JESUS is leaving the temple in Jerusalem for the last time when one of his disciples exclaims:
Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!
The temple is the pride and glory of the Jewish nation. However, Jesus replies:
Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.—Mark 13:1, 2.
The very idea is incredible! Some temple stones are huge. Furthermore, what Jesus says about the temple implies the destruction of Jerusalem and perhaps even of the Jewish state, of which the temple is the spiritual heart. So Jesus’ disciples press him:
Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?—Mark 13:3, 4.
“The end is not yet,” Jesus cautions. First, the disciples will hear of wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilences in one place after another. Then, dramatic events will plunge the Jewish nation into a cataclysm of unique proportions, yes, a “great tribulation.” God, though, will intervene to save “the chosen ones,” that is, faithful Christians. How?—Mark 13:7; Matthew 24:7, 21, 22; Luke 21:10, 11.
In Defiance of Rome
Twenty-eight years pass, and the Christians in Jerusalem are still awaiting the end. The Roman Empire is racked by wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilences. Judea is a hotbed of civil and ethnic strife. Yet, within the safety of Jerusalem’s walls, relative peace prevails. People eat, work, marry, and bear children, as they have always done. The temple’s immense physical presence projects a sense of stability and permanence over the city.
About 61 C.E., the Christians in Jerusalem receive a letter from the apostle Paul. He commends them for their endurance but is concerned that some in the congregation appear to lack a sense of urgency. A number are drifting spiritually or are falling short of Christian maturity. (Hebrews 2:1; 5:11-12) Paul urges them:
So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For, In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay. And, But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back. (Hebrews 10:35-38)
What fantastic information at the great time! But will the Christians exercise faith and remain alert to the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy? Is Jerusalem’s end really imminent?
Over the next five years, conditions in Jerusalem steadily deteriorate. Finally, in 66 C.E., the corrupt Roman Governor Florus seizes 17 talents in “tax arrears” from the sacred temple treasury. The Jews are incensed and rise up in revolt. Jewish rebels, or Zealots, swarm into Jerusalem and slaughter the Roman forces there. They then boldly declare Judea to be independent of Rome. Judea and Rome are now at war!
Within three months, the Roman governor of Syria, Cestius Gallus, marches south with 30,000 troops to suppress the Jewish rebellion. His army arrives at Jerusalem during the Festival of Booths and quickly penetrates the suburbs. The outnumbered Zealots seek refuge inside the temple fortress. Roman soldiers soon begin to undermine the temple wall. The Jews are horrified. Why, pagan soldiers are now defiling Judaism’s holiest site! The Christians in the city, though, recall Jesus’ words:
So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. (Matthew 24:15, 16)
Would they show faith in Jesus’ prophetic words and be moved to act accordingly? As matters turn out, their life depends on their doing so. But how?
Suddenly and for no apparent reason, Cestius Gallus withdraws his troops and retreats toward the coast with the Zealots in hot pursuit. Amazingly, the tribulation on the city has been cut short! Demonstrating their faith in Jesus’ prophetic warning, the Christians flee from Jerusalem to Pella, a neutral city located in the mountains across the Jordan River. Their escape is timely. The Zealots soon return to Jerusalem and force the remaining inhabitants to join in their rebellion. Meanwhile, safe at Pella, the Christians await further developments.
Descent Into Anarchy
Within months, a new Roman army is on the move. During 67 C.E., General Vespasian and his son Titus mobilize a vast force of 60,000 troops. For the next two years, this military juggernaut advances toward Jerusalem, crushing all resistance in its path. Meanwhile, inside Jerusalem, rival Jewish factions engage in vicious struggles. The city grain reserves are destroyed, the area surrounding the temple is leveled, and more than 20,000 Jews are killed. Vespasian delays his advance toward Jerusalem, declaring: ‘God acts as a Roman general better than I can do; our enemies are destroying one another with their own hands.’
When Roman Emperor Nero dies, Vespasian departs for Rome to secure the throne, leaving Titus to finish the Judean campaign. Titus advances on Jerusalem near Passover 70 C.E., trapping the residents and pilgrims inside the city. His forces strip the Judean countryside of trees to build a 4.5-mile-long [7 km] wall of pointed stakes around the beleaguered capital. This is just as Jesus foretold:
The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side.—Luke 19:43.
Famine soon grips the city. Armed mobs plunder the homes of the dead and the dying. At least one desperate woman kills and eats her infant child, fulfilling the prediction:
Because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you. Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating. It will be all he has left because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of all your cities. The most gentle and sensitive woman among you—so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot—will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For in her dire need she intends to eat them secretly because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of your cities.—Deuteronomy 28:53-57.
Finally, after a siege lasting five months, Jerusalem falls. The city and its grand temple are plundered and burned and then torn apart stone by stone. (Daniel 9:26) The dead total some 1,100,000; another 97,000 are sold into slavery. (Deuteronomy 28:68) Judea is virtually emptied of Jews. Truly, it is a national disaster without parallel, a watershed in Jewish political, religious, and cultural life.
Meanwhile, the Christians in Pella give heartfelt thanks to God for their deliverance. Their faith in Bible prophecy has preserved their very lives!
Looking back on those events, each of us today would do well to ask: