Matthew (Part 34) - Get Out of Town!
The seventh and final woe of Jesus’ condemnation of the religious leaders holds a few puzzling points. Jesus recognizes the honor that the Pharisees give to past prophets in building and decorating tombs (memorials) to those prophets. But even while they do this, he notes their hypocrisy. They claim that had they been alive back in the days of these prophets, they would have listened and not done, as their forefathers, and killed these prophets. Jesus argues that by saying so, they testify against themselves because they admit to being sons of those murderers. Our question then is how did admitting the murder performed by their fathers result in testimony against themselves?
The traducians explain that Jesus is making a case for inherited guilt. Traducians, if you recall, are those who believe that not only do we receive our bodies from our parents, but our souls/spirits derive from our parents also. This view is in opposition to the view of the Creationists who insist that God newly creates each soul/spirit at the point of physical conception. Although I may favor the traducians outlook on the primary point of soul/spirit origin (the marrying of a newly created good soul with a sin-cursed physical body does not sit well with me as a just act of God), the use of this passage as support for the traducians view seems shaky.
Christ condemns the Pharisees for being hypocrites. Their admission to be sons of murderers, therefore, is not mere guilt by association, but rather acknowledgement that they issue from common humanity who all are under the curse. They are sinners by birth. Yet they claim righteousness for themselves: “We would not have sinned by rejecting God’s prophets.” This is the same sin for which Jesus has been hammering them in the previous woes. They believe themselves to be righteous—above others even of their own nation. And in that they display their hypocrisy.
Jesus tells them that they should and would “fill up, then, the measure of [their] fathers.” In other words, they have been and indeed would still to the greatest extent perform the same things their fathers did. They harm the gospel by seeking to discredit Christ, and they would attack his apostles with persecutions, flogging, and execution in the years to come. Thus, by so opposing the only hope of redemption and reconciliation for mankind, they become guilty of all the innocent blood ever shed. Jesus mentions that this innocent blood runs from Abel (murdered because of Cain’s antagonism toward Abel’s relationship with God) to Zechariah who was murdered while in the temple for denouncing the people’s commandment-breaking activity (2 Chronicles 24:20-21).
The identity of Zechariah requires some explanation here. Our Bibles (based on most manuscripts) record that this is Zechariah, son of Barachiah (23:35). However, in reading of the incident described in 2 Chronicles 24:20-21, we find that that Zechariah is identified as the son of Jehoida. He lived around 820 BC during the reign of King Joash years (even centuries) before the Jews were carried off in captivity to Babylon. Another Zechariah lived around 520 BC. This later Zechariah is the one who helped Zerubbabel rebuild the temple (after it had been destroyed by the Babylonians). This is the Zechariah who wrote the biblical book that bears his name. And it so happens that in the very first verse of that book we read that this Zechariah was the son of Barachiah. We do not know, however, how this Zechariah died.
There appears then to be some sort of mistake somewhere. Jesus apparently meant to refer to Zechariah, son of Jehoida, rather than Zechariah, son of Barachiah. But then, why the would he want to mention Jehoida’s son? Since Zechariah, son of Barachiah is the second to last prophet of the Old Testament (Malachi being last) perhaps Jesus really meant Barachiah’s son to span the entire OT history. This thought has prompted some to speculate that perhaps the Zechariah Jesus had in mind was John the Baptist’s father who, legend has it, was killed in the temple for refusing to tell where his son was hidden during Herod the Great’s rampage against 2 year olds in Matthew 2 (see The Protoevangelium of James 22-23).
Most scholars are satisfied that the Zechariah in question is the priest whose murder in the first temple is recorded in 2 Chronicles 24. The stories match. Additionally, Jesus was indeed spanning the entire inspired historical record with his use of Abel and Zechariah because the Hebrew Old Testament begins with Genesis (Abel) and ends with Chronicles (Zechariah). Also, our oldest complete manuscript of the New Testament, Sinaiticus ~AD 331, does not include the phrase in Matthew “son of Barachiah,” leading to the probable conclusion that this was a scribal insertion/error made early on in the pre-Xerox days of copying. And, the tomb monument of Zechariah, son of Jehoida, which stands at the base of the Mount of Olives was, it is thought, being built at just this time. So Jesus reference to building tombs of the prophets (23:29) and Zechariah (23:35) could have been triggered by this construction work occurring not too far from the temple.
