This Olivet Discourse Deception study features Joseph Benson’s Commentary on the Olivet Discourse as outlines in Matthew 24.
One of the most eminent of the early Methodist ministers in England, Joseph Benson was born at Melmerby, in Cumberland, Jan. 25, 1748. At sixteen he became a Methodist and was converted. In 1766 Mr. Wesley appointed him classical master at Kingswood School. He devoted himself closely to philosophy and theology, studying constantly and zealously.
Joseph Benson became a Methodist circuit rider in 1771. A close associate of Wesley, he was chosen to be a member of the Legal One Hundred who governed the Conference at Wesley’s death and he was president of the Conference two times. As one of post-Wesley Methodism’s most popular preachers, he sometimes addressed crowds of over twenty thousand.
And Jesus went out — For the last time; and departed from the temple — Which he never entered afterward; and his disciples came to him — As he was going away; to show him the buildings of the temple — To call his attention to the splendid buildings and sumptuous decorations of the place, saying, according to Mark, Master, see what manner of stones and buildings are here! intending to intimate, probably, what a pitiable calamity they thought it that such a grand structure should be destroyed.
Indeed, as the whole temple was built with the greatest cost and magnificence, so nothing was more stupendous than the uncommon measure of the stones, some of which, particularly those employed in the foundations, were in magnitude forty cubits, that is, above 60 feet; and the superstructure was worthy of such foundations.
And some of the stones were of the whitest marble, forty-five cubits long, five cubits high, and six broad. Indeed, the marble of the temple was so white that, according to Josephus, it appeared at a distance like a mountain of snow; while the gilding of several of its external parts, especially when the sun shone upon it, rendered it a most splendid and beautiful spectacle. See Bishop Newton, from whose admirable work on the prophecies most of the notes on this chapter are extracted.
Jesus said — There shall not be left one stone upon another — A proverbial and figurative expression to denote an utter destruction; and the prophecy would have been amply fulfilled, if the city and temple had been utterly ruined, though every single stone had not been overturned. But it happened that the words were almost literally fulfilled: for after the temple was burned, Titus, the Roman general, ordered the very foundations of it to be dug up; after which the ground on which it stood was ploughed up by Turnus Rufus.
It is true, Titus was very desirous of preserving it, and the city too, and sent Josephus and other Jews again and again to persuade them to a surrender, but one greater than Titus had determined it otherwise. The Jews themselves first set fire to the porticoes of the temple, and then the Romans. One of the soldiers, neither waiting for any command, nor trembling at such an attempt, but urged by a certain divine impulse, says Josephus, mounted the shoulder of his companion, thrust a burning brand in at the golden window, and thereby set fire to the building of the temple itself.
Titus ran immediately to the temple, and commanded the soldiers to extinguish the flame; but neither exhortations nor threatenings could restrain their violence; they either could not, or would not hear, those behind encouraging those before to set fire to the temple. Titus was still for preserving the holy place, and commanded his soldiers to be beaten for disobeying him. But their anger and hatred of the Jews, and a certain warlike and vehement fury, overcame their reverence for their general, and their dread of his commands.
A soldier, in the dark, set fire to the doors; and thus, as Josephus says, the temple was burned against the will of Cesar. The city also shared the same fate, and was burned and destroyed, as well as the temple. The Romans burned the extremest parts of the city, and demolished the walls; three towers only and some part of the wall were left standing, for the better encampment of the soldiers, and to show to posterity what a city, and how fortified, the valour of the Romans had taken. All the rest of the city was so demolished and levelled with the ground, that they who came to see it could not believe it had ever been inhabited.
And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him — The disciples were desirous to know more of these events, when they should be, and how they should be; but thought it not proper to ask him at present, the multitude probably still crowding about him, and therefore they take an opportunity of coming unto him privately, as he was sitting upon the mount of Olives, from whence they had a full view of the city and temple, and there they prefer their request to him.
Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? — These seem to be only different expressions to denote the same period with the destruction of Jerusalem, the disciples supposing, that when the destruction of Jerusalem should take place, then would be the coming of Christ and the end of the world, or, the conclusion of the age, as συντελεια του αιωνος should rather be translated here, and often signifies.
See especially Hebrews 9:26; and 1 Corinthians 10:11. Accordingly, in the parallel place of Mark 13:4, their question is expressed thus, When shall these things be, and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled? And in that of Luke 21:7, thus, When shall these things be? and what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass?
The disciples therefore inquire concerning two things; 1st, the time of the destruction of Jerusalem; and, 2d, the signs of it. The latter part of the question our Lord answers first, and treats of the signs of his coming from the 4th to the 31st verse, inclusive; and then passes on to the other part of the question, concerning the time of his coming. Jesus answered, Take heed that no man deceive you —
The caution was more particularly designed for the succeeding Christians, whom the apostles then represented. For many shall come in my name — That is, as Doctor Campbell renders it, many will assume my character; a reading which expresses our Lord’s meaning more precisely than ours. For to come in any one’s name signifies more properly with us, to come by one’s authority or order, real or pretended; in which sense the Messiah came in the name of God, the apostles came in the name of Christ.
