(Mat 24; Mark 13; Luk 21:5-38; Luk_12:35-48)
The last and most solemn denunciation of Jerusalem had been uttered, the last and most terrible prediction of judgment upon the Temple spoken, and Jesus was suiting the action to the word. It was as if He had cast the dust off His Shoes against ‘the House’ that was to be ‘left desolate.’ And so He quitted for ever the Temple and them that held office in it.
They had left the Sanctuary and the City, had crossed black Kidron, and were slowly climbing the Mount of Olives. A sudden turn in the road, and the Sacred Building was once more in full view. Just then the western sun was pouring his golden beams on tops of marble cloisters and on the terraced courts, and glittering on the golden spikes on the roof of the Holy Place. In the setting, even more than in the rising sun, must the vast proportions, the symmetry, and the sparkling sheen of this mass of snowy marble and gold have stood out gloriously. And across the black valley, and up the slopes of Olivet, lay the dark shadows of those gigantic walls built of massive stones, some of them nearly twenty-four feet long. Even the Rabbis, despite their hatred of Herod, grow enthusiastic, and dream that the very Temple-walls would have been covered with, gold, had not the variegated marble, resembling the waves of the sea, seemed more beauteous. It was probably as they now gazed on all this grandeur and strength, that they broke the silence imposed on them by gloomy thoughts of the near desolateness of that House, which the Lord had predicted. One and another pointed out to Him those massive stones and splendid buildings, or spake of the rich offerings with which the Temple was adorned. It was but natural that the contrast between this and the predicted desolation should have impressed them; natural, also, that they should refer to it – not as matter of doubt, but rather as of question. Then Jesus, probably turning to one – perhaps to the first, or else the principal – of His questioners, spoke fully of that terrible contrast between the present and the near future, when, as fulfilled with almost incredible literality, not one stone would be left upon another that was not upturned.
In silence they pursued their way. Upon the Mount of Olives they sat down, right over against the Temple. Whether or not the others had gone farther or Christ had sat apart with these four, Peter and James and John and Andrew are named as those who now asked Him further of what must have weighed so heavily on their hearts. It was not idle curiosity, although inquiry on such a subject, even merely for the sake of information, could scarcely have been blamed in a Jew. But it did concern them personally, for had not the Lord conjoined the desolateness of that ‘House’ with His own absence? He had explained the former as meaning the ruin of the City and the utter destruction of the Temple. But to His prediction of it had been added these words: ‘Ye shall not see Me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord.’ In their view, this could only refer to His Second Coming, and to the End of the world as connected with it. This explains the twofold question which the four now addressed to Christ: ‘Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of Thy Coming, and of the consummation of the age?’
Irrespective of other sayings, in which a distinction between these two events is made, we can scarcely believe that the disciples could have conjoined the desolation of the Temple with the immediate Advent of Christ and the end of the world. For, in the very saying which gave rise to their question, Christ had placed an indefinite period between the two. Between the desolation of the House and, their new welcome to Him, would intervene a period of indefinite length, during which they would not see Him again. The disciples could not have overlooked this; and hence neither their question, nor yet the Discourse of our Lord, have been intended to conjoin the two. It is necessary to keep this in view when studying the words of Christ; and any different impression must be due to the exceeding compression in the language of Matthew, and to this, that Christ would purposely leave indefinite the interval between ‘the desolation of the house’ and His own Return.
Another point of considerable importance remains to be noticed. When the Lord, on quitting the Temple, said: ‘Ye shall not see Me henceforth,’ He must have referred to Israel in their national capacity – to the Jewish polity in Church and State. If so, the promise in the text of visible reappearance must also apply to the Jewish Commonwealth, to Israel in their national capacity. Accordingly, it is suggested that in the present passage Christ refers to His Advent, not from the general cosmic viewpoint of universal, but from the Jewish standpoint of Jewish history, in which the destruction of Jerusalem and the appearance of false Christs are the last events of national history, to be followed by the dreary blank and silence of the many centuries of the ‘Gentile dispensation,’ broken at last by the events that usher in His Coming.
Keeping in mind, then, that the disciples could not have conjoined the desolation of the Temple with the immediate Advent of Christ into His Kingdom and the end of the world, their question to Christ was twofold: When would these things be? and, What would be the signs of His Royal Advent and the consummation of the ‘Age?’ On the former the Lord gave no information; to the latter His Discourse on the Mount of Olives was directed. On one point the statement of the Lord had been, so novel as almost to account for their question. Jewish writings speak very frequently of the so-called ‘sorrows of the Messiah’ (ḥeḇley shel mehiaḥ ). These were partly those of the Messiah, and partly – perhaps chiefly – those coming on Israel and the world previous to, and connected with, the coming of the Messiah. There can be no purpose in describing them in detail, since the particulars mentioned vary so much, and the descriptions are so fanciful. But they may generally be characterised as marking a period of internal corruption and of outward distress, especially, of famine and war, of which the land of Palestine was to be the scene, and in which Israel were to be the chief sufferers. As the Rabbinic notices which we possess all date from after the destruction of Jerusalem it is, of course, impossible to make any absolute assertion on the point; but, as a matter of fact, none of them refers to desolation of the City and Temple as one of the ‘signs’ or ‘sorrows’ of the Messiah. It is true that isolated voices proclaimed that fate of the Sanctuary, but not in any connection with the triumphant Advent of Messiah; and, if we are to judge from the hopes entertained by the fanatics during the last siege of Jerusalem, they rather expected a Divine, no doubt Messianic, interposition to save the City and Temple, even at the last moment. When Christ, therefore, proclaimed the desolation of ‘the house,’ and even placed it in indirect connection with His Advent, He taught that which must have been alike new and unexpected.
