From:  Apocalyptic and History:  Matthew 24                                 Return to Home        

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2013

 

 

[Page 171]

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR:

OTHER TROUBLES OF THE ERA

(Matthew 24:21-26; Mark 13:19-23; Luke 21:23b-24)

 

 

 

1.  UNPRECEDENTED NATURE OF THE CATASTROPHE (Matthew 24:21-22;

            Mark 13:19-20; Luke 21:23b-24) 

 

            Jesus briefly but vividly expresses the intensity and danger of the war when He describes it in these terms, “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.  And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (verses 21-22). 

            There are four distinct elements to the predictions found in these two verses:  (1)  The degree of destruction would be unprecedented; (2) the degree of destruction would never be repeated; (3) total annihilation would be a realistic danger; (4) the "elect" would survive the catastrophe due to God cutting short its length.  The credibility of such language as a description of the fall of Jerusalem will be considered as we examine the Old Testament roots of each of these themes.

            Before doing that we need to examine Luke’s account, “. . . For great distress shall be upon the earth and wrath upon this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:23b-24).

[Page 172]                   Luke only mentions part one of the four elements common to Matthew and Mark’s accounts:  Their “great tribulation” becomes “great distress . . . and wrath.”  Clearly the same idea.  He immediately proceeds from that to the fall of Jerusalem and its subjugation to the Gentiles.  The cosmic rhetoric he removes (though he makes passing allusion to it in other places); he provides a down-to-the-earth description instead.  Assuming Luke to be an accurate interpreter, then we have strong evidence here that the intent in Matthew and Mark is to present in vivid language the same event.  Since the central thrust of both Matthew and Mark so far has been the destruction of Jerusalem this is what we would expect.  Hence one may fairly say that Luke makes explicit what is implicit in the other two.

            Before we pass on to a consideration of the cosmic rhetoric in the other accounts, we need to consider the meaning of Luke’s statement that “Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”  What are “the times of the Gentiles”?

            Some take it as equivalent to the time when the gospel would be available for the Gentiles.[1]  Expressed in this broad sense the interpretation seems erroneous since Luke recorded in Acts 10-11 how decades prior to the destruction of Jerusalem Gentiles began to enter the church.[2]  If we take this approach, it would be desirable to refine the expression to mean that it would be a time when Gentiles would be acceptable on a par with Jewish converts or a period when converts came, primarily, from the Gentile community.  Both would fit well a post A.D. 70 interpretation.  Yet there is nothing in the context that would seem to point to this being the theme, however.

            Some kind of reference to the theme of political/military power subjugating Jerusalem--which is the subject emphasized right on the surface of the text--would be far more appropriate.  In the minimal sense it could refer to the time it took Rome to complete its conquest of the city.[3] 

            It could be taken as the time Gentiles would exercise control over Jerusalem.  It its broadest extension this would cover at least the period under Jews regained control over Palestine in the 1940s or when the Temple area was regained much [Page 173]   later in the century.  Reading the text this way has been the seedbed of much premillennial interpretation.  On the other hand, who knows whether the Jewish state will be permanent.  One does not have to be either antisemitic or a doomsayer extreme rightwinger in Israel to realize that many Arabs passionately hate the “Jewish presence” and would love to see it removed.  A faulty pseudo-peace and a generation down the road Israel might vanish as a Jewish entity.  For that matter, one could (if moderately cynical) wonder whether Israel could exist even today without the significant support of key outsider powers--the United States in particular.  Hence Gentile powers remain, if not in “control,” then certainly “vital.”  Has then the “time of the Gentiles” truly ended?  Hence this commentator is inclined to make it the entire period from the fall of Jerusalem to the parousia.[4]  

            Nor is the idea of a time limit upon national humiliation--no matter how broadly construed--an unknown one in the Old Testament.  Tyre was to suffer humiliation for seventy years (Isaiah 23:15-17).  The tribes of Israel were repeatedly subjugated by nearby enemies--until they returned to Yahweh (Judges 2:16-23).  Some of the terminology used by Luke would have been familiar to the reader of the Septuagint.  Just as Luke quotes Jesus as referring to the “distress” and “wrath” that would overtake Jerusalem, the same two Greek words are used in the Septuagint in Zephaniah 1:15 to describe an earlier threatened punishment on Jerusalem.[5]  Likewise Luke’s expression “trodden down by the Gentiles” is the Septuagint Greek Old Testament of Zechariah 12:3.[6] 

 

   

            A.  UNPRECEDENTED DESTRUCTION

 

            Old Testament precedent.  In the vision of Isaiah, he speaks of the nations God would use to bring temporal judgment against Babylon.  Their assault would be so vigorous that it seemed as if the entire human race would perish, "Hark, a tumult on the mountains as of a great multitude!  Hark, an uproar of kingdoms, of nations gathering together!  The Lord of hosts is mustering a host for battle.  They come from a distant land, from the end of the heavens, the Lord and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole earth" (13:4-5).