Jesus ends this discourse with a lamentation over the rebellious city. He shows the mercy of God in his oft-desire to gather these covenant people back to himself. Yet, he says, they would not. He tells them that their house (the temple) is left to them desolate and they would not see him again until they say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Matthew, it is said, contains five major discourses by Christ. The discourses are identified by the lengthy comments of Christ, ending with the phrase “when Jesus finished these sayings (or parables or instructions).” The five discourses include:
1. Matthew 5:1 – 7:28a Sermon on the Mount
2. Matthew 9:35 – 11:1 Sending out the Twelve
3. Matthew 12:46 – 13:53 Parables of the Kingdom
4. Matthew 18:1 – 19:1 Who is the Greatest?
5. Matthew 23:1 – 26:1 Woes and Olivet Discourse
However, many say that there should actually be six discourses rather than five. The fifth one combines the talk of Jesus at the temple and to the crowds and Pharisees with the Olivet Discourse spoken on the Mount of Olives to only his disciples. Even though the woes do not end in the formulaic “when Jesus finished these sayings,” the changes in circumstance and audience do argue for considering those two discourses as separate.
In chapter 24 Jesus leaves the temple with his disciples following. Chapter 24 is a difficult chapter for interpretation, mainly because we have so many competing interpretations that have been promoted. By maintaining an iron-clad grip on context, I think we should be able to follow Christ’s explanation without too much confusion.
Do not forget the scene. Jesus has just delivered the harshest words we have recorded in any Gospel concerning the sin of the religious leaders. And not only does he condemn what they have done, but he pronounces judgment as well: “See, your house is left to you desolate.” We don’t have them mentioned much through this scene, but imagine what the disciples are doing and how they are reacting to what Jesus says. They hear him denounce the Pharisees, and they are probably exchanging glances, nodding, and calling out “Amen!” and “Preach it, brother!” But when Jesus ends with a pronouncement of desolation on the temple, they may suddenly have dropped their folded arms and confidant, approving expressions. The temple?--desolate?!
We must understand that the temple was everything to the Jew. It was the center of their life, culture, religion, and identity as a people. It meant everything. It connected them with their ancestry, and it provided hope for their future. And it was more than symbolic. It was the place where they—the people of God—actually met with God. Jesus now tells them that it was to be left desolate (Greek – eremos, meaning uninhabited, desert-like, deserted, deprived of aid and protection). Surely, surely Jesus could not really mean that. Surely he was talking about expelling those religious leaders, not doing away with the temple itself.
At first they say nothing, but as Jesus turns and leaves the temple, they quickly come up to him and urge him to look back at the building. Verse 1 of chapter 24 says that they “came to point out to him the buildings of the temple.” In the parallel passage of Luke 21:5, Luke tells us that they were mentioning the beauty of the place. They wanted to calm Jesus down, almost as if to say, “Don’t rashly condemn this center of our life! Look at its beauty! Think of what this place represents for us!” And the temple was beautiful. Although about 500 years old, it had undergone a tremendous and extensive remodeling under Herod the Great, who wanted to be known as the king who transformed the temple into one of Solomon-like glory again.
But Jesus turns and says, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Even more shock results. Jesus had said that the temple would be desolate. Now he just told them that it would be utterly destroyed! They follow him in silence, down into the Kidron valley, up the Mount of Olives. During the walk they are thinking and, perhaps, starting to put two and two together. Well, Jesus is a king. He has been talking about establishing his kingdom. Didn’t Peter say he was the Son of the Living God? Didn’t Jesus accept that? He was God. They didn’t need the temple in the new kingdom. Jesus was God. He would be over them.
Jesus stops on the Mount of Olives to rest, maybe to eat lunch. The disciples, with their new thoughts bouncing around in their minds, approach him and ask a couple of questions. They ask, “When will these things be?” and “What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” Notice these questions are of timing and of indication—when and what sign. But they are asking about “these things.” What things? Well, Jesus had just explained that the temple would be destroyed. And he had told the Pharisees that they would not see him again until they said, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (23:39). The disciples see these as one event—temple destroyed and Jesus returns in power and glory. Their presumption was that a calamitous event would signal the end of the age.
So Jesus cannot give a simple answer to their question. They have (1) presumed that calamitous events would precipitate his coming, (2) confused the two events—temple destruction and Jesus’ return—into one, (3) asked for the timing of this one event, and (4) asked for a sign that this one event was about to happen.
The answer Jesus gives in Matthew 24 systematically touches on all these points. Jesus begins with their presumption. Verses 4 through 14 deal with this. He tells them that false Christs will come and go, rumors of wars will abound, famines will occur, earthquakes will shake, and even tribulation—intense tribulation—would happen for Christians. But, this is the normal occurrence of life. This does not signal the end. And besides, the gospel will be preached around the world. Only after all this will the end come.
Christ tells them this so that they don’t seek for meaning in the calamitous events of the world. To paraphrase Jesus’ words in this section: “Don’t be confused. Whenever terrible, earth-shaking events happen, people will think it is the end of the world and that I am returning. But all these calamitous events are just the normal course of life in a fallen world. You will continue to have natural disasters like earthquakes, national disasters like wars and famines, and even persecution because you are Christians. Every time these things occur, don’t go screaming, ‘The sky is falling!’ These things all must occur in their normal course. They are not signs of the end or my coming. Besides, the gospel has just begun to be proclaimed. Before I come again, it will have been proclaimed everywhere. So, again, don’t look for signs of my coming in the natural order of calamity on earth. All these things will occur. Then—not because of these things but after these things—then will come the end.”
