From: Apocalyptic and History: Matthew 24 Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2013
-- Part Two --
THE FALL OF
(Matthew 24:1-15; Mark 13:1-14a; Luke 21:5-20)
Part Two includes:
8. Persecution of Jesus' Disciples (Matthew 24:9; Mark 13:9, 11; Luke -15)
9. Apostasy to be Common (Matthew 24:10a)
10. Believers to Betray Each Other (Matthew 24:10b; Mark ;
11. Believers to Hate Each other (Matthew 24:10c; Mark 13:13a; Luke -19)
12. Many False Prophets (Matthew 24:11)
13. Diminished Religious Fervor (Matthew 24:12)
Admonition: Endure Regardless! (Matthew 24:13; Mark 13:13b)
14. Worldwide Preaching of Gospel (Matthew 24:14; Mark )
15 Appearance of the "Desolating Sacrilege" (Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14a;
8. PERSECUTION OF JESUS’ DISCIPLES (Matthew 24:9; Mark 13:9, 11;
Mark and Luke develop the imagery of persecution at considerably greater length than Matthew so it would be useful to note all three passages together,
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death;
and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.” (Matthew)
“But take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you up to councils;
and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors
and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them.” “And when they
bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you
are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who
speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark)
But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you,
delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought
before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be a time for you
to bear testimony. Settle it therefore in your minds, not to meditate
beforehand how to answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which
none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Luke)
The adversity spoken of in Matthew falls into three categories, the broader area of "tribulation" (i.e., serious emotional, physical, or financial injury), "death" (either by courts of law or through extra-judicial, "lynch law" proceedings), and "hated by all nations," which was the psychological seedbed of the other injustices. By referring to "all nations," Jesus stresses the fact that there would be no ethnic or national boundaries to these negative anti-disciple attitudes. Although Jesus was speaking as a Jew to His fellow Jews, the adversities would be common when His disciples made their way into other localities and cultures.
The expression “deliver you up to”
implies organized action rather than random violence. It most naturally suggests judicial
action, such as that which the apostles faced in the book of Acts when
delivered up to the Sanhedrin. The
terminology would also fit the Roman world in light of the fact that, except
for occasional bouts of officially initiated persecution, accusations were normally lodged by private individuals before the
government. By the lodging of charges by
one’s enemies, one was “delivered up” to the power of the state for trial on
grounds of [Page 99] being an illegal monotheist. As likely as not, this was most often
accompanied by the physical delivering up of the individual in order to
assure their presence at trial. Paul’s
Grievous as it was to be on the receiving end, there is a certain inherent “logic” in persecution when it targets a small and socially despised religious movement: by its very lack of following and the social classes that dominate it, how could it possibly be approved by God? These “common sense” biases are backed up by the fact that the wisest and brightest of the world want nothing to do with such a movement. Of course, the first represents prejudices pure and simple while the last is intellectual arrogance, yet when they come together they provide a potent combination to justify the repression of a disliked spiritual minority.
Though the danger of death is not
explicitly mentioned in either Mark or Luke’s recounting--though it does get
introduced shortly afterwards in a different context--the element of
intimidation involved in the idea of “tribulation” (Matthew 24:9) is brought
out at length: both mention being hauled
before the judicial councils meeting in synagogues. “Any town with a (Jewish) population of 120
or more was entitled to such a council.” Luke does not mention what could happen
there, but Mark mentions how one might be “beaten.” Even without this happening, the very fact of
being compelled to appear before a hostile ecclestical
judicial body would be intimidating. And
those who were ethnic Jews would be potentially subject to such institutions in
any town where the Jewish community’s self-governing religious rights were
officially recognized. The vulnerability
would be the greatest in the period prior to the fall of
Furthermore, they would have to stand before powerful Roman rulers (“governors and kings”) and answer for their faith. Although death would--by its very nature--be a potential danger, Mark’s account stresses the tremendous pressure on the individual Jesus believer: “do not be anxious.” Although one would most naturally think in terms of pressure to repudiate one’s faith in order to avoid [Page 100] death or a repetition in the future, the admonition is explicitly connected with deciding “beforehand what you are to say” to defend yourself (Mark 13:10). This carries with it the idea found in Luke (“not to meditate beforehand how to answer”), but stresses how the natural concern about the best way to defend one’s convictions could gnaw away at one on a deep emotional level.
In spite of the danger in which they stood, both Mark and Luke's recountings point out that this will simultaneously provide an opportunity to defend one’s convictions. Comfort is provided to the apostolic listeners by telling them that the necessary guidance would be provided them so that they might speak the right words under the circumstances. Mark describes this ability as being provided by “the Holy Spirit” (). Luke’s account puts the emphasis on the resulting skill, “I will give you a mouth and wisdom” with which to speak (Luke ).
Mark leaves out any reference to how effective the oration would be, but attributing it to “the Holy Spirit” would require the deduction that the result would be both expressive of the truth desired to be conveyed and impressive as well. This implicit thought is brought out in Luke , where there defense is described as one “which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” The fact that their foes would be unable to adequately answer them deepened their moral guilt in punishing them: It is one thing to harshly treat the “heretic;” it is something considerably worse to mistreat someone who you have no way to adequately or effectively answer.
Ill-treatment in General
Old Testament precedent. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah is often
spoken of in such concrete, individualistic terms that it is hard to avoid the
conclusion that a specific future individual is in mind in many or all of the
references (49:7; 52:13-15; 53:1-10, for example). In Christian terms, of course, this would be
[Page 101] In
certain other passages of the Torah and the prophets, it is less clear whether
we have cases of direct Messianic prediction (with a secondary application to
all human beings) or references to the human species in general (with a
secondary application to the Messiah as the personification of the perfect
servant of the Lord). In the
In a similar vein, Psalms 2:1-2 speaks of how "kings" and "rulers take counsel together against the Lord and his anointed." The "anointed" would again be Jesus (in Messianic terms), but in the broader spiritual sense could be applied to all God had "anointed" to serve Him, i.e., all the individual men and women constituting the people of God.
Other texts clearly refer to the faithful servant of Yahweh in general. In Psalm 69:1-8 is found a strong word picture of an individual enduring unjust oppression. Though certain phrases are accurate verbal descriptions of the sufferings Jesus underwent, other parts of the chapter make plain that the text is concerned with contemporary description rather than future prediction. (For example, the charge made against the Psalmist in verse 4, is one never made against Jesus.) Describing his agony of heart over the turmoil he was undergoing, the Psalmist proclaims his innocence,
Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in
deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the
flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My
eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.
More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me
without cause; mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me
with lies. What I did not steal must I now restore? O God, thou knowest my
folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from thee. Let not those who
hope in thee be put to shame through me, O Lord God of hosts; let not those
who seek thee be brought to dishonor through me, O God of
for thy sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face. I
have become a stranger to my brethren, an alien to my mother's sons.
The cause of the oppression is explicitly stated to be loyalty to God (verses 6-7). It was not a case of irreconcilable personalities. It was not a case of provocation. It was a case where an individual attempting to live uprightly came face to face with individuals who were angered and outraged by the very efforts to live by a high moral standard. Indeed, his very efforts to beseech God for relief became the excuse for mockery and the songs of drunkards (verses 9-12).
First century occurrence of such phenomena. The exact nature of the “tribulation” is not spelled out, presumably because it could take a variety of forms. When it took the form verbal intimidation, sometimes to the perpetuators themselves it might not be fully clear exactly what were the consequences they were threatening. The Sanhedrin, for example, was so frustrated at one point with the apostles that they merely ordered them to stop preaching (Acts -18). They resorted to “further threat[s],” the nature unstated and possibly only broadly alluded to at the time itself (verse 21). The very act of specifying a threat demystifies it and makes it easier to handle on a psychological level. In contrast, a vague but creditable warning is alarming because it can be fulfilled in many uncertain and unspecified ways, magnifying the potential forms it could take. The mind frightens itself and fills in the worst.
Other texts also leave the exact nature of the retribution “hanging” ominously in the air. We read of the possibility of individuals being physically “bound” and taken to another city for trial (Acts 9:1-2). The punishments that could be inflicted were so severe that believers were “afraid” of those involved in the repressive steps (Acts ).
Specific punishments are also known. In the book of Acts we also read of imprisonment by both Jews (Acts 4:1-3; -21) and Gentile officials (Acts -[Page 103] 23). Both Romans (Acts ) and Jewish (2 Corinthians ) officialdom utilized judicial whipping. Other punishments that might (or might not) stop just short of death were beating with rods (2 Corinthians ) and stoning (2 Corinthians ).
