(Jesus' apostles inquire, "what will be the sign when all these things are destined to come to a conclusion?"- Mark 13:4)
Faith in Bible Prophecy Preserves Life
Jesus is leaving the temple in Jerusalem for the last time when one of his disciples exclaims: “Teacher, see! what sort of stones and what sort of buildings!” The temple is the pride and glory of the Jewish nation. However, Jesus replies: “Do you behold these great buildings? By no means will a stone be left here upon a stone and not be thrown down.”—Mark 13:1, 2.
The very idea is incredible! Some temple stones are huge. Furthermore, what Jesus says about the temple implies the destruction of Jerusalem and perhaps even of the Jewish state, of which the temple is the spiritual heart. So Jesus’ disciples press him: “Tell us, When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are destined to come to a conclusion?”—Mark 13:3, 4.
“The end is not yet,” Jesus cautions. First, the disciples will hear of wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilences in one place after another. Then, dramatic events will plunge the Jewish nation into a cataclysm of unique proportions, yes, a “great tribulation.” God, though, will intervene to save “the chosen ones,” that is, faithful Christians. How?—Mark 13:7; Matthew 24:7, 21, 22; Luke 21:10, 11.
(aspects of 'the Sign' which had a miniature fufillment in the 1st century, and has a larger fulfillment in our day - click on box for a closer view)
In Defiance of Rome
Twenty-eight years pass, and the Christians in Jerusalem are still awaiting the end. The Roman Empire is racked by wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilences. (See the box above) Judea is a hotbed of civil and ethnic strife. Yet, within the safety of Jerusalem’s walls, relative peace prevails. People eat, work, marry, and bear children, as they have always done. The temple’s immense physical presence projects a sense of stability and permanence over the city.
About 61 C.E., the Christians in Jerusalem receive a letter from the apostle Paul. He commends them for their endurance but is concerned that some in the congregation appear to lack a sense of urgency. A number are drifting spiritually or are falling short of Christian maturity. (Hebrews 2:1; 5:11, 12) Paul urges them: “Do not, therefore, throw away your freeness of speech . . . For yet ‘a very little while,’ and ‘he who is coming will arrive and will not delay.’ ‘But my righteous one will live by reason of faith,’ and, ‘if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.’” (Hebrews 10:35-38) Timely counsel indeed! But will the Christians exercise faith and remain alert to the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy? Is Jerusalem’s end really imminent?
Over the next five years, conditions in Jerusalem steadily deteriorate. Finally, in 66 C.E., the corrupt Roman Governor Florus seizes 17 talents in “tax arrears” from the sacred temple treasury. The Jews are incensed and rise up in revolt. Jewish rebels, or Zealots, swarm into Jerusalem and slaughter the Roman forces there. They then boldly declare Judea to be independent of Rome. Judea and Rome are now at war!
Within three months, the Roman governor of Syria, Cestius Gallus, marches south with 30,000 troops to suppress the Jewish rebellion. His army arrives at Jerusalem during the Festival of Booths and quickly penetrates the suburbs. The outnumbered Zealots seek refuge inside the temple fortress. Roman soldiers soon begin to undermine the temple wall. The Jews are horrified. Why, pagan soldiers are now defiling Judaism’s holiest site! The Christians in the city, though, recall Jesus’ words: ‘When you catch sight of the disgusting thing standing in a holy place, then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains.’ (Matthew 24:15, 16) Would they show faith in Jesus’ prophetic words and be moved to act accordingly? As matters turn out, their life depends on their doing so. But how?
Suddenly and for no apparent reason, Cestius Gallus withdraws his troops and retreats toward the coast with the Zealots in hot pursuit. Amazingly, the tribulation on the city has been cut short! Demonstrating their faith in Jesus’ prophetic warning, the Christians flee from Jerusalem to Pella, a neutral city located in the mountains across the Jordan River. Their escape is timely. The Zealots soon return to Jerusalem and force the remaining inhabitants to join in their rebellion.* Meanwhile, safe at Pella, the Christians await further developments.
