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On the way to Jerusalem the next morning, the fig tree that Jesus had cursed the day before was dried up from the roots. As they passed by on the road, the apostles were surprised to see this and wondered how this could have happened so soon. Peter appears to have been the first one to speak up, “Lord, look, the fig tree you cursed has dried up.” (Matthew 21:20; Mark 11:20, 21)
In his reply, Jesus stressed the need for faith in God. Prefacing his comments with a solemn “amen” (truly), he directed attention to the power of faith. If they had faith and did not doubt, the apostles would be able to do what Jesus had done to the fig tree and, in fact, even more. He continued, “If you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and tossed into the sea,’ it will occur.” (Matthew 21:21) In Mark 11:23, Jesus is represented as using a more detailed qualifying statement, “If [the person] does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be [so] for him.” In their hearts or their inmost selves, the apostles should have the firm conviction that God would answer their prayers. They would come to have whatever they prayed for in faith. Their appeal should be with the kind of certainty reflective of their already having received whatever they requested. (Matthew 21:22; Mark 12:24) Prayers, expressed in faith, would of necessity have to be in harmony with God’s will, as nothing that is opposed to his will is compatible with faith in him.
Besides having faith in God as the hearer of prayer, all who appeal to him should also maintain a forgiving spirit. Jesus told the apostles that when they stood to pray, they should forgive what they might have against anyone. The heavenly Father would then also forgive them their trespasses. (Mark 11:25) Numerous later manuscripts add, “But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who [is] in the heavens forgive your trespasses.” (Mark 11:26; these words [which parallel Matthew 6:15] are missing in numerous modern translations because they are not found in the oldest extant manuscripts as well as many others.)
It may be noted that letting go of resentment and anger when being transgressed against may appear as difficult as moving a mountain out of one’s way. With faith in God, however, it can be done. For the apostles, the drying up of the fig tree provided an object lesson regarding the power of faith.
By implication, the withering of the fig tree also revealed that there are serious consequences for not believing. In the case of the nation of Israel, faith in God should have led to accepting his Son. When the “time of visitation” arrived for Jerusalem and so also for the people for whom the city with its temple was the place of worship, Jesus did not find the fruit of faith among the prominent ones and those who followed their lead. Like the barren fig tree, the people had showy leaves, observing the traditions and the ritualistic aspects of worship at the temple. But the fruit that counted—the faith that would have moved them to accept Jesus as the Son of God and to become his loyal disciples—was lacking. Accordingly, just as the fig tree had dried up, they would face serious adverse judgment. (Compare Luke 19:41-44.)
If not then, the apostles later must have recalled Jesus’ earlier parable about the barren fig tree and the effort to save it from being cut down as useless. (Luke 13:6-9) That parable had specific application to the nation of Israel and the opportunities extended to it to be found divinely approved and to escape adverse judgment for failing to bear fruit to God’s praise.
Arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus and the apostles went to the temple, where he began to teach and proclaim the good news (which likely included the message about how to become part of the realm where his Father is Sovereign). The chief priests, scribes, and elders of the nation approached him, demanding to know by what authority he acted (likely referring to his driving out those who conducted commercial activities in the Court of the Gentiles) and who had granted him this authority. (Matthew 21:23; Mark 11:27, 28; Luke 20:1, 2; see the Notes section regarding Matthew 21:23.)
Jesus told them that, if they answered one question for him, he would let them know about his authority. “The baptism from John—from where was [it], from heaven or from men?” They realized that, if they said, “From heaven,” he would ask them why they did not believe John. If, however, they said, “From men,” they feared this would lead to trouble from the multitude. The unbelieving leaders knew that the people considered John to have been a prophet. So, if their answer discredited him, the people could have become so enraged as to resort to stoning them. Realizing that they could not give either answer without creating a problem for themselves, the prominent ones said, “We do not know.” Therefore, the Son of God said that he would not tell them by what authority he acted. (Matthew 21:24-27; Mark 11:29-33; Luke 20:3-8)
The Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32)
By means of a parable, Jesus then had those who did not believe in him condemn themselves. He started with a question, “What do you think?” A man asked one of his two sons to go to work in the vineyard that day. The son refused to do so, but later regretted his decision and actually did labor in the vineyard. When approached with the same request, the other son agreed to labor in the vineyard but then did not do so. “Which of the two,” Jesus asked, “did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” (Matthew 21:28-31; see the Notes section for additional comments.)
Applying the point of the parable, Jesus told the unbelieving leaders of the nation that the tax collectors and the prostitutes were going ahead of them into God’s kingdom. John the Baptist had come to them in the “way of righteousness” or had called to their attention the divinely approved way of life. But, as Jesus said to the prominent ones, “You did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did believe him.” Even though the leaders witnessed this development, they did not have a change of mind and believe John. (Matthew 21:32)
Tax collectors and prostitutes were among those who responded to John’s proclamation, repenting of their sins and submitting to water baptism. By abandoning their wrong course, they demonstrated themselves to be like the son who initially refused to work in the vineyard but afterward had a change of heart and complied with his father’s request. They did what was required to be part of the realm where God is Sovereign.
The ones whom Jesus addressed represented themselves as agreeing to do God’s will but then failed to do so. They disregarded John as God’s prophet and rejected Jesus, the one who had come from God and imparted his teaching. Thus they kept themselves out of the kingdom of God, the realm where his loyal subjects acknowledge his Son as the king whom he has appointed.
The Parable of the Evil Vinedressers (Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19)
The Son of God then asked the people to listen to another parable. A man planted a vineyard, encircled it with a fence (a stone wall or a thorny hedge), dug out a wine press, built a tower (where a watchman would be stationed to guard against loss from thieves or wild animals), contracted it out to vinedressers, and left the country for some time. At harvesttime, he sent his slaves to obtain his share of the grapes. The vinedressers beat up one of the slaves, another one they killed, and still another slave they stoned. The vineyard owner sent a larger group of slaves, and the vinedressers likewise mistreated and killed them. Finally, the man sent his own son, believing that they would respect him. When the vinedressers saw him, they determined to kill him and thereby come into possession of the vineyard. They seized the son, cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Jesus then asked what the owner, upon his arrival, would do to these vinedressers. They replied that the evil men would be destroyed and the vineyard would be contracted out to others who would give him his due share of the grapes at harvesttime. (Matthew 21:33-41; Mark 12:1-9; Luke 20:9-16; see the Notes section for additional comments.)
In the parable, the owner of the vineyard represents the Most High; the vineyard, the nation of Israel; the tenant vinedressers, the leaders of the people; the slaves, the prophets who were mistreated and killed; and the son, Jesus. The people, including the chief priests, scribes, and elders, doubtless were familiar with the words of Isaiah (5:1-7), which identified the “house of Israel” and the “people of Judah” as YHWH’s vineyard and revealed the severe punishment for failing to produce fruit in the form of justice and uprightness. According to Luke 20:16, the listeners appear to have discerned the implication of ruin for the nation, prompting them to say, “May it not occur” (basically meaning “God forbid!”).
Applying the parable, Jesus asked the hearers whether they had never read in the Scriptures, “The stone that the builders rejected has come to be the head of the corner; this has come to be from the Lord, and it is amazing in our eyes.” The leaders of the nation, like the builders of the parable, had rejected Jesus like a stone unfit for their purposes. His Father, however, decreed for him to be highly exalted like the most important stone, the “head of the corner.” In the eyes of God’s servants, the reversal from being rejected to being granted unparalleled honor is something truly marvelous. (Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10, 11; Luke 20:17)
Continuing, Jesus told those listening to him that the kingdom of God would be taken away from them and given to a nation producing its fruit. The one who fell on the rejected stone would be shattered and the one upon whom this stone fell would be crushed. For those who persisted in unbelief, Jesus would prove to be like a large stone in their way, over which they would stumble, leading to their ruin. He would also be like a large boulder that could come crashing down upon them, crushing them completely. As a nation, the Israelites would lose their divinely favored status, and the non-Jewish peoples would be granted the opportunity to become part of the kingdom. Thus another nation or people, by responding in faith, would be given the kingdom that the unbelieving Israelites and their leaders chose to reject. (Matthew 21:43, 44 [the words of verse 44 not being included in all ancient manuscripts]; Luke 20:18)
The chief priests and Pharisees (“scribes,” Luke 20:19) discerned that Jesus had spoken the parable with them in mind. They wanted to seize him, but they feared the multitude who considered him to be a prophet. (Matthew 21:45, 46; Mark 12:12)
Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14)
Jesus related yet another parable, likening the kingdom of the heavens to a wedding banquet that a king arranged for his son. (Matthew 22:1, 2) This parable revealed that there are conditions for being part of the realm where God is Sovereign and where his Son is his appointed king. It also highlights the serious consequences for failing to respond properly or not acting in harmony with divine requirements.
The king sent out his servants to call the invitees, but they did not want to come. He then sent out other servants to tell the invitees that the preparations for the wedding banquet had been completed. Those who had been invited, however, had no interest in being present for the event. They continued pursuing personal affairs, going to their own field or handling business transactions. Others seized the servants, treated them contemptuously, and killed them. (Matthew 22:3-6)
Infuriated, the king sent out his forces to execute vengeance. The armies slaughtered the murderers and burned their city. (Matthew 22:7)
After telling them that the wedding banquet was ready but that the invitees were undeserving, the king instructed his servants to go into the main roads and to invite anyone whom they might find. His servants did so, inviting all whom they found, “both bad and good.” The banquet hall came to be filled with those who reclined on couches to partake of the food. (Matthew 22:8-10)
When entering the banquet hall to see the guests, the king noticed a man who was not wearing a wedding garment. Asked how he had gained entrance without the appropriate attire, the man was speechless, unable to offer any valid reason for his unsuitable clothing. The king ordered him to be bound hand and foot, and thrown out of the illuminated banquet hall into the darkness outside. There in the darkness, he would become aware of his loss and shed bitter tears and gnash his teeth as he vainly tried to control his sobbing. As Jesus said, “There will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.” He concluded the parable with the words, “For many are the called, but few [are] the chosen.” (Matthew 22:11-14)
In this parable, the original invited ones represent the people of Israel. To them, the promise had been made that, if obedient, they would come to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5, 6) With the arrival of the Son of God, they had the opportunity to be part of the realm where he is king by his Father’s appointment. In the parable, this is represented by acting on the invitation to attend the wedding banquet. Through the servants or Christ’s disciples, the invitation continued to be extended, but it was largely ignored, and the disciples were mistreated and even killed. Punitive judgment came through the withdrawal of divine favor and protection. In 70 CE, the Romans completely destroyed Jerusalem.
The disciples of God’s Son continued to extend the invitation, going into the roads or telling the non-Jewish peoples how they could become part of the realm where God is Sovereign. The invitation was extended to “both bad and good,” the “good” being like the godly centurion Cornelius who responded compassionately to persons in need and the “bad” being those whose way of life was by no means commendable. (Acts 10:1-4; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Titus 3:3)
At inspection time, all those who are properly identified as being in the realm where God rules by means of his Son will come to enjoy the blessings associated therewith, comparable to being partakers of the wedding banquet. Mere claimants, however, who prefer their own attire rather than complying with the divine requirements for entering the kingdom will lose out. For royal wedding banquets, the invited guests were provided with a garment to wear. Therefore, the man in the parable could be represented as being without excuse for his failure. To be approved, it is not a matter of merely professing Jesus as Lord but it requires a life that harmonizes with that acknowledgment. As Jesus said on another occasion, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46)
In the case of the Israelites, all of them were invited, but few responded. Therefore, in their case, few were chosen. Similarly, when the invitation went out to the non-Jewish peoples, many did not act on it and so did not come to be among the chosen. Still others, like the man without the wedding garment, have not submitted to God’s requirements but have chosen to follow ways that seemed appropriate to them. As indicated by the parable, this would result in severe judgment.
