NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Now Jesus goes on to say there will be famine: a fourth sign of the desolation of the city and the Temple, and which the Jews also say will happen before the coming of the Messiah. For instance, in the Talmud, we find an interesting prophecy about a seven year time of tribulation. It says, “Our Rabbis taught: in the seven-year cycle at the end of which the son of David will come in the first year, this verse will be fulfilled: And I will cause it to rain upon one city and cause it not to rain upon another city; in the second, the arrows of hunger will be sent forth; in the third, a great famine, in the course of which men, women, and children, pious men and saints will die, and the Torah will be forgotten by its students; in the fourth, partial plenty; in the fifth, great plenty, when men will eat, drink and rejoice, and the Torah will return to its disciples; in the sixth, [Heavenly] sounds; in the seventh, wars; and at the conclusion of the seven years the son of David will come.”1
While Paul ministered in Antioch, Syria, we read: “About that same time some prophets went from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and spoke with the help of the Holy Spirit. He said, ‘A very bad time is coming to the whole world. There will be no food for people to eat’.”2 Jesus also mentions plagues of pestilence. Also in the Talmud, it reads: “The alarm is sounded everywhere on account of the following [visitations]: blast fungus,3 mildew, locust, crickets, wild beasts, and the sword, as they are all plagues likely to spread.”4
And further on we read what Jews considered a pestilence, “If a city that produces a thousand and five hundred footmen, as Cephar Aco, and nine dead men are carried out of it in three days, one after another, lo! this is a pestilence; but if in one day, or in four days, it is no pestilence; and a city that produces five hundred footmen, as Cephar Amiko, and three dead men are carried out of it in three days, one after another, lo! this is a pestilence.”5 These are often caused by famines then come the conflicts.
On top of that, Jesus says there will be earthquakes in many places around the world. World history tells us about earthquakes during the time of the apostles. There was one on the Island of Crete, and in various cities in Asia, in the time of Nero: particularly the three cities of Phrygia, Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colossae; which were near to each other, and are all said to perish this way, in his reign; and Rome itself felt a tremor, in the reign of Galba (68-69 AD).
But Jesus said this is only the beginning. So, in light of what Jesus would now tell His disciples, it appears that all of these calamities were to take place during the time of the apostles. Could this be part of what God told the children of Israel through Moses?6 Since pestilence is spoken of by Jesus and is tied to a famine, Rabbi Abraham Saba believes that what God told Moses7 was all tied to the lack of rain and the ensuing hostility and chaos.8
Jesus said, that the onset of these calamities could be just like a pregnant woman suddenly going into labor. This should not be interpreted as having anything to do with a nine month incubation period. Rather, even though the woman knows she’s pregnant, she cannot predict the exact moment when the labor pains will begin. This was not a new or unusual use of a woman’s sudden birth pangs to make the point of how something expected can happen when we least expect it.
The prophet Jesus loved to quote most often also spoke of this.9 In addition, the fact that this warning would be given by God’s Son was also prophesied by an accepted Jewish apocalyptic writer of that day who said: “And the time will arrive when these things will come to pass, and the signs will happen which I showed you before, and then will my Son be revealed, whom you saw as a man ascending.”10 These dire predictions had also been spoken of by their own Rabbis, who taught them: “Upon witnessing shooting stars, earthquakes, lightning, thunder, and unusual tempests one should say, Blessed [are You … Whose strength and might fill the world.”11 Not only that but these same Rabbis gave this encouraging word: “A prophet that has a dream let him tell a dream: and he that has My word let him speak My word faithfully.”12
So the things Jesus was saying here were not new to the ears of His listeners. However, they needed to put it into context with what else He shared about His return to gather the believers to Himself so He could take them to a place He was going to provide within His heavenly Father’s estate, and then the final battle between good and evil, and the establishment of the eternal Kingdom of God.
Verse 9: “Then you will be arrested and handed over to be punished and killed. People all over the world will hate you because you believe in me.”
Here we have a repeat of what the LORD GOD said to Ezekiel, “There will be one disaster after another! The end is coming, and it will come quickly! You people living in Israel, disaster is coming. It is time for punishment. Those are not shouts of joy in the mountains. Those are cries of panic.”13 Our Lord is addressing two things with this announcement. First, no doubt some of His disciples still believed that He was here to set up a temporal kingdom, and He wanted to put that idea to rest. And two, to temper any idea they had, that winning the world to accept God’s salvation through grace with the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be easy. It was going to take hard work and endurance, and it still does.
The disciples would soon find out that the Jews who continued in their obstinacy and unbelief, would deliver them up to the civil magistrates to be scourged and imprisoned by them; either to their own Sanhedrin, as were Peter and John; or to the Roman governors, Gallio, Festus, and Felix, as was the Apostle Paul. Not only that, but all the original apostles, excepting John, suffered martyrdom before, or shortly following, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD.
Chrysostom sees this prophecy this way: “This is the time of greatest evil, when the war becomes internal, for there are many false brothers. Note that the war is coming from three sources simultaneously: from deceivers, from enemies, from false brothers. Later Paul would lament over the same complications, saying that there were ‘fightings without, fears within,’14 and ‘danger from false brothers.’15 Again he wrote, ‘For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.’16”17
Down over the centuries, there have been plenty of wars, but perhaps none that affected the Jews like World War II. It is worth noting, that despite all the concentration camp deaths and torture just 3 years after the war was over Israel became a nation again. The Lord had told them over and over, be not afraid, my Father has it all under control. But they have not lived in peace. Again and again, threats and attempts and have been made to oust them from their promised land. The pressure today is greater than ever. But in a Jewish writing, we find where Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Abina once said: “When you see kingdoms stirred up one against another, look the coming [lit. ‘feet”] of the King Messiah.”18
As we’ve also learned from history, the followers of Christ have been persecuted, imprisoned, and martyred all around the world, since His ascension, to this very day. So our Lord is giving His disciples a warning of their own destiny and that this will not let up until He returns. So we should not be surprised that the persecution of Christians not only continues in this world but seems to be getting worse. In light of where this persecution is coming from in our day, we would be well within the realm of reason if we took the term “false brethren” to mean any religion that claims to be worshiping the same God as Christians do, but in fact, are worshiping a myth.
1 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 97a
2 Acts 11:27-28
3 Blast: a blast fungus that causes a serious disease affecting rice.
6 Leviticus 26:18-29; (cf. Deuteronomy 28:59)
8 Tzror Hamor, Leviticus 26:18-20 – Bechukotai, pp. 1465-1470
9 Isaiah 26:17
10 2 Esdras 13:32
11 Mishnah, op. cit. First Division: Zeraim, Tractate Berakhot, Ch. 9:2
12 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berakhot, folio 55a
13 Ezekiel 7:5-7
14 2 Corinthians 7:5
15 Ibid. 11:26
16 Ibid. 11:13
17 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 75.2
18 Genesis Rabbah, Lech Lecha, The Soncino Press, London, 1939, Ch.. 42:4, p. 346