Now, having cleared up this incorrect presumption that the disciples had, Jesus moves on to clear up their confusion about the events. In other words, he will draw a distinction between the temple destruction and his coming. This occurs in verses 15 through 31.
Notice the beginning two verses of this section (15-16). “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” This is a very interesting insertion here. Jesus does not say the words “let the reader understand.” This is parenthetical. Matthew inserts this in his text. Why? Matthew does not explicitly tell us what the abomination of desolation is. Instead he simply mentions that Daniel talked about this in his prophetic history book. And Daniel 9 does tell us of abominations that lead to desolation. What is the desolation? The subject of this whole discussion is the desolation that Jesus just pronounced on the temple. What are the abominations? Chapter 23 just listed all the abominations of the Pharisees, culminating in the last woe with the conclusion that rejection of God’s prophets and his Christ would result in the rejection of these people, Jerusalem, and the temple.
But if these are the abominations that would lead to desolation, what does Jesus mean “when you see the abomination of desolation…standing in the holy place”? Luke helps us out here. In the parallel passage in Luke, we discover that that which would make desolate is armies surrounding Jerusalem (Luke 21:20).
Hmm. Does that strike you as a little odd? Jesus tells them that when they see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, they are to flee to the mountains. But…if the armies are surrounding Jerusalem, how in the world are they supposed to get through to flee to the mountains? From our vantage point on this side of the historical event, we can easily see how that happened. In AD 66, with the zealots (Jews advocating political and military detachment from Rome) in control of Jerusalem, Cestius Gallus, governor of the region decided to march against Jerusalem in order to quell this rebellion. Gallus therefore left Antioch of Syria (the seat of government for all of Palestine) with somewhat more than a legion of troops—probably about 7000 soldiers. They marched south along the Mediterranean coast to Caesarea before turning east to head for Jerusalem.
Cestius Gallus was not a military commander. He made several important errors in this campaign. Unlike all marching Roman armies he had the baggage/supply carts trailing the soldiers rather than protected in the middle of the marching train. Of course, Jewish zealots would ambush the trailing supply carts, severely weakening any of the army’s long term plans. Gallus also failed to secure the heights in the mountain passes on his way, thus suffering huge losses in their march. Still, though weakened, this was an army of thousands. They arrived at Jerusalem, burning the houses and buildings outside the wall and began their siege of the city.
For some reason, not known now, historians tell us that Gallus suddenly, inexplicably decided to return to Antioch. Perhaps the loss of supplies made him rethink a long campaign. But for whatever reason, even though it looked as if they could persevere and take the city, they withdrew, suffering immense losses in the same mountain passes through which they had come, and arriving back in Antioch having lost almost 6000 soldiers of the army.
The ineptitude of Gallus is something that historians dwell on. But what happened was the salvation of the Christians in Jerusalem. This temporary siege of Jerusalem in AD 66 was just the sign that the Jerusalem Christians needed to flee to the mountains. Most left Jerusalem to go to the town of Pella. When Rome heard of the failure of Gallus, Nero sent a real general to attack Jerusalem, and in AD 70 the city fell, and the temple was destroyed, just as Jesus had foretold 40 years earlier.
Adam Clarke wrote in his commentary on this passage: “It is very remarkable that not a single Christian perished in the destruction of Jerusalem, though there were many there when Cestius Gallus invested the city; and had he persevered in the siege, he would soon have rendered himself master of it. But when he unexpectedly and unaccountably raised the siege, the Christians took that opportunity to escape.”
Thomas Newton wrote in Dissertations on the Prophecies, “We learn more certainly from ecclesiastical historians, that at this juncture all who believed in Christ left Jerusalem, and removed to Pella and other places beyond the river Jordan, so that they all marvelously escaped the general shipwreck of their country, and we do not read anywhere that so much as one of them perished in the destruction of Jerusalem. Of such signal service was this caution of our Saviour to the believers!” (Newton 344).
So as Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, he knew what they would see and how they could avoid the destruction. But notice that he is describing the temple destruction, not his second coming. He is, in fact, pointing out a sign for them to know what will signal this destruction.
Notice that verse 15 begins with “so” (other versions may have “therefore” in the first few words). The “therefore” tells us that because of what Jesus just discussed (verses 4-14 that no calamitous events would signal the end of the age), they should recognize that when they do see this sign, it means something other than the end of the age. To paraphrase verses 15 and 16: “Therefore—because no calamitous event will precede my coming and the end of the age—therefore, when you do see the calamitous event of the abomination of desolation manifested in armies surrounding Jerusalem, don’t think it is my coming, don’t think it is the end of the age, don’t just sit there and wait for me, but rather GET OUT OF TOWN—flee to the mountains!”