The leading individuals in or the “founders” of a multitude of movements have been responsible for creating their own “garments” of unique doctrines and practices that distinguish them from other denominational and nondenominational bodies professing to be Christian. Within the various religious communities, these doctrines and practices are perpetuated, and the leadership and the loyal membership are pleased with the distinctive “garments,” which in numerous ways do not represent or seriously misrepresent the teaching and example of God’s Son. Thus, many reject the garment offered them, which requires unqualified acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior and living accordingly, and prefer their own attire, with its distinctive sectarian label.
Matthew 21:23 makes no mention of the scribes, as do Mark 11:27 and Luke 20:1. In Matthew 21:45, however, the Pharisees are included, and Luke 20:19 refers to the scribes. This suggests that these scribes were Pharisees.
For Matthew 21:28-31, the readings of ancient Greek manuscripts vary, and this accounts for different renderings in translations. One commonly followed Greek text has been translated as follows: “‘A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’” (NRSV)
A different Greek text of Matthew 21:28-31 reverses the responses of the two sons and provides a corresponding answer to Jesus’ question. This is the basis for the rendering of The Revised English Bible: “‘There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first, and said, “My son, go and work today in the vineyard.” “I will, sir,” the boy replied; but he did not go. The father came to the second and said the same. “I will not,” he replied; but afterwards he changed his mind and went. Which of the two did what his father wanted?’ ‘The second,’ they replied.’”
A comparison of Matthew 21:33-41, Mark 12:1-9, and Luke 20:9-16 reveals variations in the parable about the evil vinedressers. Matthew 21 mentions two groups of slaves and how they were treated, whereas both Mark 12 and Luke 20 are more specific when focusing on the treatment of individual slaves. The vinedressers beat up the first slave and sent him away without anything. (Mark 12:3; Luke 20:10) They beat the second slave over the head, insulted him, and gave him nothing. (Mark 12:4; Luke 20:11) Another slave they killed (Mark 12:5) or, according to Luke 20:12, they wounded the third slave and then threw him out of the vineyard. Mark 12:5 adds that the owner sent out many more slaves, some of whom were either beaten up or killed.
Mark 12:9 and Luke 20:16 do not mention that Jesus requested an answer to his question about what would happen to the evil vinedressers. The answer was obvious from what he had said. Therefore, in Mark 12:9 and Luke 20:16, the substance of this answer is rightly presented as part of the parable.
After hearing Jesus’ words, the unbelieving Pharisees departed and plotted how they could trap him in his speech. (Matthew 22:15) Although strongly disagreeing with the Herodians in their active support of the Herodian dynasty, they allied themselves with them, for they were of the same mind in opposing the Son of God. The Pharisees selected certain disciples (probably younger men whom Jesus would not have recognized) to send to him, and the Herodians must have chosen their own adherents to be included in this group. According to Luke 20:19, the chief priests were also involved in devising the scheme to ensnare Jesus, and the scribes mentioned in that text appear to have been unbelieving Pharisees. The objective was to have Jesus make statements that could be used against him, making it possible to hand him over to the Roman governor for punishment as a seditionist. Those sent pretended to be upright men and sincere questioners. In an effort to throw Jesus off guard, they resorted to flattery. After addressing him as “teacher,” they claimed to know him to be “true,” sincere, or honest, teaching the way of God in harmony with truth, and not being influenced by position or status. (Matthew 22:16; Mark 12:13, 14; Luke 20:20, 21)
Then they raised the question that was designed to trap Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay tax to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:17; Mark 12:14; Luke 20:22) They knew how unpopular the payment of taxes was (especially because a foreign power had imposed it), and an affirmative answer would not have gone over well with the people. While a negative answer would have appealed to the masses who hated the Roman system of taxation, it would have made Jesus guilty of promoting sedition.
Fully aware of the questioners’ sinister intent and cunning, Jesus identified them as hypocrites, men who only pretended to want an answer, and asked them, “Why do you test me?” He requested that they show him a denarius (a Roman coin with which tax would be paid and which amounted to a day’s wage for a laborer). After being approached with the coin, Jesus asked them to identify the image and the inscription. They replied, “Caesar’s.” He then told them, “Give Caesar’s things to Caesar, and God’s things to God.” This was not an answer the questioners could use against Jesus, for it required their determining what belonged to Caesar and what belonged to God and following through accordingly. The answer took them by surprise and silenced them, and they left. (Matthew 22:18-22; Mark 12:15-17; Luke 20:23-26)
The Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, did not believe in a resurrection from the dead. (Acts 23:8) Knowing that Jesus taught that there would be a resurrection, the Sadducees determined to try to make this teaching appear unreasonable. They referred to what Moses had written concerning levirate marriage, which required that the brother of a man who died childless take the widow of the deceased as his wife and father offspring for his brother. They cited the example of a woman who, through the provision of levirate marriage, came to have seven husbands, all of whom died childless. (Matthew 22:23-27; Mark 12:18-22; Luke 20:27-32) Whether this involved an actual case or a hypothetical one cannot be determined from the narrative.
The Sadducees asked whose wife she would be in the resurrection. (Matthew 22:28; Mark 12:23; Luke 20:33) Seemingly, in their view, it would have been unthinkable for a woman to be the wife of seven husbands upon being raised from the dead and, therefore, the idea about a resurrection was problematic and unreasonable.
Jesus reproved them for knowing neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. “The sons of this age,” or humans in the present state of earthly existence, “marry and are given in marriage.” In the age to come, Jesus indicated that there would be a different kind of life, one that existed among the angels, heavenly beings who neither marry nor are given in marriage and who do not die. As persons raised to unending life or “sons of the resurrection,” the resurrected ones would be “sons of God.” Thus Jesus showed that the Sadducees did not know the power of God. They had rejected belief in a resurrection on the basis of only one kind of existence and allowed their narrow view to limit what divine power could accomplish. (Matthew 22:29, 30; Mark 12:24, 25; Luke 20:34-36)
Next Jesus made it clear that they did not know the Scriptures, failing to see indications about future life in words that they professed to accept. He called attention to the incident involving Moses at the burning bush. (Exodus 3:1-6) Moses heard the words, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Jesus added, “He is God, not of the dead, but of the living, for they are all alive to him.” (Matthew 22:31, 32; Mark 12:26, 27; Luke 20:37, 38)
His being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob confirms an existing and continuing relationship with them as persons. The Most High does not have a relationship with the lifeless elements of the ground to which the three patriarchs had returned long before the revelation to Moses at the burning bush. This enduring relationship confirmed the certainty of the resurrection hope. So sure was it that, to God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were living.
Mark 12:27 indicates that Jesus also told the Sadducees that, by denying belief in the resurrection, they were very much in error. Many who had been listening to Jesus’ teaching about the resurrection were astounded, likely because of its clarity and simplicity. (Matthew 22:33) Even certain scribes acknowledged that Jesus had expressed himself well as a teacher. Thereafter the Sadducees did not dare to question him any more, doubtless because of having failed in their attempt to discredit him. (Luke 20:39, 40)
When certain Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees on the subject of the resurrection, they gathered around him. One of their number, a scribe (a legal expert, according to numerous manuscript readings of Matthew 22:35) approached him with the objective of testing him. This scribe had overheard the interchange with the Sadducees and recognized that Jesus had answered them well. He then asked which was the first or greatest commandment in the law. (Matthew 22:34-36; Mark 12:28; see the Notes section for additional comments on Matthew 22:36 and Mark 12:28.)
In answer, Jesus identified the first commandment with a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:4, 5, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord [Hebrew, YHWH our God—YHWH (is) one], and you must love the Lord [Hebrew, YHWH] your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:29, 30; see the Notes regarding Matthew 22:37.) This commandment stressed the all-embracing nature of love for God, with not a single faculty being omitted.
According to Matthew 22:38, Jesus identified this commandment as “the greatest and first.” Referring to the second one as being like it, he then quoted from Leviticus 19:18, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” “No other commandment,” Jesus continued, “is greater than these.” (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31) The two greatest commandments express the complete intent of the law and the prophets, with love for God and for one’s neighbor or fellow guiding one’s attitude, thoughts, words, and actions. As Jesus said, “On these two commandments, all the law and the prophets hang.” (Matthew 22:40) The law and the teaching that the prophets conveyed are based on love. Therefore, it logically follows that the law and the prophets cannot be rightly understood or appreciated when one lacks love for God and for fellow humans.
The scribe who had raised the question was moved to acknowledge, “Excellent, Teacher, you have spoken in truth, ‘He is one, and there is no one other than he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love [one’s] neighbor as oneself surpasses [in importance] all the holocausts and sacrifices.” Recognizing that he had responded wisely, Jesus said to him, “You are not far from God’s kingdom.” (Mark 12:32-34)
To be in the realm where the Most High is Sovereign requires living a life of love, for love uniquely distinguishes him and expresses who he is. By acting in harmony with the words he had uttered, the scribe would have put faith in Jesus and imitated his love.
The question had not stumped the Son of God. Therefore, no one among the group dared to ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:34)
The scribe’s question is not worded the same in Matthew 22:36 (“Teacher, which commandment [is the] greatest in the law?”) as in Mark 12:28 (“Which commandment is [the] first of all?”). The difference is understandable when one considers that the question was not originally expressed in Greek. Both passages, however, convey the identical thought.
In Matthew 22:37, the quotation is limited to the words in Deuteronomy 6:5. Both Matthew 22:37 and Mark 12:30 include the phrase “with all your mind.” This phrase is not found in extant manuscripts of the Septuagint nor is there any corresponding wording in the Masoretic Text. With the exception of the missing phrase and a different word for “strength” or “might,” the extant text of the Septuagint and the text of Mark 12:29, 30 are the same. Matthew 22:37, in the abbreviated quotation from Deuteronomy 6:5, omits “with all your strength.” The differences in the Greek of Mark 12:29, 30 and Matthew 22:37 are minor and have no bearing on the meaning of Jesus’ words.
While the Pharisees were still in his presence, Jesus asked, “What do you think about the Christ [or Messiah]? Whose son is he?” “David’s,” they replied. “How, then,” said Jesus, “[could] David, by [holy, Mark 12:36] spirit, call him lord, saying, ‘The Lord [Hebrew, YHWH] said to my lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I place your enemies underneath your feet”’?” After having quoted from Psalm 110:1, Jesus asked, “If, then, David calls him lord, how is he his son?” No one among those there could give him an answer. From that “day” or time, no one among the unbelievers dared to ask Jesus any more questions. (Matthew 22:41-46; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44; see the Notes section for additional comments.) According to Mark 12:37, the large crowd that heard the interchanges found delight in listening to Jesus.
Being the Son of God, Jesus was greater than David and would be the one who would raise him from the dead. All creation came into existence through the Son. So, even from the beginning, David owed his life to him. Not David, but Jesus is the appointed king in the realm where the Most High is Sovereign. David, upon being raised from the dead, would therefore be among all who bend the knee to Jesus, acknowledging him as their Lord.
In Mark 12:35-37 and Luke 20:41-44, the point about David’s lord is presented in an abbreviated form. Jesus is represented as asking how they [the scribes, according to Mark 12:35] can say that the Christ is David’s son when David, by holy spirit, calls him lord. As in Matthew 22:44, the words of Psalm 110:1 are quoted in Mark (12:36) and Luke (20:42, 43). Luke 20:42 additionally identifies the quotation as being from the “book of Psalms.”