This may be the most suitable place for explaining the Jewish expectation connected with the Advent of the Messiah. Here we have first to dismiss as belonging to a later period, the Rabbinic fiction of two Messiahs: the one, the primary and reigning, the Son of David; the other, the secondary and warfaring Messiah, the Son of Ephraim or of Manasseh. The earliest Talmudic reference to this second Messiah dates from the third century of our era, and contains the strange and almost blasphemous notices that the prophecy of Zechariah, concerning the mourning for Him Whom they had pierced, referred to Messiah the Son of Joseph, Who would be killed in the war of Gog and Magog; and that, when Messiah the Son of David saw it, He ‘asked life’ of God, Who gave it to Him, as it is written in Psa_2:1-12.: ‘Ask of Me, and I will give Thee,’ upon which God informed the Messiah that His father David had already asked and obtained this for Him, according to Psa_21:4. Generally the Messiah, Son of Joseph, is connected with the gathering and restoration of the ten tribes. Later Rabbinic writings connect all the sufferings of the Messiah for sin with this Son of Joseph. The war in which ‘the Son of Joseph’ succumbed would finally be brought to a victorious termination by ‘the Son of David,’ when the supremacy of Israel would be restored, and all nations walk in His Light.
It is scarcely matter for surprise, that the various notices about the Messiah, Son of Joseph, are confused and sometimes inconsistent, considering the circumstances in which this dogma originated. Its primary reason was, no doubt, controversial. When hardly pressed by Christian argument about the Old Testament prophecies of the sufferings of the Messiah, the fiction about the Son of Joseph as distinct from the Son of David would offer a welcome means of escape. Besides, when in the Jewish rebellion under the false Messiah ‘Bar-Kokhba’ (‘the Son of a Star’) the latter succumbed to the Romans and was killed, the Synagogue deemed it necessary to rekindle Israel’s hope, that had been quenched in blood, by the picture of two Messiahs, of whom the first should fall in warfare, while the second, the Son of David, would carry the contest to a triumphant issue.
In general, we must here remember that there is a difference between three terms used in Jewish writings to designate that which is to succeed the ‘present dispensation’ or ‘world’ (Olam hazzeh), although the distinction is not always consistently carried out. This happy period would begin with ‘the days of the Messiah’ (ימות המשיח). These would stretch into the ‘coming age’ (Aṯid laḇo), and end with ‘the world to come’ (Olam habba) – although the latter is sometimes made to include the whole of that period. The most divergent opinions are expressed of the duration of the Messianic period. It seems like a round number when we are told that it would last for three generations. In the fullest discussion on the subject, the opinions of different Rabbis are mentioned, who variously fix the period at from forty to one, two, and even seven thousand years, according to fanciful analogies.
Where statements rest on such fanciful considerations, we can scarcely attach serious value to them, nor expect agreement. This remark holds equally true in regard to most of the other points involved. Suffice it to say, that according to general opinion, the Birth of the Messiah would be unknown to His contemporaries; that He would appear, carry on His work, then disappear – probably for forty-five days; then reappear again and destroy the hostile powers of the world, notably ‘Edom,’ ‘Armilos,’ the Roman Power – the fourth and last world-empire (sometimes it is said: through Ishmael). Ransomed Israel would now be miraculously gathered from the ends of the earth, and brought back to their own land, the ten tribes sharing in their restoration, but this only on condition of their having repented of their former sins. According to the Midrash, all circumcised Israel would then be released from Gehenna, and the dead be raised – according to some authorities, by the Messiah, to Whom God would give ‘the Key of the Resurrection of the Dead.’ This Resurrection would take place in the land of Israel, and those of Israel who had been buried elsewhere would have to roll under ground – not without suffering pain – till they reached the sacred soil. Probably the reason of this strange idea, which was supported by an appeal to the direction of Jacob and Joseph as to their last resting-place, was to induce the Jews, after the final desolation of their land, not to quit Palestine. This Resurrection, which is variously supposed to take place at the beginning or during the course of the Messianic manifestation, would be announced by the blowing of the great trumpet. It would be difficult to say how many of these strange and confused views prevailed at the time of Christ; which of them were universally entertained as real dogmas; or from what source they had been originally derived. Probably many of them were popularly entertained, and afterwards further developed – as we believe, with elements distorted from Christian teaching.
We have now reached the period of the ‘coming age’ (the Aṯid laḇo, or saeculum futurum). All the resistance to God would be concentrated in the great war of Gog and Magog, and with it the prevalence of all wickedness be conjoined. And terrible would be the straits of Israel. Three times would the enemy seek to storm, the Holy City. But each time would the assault be repelled – at the last with complete destruction of the enemy. The sacred City would now be wholly rebuilt and inhabited. But oh, how different from of old! Its Sabbath-boundaries would be strewed with pearls and precious gems. The City itself would be lifted to a height of some nine miles – nay, with realistic application of Isa_49:20, it would reach up to the throne of God, while it would extend from Joppa as far as the gates of Damascus! For, Jerusalem was to be the dwelling-place of Israel, and the, resort of all nations. But more glorious in Jerusalem would be the new Temple which the Messiah was to rear, and to which those five things were to be restored which had been wanting in the former Sanctuary; the Golden Candlestick, the Ark, the Heaven-lit fire on the Altar, the Holy Ghost and the Cherubim. And the land of Israel would then be as wide as it had been sketched in the promise which God had given to Abraham, and which had never before been fulfilled – since the largest extent of Israel’s rule had only been over seven nations, whereas the Divine promise extended it over ten, if not over the whole earth.
Strangely realistic and exaggerated by Eastern imagination as these hopes sound, there is, connected with them, a point of deepest interest on which, as explained in another place, remarkable divergence of opinion prevailed. It concerns the Services of the rebuilt Temple, and the observance of the Law in Messianic days. One party here insisted on the restoration of all the ancient Services, and the strict observance of the Mosaic and Rabbinic, Law – nay, on its full imposition on the Gentile nations. But this view must have been at least modified by the expectation, that the Messiah would give a new Law. But was this new Law to apply only to the Gentiles, or also to Israel? Here again there is divergence of opinions. According to some, this Law would be binding on Israel, but not on the Gentiles, or else the latter would have a modified or condensed series of ordinances (at most thirty commandments). But the most liberal view, and, as we may suppose, that most acceptable to the enlightened, was, that in the future only these two festive seasons would be observed: The Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Es (or else that of Tabernacles), and that of all the sacrifices only thank-offerings would be continued. Nay, opinion went even further, and many held that in Messianic days the distinctions of pure and impure, lawful and unlawful, as regarded food, would be abolished. There can be little doubt that these different views were entertained even in the days of our Lord and in Apostolic times, and they account for the exceeding bitterness with which the extreme Pharisaic party in the Church at Jerusalem contended, that the Gentile converts must be circumcised, and the full weight of the yoke of the Law laid on their necks. And with a view to this new Law, which God would give to his world through the Messiah, the Rabbis divided all time into three periods: the primitive, that under the Law, and that of the Messiah.
It only remains briefly to describe the beatitude of Israel, both physical and moral, in those days, the state of the nations, and, lastly, the end of that ‘age’ and is merging into ‘the world to come’ (Olam haba). Morally, this would be a period of holiness, of forgiveness, and of peace. Without, there would be no longer enemies nor oppressors. And within the City and Land a more than Paradisiacal state would prevail, which is depicted in even more than the usual realistic Eastern language. For that vast new Jerusalem (not in heaven, but in the literal Palestine) Angels were to cut gems 45 feet long and broad (30 cubits), and place them in its gates; the windows and gates were to be of precious stones, the walls of silver, gold, and gems, while all kinds of jewels would be strewed about, of which every Israelite was at liberty to take. Jerusalem would be as large as, at present, all Palestine, and Palestine as all the world. Corresponding to this miraculous extension would be a miraculous elevation of Jerusalem into the air. And it is one of the strangest mixtures of self-righteousness and realism with deeper and more spiritual thoughts, when the Rabbis prove by references to the prophetic Scriptures, that every event and miracle in the history of Israel would, find its counterpart, or rather larger fulfilment, in Messianic days. Thus, what was recorded of Abraham would, on account of his merit, find, clause by clause, its counterpart in the future: ‘Let a little water be fetched;’ in what is predicted in Zec_14:8; ‘wash your feet,’ in what is predicted in Isa_4:5; ‘rest yourselves under the tree,’ in what is said in Isa_4:4; and ‘I will fetch a morsel of bread,’ in the promise of Psa_72:16.
But by the side of this we find much coarse realism. The land would spontaneously produce the best dresses and the finest cakes; the wheat would grow as high as palm-trees, nay, as the mountains, while the wind would miraculously convert the grain into flour, cast it into the valleys. Every tree would become fruit-bearing; nay, they were to break forth, and to bear fruit every day; daily was every woman to bear child, so that ultimately every Israelitish family would number as many as all Israel at the time of the Exodus. All sickness and disease, and all that could hurt, would pass away. As regarded death, the promise of its final abolition was, with characteristic ingenuity, applied to Israel, while the statement that the child should die an hundred years old was understood as referring to the Gentiles, and as teaching that, although they would die, yet their age would be greatly prolonged, so that a centenarian would be regarded as only a child. Lastly, such physical and outward loss as Rabbinism regarded as the consequence of the Fall, would be again restored to man.