But this is far from being the sense of the phrase in this passage; where it plainly signifies that many would usurp his title, make pretensions to his office and character, and thereby lead their followers into the most fatal delusion, saying, I am Christ — Our Lord begins with this, according to all the evangelists, and they all represent him as using almost the same words: only in Luke 21:8, he adds, the time draweth near; and indeed within a very little time this part of the prophecy began to be fulfilled.
Very soon after our Saviour’s decease appeared Simon Magus, who boasted himself among the Jews as the Son of God, and gave out among the Samaritans, that he was some great one, Acts 8:9-10. Of the same stamp and character was Dositheus, the Samaritan, who pretended that he was the Christ foretold by Moses.
In the reign of Claudius, about twelve years after the death of our Saviour, when Cuspius Fadus was procurator of Judea, an impostor, named Theudas, persuaded a great multitude to follow him, with their best effects, to the river Jordan, for he said that he was a prophet, and promised to divide the river for their passage; and saying these things, he deceived many, says Josephus.
But Fadus sent a troop of horse against them, who, falling unexpectedly upon them, killed many, and made many prisoners; and having taken Theudas himself alive, they cut off his head and brought it to Jerusalem. A few years afterward, in the reign of Nero, when Felix was procurator of Judea, such a number of these impostors made their appearance, that many of them were apprehended and killed every day. They seduced great numbers of the people still expecting the Messiah. Our Saviour might well, therefore, caution his disciples against them.
And ye shall hear of wars, &c. — This is the second sign. That there were wars and rumours of wars, appears by all the historians of those times, and above all by Josephus. To relate the particulars would be to transcribe a great part of his history of the Jewish wars. There were more especially rumours of wars when Caligula, the Roman emperor, ordered his statue to be set up in the temple at Jerusalem, which the Jews refused to suffer, and persisted in their refusal: and having therefore reason to apprehend a war from the Romans, were in such a consternation, that they omitted even the tilling of their lands. But this storm was soon blown over, and their fear dissipated by the timely death of that emperor.
For nation shall rise against nation, &c. — Here Christ declares that greater disturbances than those which happened under Caligula, should fall out in the latter times of Claudius, and in the reign of Nero. The rising of nation against nation portended the dissensions, insurrections, and mutual slaughters of the Jews, and those of other nations, who dwelt in the same cities together; as particularly at Cesarea, where the Jews and Syrians contended about the right of the city, which contention at length proceeded so far that above twenty thousand Jews were slain, and the city was cleared of the Jewish inhabitants.
At this blow the whole nation of the Jews was exasperated; and, dividing themselves into parties, they burned and plundered the neighbouring cities and villages of the Syrians, and made an immense slaughter of the people. The Syrians, in revenge, destroyed not a less number of Jews, and every city was divided into two armies. At Scythopolis the inhabitants compelled the Jews who resided among them to fight against their own countrymen, and, after the victory, basely setting upon them by night, murdered above thirteen thousand of them, and spoiled their goods. At Ascalon they killed two thousand five hundred; at Ptolemais two thousand, and made not a few prisoners.
The Tyrians put many to death, and imprisoned more. The people of Gadara did likewise; and all the other cities of Syria, in proportion as they hated or feared the Jews. At Alexandria the old enmity was revived between the Jews and heathen, and many fell on both sides, but of the Jews to the number of fifty thousand. The people of Damascus, too, conspired against the Jews of the same city, and, assaulting them unarmed, killed ten thousand of them.
The rising of kingdom against kingdom portended the open wars of different tetrarchies and provinces against one another: as that of the Jews who dwelt in Peræa against the people of Philadelphia, concerning their bounds, while Cuspius Fadus was procurator; and that of the Jews and Galileans against the Samaritans, for the murder of some Galileans going up to the feast at Jerusalem, while Cumanus was procurator; and that of the whole nation of the Jews against the Romans and Agrippa, and other allies of the Roman empire. But there was not only sedition and civil war throughout Judea, but likewise in Italy, Otho and Vitellius contending for the empire.
There shall be famines and pestilences — The third sign. There were famines, as particularly that prophesied of by Agabus, and mentioned Acts 11:28; and by Suetonius, and other profane historians referred to by Eusebius, which came to pass in the days of Claudius Cesar, and was so severe at Jerusalem, that many perished for want of victuals —
And pestilences, the usual attendants upon famine. Scarcity and badness of provisions almost always end in some epidemical distemper. Many died by reason of the famine in the reign of Claudius: and when Niger was killed by the Jewish zealots, he imprecated, besides other calamities, famine and pestilence upon them, ( λιμοντε και λοιμον, the very words used by the evangelist,) all which, says Josephus, God ratified and brought to pass against the ungodly —
And earthquakes in divers places — The fourth sign. In the time of Claudius and Nero there were great earthquakes at Smyrna, Miletus, Chios, Samos, Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colosse; in Crete also and Campania, and one at Rome in the reign of Galba. In Judea, likewise, there were judgments of the same kind.