[Page 174]                   By being on the losing side, the Israelites were well acquainted with the horrendous loss of life that could occur in such situations.  When a city fell "their corpses were as refuse in the midst of the streets," Isaiah reminded the people (5:25). 

            Such passages as these speak of vast destruction, but do not use the rhetoric of unprecedented.  Such does occur, however, in Daniel 12:1, “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people.  And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time; but at that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book.”  If a temporal judgment is under consideration, it is significant that there is no claim that it would never be exceeded by a worse one (contrast the depiction in Joel 2, below).  The emphasis is on a comparison with past disaster, not future calamities.  On the other hand, since a resurrection day scenario comes next (Daniel 12:2-4), an interpretation in a strict eschatological context would seem more appropriate.

 

            First century occurrence of such phenomena.  To the Jews themselves, the Great Revolt and the resulting destruction of the Temple certainly seemed to justify the type of language Jesus utilized.  Josephus speaks of the calamities associated with the revolt as being more “considerable” than those of any other nation had met since “the beginning of the world.”[7] 

           

           

            B.  DEGREE OF DESTRUCTION WOULD NEVER BE REPEATED

 

            Old Testament precedent.   Joel 2 uses the imagery of a powerful, unprecedented destroyer.  Not only that, but one so powerful that none would ever appear like him again,

[Page 175]

                        Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!  Let

all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is

near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!  Like

blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people;

their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them, through

the years of all generations (2:1-2). 

 

            Three possible approaches have been taken to this text.  A few interpret it as a reference to a contemporary foe of Israel.[8]   Most take it as a reference to a devastating locust plague.[9]   A third approach interprets the passage as referring to a future superdangerous foe that would have the capacity to annihilate that nation.[10]  A bridging approach, linking the second and third interpretations together, is that military and locust images are indiscriminately blended together because literal locusts become the precedent for the future destruction.[11]       

            Except for those who consider the locust plague identical with the one described in the preceding chapter, none of these approaches considers the destruction--even if by a literal army--as having been accomplished immediately in Joel’s own near-term.  Those who take the third approach can easily see an ultimate fulfillment (either sole or duplicative) in any fall of Jerusalem or even a literal ending of the universe, as in traditional Christian cosmology.            

            A reference to devastation by literal locusts would seem to be Joel’s actual intent.  Any attempt to make this into a prototype for a latter military disaster is needless.  The Old Testament has no difficulty in seeing God’s guiding hand behind military disasters upon Israel and views these as divine judgments in and of themselves.  Hence there is no particular need to look upon a plague of devastating locusts as a Divine judgment requiring any further supernatural action above and beyond the one threatened.

            The warning of mass disaster via locusts was one that would have brought to mind a frightening precedent recorded in the Pentateuch:  God had sent judgment upon Egypt by an unprecedented devastation by such creatures (Exodus 10:14-15).  It would be doubly galling for Israel to be on the receiving end of the identical calamity that had befallen her one time taskmasters.         

[Page 176]

            First century occurrence of such phenomena.  Jesus uses the same imagery of unprecedented destruction as well as that of it never occurring again.  The best interpretation of the synoptic texts, however, takes it in a “literal” and straightforward military fashion:  as an unprecedented catastrophe at the hand of armed enemies of such a nature and scope that it would never be repeated again.  If this approach be valid, “reconciling” the predicted event of Joel 2 and the synoptic apocalyptic does not become an issue--the first deals with a natural catastrophe never duplicated and the latter to a religio-military one that would never be repeated.