“Put You to Death”
Old Testament precedent. Psalms 109:20-25 speaks of those who would scorn a faithful individual and use that person's weakness as an opportunity to plot even murder,
May this be the reward of my accusers from the Lord, of those who
speak evil against my life! But thou, O God my Lord, deal on my behalf for
thy name's sake; because thy steadfast love is good, deliver me! For I am
poor and needy, and my heart is stricken with me. I am gone, like a shadow
at evening; I am shaken off like a locust. My knees are weak through fasting;
my body has become gaunt. I am an object of scorn to my accusers; when
they see me, they wag their heads.
First century occurrence of such phenomena. Not all oppression had to end in death, but it easily could in a spiritually dangerous period when public anger was great. Hence we read of Stephen being stoned to death by his outraged listeners (Acts -60). For reasons unstated we read of Herod the king laying “violent hands upon some who belonged to the church” (Acts 12:1). His killing of James and John “with the sword” (verse 2) so pleased their local religious foes that Peter was cast into jail (verse 3), presumably to be tried and executed after the Passover was completed.
In a broader imperial context,
Nero’s major local pogrom against Christians in
On a local level, unsanctioned mob
action could endanger believers. Hence
at Iconium we read of how both Gentiles and Jews were
so angered by Paul and Barnabas’s preaching work that they attempted “to molest
them and to stone them” (Acts 14:5). To avoid the danger, the fled the city (verses 6-7). At
“Hated by All Nations”
Old Testament precedent. Just as first century Christians would be hated, earlier Jews had collectively faced similar contempt. In Zechariah 8:13 there is both a blunt acknowledgment of this reality and a plea that it not discourage them, "And as you have been a byword of cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so will I save you and you shall be a blessing. Fear not, but let your hands be strong."
Though the restoration of
First century occurrence of such
phenomena. Although one can theoretically do violence to
another and even murder them without “hatred” existing, in the real world such
rarely occurs. Hence the existence of
tribulation and death presumes--by their very existence--a major degree of rage
and venom. This is illustrated by the
The expression “by all nations” has given cause for objection to the interpretation of a first century fulfillment of Matthew 24. H. L. Ellison, for example, writes that the text “clearly looks beyond A.D. 70 unless we take the desperate step of making ‘nations’ an insertion by Matthew.” The examples we have earlier cited concerning the mistreatment of the apostles argue that he is incorrect. Though, admittedly, they only cover a handful of cities, their geographic range and ethnic diversity are great. In short, they are fairly representative of the kind of treatment--good, mediocre, and outright repressive--that first century believers might encounter.
Furthermore, the New Testament narratives accept the inevitability of persecution as a given. Jesus warned His listeners that if people persecuted Him, they would surely persecute His followers as well (John ). Indeed, their enemies would sometimes consider themselves especially religious because of the brutality toward disciples (John 16:2). This was probably the reaction of the Pharisees felt to Herod’s execution of a prominent Christian (Acts 12:2-3).
So natural was hostility from the world--Palestinian or Roman, Jewish or Gentile--that John writes, “Do not wonder, brethren that the world hates you” (1 John ). Paul is quite as emphatic when he writes, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy -12).
The universal contempt for
Christianity is documented from both New Testament and contemporary pagan
sources. In Acts 28:22 we find these
words in [Page 106] the mouths of certain Jews who (so far) were
committed neither to nor against Christianity, “But we desire to hear from you
[Paul] what your views are; for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere
it is spoken against.” This is highly
useful evidence, for it comes from Roman Jews, individuals who would know the
attitude not only of their fellow kinsmen but that of the surrounding culture
as well. From a pagan source, Tacitus writes that Nero blamed the fire that destroyed so
Up to here we are on firm ground. Yet there is one further piece of evidence which, if it be authentic, indicates that the intense anti-Christian bias of the Gentile world was often shared by the highest levels of the Roman government. As. F. F. Bruce sums up the evidence,
According to Josephus,
Roman soldiery, Titus was dismayed and tried to save it. This was no doubt
what Titus later wished to be believed. But a historical fragment preserved
by Sulpicius Severus (sometimes, but doubtfully, thought to be taken from a
part of Tacitus’ Histories which has long since been lost) describes a council
of war at which the fate of the
Romans would be charged with vandalism if they destroyed so magnificent a
structure, “but others, including Titus himself, expressed the opinion that the
temple should most certainly be demolished, in order that the Jewish and
Christian religions might be the more completely wiped out; for although
these religions were mutually hostile, they nevertheless shared the same
origin; the Christians were an off-shoot of the Jews, and if the root were
destroyed the stock would quickly perish.”
That Roman officials recognized the
existence of the Christian community is clear (if nothing else, from Tacitus’ account of the anti-believer pogrom under Nero),
but whether they recognized this clear a distinction between the two
groups [Page 107] by 70 A.D. is a different matter. It was in the interest of the Christians to
perpetuate the strong Jewish roots of the original membership to protect themselves since this was the only legal form of
monotheism. On the other hand, it was
in their interest by this date, if not sooner, to clearly distinguish
themselves from their ethnic roots lest ethnic war in
The case for the genuineness of the
fragment is enhanced by the fact that it certainly recognizes both the
similarity and divergences from Judaism.
Furthermore, for Titus to have been convinced that the destruction of
the temple would have been a devastating blow against Christianity argues that
it was still--not quite--fully distinct.
It may also argue that the ethnic Jewish segment of the church,
Such factors argue in favor of the credibility of the account. On a subjective level, however, the specific way it is expressed makes one suspicious that the original form may have been verbally “strengthened” by Sulpicius Severus to make the point even stronger. At the very least, the extract reflects a mentality we would expect among the Roman leadership due to the documentation available from the other sources we have examined.
9. APOSTASY TO BE COMMON (Matthew 24:10a)
In Matthew 24:10 Jesus warns, “And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another.” Each of these three phenomena (apostasy/betrayal/hatred) are deserving of separate treatment. The numerical proportion of apostates is referred to as “many,” which is a literal reading of the Greek. One could use this fact to argue that there is no proportion implied, yet [Page 108] the very expression forces the mind in the direction of maximizing the percentage rather than minimizing it. A minimization would certainly be a kinder and gentler interpretation of the steadfastness of early Christians under the stress of the Great Revolt, but the lack of contemporary data prohibits us from being confident as to which approach more accurately reflects the actual situation.
Jesus conspicuously does not assert that the danger will be exclusively the problem of the spiritually weak. Indeed, the severity pictured of societal rejection that is pictured in verse 9 argues that even the strongest might find faith rocked or even destroyed by the stresses of the day.
Old Testament precedent. The Old Testament also warned of the danger
of falling away from the true God of
Apostasy is pictured in Jeremiah 17:5 as the "heart turn[ing] away from the Lord." Ezekiel 18 stresses--at length--that acceptability to God does not rest with what our parents did but with what we ourselves do. Neither their piety nor their corruption is our responsibility; neither raises or lowers our own status in God's eyes. Furthermore, even if one thoroughly departs from Yahweh, the conscious decision to correct one's lifestyle restores one to acceptability (verses 21-23, 27-28).
Ezekiel 33:10-20 emphasizes the same message, that positive change is still feasible while warning that departure from the truth is equally possible. Even superficial righteousness is no full assurance of acceptability. The prophet warns of that subtle corruption of the heart that causes one to calculate that some specific evil can safely be overlooked because one is, overall, of such sterling moral character (verse 13).
Hence the Jewish listeners who heard Jesus were fully aware that spiritual [Page 109] steadfastness was not guaranteed. That, rather, hinged upon one's own conduct and behavior.
First century occurrence of such phenomena. Apostasy is referred to in several of the New Testament epistles as both a real danger (2 Peter 2:9-10) and one that had actually occurred (2 Timothy 4:10; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude, verse 4). No connection is ever made between the apostasies that had occurred and the persecution or adversity Christians suffered because of their faith. Such a connection would be a most natural one, however, in light of the circumstances under which they lived.
On the other hand if apparent non-apostates could seek harm on the apostles, one would expect even fewer inhibitions among those who had left the faith behind. In 2 Timothy -15 we have the vague but ominous words, “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will requite him for his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message” (2 Timothy -15). The harm is not specified but since Paul immediately mentions his facing trial before the authorities (verse 16), it would seem to be that he said things that put the apostle at risk of punishment. Whether Alexander was a Christian is not stated, but the opposition of a non-believer to Paul’s message would be virtually axiomatic and would have counted for nothing in encouraging Christians to react with similar hostility. Others self-professed believers were also willing to harm Paul’s safety and welfare (Philippians -17).