It should be kept in mind that Jesus’ sayings are expressed in a language other than the one in which they were spoken, and the writers’ words convey the substance of what occurred and of what was said. These factors account for the differences in the narratives.
Directing his words to his disciples in the hearing of the multitude, Jesus told them to watch out for the scribes, many of whom would have been Pharisees. In pronouncing “woe,” grief, or distress for the scribes and Pharisees, he called attention to their wrong attitude and practices. (Matthew 23:1, 13; Mark 12:38; Luke 20:45, 46)
It is noteworthy that the first-century Jewish historian Josephus did not hold back from making unfavorable comments about the Pharisees in the time of Herod the Great. He called them a “cunning sect,” and spoke of them as having caused mischief and greatly opposed kings. (Antiquities, XVII, ii, 4) Yet, he, at the age of 19 and after having made an examination of the sects among the Jews (Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes), “began to conduct [himself] according to the rules of the sect of the Pharisees.” (Life, 2)
Therefore, the strong language Jesus used should not occasion surprise. Earlier, while a guest in the home of Simon (a Pharisee), he had made some of the same or similar expressions. (Luke 11:39-52)
The scribes and Pharisees had seated themselves on the “seat of Moses,” occupying the position of teachers of the law. When it came to the instruction that was based on the law, Jesus told those who were listening to observe it but not to follow the practices of the scribes and Pharisees. This is because, although teaching what the law said, they did not act in harmony with their words. (Matthew 23:2, 3)
The scribes and Pharisees imposed heavy burdens on the people, loading them down with harsh and unreasonable regulations and restrictions that went far beyond what the Mosaic law outlined. When they saw how difficult their added commands had made it for the people, they did nothing to rectify the situation. As Jesus said, they were unwilling to lift a finger to move the burdens. (Matthew 23:4)
The scribes and Pharisees were chiefly concerned about how they appeared in the eyes of others. The aim underlying all the “works” they performed was a desire to be seen, impressing others with their devotion to God. They used larger phylacteries than their fellow countrymen, and wore garments with longer fringes than the rest of the people. (Matthew 23:5)
In the Dead Sea area, phylacteries dating from either the first century BCE or the first century CE have been found. They are small leather cases measuring between a half inch to one inch and a quarter in length and less than a half inch to one inch in width. Usually, strips of parchment with neatly written minute characters from Exodus (13:1-10; 13:11-16) and Deuteronomy (6:4-9; 11:13-21) were folded to fit into tiny compartments in the small leather cases. If the ancient phylacteries are representative of those commonly used when Jesus was on earth, the ones the Pharisees had were noticeably larger. They also wore garments with larger fringes. According to the Tosefta (Berakhot, 6:25), the phylacteries on a man’s head and on his arm, as well as the mezuzah on his doorpost and the “four fringes” on his garment meant that he was surrounded by the commandments, and these would protect him.
The scribes and Pharisees dressed in fine robes, not in the common attire of workers. They wanted to be greeted respectfully in the marketplaces, to be acknowledged as godly men and called “Rabbi” (literally, “my great one” or “Teacher”), and to be honored with the front seats in the synagogues. These front seats faced the audience and were reserved for synagogue officials and notable guests. At meals and banquets, the scribes and Pharisees desired to recline in the foremost positions on the couches that were arranged on three sides of the table. (Matthew 23:6, 7; Mark 12:38, 39; Luke 20:46)
Jesus told his disciples that no one among them should be called “Rabbi,” for they had only one teacher (Jesus himself). All of them were brothers, indicating that no one was to lift himself up as being of superior rank. As brothers, they were not to call any man among them “father.” They had only one Father, the heavenly one. The disciples were not to call any individual their “instructor,” for they had only one instructor, the Christ. To him alone, they were to look for direction and guidance. The greatest among them would be identified by his being a servant, laboring among them in a loving and unassuming manner. To impress upon the disciples the importance of conducting themselves like lowly servants, Jesus said, “The one who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8-12)
When pronouncing “woe” for the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus called them “hypocrites.” They were like actors on a stage who played a role but whose face was hidden by a mask. Their true identity was concealed by an outward appearance of piety. Instead of helping fellow Jews to be in a state of preparedness to be part of the realm where God is Sovereign, they shut them out of the “kingdom of the heavens.” This they did by maligning and opposing Jesus, the one whom his Father had appointed as king. They created a climate of fear and intimidation, making it difficult for others to put faith in Jesus. The unbelieving scribes and Pharisees refused to go into the kingdom. By their attitude, words, and actions, they cowed others into fearfully holding back from becoming Jesus’ disciples. (Matthew 23:13)
Many later manuscripts include another pronouncement of woe (Matthew 23:14) that is found in Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47. Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees for devouring the houses of widows and making a pretense with long prayers. Writing regarding certain Pharisees during the reign of Herod the Great, Josephus referred to them as men “who valued themselves highly” for being skilled “in the law of their fathers” and made others believe that God had “highly favored” them. (Antiquities, XVII, ii, 4) The strong language Jesus used suggests that they influenced widows to give of their resources to a degree that jeopardized their livelihood. The long prayers would have served to impress these widows, prompting them to respond to the scribes and Pharisees as men whom God highly favored.
The scribes and Pharisees insisted on observing the tradition of the elders, which led to undue stress on appearances. In the Tosefta (Berakhot, 3:20), mention is made of Haninah the son of Dosa who, though bitten by a poisonous lizard, continued to pray. His students reportedly later found the lizard dead at its hole.
For what they did to widows, influencing them in ways that meant loss instead of compassionately looking out for their welfare, the scribes and Pharisees would face a more severe divine judgment than would others for their wrongs. (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” Jesus continued. They crossed land and sea, doing everything possible, to make one proselyte or convert. That convert would then be worse off than before, coming to be twice as much a “son of Gehenna” than they were. (Matthew 23:15) As a convert, he would be even more rabid than they in his attachment to the traditions that nullified God’s law and be even less inclined to put faith in Jesus. For the proselyte, there would be an even greater likelihood of grave loss. As a person whom God rejects, he would be thrown into Gehenna or tossed like a carcass unfit for burial into a dump where fires burn continually and maggots feed on whatever the flames do not consume. (Isaiah 66:24)
Again pronouncing “woe” or grief for the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus called them “blind guides.” They provided others with the wrong direction that, when followed, contributed to spiritual ruin. An example of this involved their teaching about oaths. They maintained that a person who swore by the sanctuary was not bound by the oath, nor was one who swore by the altar. If, however, he swore by the gold of the sanctuary or the offering on the altar, the oath was binding. With questions, Jesus exposed them as being senseless and blind. “Which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that sanctifies the gold?” “Which is greater, the gift [offering] or the altar that sanctifies the gift?” Summing up the right view of oaths, Jesus continued, “He who swears by the altar swears by it and everything on it, and he who swears by the sanctuary swears by it and by him who dwells in it [by God whose temple it was], and he who swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who is seated on it.” (Matthew 23:16-22)
Ancient Jewish sources indicate that not all formulas used in swearing had the same binding force. According to the Tosefta (Shebuot, 2:16), he who referred to himself as being subject to an oath “by the Torah” was liable, whereas one who said “by heaven” was exempt.
Verses 23, 25, 27, and 29 of Matthew 23 start Jesus’ denouncement with the words, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.” His exposure is not focused on their beliefs or doctrines but on the serious flaws of their inner life.
They tithed mint (an aromatic plant), dill (a plant of the carrot family, the aromatic seeds of which are used for seasoning), and cummin (also a plant of the carrot family having aromatic seeds that are used for seasoning), but they “neglected the weightier matters of the law,” justice, mercy, and faith. (Matthew 23:23)
Ancient Jewish sources set forth many rules about tithing. According to the Tosefta (Maaserot, 3:7), the seeds and leaves of coriander and mustard plants were subject to the law of tithes. There were sages, however, who did not consider that tithing applied to the leaves of the mustard plant. These examples illustrate that seeds used for seasoning were tithed.
The scribes and Pharisees did not treat others with impartiality but looked down on those who did not conduct themselves according to the tradition of the elders, thereby failing to uphold justice. (John 7:47-52) Their abundant rules and regulations imposed a burden on the people. In their failure to respond reasonably and humanely to fellow Israelites whose lot was very difficult as subjects of a foreign power, they demonstrated themselves to be lacking in mercy or compassion. Although they knew what was contained in the Scriptures, they did not respond in faith to Jesus, the very one to whom the Scriptures pointed as the promised Messiah and the prophet greater than Moses. By failing to conduct themselves in harmony with the spirit of the law, with its emphasis on justice, mercy, and obedience, the scribes and Pharisees proved themselves to be unfaithful (faithfulness or fidelity also being a meaning that the Greek word for “faith” [pístis] can convey).
Jesus upheld the law that required tithing, referring to tithing as being among the things not to be neglected. Foremost, though, he placed acting with justice, mercy, and faith. (Matthew 23:23) When scrupulously tithing but disregarding the weightier matters of the law, the scribes and Pharisees manifested themselves as blind guides, persons whose example could not be trusted. As Jesus said, “Blind guides, you strain out the gnat but swallow the camel.” (Matthew 23:24)
Both the gnat and the camel were unclean for food according to the Mosaic law. By attending to minutiae while neglecting the truly important things, the scribes and Pharisees acted like persons who filtered out the tiny gnat but then swallowed something unclean as large as a camel.
They were very concerned about outward appearances and ceremonial cleanness. According to ancient Jewish sources, merely intending to do something that would make a utensil unclean did, in fact, do so. (Tosefta, Kelim Baba Batra, 3:13)
Jesus decried the emphasis the scribes and Pharisees placed on externals while overlooking the more important matters involving the deep inner self. He spoke of them as cleaning the exterior of the cup and the dish, being scrupulous about ceremonial cleanness. The inner self, though, was defiled, filled with plunder or greed and self-indulgence or intemperance. (Matthew 23:25)
Instead of compassionately responding to those in need, the scribes and Pharisees were guilty of causing widows to give what they actually needed to live, thereby robbing them. Though wanting to appear as pious and to be highly honored, the scribes and Pharisees were willing to rob others of dignity, calling them accursed and ignorant of the law. In their inordinate desire for honor and praise from others, they showed themselves to be intemperate. Their focus on themselves and appearances made them self-indulgent, which led to their serious failure to be loving, compassionate, just, and impartial.
Jesus called upon the “blind Pharisee” to change, first cleaning the interior of the cup and the dish so that the exterior might become clean. With moral purity existing in the deep inner self, the whole person would be clean. (Matthew 23:26)
The scribes and Pharisees resembled whitewashed burial places, which on the outside appeared attractively clean but contained the bones of the dead and everything else that was unclean. (Matthew 23:27) According to the law, anyone who touched a grave would be ceremonially defiled for seven days. (Numbers 19:16)
The whitewashing of graves or tombs identified them as places of uncleanness, making it possible for people to avoid inadvertently walking over them or getting too close to them and becoming ceremonially unclean. Ancient Jewish writings indicate that defilement could even result from an implement that one carried and which passed over a grave. According to the Tosefta (Ahilot, 15:12), a man was pronounced unclean because part of the goad he carried on his shoulder overshadowed a grave.
Like whitewashed tombs, the Pharisees appeared to be righteous or upright to others but in their inmost selves they were filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:28) In attitude, word, and action, they were not the pious ones they seemed to be, for they were woefully lacking in love and compassion for the needy and afflicted fellow Israelites in their midst. They were guilty of lawlessness, for they did not live up to the law’s requirements to act justly, compassionately, and faithfully.