            The military defeat option, however, is a common interpretation of Joel as well.  Hence consideration needs to be given to how the rhetoric of Jesus might be consistent with that of Joel within such an interpretative framework.  Assuming that Jesus actually spoke these words and His being well grounded in the Torah and prophets (and we believe both to be sound assumptions), there would have to have been a rationale in His own mind for the inclusion of such a heavy emphasis on an “unprecedented” and “never to be duplicated” event.  Even if we take the other approach and see the statement as a construct of Matthew or other early Christians, one would anticipate a rationale for the language as well.

             One thing that strikes us as we compare the two passages is an important descriptive difference.  In Joel 2:2 it is the massiveness of the alien army that is under discussion (over the mountains are spread "a great and powerful people"), while this element is totally lacking in Jesus' prediction.  In Joel the key factor is the unprecedented destruction is carried out by an unprecedented size military force.  In Matthew 24 the fact of unprecedented destruction is at the forefront.  Historically, we know that this  was caused by a moderate size (rather than mammoth) Roman army.  Hence, the destruction might still be perceived as unprecedented in proportion to the forces at play.

            But what of the “unrepeatability” aspect of Jesus’ claim?   Although the Jewish people suffered in greater numbers in the German Holocaust and the purges of the Soviet Union, the Jewish nation never endured a greater disaster than that [Page 177]   inflicted by the Romans.  The distinction is an important one.  The Jewish nation effectively ceased to exist with the destruction of the Temple and it only came back in existence again with the founding of Israel.  (Howbeit in a secular incarnation rather than a religious one.)  Hence the kind of suffering Jesus referred to could not be duplicated in the interim.

            For those who accept the Pauline definition of the Judeo-Gentile Christians as the true Israel (discussed earlier), then the fall of Jerusalem was a tangible outward expression of the rejection of the “physical” Israel that had refused to submit to the Messiah.  As the ultimate rejection, barring conversion, anything that happened in the future (however unjust and undeserved a calamity) could never quite be on the same par as what happened in A.D. 70.

            Even from a Jewish religious standpoint, it would seem that the destruction of Judaism’s Temple and its functioning system of worship strikes at such a vital center of its religious identity, that no disaster afterwards could be quite comparable.  It could exceed it in scope, deaths, and pure horror--all shattering in their own right.  But to undergo mass destruction and the desolation of one’s central place of worship puts the enter catastrophe in a different interpretive context.

            Perhaps this approach would be even more striking if we put it in the context of a different religious system, that of Islam.  If some irresponsible terrorist group would be to commit the ultimate sacrilege of a nuclear destruction of Mecca, what else could be compared to in past or, even future, Islamic history?  It would be such a hideous splintering of the central cultic site that no numerically superior disaster would be quite comparable to it.        

 

 

            C.  TOTAL ANNIHILATION WOULD BE A REALISTIC DANGER

 

            Old Testament precedent.  Just as Jesus spoke of the potential for total annihilation (Matthew 24:22), the fate of Babylon is presented as dangerously close to the same result, "I will make more rare than fine gold, and mankind than the gold of Ophir" (Isaiah 13:12).  In Zephaniah 1:18 we find a similar dire threat, [Page 178]   "Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lord.  In the fire of His jealous wrath, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full, yea, sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth."  Finally, the book of Esther recounts the aborting of the conspiracy to utterly annihilate the Jews of her kingdom.

 

            First century occurrence of such phenomena.  The danger was not to the human race but to all those in the place of danger, i.e., those in Jerusalem.  Josephus pictures the siege as a period of horrible conflict within the city walls, in which basic humanitarianism disappeared as factionalism reigned and hunger starved the population.  Horrible as the fall of the city was, the very act of its fall guaranteed the survival of many who would otherwise have perished.  Both in the city itself and the surrounding country.

            In a broader--not literal, but not fully symbolic sense either--the language could be applied to the depopulation of the region rather than the extermination of its residents.   This was certainly the case of the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-135 A.D.[12]  On a less permanent basis one can reasonably assume a similar, temporary, movement during the Great Revolt itself.

            Margaret Davies  puts an interpretive gloss upon the text that makes it refer to the potential death of any “vulnerable human being” (our emphasis, rw), i.e., not all people but only those such as babies and pregnant women who were always in the greatest danger in such hostile circumstances.[13]    Although the cessation of hostilities would be a special blessing in such cases, it is hard to limit the meaning in such a drastic manner.  Rather, the danger was, indeed, to all human beings--at least those living in the geographic heart of the conflict. 

