Ever had someone come up to you and say, “Why do you think Jerusalem fell in AD70?” That’s probably never happened to you. But it speaks to the circles I move in that I get asked this question a lot – probably because I have lately been writing about the wrath of God.
If you missed it, the story of Jerusalem’s fall is as follows: The Jews rose up against their Roman occupiers in AD66. In AD68 the Roman general Vespasian was sent to quash the Jewish rebellion. In AD69 Vespasian returned to Rome to become the new Caesar and in AD70 his son Titus besieged and utterly destroyed Jerusalem. The fall of Jerusalem is a horrific story that you can read about in Josephus (or Wikipedia).
But the question that concerns us today is Why? Why was this beautiful and important city so brutally destroyed?
Was the fall of Jerusalem God’s wrath in action? Was God punishing Jerusalem for its sins? Did God use the Romans to mete out a little payback for crucifying his son? If you’re not interested in these questions, you might want to head over to the E2R archive and find something else to read. Or check out my latest book reviews. But if you are interested, here are my thoughts on the different explanations.
Was God punishing Jerusalem for its sin?
Good heavens, no. If he was, then the following account of Christ’s work on the cross is not true:
But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Heb 9:26)
If God destroyed Jerusalem on account of its sin then (a) the Bible is unreliable, (b) Jesus’ work remains unfinished, (c) God is in the sin-punishment business, and (d) your city could be next. That’s bad news all round. Happily, the good news declares that on the cross God condemned sin once and for all (Rom 8:3).
Was God dishing out some old covenant retribution?
Punishing sinners is a very old covenanty thing to do. It’s something associated with the law-keeping covenant observed by the Jews. Under that covenant, the Jews were blessed if they did good and cursed if they did bad. Could it be that the old covenant continued on after the cross? Could it be, that after the cross, there were two covenants operating side by side? Could it be that the old covenant ended with the climatic destruction of Jerusalem?
Hebrews seems to suggest this for it describes the old covenant as obsolete and passing away (Heb 8:13), as if there were an overlap between the old and new covenants. For 40 years after Jesus’ sacrificial death, the Jews continued to make animal sacrifices. That practice didn’t end until Titus destroyed the temple. Since the Jews were still engaging in the old covenant rituals, God was just in punishing them for their sins.
But I don’t think so.
The religious Jews might have continued as though nothing had changed, but Jesus’ death on the cross changed everything. The moment he died God tore the temple veil to show us that he was done with the old death-dealing ministry of law. On the night Jesus rose from the dead, he said the new message of unconditional forgiveness was to be preached everywhere, “beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).
That’s worth repeating: the new covenant forged in Christ’s blood was not for the Gentiles only, it was for everyone everywhere but it was particularly for the Jews in Jerusalem. Jesus said so.
To this day some Jews continue to observe the law but on the cross Christ fulfilled the law for all of us. The death that the law brings, Jesus tasted for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike (see Heb 2:9). For God to continue to relate to the Jews under the terms of the obsolete law-keeping covenant, is tantamount to saying Jesus didn’t die for the whole world.
Was God punishing Jerusalem for crucifying his Son?
The venerable Victorian Adam Clarke suggests that the destruction of Jerusalem was divine payback for killing Jesus:
It is as remarkable that not one Jew escaped! All either fell by the sword, perished by famine, or were led into captivity! According to their own imprecation, His blood be upon us and our children, God visited and avenged the innocent blood of Christ upon them and upon their posterity; and they continue to be monuments of his displeasure to the present day.
For 2000 years the Jews have been persecuted because they conspired with Pilate to crucify Jesus. In retribution for this they have been run out of countries, exploited, mistreated, and gassed in ovens by wicked and racist men. But God is not an anti-Semite! As he was dying on the cross, the Son of God said “Father forgive them” and the Father surely did!
If God punished the Jews for crucifying Jesus, then the Father and Son are a house divided. But he didn’t and they’re not. Jesus spoke from the Father’s heart which is to give grace and forgiveness to all of us including the worst of us.
“But didn’t Paul say the Jews killed the Lord Jesus?” He did (see 1 Thess 2:15). But Paul wasn’t speaking out of vindictiveness. His heart wasn’t for retribution but reconciliation. He knew his countrymen were misguided for scorning grace, but rather than condemn them he wanted to trade places with them. He wished that he might be accursed so that they – those who crucified Jesus – might be saved (Rom 9:3).
Paul had great grace towards those who killed Jesus but God’s grace is greater still. It is unthinkable that the One who sits on the throne of grace and who showers us with grace upon grace would punish the descendants of Abraham in this way.
What about Christ’s prophecy?
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, (Jesus) wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44)
Jesus wept because he foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem. He said Jerusalem was doomed because the Jews did not “recognize the time of God’s coming to you” and did not receive “what would bring you peace.” He was talking about himself. Jesus is the Prince of peace who brings peace. If the Jews had embraced him and his gospel of peace they would not have been crushed by the Romans 40 years later.
Jesus said “love your enemies,” but the Jews hated their enemies. Jesus said “pray for those who persecute you” but the Jews were not interested. All that talk about turning the other cheek and going the extra mile was lost on them. They were looking for a sword-wielding messiah not a peace-making Savior.
By crucifying Jesus the religious Jews showed they were more than ready to engage in the politics of violence practiced by the Romans. They weren’t interested in a new kingdom built on love and forgiveness. They were motivated by hatred and a lust for power. And it was this attitude, which Jesus knew all too well, that brought them trouble later.
What about Christ’s other prophecy?
In Matthew 24, Jesus gives a set of prophecies some of which pertain to the imminent destruction of Jerusalem’s temple:
“Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mat 24:1)
As with his Luke 19 prophecy, Jesus was very specific and very accurate in predicting the destruction of Jerusalem. In fact, he was so specific that those who heeded his words were able to recognize the danger when it came and flee to safety. But there is nothing in Jesus’ prophesy to suggest that the destruction of Jerusalem would be God’s wrath in action. The only damage inflicted upon the temple that can unequivocally be attribute to divine causes was the rending of the curtain (Mt 27:51), and that happened 40 years before the Romans showed up with their siege engines.
So, why did Jerusalem fall?
Short answer: the Jews ticked off the Romans.
Jerusalem did not fall because God was especially angry with the Jews or because they sinned more than the non-Jews or because some of them participated in the crucifixion of Jesus. Jerusalem fell because when you reject the things that bring you peace, you end up with no peace. By rejecting the Prince of peace and his message of peace, the Jews reaped trouble. How could it be any other way?
Jesus said the Jews would reap what they sowed and they did. The Jews yanked on the tail of the Roman tiger and reaped the consequences. End of story.
What goes around, comes around. If you poke a hornets’ nest, don’t be surprised if you get stung. And if you pick a fight with your boss, don’t be surprised if you get fired. You may blame the hornets or your boss or your own stupidity but what you cannot do is blame God. When you sow trouble, as the Jews did, you shouldn’t be surprised if you reap trouble. Sowing and reaping is a universal principal.
God did everything he could to stop the self-inflicted demise of the Jews. Through his own Son he personally visited them and warned them. And as they crucified him he forgave them showing that his message was unconditional peace and grace from start to finish. The subsequent destruction of Jerusalem had everything to do with their own truculence and nothing to do with God’s wrath.
“But Paul, you have not said anything about 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16.”