It would be easy to multiply quotations even more realistic than these, if such could serve any good purpose. The same literalism prevails in regard to the reign of King Messiah over the nations of the world. Not only is the figurative language of the prophets applied in the most external manner, but illustrative details of the same character are added. Jerusalem would, as the residence of the Messiah, become the capital of the world, and Israel take the place of the (fourth) world-monarchy, the Roman Empire. After the Roman Empire none other was to rise, for it was to be immediately followed by the reign of Messiah. But that day, or rather that of the fall of the (ten) Gentile nations, which would inaugurate the Empire of Messiah, was among the seven things unknown to man. Nay, God had conjured Israel not to communicate to the Gentile the mystery of the calculation of the times. But the very origin of the wicked world-Empire had been caused by Israel’s sin. It had been (ideally) founded when Solomon contracted alliance with the daughter of Pharaoh, while Romulus and Remus rose when Jeroboam, set up the worship of the two calves. Thus, what would have become the universal Davidic Rule had, through Israel’s sin, been changed into subjection to the Gentiles. Whether or not these Gentiles would in the Messianic future become proselytes, seems a moot question. Sometimes it is affirmed; at others it is stated that no proselytes would then be received, and for this good reason, that in the final war and rebellion those proselytes would, from fear, cast off the yoke of Judaism and join the enemies.
That war, which seems a continuation of that of Gog and Magog, would close the Messianic era. The nations, who had hitherto given tribute to Messiah, would rebel against Him, when He would destroy them by the breath of His mouth, so that Israel alone would be left on the face of the earth. The duration of that period of rebellion is stated to be seven years. It seems, at least, a doubtful point, whether a second or general Resurrection was expected, the more probable view being, that there was only one Resurrection, and that of Israel alone, or, at any rate, only of the studious and the pious, and that this was to take place at the beginning of the Messianic reign. If the Gentiles rose at all, it would only be immediately again to die.
Then the final Judgment would commence. We must here once more make distinction between Israel and the Gentiles, with whom, nay, as more punishable than they, certain notorious sinners, heretics, and all apostates, were to be ranked. Whereas to Israel the Gehenna, to which all but the perfectly righteous had been consigned at death, had proved a kind of purgatory, from which they were all ultimately delivered by Abraham, or, according to some of the later Midrashim, by the Messiah, no such deliverance was in prospect for the heathen nor for sinners of Israel. The question whether the fiery torments suffered (which are very realistically described) would at last end in annihilation, is one which at different times received different answers, as fully explained in another place. At the time of Christ the punishment of the wicked was certainly regarded as of eternal duration. Rabbi José, a teacher of the second century, and a representative of the more rationalistic school, says expressly, ‘The fire of Gehinnom is never quenched.’ And even the passage, so often (although only partially) quoted, to the effect, that the final torments of Gehenna would last for twelve months, after which body and soul would be annihilated, excepts from this a number of Jewish sinners, specially mentioned, such as heretics, Epicureans, apostates, and persecutors, who are designated as ‘children of Gehenna’ (ledorē doroṯ to ‘ages of ages’). And with this other statements agree, so that at most it would follow that, while annihilation would await the less guilty, the most guilty were to be reserved for eternal punishment.
Such, then, was the final Judgment, to be held in the valley of Jehoshaphat by God, at the head of the Heavenly Sanhedrin, composed of the elders of Israel. Realistic as its description is, even this is terribly surpassed by a passage in which the supposed pleas for mercy by the various nations are adduced and refuted, when, after an unseemly contention between God and the Gentiles – equally shocking to good taste and blasphemous – about the partiality that had been shown to Israel, the Gentiles would be consigned to punishment. All this in a manner revolting to all reverent feeling. And the contrast between the Jewish picture of the last Judgment and that outlined in the Gospel is so striking, as alone to vindicate (were such necessary) the eschatological parts of the New Testament, and to prove what infinite distance there is between the Teaching of Christ and the Theology of the Synagogue.
After the final judgment we must look for the renewal of heaven and earth. In the latter neither physical nor moral darkness would any longer prevail, since the yeṣer hara, or ‘Evil impulse,’ would be destroyed. And renewed earth would bring forth all without blemish and in Paradisiacal perfection, while alike physical and moral evil had ceased. Then began the ‘Olam haba,’ or ‘world to come.’ The question, whether any functions or enjoyments of the body would continue, is variously answered. The reply of the Lord to the question of the Sadducees about marriage in the other world seems to imply, that materialistic views on the subject were entertained at the time. Many Rabbinic passages, such as about the great feast upon Leviathan and Behemoth prepared for the righteous in the latter days, confirm only too painfully the impression of grossly materialistic expectations. On the other hand, passages may be quoted in which the utterly unmaterial character of the ‘world to come’ is insisted upon in most emphatic language. In truth, the same fundamental divergences here exist as on other points, such as the abode of the beatified, the visible or else invisible glory which they would enjoy, and even the new Jerusalem. And in regard to the latter, as indeed to all those references to the beatitudes of the world to come, it seems at least doubtful, whether the Rabbis may not have intended to describe rather the Messianic days than the final winding up of all things.