The scribes and Pharisees built the burial places of the prophets and beautified the tombs of righteous ones. (Matthew 23:29) This suggests that they endeavored to locate where prophets and others known for their uprightness were buried. They then may have built tombs they considered more suitable to honor the prophets and, with decorative motifs, beautified the burial places or monuments of those known for their godliness.
The scribes and Pharisees maintained that they would not have participated with their “fathers” in shedding the blood of the prophets. Jesus pointed out that, by making this claim, they testified against themselves, admitting that their “fathers” killed the prophets. He then told them, as persons who were the children of murderers and so just like them, to fill up the measure of their fathers. This filling up would refer to their completing the record of bloodshed for which they would face the culminating judgment. (Matthew 23:30-32)
The scribes and Pharisees may have felt that they were distancing themselves from the sin of their ancestors, making amends by building the burial places of the prophets who had been unjustly killed. They, however, failed to consider the reason for their forefathers’ murderous hatred of the prophets and did not recognize that, in their desire to kill Jesus, they revealed themselves as having the same murderous disposition.
Rightly, he referred to them as “serpents,” vipers’ offspring. Their murderous fathers or ancestors could be compared to poisonous snakes, and they were just like them as part of their brood. He provided a serious warning with the question, “How can you flee from the condemnation of Gehenna?” (Matthew 23:33) How could they, with their murderous disposition, possibly escape the most severe judgment, being tossed like worthless carcasses on a garbage heap to be consumed by fire or maggots? (Isaiah 66:24)
To reveal the kind of persons they were in reality, Jesus would send them prophets, sages and scribes (knowledgeable men). The response of the scribes and Pharisees to those sent would expose them as deserving of punitive judgment. Some of those sent they would kill and crucify; others they would scourge in the synagogues and persecute in one city after another. (Matthew 23:34)
In this manner, they would add to the record of bloodguilt that began with the murder of Abel and continued to grow for centuries thereafter. A notable case from later centuries was the murder of Zechariah who reproved the people for transgressing God’s law. By the command of King Joash, Zechariah was then stoned and died “between the sanctuary and the altar.” (2 Chronicles 24:20-22; see the Notes section for additional comments about Matthew 23:35.) The unbelieving scribes and Pharisees would be held to account for the entire record of bloodshed (all the blood unjustly spilled from that of Abel to that of Zechariah). They and the rest of the unbelieving generation would experience this, which is what happened during the Roman military campaign that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem. (Matthew 23:35, 36)
As on a previous occasion (Luke 13:34, 35), Jesus called Jerusalem “the killer of the prophets and stoner” of those whom God had sent. Despite what the inhabitants of Jerusalem had done over the centuries and what the prominent ones of the nation were about to do to him, Jesus felt great compassion for the people. Often he had wanted to gather them like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, providing care and protection. The majority, however, did not want this, rejecting him and persisting in unbelief. (Matthew 23:37)
Therefore, their “house” would be left or abandoned to them. (Matthew 23:38) Likely the “house” refers to the temple, and a number of translations make this specific in their renderings. “Look! There is your temple, forsaken by God and laid waste.” (REB) “And now your temple will be deserted.” (CEV) Without a sacred status, the temple would eventually come to ruin, and so would the city.
As for the people, they would not see Jesus again until they acknowledged him as “blessed” and as coming in God’s name or as his representative. (Matthew 23:39) Seemingly, Jesus referred to his future return in glory. At that time, believers would welcome him, acknowledging him as the blessed representative of his Father, but all who persisted in unbelief would lament. With their “house” having been left to the unbelieving Jews, neither it nor they would have any special standing with God. Nevertheless, the people would not be debarred from accepting Jesus in faith and coming to be among those who would recognize him as coming in his Father’s name.
In the Court of the Women, where (according to ancient Jewish sources) 13 trumpet-shaped chests lined the surrounding wall and where people put their monetary offerings and contributions, Jesus had seated himself and observed the wealthy putting many coins into the chests. Among those contributing, he saw a widow. Her attire must have revealed that she was very needy. Yet she contributed two lepta. These two coins had very little value, not even being enough to buy one sparrow for a meager meal. (Matthew 10:29, where the price of two sparrows is mentioned as being one assarion or eight lepta [four quadrantes]) Jesus, however, recognized the great worth of her contribution, telling his disciples that she had given more than all the others. The rich had contributed just a little from their great abundance, but the destitute widow had given everything she had to live on. (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4) Her contribution was a bountiful expression of the her love for God, whose house the temple then still was.
On his way out of the temple precincts, the disciples approached Jesus and, impressed with the grandeur of the entire complex, directed his attention to the buildings—the beautiful stones and the costly gifts that served as ornamentation. One of them exclaimed, “What stones and what buildings!” (Matthew 24:1; Mark 13:1; Luke 21:5)
The Jewish historian Josephus personally saw the temple before its destruction and provided details about its magnificence. In his Antiquities (XV, xi, 3), he wrote that “the temple was built of stones that were white and strong, and each of their length was twenty-five cubits [37.5 feet, based on a cubit of 18 inches], their height was eight [12 feet], and their breadth about twelve [18 feet].” In another account, he referred to some of the stones as being “forty-five cubits [67.5 feet] in length, five [7.5 feet] in height, and six [9 feet] in breadth.” According to him, the front of the temple was covered with heavy gold plates, which, “at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor.” The brilliance was so intense that those who looked at the temple had to “turn their eyes away.” From a distance, the structure looked like a “mountain covered with snow,” for the parts that were not overlaid with gold were exceptionally white. “Spikes with sharp points” protruded from the top of the temple. These spikes served to prevent pollution from birds sitting on the top. (War, V, v, 6)
Tacitus (c. 55 to c.117 CE), a Roman historian, also indicated that the temple was an impressive structure, one of “immense wealth.” It “resembled a citadel, and had its own walls, which were more laboriously constructed than the others. Even the colonnades with which it was surrounded formed an admirable outwork. It contained an inexhaustible spring; there were subterranean excavations in the hill, and tanks and cisterns for holding rain water.” (Histories, Book V, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, and edited by Moses Hadas)
Jesus told his disciples that not a stone would be left remaining upon a stone. Everything would be cast down. (Matthew 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6)
Jesus’ words were fulfilled when the Roman armies under the command of Titus destroyed Jerusalem. Although Titus did not want the temple to be destroyed, a Roman soldier, according to Josephus, snatched burning materials and, being lifted by another soldier, “set fire to a golden window, through which there was a passage to the rooms that were round about the holy house.” When a messenger informed Titus about the fire, he hurried to the temple area and ordered the soldiers to put out the flames, but his words could not be heard above the din. (War, VI, iv, 3-7)
In his comments about Vespasian, the ancient Roman historian C. Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 71 to c. 135 CE) wrote: “After an obstinate defence by the Jews, that city [Jerusalem], so much celebrated in the sacred writings, was finally demolished, and the glorious temple itself, the admiration of the world, reduced to ashes; contrary, however, to the will of Titus, who exerted his utmost efforts to extinguish the flames.” (English translation by Alexander Thomson; revised and corrected by T. Forester)
It is probable that the “Zechariah son of Barachiah” referred to in Matthew 23:35 is the Zechariah who was killed during the reign of King Joash. If this identification is correct, “Barachiah” may have been another name for Jehoiada. The original reading of fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus and a few later manuscripts do not include the words “son of Barachiah.” Whether this is a reflection of the original reading or an attempt to correct a seeming error cannot be established with certainty.
The postexilic prophet Zechariah was the “son of Barachiah” (Zechariah 1:1, LXX), leading some to conclude that he is the one referred to in Matthew 23:35. This does not appear to be likely, for there is no indication that he was murdered “between the sanctuary and the altar.” Furthermore, the remnant that had returned from exile responded favorably to his message and that of his contemporary Haggai.
Among those who deny that Jesus said these words, the view has been advanced that Zechariah is the eminent citizen whom two zealots killed in the temple precincts after he was acquitted of false charges. (Josephus, War, IV, v, 4) This occurred many years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and so does not harmonize with the setting in which the words of Matthew 23:35 were spoken.
With his disciples, Jesus left Jerusalem, crossed the Kidron Valley, and ascended the western slope of the Mount of Olives. At a location on the eminence from which the temple could be seen, Jesus seated himself. (Mark 13:3) Being well over 100 feet higher than the temple site, the Mount of Olives provided a panoramic view of the area. (See http://bibleplaces.com/mtolives.htm for pictures of and comments about the Mount of Olives.)
Jesus’ words about the future destruction of the temple prompted wonderment among the disciples. Peter, James, John, and Andrew approached him privately to ask when this would occur. Peter’s being mentioned first in Mark 13:3 may indicate that he, as on other occasions, took the initiative to question Jesus.
Matthew 24:3, Mark 13:4, and Luke 21:7 represent the disciples as wanting to know, “When will these things be?” For the disciples, the temple would have been the most important building in existence. As the center of worship for Jews everywhere, it was inseparably linked to their identity as a nation or people. (See http://holylandphotos.org for a model of the temple [type “second temple model” in the search box]. Also, for additional information, see http://bibleplaces.com/templemount.htm [where you will find pictures of the Temple Mount and accompanying comments].)
Understandably, the disciples would have wondered whether an event as significant as the future destruction of the temple might not be preceded by a specific sign. This is, in fact, the way the question is continued in Mark 13:4 (“and what [will be] the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”) and Luke 21:7 (“and what [will be] the sign when these things are about to happen?”).
In Matthew 24:3, the continuation of the question is more directly linked to Jesus (“and what [will be] the sign of your [royal] presence [parousía] and of the termination of the age?”) In the basic sense, the wording of the question does not significantly differ from that in Mark 13:4 and Luke 21:7. To the disciples, the destruction of the temple and the end of the age would have been parallel expressions. Because of the temple’s importance in their life as Jews, its destruction would have been considered the end of an age or a world as they knew it. Moreover, they expected Jesus, the one whom they had acknowledged as their Lord and King, to restore the kingdom to Israel. (Acts 1:6) Therefore, in view of their expectations, it would not have been unusual for them to think in terms of a sign preceding Jesus’ royal presence and the end of the age.
In his response, Jesus directed attention away from the “when” of the question. Instead, he primarily emphasized matters that should be of concern to his disciples in the future. His answer, though given to Peter, James, John, and Andrew, applied to all of his disciples who would be affected by the events he was then about to relate.
Jesus warned them not to be deceived. (Matthew 24:4; Mark 13:5) Many would come in his name or lead others to believe that they were the longed-for Messiah who would liberate them from the Roman yoke. According to Matthew 24:5, they would say “I am the Christ [the Messiah].” In Mark 13:6 and Luke 21:8, the abbreviated version of their words is, “I am,” meaning “I am he” or “I am the one.” As a consequence, many would be deceived. The deceivers would foster false hopes about imminent deliverance from foreign oppression, saying, “The time is near.” Jesus admonished his disciples to give no heed to their words, “Do not go after them.” (Luke 21:8)
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote that many men deluded the people before the destruction of Jerusalem and during the time the city was under siege. (War, VI, v, 3) While Felix was procurator of Judea, numerous deceivers acquired a following. These men “deceived and deluded the people under pretense of divine inspiration” but had revolution as their aim. They persuaded “the multitude to act like madmen, and went before them into the wilderness, as pretending that God would there show them the signals of liberty.” Perceiving the start of a revolt, Felix sent an armed force against them, and many of the deluded people were slaughtered. (War, II, xiii, 4)
A certain Egyptian came to be viewed as a prophet. This man gained a considerable following and later led thousands of men from the wilderness to the Mount of Olives. From there, he purposed to force his way into Jerusalem, overpower the Roman garrison, and, with the aid of those with him, establish himself as ruler over the people. His attempt failed, for Felix met him with his Roman soldiers. The deceiver and a few others escaped, but many of those who followed him were killed or captured. (War, II, xiii, 5)
Jesus told the disciples that they would hear about “wars and rumors of wars” (“wars and uprisings” or revolts [Luke 21:9]), but that they should not become alarmed or fearful. This probably means that they were not to give in to the troubling uneasiness or the kind of terror people experience when they, without any option for escape, anticipate a horrific outcome or end. Distressing developments were certain to come, but the end about which the disciples had asked would be still future. As Jesus said, “The end is not yet” or would not follow “immediately.” The wars and insurrections would not serve as a “sign” for ascertaining the imminent destruction of the temple or for determining that Jesus’ parousía or royal presence was at hand. One nation would rise up against another nation, and one kingdom against another kingdom. Earthquakes would occur in one place after another. There would be famines and plagues. People would see fear-inspiring portents and “great signs.” (Matthew 24:6, 7; Mark 13:7, 8; Luke 21:9-11; see the Notes section for what ancient histories indicate regarding developments before Jerusalem’s destruction.)