 

 

            D.   DIVINE INTERVENTION WOULD CUT SHORT THE DURATION

 

[Page 179]                   Old Testament precedent.  In the Old Testament God was repeatedly pictured as using wars against those unwilling to accept His will.  It also conceptually flips over the concept and speaks not just of God "causing" war, but also "stopping" them as well.  Both ideas are found in the contrasting verses of Psalms 46:8-9, "Come, behold the works of the Lord, how He has wrought desolations in the earth.  He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, He burns the chariots with fire!"

            Jeremiah uses the imagery of earthquake as part of a symbolic depiction of war (Jeremiah 4:23-28).  Here, again, God reins in the devastation short of its logic result of annihilation, "The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end” (verse 27).

            The idolatry of the people was so pervasive in the days of Isaiah (65:1-7), that a total destruction of the land might seem appropriate.  In spite of the insistent provocation, God had not given up all hope and was determined to stop the forthcoming destruction before it reached that stage, "Thus says the Lord:  As the wind is found in the cluster, and they say, 'Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,' so I will do for my servants' sake, and not destroy them all" (verse 8)  The following verse speaks in terms of this being an act of mercy for the "chosen" faithful (conceptually comparable to "elect" in Matthew 24:22), "I will bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of My mountains; My chosen shall inherit it, and My servants shall dwell there" (verse 9).  The faithful servant class would rejoice over the mercy they received (verses 13-16). 

            In the first chapter of the same book, the prophet speaks of a period of  enemy warfare that would be so successful (verses 7-8) that even the survival of a handful of individuals would be counted a blessing, “If the Lord had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah” (verse 8).

            Joel 2--as we saw above--spoke of a mammoth unprecedented destruction (verses 1-2).  Even here, the possibility of God acting to protect the land is left open,  " ‘Yet even now,’ says the Lord, ‘return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments."  Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil’ (verses 12-13).

[Page 180]                   Indeed, He assures them that He will act in their behalf (verses  20-27).  In Matthew, however, no condition of moral reform is mentioned, presumably because none is necessary for the “elect” are already characterized by such a lifestyle..

 

            First century occurrence of such phenomena.  The fact that the siege came to an end sooner than would have been anticipated justifies the reference to the “days [being] shortened.”  Though faced with an encircling army, Jerusalem was an easy to defend location.[14]   Yet a number of factors conspired together to reduce the length of the siege, “These were--the divided counsels of the Jews themselves, the voluntary surrender of parts of the fortification, the fierce factions in the city, the destruction of magazines of provisions by calamitous fire, the suddenness of the arrival of  Titus, and the fact that the walls had never been strengthened as Herod Agrippa had intended.”[15] 

            In what sense was this shortening of the conflict done “for the sake of the elect”?  Various explanations could be suggested:  from the standpoint of Christians of the era, it would have considered, at least in part, as an opportunity for the population to repent and become part of the new bi-ethnic “elect” of God.  It would also have assured the survival of any foolish Christian who had not taken advantage of the earlier opportunity to flee.[16]    Furthermore, those believers who escaped death would, in turn, convert others.  Hence it might be in order to bless not just the current “elect” but those who would be reached by the gospel message at a later date and become part of that community.[17]    Finally, the city’s safety was likely the prayer topic of many a Jewish Christian.  “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” wrote James (5:16b).  What would draw forth more prayers from those who were Jews by birth (though Christians by faith) than the destruction of Jerusalem?   Hence the shortening of the war could have been out of respect for their prayers as well. 

 

[Page 181]

2.  FALSE CLAIMERS TO BE MESSIAH AND PROPHET

     (Matthew 24:23-26; Mark 13:21-23) 

 

 

            Jesus had earlier discussed the danger of false Christs (Matthew 24:5) and false prophets (Matthew 24:11).   In Matthew 24:23-26 and its Markian parallel He elaborates on this at greater length, thereby indicating the importance of it in His mind.  The reference to “the elect” being potential victims, Jesus makes plain that Christians would not be immune from susceptibility to their deception, any more so than the population at large. 

 

 

            A.  THE RUMOR OF SUCH INDIVIDUALS WOULD DEFINITELY

EXIST (Matthew 24:23; Mark 13:21)

 

            Old Testament precedent for the danger of false Christs.  In the centuries long before Jesus’ ministry, His nation had trusted in various foreign powers to “save” or “redeem” it from the danger of some other existing super-state.  Egypt, for example, is pictured in such terms, as an empty and futile protection against Assyria (Isaiah 30:1-7; 36:4-10). These national “saviors” or “Messiahs” were the repeated object of rebuke since they proposed to keep God from fulfilling His threats against Israel’s unfaithfulness.  They functioned, in effect, corporate false Messiahs. 

