results in emptiness.
Looking to the Olivet Discourse as recorded by Luke, we find the answer:
“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
By comparing Matthew 24 to Luke 21, we see that the sign they were to look for was when a Gentile army surrounded the Holy City of Jerusalem, and this happened in 66 AD. A question may arise as to why Matthew refers to Daniel, and Luke does not. Remember that Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel written for the Jews, and Luke’s was the one written for the Greeks. Frequently, Matthew refers back to prophecies that are fulfilled, while Luke just spells out what happened. This is because the Jews were aware of the prophets, and by reminding them of the prophecies that are fulfilled, Matthew is lending credibility to Jesus Messianic claim. Luke’s audience is largely ignorant of Jewish tradition, and such comparisons would be of little value to those readers; Luke spells things out that Matthew relates to Scripture.
Thus, we come to see that what Jesus is giving as a signal to flee the area is the Roman siege at Jerusalem; those outside the city are to flee immediately, and those within the city will have to wait for another sign for deliverance… This signal comes in verse 22: those days will be cut short!
History of the Siege
At this point, it is useful to give a brief synopsis of the history of the siege of Jerusalem. This history is told by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who not only wrote the history of the Jewish people from Genesis to the time shortly before their last war of destruction (65-70 AD) Antiquities of the Jews, but another volume entitled The War of the Jews which gives his eyewitness account of the entire Roman campaign against the Jews, including his eyewitness account of the siege of Jerusalem.
The war began when the Emperor Caligula commanded that his statue be erected in the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem. This so outraged the Jews that they flew to arms and began to attack Roman outposts, beginning in Syria, and spreading throughout the region. A large Roman army under Vespasian began its counter assault in that region, and then moved through Galilee destroying all Jewish opposition in its wake. After ravaging the north, Vespasian returned to Rome, where he participated in a coup that overthrew Caligula (who was insane) and was replaced by Cestius, who was the general who began the siege. Josephus tells of the horrors of this period, and to read his account is truly disturbing. The believers trapped in the city, recalling the words of Jesus must have wondered how they were going to be able to flee as the conditions grew steadily more desperate; then a miracle. The Romans suddenly withdrew! According to Josephus, the Jews celebrated their divine deliverance. The Christians fled to the hills and escaped. What had actually happened was that the general Titus had arrived in the region with reinforcements. Cestius withdrew, joined up with Titus, and with Titus (the higher ranking officer) in command they soon returned to finish the job, only this time there were no Christians in the city: they had all fled because they had been forewarned by none other than Jesus Himself! “See, I have told you ahead of time.” (Matt. 24:25)
As Josephus tells the story, and he was no supporter of the Christians, not a single Christian died in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. The Jewish deaths were over 100,000. By the time the Romans launched their final assault, there was no resistance, and they had only a mop up operation; murdering the last of the survivors who couldn’t get away. According to Josephus, the Romans discovered to their delight that the Temple itself was full of gold. In fact (as we know) it was inlaid with gold within the wood framework of the stone construction. To render the gold from its structure, Josephus tells that the Romans set it ablaze, and then pried the stones loose from one another to get at the melted gold that had fallen, leaving not one stone upon another. (Matt. 24:2)