Header Image: Jewish War by David Roberts

Hello again, it's been a while since I've wrote anything, and longer since getting back to this series on the Second Coming of Jesus. This isn't for lack of motivation, but rather because this is such a huge topic that I've been reading and thinking about this next part for a very long time to make sure I know what I'm saying, and am well read enough to do the topic justice. Having said that, there will always be far more to say on this than I can give time for here, but I hope to give enough of an overview to expound this prophecy faithfully without being too technical as to cause confusion! You can also catch up on the previous parts in the series here and here.

 

Birth Pangs

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I'm going to do this part of the series in two sections, otherwise it would get too long and wordy! This part will focus on the "birth pangs" Jesus warned about which would lead up to the coming judgement and destruction of the temple.

The Olivet discourse is the prophecy given by Jesus in the Gospels of Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21. Most Christians are probably more familiar with the Matthew 24-25 version than the others, though they are all the same prophetic message of impending judgement.

If you're at all familiar with any doctrine or teaching on the "Second Coming" or "End Times", then these passages in the Gospels are most often quoted and used to say that Jesus is talking about a terrible time that is coming in the far, far, far off future, usually interpreted to mean within our lifetime (for some reason).

I, too, used to believe this as it was what I was taught in the churches I attended and told by the people I met, all with that eager expectation that Jesus could suddenly swoop down from the clouds any day now! What I didn't ever do was investigate these claims properly for myself, except read the parts of Scripture they said meant Jesus was coming in the future and then try to accept that it must be right since our church leaders were obviously more knowledgeable on this than I. Although I did spend a lot of time studying and trying to interpret Revelation as a new Christian (without much success I might add), I couldn't shake the feeling I got that the Apostles and Jesus all seemed to speak and write as though they expected something to happen then and very soon. Back in the early 2000's, searching the internet for theological help generally brought up lots of odd and wacky websites, complete with animated fire GIFs, or forums full of equally as confused believers trying to wrangle the "soon-ness" of the Scriptures with a far-future interpretation. So I did what any good Christian did, and just chalked it up to "God's ways are not our way" or "God's soon/time isn't the same as how we understand it".

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This is where I wish that the Church would know its history better and have a desire to exegete things well, rather than fob off the confusing/hard passages with catchphrases. Think of it this way: if God was going to give a prophecy and be accurate and precise in all the details, why would he then be obscure about the timing of it?

With that said, lets look at the prophecy Jesus gives.

 

Apocalypse then (not later)

Something that seems to go unnoticed, or is overlooked, in discussions about this prophecy, are the "timestamps" that Jesus uses to say when this will be fulfilled. Even in the preceding chapter in Matthew and its parallel in Luke, after Jesus has said all his woes about the Pharisees, he says something quite interesting which I admit, I hadn't really noticed until the other day:

Luke 11:49-51

Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. (cf. Matthew 23:34-36)

Jesus bluntly tells them that basically the Pharisees are hypocrites, and are partakers in the slaughter of God's holy prophets, even if they weren't alive at the time since they built tombs for them and proclaimed that they wouldn't have aided in the killing of the prophets – all the while plotting to kill Jesus who was regarded as a prophet by the people. Now because of this, Jesus says that his generation would have the charge of all the prophets murders from the beginning put on them, and ultimately, the guilt of killing God's Messiah too. This is important to realise and remember, as that's quite a hefty charge, and the sentence and punishment is what follows in the Olivet Discourse which was to come upon that generation not ours.

Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 all begin with the disciples pointing out how grand the temple was and Jesus saying to them that it "all will be thrown down". The temple was (and is) a big deal the Jewish people, so understandably, the disciples were concerned and wanted to know more about when it would be destroyed.

Matthew 24:3

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (cf. Luke 21:7; Mark 13:3-4)

It's important to note here that the disciples rightly ask about the end of the age – not the world. I believe a lot of the confusion on this (and other doctrines) has come from teaching based on the King James Bible rather than the underlying Greek and/or better English translations. For example, this verse is translated as "end of the world" in the KJV, whereas all other Bibles you read will (hopefully) say "end of the age". The Greek word translated "world" in the KJV is actually the word aion, meaning "age" or "eon", which has completely different connotations than the destruction of the physical universe.

So the disciples have just been told that the temple will be destroyed, so their obvious question is when and how will be know it's about to happen? 

