This third 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.

AD 66

 My dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus

Loving greetings across the centuries.

The crisis in Judaea has come! The “great tribulation” Jesus spoke about is here!

The Jewish Zealots have gone wild with excitement. Sober minded Jews are filled with fear and foreboding, while we in the ecclesia at Anathoth are amazed at the way Jesus’ warnings are unfolding. We are fearful in one way, but quietly confident in another, for all that we see is encouraging our faith in God’s Word.

Last time I wrote, I told you about the expulsion of the Roman Governor of Judaea, Florus, and about the way this had enflamed the Jewish Zealots so that a Zealot gang even ascended Masada and slaughtered the Roman garrison there. We have since heard that this attack was led by Menahem, the son of Judas the Galilean. You have probably read about Judas the Galilean in our beloved Luke’s writing. Judas was one of the two revolt leaders that Gamaliel spoke about in the Sanhedrin the day he advised the Councillors to refrain from touching the apostles (Acts 5:37).

Well, since then, the whole place is on fire (almost literally). Zealot gangs have attacked the upper city of Jerusalem where the pro-Romans had taken refuge. Even the great Roman tower of Antonia has been attacked—that’s the tower on the north-western corner of the Temple mount from which, for a hundred years or so, the Romans have kept order in the Temple. Remember when the Apostle Paul was being beaten after the riot in the Temple—it was from the castle of Antonia that the Romans ran down to rescue him (Acts 21:32).

The recent Zealot attack on Antonia was so fierce that the remaining Romans in the castle were unable to withstand the assault, and eventually surrendered on the guarantee of safe conduct out of the area. But what guarantees could fanatical Jews give? The Romans were soon cut down by the rebels.

The revolt at Jerusalem has released all the old pent-up hatred. All over the country Jews and Gentiles have slaughtered each other. Towns have been sacked and populations wiped out. And now we have heard that Cestius Gallus, the governor of Syria, is on the move with a third of his legions. He moved down to Acre, then marched into Galilee, subduing it with comparative ease. He then marched to Cæsarea, then on to Joppa, burning the town, then on to Lydda. The latest we have heard is that his legions are heading up through the pass of Beth-horon.

It may seem incredible to you that the Jewish rebels could ever hope for success in resisting the might of the Roman legions. But in the Jewish mind the victories of Judas the Maccabee and his brothers are still very fresh, even though they happened over a century and a half ago. The Maccabees won independence from the Seleucid empire against overwhelming odds: so the Zealots think that they can too. They claim, of course, to have God on their side. Other groups, such as the Sicarii, are even more fanatically obsessed with success.

The believers, though, know where the odds well and truly lie this time. Jesus said in his Olivet prophecy, “For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together”. I must be careful how I say this, for who knows who might, in these crazy violent days, intercept and read my letters. Perhaps I should just say that a dead “body of Moses” makes a carcase and the standard of the Roman legions portrays a golden eagle with outstretched wings grasping a thunderbolt.

And that gives us the quiet confidence which I mentioned at the beginning of this letter. In almost his next sentence Jesus spoke about “the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory”. We are not sure how long it will be between the eagles taking the carcase and the Son of man coming, but that doesn’t matter to us. What does matter so much is the certainty of the Son of man’s coming. The certainty gives us hope today and confidence for the morrow, should even little Anathoth become engulfed in the war.

That reminds me of a phrase in the prophets which I meant to mention earlier. It comes from Isaiah 10:30 and is “O poor Anathoth”.

It’s not that we are poor, but that Anathoth is in the “line of fire” of an army coming against Jerusalem from the north. The context of the expression is as follows:

v28 “He is come to Aiath, he is passed to Migron; at Michmash he hath laid up his carriages:

v29 “They are gone over the passage: they have taken up their lodging at Geba; Ramah is afraid; Gibeah of Saul is fled.

v30 “Lift up thy voice, O daughter of Gallim: cause it to be heard unto Laish, O poor Anathoth.”

Isaiah is describing the giant-like steps of Sennacherib’s army as he went against Jerusalem in Hezekiah’s day. One by one the fenced cities of Judaea fell to Sennacherib as he closed in. Then went up the cry “O poor Anathoth!” as our little hometown, too, fell in the path of the cruel Assyrian.

What will it be like this time when the Romans return to take Jerusalem? Maybe we will just miss out. Anathoth is a few miles north of Jerusalem, a bit to the east—you get to Anathoth from Jerusalem by taking the road which cuts through north of the Mount of Olives and east of Mt Scopus. When the Romans return, though, they will probably come along the Beth–horon Road which runs west of Mt Scopus.

Whatever happens though, we feel satisfied. Should it be another case of “O poor Anathoth”, we know that we have an inheritance preserved in heaven, not subject to the outcome of men’s battles. Our inheritance will be delivered and found quite safe when the Son of man returns.

I’ll confess to you, though, that we are a little uncertain about the following words which Jesus said in his Olivet Prophecy:

When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:) “Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains” (Matt 24:15–16).

For years we have spoken about this at our Bible Classes in Anathoth. What is the abomination of desolation and how will we identify it? How will we know when it is time to leave? And what if it is winter or the Sabbath day? And where shall we go?

I’ll give you our answer to the first question. Firstly compare Matthew and Luke:

Matthew 24:15–16

 When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation…

 “Then let them which be in Judæa flee into the mountains

Luke 21:20

 “When ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies…

 “Then let them which are in Judæa flee to the mountains

Secondly, note that Daniel the prophet has three references to “abomination that makes desolate” (9:27; 11:31 and 12:11). They are all concerned with something desecrating the Temple, but the one which seems to relate best to Jesus’ words is the one in the seventy week prophecy–Daniel 9:27. In our Greek translation, this verse reads in part, “… and on the temple shall be the abomination of desolations… ”.

What could be more abominable than the Roman legions offering sacrifices to their pagan gods in the precincts of the Temple? So we are expecting to see the Temple itself surrounded by Roman armies.

Is that about to happen? Will the arrival of Cestius Gallus, the governor of Syria, be the signal that our ecclesia is to leave Judaea for the mountains? Times are fearful, but exciting. Prophecy is being fulfilled before our eyes.

I will write again soon, God willing, perhaps from Anathoth, perhaps from the mountains! Your brother in the hope of the coming of the Son of man,