To complete this sketch of Jewish opinions, it is necessary, however briefly, to refer to the Pseudepigraphic Writings, which, as will be remembered, expressed the Apocalyptic expectancies of the Jews before the time of Christ. But here we have always to keep in mind this twofold difficulty: that the language used in works of this kind is of a highly figurative character, and must therefore not be literally pressed; and that more than one of them, notably 4 Esdras, dates from post-Christian times, and was, in important respects, admittedly influenced by Christian teaching. But in the main the picture of Messianic times in these writings is the same as that presented by the Rabbis. Briefly, the Pseudepigraphic view may be thus sketched. Of the so-called ‘Wars of the Messiah’ there had been already a kind of prefigurement in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, when armed soldiery had been seen to carry on warfare in the air. This sign is mentioned in the Sibylline Books as marking the coming end, together with the sight of swords in the starlit sky at night, the falling of dust from heaven, the extinction of the sunlight and the appearance of the moon by day, and the dropping of blood from the rocks. A somewhat similar, though even more realistic picture is presented in connection with the blast of the third trumpet in 4 (2) Esdras. Only that there the element of moral judgment is more clearly introduced. This appears still more fully in another passage of the same book, in which, apparently in connection with the Judgment, the influence of Christian teaching, although in an externalised form, may be clearly traced. A perhaps even more detailed description of the wickedness, distress, and physical desolation upon earth at that time, is given in the Book of Jubilees.
At last, when these distresses have reached their final height, when signs are in the sky, ruin upon earth, and the unburied bodies that cover the ground are devoured by birds and wild beasts, or else swallowed up by the earth, would God send ‘the King,’ Who would put an end to unrighteousness. Then would follow the last war against Jerusalem, in which God would fight from heaven with the nations, when they would submit to, and own Him. But while in the Book of Enoch and in another work of the same class the judgment is ascribed to God, and the Messiah represented as appearing only afterwards, in the majority of these works the judgment or its execution is assigned to the Messiah.
In the land thus restored to Israel, and under the rule of King Messiah, the new Jerusalem would be the capital, purified from the heathen, enlarged, nay, quite transformed. This Jerusalem had been shown to Adam before his Fall, but after that both it and Paradise had been withdrawn from him. It had again been shown to Abraham to Moses, and to Ezra. The splendour of this new Jerusalem is described in most glowing language. Of the glorious Kingdom thus instituted, the Messiah would be King, although under the supremacy of God. His reign would extend over the heathen nations. The character of their submission was differently viewed, according to the more or less Judaic standpoint of the writers. Thus, in the Book of Jubilees the seed of Jacob are promised possession of the whole earth; they would ‘rule over all nations according to their pleasure; and after that draw the whole earth unto themselves, and inherit it for ever.’ In the ‘Assumption of Moses’ this ascendency of Israel seems to be conjoined with the idea of vengeance upon Rome, although the language employed is highly, figurative. On the other hand, in the Sibylline Books the nations are represented as, in view of the blessings enjoyed by Israel, themselves turning to acknowledge God, when perfect mental enlightenment and absolute righteousness, as well as physical well-being, would prevail under the rule and judgeship (whether literal or figurative) of the Prophets. The most ‘Grecian’ view of the Kingdom, is, of course, that expressed by Philo. He anticipates, that the happy moral condition of man would ultimately affect the wild beasts, which, relinquishing their solitary habits, would first become gregarious; then, imitating the domestic animals, gradually come to respect man as their master, nay, become as affectionate and cheerful as ‘Maltese dogs.’ Among men, the pious and virtuous would bear rule, their dignity inspiring respect, their terror fear, and their beneficence good will. Probably intermediate between this extreme Grecian and the Judaic conception of the Millennium, are such utterances as ascribe the universal acknowledgment of the Messiah to the recognition, that God had invested Him with glory and power, and that His Reign was that of blessing.