            On the individual level, the Old Testament speaks of individuals claiming the right to lead Israel or Judah but who are pictured as moral or religious apostates.  They led their people into political alliances rebuked by the true prophets of the day and even into outright idolatry.  These individuals posed as the redeemers of the land, when they were really leading it to destruction.  Hence, again, the false Messiah concept.

            Even an honorable individual could receive such excessive trust that the followers transformed him into something he himself might not even claim.  As the Psalmist warned, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is [Page 182]   no help.  When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish” (146:3-4)  

            Yet, having said all this, there appears to be no explicit Old Testament text alluding to an individual rising up and directly claiming to be the Messiah.  These rough parallels, however, would certainly make the usage in regard to specific individuals a quite natural one.  (For additional thoughts on Old Testament precedents for “false Christs” see verse 5.)

 

            First century occurrence of such phenomena.  The psychological and physical pressures of the Roman invasion would make the people unusually desperate for a Redeemer.  And what people need, they either find or invent, even if it be by the process of self-delusion.  Although we lack explicit reference to such individuals in the period, the intense pressures of the age make it inherently improbable that they did exist.  The pressing need was simply too great.  (For more thoughts on the matter see the discussion in verse 5.)  

            The deceivers may have come from either the Jesus-followers[18]  or from traditionalist circles.[19]   Although the personal moral responsibility for the self-deceived and conscious false prophets and Messiahs is not to be under-rated, their task was made far easier by the volatile society in which they functioned.  There was “a widespread search for an anointed king who would prove to be a liberator”[20]  and such leaders gained a following far beyond what they would have obtained in more tranquil settings.

            The warning of Jesus carried the implied message that He was not personally coming during the siege; whatever coming there would be would be a symbolic one.  Otherwise one of the claims of finding the Christ would have ultimately been right, for He was there!  

 

 

            B.  THEY WOULD EVEN TO ABLE TO WORK PSEUDO-MIRACLES

                  (Matthew 24:24a; Mark 13:22a)

 

[Page 183]                   Old Testament precedent for the danger.  The Torah is quite candid that the professional Egyptian magicians could duplicate some of Moses’ supernatural acts--though not all.  They could reproduce his turning a rod into a snake (Exodus 7:10), though Aaron’s rod/snake attacked and ate theirs (7:11-13).  Moses turned the drinking water into an unpalatable “blood” like substance (Exodus 7:20-21) and this could be duplicated by the magicians (7:22-23), though one must assume upon a smaller scale since the main bodies of water are referred to as already polluted due to Moses’ act. 

            The infliction of obnoxious frogs upon the land (8:1-6) was matched (8:7), again at least on a more modest scale by the court magicians (8:7).  Beyond this they could not go.  The text specifically refers to their inability to duplicate the next wonder performed on nature (8:18) and at least one plague (of boils) is referred to as inflicting them just as much injury as others (9:11). 

            Implicit throughout the duplicated acts is the inference of quantitative superiority of those performed by Moses (i.e., they affected a greater area or number) and a qualitative one as well (Aaron’s rod consumed their snakes and the boils inflicted the magicians just as much as anyone else).  The “qualitative” superiority (for lack of a better term) was also involved in their failure to stop or reverse the wonders Moses, through Aaron, had performed.

            A polytheist might also, at least upon some occasions, work an apparent miracle as a proselytizing tool.  As the danger is described in Deuteronomy 13:1-3,

 

                        If a prophet arises among you, a dreamer of dreams, and gives you

a sign or wonder, and the sign or wonder which he tells you comes to pass,

and if he says, “Let us go after other gods,” which you have not known, “and

let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or to that

dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether

you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”  

 

            A distinction is made in the text between prophets and the foreteller by dreams.  Although other texts speak of visions and other revelatory means, this [Page 184]   contrast implies that a prophet did not normally receive his message by such methods.   The possibility of learning of future events via dreams, however, was an accepted truism of the ancient world.[21]    Among the Jews as well, we read of those who at least once saw the future through their dreams though they are never classified as prophets (for example, the cases in Genesis 20:3-7 and Genesis 28:10-22).