Olshausen denies the idea of a first century reference in Matthew 24:10 in two ways. First, he asserts that the persecutions of that century were not as violent as the persecution predicted by verses 10-12. According to the data we have already examined, the trials of the era were indeed quite rigorous--periodically at least and in certain locations. For example, when Nero came down hard on the Christians in his capital, Tacitus refers to how “an immense multitude was convicted” for their discipleship.
Second, Olshausen asserts that more recent persecutions have been more severe than those in the first century. He cites in particular that of the first French [Page 110] Revolution when Christianity was legally abolished. If he had lived in our era, he would surely have cited as well the bitter anti-religious persecutions of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
The fatal flaw in the reasoning is
that Jesus does not claim that what His first century followers faced would be
the worst persecution that ever would rain down on the head of
believers. Jesus only stresses the
horrible severity of it; not whether it would be lesser or greater than distant
future generations might encounter. Only
in regard to the fall of
10. BELIEVERS TO BETRAY EACH OTHER (Matthew 24:10b; Mark ;
Mark and Luke both paint an event starker picture than in Matthew of the degree pervasiveness of rage over the new faith that would be widespread in their world. In Matthew the emphasis is on the fact of betrayal; in Mark, the grim addition is that this will occur even within the family circle. Luke takes it even further by noting that the danger could come from even a broader array of sources--“parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends.” Instead of protecting each other, even there there will be the threat of death. The psychological pain would be intensified because these were the ones we would most naturally trust--the ones we would think least capable of committing such a serious and dangerous act against us.
The same intensification is found in regard to hatred as well. In Matthew the emphasis is again on the broad picture of Christians being hated (presumably by those who have fallen away, in particular); in Mark and Luke it is made even more emphatic by the warning that believers would be “hated by all.” (In a strict chronological sense, since Mark is usually regarded as having been written prior to Matthew, Matthew’s account “generalizes” and “softens” the brutal realism found in Mark.)
[Page 111] Luke adds a word of reassurance from Jesus that is not found in the other two accounts, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (-18). Since he had just explicitly stated that physical death would occur for some as punishment for their faith (verse 16), he must have in mind here some concept of a survival of the inner person in spite of such a physical fate. Furthermore, it is an “intact” survival of the “whole” person for “not a hair of your head will perish”--in other words, even death does not alter one iota of the true existence of the human being, the inner essence or soul. We have here a fascinating balance of immediate reality versus future reward: death may be inevitable; but the triumph of death is not.
One wonders how these words sounded when Jesus spoke them. He had spoken previously of how certain of the phenomena mentioned in this section and, for that matter, other sections of the current message, would find a reflection in what was left of His own life: there would be a betrayal by a “brother” and “friend,” trial before Jewish and Roman authorities, heavenly phenomena at His death, and even ultimately death would do Him no permanent harm because of the resurrection. It does not take a great imagination to suspect that at least the passing thought went through His mind of how like His own future some of theirs would be.
Old Testament precedent. We can approach this in different ways. First of all, by looking at it from the standpoint
that the church will inevitably reflect society and whatever warts society has
will be reflected within the community of believers as well. Societies, of course, have often been
besieged by bitter internal divisions that resulted in the abuse of its own
people. Betrayal of others was a
phenomena referred to in the prophets as afflicting both Israelite and outside
societies. We read of the latter in
Isaiah 19:1-4, where strife between the ethnic kinsmen of
[Page 112] Zechariah 8:9-12 refers to similar internal divisiveness among Jews of a former generation. Here again, the divisiveness is described as an expression of God's wrath upon their chronic rebelliousness. This does not mean that God somehow compelled them to act in bitter, anti-social ways. Rather, He utilized their fundamental moral weaknesses and caused them to bear the bitter results of their own behavior. They sowed the seed of division and God assured that they reaped its full consequences.
Micah presents a picture of a society in which all the fundamental family and political ties have been destroyed. This permitted not merely betrayal but any and all other types of injustice as well,
The godly man has perished from the earth, and there is none upright
among men; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts his brother with a
net. Their hands are upon what is evil, to do it diligently; the prince and the
judge ask for a bribe, and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul;
thus they weave it together.
The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn
hedge. The day of their watchmen, of their punishment, has come; now their
confusion is at hand. Put no trust in a neighbor, have no confidence in a
friend; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your bosom; for
the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her
mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man's enemies are
the men of his own house. But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait
for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. (Micah 7:2-7)
The difference between the situation described in Matthew 24 and such texts as these is that society's general moral state is not discussed--only how it affects Christians. Yet if a society targets its own members for injury, there would certainly be no intellectual or emotional impediments against targeting believers in particular! Indeed, by virtue of living a more restrained lifestyle, they would become natural targets because of their very nonconformity. Hence it would be a [Page 113] natural leap from betraying and mistreating one's fellow citizens to betraying and abusing those who are even more different due to their dissenting religious and ethical convictions. In this revulsion lies the root of the outbursts of anti-Christian persecution that occurred in the first century (Matthew 24:9). Reflecting the biases and limitations of their culture, Christians would tend to carry with them into the church the same inclination toward rooting out dissent at any price.
Secondly, to approach the matter from a slightly different angle, not only does the church reflect the society, it itself a mini-society. It represented a cross-section of the world as it was and carried with it the weaknesses and temptations existing in the broader society. Hence it would not be surprising that in some places a specific congregation’s moral strength might be weak indeed and the membership locked in a perpetual civil war. Consider Paul’s description in First Corinthians of the conditions in the church of that city. If one were to superimpose vigorous external repression on an intensely divided group, such as pictured there, it would be easy to imagine some of the members utilizing the situation to settle old scores. Even in places lacking such open schisms, popular resentments might break open concealed fault lines between Christians that had not been noticeable in less tense times.
Sadly, in the religious society of the past there was precedent for oppression of the faithful by the nonobedient majority. We read in the Torah and the historical chronicles of the Old Testament of repeated cases of how true prophets were treated with scorn, rejection, and even bodily assault. It was almost a truism that the dedicated prophet would encounter mistreatment at the hands of his theoretical cobelievers. Jesus referred to how common it had been for the prophets to be killed by such people (Luke -48), a pattern from the past He depicts as certain to continue in the mistreatment of His own disciples (verse 49). Hence His listeners would have been well familiar with the scripturally recorded pattern of betrayal by those whom one should most be able to trust reflected.
[Page 114] First century
occurrence of such phenomena.
We have already quoted Tacitus concerning how
large a number of
Christians who suffered under Nero. But how did his police authorities obtain
their names? Tacitus
informs us that “an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon
their information, an immense multitude was convicted. . . .” “Upon their information” implies that those
first arrested betrayed the identity of their fellow believers. Are we to believe that such weakness was
found only among Christians in
Furthermore, the evidence from twentieth century military and political history proves that severe pressure causes many to betray their convictions. Even highly motivated individuals have different levels of self-control; what will not faze one will entirely crack up another. Should we expect men and women to react any differently when faced with brutality because of their religion rather than their nationalism?
What made the situation more dangerous for first century church members was that not all the potential betrayers and enemies were external ones. Any form of communal living (marriage, lodge, church, business) creates points of annoyance and even resentment. A certain number of people simply do not get along. A certain number of people will take advantage of others and avenge real or imagined wrongs when given the opportunity. Hence the betrayal might even be by a respected “faithful” Christian who takes the opportunity to settle a personal grudge.
Some have suggested the possibility that the text, “in the circumstances of nationalist unrest [refers] to those outside the community regarding believers as traitors.” This likely occurred as well, but is not what the passage has under consideration. The text identifies those who “betray” and “hate” as those who “fall away,” i.e., the betraying and hating will be done by apostate Christians, not local nationalists.
Another unlikely suggestion is that the text “may refer . . . to divisions with the community” rather than to actions by outright apostates. In a period of schism coreligionists may indeed “hate” each other, but do they often “betray” each other into the hands of a persecuting authority, as this text indicates they would? It [Page 115] would be far too dangerous a strategy, for if the suspicion got back to the betrayed can there be any doubt whose name(s) they might reveal in retaliation? Under severe persecution one can easily enough conceptualize that individuals might buckle and betray others, but as a result of internal church division it seems very unlikely. Certainly those Tacitus referred to betrayed because they themselves had already been arrested and were under pressure rather than because they were out to even old scores and stood in no immediate personal danger.
11. BELIEVERS TO HATE EACH OTHER (Matthew 24:10; Mark 13:13a;
Old Testament precedent. The Psalmist repeatedly bewails the undeserved hatred he was forced to endure. He speaks of “how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me” (Psalms 25:19). As he discovered, with some people one doesn’t actually have to do anything to be hatred. One merely has to exist. Sadly there are those “who hate me without cause” (Psalms 35:19).