For Josephus tells us, Bell., 4. cap. 4, “There happened a most terrible tempest and violent winds, with the most vehement showers, and continual lightnings, and horrid thunderings, and prodigious bellowings of the shaken earth;” so that many were led to believe that these things portended no common calamity. St. Luke mentions a fifth sign, namely, Fearful sights and great signs from heaven, Luke 21:11; where see the notes, as also on Isaiah 66:6. All these are the beginning of sorrows — Gr. ωδινων, a word which is properly used of the pains of travailing women. As if he had said, All these are only the first pangs and throes; and are nothing to that hard labour that shall follow.
Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, &c. — From the calamities of the nation in general, he passes to those of the Christians in particular: and indeed the former were in a great measure the occasion of the latter; famines, pestilences, earthquakes, and the like calamities, being reckoned judgments for the sins of the Christians, and the poor Christians being often maltreated and persecuted on that account, as we learn from some of the earliest apologies for the Christian religion. Now the calamities which were to befall the Christians were cruel persecutions, and we need look no further than the Acts of the Apostles for the completion of this prediction.
But if we would look further, we have still a more melancholy proof of the truth of it in the persecutions under Nero, in which, not to mention numberless other Christians, those two great champions of the Christian faith, Peter and Paul, fell. Indeed, as Tertullian calls it, it was nominis prælium, a war against the very name. For though a man was possessed of every human virtue, it was crime enough if he was a Christian; so true were our Saviour’s words, that they should be hated of all nations for his name’s sake.
Then shall many be offended — That is, shall stumble and fall, or shall be turned out of the right way. By reason of persecution, many apostatized from the faith, particularly those mentioned by Paul, 2 Timothy 1:15; and 2 Timothy 4:10. And shall betray one another — To illustrate this, it is sufficient to cite one sentence out of Tacitus. Speaking of the persecution under Nero, he says, “At first several were seized, who confessed, and then by their discovery a great multitude of others were convicted and barbarously executed.”
And many false prophets shall rise — Or false teachers, namely, in the Christian Church. Such were Simon Magus, and his followers, the Gnostics, who were very numerous. Such also were the Judaizing teachers, termed by Paul, 2 Corinthians 11:13, false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. Such likewise were Hymeneus and Philetus, 2 Timothy 2:17-18.
And the love of many shall wax cold — Because of these trials and persecutions from without, and these apostacies and false teachers from within the church, the love of many to Christ and his doctrine, and to one another, shall wax cold. Some shall openly desert the faith, as Matthew 24:10; others corrupt it, as Matthew 24:11; and others grow indifferent about it, as Matthew 24:12.
But he that shall endure unto the end — He who shall not be terrified by these trials and persecutions; who shall neither apostatize from the faith himself, nor seduce nor be seduced by others; he who shall not be ashamed to profess his faith in Christ, and his love to the brethren, nor be deterred therefrom: the same shall be saved — Both here and hereafter. It is very remarkable, and was certainly a most signal act of Providence, that none of the Christians perished in the destruction of Jerusalem. See on Matthew 24:16. So true and prophetic also was that assertion of St. Peter upon this same occasion, The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptation, 2 Peter 2:9.
This gospel of the kingdom — Namely, of the kingdom of God; shall be preached in all the world — Not universally; this is not yet done; but in general, through the several parts of the world, and not only in Judea. And this was done by St. Paul and the other apostles, before Jerusalem was destroyed; for a witness to all nations that I am the Christ.
And then shall the end come — Of the city and temple: that is, when all nations shall, or may be convinced, by the preaching of the gospel, of the crying sin of the Jews in crucifying the Lord of glory; then shall the justice of God bring these dreadful judgments upon that people. The Acts of the Apostles, it must be observed, contain only a small part of the history of a small number of the apostles, and yet even in that history we see the gospel was widely disseminated, and had taken root in the most considerable parts of the Roman empire.
As early as in the reign of Nero, as we learn from Tacitus, (Annal., l. 15.) the Christians were grown so numerous at Rome as to raise the jealousy of the government, and the first general persecution was commenced against them, under pretence of their having set fire to the city, of which the emperor himself was really guilty, but wished to transfer the blame and odium of the action on the poor innocent Christians. Clement, who was contemporary and a fellow-labourer with Paul, says of him, (see his 1st Epistle to the Corinthians,) that he was a preacher both in the east and west, and that he taught the whole world righteousness.
And if such were the labours of one apostle, though the chief of them, what were the united labours of them all? It appears indeed from the writers of the history of the church, that before the destruction of Jerusalem the gospel was not only preached in the Lesser Asia, Greece, and Italy, the great theatres of action then in the world; but likewise propagated as far north as Scythia; as far south as Ethiopia; as far east as Parthia and India; as far west as Spain and Britain.
When ye shall see, &c. — The preceding verses foretold the signs of the destruction of Jerusalem, that is, the circumstances which were to be the forerunners and attendants of that great event: we now proceed to those verses which respect what happened during the siege, and after it. Never was a prophecy more punctually fulfilled: and it will tend to confirm our faith in the gospel to trace the particulars. The abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel — Daniel’s expression is, The abomination that maketh desolate.