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Jesus answers them plainly by laying out everything that will happen in the run up to this massive event, and as we'll see, all these signs did happen as foretold and are document in the historical record.

Mark and Matthew are generally accepted to be the earliest Gospels written, probably somewhere between 50-55AD (Luke's Gospel about a decade later), both of which record Jesus' prophecy here (which would have been spoken even earlier) long before the actual events took place. Most, if not all, of the New Testament was written before 70 AD which is when the temple was destroyed, so we'll never read about the fulfillment of this prophecy in the Scriptures. For that, we need to turn to Josephus – a first century historian who was an eyewitness to the destruction, and was involved in the events leading up to (and after) it.

 

The historical record and prophetic fulfillment of the "birth pangs"

Here I'm going to highlight the signs Jesus gave to warn his followers about what was to come, which he called the "birth pangs" (Matt 24:8), and how they have already happened within the timeframe he gave (that generation).

Matthew 24:4-5

Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. (cf. Mark 13:5-6; Luke 21:8)

Josephus records the coming of men who claimed messianic roles and divine authority to save Israel from impending doom in miraculous ways. These men failed, the miracles and prophecies didn't happen, and they and their followers were killed by the Roman soldiers.

Flavius Josephus, "Wars of the Jews" Book 2 chapter 13

Another body of wicked men also sprung up, cleaner in their hands, but more wicked in their intentions, who destroyed the peace of the city no less than did these murderers [the Sicarii]. For they were deceivers and deluders of the people, and, under pretense of divine illumination, were for innovations and changes, and prevailed on the multitude to act like madmen, and went before them in the wilderness, pretending that God would there show them signs of liberty

Next up was the warning of wars. In a time where you may think war and conflict was common, this sign holds more meaning as this was prophesied during the famous "Pax Romana" – Latin for "Roman Peace". It was a time when the Roman Empire had relative peace and harmony with everyone, and thus wars and conflict were little to none. But what we see from history, is that as time drew closer to 70 AD, seditions and rebels were rising up against Rome from within Jerusalem and Israel as a whole.

Matthew 24:6

And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. (cf. Mark 13:7; Luke 21:9)

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 The next sign is that of famine and earthquakes. We actually can read about the famine which struck the land in the book of Acts too, which was prophesied about again to warn the churches to prepare.

Matthew 24:7

For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places (cf. Mark 13:8; Luke 21:11)

The famine began during the time of Acts 11, which was in 46 AD. Various other historians mention this famine in their historical accounts too.

Acts 11:27-28

At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius.

 Josephus also records how Helena, Queen of Adiabene, aided the people struck by the famine:

Flavius Josephus, "Antiquities" Book 20 chapter 2.5: 51-53

Now her coming was of very great advantage to the people of Jerusalem; for whereas a famine did oppress them at that time ... queen Helena sent some of her servants to Alexandria with money to buy a great quantity of corn...

There were also other famines later, as the Roman troops eventually surrounded Jerusalem:

Flavius Josephus, "Wars of the Jews" Book 6 chapter 3

Now of those who perished by famine in the city, the number was prodigious, and the miseries they underwent were unspeakable

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And earthquakes:

Flavius Josephus, "The Jewish War" Book 4 chapter 4.5

...for there broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continued lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake.

In Luke's Gospel, this sign has some addition information that there would also be "dreadful portents and great signs from heaven" too. This, too, is also documented by Josephus, himself almost in disbelief about what seen, except that it was recounted by so many witnesses.

Flavius Josephus, "The Jewish War" Book 6 chapter 5.3

Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. Thus also before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus, and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time; which lasted for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskilful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes, as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it. At the same festival also, a heifer, as she was led by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple. Moreover, the eastern gate of the inner [court of the] temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night… Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one and twentieth day of the month Artemisius a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the temple] as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, 'Let us remove hence'.

The following signs are also ones we can see fulfilled in the book of Acts too, which is that of martyrdom for standing for Jesus and proclaiming his Gospel message, and those who will depart the faith.

Matthew 24:9-10, 12

Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another ... And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. (cf. Mark 13:9-13; Luke 21:12-17)

The stoning of Stephen is the first martyr we come across, and it doesn't stop there. Before Paul (then, Saul) met with the risen Jesus, he was going from town to town arresting and killing the followers of Jesus.