The line between hatred and related phenomena such as jealousy, envy, and malice is very thin. When we speak of Joseph being sold into Egyptian captivity (Genesis 37) we usually think in terms of it being done out of “jealousy” but were not his brothers’ actions so severe that it virtually amounted to loathing as well? In other cases also, when such related attitudes are involved we might well ponder whether these two verged on, or crossed the line over, into overt hatred as well.
First century occurrence of such phenomena. The New Testament epistles condemn hatred (Galatians -20; Ephesians ; Colossians 3:8), admonitions that logically deplore hatred of fellow believers as well as of outsiders. The existence of such condemnations implies the possibility--or even more--of individuals adopting such attitudes. Even without apostatizing, it was possible for hatred to control one’s attitude toward one’s spiritual brothers and sisters (1 John 2:9, 11; ; ).
[Page 116] By its very nature, once hatred becomes deeply imbedded it is extremely easy to strike out at others. Matthew 24:10 does not make clear whether the betrayal results from the hatred or is the rationalization of the betrayal. In actual practice hatred could lead to apostasy and betrayal; the opposite scenario could also occur, individuals feeling overpowered by a hostile environment could apostasize and then emotionally justify their reversal by contempt for their (ex) fellow believers. The person restores his or her own “self-respect” by thinking as basely of the betrayed and his motives as humanly possible and by attributing to him the “real” blame for the ill fate that has overwhelmed him.
The potential for this is clearly implied in the New Testament epistles. The intense divisiveness of the factions depicted in First Corinthians could easily have dissolved beyond rivalry and resentment into such hate. Diotrephes (as described in Third John) so desired to dominate the local congregation, what would his likely attitude have been toward those who refused to submit?
The traditionalist movement that desired to maintain Christianity as a sect of Judaism (rather than accepting believing Gentiles as uncircumcised but spiritual pars) had such deep-rooted anger against Paul that it would be but one step to something even worse. Philippians 1:15-17 refers to those who wish “to afflict me in my imprisonment.” Once that mind-frame is embraced the potential for evil is virtually unlimited.
12. FALSE PROPHETS (Matthew 24:11)
Of this danger Jesus tells His apostles, “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Matthew 24:11). In the Old Testament, “prophet” carried the various ideas of speaking on behalf of God, of being authoritative as such a spokesperson, providing moral and ethical teaching, predicting the future, and of being a miracle worker. We find similar usages of the term in the New Testament [Page 117] as well. In Matthew 7:21-23 the individual who prophesies is described as a person who could also claim to cast out demons and perform supernatural wonders. Miracle working is ascribed to sages in the Old Testament as well, but not as a uniform pattern. (Neither in the New Testament for that matter.)
In Matthew 10:40-41 the usage implied is more along the essence of the nature of a Old Testament prophet. Here the reception given a prophet is paralleled with that giving an apostle; the theme in common is presumably that both are to be regarded as spokesmen of God. (Jesus goes on to comment that the reception of any righteous person is parallel to receiving Jesus Himself.) Hence false prophets here should be considered as a broad term that could include several different phenomena, from teaching to prediction to claimed miracle working.
Old Testament precedent. False prophets (i.e., those who refused to
worship only Yahweh, who refused to conform their
message to his will, or who openly advocated the worship of other gods) were a
recurring problem in
In the earlier period such was not the case. Their polytheism, however, did not have to take the form of an overt rejection of their Judaism. It was quite possible for a person to be an ecumenicalist, worshipping at the Jewish altar when appropriate but regularly attending various pagan rites as well. Likewise a false prophet might fall in either category.
Jeremiah 23:23-32 contains a stern rebuke to the polytheistic prophets of that era. Some of their tales sprang from their own misguided desires (verse 26), while others were knowingly lifted from the predictions of others (verse 30). Lamentations describes the predictions of such men as "false and misleading."
If the origin of their words
was within themselves or the writings and orations of their contemporaries, the
purpose (in part) was to undermine monotheistic Judaism, while building
up the confidence of their own religious substitute. Sometimes this took the form of a war of
nerves. Nehemiah was faced [Page
118] with the message of such individuals, whose words were intended to
undermine his self-confidence (Nehemiah -15) and thereby keep the walls of
Others were not as
stouthearted. In 1 Kings 13 we read of
an elderly "prophet" (verse 11) who had no scruples against
proclaiming as revelation a message that he had not received (verses
18-19). As a result, the young prophet
who had come to rebuke the pagan altar at
Since the older man went out of his
way to both find and mislead him, however (verses 11-14), it is far more likely
that he was one of the ecumenical Judeo-pagan prophets in favor of the
Although it is easy enough to recognize that an individual might be either a true or a false prophet, how does one determine which category he falls within? In a specific case (rather than mere abstract theory), how can a man or a woman tell the difference between the two? The very fact that a person admitted that he was a prophet serving a different god than that of Israel, was prima facie evidence that his message was unreliable and to be rejected (Deuteronomy 18:20). Linked with this test is that of the fulfillment of his predictions (verses 21-22)--implying that a false prophet would find that his predictions would fail to materialize.
What is not stated in Deuteronomy 18 is how long one was to wait for the fulfillment before one ceased to recognize his claims. Here, however, we are most [Page 119] likely intended to think of terms of datable predictions, things that were to occur (or not occur) by a specific point announced in advance. (The contemporary equivalent would be the multitude of false predictions of the date of Jesus’ second coming.)
The true prophet needed to do more than just an apparent worshipper of Yahweh. The message had to be in conformity with the existing written revelation as well. Even supposed miracles could not vindicate such departures from the Divine norm,
If a prophet arises among you, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you
a sign or a wonder, and the sign of 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. You
shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him, and keep his command-
ments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and cleave to him.
The apostle Paul speaks in similar terms. Here it is the gospel he had proclaimed that is authoritative regardless of even alleged miracles that individuals might work in support of rival religious systems (Galatians 1:6-9).
Of particular relevance in the context of the grim prediction of the future found in Matthew 24, is the fact that false prophets normally took the exact opposite approach: they spoke an upbeat, positive message of Israel triumphant over foes (Jeremiah 14:13-16). Unfortunately, when the future was grim these predictions would not change the reality and they would perish at the hands of the sword and famine that they had insisted would not disturb the land. The priest-prophet Pashur is cited as one specific such individual (Jeremiah 20:1-6).
Zechariah 13:1-6 speaks of a day when prophecy would utterly vanish. This is often interpreted as a reference to the ending of false prophecy, but the text itself [Page 120] seems to be speaking in terms of honest men and women who have come to discover that their gift has vanished. Be that as it may, the reader of Jesus' warning would have been fully aware of how the Torah and prophets had spoken of false prophets in the past. Their challenge would be to avoid making the same mistake of their foreparents in falling for such distorted messages
First century occurrence of such phenomena. False prophets appeared within the Christian community. The psychological imbalance that produces such behavior as false prophesying is one that can afflict the imbalanced and unstable even among the most orthodox. But this is hardly likely to have been the only source that attracted believers in Jesus since the Palestinian ones lived among orthodox Jewish communities that were still seeking a politico-religious Messiah. Since one’s religious commitment rarely fully shakes off one’s cultural past and heritage (nor, in the bulk of cases should it), it is inherently likely that they might be tempted by one or more of the dynamic nationalist prophets that came their way.
As to the spiritually unbalanced whose lack of stability (or conscious intent?) resulted in religious claims of authority that bore no ground in reality, the New Testament explicitly indicates the frequency with which they occurred. John directly speaks in terms of their large numbers within the believing community, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
In addition there are implicit indications of the presence of false prophets in the description of false teachers found in various New Testament epistles--certainly in the broader sense of forthtellers (rather than foretellers) of the Divine will.
Such false pretenders also existed in contemporary Judaism. Two of them are referred to in both the New Testament and Josephus as well. One was Theudas the magician. Gamaliel refers to him (quoted by Luke in Acts ), but does not label him a prophet. Josephus, in contrast, does use the epithet and provides a concise summary of his insurrection and death.
[Page 121] A
Roman tribune quoted in Acts refers to an unidentified Egyptian false prophet who had stirred up
Felix’s reign as governor was
characterized by the appearance of a number of such individuals. In
Of the entire reign of Felix, Josephus makes plain that such false prophets had risen in substantial number under prior rulers as well. The historian notes that “the country was again [our emphasis, rw] filled with robbers and imposters, who deluded the multitude.”
During the siege of
“Lead Many Astray”
Once again we lack explicit data referring to this occurring. On the other hand, it would not be surprising if it did. After all, Jesus did not assert that “most” believers would make this mistake. He merely asserts that “many” would. “Many” is an assertion that it would be common, but it is not an assertion of the proportion of believers involved--either large or small.
