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All Christians are Well Aware of the Unparalleled Redemptive-historical significance of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. We are equally well-apprised of His victorious outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church at Pentecost. But too few believers realize the significance of the outpouring of Christ’s holy wrath upon Jerusalem in a.d. 70.
Yet the a.d. 70 events loom large in New Testament prophecy, serving as a dramatic consequence of the First Advent. The a.d. 70 holocaust flares up at us in several prophecies in Luke’s gospel alone: Luke 13:32–35; 19:41–44; 21:20–24; and 23:28–31. Furthermore, it not only is the subject of many of the Lord’s parables (e.g., Matt. 21:33–45; 22:1–14), but even causes His tearful lament over Jerusalem (Matt. 23:38). And that lament introduces one of His longest recorded discourses, one that initially focuses upon that woeful year (Matt. 24–25).
Let us consider the significance of a.d. 70 in four areas.
Corroborating Christ’s Authority
The a.d. 70 catastrophe results from Christ’s prophetic word, corroborating His Messianic authority in a dramatic way. a.d. 70 proves His prophecy to be not only a true word from God (Deut. 18:22) but a judgment word against God’s people.
The disciples’ request for a “sign” marking out “the end of the age” (Matt. 24:3) sparks the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 and 25. Up through 24:34, Jesus focuses on Jerusalem’s destruction: The devastation of the holy city and conflagration of its holy house become “ ‘the sign of the Son of man in heaven’ ” (v. 30, KJV). Thus, when the first-century holocaust explodes upon Israel, it definitively signifies the divine authority of the One now in heaven (cf. Matt. 26:59–64; Luke 23:20–31).
Too many Christians miss the meaning of Jesus’ cloud-coming in Matthew 24:30 for two reasons. First, they are unfamiliar with Old Testament apocalyptic passages wherein divine judgments appear as cloud-comings (Isa. 19:1). Second, they overlook the interpretive clues in Matthew 24: mention of the temple’s destruction (v. 2), the Judean focus (v. 16), and the temporal proximity of all the events between verses 4 and 34 (v. 34). Indeed, Jesus warns the very men who sit in judgment over Him: “ ‘Hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven’ ” (Matt. 26:64b).
This is certainly how the ancient church read Matthew 24. Referring to a.d. 70, Eusebius highlights “the infallible forecast of our Saviour in which He prophetically expounded these very things” (Ecclesiastical History, 3:7:1).
Concluding the Old Economy
The Old Testament is replete with signs and symbols foreshadowing the work of Christ. But the very nature of that typological era demands that it was a temporary step toward the full redemptive-historical conclusion brought about by Christ, a passing stage moving toward a grand climax. Indeed, the new covenant vitality could not be contained within the old covenant strictures of a racial people, a geographical land, and a typological temple, for you cannot “ ‘put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break [and] the wine is spilled’ ” (Matt. 9:17a).
The New Testament frequently indicates this looming change of covenantal administration. For instance, Hebrews 8:13 declares: “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” Indeed, Hebrews warns Jewish converts not to slip back into Judaism, especially as they see “the Day [a.d. 70] approaching” (Heb. 10:25). Such apostasy would return them to a material and soon-to-vanish copy of the true, for Christ has brought God’s people to “the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands” (Heb. 9:11; cp. 9:24). Sweeping aside the old covenant structures, a.d. 70 secures the final new covenant scheme.
Confirming the Gentile Ministry
The early church was tempted to rest content in the Jewish mission (witness Peter’s experience in Acts 10–11). With the growing ministry of Paul, this begins to change. This remarkable shift of focus from a Palestinian Jewish mission to a world-wide Gentile mission is finally sealed in a.d. 70.
Returning to Matthew 24, we learn that consequent upon the temple’s overthrow, Christ will send His “messengers” (Greek angeloi, here they are human messengers) “ ‘with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds’ ” (Matt. 24:31a). Thus, at Jerusalem’s fall the final Jubilee (see Lev. 25)—eternal salvation—will be declared to all the world. Now that the old covenant constraints are forever removed, the world becomes the mission field for the church.
Indeed, Paul prophetically relates the ultimate success of the Gentile mission to Israel’s “fall,” i.e., its stumbling over Christ and the consequent a.d. 70 destruction. For its fall is “riches for the world” and its failure is “riches for the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:12). Indeed, its “being cast away is the reconciling of the world” (Rom. 11:15a).
Confronting Us with His Severity
a.d. 70 emphasizes the reality not only of God’s goodness but of His severity. Paul warns those who would call themselves God’s people: “Consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off’ (Rom. 11:22).
The “severity” that befalls the Jews in a.d. 70 exhibits God’s judgment upon their unbelief and rebellion. Though Israel had a glorious heritage (Rom. 9:3–5), though its “root is holy” (Rom. 11:16), it tragically illustrates the consequences of failing a holy responsibility. We all must learn the lesson therein exhibited, “for everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:48b). Israel’s judgment in a.d. 70 underscores the awesome obligation resulting from the divine calling. But as Israel withers under the scorching heat of God’s severe wrath, the Gentiles flourish in the cool waters of God’s good mercy (Rom. 11:12, 15; Acts 13:46–47). Such is the goodness of God. Nevertheless, the Gentiles, too, must take the lesson to heart, “for if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either” (Rom. 11:21).
The specter of a.d. 70 haunts the New Testament record (being frequently and vigorously prophesied). Its occurrence dramatically impacts first-century history (being one of its more datable and catastrophic events). And it confirms important redemptive-historical truths (Christ’s supreme authority, the old covenant economy’s termination, the Gospel’s world-encompassing nature, and Israel’s judgment) and imparts significant practical lessons to us (our high calling involves holy obligations). We would do well to learn of the ways of God among men.