NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 8: “These things are only the beginning of troubles, like the first pains of a woman giving birth.”
Many more conflicts and battles were up ahead. I wonder if some of Jesus’ followers took His warning anymore seriously than those in the crowd when Isaiah gave his prediction: “Look! Adonai is riding a swift cloud, on His way to Egypt. Before Him Egypt’s idols tremble, Egypt’s courage melts within them. ‘I will incite Egypt against Egypt, brother will fight against brother, friend against friend, city against city, kingdom against kingdom.’”1 But such alerts were not new. Therefore, some exhibited the same resolve we find in Jeremiah: “Don’t be fainthearted, don’t be afraid of the rumors spreading abroad in the land. One year one rumor comes, the next year another one, rumors of violence in the land and rulers fighting rulers.”2
But the people Jesus was speaking too should have taken His warning most seriously, especially after what was said by the prophet Zechariah: “I will bring all the nations together to fight against Jerusalem. They will capture the city and destroy the houses. The women will be raped, and half of the people will be taken away as prisoners. But the rest of the people will not be taken from the city.”3 Then the prophecy in Zechariah continues: “At that time He will stand on the Mount of Olives, the hill east of Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives will split in half. Part of the mountain will move to the north, and part to the south. A deep valley will open up, from the east to the west…the LORD my God will come, and all His holy ones will be with Him.”4
However, Zechariah’s prophecy had a different outcome for unbelievers: “You will try to run away as that mountain valley comes closer and closer to you. You will run away like the time you ran from the earthquake during the time of King Uzziah of Judah.”5 Rabbi Kahana puts these verses of Zechariah together to answer the following questions of what will follow when all the nations of the earth gather against the Land of Israel to make war:6 “What will the Holy One do? He will go forth and fight against the nations.7 In what way will He fight? In the way He fought in the day of Pharaoh. And what will He do? He will provide shelter like a sukkah8 for the heads of Israel.9 What is the literal meaning of battle? It refers to the day when the two worlds, this world, and the world-to-come, will be brought into contact with each other. And what is the day referred to? The Day of Judgment.10”11
Even a Jewish document, that was read during the time of Jesus, seems to offer the same warning: “For the mark of God is upon the righteous for salvation. Famine and sword and death will be kept far from the righteous; for they will not touch the devout as those who are pursued by war, but they will pursue sinners and overtake them and those who do lawlessness will not escape the judgment of the Lord; they will be overtaken by those experienced in war, for the mark of destruction is on their forehead.”12 You cannot read this without thinking of John’s revelation.13
Chrysostom preaches on this text and gives his understanding of its meaning, especially his perspective in a 5th century AD point of view. He says: “By ‘wars and rumors of wars’ Jesus refers to the troubles that are coming upon them. They supposed after that war the end would come. But see how He warns them: ‘But the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.’ He speaks of the preludes to the troubles of the Jews. ‘All this is but the beginning of the birth pangs,’ that is, of the troubles that will befall them. ‘Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death.’ This was the season for being candid about what was to come, in order that they might strengthen one another in facing their common miseries.”14
It appears that this early church preacher saw Jesus’ answer as to when the Temple would be destroyed and the end of times that would prompt His return, as bookends of history. When the Temple was torn down, that was the beginning of the end. When He returns to set up His kingdom for both Gentiles and believing Jews to live in peace for a thousand years, that will be the end of the beginning. From then on it will be eternity.
We saw the eight “Woes” in the previous chapter, but these pronouncements bear some resemblance to the ones we find in a non-canonical book in the Old Testament, which are called: “The Twelve Woes that are to Come upon the Earth: The Messiah and the temporary Messianic Kingdom:”
“He answered and said to me: ‘Into twelve parts is that time divided, and each one of them is reserved for that which is appointed for it. In the first part, there will be the beginning of disturbances. And in the second part (there will be) slayings of the great ones. And in the third part the fall of many by death. And in the fourth part the sending of the sword. And in the fifth part famine and the withholding of rain. And in the sixth part earthquakes and terrors. And in the eighth part a multitude of apparitions and attacks of the Shedim.15 And in the ninth part the fall of fire. And in the tenth part plundering and much oppression. And in the eleventh part wickedness and immorality. And in the twelfth part, confusion from the mingling together of all those things said previously. For these parts of that time are reserved, and will interact one with another and minister one to another.”16
Also, in what is called the visions of Ezra the scribe, we read this: “And one will undertake to fight against another, one city against another, one place against another, one people against another, and one kingdom against another. And the time will be when these things will come to pass, and the signs will happen which I showed you before, and then will my Son be declared, whom you saw as a man ascending.”17 So what Jesus is saying here was not all that new and did not sound strange to His followers because they had read it before in their scrolls.