It must have been remarked, that the differences between the Apocalyptic teaching of the Pseudepigrapha and that of the New Testament are as marked as those between the latter and that of the Rabbis. Another point of divergence is, that the Pseudepigrapha uniformly represent the Messianic reign as eternal, not broken up by any further apostasy or rebellion. Then would the earth be renewed, and this would be followed, lastly, by the Resurrection. In the Apocalypse of Baruch, as by the Rabbis, it is set forth that men would rise in exactly the same condition which they had borne in life, so that, by being recognised, the reality of the Resurrection would be attested, while in the re-union of body and soul each would receive its due meed for the sins committed in their state of combination while upon earth. But after that a transformation would take place: of the just into the Angelic splendour of their glory, while, on view of this, the wicked would correspondingly fade away. Josephus states that the Pharisees taught only a Resurrection of the Just. As we know that such was not the case, we must regard this as one of the many assertions made by that writer for purposes of his own – probably to present to outsiders the Pharisaic doctrine in the most attractive and rational light of which it was capable. Similarly, the modern contention, that some of the Pseudepigraphic Writings propound the same view of only a Resurrection of the Just, is contrary to evidence. There can be no question that, according to the Pseudepigrapha, in the general Judgment, which was to follow the universal Resurrection, the reward and punishment assigned are represented as of eternal duration, although it may be open to question, as in regard to Rabbinic teaching, which of those who had, been sinners would suffer final and endless torment.
The many and persistent attempts, despite the gross inconsistencies involved, to represent the teaching of Christ concerning ‘the Last Things’ as only the reflection of contemporary Jewish opinion, have rendered detailed evidence necessary. When, with the information just summarised, we again turn to the questions addressed to Him by the disciples, we recall that (as previously shown) they could not have conjoined, or rather confounded, the ‘when’ of ‘these thing.’ – that is, of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple – with the ‘when’ of His Second Coming and the end of the ‘Age.’ We also recall the suggestion, that Christ referred to His Advent, to His disappearance, from the Jewish standpoint of Jewish, rather than from the general cosmic viewpoint of universal, history.
As regards the answer, of the Lord to the two questions of His disciples, it may be said that the first part of His Discourse is intended to supply information on the two facts of the future: the destruction of the Temple and His Second Advent and the end of the ‘Age,’ by setting before them the signs indicating the approach or beginning of these events. But even here the exact period of each is not defined, and the teaching given intended for, purely practical purposes. In the second part of His Discourse the Lord distinctly tells them, what they are not to know, and why; and how all that was communicated to them was only to prepare them for that constant watchfulness, which has been to the Church at all times the
proper outcome of Christ’s teaching on the subject. This, then, we may take as a guide in our study: that the words of Christ contain nothing beyond what was necessary for the warning and teaching of the disciples and of the Church.
The first Part of Christ’s Discourse consists of four Sections, of which the first describes ‘the beginning of the birth-woes’ of the new ‘Age’ about to appear. The expression: ‘The End is not yet’ clearly indicates, that it marks only the earliest period of the beginning – the farthest terminus a quo of the ‘birth-woes.’ Another general consideration, which seems of importance, is, that the Synoptic Gospels report this part of the Lord’s Discourse in almost identical language. If the inference from this seems that their accounts were derived from a common source – say, the report of Peter – yet this close and unvarying repetition also conveys an impression, that the Evangelists themselves may not have fully understood the meaning of what they recorded. This may account for the rapid and unconnected transitions from subject to subject. At the same time it imposes on us the duty of studying the language anew, and without regard to any scheme of interpretation. This only may be said, that the obvious difficulties of negative criticism are here equally great, whether we suppose the narratives to have been written before or after the destruction of Jerusalem.
1. The purely practical character of the Discourse appears from its opening words. They contain a warning, addressed to the disciples in their individual, not in their corporate, capacity, against being ‘led astray.’ This, more particularly in regard to Judaic seductions leading them after false Christs. Though in the multitude of impostors, who, in the troubled times between the rule of Pilate and the destruction of Jerusalem, promised Messianic deliverance to Israel, few names and claims of this kind have been specially recorded, yet the hints in the New Testament, and the references however guarded, by the Jewish historian, imply the appearance of many such seducers. And their influence, not only upon Jews, but on Jewish Christians, might be the more dangerous, that the latter would naturally regard ‘the woes,’ which were the occasion of their pretensions, as the judgments which would usher in the Advent of their Lord. Against such seduction they must be peculiarly on their
guard. So far for the ‘things’ connected with the destruction of Jerusalem and the overthrow of the Jewish commonwealth. But, taking a wider and cosmic view they might also be misled by either rumours of war at a distance, or by actual warfare, so as to believe that the dissolution of the Roman Empire, and with it the Advent of Christ, was at hand. This also would be a misapprehension, grievously misleading, and to be carefully guarded against.
Although primarily applying to them, yet alike the peculiarly Judaic, or, it might be even Christian, and the general cosmic sources of misapprehension as to the near Advent of Christ, must not be limited to the times of the Apostles. They rather indicate these twofold grounds of misapprehension which in all ages have misled Christians into an erroneous expectancy of the immediate Advent of Christ: the seductions of false Messiahs, or, it may be, teachers, and violent disturbances in the political world. So far as Israel was concerned, these attained their climax in the great rebellion against Rome under the false Messiah, Bar Kokhba, in the time of Hadrian, although echoes of similar false claims, or hope of them, have again and again roused Israel during the night of these many centuries into brief, startled waking. And as regards the more general cosmic signs, have not Christians in the early ages watched, not only the wars on the boundaries of the Empire, but the condition of the state in the age of Nero, the risings, turmoils, and threatenings; and so onwards, those of later generations, even down to the commotions of our own period, as if they betokened the immediate Advent of Christ, instead of marking in them only the beginning of the birth-woes of the new ‘Age?’