By which term is intended the desolating Roman armies with their standards. To every legion was a golden eagle with expanded wings, grasping a thunderbolt. These eagles, with the standards of the cohorts, ten in each legion, were objects of worship among the Romans, and therefore were an abomination to the Jews. We learn from Josephus, that after the city was taken, the Romans brought their ensigns into the temple, and placed them over against the eastern gate, and there sacrificed to them. See the note on Daniel 9:27.
Stand in the holy place — Or, as it is in Mark, standing where it ought not — That is, when ye shall see these armies encamped in the territory near Jerusalem: for, as the city was called the holy city, several furlongs of land round about it were accounted holy, particularly the mount on which our Lord now sat, and on which afterward the Romans placed their ensigns:
whoso readeth, let him understand — As if he had said, Let him who reads that remarkable prophecy of Daniel’s, pause seriously upon it, and weigh well its meaning, for it contains one of the most eminent predictions which can anywhere be found of the time, purposes, and consequences of any appearing; or, the sense may be, Let him understand that the end of the city and sanctuary, with the ceasing of the sacrifice and oblation there predicted, is come, and of consequence, the end of the age mentioned in the preceding verse.
This interpretration of the clause supposes it to be uttered by our Lord as a part of his discourse, in which light it is considered by most commentators. But, “after the strictest examination,” says Dr. Campbell, (following Bengelius,) “I cannot help concluding, that they are not the words of our Lord, and consequently make no part of this memorable discourse, but the words of the evangelist, calling the attention of his readers to a very important warning and precept of his Master, which he was then writing, (namely, that immediately following,) and of which many of them would live to see the utility, when the completion of these predictions should begin to take place.”
The doctor, therefore, renders the words, Reader, attend! Let them which be in Judea flee to the mountains — Let them flee as fast as they can from the fortified cities and populous towns into the wilderness, where they will be secure. This important advice the Christians remembered and wisely followed, and were preserved. It is remarkable, that after the Romans, under Cestius Gallus, made their first advance toward Jerusalem, they suddenly withdrew again, in a most unexpected and impolitic manner. “This conduct of the Roman general,” says Macknight, “so contrary to all the rules of prudence, was doubtless brought to pass by the providence of God, who interposed in this manner for the deliverance of the disciples of his Son.”
For, at this juncture, the Christians, considering it as a signal to retire, left Jerusalem, and removed to Pella and other places beyond the river Jordan, so that they all marvellously escaped the general ruin of their country, and we do not read anywhere that so much as one of them perished. Of such signal service was this caution of our Lord to his followers!
Let him who is on the house-top not come down — It is well known that the houses of the Jews, as well as those of the ancient Greeks and Romans, were flat on the top, for them to walk upon, and had usually stairs on the outside, by which they might ascend and descend without coming into the house. In the walled cities, these flat-roofed houses usually formed continued terraces from one end of the city to the other, which terraces terminated at the gates. The meaning therefore here is, Let not him who is walking on the house-top come down to take any thing out of his house; but let him instantly pursue his course along the tops of houses, and escape out of the city gate as fast as he possibly can. Neither let him which is in the field, &c. —
Our Saviour makes use of these expressions to intimate, that their flight must be as sudden and hasty as Lot’s was out of Sodom. And the Christians escaping just as they did was the more providential, because afterward all egress from the city was prevented. And wo unto them that are with child, &c. — For such will not be in a condition to flee, neither will they be well able to endure the distress and hardships of the siege. This wo was sufficiently fulfilled in the cruel slaughters which were made both of the women and children, and particularly in that grievous famine which so miserably afflicted Jerusalem during the siege. See notes on Deuteronomy 28:53-57.
But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter — For the inclemency of the season, the badness of the roads, the shortness of the days, will all be great impediments to your flight: neither on the sabbath day — That you may not raise the indignation of the Jews by travelling on that day, and so meet with that death out of the city which you had endeavoured to escape by removing from it. Besides, many of them would have scrupled to travel far on that day; the Jews thinking it unlawful to walk above two thousand paces, (two miles,) on the sabbath day. In the parallel place in Mark, this latter clause, about the sabbath day, is not mentioned.
For then shall be great tribulation — Never had words a more sad or full accomplishment than these: for the miseries which befell this people about the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, were such as no history can parallel. Within the city the fury of the opposite factions was so great that they filled all places, and even the temple itself, with continual slaughters.
Nay, to such a pitch did their madness arise, that they destroyed the very granaries of corn which should have sustained them, and burned the magazines of arms which should have defended them. By these means, when the siege had lasted but two months, the famine began to rage, and at length reduced them to such straits, that the barbarities which they practised are not to be imagined; see Josephus, Bell., Matthew 6:11.
Even the mothers ate their own children, ibid., Matthew 7:8. In short, from the beginning of the siege to the taking of the city, there were slain by faction, by famine, by pestilence, and by the enemy, no less than one million one hundred thousand in Jerusalem. So that, as Josephus himself observes, in his preface to his history of this war: “If all the calamities which the world, from the beginning, hath seen, were compared with those of the Jews, they would appear inferior.”