13. DIMINISHED RELIGIOUS FERVOR (Matt 24:12)
It would be a time of moral unconcern, “And because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold.” Standing by itself, this statement could be applied to either believers or the general citizenry in the part of the world in which the events would occur. Although both are likely a faithful representations of the historical period, Jesus specifically has in mind the danger to His disciples (verse 13). What is not clear is whether the danger will be to believers because most of their people have fallen into this trap or because most of surrounding society will be pushing them in a similar direction.
The text does not require love to have become “frozen,” merely “cold”--i.e., dramatically weakened and diminished. There might still be a veneer of religious or moral commitment--the text could refer to either or both--but the flaming heart that keeps it glowing and vibrant has been toned down to where its very survival may be in doubt. The prevailing wickedness threatens to destroy it entirely.
The Problem: “Wickedness”
The term means “general immorality and license.” It means “literally ‘absence of law’ or ‘violation of law.’ It describes the total anarchy which rages where no norm is any longer respected.” There are two aspects to the concept: one is violating God’s will; the other is ignoring it, acting without authority, endorsement, or approval. The first ignores the prohibitions of the divine will; the second ignores God’s silence, that there is no encouragement from God to act in the first place. A person no longer cares; he just does what he or she wants to do and lays aside all other considerations. It’s done because it “feels” good, “looks” good, or can be somehow rationalized as contributing to a desirable “good.”
This anomia (the Greek word utilized) is rebuked not only here but in other texts as well. Being religious does not justify it (Matthew -28) and it will result in condemnation by Christ and severe punishment (Matthew -23; -42; translated “iniquity” in all three texts). Christ hates it and so He is honored by God [Page 123] (Hebrews 1:8-9; rendered as “lawlessness”). It is branded as sin (1 John 3:4-5; again rendered “lawlessness”).
Both forms of the phenomena existed
in the Old Testament era as well. The
condemnation of overt violations of the Torah is abundant throughout the
“major” and “minor” prophets. Easier to
overlook are the references to acting not so much in defiance as out of no
concern as to the provisions of the Torah.
In Judges 17:6 we read that, “In those days there was no king in
When Proverbs speaks of keeping the commandment within one’s heart (4:20-21), the implication is that one can drift into unconcern about such matters and no longer take it into consideration in making one’s life choices. Proverbs 16:2 implies the folly of such an approach. Since “all the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes,” unless one is operating from conscious moral guidelines there is nothing to impede a person from doing what he wants to do, whenever he wants to do it, and to whoever he wants to do it.
Finally, the religious leadership in the days of Ezekiel is pictured as acting in such a manner as if they had no care at all as to whether something was right or wrong (Ezekiel 22:26). From these varied examples we can see that the “who cares” mentality was common in the past and Jesus is warning of it being a temptation yet against in the future.
The Proportion: “Most”
Old Testament precedent. Many texts of the Old Covenant, speaking of the popularity of idolatry, would seem to imply that the strong majority of the population was refusing to practice strict monotheism. In the days of Elijah they were so few and scattered that the prophet was convinced that the cause of Yahweh [Page 124] was hopeless (1 Kings ). God reassured him that temporal judgment was about to fall on the apostate political leadership. "Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him" (verse 18). Seven thousand is--in itself--a substantial number, but as a proportion it was modest if not minuscule. Jesus speaks in Matthew of a day when there would, similarly, be few faithful remaining.
First century occurrence of such
phenomena. Not only would the fervor of “love” dramatically decrease, it would
be a widespread phenomena:
"most" would fall prey to it (Matthew 24:12). Is Jesus speaking of the fellowship of
disciples or of the broader Jewish community in
There is no explicit piece of
evidence which we can cite either in favor of this phenomena either within
either the church or the citizenry of geographic
For the sad fact is that in a period of intense societal pressure (famine, war, threatened war, religious deception publicly exposed as false), the disillusionment can affect virtually everyone. The human psyche is extremely flexible, but at some point it throws its hands up in despair and becomes incapable of dealing with further stress. Confidence ebbs; optimism vanishes; and the accepted truisms for which one has labored and sacrificed for years can easily become less important and virtually ignored.
This does not make the phenomena right, but it does indicate that the reaction is a quite human one that can affect anyone regardless of religious belief. Since Jews were far more likely to be deeply drawn to the independence movements of the day (due to the belief in an yet unarrived Messiah), one would anticipate it affecting them the most. On the other hand, at least elements of these movements would entice some Christians and everyone lived in potential danger from the consequences of insurrection.
The Result: Diminished Religious Fervor
(“Men’s love will grow cold”)
Old Testament precedent. In its Biblical usage “love” can refer to one’s fervency toward God or one’s fellow man. Of the former, religious enthusiasm runs in cycles. It reaches a peak, declines, stabilizes, increases, peaks—and then starts over again. The heights will vary; the lows will vary; the length of time for each period will vary. The only certainty is that things will not indefinitely stay the same.
The Old Testament was well aware of periods when Jehovah sparked no fear in the heart and the moral restraints of the Torah impeded all too few from excess and destruction. Jeremiah 9:3 speaks of one such era as one when, “They bend their tongue like a bow; falsehood and not truth has grown strong in the land; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know me, says the Lord.” Hosea depicts the popular lack of commitment through an allusion to nature, “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away” (6:4).
“Love” of one’s fellow human being also had its highs and lows. The Psalms and Proverbs bear abundant witness to the willingness of individuals to abuse, misuse, and take advantage of their fellow citizens.
First century occurrence of such
phenomena. The need to maintain love is a well-known
major theme of First John, implying an acute recognition that it could
evaporate. A loss of love is explicitly
referred to in the mini-epistle to
ADOMINITION: ENDURE REGARDLESS!
(Matthew 24:13; Mark 13:13b)
Although many would give up hope, Jesus implores His disciples not to let the despair of others rub off on them. He insists that, "He who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 24:13). Somehow, from somewhere, they must summon up the internal resources to persevere when others are convinced there is no hope.
Many of the Psalms are efforts by the authors to summon up such internal reserves of strength when the future looks grim and bitter. In a historical context, we find King Asa facing discouragement from contemporary warfare (2 Chronicles 15:5-6). A prophet urged him not to give up, "But you, take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded" (verse 7).
First century occurrence of such
some interpret “the end” under discussion to be “the end” of
If “the end” refers to the
Not only is the admonition that one must be faithful to God a natural outgrowth of the Old Testament stress on abiding fidelity throughout one’s life, it best fits the immediate context. This is indicated by reading verses 12 and 13 together (our emphasis added), “And because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” In other words, the individual whose love endures to the end. The contrast is between those (the majority) who shed that love and that faithful minority who retain it.
14. WORLDWIDE PREACHING OF GOSPEL (Matthew 24:14; Mark )
The “Great Commission” that ends
this gospel account (Matthew 28:18-20) is foreshadowed in the prediction of
Mark , “And the gospel must first be preached to
all nations.” In the more detailed
wording of Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached
throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end
will come.” It has been insisted that
this attitude “is a far remove from Jewish exclusiveness.” Perhaps from the Judaism dominant in the
first century, but then again perhaps not:
consider Jesus’ allusion to proselyte making among his foes in Matthew
23:15. Furthermore, there was a
considerable Old Testament strain of thought pointing to the sharing of
What was the scope of “the world” here and in Matthew 28:18-20? Although we today think in terms of the “world” as everyplace on this globe (will a future generation think in terms of a “civilized world” encompassing every planet bearing human immigrants?), the concept may well have been subject to considerable variation in the first century itself. The “world” would tend to be the part known of or of importance to the speaker. Regardless of which specific meaning the early church put upon the expression, the New Testament narratives interpret the phenomena of “world-wide” preaching as having been accomplished in the first century itself (see below).
The question has risen as to whether the reference to “nations” means the Gentile nations as distinct from the Jewish nation or whether both were encompassed by the term. In favor of the former is that it is the more typically Biblical use of the word “nations;” in favor of the latter is the natural broadness of the term “all” and the fact that though a great many Palestinian Jews had already heard the message of Jesus--either from Him personally or via His disciples--it is inherently probable that many had still not done so.