Acts 7:54-60

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen ... Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Acts 22:4

I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison,

In Paul's letter to Timothy, he speaks of those who were working with him in the faith now falling away back to their old lives, and in the Revelation of John, Jesus encourages the churches to hold onto their first love and to not let it go cold (Rev 2:4; Rev 3:16).

2 Tim 4:9-11

Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry.

Coming to the end of the "birth pangs" are the warnings of false prophets arising and leading people astray, which again, we can read about happening within Jerusalem at the time. This sadly led many people to their deaths by following them.

Matthew 24:11

And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.

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After Jesus died, there were many false prophets popping up trying to lead the people and give them messages and signs from God (all of which failed). When Paul is questioned by the Roman authorities in Acts, they confuse him for one of the earlier false prophets known as "the Egyptian" who led many into the wilderness (Acts 21:37-38). This is another instance which Josephus records in his Antiquities of the Jews (quoted below) and also in The War of the Jews, book 6, chapter 5.2.

Flavius Josephus, "Antiquities" Book 20 Chapter 8.5
These deeds of the robbers filled the city with all sorts of impiety. And now conjurers and deceivers persuaded the multitude to follow them into the wilderness, and pretended that they would show them manifest wonders and signs that would be performed by the providence of God. And many that were persuaded suffered the pain of their folly,  for Felix brought them back and punished them. At this time there came out of Egypt to Jerusalem a man who said he was a prophet, and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the mountain called the Mount of Olives, which lay a distance of five furlongs from the city. He said that he would show them that  at his command the walls of Jerusalem would fall down, through which he promised that he would procure them an entrance into the city. Now when Felix was informed of this he ordered his soldiers to take up their weapons, and with a great number of horsemen and footmen from Jerusalem he attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him. He slew four hundred of them and took two hundred alive. But the Egyptian himself escaped from the fight and did not appear any more. And again the robbers stirred up the people to make war with the Romans.

The final part to note about these signs is that there is a time on them as to when and how long they'd last. The end wouldn't come until the Gospel had been spread throughout the world.

Matthew 24:14

And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come(cf. Mark 13:10)

Though this may sound like something that hasn't happened yet, the term "world" here can also refer colloquially to the known world or even just the local region. The Greek word translated as "world" in this verse is Oikoumene which can be defined or translated as "the inhabited earth" or even more specifically as "the Roman empire, all the subjects of the empire"! This is also backed up by what Jesus tells his disciples earlier on in Matthew, in which this verse in chapter 24 is a repeat of:

Matthew 10:21-23

Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

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That narrows it down significantly. Jesus quite clearly tells his disciples that they won't have travelled through all of the towns in Israel before "the Son of Man" comes — and unless we want to say that Jesus was wrong, then this has to be the case and the coming of the Son of Man must have another meaning, other than the total destruction of the universe. If this conflicts with what you currently believe about Jesus/the Son of Man's coming, then surely you must have to adjust your doctrine to match Scripture, not the other way around.

By looking at maps created to show the routes of Paul's missionary journeys, we can see that the Gospel was spread throughout the known world, and thus brought about the end of the birth pangs, giving birth to the wrath of God which was to come upon the nation of Israel.

Pauls Missionary Journey 3
Paul's Third Missionary Journey, returning to Asia Minor and Greece c AD53-58

 

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Even in writing his letters to the churches, Paul appears to believe that he has spread the Good News to all the world, which would seem to show that in Paul's mind, "the world" wasn't the whole globe as we might think of it today.

Col 1:23

...provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

And also in the letter to the Romans, Paul declares that the faith of these believers is even proclaimed throughout the world – how much more so then was the Gospel?

Rom 1:8

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.

 

So to conclude, Jesus gave his followers specific signs to watch out for which would forewarn and usher in his coming. These signs are documented in the historical and Biblical record to show that what Jesus prophesied came to pass. All throughout the New Testament there is an urgency and expectancy that he would be coming "soon" and that the time was near (eg. James 5:7-8; Rev 1:1); and this is why: because it was! The apostles knew the signs and could see them happening around them, and so warned the churches to hold fast to their fath!

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In part 2 of this topic, I will be looking at the what happened when the destruction came upon Jerusalem and how that was fully ushering in of Kingdom of God and the New Covenant, and how it ties in with Daniel's prophecies and also with Revelation.

 


 

Further Reading:

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