And again, in another place he says, “To speak in brief, no other city ever suffered such things, as no generation from the beginning of the world was ever more fruitful of wickedness.” And that the peculiar hand of Providence was visible in this destruction of the nation, the same author affirms. For, having described the vast multitudes of people that were in Jerusalem when it was besieged, he says, Bell., Matthew 7:17, “This multitude was assembled together from other places, and was there, by the providence of God, shut up. as it were, in a prison.” Besides, he tells us that Titus himself took notice that the Jews were urged on by God himself to their destruction.
Except those days should be shortened, &c. — If these wars and desolations were to continue for any length of time, none of the Jews would escape destruction; they would all be cut off, root and branch. For the calamities will be so severe that, like fire, they would soon consume all, and leave nothing for themselves to prey on. But for the elect’s sake — For the sake of those Jews that shall embrace the gospel; those days shall be shortened —
The elect, is a well-known appellation in Scripture and antiquity for the Christians; and the Christian Jews, partly through the fury of the Zealots on the one hand, and the hatred of the Romans on the other; and partly through the difficulty of subsisting in the mountains without houses or provisions; would in all probability have been almost all destroyed, either by sword or by the famine, if the days had not been shortened. But providentially the days were shortened.
Titus himself was desirous of putting a speedy end to the siege, having Rome, and the riches and pleasures there, before his eyes. Some of his officers proposed to him to turn the siege into a blockade, and since they could not take the city by storm, to starve it into a surrender; but he thought it not becoming to sit still with so great an army; he feared lest the length of the time should diminish the glory of his success. The besieged, too, helped to shorten the days, by their divisions and mutual slaughters; by burning their provisions, which would have sufficed for many years, and fatally deserting their strongest holds, where they could never have been taken by force, but by famine alone.
Indeed, Jerusalem was so well fortified, and so well fitted to sustain a longer siege, that it could not have been taken in so short a time by the enemy without, had it not been for the factions and seditions within. Titus himself could not but ascribe the success to God, as he was viewing the fortifications after the city was taken. His words to his friends were very remarkable. “We have fought,” said he, “with God on our side, ο θεος ην ο των δε ερυματων ιουδαιους καθεκων, it is God who hath pulled the Jews out of these strong holds; for what could the hands of men, or machines, do against these towers?” God, therefore, in the opinion of Titus, as well as of the evangelist: shortened these days.
After the destruction of Jerusalem too, God inclined the heart of Titus to take some pity upon the remnant of the Jews, and to restrain the nations from exercising the cruelty that they would have exercised against them. At Antioch, particularly, the senate importuned him to expel the Jews from the city: but he answered that their country being laid waste, there was no place to receive them. They then requested him to deprive the Jews of their former privileges; but those he permitted them to enjoy as before. Thus, for the elect’s sake those days of persecution were shortened.
If any man say, Lo, here is Christ, or there — During the terrible calamities here foretold, the expectations of the nation were all turned toward their Messiah; for they thought if ever he was to appear, it would be then, to deliver them from the impending destruction. Hence many arose, pretending to be the Messiah, and boasting that they would deliver the nation; the effect of which was, that the multitude, giving credit to these deceivers, became obstinate in their opposition to the Romans, whereby their destruction was rendered both the more severe and the more inevitable.
Our Lord, it must be observed, had cautioned his disciples against false Christs and false prophets before, (see Matthew 24:5,) but what he here says is not to be considered as a repetition of that, but relates to those impostors who should appear during the time of the siege. And, in fact, many such impostors did arise about that time, as we learn from Josephus, (lib. 6. cap. 5, § 2,) and promised deliverance from God, being suborned by the tyrants or governors, to prevent the people and soldiers from deserting to the Romans; and the lower the Jews were reduced, the more disposed were they to listen to these deceptions, and the more ready to follow the deceivers. Hegesippus also, quoted by Eusebius, mentions the coming of false Christs and false prophets about the same time.
And shall show great signs — As it was to little purpose for a man to take upon him the character of the Christ, or even of a prophet, without miracles to vouch his mission; so it was the common artifice and pretence of these impostors to show signs and wonders, σημεια και τερατα, the very words used by Christ in this prophecy, and by Josephus in his history.
Behold, I have told you before — Behold, I have given you sufficient warning. If they shall say, He is in the desert — It is surprising that our Lord should not only foretel the appearance of these impostors, but also the manner and circumstances of their conduct. For some he mentions as appearing in the desert, and some in the secret chambers; and the event, in all points, answered to the prediction. Josephus says (Antiq., lib. 20. cap. 7, and Bell. Jud., lib. 2. cap. 13,) that “many impostors and cheats persuaded the people to follow them into the desert, where they promised to show manifest wonders and signs done by the providence of God; and many, being persuaded, suffered the punishment of their folly.”
And he mentions an Egyptian false prophet, Antiq., Matthew 20:7, (spoken of also Acts 21:38,) who led out into the desert four thousand men who were murderers; and who were all taken or destroyed by Felix: another impostor is also mentioned by the same author, who promised deliverance to the people if they would follow him into the desert, but Festus sent horse and foot against him, and destroyed both him and his followers. These things happened before the destruction of Jerusalem; and a little after, one Jonathan, a weaver, persuaded many to follow him into the desert, most or all of whom were slain or made prisoners, and he himself taken and burned alive, by order of Vespasian.