Again, the question must be asked, were these wars the ones that would take place while the disciples were still around, or was our Lord looking out into the future? In the Jewish Talmud, we find this interesting dialog: “Rabbi Nahman said to Rabbi Isaac: ‘Have you heard when Bar Nafle will come?’ ‘Who is Bar Nafle?’ he asked. ‘the Messiah,’ he answered, ‘Why do you call Messiah Bar Nafle?’ — ‘Because,’ he answered, ‘as it is written, in that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David [that has fallen].’ He replied, ‘Rabbi Johanan said the following: In the generation when the son of David [i.e., Messiah] will come, scholars will be few in number, and as for the rest, their eyes will fail through sorrow and grief. Multitudes of trouble and evil decrees will be promulgated anew, each new evil coming with haste before the other has ended.’”18
So even the disciples knew that bad days for Israel had been forecast by the Rabbis. But were they thinking only of those wars against Israel or against Rome? Jesus may have been speaking of wars as disturbances, insurrections, and seditions against the Romans and their governors; and the horrific slaughters committed among them, some time before the siege of Jerusalem, and the destruction of it. Under Cureanus the Roman governor, a sedition erupted on the day of the Passover in which twenty thousand perished; after that, in another tumult, ten thousand were destroyed by cut-throats: in the city of Ascalon19 two thousand more, in Ptolemais20 two thousand, at Alexandria, Egypt fifty thousand, at Damascus, Syria ten thousand, and elsewhere in great numbers.
Did not Jeremiah hear those trumpets announcing: “Disaster follows disaster. The whole country is destroyed. Suddenly my tents are destroyed. My curtains are torn down! How long must I see the war flags? How long must I hear the war trumpets?”21 And Ezekiel was shown a situation much like that Jesus was forecasting, “You will shake with fear. You will look for peace, but there will be none. You will hear one sad story after another. You will hear nothing but bad news. You will look for a prophet and ask him for a vision. The priests will have nothing to teach you, and the elders will not have any good advice to give you.”22
So, the terrible things Jesus spoke of did occur after He ascended into heaven to become the advocate with the Father for all those who came to the Father through Him. But, Jesus said these things would be repeated in even greater volume right before His return to take all those who did believe with Him back to the Father for eternal safety, peace, and joy. So for Christians today, the forecasts of bad times ahead should not be dismissed, neither should they be the cause of fear, because His coming may be near.
1 Isaiah 19:1-2, Complete Jewish Bible
2 Jeremiah 51:46, Complete Jewish Bible
3 Zechariah 14:2
4 Ibid., 14:3-4, 5b
5 Ibid., 14:5a
6 Ibid., 14:2
7 Ibid., 14:3
8 Sukkah is Hebrew for “hut” and is also used to identify the Feast of Tabernacles
9 Psalm 140:8
10 Zechariah 14:1
11 Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, op. cit., Supplement 2,:2
12 Psalms of Solomon, Ch. 15:6-9
13 Cf. Revelation 7:2-3; 13:16-17; 14:9-12
14 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 75.2
15 Shedim is a Hebrew word meaning demons or evil spirits.
16 2 Baruch, The Book of the Apocalypse of Baruch the Son of Neriah, Ch. 27:1-15
17 2 Esdras 13:31-32
18 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 97a-b
19 Ashkelon: A coastal city in the Southern District of Israel on the Mediterranean coast 31 miles south of Tel Aviv, and 8 miles north of the border with the Gaza Strip
20 Ptolemais: a city founded by king Ptolemy of Egypt on the northern coast of Egypt in what is Libya today
21 Jeremiah 4:20-21
22 Ezekiel 7:25-26