This seventh letter from Anathoth continues our series on the pressures, fears and hopes of an imaginary young brother living in the shadow of AD 70. The strength which our early brethren gained by their hope in the Kingdom gives encouragement to us today as we live on the eve of an even greater event. The letters from our imaginary young brother Joseph ben Judas living at Anathoth have been edited by Brother Allan Archer.

July AD 68

  My dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. Loving greetings across the centuries.

I can hardly wait to tell you what has happened. God has been amazingly gracious to the brethren, so much so we can hardly believe it. The Jewish believers in Jerusalem have escaped! Imagine that: escaped when the iron hand of Rome was tightening its grip on the city. We never thought that Jesus’ prophecy would be fulfilled twice. We are so grateful and happy.

But I had better slow down and give you the background first.

You might call this another letter from Anathoth, but we’re not there now. Instead we’re at Pella across the Jordan. The Romans well and truly occupy little Anathoth, our hometown with all its ancient heritage. I told you in my last letter how we fled to the mountains of Judea and then went  on to Pella with the disciples from other places. We followed Jesus’ prophetic advice, when he said to flee to the mountains when you see the “abomination of desolation stand in the Holy Place” (refer Matthew’s gospel of Jesus 24:15).

The Roman Army under Governor Gallus had surrounded Jerusalem and taken their pagan ensigns right up to the Temple Mount, but then a way of escape opened up when Gallus retreated. We were sure they would be back, so we were very keen to get out of Judea while we could. But not all the brethren saw it that way. In Anathoth we were united, but in Jerusalem there were all sorts of interpretations of prophecy flying around, destabilising the ecclesia. Some correctly saw the Romans as the little horn of Daniel 8 who would cast down the sanctuary, but others weren’t sure. Even the older brethren, who knew well the apostles and should have known better, were instrumental in persuading the young people to stay on the basis of wrongly assessing prophecy.

Then they became trapped, amongst the Jewish world of fanaticism and extremism. The Roman General Vespasian brought the legions back with a vengeance. The fifth legion camped at Emmaus, blocking Jerusalem from the west, while Vespasian tightened the noose around Jerusalem. There was no escaping now. How we prayed for our brothers and sisters and particularly our young people mixed up in that seething cauldron. There was no way out.

But, you would hardly believe it, Nero is now dead and Vespasian has pulled back from the city! He had almost taken Jerusalem and ended the war, but he has remarkably (no, miraculously and Providentially) withdrawn, waiting orders from the new emperor, Galba.

And that has given the opportunity for our brethren in Jerusalem to flee to the mountains and some have come as far as Pella. Imagine our joy when we saw them on our doorstep. So twice our Lord has made a way whereby his warning and instruction to flee the city could be heeded. Can you just imagine David in that situation saying: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those that fear him and delivers them” (Psa 34:7). How right brother Peter was when he recently wrote, “we have a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto you do well that you take heed” (2 Pet 1:19).

And that’s really why I’m writing all these letters. Learn from our experiences—we had to!

When I look back and think about the wild events of the last two years, the influence which has helped me most is the Bible Classes we held every week in Anathoth. They were at our house. We younger brethren really appreciated the sound scriptural exposition. The key was a reverence of, and interest in, the Scriptures, careful reading and use of Old Testament quotes and allusions. And the subject we kept coming back to was fulfilling Bible prophecy—fulfilling before our eyes. We can’t know everything that is going to happen of course, and events take side-tracks from time to time, but the overall thrust can be understood. Each year then becomes a milestone towards the kingdom.

It’s chilling the way that the curses of Deuteronomy 28 stretch right into my time—

Yahweh shall bring a nation against you from afar (Rome),

from the end of the earth (Rome spanned the known world; other conquerors of the land were Middle East based)

as swift as the eagle flieth (with eagles on its standards)

a nation whose tongue you shalt not understand (Latin, quite unlike the Middle East Aramaic languages or the near universal Greek)

a nation of fierce countenance (said to be ‘dreadful and terrible’ in Daniel 7:7)

and he shall besiege you in all your gates, until your high and fenced walls come down, wherein you trusted, throughout your land (Vespasian could have gone straight for Jerusalem and the rest of the country then probably would have fallen in line, but he chose to systematically come slowly through all the land, first in Galilee and then Judea, consolidating as he came, with many vicious sieges)

and he shall besiege you in all your gates throughout all your land, which Yahweh your God has given you (repetition, because so unexpected)

and you shall eat the fruit of your own body, the flesh of your sons and of your daughters which Yahweh your God has given you, in the siege and in the straightness” (surely that’s not Jerusalem’s lot, but it will be) Deuteronomy 28:49–53.

No wonder that Jesus used the graphically descriptive term, “great tribulation” and said that “except those days be shortened, there should no flesh be saved” (Matt. 24:21–22).

Meanwhile we wonder what will happen next. With Nero off the scene, what will Vespasian wait for? We can only guess about his aspirations for becoming emperor. Remember the time when Josephus said to him, “I come to thee as a messenger of greater tiding… Thou, O Vespasian, art Caesar and Emperor, thou and thy son…Thou O Caesar art not only lord over me but over the land and sea and all mankind”. Josephus was saving his own neck of course, but I guarantee that Vespasian hasn’t forgotten those words.

One thing that we can be grateful for is the fall of Nero. How our brethren, in Rome particularly, have suffered and died through that wretched man—our beloved Paul being among those stoned, sawn asunder, etc. “of whom the world was not worthy” (Heb 11:38).

We have heard that Nero committed suicide— he got in first before the assassins from the Senate arrived!

While Vespasian waits, the position in Jerusalem deteriorates—but more about that next time I write.

Your brother in the hope of the Kingdom.

– Joseph ben Judas.