Sunday, August 27, 2006

Matthew 24 Part 3

Let me make note that in the last Matthew 24 post, I failed to reference the particular phrase that the Lord makes mention of and that is in verse six. Jesus clearly states that these wars and things that follow are not the end. He merely makes mention of them in relation to the fact that these things will be happening, but that they themselves are not the end, but He does not want the disciples to be troubled by these things.

One thing I want to make mention of. Sometimes we will disagree. I recognize that. Sometimes we might miss something. I recognize that as well. In either case I have always found each of those who comment on my site to be very gracious with our words, even in our passion. If something is stated in the post, but doesn’t wholeheartedly go along with the post (that is it is not the main substance of the post), I don’t mind conversation that takes that issue on. I think it is helpful. So please don’t hesitate to bring it up and let’s dialogue on it.

With that in mind we pick up the next few verses from Matthew 24.

7 "For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places.

8 "All these are the beginning of sorrows.

Obviously, these verses go in line with the previous ones concerning “wars and rumors of wars”. Notice what is foretold. Nation will rise against nation. The term here for nation is ethnos. It is often translated as Gentiles or nations. All over the know Roman Empire, which spanned many nations and even outside of the Empire such was true. Many ethnic groups were opposed to one another. A Roman historian by the name of Tacitus (A. D. 56-117) writes in his history of the period between Christ’s words and 70 A.D. that there were “disturbances in Germany”, “commotions in Africa,” “commotions in Thrace,” “insurrections in Gaul,” “intrigues among the Parthians,” a “war in Britain,” and a “war in Armenia.” This also began to happen in Jerusalem as well, both from within the ranks of the Jews and outwardly towards the Romans.

What is amazing is that these things were going on during a time of supposed peace. I made note of the fact that this was a time of the famous Pax Romana. However, let us note that this peace was actually an enforced peace. As a matter of fact, the Jewish historian Josephus wrote that there were so many civil wars within the Empire and so common that there was no need to write about them in any great detail stating, “I have omitted to give an exact account of them, because they are well known by all, and they are described by a great number of Greek and Roman authors.”

The fact that there are so many “dooms day” prophets that abound who are pointing to all sorts of wars and rumors of wars today as signs of Christ’s coming is indeed amazing since these things have already happened. They were merely the “beginning of sorrows”. However, these things were not alone and let us once again note that they were not “signs” of Christ’s coming, but rather merely things that would be taking place in the near future and even up until His coming.

What about the other things that Christ spoke of in verse 7? He specifically mentions, “famines, pestilences, and earthquakes”. Did these things take place as Jesus foretold? First we will note that a major famine hit the Roman Empire “in the days of Claudius Caesar”. This was prophesied by Agabus in Acts 11:28. Claudius ruled from A.D. 41 to A.D. 54. Luke uses the phrase “throughout all the world” to describe the reach of the famine. The word used for “world” in this text is not the word kosmos, but is the word oikoumene. This term means “inhabited earth” or “inhabited land”. It is the same word Luke chose to use in his gospel when he said, “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered (Luke 2:1).” The NASB translates it correctly as inhabited earth. This is a clear reference to the Roman Empire. It certainly didn’t apply to the “whole” world. The Chinese weren’t included, nor were the Americas.

Other historians document for us famines that engulfed the land. Here are a couple of citations:

The very famine spoken of in Acts 11 seems to be centered upon Jerusalem and Josephus, calling it “the great famine”[1], said, “a famine did oppress them at that time, and many people died for want of what was necessary to procure food withal.”[2] Josephus mentions many other famines in various places in his writings, both in Antiquities and Wars.[3]

Each of the following quotes comes from the pen of Josephus in writing concerning the Great Tribulation that the Jews endured under the siege by the Romans.

"...others advised to let the banks alone, but to lie still before the city, to guard against the coming out of the Jews, and against their carrying provisions into the city, and so to leave the enemy to the famine, and this without direct fighting with them..."[4]

"But the famine was too hard for all other passions, and it is destructive to nothing so much as to modesty; for what was otherwise worthy of reverence was in this case despised; insomuch that children pulled the very morsels that their fathers were eating out of their very mouths, and, what was still more to be pitied, so did the mothers do as to their infants, and when those that were most dear were perishing under their hands, they were not ashamed to take from them the very last drops that might preserve their lives..."[5]

"Now of those that perished by famine in the city, the number was prodigious, and the miseries they underwent were unspeakable; for if so much as the shadow of any kind of food did anywhere appear, a war was commenced presently, and the dearest friends fell a fighting one with another about it, snatching from each other the most miserable supports of life."[6]

"...Now when they were slaying him, he made this imprecation upon them, that they might undergo both famine and pestilence in this war, and besides all that, they might come to the mutual slaughter of one another; all which imprecations God confirmed against these impious men..."[7]

Tacitus, the Roman historian who wrote around 109 A.D. said in book 12 of his Annals,

“Several prodigies occurred in that year. Birds of evil omen perched on the Capitol; houses were thrown down by frequent shocks of earthquake, and as the panic spread, all the weak were trodden down in the hurry and confusion of the crowd. Scanty crops too, and consequent famine were regarded as a token of calamity. Nor were there merely whispered complaints; while Claudius was administering justice, the populace crowded round him with a boisterous clamour and drove him to a corner of the forum, where they violently pressed on him till he broke through the furious mob with a body of soldiers. It was ascertained that Rome had provisions for no more than fifteen days, and it was through the signal bounty of heaven and the mildness of the winter that its desperate plight was relieved. And yet in past days Italy used to send supplies for the legions into distant provinces, and even now it is not a barren soil which causes distress. But we prefer to cultivate Africa and Egypt, and trust the life of the Roman people to ships and all their risks.”