As several of these impostors thus conducted their followers into the desert, so did others into the secret chambers, or places of security. One of these (according to Josephus, Bell., Matthew 6:5) declared to the people in the city, that God commanded them to go up into the temple, and there they should receive the signs of deliverance. A multitude of men, women, and children went up accordingly; but, instead of deliverance, the place was set on fire by the Romans, and six thousand perished miserably in the flames, by throwing themselves down to escape them. Our Saviour therefore might well caution his disciples both against the former and the latter sort of these deceivers.
For as the lightning cometh out of the east, &c. — The coming of the Son of man shall be in a very different manner, and for very different ends from what you are imagining. It shall be like lightning, swift, unexpected, and destructive. His appearance will be as distinguishable from that of every false Christ, as lightning, which shines all round the hemisphere, is from a blaze of straw. What Bishop Pearce observes from Josephus is very memorable, that “the Roman army entered into Judea on the east side of it, and carried on their conquests westward, as if not only the extensiveness of the ruin, but the very route which the army would take, was intended in the comparison of the lightning coming out of the east, and shining even unto the west.”
For wheresoever the carcass is, &c. — For though the coming of the Son of man shall be like lightning, swift, spreading, and destructive, yet he will not come personally; his servants only shall come, the Roman armies, who by his command shall destroy this nation as eagles devour their prey. Thus our Lord, after his usual manner, applies a proverbial expression with a particular meaning; and the Romans are very properly compared to eagles, both because eagles are the fiercest birds of prey, and because the Roman ensign was an eagle, to which probably our Lord alluded in this passage.
Immediately after, &c. — We are now come to the last act of this dismal tragedy, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the final dissolution of the Jewish polity in church and state, which our Lord, for several reasons, might not think fit to declare nakedly and plainly, and therefore chose to clothe his discourse in figurative language.
Commentators, indeed, have generally understood this, and what follows, of the end of the world, and of Christ’s coming to judgment: but the words, immediately after the tribulation of those days, show evidently that he is not speaking of any distant event, but of something immediately consequent upon the tribulation before mentioned, and that must be the destruction of the temple and city of Jerusalem, and the abolition of the Jewish polity, civil and religious. It is true, his figures are very strong, but not stronger than those used by the ancient prophets upon similar occasions.
The Prophet Isaiah speaks in the same manner of the destruction of Babylon, Isaiah 13:10, The stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light; the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine. The Prophet Ezekiel describes in similar terms the destruction coming on Egypt, Ezekiel 32:7-8. When I shall put thee out I will cover the heaven, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light.
The Prophet Daniel also uses similar language, when speaking of the slaughter of the Jews by the little horn, meaning probably Antiochus Epiphanes: And it waxed great even unto the host of heaven; and cast down some of the host and of the stars to the ground, and stamped upon them. And lastly, God, by Joel, foretelling this very same destruction of Jerusalem, Joel 2:30-31, says, I will show wonders in heaven and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood. So that great commotions and revolutions upon earth are often represented by commotions and changes in the heavens.
Then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven — Christ proceeds here in the same figurative style, and the plain meaning of his words is, that the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Jewish state, civil and religious, would be such a remarkable instance of divine vengeance, and such a signal manifestation of Christ’s power and glory, that all the Jewish tribes should mourn, and many should be led from thence to acknowledge him for the true Messiah.
To explain this further it may be observed, “The sign from heaven, which both the disciples and Pharisees expected, was some visible appearance of the Messiah in the clouds, and some miraculous interposition of his power, by which the Romans, the masters of the world, were to be destroyed, and a universal empire over all nations erected in behalf of the Jews.
This sign they were led to expect, because Daniel had said prophetically, of the Son of man, (Daniel 7:13,) that he saw him coming in the clouds of heaven, and that there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, &c. Nevertheless, by the coming of the Son of man in the clouds, Daniel meant his interposing for the destruction of his enemies, particularly the unbelieving Jews; and the erection of his own kingdom over all nations; a spiritual kingdom, a new dispensation of religion, which should comprehend the whole world within its pale.
Therefore, to show the disciples that they had mistaken the prophecy, which referred wholly to the destruction of Jerusalem, and to the conversion of the Gentiles, he adopted it into his prediction of these events, and thereby settled its true meaning.” — Macknight. The figurative expression, Coming in the clouds of heaven, in several other passages of Scripture, signifies God’s interposing evidently and irresistibly, to execute vengeance on a wicked generation, and to assert his own government over the world. See 2 Samuel 22:10-12; Psalms 97:2; Isaiah 19:1. He shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, &c. —
This also is in the style of the prophets, and, stripped of its figures, means only that after the destruction of Jerusalem, Christ by his angels, or ministers, going forth with their powerful preaching, termed here the great sound of a trumpet, should gather to himself a glorious church, out of all the nations under heaven: that the Jews being thrust out, as he expresses it, Luke 13:28, &c., believers should come from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, and should sit down in the kingdom, of God. Agreeably to this interpretation, we find the name αγγελους, angels, used of common messengers, James 2:25; and of the ministers of the Asian churches, Revelation 2:3.; of prophets, 2 Chronicles 36:16; and of priests, Malachi 2:7. And the preaching of the messengers of God is compared to the sound of a trumpet, Isaiah 58:1; Jeremiah 6:17; Ezekiel 33:3-6.