2. From the warning to Christians as individuals, the Lord next turns to give admonition to the Church in her corporate capacity. Here we mark, that the events now described must not be regarded as following, with strict chronological precision, those referred to in the previous verses. Rather is it intended to indicate a general nexus with them, so that these events begin partly before, partly during, and partly after, those formerly predicted. They form, in fact, the continuation of the ‘birth-woes.’ This appears even from the language used. Thus, while Matthew writes: ‘Then’ (τότε, at that time) ‘shall they deliver you up,’ Luke places the persecutions ‘before all these things;’ while Mark, who reports this part of the Discourse most fully, omits every note of time, and only emphasises the admonition which the fact conveys. As regards the admonition itself, expressed in this part of the Lord’s discourse, notice that, as formerly to individuals, so now to the Church, two sources of danger are pointed out: internal from heresies (‘false prophets’) and the decay of faith, and external, from persecutions, whether Judaic and from their own kindred, or from the secular powers throughout the world. But, along with these two dangers, two consoling facts are also pointed out. As regards the persecutions in prospect, full Divine aid is promised to Christians – alike to individuals and to the Church. Thus all care and fear may be dismissed: their testimony shall neither be silenced, nor shall the Church be suppressed or extinguished; but inward joyousness, outward perseverance, and final triumph, are secured by the Presence of the Risen Saviour with, and the felt indwelling of the Holy Ghost in His Church. And, as for the other and equally consoling fact: despite the persecution of Jews and Gentiles before the End cometh ‘this the Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the inhabited earth for a testimony to all the nations. This, then, is really the only sign of ‘the End’ of the present ‘Age.’
3. From these general predictions, the Lord proceeds, in the third part of this Discourse, to advertise the Disciples of the great historic fact immediately before them, and of the dangers which might spring from it. In truth, we have here His answer to their question, ‘When shall these things be?’ not, indeed, as regards the when, but the what of them. And with this He conjoins the present application of His general warning regarding false Christs, given in the first part of this Discourse. The fact of which He now, in this third part of His Discourse, advertises them, is the destruction of Jerusalem. Its twofold dangers would be-outwardly, the difficulties and perils which at that time would necessarily beset men, and especially the members of the infant-Church; and, religiously, the pretensions and claims of false Christs or prophets at a period when all Jewish thinking and expectancy would lead men to anticipate the near Advent of the Messiah. There can be no question, that from both these dangers the warning of the Lord delivered the Church. As directed by him, the members of the Christian Church fled at an early period of the siege of Jerusalem to Pella, while the words in which He had told that His Coming would not be in secret, but with the brightness of that lightning which shot across the sky, prevented not only their being deceived, but perhaps even the record, if not the rise of many who otherwise would have deceived them. As for Jerusalem, the prophetic vision initially fulfilled in the days of Antiochus would once more, and now fully, become reality, and the abomination of desolation stand in the Holy Place. This together with tribulation to Israel, unparalleled in the terrible past of its history, and unequalled even in its bloody future. Nay, so dreadful would be the persecution, that, if Divine mercy had not interposed for the sake of the followers of Christ, the whole Jewish race that inhabited the land would have been swept away. But on the morrow of that day no new Maccabee would arise, no Christ come, as Israel fondly hoped; but over that carcass would the vultures gather; and so through all the Age of the Gentiles, till converted Israel should raise the welcoming shout: ‘Blessed be He that cometh in the Name of the Lord!’
4. The Age of the Gentiles, ‘the end of the Age,’ and with it the new allegiance of His now penitent people Israel; ‘the sign of the Son of Man in heaven,’ perceived by them; the conversion of all the world, the Coming of Christ, the last Trumpet, the Resurrection of the dead – such, in most rapid sketch, is the outline which the Lord draws of His Coming and the End of the world.
It will be remembered that this had been the second question of, the disciples. We again recall, that the disciples did not, indeed, could not have connected, as immediately subsequent events, the destruction of Jerusalem and His Second Coming, since he had expressly placed between them the period – apparently protracted – of His Absence, with the many events that were to happen in it – notably, the preaching of the Gospel over the whole inhabited earth. Hitherto the Lord had, in His Discourse, dwelt in detail only on those events which would be fulfilled before this generation should pass. It had been for admonition and warning that He had spoken, not for the gratification of curiosity. It had been prediction of the immediate future for practical purposes, with such dim and general indication of the more distant future of the Church as was absolutely necessary to mark her position in the world as one of persecution with promise, however, of His Presence and Help; with indication also of her work in the world, to its terminus ad quem – the preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom to all nations on earth.