As for the term pestilences, many of the most reliable manuscripts do not contain the word. However, even if it were present it would not be a problem at all, but would be closely tied to both earthquakes and famines, for it is a reference to plagues. They would clearly follow such disasters.

Therefore, our next word that is used picks up from Jesus’ words and also from those of Tacitus. The word is earthquakes. The term is seismos. This term is used in the gospel of Matthew 8:24 in reference to a storm or tempest that arose on the water, but we find that from the historian’s writings that indeed many earthquakes did abound prior to A.D. 70. For instance we just read previously of Tacitus’ account of an earthquake during a time of famine.

Earthquakes not only went on prior to Christ's words in the gospels, but followed later. Again, the term can include storms, tempests, and literal earthquakes. Probably the most well known earthquake of the New Testament is found in Acts 16. There we read:

25 ¶ But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.
26 Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.

Let's not also forget the earthquakes that accompanied both the Lord's death (Matt. 27:54) and His resurrection (Matt. 28:2).

Tacitus also cites, “Apamea, too, which had been shaken by an earthquake, had its tribute remitted for five years.”

Several earthquakes also took place during the reigns of both Caligula (AD 37-41) and Claudius (AD 41-54). Seneca also recorded that several earthquakes took place in Asia, Achaia, Syria, and Macedonia.[8]

John Ellicott in his commentary states, “Perhaps no period in the world’s history has ever been so marked by these convulsions as that which intervenes between the Crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem.”[9]

Josephus in referencing earthquakes during the period of the Jewish War records, “for there broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continued lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and any one would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming.”[10]

Interestingly enough, an earthquake is one of the issues that John MacArthur brings up in his commentary for why the book of Revelation cannot have an early date. He cites an earthquake that happened in 60 AD in the city of Laodicea. H says, “Laodicea, one of the seven churches, was devastated by an earthquake about A.D. 60. For the rest of Nero’s reign, the city was involved in reconstruction, and could hardly be considered “rich… wealthy” and having “need of nothing (3:17). A date during Domitian’s reign would allow time for Laodicea to regain its wealth.”[11]

All I can say is, “John, John, John”, of course with a smile. The historical record contradicts Dr. MacArthur. Some disagree about the timing of this particular earthquake. Some have put it as late as A.D. 66, though most agree with Dr. MacArthur that this did occur in A.D. 60. I have no problem with either. The important thing is to point out the problem with his presupposition and that is because Laodicea was devastated by an earthquake she could not be considered “rich, wealthy, or in need of nothing”.

Tacitus informs us that Laodicea was indeed affected by an earthquake, but refused Roman funding to rebuild and did so through their own resources. He says, “One of the famous cities of Asia, Laodicea, was that same year overthrown by an earthquake, and, without any relief from us, recovered itself by its own resources.”[12] In other words, even after being devastated by an earthquake the city did not rise up like New Orleans and demand federal aid. Rather it took it upon itself as a free city to provide for its own reconstruction. As a matter of fact, a letter from a Laodicean says, “I am happy. I have fortune and I am not in need of anything.”[13]

I know that is a bit off topic, but should enter our thinking in how these two things are tied together (Matthew 24 and Revelation). As I will post shortly, it is this authors conviction that all of the New Testament was written prior to 70AD.

All of these things happened just as Christ said. Not one of the things we have seen, nor the things that follow in the passage failed to come to pass in that generation.

Finally we will note that these are the beginnings of birth pangs. Now, this could be taken in two different ways. First, it could be a reference to the fact that these things are simply the beginning of judgment. Second, they could be the beginning of the end of the Old system, which would be judgment, but also the birth of the kingdom as it comes in power and glory. I think that there is some indication in what follows that the latter is in view. There is both the judgment that is to be poured out according to the Old covenant stipulations laid down by God towards the nation of Israel in Deuteronomy and Leviticus 26 and there is the development of the Messianic kingdom as the old system is done away with. This is not a still birth we are talking about, but one which brings life.

As a father of seven I understand what birth pangs are. Though I cannot and probably never will clearly identify with women in regards to the pain. I can attest to the fact that the farther along the contractions come the more pain it produces, but once the mother is delivered, then the pain is no where near as it was, but rather there is joy in her deliverance and the new child is born. I think this is what is in view here as well. The judgments that fall are like the birth pangs with the deliverance of the kingdom to follow shortly. This seems also to be consistent with Christ's own words towards the Jews, "Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it." (Matt. 21:43)

[1] Antiquities 20:5:2

[2] Antiquities 20:2:5

[3] Antiquities 20:2:6; 20:4:2; Wars 6:3:3

[4] Wars 5:12:1

[5] Wars 5:10:3

[6] Wars 6:3:4

[7] Wars 4:6:1

[8] Epistles 91

[9] Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, 8 vols., Charles John Ellicott, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 6:146

[10] Wars 4:4:5

[11] MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Revelation 1-11, pgs. 8-9, 1999 Moody Press

[12] Annals 14:27


1 comment:

Hank said...


I especially like the quotes from Tacitus. I hadn't read those before now that I remember.

Also, the motif of birth pangs I think seems adequately summed up in your writings by the passing of the old and the full expectations of the fullness of the new. It seems the understanding of God's two fold event spoken of as salvation brings condemnation and judgment to His enemies and liberation and deliverance for His people.

Nice work!