            The passage is candid that even a pseudo-prophet or deluded dreamer might enjoy success in their efforts.  By whatever psychic, subconscious, or other means they were utilizing (such as well placed friends in the royal court), when it came to predictions of the future those not committed to Yahweh might enjoy major, provable “vindications” of their own.   

            The gods being recruited for might by Baal of the nearby Canaanites or the more distant deities of some future invader[22] --the point was the same in any case.   Even if an individual could perform a purported miracle, it was not enough to sanctify the worship of any other God but Yahweh of Israel.

           

            First century occurrence of such phenomena.  Matthew quotes Jesus as having stressed this same danger in the Sermon on the Mount:  In Matthew 7:21-22 is the warning that entrance into “the kingdom of heaven” will even be denied to those who claim to “prophesy,” “cast out demons” and “do many mighty works in your name” if they were not recognized by Jesus as among His true followers (verse 23).  Paul speaks in terms of the arising of a “lawless one” (the “man of sin” in some translations) who would have “power” and perform “pretended signs and wonders” (2 Thessalonians 2:9) that would confirm the convictions of those who rejected the gospel (verses 10-12).

            The New Testament makes no explicit reference to the fulfillment of these warnings.  The presence of pseudo-miracle workers in our world would argue that such is a “natural” phenomena of religion, that a true reality inevitably produces a counterfeit for those not able to measure up to the demands and requirements of the original.  Hence one would expect the prediction to have been fulfilled in the time prior to the fall of Jerusalem though one can not explicitly document it.     

 

[Page 185]

            C.  THE DANGER OF SUCCESSFUL DECEPTION WAS PRESENT

       (Matthew 24:24b; Mark 13:22b)

 

            Old Testament precedent.  Unless the warnings of the Torah and prophets were empty ramblings, they carried the implicit warning that their readers themselves might fall for such religious subversion.   Indeed, the writings of the prophets are full of condemnations, condemnations written in such sweeping terms that they assume large scale apostasy from the moral and religious norms of the Torah.  In regard to polytheism in particular, Israel was subject even in its early days of occupying the promised land with a chronic pattern of faithfulness/falling away/restoration, not on a one-time basis but a recurring one.  (Consider the “Judges cycle” in this regard in Judges 2:11-23). 

 

            First century occurrence of such phenomena.  Within the context of the fall of Jerusalem, there is no direct reference to Christians falling for the religious delusions of grandeur or national independence.  The epistles either date before or after that Great Revolt (this author finds the traditional dates preferable), but in either case they don’t purport to describe that period.  Yet they do provide indication that Christians were just as capable as anyone else of gullibility--at least some of them and on some occasions.   

 

“To Lead Astray If Possible”

 

            Oddly enough the words “if possible” (in the phrase, “to lead astray, if possible, even the elect”) is often read as an indication that it would be impossible for such a deception to occur.[23]  It would seem rather redundant to argue of the danger of an impossibility.  Years ago my family was traveling through the Mojave Desert and stopped at a rest area.  At it was a sign warning of the danger of snakes and other dangerous creatures.  Would it have made any sense to post a warning sign if there were no danger?

[Page 186]                   Of course, the text does not claim how many would yield to deception.  It is asserting “the difficulty, not the impossibility of drawing them away from the truth.”[24]    Alert to the danger, they were less likely to be entrapped--less likely, but not unable.   

           

 

 

            D.  SINCE THEY WERE FOREWARNED, THEY WERE TO REJECT

                  SUCH CLAIMS (Matthew 24:25-26; Mark 13:23)     

 

            Old Testament precedent.  The Old Testament warnings of false prophets and even pseudo-miracle workers (see discussions above) were obviously intended to be heeded or they would not have been given in the first place.  Hence with the warnings came the implicit plea that the hearers reject such individuals.  Indeed, it is made explicit in Deuteronomy 13:1-3 (quoted above).

 

            First century occurrence of such phenomena.  Again, because of the lack of New Testament epistles from the decade or two prior to the Fall of Jerusalem, evidence from that source is lacking.   If Revelation be assigned shortly prior to that tragedy (and I am among that minority who take that view), then we find some indication of contemporary Christians successfully exercising their capacity of spiritual discernment and judgment.  In Ephesus in particular we read of how they “tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and found them to be false” (Revelation 2:2).