The wars, famines, earthquakes, and pestilences would be only the start of distress. “All these things,” said Jesus, “are the beginning of birth pangs [the plural of odín].” (Matthew 24:8; Mark 13:8) The Greek term odín can designate “birth pain” or any intense pain, woe, or distress (as experienced when giving birth). Ancient Jewish sources provide a basis for concluding that the expression “woe of the Messiah” was used in the first century and was understood to mean the distress immediately preceding the Messianic age. Therefore, the words “the beginning of birth pangs,” woes, or distress appear to have expressed the opposite of the prevailing view. Greater suffering, not the Messianic age, lay ahead.
During the turbulent time marked by wars, uprisings, food shortages, earthquakes, and pestilences, the disciples would face intense hostility from unbelievers. Jesus told them to watch out for themselves, suggesting that they needed to be on guard to avoid needlessly placing themselves in a position of danger. (Mark 13:9) He himself had set the example by taking steps to get away from those who were determined to harm him. (John 8:59; 11:53, 54; John 12:36)
The disciples would be arrested and imprisoned, handed over to Jewish councils for trial, beaten in the synagogues, tortured, and brought before governors and kings because of being Jesus’ disciples. This would serve as a testimony to those before whom they made their defense and to all who heard them speak. (Matthew 24:9; Mark 13:9; Luke 21:12, 13)
When they were being taken before authorities, they were not to give in to anxiety, struggling to formulate their defense in advance and worrying about what they might say. Jesus assured them that they would be “given” what they were to speak, for the holy spirit would be guiding their defense. (Mark 13:11; Luke 21:14) According to Luke 21:15, Jesus told them, “I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all who oppose you will be unable to withstand or contradict.” As they would be receiving the holy spirit through him, Jesus would be the one who would grant them the capacity and wisdom to make their defense. (Acts 2:33)
Within families serious divisions would arise, with some proving themselves to be loyal disciples of God’s Son, whereas others would persist in unbelief and become openly hateful. As a result, a brother would hand over his brother to be put to death, and a father his children. Children would betray their own parents and have them killed. Friends and other relatives would turn against Jesus’ disciples, and betray them. (Mark 13:12; Luke 21:16)
Faced with bitter persecution, many professing disciples would “stumble,” denying their faith in Jesus and becoming traitors and hateful enemies of those who would remain loyal to him. In the community of believers, false prophets would arise and mislead many. On account of increasing lawlessness, fear would replace love. For many, the love for God and for others would “cool off” or be squelched. The distressing circumstances would call for endurance, and those who remained loyal to Christ would be saved. (Matthew 24:10-13; Mark 13:13)
Although remaining true to him could cost them their lives, Jesus assured his disciples that their eternal life would be secure. Not a “hair from [their] head” would perish; not even a fragment of their real identity as persons dearly loved by God would be lost. Through faithful endurance, they would gain their “souls,” which would mean preserving the real life of an enduring relationship with Jesus and his Father. (Luke 21:18, 19)
The book of Acts and the letters Paul and others wrote to fellow believers preserve the record of what the apostles and other disciples faced in the time after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Persecution initially came from unbelieving Jews. Then, just as Jesus said, his disciples did come to be hated by all nations because of his name or on account of being identified as attached to him as disciples. (Matthew 24:9; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17)
An example of this hatred and associated suffering is preserved in the Annals ( XV, 44) of the Roman historian Tacitus (c. 55 to c. 117 CE): “Nero fastened the guilt [for the burning of Rome] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
“Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.” (Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb; edited by Moses Hadas)
Besides the hatred of unbelievers, Christ’s disciples had to contend with false brothers, teachers of error, and false prophets. (2 Corinthians 11:24-27; 2 Timothy 1:15; 2:16-18; 3:8-13; 4:14, 15) The treachery of former friends would have been especially painful and disheartening. Nevertheless, despite the hardships, the glad tidings about Jesus and how to become part of the realm where he is king by his Father’s appointment continued to be proclaimed. As Jesus said, this message would be declared in the whole world and then the end would come. (Matthew 24:14; Mark 13:10) Prior to the end that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the magnificent temple, the glad tidings about God’s kingdom had spread throughout the then-known world, reaching people throughout the Roman Empire. (Compare Colossians 1:23.)
The time for a speedy flight out of Jerusalem to the mountains to escape the disaster that would befall the city would be when the “abomination of desolation” stood in the place where it should not be. It was the prophet Daniel (9:27; 11:31; 12:11, LXX) who referred to this abomination. The parenthetical expression (“let the reader understand”) likely refers to the reader of the book of Daniel, where the “abomination of desolation” is mentioned. (Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14 [but this passage in Mark does not include the reference to the prophet Daniel])
In Luke 21:20, there is no mention of the “abomination of desolation,” but the time for flight is identified as being when Jerusalem is surrounded by armies. If these armies are the “abomination,” this would fit a development the Jewish historian Josephus related. At the time Cestius Gallus with his entire Roman army came against Jerusalem, he led a force of soldiers with archers to begin an assault on the north side of the temple. For a time, the Jews succeeded in resisting the attack, but the many missiles from the archers finally caused them to give way. Protected by their shields, the Roman soldiers began to undermine the wall and prepared to set the gate of the temple on fire. (War, II, xix, 5) As the Roman soldiers were then on ground the Jews considered to be holy and close to the most sacred precincts with their idolatrous ensigns, one could conclude that they were the “abomination of desolation” in a position where they should not have been standing.
Unexpectedly, Cestius Gallus did not continue with the siege. Although he had experienced no reverses, he recalled his troops and withdrew from the city. His retreat emboldened the Jews who opposed Rome, and they left the city to pursue his army, succeeding in slaying about 5,300 of the infantry and about 380 [480, according to another extant text of Josephus] of the cavalry. The Jews lost only a few of their number. (War, II, xix, 6-9)
After this disastrous retreat of the Romans, many of the distinguished Jews fled from Jerusalem as from a ship about to sink. (War, II, xx, 1) In his Ecclesiastical History (III, v, 3), Eusebius relates that those who believed in Christ left Jerusalem before the war began and settled in Pella. He did not, however, say that they did so in obedience to Jesus’ words but attributed their departure to “an oracle given by revelation to acceptable persons,” ordering them to leave the city. (Translated by G. A. Williamson)
In the book of Daniel (9:27; 11:31; 12:11, LXX), the expression “abomination of desolation” or “desolations” is linked directly to a defilement of the temple and the discontinuance of the sacrifices. Moreover, 1 Maccabees 1:54 (LXX) appears to refer to a pagan altar erected over the altar of burnt offering at the direction of Antiochus Epiphanes as the “abomination of desolation.”
If the “abomination of desolation” specifically involves the temple, the time when the “armies” surrounded Jerusalem (Luke 21:20) would relate to another development in the war with Rome. The “abomination of desolation” may then apply to a defilement of the temple, which occurrence would have signaled the last opportunity for escape from Jerusalem. This could have been when the Zealots seized control of the temple precincts and made it the base of operations for violent actions. According to Josephus, the high priest Ananus, when appealing to the populace to rise up against the Zealots, said that it would have been better for him to have died than to see “the house of God full of so many abominations, or these sacred places that ought not to be trodden upon at random, filled with the feet of these blood-shedding villains.” (War, IV, iii, 10)
The effort to dislodge the Zealots failed. With the aid secretly obtained from a force of about 20,000 Idumeans, the Zealots secured their position, and Ananus and his supporters were killed in the ensuing slaughter. (War, IV, iii, 11-14; iv, 1-7; v, 1, 2) Thereafter the situation continued to deteriorate in Jerusalem, and escape became extremely difficult. The Zealots guarded every passage out of the city, killing those whom they caught fleeing. Only the wealthy were able to purchase the opportunity for flight, whereas the poor were slain. (War, IV, vi, 3)
Regardless with what specific development the “abomination of desolation” may be identified, history confirms that postponement of flight after Cestius Gallus withdrew would have meant exposure to graver dangers and the possibility of not being able to get out of the city. This agrees with the kind of urgency that Jesus’ words conveyed. Those in Judea were to flee to the mountains, not seeking security from the Roman armies within the walls of Jerusalem. Persons inside the city were to make their speedy departure, and those outside the city were not to enter it. (Luke 21:21) To emphasize the importance of not delaying, Jesus said, “The one on the roof should not go down to take things out of his house, and the one in the field should not go back to get his garment.” (Matthew 24:16-18; Mark 13:14-16)
In warm climates, the flat roofs of houses were often places were people found a more comfortable location on hot days. Access to the roof was either by means of a ladder or outside stairs. Even when people left the housetop, they did not need to enter the home. Therefore, the point of not going into the house to get things may indicate that flight should be undertaken without delay. It is also possible that the quick escape is like that of a person who jumped from the flat roof of one house to that of another and thus made his way out of the city. The same portrayal of urgency is conveyed with the person finding himself working in the field. Time was not to be lost in going back to the house to get a garment.
It would then be a time for executing judgment (literally, “days of vengeance”). “All the things written” would be fulfilled. (Luke 21:22) This likely relates to the things previously written in the Scriptures, including Daniel 9:26 regarding the destruction of the city and the sanctuary. In his Antiquities (X, xi, 7), Josephus specifically commented about this, saying, “Daniel also wrote concerning the Roman government, and that our country should be made desolate by them.”
Speedy escape would be especially difficult for pregnant women or those nursing an infant that had to be carried. With travel restrictions imposed on the Sabbath and the extra hazards of flight in winter, the disciples would have every reason to pray that they not then have to make their escape. (Matthew 24:19, 20; Mark 13:17, 18; Luke 21:23)
The suffering to befall Jerusalem would be greater than had taken place “from the beginning of the world” or “creation” until that time and would not happen again. (Matthew 24:21; Mark 13:19) It would be a time when great distress would come upon the “land” (Judea) and the wrath of the besieging army would be directed against the people. Those not perishing “by the edge of the sword” would be taken away as captives and scattered among the nations. Jerusalem would be “trampled on” by the non-Jewish nations until the times of these nations would be “fulfilled” or until they would face their day of reckoning. (Luke 21:22-24)
Josephus, a former resident of Jerusalem who witnessed the suffering of the inhabitants while with the Roman army, confirmed the fulfillment of the prophetic words. “Our city Jerusalem had arrived at a higher degree of felicity than any other city under the Roman government, and yet at last fell into the sorest of calamities again. Accordingly it appears to me, that the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were.” (War, Preface, 4)
Jesus had said that, unless the time of the distress upon Jerusalem would be cut short, no flesh would be saved. (Matthew 24:22; Mark 13:20) Once the Romans entered the city, they indiscriminately slew anyone whom they encountered and set fire to the houses in which they knew people had taken refuge. If the siege had been protracted, the rage of the Roman military could have intensified to the point where they would have been determined to kill every Jew in the Roman Empire. Indicative of this are the words of Josephus, “As soon as the army had no more people to slay or to plunder, because there remained none to be objects of their fury (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other such work to be done), [Titus] gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and temple.” (War, VII, i, 1)
For the sake of the “chosen,” the believing remnant of the nation, those horrifying days of suffering were cut short, the siege of Jerusalem being ended within a comparatively brief time. (Matthew 24:22; Mark 13:20) Therefore, through God’s providential care of his own, the Jews as a people survived in other parts of the Roman Empire.