More than this concerning the future of the Church could, not have been told without defeating the very object of the admonition and warning which Christ had exclusively in view, when answering the question of the disciples. Accordingly, what follows in Mat_24:29, describes the history, not of the Church – far less any visible physical signs in the literal heavens – but, in prophetic imagery, the history of the hostile powers of the world, with its lessons. A constant succession of empires and dynasties would characterise politically – and it is only the political aspect with which we are here concerned – the whole period after the extinction of the Jewish State. Immediately after that would follow the appearance to Israel of the ‘Sign’ of the Son of Man in heaven, and with it the conversion of all nations (as previously predicted), the Coming of Christ, and, finally, the blast of the last Trumpet and the Resurrection.
5. From this rapid outline of the future the Lord once more turned to make present application to the disciples; nay, application, also, to all times. From the fig-tree, under which, on that spring-afternoon, they may have rested on the Mount of Olives, they were to learn a ‘parable.’ We can picture Christ taking one of its twigs, just as its softening tips were bursting into young leaf. Surely, this meant that summer was nigh – not that it had actually come. The distinction is important. For, it seems to prove that ‘all these things,’ which were to indicate to them that it was near, even at the doors, and which were to be fulfilled ere this generation had passed away, could not have referred to the last signs connected with the immediate Advent of Christ, but must apply to the previous prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Jewish Commonwealth. At the same time we again admit, that the language of the Synoptists seems to indicate, that they, had not clearly understood the words of the Lord which they reported, and that in their own minds they had associated the ‘last signs’ and the Advent of Christ with the fall of the City. Thus may they have come to expect that Blessed Advent even in their own days.
II. It is at least a question, whether the Lord, while distinctly indicating these facts, had intended to remove the doubt and uncertainty of their succession from the minds of His disciples. To have done so would have necessitated that which, in the opening sentence of the Second Division of this Discourse, He had expressly declared to lie beyond their ken. The ‘when’ – the day and the hour of His Coming – was to remain hidden from men and Angels. Nay, even the Son Himself – as they viewed Him and as He spake to them – knew it not. It formed no part of his present Messianic Mission, nor subject for His Messianic Teaching. Had it done so, all the teaching that follows concerning the need of constant watchfulness, and the pressing duty of working for Christ in faith, hope, and love – with purity, self-denial, and endurance – would have been lost. The peculiar attitude of the Church: with loins girt for work, since the time was short, and the Lord might come at any moment; with her hands busy; her mind faithful; her bearing self-denying and devoted; her heart full of loving expectancy; her face upturned towards the Sun that was so soon to rise; and her ear straining to catch the first notes of heaven’s song of triumph – all this would have been lost! What has sustained the Church during the night of sorrow these many centuries; what has nerved her with courage for the battle, with steadfastness to bear, with love to work, with patience and joy in disappointments – would all have been lost! The Church would not have been that of the New Testament, had she known the mystery of that day and hour, and not ever waited as for the immediate Coming of her Lord and Bridegroom.
And what the Church of the New Testament has been, and is, that her Lord and Master made her, and by no agency more effectually than by leaving undetermined the precise time of His return. To the world this would indeed become the occasion for utter carelessness and practical disbelief of the coming Judgment. As in the days of Noah the long delay of threatened judgment had led to absorption in the ordinary engagements of life, to the entire disbelief of what Noah had preached, so would it be in the future. But that day would come certainly and unexpectedly, to the sudden separation of those who were engaged in the same daily business of life, of whom one might be taken up (παραλαμβάνεται, ‘received’), the other left to the destruction of the coming Judgment.
But this very mixture of the Church with the world in the ordinary avocations of life indicated a great danger. As in all such, the remedy which the Lord would set before us is not negative in the avoidance of certain things, but positive. We shall best succeed, not by going out of the world, but by being watchful in it, and keeping fresh on our hearts, as well as on our minds, the fact that He is our Lord, and that we are, and always most lovingly, to look and long for His Return. Otherwise twofold damage might come to us. Not expecting the arrival of the Lord in the night-time (which is the most unlikely for His Coming), we might go to sleep, and the Enemy, taking advantage of it, rob us of our peculiar treasure. Thus the Church, not expecting her Lord, might become as poor as the world. This would be loss. But there might be even worse. According to the Master’s appointment each one had, during Christ’s absence, his work for Him, and the reward of grace, or else the punishment of neglect, were in assured prospect. The faithful steward, to whom the Master had entrusted the care of His household, to supply His servants with what was needful for their support and work, would, if found faithful, be rewarded by advancement to far larger and more responsible work. On the other hand, belief in the delay of the Lord’s Return would lead to neglect of the Master’s work, to unfaithfulness, tyranny, self-indulgence and sin. And, when the Lord suddenly came, as certainly He would come, there would be not only loss, but damage, hurt, and the punishment awarded to the hypocrites. Hence, let the Church be ever on her watch, let her ever be in readiness! And how terribly the moral consequences of unreadiness, and the punishment threatened, have ensued, the history of the Church during these eighteen centuries has only too often and too sadly shown.