            In other cities the danger was still present and the ultimate issue in doubt.  At Sardis there would those “who hold the teaching of Balaam” (2:14), an allusion to an Old Testament polytheistic prophet.  This may hint at similar prophetic claims being made.  There was also a problem with certain members who were holding “the teaching of the Nicolatians” (2:15).  In both cases the teaching needed to be rejected through repentance (2:17).

[Page 187]       At Thyatira a woman nicknamed “Jezebel” by John (for its obvious condemnatory Old Testament connotations) is called “a prophetess” and her teaching is rebuked (2:20).  An unidentified proportion rejected her teaching (2:24). 

            Whether we regard Revelation and the epistles attributed to Paul as of a pre-70 date or not (and a large number of scholars argue that both types are found in the traditional Pauline canon), a theme repeatedly found in them is that of early Christians encountering what apostolic orthodoxy insisted was erroneous, false, and sometimes outright dangerous.  Hence, it is clear that the early church was alert as to the danger of a drift away from those standards.  (Of course, to the advocates of rejection it was doubtlessly regarded as progress and an indication of their greater spiritual discernment.)

 

“In the Wilderness”

 

            Whether pseudo-Christs appeared in the wilderness in the era immediately preceding the Great Revolt, we do not know.  We do know, however, that pseudo-prophets did arise, some of whom may have made claims of inspiration if not that of being an outright prophet.  Josephus refers to those who “under the pretense of Divine inspiration” went “into the wilderness” and brought together a large band of followers.  According to him, they claimed “that God would shew them the signal of liberty,” which may also hint at miraculous signs being promised.  In reality Felix took their behavior as a sign of imminent revolt and slaughtered many of the assembled multitude.[25]  

            The wilderness would be a natural rallying place, away from the immediate presence of Roman soldiers.  It would enable at least limited time to organize forces to attack the occupation forces before the Romans could retaliate.  The effort would be enhanced if the individuals put out prophetic claims (cf. the incident above) or outright claimed Messiahship.[26]  

            For precedent, they could always have pointed to John the Baptist who did his work in the wilderness.[27]   Qumran represented a permanent wilderness community of the day as well.[28]   Hence rallying in the wilderness (for either peaceful or violent purposes) walked firmly within the traditions of the land.

[Page 188]

“In the Inner Rooms”

 

            Although revolutions may be fought in the countryside, they are far more often plotted in the backrooms of urban centers.  Hence the imagery “suggests a revolutionary plotter”[29] meeting with compatriots and fellow conspirators in such a setting.  In an urban environment, one has ready access to the maximum number of people.   The financing is more readily available there.  There will be a far higher proportion of political discontents with time on their hands than in farming country.  There will even be potentially subversive contacts within the occupation forces or collaborating officialdom. 

            It is hard to launch a revolution from an occupied city, but it is at least equally hard to successfully execute one without an extensive apparatus within it as well.  Although this is especially true in a modern context, these factors reflect a permanent reality throughout history.  With rare exceptions, successful revolutions are fathered in the cities and given birth to in the countryside.

            There was a Jewish belief (at least at a late date) that the Messiah would secretly be in the world before revealing Himself when the right, glorious moment finally came.[30]    John 7:27 seems to have this concept in mind[31] and in that passage the conviction was utilized as a reason to deny Jesus messianic recognition.    Since Jesus’ prediction in Matthew 24 was spoken of the destruction of the temple, this phrase could refer to the Messiah appearing from a secret refuge in the meeting rooms and facilities that were part of the temple complex.[32]     

 

 

 

 



NOTES

 

[Page 189]   [1]Dean, 131; Gooding, 328; Green, 739.

 

[2]Cf. I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, in the New International Greek Testament Commentary series (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978; 1989 reprint), 774.

 

[3]Ray Summers, page 259; cf. William Manson, The Gospel of Luke, in the Moffatt’s New Testament Commentary series (London:  Hodder and Stoughton, Limited, 1930; sixth printing, 1948), 234.          

 

[4]Wilfrid J. Harrington, 241; Stoger, 157-158; Elbert M. Williamson, Message to Theophilus:  Studies in Luke’s Gospel (Miami, Florida:  LOGOI, Inc., 1972), 125.

 

[5]Tiede, 364. 