[Page 128] Another question concerns the immediate (in contrast to the ultimate) interpretation the disciples likely placed upon the prediction and its implicit commandment to preach. Being Jews and since Jesus had explicitly enjoined a Jews-only ministry during His preaching years (Matthew 10:5-7), it would have been natural for the apostles to interpret this as only a command to preach the kingdom gospel to fellow Jews scattered throughout the world. Certainly this was the interpretation placed upon the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 and its demand for a world-wide preaching. This can be seen from the fact that it was not until the conversion of Cornelius that the door was open to the preaching of the apostolic message to the Gentiles. Even that did not stir the on-going turmoil made explicit by the apostle Paul refusing to bind circumcision and traditional rites of the Torah upon Gentiles; many who were willing to accept Gentile converts were unwilling to go this far.
Some have interpreted this
prediction as an invention by Matthew to explain why the end of the world/age
had not occurred: even though
Old Testament precedent. Jonah's
preaching mission to
On the other hand, Jews were widespread in the centuries before Jesus--for merchant-trade reasons not to mention the misfortune of exile after defeat in war. To the extent that they were practicing monotheists, there was an implicit testimony in their religious and moral lifestyle that was inescapable to those they interacted with. Some would look with anger upon these "strange" people, while others would [Page 129] be attracted by their "eccentric" religious practice. Either way, they would be a living testimony to monotheism as a theological alternative in a world with hundreds of religious options.
Isaiah 9:1-2 speaks of an
enlightenment that would come to the Gentile areas of
Isaiah 42:5-9 speaks of an era when
there would be a "light of the nations" and not to
Note the two key words “you” and “covenant.” In other words he will be “the means through which people will come into a covenant relation with the Lord.” J. Alec Motyer effectively stresses how the various terms used in these verses interlock to portray the radical transformation that is the result of this servant’s outreach to the Gentiles, “Within the all-embracing concept of ‘covenant’ there is the ‘light’ of truth, the healing of personal disabilities (exemplified in opening blind ‘eyes’), the end of restrictions imposed by others (bringing out ‘captives’) and the transformation of circumstances (‘darkness’).”
[Page 130] Who
is this “I”? It has been interpreted
collectively as of all
In words of encouragement to the prophet himself, God speaks of how the prophet would be a "light to the nations" (Isaiah 49:5-7). In some manner or in some form the prophet would be a teacher, an enlightener, even to those outside his ethnic/national community.
Isaiah 51 seems to speak of a new
system of direct application to the Gentiles, "Listen to me, my people,
and give ear to me, my nation; for a law will go forth from me,
and my justice for a light to the peoples" (verse 4). Since the alien nations are traditionally
pictured in the Torah and prophets as lacking knowledge of the God of
This text, however, seems to assume a more active role in shedding of the “light” upon “the peoples” when it uses the expression of how “a law will go forth from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples.” It speaks as if the spreading of this “light” were to be a conscious effort--proselytizing or the equivalent.
The concept of a “law” going forth gives every verbal indication of being the conceptual equivalent of the new covenant predicted in Jeremiah 31:31-34. In Hebrews 8:8-13 this text is applied to the gospel message that early Christians were sharing in the communities where they resided. Indeed, if any “law” were to go forth, at any time, how else could it do so without the conscious communicating of it with others?
[Page 131] Isaiah 60 speaks of how the various nations would come to gain spiritual light, “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you, and nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising" (verses 2-3).
“Nations” would suggest the spread over a wide geographic region, one that crossed multiple political boundaries. “Kings” are mentioned in particular as accepting the Divine “light” in order “to show that not merely the common people but even those of high rank” responded in a receptive manner. It may also be because leaders follow as well as lead; they may encourage their citizens in a certain direction; on the other hand, the astute ruler may embrace a policy because the people are already receptive. Either or both might also be the case in this text; the passage does not inform us.
Here the imagery is rather different than in the preceding examples. Instead of the light being sent to the nations, the light is so inherently attractive that the outsiders would themselves initiate the reconciliation by coming to it. The truth would be so appealing that it would exert a pull without explicit efforts at conversion. On an individual (wife/husband) basis that concept is developed in 1 Peter 3:1-2.
First century occurrence of such phenomena. A substantial number of commentators deny a first century intended frame of reference, primarily upon the basis that the wording must be interpreted in the sense that the twentieth century puts on the expression “the whole world.” Of course, the normal practice and the proper one--barring unusual factors--is to either interpret the terminology in the sense that its original hearers understood it, or, at least, compatible with their understanding. (The latter would be the case when other texts indicate Jesus had an immediate intent, but was laying the groundwork for a broader understanding when His disciples could grasp the full logical impact of His language.)
In both senses, it would be “the
world” in the sense of the
Regardless of the specific
definition placed upon the expression “the whole world,” it is clear that the
New Testament writers regarded it as fully accomplished within the era of
its writing, that is, prior to the fall of
Other texts are even less demanding of an interpretative gloss. Colossians 1:5-6 refers to how the gospel was bearing fruit “in the whole world.” Verse 23 goes even further in asserting (in clearly hyperbolic language) that the gospel had “been preached to every creature under heaven.” Romans 10:14-18 quotes as precedent for that the fact that “not all [have] heeded the gospel” the fact that Isaiah had written of how “their voice has gone out to all the earth and their words to the ends of the world.”
Indeed, even before the apostles
began any mission to the nations, the groundwork was laid to accomplish the
goal of “universal” preaching of the gospel.
At the first Pentecost after the resurrection, we read of how “there
were dwelling in
“As a Testimony to All Nations”
There is no claim of universal conversion, only of universal opportunity. The determining factor will be their individual response. Since the New Testament presents both threats and promises--hinging upon disobedience or obedience--then the idea is that the testimony is “God’s will to save them, if they receive it, and of their doom, if they do not.” Another way of expressing the same idea is that, “The witness would be for or against them according to the use made of this opportunity.”
[Page 133] Implicit in this is a plea that the church remain upbeat and optimistic no matter how trying the external circumstances might become. “This statement anticipates the great commission in 28:20 and implies that the church is not to circle the wagons until the danger passes but is to engage in active mission. In spite of the trauma, the community’s responsibility to love and to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom remains in force.”
“Then the End will Come”
Three interpretations have been
suggested: It refers to “the end” of
15. APPEARANCE OF THE "DESOLATING SACRILEGE" (Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14a; Luke )
Jesus next points to a terrible outrage that would occur in the then future. The wording of the description, however, dramatically shifts between Matthew/Mark and Luke,
“So when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet \
Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand).” (Matthew)
“But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to
be (let the reader understand). . . .” (Mark)
when you see
its desolation has come near.” (Luke)
The word “prophet” in connection with Daniel context does not refer to which section of the Old Testament the book fell within (i.e., Law/prophets/writings) but the fact that Daniel is accepted as having a prophetic gift that permitted him to see future events. The description refers to function rather than location.
The Greek, translated here into English as a “desolating sacrilege,” is the Septuagint wording found in Daniel and Daniel (see English translations below). At least a major element in the conceptual picture is the idea of “a detestable violation of something sacred that evokes horror and dismay.”
Matthew specified where the
“desolating sacrilege” was mentioned in the Old Testament while Mark omits that
information. Writing to an individual
unacquainted with the Jewish sacred writings (Luke 1:3-4), however, the
reference to “desolating sacrilege” would make no sense because the recipient, Theophilus, would have no reason to be acquainted with the
text. Therefore Luke does what both Matthew and Mark urge-- “let the
reader understand” -- by explaining what the reference means, that is,
to an invading army circling
[Page 135] Old Testament precedent. Instead of building upon a conceptual foundation from several different texts or broad principles, this one is built firmly upon Daniel’s prophecy of “weeks,”
And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off, and
shall have nothing; and the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy
the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end
there shall be war; desolations are decreed. And he shall make a strong
covenant with many for one week; and for half of the week he shall cause
sacrifice and offering to cease; and upon the wing of abominations shall come
one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.
In Daniel 11:11 the length of the pollution is referred to, “And from the time that the continual burnt offering is taken away, and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days.”
In several other places in the book of Daniel itself other references to the same or a similar phenomena. In Daniel 8:13 the question is raised of, “For how long is the vision concerning the continual burnt offering, the transgression that makes desolate, and the giving over of the sanctuary and host to be trampled under foot?”
In more concrete language the event is described in Daniel 11:31, “Forces from him shall appear and profane the temple and fortress, and shall take away the continual burnt offering. And they shall set up the abomination that makes desolate.” The responsible ruler will do all this out of personal egoism,
And the king shall do according to his will; he shall exalt himself and
magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against
the God of gods. He shall prosper till the indignation is accomplished; for
what is determined shall be done. He shall give no heed to the gods of his
fathers, or to the one beloved by women; he shall not give heed to any other
god, for he shall magnify himself above all” (Daniel -37)
In spite of their obscurity, the texts do permit at least a few safe assertions: (1) the tragedy will be inflicted by a ruler; (2) the motivating factor will be personal ego; (3) it will be accomplished through the ruler’s military forces; (4) something will be erected-- presumably to be worshipped; (5) the sacrifices for the God of Israel will cease.