During the war itself and before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, many inside the city looked for divine deliverance. Jesus, though, had made it clear that no Messiah would stop the impending calamity. Any claim about the Messiah or Christ (according to the reading of the Greek text) being at one location or another should not be believed. No credence should be given any report about his being in the wilderness and ready to come with a liberating army or about his hiding in an inner room, planning for a surprise attack against the enemy. (Matthew 24:23-26; Mark 13:21-23)
The return of Christ, the true Messiah, would not be an event about which only a few would know and through whom the news would originally spread. The return of Christ, the royal presence of the “Son of Man,” would prove to be as observable as lightning illuminating the sky from the east to the west. It would be as noticeable as the circling of vultures in the sky, indicating that a carcass is lying on the ground. Still, as Jesus warned there would be false messiahs and false prophets who, with signs and wonders, would lead many astray and, if possible, “even the chosen” or those who believe in him. Therefore, having been forewarned, the disciples needed to remain alert, not allowing themselves to be deluded. (Matthew 24:24-28; Mark 13:22, 23; see the Notes section on Matthew 24:28 about the Greek term aetós.)
Josephus confirms that many deceivers and false prophets did appear in Jerusalem. One of them persuaded many to go to the temple and there wait for God to deliver them. A crowd of about 6,000, including women and children, then took refuge on a portico of the outer court. In their rage, the Roman soldiers set the portico on fire from below, and the entire multitude perished. (War, VI, v, 2, 3)
“Immediately after the distress of those days,” Jesus continued, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not shed its light, and the stars will fall from heaven [probably wording based on meteor showers], and the powers of the heavens will be shaken [celestial phenomena characterized by a markedly different appearance of the sky].” (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24, 25)
Parallel expressions are found in the words of the prophets. In the proclamation against Babylon, the fall of that world power is portrayed as YHWH’s coming to desolate the “earth” or land. Next the prophecy refers to the darkening of stars, sun, and moon, and YHWH is represented as making the heavens tremble and as shaking the earth or land out of its place. (Isaiah 13:1, 9, 10, 13) Similarly, in the lamentation over Egypt’s Pharaoh, Ezekiel 32:8 (NRSV) represents YHWH as saying, “When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens, and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the shining lights of the heavens I will darken above you, and put darkness on your land.” As to the effect this would have on other peoples and nations, Ezekiel 32:9 (NRSV) continues, “I will trouble the hearts of many peoples, as I carry you captive among the nations, into countries you have not known.” In the book of Joel (3:14, 15), the “day of YHWH” for executing judgment on the nations is likewise associated with the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars. (See also Jeremiah 4:23, 24; Joel 2:10, 30, 31.)
In these prophecies, the world or realm in which the people of a particular nation or nations carried on their activity is portrayed as a unit consisting of land and the celestial dome. When calamity strikes, the changed condition of the people is represented as a darkening of the heavens, with no light to mitigate the gloom of the day or the night, and the land is depicted as becoming unstable as when shaken by an earthquake. In its desolated state, the earth or land is spoken of as mourning, and the heavens above it are portrayed as growing black. (Jeremiah 4:23-28) The parallel language found in the writings of the prophets provides a basis for understanding the references (in Matthew 24:29, Mark 13:24, 25; Luke 21:25, 26) to the darkening of the sun and the moon, the falling of the stars, the shaking of the earth and the powers of the heavens, and the raging of the sea to be figurative.
If the term “immediately” (euthéos) in Matthew 24:29 has the literal sense, this would mean that the darkening of the heavens and the other troubling developments are descriptive of the gloom that set in immediately after the suffering or tribulation associated with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. For the some 97,000 survivors of that horrific end, there was nothing to brighten either their days or their nights. The tallest and most handsome of the young men were reserved to be exhibited as humiliated captives in the triumphal march. Many of those above the age of 17 were sent to work as slaves in the mines of Egypt. Others were sent to the various provinces of the Roman Empire to put on a spectacle in the arenas and there to perish by the sword or to be killed and devoured by beasts. Those under the age of 17 were sold into slavery. (War, VI, ix, 2, 3)
In the case of Jews living in other parts of the Roman Empire, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple would have meant the end of their world. The triumphal Arch of Titus in Rome and the Western or Wailing Wall of Jerusalem remain as ancient reminders of a development comparable to the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars, and an upheaval in the celestial dome (with what appear to be stars dropping from the sky) and a violent shaking of the land.
In Luke’s account, the falling of the stars and the darkening of the sun and moon are referred to as “signs” in the sun, moon, and stars. Regarding the earth, the narration of Jesus’ words continues, “Upon the earth [there will be] panic among nations, [being] in confusion from the roar and raging of the sea. Men will faint from fear and foreboding of the things coming upon [their] habitation, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25, 26) If applying to first-century developments, this description could relate to the effect the utter destruction of a prominent city would have on the nations. (See the Notes section for additional comments on Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24, and Luke 21:25.) Among people generally, any hint of revolt would likely have given rise to dread and alarm. Josephus wrote that his description of the disciplined and formidable Roman army had as one of its objectives to deter others from revolting as had the Jews. (War, III, v, 8)
People would have reacted much like those on a ship during a storm, tossed about by the wind and the waves. With fear and foreboding, they would envision what would lie ahead for them in case of revolt or insurrection, making them faint or causing them to be overwhelmed with a sense of weakness and helplessness. Their world would have taken on an appearance of darkness, as if the “powers of the heavens” were being shaken, eclipsing all illumination during the day and the night.
While darkness or a time of gloom marked by serious troubles would exist, the sign of the Son of Man would appear. The nature of this sign is not disclosed, but reasonably it would be something that would leave no doubt about his arrival. He would be seen “coming on the clouds [in clouds (Mark 13:26); in a cloud (Luke 21:27)] with power and great glory.” Upon the appearance of the “sign” followed by the arrival of the Son of Man (the glorified Jesus Christ), unbelievers would be overwhelmed with fear. In expression of their grief, they would beat their breasts. Right from the start of the developments Jesus described, believers, however, could stand confidently, lifting their heads, knowing that their deliverance from distress was near. (Matthew 24:30; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27, 28)
As Christ’s chosen or elect, they would have his favorable attention. At a given signal, comparable to a loud trumpet sound, the Son of God would have his angels gather them from every part of the earth. (Matthew 24:31; Mark 13:27) The apparent reason for the gathering the angels would undertake, as indicated elsewhere in the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17), would be to unite the chosen with Jesus so that they could be forever with him.
The Son of God next called attention to the fig tree (and all the other trees [Luke 21:29]) as teaching a parable or likeness. One would know that summer was near when the twigs of the tree became soft and began to sprout leaves. Likewise, when all the things Jesus mentioned would be taking place, “it,” “he” or “the kingdom of God” would be near, “at the doors.” (Matthew 24:32, 33; Mark 13:28, 29; Luke 21:29-31)
In the Greek text of Matthew 24:33 and Mark 13:29, the verb estín can be translated either as “it is” or “he is.” If the meaning is “it is,” the reference could be to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which event was the focus of the disciples’ question. “All the things” that would occur would include wars, famines, earthquakes, the proclamation of the glad tidings, persecution of the disciples, and the appearance of the “abomination of desolation.”
For the meaning of estín as “he is,” the application would be to the approach of Jesus’ return in glory, which would also signify that the kingdom of God would be near. Possibly the reason for the nonspecific language is that most of the developments were not unique to a specific time and so did not serve as a “sign” by which to ascertain the precise time for the destruction of the temple or for the return of Christ in glory.
In the centuries that have passed since Jesus answered the disciples’ question, earth’s inhabitants have never experienced a time free from natural disasters, wars and their frightful consequences, and the persecution and the betrayal of Christians for their faith. Not until the Roman armies were actually on the scene around Jerusalem would it have been clear that the destruction of the temple was at hand. Likewise, not until the appearance of the “sign” of the “Son of Man” would there be no question about his return in glory. Therefore, all the things would take place both before the destruction of the temple and before his return.
Continuing the application of the lesson that could be learned from the fig tree, Jesus said, “Amen [Truly] I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things happen. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Matthew 24:34, 35; Mark 13:30, 31; Luke 21:32, 33) He had told his disciples that the temple would be destroyed, with not a stone being left upon a stone, and answered the question that his prophecy about the temple had prompted. Jesus’ solemn declaration confirmed that his words would be fulfilled and that this fulfillment would prove to be more certain than the continued existence of heaven and earth.
When Peter, James, John, and Andrew heard the words “this generation,” they would most likely have understood this to mean the generation of which they were a part and which included all their contemporaries. Within the lifetime of that contemporary generation, Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed, and the events that Jesus said would occur prior thereto would have taken place.
It appears that Jesus, to clarify that his return in glory was not to be equated with the destruction of the temple, added, “But concerning that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24:36 [The words “nor the Son” are missing in numerous manuscripts but have ancient manuscript support]; Mark 13:32)
Jesus knew that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed within the lifetime of the then-existing generation and that the people would experience horrific suffering. (Luke 19:41-44; 23:27-31) Based on that knowledge, he could tell the disciples what to look for in order not to be among those who would suffer inside besieged Jerusalem. In view of his not knowing just when his Father had determined for him to return with great power and glory, he framed his admonition to the disciples accordingly. Jesus told them to be watchful, remain awake, and (according to many manuscripts) pray, for they would not know the time. (Mark 13:33)
He likened the situation to a man who, before undertaking a long journey, assigned his servants their respective tasks and instructed the doorkeeper to remain awake or alert, with the implication that the doorkeeper would be ready to welcome him upon his return. Applying the parable or likeness, Jesus continued, “Stay awake [remain alert and watchful], for you do not know when the master of the house is coming.” It could be “late,” “midnight,” “cockcrowing” (the third watch of the night or from about midnight to about 3:00 a.m.) or early in the morning. Therefore, the disciples needed to remain watchful, which would mean being prepared to welcome the Son of God whenever he might arrive and not to be found asleep as would be persons who had failed to discharge their responsibilities as his disciples. Jesus then added the command for everyone, “But what I say, I say to all, Stay awake.” (Mark 13:34-37)
For Christ’s disciples to remain awake would necessitate guarding against everything that could adversely affect faithfulness to him. They needed to watch that they did not dull their senses, giving in to excesses with food and drink and thereby “burdening” their “hearts.” Besides making their “hearts” (either meaning their minds or their inmost selves, which would include their consciences) callous, the “burdening” could include adding the weight of guilt. Their hearts could also become burdened or dulled with the worries or cares of life, resulting in their no longer being alert respecting their responsibilities as Jesus’ disciples. They needed to be on guard that undue concerns and useless worries about procuring life’s necessities would not begin to weaken or wreck their faith. (Luke 21:34)
If they failed to pay attention to themselves, the “day” of Christ’s return would find them in an unprepared state. That “day” would catch them suddenly just like an animal that is caught by a snare or in a trap. There would be no escape from the consequences of that day for anyone in an unprepared state, for it would come upon all of earth’s inhabitants. “But remain awake at all times,” Jesus urged, “praying that you may be strong [enough] to escape all these things that will happen and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:34-36)
For the disciples to escape the adverse judgment that would take place upon Jesus’ return in glory would require that they remain strong in faith and devotion, always relying on the strength the heavenly Father provides in answer to prayer. As persons who faithfully lived as devoted disciples of Jesus Christ, they would then “stand” before him as approved.
