This eighth letter 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 who lived at Anathoth, have been edited by Brother Allan Archer.
December AD 69
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus Loving greetings across the centuries.
Last time I wrote I told you the exciting news. The Jewish believers in Jerusalem were able to escape, just when it seemed that the iron hand of Rome had its final grip on the city. We never thought that we would see a second opportunity to follow Jesus’ instruction about fleeing to the mountains when the “abomination of desolation stands in the Holy Place”. We were so grateful and happy as, of all the people in Jerusalem, the friends of Jesus “alone to Pella fled”.
The Roman General Vespasian had brought the legions back into Judea with a vengeance and the Roman noose was tightened around Jerusalem. But then Nero suddenly died and Vespasian pulled back from the city and called a halt to the war.
That remarkable event allowed our Jewish brethren to escape the seething cauldron of Jerusalem. Of course, the Jewish fanatics hailed Vespasian’s withdrawal as a great victory for the Jewish resistance, but this time the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem were in no doubt. The words of Jesus about “not one stone standing upon another” were now so ominous that there was no question but that they all must leave.
Well, that was the good news when I last wrote. I must tell you about the effect upon the believers in Pella, but perhaps I’ll do that next time I write. Just for now, I’ll tell you about what has since happened in Jerusalem.
Although we are not now worried about the fate of believers in Jerusalem, we still feel very sad about the sufferings of our fellow Jews. I suppose that we are like the Apostle Paul—our “heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they might be saved”.
But the Jewish nation is on a path which is almost self destruction. If ever you wanted a lesson in the need for co operation amongst brethren, then you have it in Jerusalem. If the various Jewish factions could only co operate together, then they might stand a chance against the outside world. But, no, they have fractured into small groups and dissipate their energy fighting against one another.
You might remember that last year I told you about John the Zealot from Gischala in Galilee— best described as a fanatical thug. He escaped Galilee under the cover of several thousand helpless men, women and children, whom he then left to be slaughtered by the Romans as he made his dash for Jerusalem. In Jerusalem he became the leader of the Zealots who had taken over the area of the Temple platform.
But now there has appeared another “Messiah” (self styled, that is; one of the many Messiahs which Jesus predicted). He’s a man of immense size and strength—Simon Bar Giora—and comes from the south. He is not a Zealot, but not much different as far as fanaticism is concerned. He collected a large band of followers and devastated Idumæa which, of course, is the province just south of Judea.
As the purges in Jerusalem continued, Simon was invited in by the citizens with the hope that he would oust John and his Zealots. Instead the citizens have found themselves at the mercy of two fanatics. Simon launched an attack on the Temple mount, John’s stronghold, but was unable to take it. John’s Zealots strengthened their fortifications by erecting four huge towers along the perimeter of the outer court of the Temple. The city now is divided into two hostile camps, each preying on the local citizens.
Thousands of ordinary Jews were killed, not by the enemy, but by their own people, murdered by packs of gangsters, who prided themselves as followers of the good example of Judas the Maccabee. Nobody could weep for the dead or bury them, for anyone suspected of being in sympathy with the murdered was immediately put to death.
Can you believe that?
Here we have the sons of Abraham. Here we have the people who received the Law by the hand of Moses. Here we have the people to whom “were committed the oracles of God”.
Murdering each other!
And we are only one generation away from the ministry of Jesus—forty years. It’s not surprising that Jesus had such feelings when he sighed over Jerusalem:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not. Behold your house is left unto you desolate!”
In the very streets where Jesus walked such a short time ago; in the houses where Jesus taught; in the porches where Jesus healed; there now lies the blood of ordinary men and women caught up in the cross fire of the self righteous Jewish fanatics.
When Jesus went onto the Temple mount he found it to be the seat of money changers and traders. “Make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise… Ye have made it a den of thieves”. That was bad enough. But now, not quite forty years later, the Temple mount is now “Fortress Mount”. The Temple is a fortress! Unbelievable. Why ever did it come to this?
Hosea 4:6 “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee”.
Jeremiah 8:9 “Lo, they have rejected the word of Yahweh; and what wisdom is in them?” Jeremiah 7:29 “Cut off thine hair, O Jerusalem, and cast it away, and take up a lamentation on high places; for Yahweh hath rejected and forsaken the generation of his wrath.”
When Pilate sought to wash his hands of the blood of Jesus, all the onlookers willingly took his blood upon themselves, “His blood be on us, and on our children”. And so it has happened with a chilling accuracy. To use the figurative language of Ezekiel 18, the fathers in Jesus’ day ate sour grapes and now their children’s teeth are well and truly set on edge.
There is a stark reality to Jesus’ words: “Except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved” (Matt 24:22).
You know, I think that we can now better understand why Paul went to such lengths to make exceedingly clear the separation of the Truth from Judaism. Remember the power of that recent letter which he wrote to the Hebrew believers, in a last attempt to pull them away from the Law of Moses and back to Christ alone: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?
Paul’s exhortation was intense: “Let us therefore fear; let us hold fast our profession; let us go on unto perfection; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith; let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; let us lay aside every weight; let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach.” (Heb 4: 1,11,14,16; 6:1; 10:22; 10:24; 12:1; 13:13).
And remember also further back when Paul withstood Peter to the face at Antioch (Galatians 2). Dear Peter, who had used the key to open the door of faith to the Gentiles, really felt the pressure of the Judaisers and he withdrew from eating with the Gentiles. Peter received a lot of sympathetic support—even Barnabas was carried away with him—but Paul, with his marvellous clarity of thought, saw how critical it was to face and defeat the issue of Judaism: “A man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ”. Paul saw clearly that, if he were to yield in Antioch, then all could be lost. Christianity would have gradually merged into Judaism and we now know where that would have ended—back into the cauldron of a self destructing Jerusalem!
Recent events have given us great clarity on this issue. The hope we have is clearly distinct. We are dead to the Law—we live unto Christ.
The other strong lesson from Jerusalem’s present state is the need to be unified in our hope and practice.
Jerusalem’s disaster is being exacerbated by disunity. In the Truth we must “be members one of another”, as Paul said. That requires care, not aggressiveness; kindness, not selfishness. Really, you’ve never seen anything so aggressive and selfish as those two power drunk fanatics in Jerusalem.
I must finish off this letter now, but let me just quickly tell you what is happening to the Romans, because the end is coming.
When Nero died, General Vespasian sent his son Titus to Rome to make his submission to the new Emperor Galba. But Titus only got as far as Greece when he heard that Galba had been murdered. A new power struggle was beginning in Rome, so Titus returned to Judea.
Vespasian remained inactive for almost a year, while generals and governors in the West jostled and fought for the position of Emperor. Then, when the empire became the prize of the strongest, Vespasian entered the fray. On July 1st this year he was proclaimed emperor by the eastern legions and then sailed for Rome to take up the power vacuum which had developed there.
Vespasian has handed over the conduct of the Jewish War to his son Titus and has given him the Twelfth Legion from Syria, as well as the Fifth Legion which is camped at Emmaus. We hear also that the Tenth Legion is coming up from Jericho to the Mount of Olives!
O poor Jerusalem, Jerusalem. “Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together”!
Your brother in the hope of the Kingdom,