No person, versed at all in ecclesiastical history, needs to be told that the Christian religion spread and prevailed mightily after this period; and that hardly any one thing contributed more to this success of the gospel than the destruction of Jerusalem and the ruin of the Jewish nation, falling out in the very manner and with the very circumstances so particularly foretold by our Lord.
Now learn a parable of the fig-tree — Our Lord proceeds to declare that the signs which he had given would be as certain an indication of the time of his coming, as the fig-tree’s putting forth its leaves is of the approach of summer; and that the time of his coming was at no great distance. For he adds, This generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled, — Hereby evidently showing that he had been speaking all this while only of the calamities coming on the Jews, and the destruction of Jerusalem. “It is to me a wonder,” says Bishop Newton, “how any man can refer part of the foregoing discourse to the destruction of Jerusalem, and part to the end of the world, or any other distant event, when it is said so positively here in the conclusion, All these things shall be fulfilled in this generation.
And it seems as if our Lord had been aware of some such misapplication of his words, by adding yet greater force and emphasis to his affirmation, Matthew 24:35, Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away — That is, heaven and earth shall sooner, or more easily pass away than my words; the frame of the universe shall sooner, or more easily pass away than my words shall not be fulfilled. In another place, (Matthew 16:28,) he says, There are some standing here which shall not taste of death till they see, the Son of man coming in his kingdom, intimating that the event would not take place immediately, and yet not at such a distance of time but that some then living would be spectators of the calamities coming upon the nation.
In like manner, he says to the women who bewailed him as he was going to be crucified, Luke 23:28, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children; which words sufficiently implied that the days of distress and misery were coming, and would fall on them and their children. But at that time there was not any appearance of such an immediate ruin. The wisest politician could not have inferred any such thing from the then present state of affairs. Nothing less than divine prescience could have foreseen and foretold it.”
But of that day and hour knoweth no man, &c. — I consider ωρα, hour, here, says Grotius, as denoting, not a part of a day, but a larger portion of time. So also Bishop Newton, who observes, “It would seem improper to say, Of that day and hour knoweth no man; for if the day was not known, certainly the hour was not, and it was superfluous to make such an addition. I conceive, therefore, that the passage should be rendered, Of that day and season knoweth no man, as the word is frequently used in the best authors, both sacred and profane.
It is true, our Saviour declares, ‘All these things shall be fulfilled in this generation;’ it is true also, the Prophet Daniel hath given some intimation of the time in his famous prophecy of the 70 weeks; but though this great revolution was to happen toward the conclusion of 70 weeks, or 490 years, to be computed from a certain date that is not easy to be fixed; yet the particular day, the particular season in which it was to happen, might still remain a secret to men and angels: and our Lord had before, (Matthew 24:20,) advised his disciples to pray, that their flight might not be in the winter, nor on the sabbath day; the day not being known, they were to pray that their flight might not be on the sabbath day; the season not being known, they were to pray that it might not be in the winter.”
But as the days of Noe were, &c. — As then they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, till they were surprised by the flood, notwithstanding the frequent warnings and admonitions of that preacher of righteousness: so now, they shall be engaged in the business and pleasures of the world, little expecting, little thinking of this universal ruin, till it come upon them, notwithstanding the express predictions and declarations of Christ and his apostles.
Then shall two be in the field, &c. — That is, Providence will then make a distinction between such as are not at all distinguished now. Some shall be rescued from the destruction of Jerusalem, like Lot out of the burning of Sodom; while others, nowise different in outward circumstances, shall be left to perish in it.
Two women shall be grinding at the mill — A passage in Dr. E. Daniel Clarke’s Travels in Greece, Egypt, and the Holy Land, published in 1812, (p. 428,) may fitly be quoted here. “Scarcely had we reached the apartment prepared for our reception,” (namely, in Nazareth,) “when, looking from the window into the court-yard belonging to the house, we beheld two women grinding at the mill in a manner most forcibly illustrating a saying of our Saviour’s.
In the centre of the upper stone was a cavity for pouring in the corn, and by the side of this an upright wooden handle for moving the stone. As the operation began, one of the women, with her right hand, pushed this handle to the woman opposite, who again sent it to her companion; thus communicating a rotatory and very rapid motion to the upper stone, their left hands being all the while employed in supplying fresh corn, as fast as the bran and flour escaped from the sides of the machine.”
Hitherto we have explained the contents of this chapter as relating to the destruction of Jerusalem; of which, without doubt, it is primarily to be understood. But though it is to be understood of this primarily, yet not of this only; for there is no question that our Lord had a further view in it. It is usual with the prophets to frame and express their prophecies so as that they shall comprehend more than one event, and have their several periods of completion.
