NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
In describing the horrible conditions that engulfed Jerusalem during the siege by the Romans in 70 AD, one revered Rabbi makes this point: “From a psychological point of view, Moses describes how first the men, who normally are not as sensitive as the women, give in to hunger and thirst, until eventually, even women, mothers who are the last to allow feelings of self-preservation to allow them to sacrifice their children, see no other way out;1 [especially seeing that if the children were to survive them in such circumstances, what future could they look forward to?]”2
Jesus also included a warning that such a calamity would be even worse if it occurred during winter or on the Sabbath when traveling any distance is normally forbidden.3 However, during times of crisis they were told: “Our Rabbis teach, that he that is pursued by Gentiles, or by thieves, may profane the Sabbath for the sake of saving his life: and so we find of David, when Saul sought to slay him, he fled from him, and escaped. Our Rabbis say, that it happened that evil writings (or edicts) came from the government to the great men of Tzippore; and they went, and said to Rabbi Eleazar ben Prata, evil edicts come to us from the government, what do you say? ‘should we flee?’ and he was afraid to say to them ‘flee’; but he said to them with a nod, why do you ask me? go and ask Jacob, and Moses, and David; as it is written, of Jacob, ‘and Jacob fled;’4 and so of Moses, ‘and Moses fled;’5 and so of David, ‘and David fled, and escaped:’6 and God says, ‘come my people, enter into your chambers.7”8
But then Jesus changes tense and looks to the future. Nevertheless, many Bible scholars believe that He is still talking about the coming destruction of Jerusalem. This may become clearer as we go on with what Jesus still had to say.
Verses 21b “Yet there will be greater trouble than has ever happened since the beginning of the world. And nothing as bad as that will ever happen again.”
To this warning by our Lord to His disciples, Chrysostom has this view: “Do not let anyone suppose that Jesus is merely speaking in hyperbole. All you need to do is study the writings of Josephus to learn the truth of these predictions. No one who knows the fact of history can say that Christian believers have exaggerated this tragic history or been any part of trying to see that Christ’s words were fulfilled. For Jesus, Himself was a Jew, a determined and faithful Jew, very zealous. And among believers who lived after Christ, there were many Jews. What then is this man predicting? That these terrors would surpass all tragedy. And indeed no such similar tragedy has ever overtaken any nation.”9 This is true as it relates to Jerusalem and the Temple. However, Jews around the world have suffered immensely during certain periods of history.
Chrysostom makes a good point here worth repeating. Jesus was a Jewish prophet speaking to a Jewish audience. They would have no understanding of the coming community of faith who accepted Jesus as the Messiah, with integrated congregations made up of Jews and Gentiles. So there was no way they could project this into the future. However, our Lord knew what was coming, and did not want this warning to be buried in the pages of history books that involved only Jews. That is why as a church, we should see what is in this for us today and take heed. Remember, it will be greater persecution of God’s people than ever before accompanied by greater turmoil among nations than that seen since the time of Abraham.
Verse 22: “But God has decided to make that terrible time short. If it were not made short, life would not be able to go on. But God will make that time short in favor of the people He has chosen.”
The reason why we see this in the future is because of the bookends Jesus puts on this event: “Never worse has happened before and nothing worse will happen again.” And based on the global extent of this destruction that we see in John’s Revelation, were the time of this holocaust not shortened, no one would survive, especially the new Jewish believers in Jesus as the Messiah. Nevertheless, no such destruction had ever happened in Jerusalem before, and none has occurred since, so this destruction is still on hold.
What we see prophesied here by Jesus is very much in line with what Daniel was told, “At that time, Daniel, the great prince Michael will stand up. Michael is in charge of your people. There will be a time of much trouble, the worst time since nations have been on earth. But Daniel, at that time every one of your people whose name is found written in the book of life will be saved. There are many who are dead and buried. Some of them will wake up and live forever, but others will wake up to shame and disgrace forever. The wise people will shine as bright as the sky. Those who teach others to live right will shine like stars forever and ever.”10 Many Bible scholars take this as a reference to the final resurrection and judgment after the tribulation period.