Daniel’s prediction has been applied to
events even future to our own era. Regardless of the meaning in Daniel, the
framework of interpretation provided in Matthew 24 argues that the phrase was applied
to the fall of
First century occurrence of such
phenomena. Laying aside the interpretation that it
refers to events at the end of the world, we
must seek an explanation within the context of the fall of
During Caligula’s rule (37-41 A.D.),
his egomania led him to order to be installed within the
The next event that comes to mind at
the hands of an external foe is the Great Revolt. In this context, the reference to
“desolating” naturally leads to the belief that the text is making a broad
allusion to the vast destruction inflicted by the Roman army in conquering
Others see a more specific reference
here to the ensigns of the Roman army. Since these were worshipped by the
soldiers, when erected near or within Jerusalem [Page 137] they
would be “abominable”; since the army that bore the banners inflicted
“desolation” on all that withstood them, that term
would also apply. This approach has been
criticized on the ground that “the Roman eagles” were already in
In rebuttal, it could be argued that in Jesus’ day they were in Jerusalem as occupiers, while in A.D. 70 they were there as destroyers, desolators of both city and countryside. After the fall of the temple the standards were brought into the holy temple compound itself and sacrifice was given to the image of Caesar they bore. This was truly unique and so inflammatory it had never been attempted previously.
Another approach is to interpret the
text as a reference to the imperial cult in
Another approach is to apply the text to a specific individual. The reading in Mark in particular has led to such speculation. For example, Hugh Anderson observes that, “The words ‘set up where it ought not to be’ can only refer to a similar profanation of the Temple [just as Caligula had attempted earlier], and since the participle ‘set up’ is masculine in Greek (whereas the noun ‘desolating sacrilege’ is neuter) it seems that an individual person is in view here, a successor in the Antiochus-Caligula line of desecrators.” Assuming this is not reading more into it than is intended who is that person?
In terms of other New Testament
texts, the mysterious Man of Sin in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 comes to mind but
that does nothing to attach a name to the description. Benjamin W. Bacon, for example, argues that
one or more of the gospel writers considered the “Antichrist” figure of this
text to have been in the writer’s mind as the intended abomination of
desolation. This would certainly provide
the [Page 138] kind of ominousness suggested! Paul does mention that this individual
“takes his seat in the
The Emperor might also be described as present through the intermediary of his soldiers when they stood in the temple where he (and it) had no business being. In a literal sense, it could be “Titus, the Roman general who stood in the Holy of Holies when the temple was finally captured. . . .” In a broader sense it could be the accompanying army, to which the stricken temple would have been an object of curiosity. In such cases it would be a literal “he” involved.
Although there was plenty of blame to be applied to the polytheist outsider, the monotheist defenders of the land were also guilty of serious excess as well. Hence the expression could be interpreted as referring to the sacrilegious activities of the Jewish zealots when they controlled the city--and the temple in particular. They were an “abomination” in that their conduct defiled the temple and the holiness of the city; their continued resistance guaranteed destruction or “desolation” by the Roman foe.
These rebel forces turned the temple into a fortress. They even polluted its sanctity by bringing within it the wounded bodies of those fallen in combat for their side. They appointed their own high priest, thereby defiling the “holy of holies” whenever such illegitimate pretenders entered it. He was so inappropriate and inadequate that he has been dismissed as merely “a clown.”
They even stooped to murdering Zacharias in the middle of the temple. Later both priests and those who came to sacrifice were killed in the crossfire between competing factions. They even utilized the food and supplies set aside strictly for priestly use and melted down the holy objects used in the worship of the temple.
[Page 139] C.
VanderWaal argues that the behavior of the militant
Stanley D. Toussaint argues against the zealot interpretation because “no idolatry” was involved in their behavior. That implies too rigid and narrow a definition of how defilement had to have occurred. Others contend that the reference to “standing” in the temple argues for something more specific than the broader excesses of the Zealots and that objection seems far more well founded.
An examination of the other recounting of the same reference indicates that Jesus had two ideas in mind. The first was an object. In Mark we read, “But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be.” “It” is not a word used for humans, but could rightfully be used of any pagan object of worship, including the Roman ensigns but not excluding statues of the emperor as well.
The second was the Roman armies themselves and their destructiveness. In
the warning is, “But when you see
Some limit this to the
This approach has the virtue of
Oddly, some attempt to apply the prediction to the church itself. For example, although Daniel Patte concedes that the desolating sacrilege applies to the destruction of the temple he contends that it applies at least equally “to the profanation of the community of the disciples (the new ‘holy place’).” The fact that the catastrophe is one that can be escaped by physical flight (24:16-18) argues that the text cannot refer to some internal degradation of the church’s moral character. That obviously could not be escaped by physical flight.
Patte concedes that his approach does carry the idea of a flight from the corrupted church but does not suggest what the idea would have meant in actual practice. He may have in mind that the church would have so lost its basic character that physical flight was justified even if all the other members remained behind. But that would be far more of a flight from fellow members rather than from a defiled church.
“Let the Reader Understand”
Some believe this to be a marginal note that has crept into the text. Certainly this is preferable to the theory that it alludes to an earlier written source utilized by either Mark or Matthew--or both. That is an allusion one would not [Page 141] normally “catch.” So far as the text goes, at least in Matthew, the reference to “Daniel” would provide a seeming cue as to what the reader is to understand when he reads, i.e., the true meaning of Daniel. Yet the remark is also found in Mark where the name “Daniel” is omitted. In that context one would immediately think of the book current being read, “Understand what I have written!” (This is a meaning not impossible in Matthew, too, for that matter.)
Certainly this was not a statement addressed to Jesus’ listeners. That is excluded by the use of the word “reader;” listeners would have been described as “listeners” or those who “heard” Him.
Why the silence? There was always a point beyond which it was not politically prudent to be but so blunt. This reality could easily have been in mind in Mark and Matthew. Indeed, the admonition would also fit if the meaning of the warning had been the subject of oral preaching. The writers might have desired readers/listeners to recall it, without the danger of putting it into explicit words where less friendly hands might utilize it against the community of believers. On the other hand, if this were the motivating factor why is Luke so much more explicit?
The plea to “understand” assumes that the conduct would be so brazen that the reader could readily grasp what was being referred to if he were educated in Christianity or Judaism (the reference to a desolating sacrilege being to Daniel). The text combines vivid condemnation with the avoidance of going across that line where the government might feel compelled to strike out in retaliation for the criticism. One was on extremely “thin ice” when one bluntly criticized the Roman government or its army. At least a fig leaf of discretion might well have been regarded as imperative.
In the context of Daniel’s original prediction it is made clear that his readers would not understand the events he predicted. The meaning of those words would remain “sealed until the time of the end” (Daniel 12:9). The “wicked” would be unable to “understand; but those who are wise shall understand” (Daniel ). Once the events occurred, the intent of the prophecy would be obvious to the morally astute. Without using the terms “wicked” or “wise” Matthew makes plain [Page 142] that the identity of the desolating sacrilege of his day would be obvious as well. If one were willing for it to be.
Yet there is admittedly a strange ominous sound in the words if one meditates upon them long enough. C. S. Mann argues that “there is an air of hidden meaning here, almost of menace, as though a clue had to be hidden from the prying eyes of outsiders.” But this may just as easily come from an exegete’s constant search to seek out a “deeper” truth: sometimes there isn’t anything more intended than the obvious.
Pasquier Quesnel, The Gospels: with Moral Reflections on Each Verse (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1855; 1867 edition) 1:295.
This approach seems better than to distinguish between the punishments of council and synagogue as in Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 739.
C. S. Mann, Mark, in the Anchor
Bible series (Garden City, New York:
Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1986), 516.
The word “kings” includes rulers of a lower rank as well: R. A. Cole, The Gospel According to St. Mark, in the Tyndale New Testament commentary series (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1961), 200; S. D. F. Salmond, St. Mark, in the Century Bible commentary series (Edinburgh: T. C. & E. C. Jack, Limited, 1922), 354.
Joyce G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah,
Malachi, in the Tyndale Old Testament
Commentaries series (London: Tyndale Press, 1972), 153, stresses this active role of the
Jewish people and refers to verse 20, but does not explicitly develop the
Jewish “missionary” theme apparently implied by verses 20-23. In her discussion of these verses (155-156),
she omits any reference to a distinctly Jewish element in producing the spiritual
changes. Likewise, on verse 13 Carol L.