This every one must have observed who has been ever so little conversant in the writings of the ancient prophets, and this doubtless is the case here; and the destruction of Jerusalem is to be considered as typical of the end of the world, of which the destruction of a great city is a lively type and image. And we may observe that our Saviour no sooner begins to speak of the destruction of Jerusalem, than his figures are raised, his language swelled, (The sun shall be darkened, &c.,) and he expresses himself in such terms as, in a lower and figurative sense indeed, are applicable to that destruction; but in their higher and literal sense, can be meant only of the end of the world.
The same may be said of that text, Of that day and season knoweth no man, &c: the consistence and connection of the discourse oblige us to understand it as spoken of the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, but in a higher sense it may be true also of the time of the end of the world, and of the general judgment. All the subsequent discourse too, we may observe, does not relate so properly to the destruction of Jerusalem as to the end of the world and the general judgment. Our Lord loses sight, as it were, of his former subject, and adapts his discourse more to the latter. And, indeed, the end of the Jewish state was, in a manner, the end of the world to many of the Jews.
It appears next to impossible that any man should duly consider these prophecies, and the exact completion of them, and, if he is a believer, not be confirmed in the faith; or, if he is an infidel, not be converted. Can any stronger proof be given of a divine revelation than the spirit of prophecy; or of the spirit of prophecy, than the examples now before us, in which so many contingencies, and we may say, improbabilities, which human wisdom or prudence could never have foreseen, are so particularly foretold, and so punctually accomplished!
At the time when Christ pronounced these prophecies, the Roman governor resided at Jerusalem, and had a force sufficient to keep the people in obedience; and could human prudence foresee that the city, as well as the country, would revolt and rebel against the Romans? Could it foresee pestilences, and famines, and earthquakes in divers places? Could it foresee the speedy propagation of the gospel, so contrary to all human probability? Could human prudence foresee such an utter destruction of Jerusalem, with all the circumstances preceding and following it? It was never the custom of the Romans absolutely to ruin any of their provinces.
It was improbable, therefore, that such a thing should happen at all, and still more improbable that it should happen under the humane and generous Titus who was indeed, as he was called, the love and delight of mankind. Yet, however improbable this was it has happened, and it was foreseen and foretold by Christ; but how was it possible for him to foresee it, unless his foresight was divine, and his prediction the infallible oracle of God? Eusebius observes well upon this place, that, “Whoever shall compare the words of our Saviour with the history which Josephus has written of the war, cannot but admire the wisdom of Christ, and acknowledge his prediction to be divine.”
Watch therefore — Let your mind be thoroughly awake to a sense of the certainty and importance of these things, and be on your guard that they may not overtake you unawares, but that you may be prepared to meet Christ in the way of judgment or mercy; for ye know not what hour your Lord cometh — Either to avenge himself of this nation, to require your soul of you, or to call you and all mankind to his bar.
Be ye also ready — By being assured of God’s favour, and stamped with his image, and by a holy deadness to the objects of this uncertain and transitory world, which you are so soon to leave, and may be called to leave at a moment’s warning; be prepared to receive every event of divine providence with resignation to God’s will, and a perfect acquiescence in the wisdom of all his dispensations, fully persuaded that all things shall work for good to them that love him.
Who then is the faithful and wise servant — Which of you aspires after this character? Wise — Every moment retaining the clearest conviction that all he now has is only intrusted to him as a steward: Faithful — Thinking, speaking, and acting continually in a manner suitable to that conviction. Whom his lord hath made ruler over his household — This evidently chiefly concerns the ministers of the gospel. See notes on Luke 12:42, &c. Blessed is that servant, &c. —
“You, the ministers of religion, ought to be peculiarly faithful in the discharge of your duty; for it is not an ordinary trust that is committed to your charge. You are stewards, whose business it is to take care of the whole family, and who, because of the influence which your example may have upon others, ought to be remarkably diligent. Your duty is to be well acquainted with the stores of evangelical truths, and to understand how they may be best applied. You should know likewise the various characters of the persons under your charge, that you may be able to give every one of them his portion of meat in due season.
Verily, he shall make him ruler over all his goods — If when I come I find you thus employed, I will highly reward you with the glories and joys of my kingdom, even as an earthly master bestows particular marks of respect on such servants as have been remarkably faithful in any important trust.”
But if that evil servant — Now become evil, having put away faith and a good conscience, shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth, &c. — “On the other hand, if you behave like wicked stewards, who, because their lord delays his coming, beat their fellow-servants and get drunk with sots and epicures; if you tyrannise over the consciences of your brethren, neglect the duties of your function, and give yourselves up to sensual pleasures, I will come when you little think of it, and will make you dreadful examples of my indignation, by the severe punishments which I will inflict upon you.”
And shall cut him asunder — Tearing and cutting persons into several pieces, was one of the severest kinds of punishment anciently used, and is here put for the extreme misery that awaits the persons here described in the other world. And appoint him his portion with the hypocrites — The worst of sinners. If ministers are the persons here primarily intended, there is a peculiar propriety in the expression. For no hypocrisy can be baser than to call ourselves ministers of Christ while we are the slaves of avarice, ambition, or sensuality. Wherever such are found, may God reform them by his grace, or disarm them of that power and influence which they continually abuse to his dishonour, and to their own aggravated damnation!
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