Those of us raised in the Churches of Christ are generally very poorly equipped to read this sort of language, largely because we’re a denomination that has chosen to deal with the Revelation by ignoring nearly all of it and to deal with the OT prophets by ignoring them, too.
Now, as bad as that is — and it’s bad — it’s not nearly as bad as some of the extreme interpretations of the Revelation that are popular, such as the Left Behind point of view and Preterism. By “Preterism” I mean the view that the entirety of the Revelation was fulfilled when Jerusalem was defeated and the Temple destroyed by the Roman armies under their general Titus.
On the other hand, it’s a fact that some passages in the NT look ahead to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Jesus prophesied this event and it’s obviously hugely important even though not recorded in the NT. I mean, when God had the Babylonians destroy the Temple centuries earlier, that destruction was clear evidence of God’s unhappiness with the Jews — and they understood it that way. And when God allowed the Romans to destroy the Temple yet again, the Jews saw a similar judgment — but most continued to reject Jesus as Messiah.
So it’s important to avoid either of two extremes — that everything prophesied in the NT happens thousands of years in the future (at the Second Coming) or that everything prophesied in the NT happened in the First Century (with the destruction of Jerusalem being a “coming” of Jesus in judgment). In fact, I believe the scriptures speak both to the destruction of Jerusalem (as a “coming” of Jesus in judgment, even) and of the Second Coming.
One of the first Bible classes I ever taught was on Matthew 24, way back in 1975. I had notes from a presentation made by a preacher nearby — and cannot recall his name to give proper credit. Suffice to say that I was taught this by others. I still have my notes.
Because it’s so relevant to the exegesis of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, I thought it would be time well spent to cover the material again — just to give a vivid example of how to read apocalyptic materials.
To modern Christians, the fall of Jerusalem is but an interesting side note. After all, it’s not described in the Bible. We get our information largely from Josephus, and so we figure if it matters that much to Christianity, God would have had a chapter in Acts on it.
But in reality, it’s critically important and tells us much of God’s purposes for the church. God does not reveal himself solely through scripture. He also reveals himself through history.
We start in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is written in the form of a ancient treaty, and as was customary for such documents, it ends with a series of blessings for obedience and a series of curses for disobedience. Here are some of the curses —
(Deu 28:15-68 NIV) However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: 16 You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country. …
25 The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth. 26 Your carcasses will be food for all the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away. …
30 You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and ravish her. You will build a house, but you will not live in it. You will plant a vineyard, but you will not even begin to enjoy its fruit. 31 Your ox will be slaughtered before your eyes, but you will eat none of it. Your donkey will be forcibly taken from you and will not be returned. Your sheep will be given to your enemies, and no one will rescue them. 32 Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation, and you will wear out your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand. …
36 The LORD will drive you and the king you set over you to a nation unknown to you or your fathers. There you will worship other gods, gods of wood and stone. 37 You will become a thing of horror and an object of scorn and ridicule to all the nations where the LORD will drive you. …
41 You will have sons and daughters but you will not keep them, because they will go into captivity. 42 Swarms of locusts will take over all your trees and the crops of your land. 43 The alien who lives among you will rise above you higher and higher, but you will sink lower and lower. …
49 The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, 50 a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young. 51 They will devour the young of your livestock and the crops of your land until you are destroyed. They will leave you no grain, new wine or oil, nor any calves of your herds or lambs of your flocks until you are ruined. 52 They will lay siege to all the cities throughout your land until the high fortified walls in which you trust fall down. They will besiege all the cities throughout the land the LORD your God is giving you.
53 Because of the suffering that your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the LORD your God has given you. 54 Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, 55 and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating. It will be all he has left because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of all your cities. 56 The most gentle and sensitive woman among you — so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot — will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter 57 the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For she intends to eat them secretly during the siege and in the distress that your enemy will inflict on you in your cities. …
62 You who were as numerous as the stars in the sky will be left but few in number, because you did not obey the LORD your God. 63 Just as it pleased the LORD to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you. You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess. 64 Then the LORD will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other.
There you will worship other gods — gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. 65 Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. 66 You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life.
The language is stark and horrific — and came true when Jerusalem fell. It was prefigured when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, carrying the Jews into Babylonian captivity, but the prophets explained how, one day, God would send his Messiah and return his people to prosperity and safety — he would save his people and forgive their sins.
But when a few of the Jews returned to Jerusalem under Persian rule, as described in Ezra and Nehemiah, the Jews realized that the promises of Deu had not yet been fulfilled. God’s Shekinah (glory) did not return to the temple of Nehemiah, as it had come to the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple. The Holy Spirit left the people after the prophecies of Malachi and Zechariah. And Jerusalem remained under foreign rule.
When Jesus came, the Jews were still looking for the fulfillment of the prophesies, not just of the Messiah, but of the age of God’s salvation, the Spirit, and the Shekinah. In short, the exile was not yet over and the curses of Deuteronomy remained in effect.
Of course, Deuteronomy also offered God’s blessings. In fact, God explains what will happen after the curses come true —
(Deu 30:1-6 NIV) When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, 2 and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.
4 Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. 5 He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. …
Now, Paul later finds that these words have come true in Jesus —
(Rom 2:28-29 NIV) A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.
If the blessings are realized in Christ, in the church, rather than through the Law of Moses and reserved solely for Israel, then we see the fall of Jerusalem as a pivotal moment in God’s relationship with his people. Those who rejected God’s Messiah remained in exile and suffered the curses prophesied 1,500 years earlier. Those who accepted God’s Messiah escaped the curses and received God’s blessings.
But for this to be true, the Christians in Jerusalem had to be warned and so know when to flee, or else, just by being there, they’d suffer the calamity meant for others. And we know from history — primarily Josephus — that the Christians in Jerusalem, understanding Jesus’ warnings, fled when they saw the Roman army approaching, while the unconverted Jews stayed, fought, and died horribly.