Meyers and Eric M. Meyers, Haggai, Zechariah 1-8, in the Anchor Bible
series (Garden City, New York: Doubleday
& Company, Inc., 1987), 424, refer to its “universalistic” tone but makes
no mention either there or in the discussion of verses 20-23 (437-442) of a
specifically Jewish role in producing the result. Hinckley G. Mitchell, “Haggai and Zechariah,”
Annals XV:44. Cf. the remarks of Donald R. Dudley, The World of Tacitus (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1968), 165, on this text of Tacitus.
F. F. Bruce, New Testament History (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 383.
Cf. Luke T. Johnson, 323; Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 738; Robert E. Obach and Albert Kirk, A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1986), 213.
See Barnwell, 231-232. At greater length also see R. H. Lightfoot, The Gospel Message of St. Mark (Oford: Clarendon Press, 1950), 48-55.
W. F. Albright, W. F., and C. S. Mann, Matthew, Volume 26 of The Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 292.
Alford, New Testament for English Readers, 164, believes it clearly crossed the line.
J. Andrew Overman, Matthew’s Gospel and Formative Judaism: The Social World of the Matthean Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 117 and note 129 (of same page), sees an ambiguity in the use of the term because the specific connotation may shift from passage to passage. Actually the same is true in the Old Testament as well.
Ibid., 117, argues that this is in a context of “missionary activity,” which this author finds hard to find; on the other hand, it makes imminent sense as one logical application of the text.
This question is raised in the context of a discussion of why Jeremiah was not executed for predicting the destruction of Jerusalem by Gerald L. Keown, Pamela J. Scalise, and Thomas G. Smothers, Jeremiah 26-52, Volume 27 in the Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1995) 26-27.
It interpreted in exclusively Christian terms by such commentators as Saldarini, 53, 104, 115, and Smith, 284. It has been specifically interpreted as applying to the Judaizing faction that wished to retain the faith as a Messianic cult within the confines of the traditional practices of Judaism, by Alford, New Testament for English Readers, 164. To apply it as equivalent to the false Christs of verse 5 (Owen, 311) seems inherently unlikely.
Newman and Stine, 737.
A. Lukyn Williams, Saint Matthew, Volume 15 of The Pulpit Commentary (Reprint, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1961), 433.
Suzanne de Dietrich, Matthew, translated by Donald G. Miller. Volume 16 of The Layman’s Bible Commentary (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1961), 123-124.
Alford, Greek New Testament, 83.
A temporal interpretation is adopted by Alford, New Testament for English Readers, 164.
Sherman E. Johnson, Matthew-Mark, Volume Seven of The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1951), 546.
On this potentially shifting usage, see Henry Cowles, 211.
Floyd V. Filson, A Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, in the Black’s New Testament Commentaries series (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1960), 253.
Gundry, Matthew, 481, points out that this was the root objection to Gentile prosetlyization, not a mission to Gentiles in and of itself.
Overman, Church and Community in Crisis, 333.
S. H. Widyapranawa, A Commenty on the Book of Isaiah 1-39: The Lord Is Savior: Faith in National Crisis, in the International Theological Commentary series (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 51.
John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39, in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament series. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 242-243. This is a replacement volume for Edward J. Young’s earlier work on Isaiah (see below).
For some useful remarks on the meaning of the word “covenant” in this context, see R. N. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, in the New Century Bible series (Greenwood, South Carolina: Attic Press, Inc., 1975) 75.
[Page 148] Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah. Volume Three: Chapters 40-66, in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 119-120, examines the pros and cons of the two views, coming down on the side of the second choice. Whybray, 75, concurs in this conclusion on the basis of an analogy with Isaiah 51:4. Others who concur in this reading of Isaiah 45:6 include J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 322, and James D. Smart, History and Theology in Second Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 35, 40-66 (London: Epworth Press, MCMLXV), 85. George A. F. Knight, Isaiah 40-55: Servant Theology, Revised Edition, in the International Theological Commentary series (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), 48, scrambles the rhetoric and seems to advocate both views. His clearest remarks, however, indicate that his basic instincts go with making a distinction between the two phrases. Hence he has “a light to the nations” as meaning, “A People with whom God has made covenant for the good of the nations” (48).
Motyer, 322. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), regards the meaning as “no more than conjecture.” Hence he argues that, in a very broad sense, it “mean[s] that the person addressed is destined to become a tool or means whereby God effects something on others” (322). In this passage, that “something” is explicitly labeled as being the “covenant.” Hence the proper understanding requires that the role of God’s covenant play a central role in the interpretation.
[Page 149] John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66, in the Word Biblical Commentary series (Waco, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1987) 119. In Isaiah 49:5-7, he also adopts a “political” reading, suggesting that in that text the light is Darius (187).
Whybray, 139, applies the reference to “me” in the
text to Isaiah personally. Steven Scherrer A Commentary on the Book of Isaiah: Isaiah as Sacred Scripture (Maryknoll, New York:
Jerome Publications, 1993), 120, suggests the propriety of applying it
to anyone who conveys the redemptive message to the world--
Young, Isaiah . . . Chapters 40-66, 445.
Olshausen, 234, and John P. Lange, Matthew, Third Edition, translated by Philip Schaff (New York: Charles Scribner & Company, 1865), 424.
Thomas Adam, Posthumous Works (
Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, translated by David E. Green (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975), 452, however, believes that the reference is to Daniel’s place among the prophets in the Septuagint version, which is different from Daniel’s traditional placement in the Hebrew among the “writings.”
Michael Kalafian, The Prophecy of the Seventy Weeks of the Book of Daniel (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1991), provides a concise summary of representative interpretations of the broader context: from the premillennial standpoint, 99-100; from the amillennial view, 137-141, cf. 218-221; from the “higher critical” standpoint, 184-186. For interpretive options also see the concise summary of John J. Collins, Daniel, in the series Hermeneia--A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1993), 357-358.
This approach was upheld by Olshausen, for example (237).
For example, Richard B. Gardner (345). Some see in the 168 B.C. incident the root of a play on words that underlies the expression. George R. Beasley-Murray, Preaching the Gospel from the Gospels, Revised Edition (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 152, notes that “[t]he author of 1 Maccabees calls [the erecting of Antiochus’ idol] ‘the abomination of desolation’ (). The name rendered in Hebrew Baal Shamayim, i.e., ‘Lord of Heaven’; the Jews replaced Baal by Ahiqqutz, ‘an abomination,’ Shamayim by Shomem, i.e, ‘that desolates.’ So ‘lord of heaven’ became ‘an abomination that desolates’--not, however, simply of the spirit, but an abomination that brings about destruction. Such is the meaning of Daniel 9:26-27 [as well].”
For various forms of this interpretation
see Boles, 463, Ellison, 167, Foster,
138, Gardner, 345, McGarvey and Pendleton, 628,
Riley, 41 Adam Clarke, Commentary:
Matthew to Acts (Reprint, New
York: Abingdon Press, [n.d.]), 229, , Kilgallen, Luke, 248; and Henry J. Ripley, The Four Gospels with Notes, Twelfth Edition
(Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1869),
[Page 151] Cowles, 212, Owen, 312, and John A. Bengel, Gnomon of the New Testament, translated by
James Bandinel and Andrew R. Fausset,
revised and edited by Andrew R. Fausset
(Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, MDCCCLIX)
1:312. Herman C. Waetjen,
A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s
Alford, Greek Testament, 237, in rejecting what he calls the view of “the principal commentators” of his day. Cf. Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew (Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1980), 274.
As Toussaint, 274, himself concedes.
de Deitrich, 125.
Ibid., concedes that this may be the case.
Benjamin W. Bacon, The
Gospel of Mark: Its Composition and Date
(New Haven: Yale University Press,
1925), 130-131. Cf.
H. A. Guy, The Gospel of Mark (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968), 159.
Donald H. Juel, Mark, in the Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament series (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg, 1990), 179-180.
Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred: Poetics of Violence in Mark (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1994), 38, believes both the zealots and the Romans are being described.
Montague, 267. The term is also used by Martin, 78.
 VanderWaal, 49-50.
Gundry, Matthew, 482.
For approaches see Lange, 425.
Alford, New Testament for English Readers, 165.
Mentioned by Mann, 516, without affirming or denying.
Robert M. Fowler, Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark (Minneapolis, Minnnesota: Fortress Press, 1991), 84, argues that it is an implicit plea for the correct interpretation of Daniel. See this source also for interesting comments on identifying “who” the reader is considered to be.
Myers, Strong Man, 335.
Mann, 522. He parallels it with Revelation where one has to read something deeper into the text in order for it to equate anything in human experience. He also introduces the possibility of a reference to the man of sin in 2 Thessalonians 2:4.