One Rabbi stated that this last line referred to everlasting life.11 So, in his mind, the concept of everlasting life is as old as Daniel. And the prophet Joel speaks of the same thing, “Blow the trumpet on Zion. Shout a warning on my holy mountain. Let all the people who live in the land shake with fear. The LORD’s special day is coming; it is near. It will be a dark, gloomy day. It will be a dark and cloudy day. At sunrise, you will see the army spread over the mountains. It will be a great and powerful army. There has never been anything like it before, and there will never be anything like it again.”12 As such, it will be a time of great confusion, panic, and despair. So Jesus tells those who will go through this to be careful on those who come and say they have the answer or solution to the problem.
For some Jewish scholars, they see the shortening of the time much in the same way God lengthened the day for Joshua so he could defeat the five kings.13 Likewise, He also shortened the day for Jacob. In fact, we find this note in a Jewish Targum: “…five miracles were wrought for our father Jakob, when he went from Beersheba to go to Haran. The first miracle was, that the hours of the day were shortened for him, and the sun set before its time because his word desired to speak with him.”14 Similarly, a well-known Rabbi commented on how God shortened days, this way: “…the day was shortened by ten hours on the day Ahaz died, in order that they should not eulogize him, and now they went backward on the day Hezekiah recovered, and ten hours were added to the day.”15 But to most Christian scholars the time shortened will be measured in years rather than in hours or days.
Some early church scholars took this shortening of days as applicable to the siege of Jerusalem. Says Chrysostom: “If the war of the Romans against Jerusalem had continued, all the Jews would have perished. By ‘no human being’ in this case he means the Jews. And this doubtless applies to Jews at home and abroad. For the Romans were fighting not only against those in Judea but also against those Jews that were dispersed everywhere. They too were outlawed and banished, because of the Romans’ hatred against the Jews of Judea.”16
But when it comes to those called the “chosen,” Chrysostom makes this distinction: “But who in this case does He mean by the chosen? He means the believers that were hidden away in the midst of them. In order that Jews may not say that it was because of the gospel and the worship of Christ that these catastrophes took place, He showed that so far from the believers being the cause, if it had not been for them, all Jews would have perished utterly. For if God had permitted the war to be protracted, not so much as a remnant of the Jews would have remained. But unless those of them who had become believers should perish together with the unbelieving Jews, He quickly put down the fighting and allowed an end to the war.”17
Origen, however, adds his spiritual interpretation. He writes: “‘Those days’ refers to the commandments and truths which were placed in Scripture for the illumination of rational souls. Accordingly, every doctrine that comes from ‘false knowledge’ and is joined to the words of Scripture is to be understood as corresponding to additions beyond the natural length of days in Scripture. The good God, however, shortens the addition of these days through whom he chooses. Whenever you see then by the advent of the Word of truth in your mind that the ‘arrogant who fight against the knowledge of God’18 are cut off, understand that the days of tribulation are shortened. The extra length is abbreviated which the abomination of desolation always adds in opposition to the natural number of the days of the Lord which are in Scripture. ‘Those days’ will be shortened ‘for the sake of the chosen,’ so that they will suffer nothing from the desolation of abomination nor from what was added to the true and natural days of Scripture. This assumes that the addition of days has been shortened and that the only remaining light is that of the word of truth.”19
From the writings of Paul, Luke, John, and others written after the fall of Jerusalem, we have evidence that the church continued in Jerusalem after the siege. If so, they remained very small in number. The Holy Spirit rescued the core of the church by sending Peter, John, and Paul out into the world to establish congregations outside of Jerusalem and Israel. It was not a matter of good luck, but by the divine plan of God the Father carried out by the Holy Spirit.
1 Tzror Hamor, loc. cit., p. 2042
2 Ibid., Words in brackets were added by the editor of this edition of Tzror Hamor
3 See Acts 1:12, According to Jewish law, the limit was 2,000 cubits (3,049.5 feet, or 960 meters) beyond the city limits.
4 Hosea 12:12
5 Exodus 2:15
6 I Samuel 19:18
7 Isaiah 26:20
8 Bemidbar Rabbah, Section 23:1
9 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 76.1
10 Daniel 12:1-3
11 Rabbi Judah in Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, loc, cit., Piska 24:3, p. 492
12 Joel 2:1-2
13 Joshua 10:11-12
14 Targum of the Pentateuch by Jonathan ben Uzziel, Sec. VII – Vayetse, Ch. XXVII, pp. 252-269
15 The Complete Jewish Bible with Commentary by Rashi, Isaiah 38:8
16 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 76.1
17 Ibid. Homily 76.2
18 2 Corinthians 10:5
19 Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 45