 

[6]Frederick W. Danker, Jesus and the New Age:  A Commentary on St. Luke’s Gospel, Completed Revised and Expanded (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:  Fortress Press,1988), 335.

 

[7]Wars, Preface: 4.  Cf. Preface: 1, where he speaks of the war as the “greatest” in human memory.

 

[8]On the proportion taking this view see Ronald Simkins, Yahweh’s Activity in History and Nature in the Book of Joel,  Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Studies, Volume 10 (Lewiston [New York]:  Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), 159.  For a summary of the pros and cons for each of the three views see 159-169.  Simkins ultimately opts for the locust interpretation.

 

[Page 190]   [9]For example, Allen, 68; Julius A. Bewer, “Joel,” in John M. P. Smith, William H. Ward, and Julius A. Bewer,  A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Obadiah and Joel, in the International Critical Commentary series  (New York:   Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), 95-96; James L. Crenshaw,  Joel, in the Anchor Bible series (New York:  Doubleday, 1995), 119-120; cf. p. 49; Thomas J. Finley,  Joel, Amos, Obadiah, in the Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary series (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1990), 43; Theodore Laetsch, The Minor Prophets (Saint Louis, Missouri:  Concordia Publishing House, 1956), 119-121; H. C. O. Lanchester, The Books of Joel and Amos, Second Edition, in the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges series (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1915), 50-51; G. W. Wade, The Books of the Prophets Micah, Obadiah, Joel and Jonah, in the Westminster Commentaries series (London:  Methuen & Company, Ltd., 1925), 97-98;  John D. W. Watts, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habbakkuk and Zephaniah, in the Cambridge Bible Commentary:  New English Bible series (Cambridge:   Cambridge University Press, 1975), 25. 

 

[10]Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, in the Word Biblical Themes series (Dallas, Texas:  Word Publishing, 1989), 48. 

 

[11]Thomas E. McComiskey, The Minor Prophets:  An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Gand Rapids, Michigan:  Baker Book House, 1992), 271, 274, interprets it not as referring to literal locusts but to an army devastating the land in a locust-like fashion.   Peter C. Craigie, Twelve Prophets; Volume 1:  Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, and Jonah, in the Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1984), 98, argues that, “The recent locust invasion, horrifying enough in itself, was but a foreshadowing of a more awful event to come. . . .”  Elizabeth Achtemeier, “Joel,”  Introduction to the Apocalyptic Literature, Daniel, The Twelve Prophets, edited by Leander E. Keck, et al.,  Volume 7 of  The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1996), 316,  concedes the use of locust imagery but argues that it represents “God’s mysterious enemy from the north” (page 316).  

 

[Page 191]   [12]Robert C. Gregg and Dan Urman, Jews, Pagans, and Christians in the Golan Heights:  Greek and Other Inscriptions of the Roman and Byzantine Era, South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism, Number 140 (Atlanta, Georgia:  Scholars Press, 1996), 291.

 

[13]Margaret Davies, 168.

 

[14]199.

 

[15]Williams, page 436.

 

[16]Cf. John Calvin,   Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, translated by William Pringle (Reprint.  Grand Rapids, Michigan:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, n.d.), 3:139.

 

[17]Owen, 314.

 

[18]Anderson, 297; Hammerton-Kelly, 37; Saldarini, 115.

 

[19]Meier, Matthew, 285, attributes it to both.

 

[20]Gerard S. Sloyan, Jesus in Focus:  A Life in Its Setting, Revised Edition (Mystic, Connecticut:  Twenty-Third Publications, 1994), 75. 

 

[21]Richard Clifford, Deuteronomy, Volume 4 of the Old Testament Message--A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Wilmington, Delaware:  Michael Glazier, Inc., 1982), 81.

 

[22]Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy, in the Old Testament Library series (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:  Westminster Press, 1966), 97.

 

[Page 192]   [23]Barnes, 115.

 

[24]Williams, 437.

 

[25]Wars II:13,4.  The same incident is referred to in his Antiquities XX:9:6, as well.

 

[26]Cf. Ripley, 199.

 

[27]Cf. Stock, 368.

 

[28]Cf. Ibid.   

 

[29]W. K. L. Clarke, Concise Bible Commentary (New York:  Macmillan Company, 1953), 742. 

 

[30]Stock, 368.

 

[31]Montague, 268, Newman and Stine, 745, and Schweizer, 454.  

 

[32]Jacobus, 244.