The arrival of the Son of God or the start of his royal presence would be as unexpected as the flood in the days of Noah. At that time, people were preoccupied with the common affairs of life (eating, drinking, and marrying), but this ended when Noah entered the ark. They had chosen to know nothing about what lay ahead. So the deluge unexpectedly and suddenly engulfed them and swept them all away. The Son of Man would arrive just as unexpectedly. (Matthew 24:37-39)
Those whom he found approved would be preserved and united with him, and the disapproved ones would be left behind to suffer adverse judgment. Even close associates would be affected, as Jesus’ arrival would not necessarily have the same outcome for them individually. Two men might be working in the same field, with one being found approved and the other left behind as disapproved. Two women might be grinding grain together, with one being taken to be with her Lord but the other one being abandoned. Jesus continued with the admonition, “Remain awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day [at what hour, according to other manuscripts] your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:40-42)
He then illustrated the importance of watchfulness. If the owner of a home had known when in the night a thief would come, he would have remained awake. The owner would not have permitted the thief to break into his house. Similarly, the disciples needed to be ready or prepared at all times, for the Son of Man would come at an unexpected “hour.” (Matthew 24:43, 44)
With the passage of time, there would be disciples who would cease to use what had been committed to them for the benefit of fellow servants. To warn about this danger and the serious consequences, Jesus related a parable. He introduced it with the question, “Who then is the faithful and wise slave whom his master put in charge of his body of servants, to give them their [due portion of] food at the appropriate time?” In this question, the slave is represented as a steward in charge of the food supplies. He had been entrusted with the duty of seeing to it that all the other slaves who labored for the master received their allowance of food at the appropriate time. If, upon his return, the master found that this slave had proved to be faithful or trustworthy, he would grant him far greater responsibility, putting him in charge of all of his possessions. As one whom his master approved, the slave would be happy, having faithfully discharged his duty. (Matthew 24:45-47 [Many of the details of this parable parallel the one in Luke 12:41-48, which includes additional features.])
On the other hand, the slave would be unmasked as evil if he misused his position, ignoring his accountability to his master and acting as one who thought he was delaying his coming. His having been entrusted with the food supplies required that he faithfully work for the good of his fellow slaves. When starting to abuse them, beating them for not complying with his tyrannical demands and indulging his selfish desires like one who chose to eat and drink with lowlifes, the evil slave also acted against the interests of his master. This evil slave was himself but a slave and had not been granted the authority of an owner, let alone an abusive and corrupt owner. (Matthew 24:48, 49)
On a “day” and in an “hour” or at a time the evil slave did not expect, the master would arrive and severely punish him (literally “cut him asunder”), treating him like the hypocrites who conceal their base ways and actions with a false front. Cast out as disapproved from the master’s household, the slave would weep bitterly and gnash his teeth (in anger over his loss, because of the pain of losing out, or in a vain effort to suppress his uncontrollable sobbing). (Matthew 24:50, 51) What a strong warning this is to all who begin to act the part of masters and fail to conduct themselves as lowly and unassuming slaves! The coming of the Son of God will definitively answer the question as to who has proved to be faithful and wise in the community of believers, selflessly laboring for them.
During the time prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, much warring occurred. Besides conflicts between Jews and Samaritans and insurrections in Galilee and Judea, battles were being waged in various parts of the Roman Empire.
News about the wars in more distant places must have reached Galilee and Judea. Commenting on reverses for the Romans during Nero’s reign, C. Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 71 to c. 135 CE; Lives of the Caesars, VI, xxxix) wrote that two major towns in Britain were sacked and many citizens and allies were slaughtered. A humiliating defeat was experienced in the “East, where, in Armenia, the legions were obliged to pass under the yoke, and it was with great difficulty that Syria was retained.” (Translation of Alexander Thomson; revised and corrected by T. Forester)
The Roman historian Tacitus described the period that included events not long before the destruction of Jerusalem as follows: “I am entering on the history of a period rich in disasters, frightful in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors. Four emperors perished by the sword. There were three civil wars; there were more with foreign enemies; there were often wars that had both characters at once. There was success in the East, and disaster in the West. There were disturbances in Illyricum; Gaul wavered in its allegiance, tribes of the Suevi and the Sarmatae rose on concert against us; the Damacians had the glory of inflicting as well as suffering defeat; the armies of Parthia were all but set in motion by the cheat of a counterfeit Nero.” (Histories, I, 2)
With the exception of Festus who succeeded Felix as procurator of Judea, the other Roman procurators administered affairs in a corrupt and oppressive manner, which gave rise to uprisings and finally to war with Rome. Tacitus described Felix as “indulging every kind of barbarity and lust” and exercising “the power of a king in the spirit of a slave.” (Histories, V, 9) Josephus referred to Albinus, the successor of Festus, as one who stole and plundered everyone’s substance, burdened the nation with taxes, and allowed the relatives of criminals to ransom them. (War, II, xiv, 1) The successor of Albinus, Gessius Florus, who assumed his office in 64 CE, was even worse. Regarding him, Josephus said, “This Florus was so wicked, and so violent in the use of his authority, that the Jews took Albinus to have been [comparatively] their benefactor; so excessive were the mischiefs that he brought upon them.” (Antiquities, XX, xi, 1)
It was during the time that Florus exercised authority, that revolt against Rome erupted. Josephus continues, “It was this Florus who necessitated us to take up arms against the Romans, while we thought it better to be destroyed at once, than by little and little. Now this war began in the second year of the government of Florus, and the twelfth year of the reign of Nero.” (Antiquities, XX, xi, 1) Tacitus (Histories, V, 10) summarizes what followed: “Yet the endurance of the Jews lasted till Gessius Florus was procurator. In his time the war broke out. Cestius Gallus, legate of Syria, who attempted to crush it, had to fight several battles, generally with ill-success. Cestius dying, either in the course of nature, or from vexation, Vespasian was sent by Nero, and by help of his good fortune, his high reputation, and his excellent subordinates, succeeded within the space of two summers in occupying with his victorious army the whole of the level country and all the cities, except Jerusalem. The following year [69 CE] had been wholly taken up with civil strife, and had passed, as far as the Jews were concerned, in inaction. Peace having been established in Italy [when Vespasian became emperor], foreign affairs were once more remembered. Our indignation was heightened by the circumstance that the Jews alone had not submitted. At the same time it was held to be more expedient, in reference to the possible results and contingencies of the new reign, that Titus should remain with the army.”
As Jesus had indicated to his disciples, there would be famines or food shortage. One severe famine affected Judea in the time of Claudius (41 to 54 CE). (Acts 11:28; Josephus, Antiquities, XX, ii, 5; v, 2) Scarcity of food was also experienced in Rome. Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars, V, xviii) referred to a shortage of grain because of bad crops for several successive years. As a result, a mob once stopped Claudius in the middle of the Forum, heaped abuse on him, and threw pieces of bread at him. With difficulty, he escaped to the palace by a back door. Later, during the period of civil strife, the stored grain in Rome had dwindled to a ten day’s supply when a shipment Vespasian had sent arrived, relieving the critical shortage. (Tacitus, Histories, IV, 53) Whenever towns and cities came under siege, extreme shortages of food were experienced by the inhabitants. So desperate did the situation become that there were instances of cannibalism. (Josephus, War VI, iii, 3, 4)
While Claudius was emperor, houses collapsed in Rome from frequent earthquake shocks, and a major earthquake occurred in Apamea, a city in Syria. (Tacitus, Annals, XII, 43, 58) During Nero’s rule (54 to 68 CE), an earthquake destroyed much of Pompeii. (Tacitus, Annals, XII, 43, 58); XV, 22) There were earthquakes in various cities of what is today Turkey, including Laodicea. (Tacitus, Annals, XIV, xxvii) Josephus (War, IV, iv, 5) referred to a frightful storm and an earthquake being experienced in Jerusalem, which he spoke of as portending a future destruction.
According to Suetonius, one of the frightful developments during Nero’s rule proved to be a plague that left about 30,000 dead in a single autumn.(Lives of the Caesars, VI, xxxix) This would fit what Luke 21:8 represents Jesus as saying about pestilences.
In the ancient world, people looked for portents and assigned meanings to various happenings. Both Josephus (War, VI, v, 3) and Tacitus mentioned signs as occurring prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, which may reflect the fulfillment of Luke 21:11 regarding fear-inspiring portents and “great signs.” The account of Tacitus, though much shorter and including fewer signs than that of Josephus, is similar: “There had been seen hosts joining battle in the skies, the fiery gleam of arms, the temple illuminated by a sudden radiance from the clouds. The doors of the inner shrine were suddenly thrown open, and a voice of more than mortal tone was heard to cry that the gods were departing. At the same instant there was a mighty stir as of departure.” (Tacitus, Histories, V, 13)
The words of Matthew 24:28 (“Wherever the carcass may be, there the vultures [plural of aetós] will gather”) probably constitute a proverbial saying. Although the Greek word aetós is the usual designation for the eagle, the vulture seems to fit the context better. Eagles are primarily solitary hunters that catch living prey, whereas vultures gather in large numbers to feed on carcasses.
Luke 21:25 refers to “signs” in the sun, moon, and stars but makes no mention of the “distress” or “tribulation” of “those days” (as do Matthew 24:29 and Mark 13:24). Verse 24 in Luke 21 tells about the consequences of the fall of Jerusalem, with the people either perishing or being taken captive and the city being trampled upon by the non-Jewish nations until their “times” are fulfilled. This would allow for the possibility that the signs in the sun, moon and stars, the panic and fear among the people, the roaring of the sea, and the shaking of the powers of the heavens (mentioned in Luke 21:25, 26) relate to a more distant future time. Accordingly, the words in Luke 21 could be used to support the view that euthéos (“immediately”) does not necessarily have a strict temporal sense in Matthew 24:29.
Both the destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man in power and glory are associated with adverse judgment on unbelievers. In Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel, the imagery (including the darkening of the heavenly bodies) associated with such judgments is the same as Jesus is represented as having used. Therefore, it does not seem likely that the “signs” in the sun, moon, and stars designate extraordinary celestial phenomena. The imagery, if applying to the situation just prior to Christ’s return in glory, would simply serve to convey a very distressing time.
Another possibility is that Matthew 24:29 and Mark 13:24 may refer to the dark or gloomy period subsequent to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, whereas verses 25 and 26 of Luke 21 may be descriptive of the distressing time immediately preceding Jesus’ coming in glory. Verse 31 of Luke 21 may support this conclusion. There the reference is to the nearness of the kingdom of God, which event is directly associated with Jesus’ coming in power and glory. Upon his return, he would manifest his full kingly authority, removing all opposition to his rule. Regardless of how one may understand the words in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all three accounts do place the period of darkness after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
To illustrate what he looked for in those whom he would acknowledge as belonging to him when he returned, Jesus related three parables or likenesses. The first one dealt with ten virgins who were waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. In the second parable, Jesus referred to slaves whom their master had entrusted with talents prior to his undertaking a long trip. Then, in the third parable, Jesus represented himself as separating people like a shepherd separates sheep from goats.
Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)
Jesus likened a feature of the “kingdom of the heavens” to ten virgins who, with lamps in their hands, went to meet the bridegroom and also, according to a number of manuscripts, the bride. (Matthew 25:1) In the case of actual wedding festivities, this would have been in the evening, at the time the bridegroom would be conducting his bride from the home of her parents and taking her to his home or that of his father. Friends, musicians, and singers would accompany the bridegroom and the bride. Along the way, others would join the procession. The ten virgins of the parable are represented as intending to do this.
Five of the virgins were foolish or failed to use good judgment, and the other five were wise or sensible. Whereas all ten virgins took their lamps, the thoughtless ones did not prepare themselves with a supply of olive oil for their lamps in case they would need to wait a long time for the bridegroom to arrive. The sensible virgins, however, did take containers filled with oil. (Matthew 25:2-4)
After waiting for a long time alongside the road where the bridegroom would be passing with his entourage, the ten virgins fell asleep. Then, in the middle of the night, they were awakened by a joyous shout coming from a distance, “Look! The bridegroom. Go out to meet him.” The ten virgins then got up and “trimmed” their lamps, probably meaning that they adjusted the wicks. (Matthew 25:5-7)
Noticing that their lamps were about to go out from lack of oil, the senseless virgins asked the others to share their supply with them. This the sensible virgins refused to do, as it could have meant that the reduced amount of oil would have been insufficient to keep their own lamps lit. They advised them to leave and buy oil. (Matthew 25:8, 9)
While the foolish virgins were on the way to make their purchases, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who had properly prepared themselves joined the procession and entered the house with him to share in the wedding banquet. After all those who had joined the procession were inside, the door was shut, preventing anyone else from joining the festivities. (Matthew 25:10)
When the other five virgins arrived, they stood before the closed door, calling out, “Lord, lord, open to us!” He turned them away, saying that he did not know them. They had not been a part of the joyous procession, using their lamps to shed light along the way. So he accorded them no recognition as welcome guests. (Matthew 25:11, 12)
Applying the point of the parable, Jesus concluded, “Stay awake, therefore, for you do not know the day or the hour [in which the Son of Man is coming, according to numerous later manuscripts].” (Matthew 25:13) The parable illustrates that there would be those who appeared to be part of the realm where God is Sovereign and reigns by means of his Son, the king whom he has appointed. Yet, when the Son of God would arrive in glory, they would be found in an unprepared state.
Being ready at that time would not mean remaining in what might be regarded as a state of eschatological frenzy or of the heightened alertness and intensified activity associated with extreme emergencies. In the parable, all the virgins are portrayed as falling asleep, suggesting that the normal routine of life is maintained.
On another occasion, Jesus stressed the need for his disciples to let their light shine, which would be by making expressions about their faith in him, maintaining exemplary conduct, and responding compassionately to the needs of others (Matthew 5:14-16) For a time, the senseless virgins of the parable did have lit lamps. When, however, the bridegroom arrived, their lamps were about to go out. Accordingly, upon his return in glory, Jesus will find professing believers whose love for him and his Father has been extinguished and whose disposition, words, and actions have ceased to be praiseworthy. In their case, it will be too late for rekindling that love and letting their light shine brightly in word and deed, and a participatory sharing with those whose light is brilliant will then not be possible.
The Talents (Matthew 25:14-31)
With apparent reference to another feature associated with the kingdom of the heavens, Jesus likened it to a man who, when about to travel out of the country, called his slaves and entrusted them with his belongings. Based on his evaluation of their individual ability, the master gave five talents to one slave, two to another, and one to a third slave, and then left on his journey. (Matthew 25:14, 15) A talent was the largest monetary unit in the first century CE and equaled 6,000 drachmas or a sum a common laborer would earn in approximately 15 years. So even the slave entrusted with one talent would have been responsible for a large amount of money, reflecting his master’s confidence in his ability and trustworthiness.
The slave with five talents immediately went to work to increase his master’s assets and eventually doubled the amount. With his two talents, the other slave likewise engaged in business activities and, in time, acquired two additional talents. The slave to whom one talent had been given did nothing to increase the asset. He merely dug a hole in the ground and then hid the money. (Matthew 25:16-18)
After a long time had passed, the master returned and had his slaves render an account respecting the talents entrusted to them. The one to whom the five talents had been committed told him that he had gained an additional five talents. “Excellent, good and trustworthy slave,” said the master. “You were trustworthy over a few things. I will put you in charge over many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” His trustworthiness brought pleasure to his master, and he would be sharing in his master’s joy upon being highly honored with a position of even greater trust and responsibility. (Matthew 25:19, 20)
When the slave with the two talents reported that he had gained two more, his master commended him with the identical words. “Excellent, good and trustworthy slave. You were trustworthy over a few things. I will put you in charge over many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:22, 23) The master is thus represented as highly valuing trustworthiness in keeping with individual ability and as having the same appreciation for both slaves.
With a demeaning view of his master, the slave with the one talent said, “I knew that you were a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not disperse. And being fearful, I went and hid your talent in the ground. Look! [Here] you have yours.” (Matthew 25:24, 25) This response represents the slave as implying that he had fulfilled his duty, keeping the talent safe for his master, and so had no additional responsibility upon returning it.
After condemning him as evil and lazy, the master continued, “You knew, [did you], that I reaped where I did not sow and gathered where I did not disperse? So, then, you should have given my money [literally silver] to the bankers, and, upon my return, I would have received my [money] with interest.” (Matthew 25:26, 27)
The master then commanded that the talent be taken away from the useless slave and given to the one who had ten talents. This action was in harmony with the principle that more would be given to the one who has, and he would come to have an abundance; but the one who does not have much because of his untrustworthiness and sluggishness would have the little he does have taken away from him. (Matthew 25:28, 29) In having been represented as one who proved himself trustworthy with what had been entrusted to him and commendably capable of greatly increasing his master’s assets, the slave with the ten talents is the one who received the additional talent.
The master ordered the useless slave to be thrown out of the estate. Without a place in a lighted residence, the slave would then find himself in the darkness outside. There, in expression of his loss, grief, and possibly also anger, he would weep bitterly and gnash his teeth. (Matthew 25:30)
Jesus’ parable suggested that a long time would pass before he would return in glory and that among those professing to be in the realm where he reigns by his Father’s appointment would be individuals who would fail to advance his interests. In expressing his judgment, Jesus would take into consideration individual circumstances and abilities. He would richly reward all who have proved themselves to be faithful or trustworthy in using what has been given them to advance his cause.
Inaction, on the other hand, constitutes working against Jesus and would lead to serious loss. In the parable, the useless slave is represented as having a wrong view of his master and working against his master’s interests by not even letting others help him to increase the asset committed to him. This suggests that a failure to appreciate the Son of God for who he is and what he has done contributes to serious neglect and eventual loss of everything.
Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46; 26:1, 2)
Upon his arrival in glory, the Son of Man, accompanied by angels, would seat himself on his glorious or splendid throne as king. In this portrayal, Jesus revealed that he would come as one vested with royal authority, which included his role as judge. In this capacity, he would separate people (all the nations assembled before him) in the manner that a shepherd separates sheep from goats, placing the one group on his right and the other one on his left. (Matthew 25:31-33) The right side would denote approval and a favorable judgment, whereas the left side would signify disapproval and condemnation.
As animals, goats are hardier than sheep, less dependent on the care of a herder, and can be destructive to the environment on account of their feeding habits. The negative light in which persons placed on the left are represented, however, does not reflect on the value of goats as domestic animals. In the parable, the use of sheep and goats serves primarily to illustrate the separation of a collective whole into two distinct groups. The differences in sheep and goats are not the focus of the parable, for both animals are incapable of the kind of human actions that provide the basis for judgment.
Jesus speaks of himself as king and identifies those on his right as blessed by his Father, inviting them to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the world’s foundation. (Matthew 25:34) This reveals that from the very beginning, his Father’s purpose was for humans to be in his realm and to conduct themselves as his loyal subjects. The invitation to those who are judged as approved is for them to share in all the benefits and blessings associated with the realm where Jesus rules by his Father’s appointment and where his Father is recognized as Sovereign.
Jesus represented himself as explaining the reason for the favorable judgment. Those on his right had given him food when he was hungry, supplied him with drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he lacked needed apparel, cared for him in times of sickness, and came to him in prison, the implication being for the purpose of providing aid and comfort.
The upright, compassionate individuals would be surprised by his words. They would wonder when they had seen him in the state he had described and cared for his needs. The answer would be, “Amen [Truly], I say to you, Insofar as you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)
The least, most insignificant, or lowly ones are commonly persons who are overlooked in their time of desperate need. In the parable, those who responded compassionately did so when they became aware of the plight of the lowly ones.
The parable of the merciful Samaritan reveals that any human in dire straits is rightly the object of a compassionate aid. As Jesus did not restrict the meaning of “neighbor,” there is no reason to conclude that this parable is to be construed to mean that the least of Christ’s brothers refers to a very limited number of people who adhere to a certain set of beliefs and practices. Jesus himself surrendered his life for all. Therefore, when regarded in the widest sense, he is a brother to the whole human family and looks favorably upon those who reveal themselves to be caring persons. The Roman centurion Cornelius proved to be such a compassionate man. Both his prayers and the kindly aid he had rendered to others ascended as a “memorial before God.” (Acts 10:4)
While loyal disciples of God’s Son recognize the prior claim of family members and those related to them in the faith as taking precedence, they help needy fellow humans whenever they are in position to do so. They recognize their obligation to do good to all. (Galatians 6:10)
Turning to those on his left, Jesus represented himself as saying, “Go away from me, cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41) This dreadful judgment of loss would not be temporary but permanent and irreversible. The “fire” would be like the “eternal fire” that reduced the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to perpetual ruin. (Jude 7) The judgment is the same as that reserved for the devil and his minions.
The reason for the dreadful judgment is that the disapproved ones had proved to be without compassion. In the person of needy ones, they had seen Jesus hungry and thirsty, as a lone stranger, naked, sick, and in prison, but they did nothing. These disapproved ones, like the approved ones, are quoted as addressing Jesus as Lord and asking when they saw him “hungry or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not attend to [him].” The answer is that they failed to care for the least of Christ’s brothers in their time of need. Therefore, they would experience an eternal punishment, losing the opportunity for the enjoyment of the real life that is distinguished by an enduring relationship with the Son of God and his Father. This is the life, the eternal life, to be enjoyed in the sinless state, which those whom Jesus approves will receive as their inheritance. (Matthew 25:42-46)
When individuals can render aid to those in dire need but refuse to do so, they reveal themselves to be callous, seriously lacking in love and compassion. Without essential food, drink, clothing and shelter, humans cannot survive. Those who are seriously ill need care; otherwise they will die. In the first century CE, many people were unjustly imprisoned and their circumstances were so deplorable that their survival depended on the provisions visitors would bring to them. These loving and caring visitors proved to be courageous persons who were not ashamed to identify themselves as friends of those who were imprisoned. (Compare 2 Timothy 1:16, 17; Hebrews 10:34.)
Accordingly, persons who refuse to render aid when they could have done so make themselves guilty of a neglect tantamount to murder. As hateful murderers like the devil, they would deserve the same punishment in store for him and his angels. (Compare John 8:44; James 2:15, 16; 1 John 3:15-17.)
After relating the parables, Jesus told his disciples that he would be crucified. It was then just two days before the Passover. (Matthew 26:1, 2)