Let’s return for a moment to the hours just before our Lord Jesus went to the cross.
He sat upon the Mount of Olives with His disciples while the group looked down at the Temple sitting atop Mount Moriah. One of His disciples wanted Him to look at the beauty of the great structure. It was a magnificent sight. They were having a time of fellowship, and it must have seemed that nothing bad could come of their circumstances.
Jesus, however, knew what He faced. More than that, He was concerned for His friends and disciples. He knew they had to get a grip on reality as they faced the satanic war that lay before them. Very soon they would see Him die in the cruelest method known to man at the time. They must be given truth upon which they could reflect during the uncertain days ahead. Although they wouldn’t understand for the moment, the prophecies Jesus gave that day in His Olivet Discourse would echo mightily through the centuries until the very end of the age.
“The Olivet Discourse forms Jesus’ last major discourse and His most prophetic sermon,” notes author and eschatologist Tim LaHaye. “While the message includes a prediction of the imminent fall of Jerusalem, it also looks to the distant future of the ‘times of the Gentiles’ (Luke 21:24), which will continue until the end of the Great Tribulation.”
Jesus told His disciples that the beautiful Temple they were looking at would soon be completely wiped off Moriah; its destruction would be so complete that “there shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). (The Temple Jesus was referring to was the Second Temple; the first, built by Solomon, had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC.)
Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Second Temple came to pass some thirty-seven years later, when the soldiers under Roman General Titus not only toppled the Temple, but removed from the surface of Moriah every huge stone that had made up the building. Titus tried to stop the soldiers from destroying the structure, but Roman soldiers were often given the freedom to plunder any place they conquered, and they went into a frenzy. Going after precious stones and the gold and silver inlaid within the building, they set fires, causing the gold and silver to melt into the cracks and crevices between the stones. The greedy troops then tore the stones apart in order to retrieve every trace of the valuable metals.
Later, after the scavenger soldiers had picked the site clean, the Temple Mount was leveled and smoothed, then salt was poured on top of the soil so nothing would grow. This, too, fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. But this was just the beginning of Israel feeling the chastening hand of God. He was going to use the Romans to drive most of the Jews from the land.
The words of Christ about the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem would have been deeply troubling to the disciples.
“To the very end of His earthly ministry the apostles had been waiting for Jesus Christ to overthrow Roman rule in Palestine and to usher in the glorious Messianic kingdom,” notes author Arthur Kac. “When, therefore, instead of fulfilling their hopes the Lord Jesus began to speak of his approaching death and the coming destruction of Jerusalem the apostles became deeply distressed.”
“Run for Your Lives!”
In the same Olivet meeting with His disciples, Jesus forewarned that the people of the area would have to run for their lives (Matthew 24:16). There was coming, He prophesied, a time of great trouble in the land. Jesus said the people who lived in and around Jerusalem shouldn’t even take time to pack; they should just run for the hills of Judea when they heard of the Temple being attacked and the city being overrun.
The prophecy, of course, proved absolutely true. The Jewish population—and other people, too—were slaughtered if they stuck around once the looting and plunder started. Many soldiers for hire, along with the Roman forces, combined to massacre many. Hundreds upon hundreds were nailed and tied to crosses much like the one on which Jesus was crucified. The roads leading into and out of Jerusalem were lined with dead and dying people upon crosses.
The most infamous case of Rome crushing the Jewish rebellion is at Masada (Hebrew for “fortress”), which was the last Jewish stronghold in the Promised Land “located atop an isolated rock cliff at the western end of the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea.” Several years following the destruction of the Temple, “after Judaea became a province of the Roman Empire…the last survivors of the Jewish revolt…chose death rather than slavery when the Roman besiegers broke through their defences.” The stand on the high plateau remains one of the greatest stories of courage in Jewish history.
The Jews’ attempts to take the heavy yoke of Rome from their necks ended with thousands fleeing the land to stay alive. Many others were taken as slaves. Most everyone who was Jewish, whether those who converted to Christianity, those who practiced Judaism, or those who professed no religious affiliation, were either murdered or scattered to other parts of the Middle East and other lands beyond. Around AD 135, Rome dispersed the Jews because it considered the militant uprising against Roman authority a mostly Jewish rebellion. Many of Israel ended up in Rome, where the church of the Lord Jesus Christ would grow into a mighty movement.
“The Jew living now in the various parts of the Roman Empire was painfully aware of the fact that he had no National Home,” states Kac. “And by this time the great bulk of the nation lived outside of Palestine. With the loss of the Jewish National Home in AD 70, the long exile actually began, and the Jews became wanderers over the face of the earth, a people without a country.”
God’s chosen people were chastened by God for rejecting their Messiah. They were chased across the world by the forces of Satan. But the Jews had produced the most important gift ever given anyone: the Savior of the world. The Lord of heaven had already kept His promise to make Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s descendants a blessing to all nations. He will yet make His chosen people the head of all nations as well.
While in Rome…
Meanwhile, Christianity was growing by leaps and bounds. The Jewish religious leaders had for many years persecuted Christians at every opportunity. The apostle Paul of Tarsus, a Christian-hating Jew before God changed his name from Saul, had been one of the worst of all persecutors of Christians.