*Jewish historian Josephus reports that the Zealots pursued the Romans for seven days before returning to Jerusalem.
(map of Roman Campaign in Palestine, 67-70 C.E.)
Descent Into Anarchy
Within months, a new Roman army is on the move. During 67 C.E., General Vespasian and his son Titus mobilize a vast force of 60,000 troops. For the next two years, this military juggernaut advances toward Jerusalem, crushing all resistance in its path. Meanwhile, inside Jerusalem, rival Jewish factions engage in vicious struggles. The city grain reserves are destroyed, the area surrounding the temple is leveled, and more than 20,000 Jews are killed. Vespasian delays his advance toward Jerusalem, declaring: ‘God acts as a Roman general better than I can do; our enemies are destroying one another with their own hands.’
(General Vespasian- Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource, NY)
When Roman Emperor Nero dies, Vespasian departs for Rome to secure the throne, leaving Titus to finish the Judean campaign. Titus advances on Jerusalem near Passover 70 C.E., trapping the residents and pilgrims inside the city. His forces strip the Judean countryside of trees to build a 4.5-mile-long [7 km] wall of pointed stakes around the beleaguered capital. This is just as Jesus foretold: “Your enemies will build around you a fortification with pointed stakes and will encircle you and distress you from every side.”—Luke 19:43.
Famine soon grips the city. Armed mobs plunder the homes of the dead and the dying. At least one desperate woman kills and eats her infant child, fulfilling the prediction: “You will have to eat the fruit of your belly, the flesh of your sons and your daughters . . . because of the tightness and stress with which your enemy will hem you in.”—Deuteronomy 28:53-57.
Finally, after a siege lasting five months, Jerusalem falls. The city and its grand temple are plundered and burned and then torn apart stone by stone. (Daniel 9:26) The dead total some 1,100,000; another 97,000 are sold into slavery.* (Deuteronomy 28:68) Judea is virtually emptied of Jews. Truly, it is a national disaster without parallel, a watershed in Jewish political, religious, and cultural life.#
* According to one estimate, over one seventh of all the Jews in the Roman Empire were killed.
# Jewish Bible scholar Alfred Edersheim wrote: “[This] tribulation to Israel [was] unparalleled in the terrible past of its history, and unequalled even in its bloody future.”
(Relief: Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma, -depicting Jewish people taken captive by the Roman army, and illustration of the siege on Jerusalem)
Meanwhile, the Christians in Pella give heartfelt thanks to God for their deliverance. Their faith in Bible prophecy has preserved their very lives! Looking back on those events, each of us today would do well to ask: ‘Do I have the faith that will preserve my life during the approaching great tribulation? Am I “the sort that [has] faith to the preserving alive of the soul”?’—Hebrews 10:39; Revelation 7:14.
*Obviously there was a fairly large gap of time inbetween when Jesus first told his disciples about the destruction of Jerusalem, and when it finally occured. (over three decades) but the signs listed in that box above regarding wars, earthquakes, famine, pestilence and apostasy/false prophets began occuring after Jesus died...so those who were really paying attention could see the warning signs.
Also there was another small gap of time inbetween when the Christians fled Jerusalem in 66 C.E., and when it was 'officially' captured by the Roman army in 70 C.E. (even though the economic and political situation within the city was deteriorating, and civil hostility was intensifying in the meantime) But imagine if any of the Christians who escaped to Pella (neutral ground) had begun to get impatient when they didn't hear of any 'major' developments occuring right away, and decided to go back to the city.
That's a good reminder for us about having trust in what God's Word tells us, even if we don't see immediate results or are a little bit fuzzy on the details, isn't it? Just because things get quiet for awhile or take a different course than we were expecting, doesn't mean everything is safe and sound and we can just forget all about Jesus' warning. Because history testifies to the fact that everything Jesus foretold about 'the signs' leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem came true, as well as specific details regarding the capture and siege on the city itself. It was only those who stayed alert to the signs by 'keeping on the watch' and acting accordingly who escaped.