Saul had held the robes of those who stoned to death the great hero of the Christian faith, Stephen. Saul had also gone into the homes of Christians and pulled them out so they could be imprisoned or murdered. This treatment, in the earliest time of the developing church, had been more the usual way of Jews treating Christians than the unusual.
When Saul saw Jesus in a blinding light on the road to Damascus, he was instantly converted to the Christian faith. Like Abraham, his name was changed to reflect the transformation of his life, and he became Paul, an evangelist for the gospel of Christ unlike any other who has ever lived. He then became the hunted and hated Christian whom the super-pious Jews wanted dead.
Over the hundred years following Paul’s death, the Jews were absorbed into the Roman Empire and given the right to be citizens. But when the Jews found themselves at the center of growing rebellion against their Roman masters, they were scattered throughout the developing medieval states and persecuted almost everywhere they went. Christians, too, were greatly persecuted. Most Christians were Jews who had been converted from Judaism during this time. Satan’s war-making in the Middle East and elsewhere appears to have been even more intense against Christian Jews than against the Jews in general. While in Rome, if Christians and Jews who held to Judaism didn’t repent and do as the Romans did, there was a mighty price to pay.
Christians Forced into Catacombs
Christianity continued to grow tremendously during the second, third, and fourth centuries and beyond. Jesus’ words, foretold to Peter and other disciples—“upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18b)—echoed across the barren wasteland of the Middle East and regions to which God’s children traveled.
Hundreds upon hundreds of Christians—including, many believe, Peter and Paul—died martyrs’ deaths under Roman Emperor Nero and the Caesars who followed. They faced gladiators, bears, and lions in the Roman arenas to entertain Caesar and his mocking friends. Many Christians were set on fire and used as torches to light the night skies for the various sporting events. It was the bloodiest time of Christ’s church. Thousands found shelter and safety in the catacombs, the underground tunnels that were Rome’s cemeteries. Drawings on the catacomb walls tell a story of an underground church in the most literal sense of the word.
Modern Martyrs for Christ
Today in Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, China, and many other places around the world, Christians are facing tortures and atrocities as terrifying as the horrors faced by the early Christians. The following reports offer a striking example:
- Roadside Ambush in Nigeria Leaves Five Christians Dead and Four Wounded—On the evening of August 29, 2013, near Jos, Nigeria, Emmanuel Sunday was riding his motorcycle towards his village when the nineteen-year-old college student was stopped by an armed group of Islamic jihadists known as Boko Haram. The gunmen asked Emmanuel to identify his religion. He told them he was a Christian. As the young man looked ahead, he saw that the gunmen had detained a minibus and ordered a group of passengers who had also identified themselves as Christians to lie down on the roadside.
As darkness fell, the gunmen robbed the Christians, and as the jihadists began shooting their captives, Emmanuel escaped by running toward a nearby maize farm. He then continued to run for two hours before finally reaching his village.
Boko Haram, whose name loosely translated means “Western education is sinful,” so far is contained within Nigeria. Its leader, Abubakr Shekau, clearly states the group’s mission: “Let the world know that we have been enjoined by Allah to kill the unbeliever.”
- Seventy-two Civilians Killed in Mall Massacre in Kenya—Shortly after noon on Saturday, September 21, 2013, gunfire and grenade explosions erupted as Somalian Islamic militants known as al-Shabab launched a massacre at the packed Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, a mall frequented by expatriates and the rising middle class of Nairobi.
According to Joshua Hakim, a born-again Christian, the terrorists shouted for all Muslims to leave the mall. When Hakim realized that the attackers were targeting non-Muslims, he pulled out his identification card and covered his first name with his thumb. Seeing only his Arabic last name, the terrorists let Hakim go; however, the Indian man next to him was not so fortunate: He was shot when he couldn’t answer the question, “What is the name of Muhammad’s mother?” More than seventy-two civilians were killed and two hundred were wounded in the attack.
- Suicide Bombers in Pakistan Kill Nearly Ninety after Sunday Services—After services on Sunday morning, September 22, 2013, about 550 worshippers were exiting the 130-year-old All Saints Church, a Protestant congregation in Peshawar, Pakistan, unaware of two Taliban suicide bombers in their midst. The explosion killed nearly ninety, many of them women and children; more than 120 people were injured, and the church was destroyed.
“I heard two explosions,” said one parishioner who survived. “People started to run. Human remains were strewn all over the church.” At the time of the interview, she was still searching for her sister.
It is sad to have to say that while many of us here in America often will not let ourselves be inconvenienced enough to read our Bibles or pray, thousands of Christians are still laying down their lives for the Lord Jesus. According to the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, more than 200 million Christians are being persecuted worldwide; they are brutalized, sold as slaves, imprisoned, tortured, threatened, discriminated against, arrested, and killed—solely because they refuse to renounce or hide their faith in Jesus Christ.But the long history of persecution that continues into our time will soon enter one of its darkest, most vicious eras.