In 1630 John Winthrop, an English Puritan leader, wrote a thesis titled “A Model of Christian Charity“ that described a spiritual vision for the new settlement in America. He explains an ideal love that if practiced would make them “a city upon a hill” and seen by all people.
But, Winthrop warns that with this great potential there will be great consequences if and when this ideal is abandoned. In his words:
“We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”
America has formed into a great nation, an exceptional nation in many respects, and has become the place seen by the world. Two Presidents (John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan) made reference to the “city upon a hill” imagery and at a time which was arguably the peak of our influence.
I firmly believe that our lingering greatness is a reflection of the moral character of those who came before us. However, our end will be as dramatic as our rise when we neglect love for our fellow man that Winthrop envisioned and is the true evidence of faith in God.
There was another city on a hill (seven hills actually) and that being the historical city of Jerusalem described in the Bible. Jerusalem was a place of great importance to the Jewish religion and the location of their temple to God. It was an impressive awe inspiring place by ancient standards and also the place where Jesus went with his disciples and made a startling prophecy about the unimaginable destruction that would soon come to that city.
Six days that marked the beginning of the end.
It was the Passover, a significant event on the Jewish religious calender, and what would turn out to be a most pivotal week for Christianity. Jesus, after having raised Lazarus from the dead, departs from Bethany and continues with his disciples to Jerusalem despite the obvious risk to his life.
The Scripture describes Jesus coming down from the Mount of Olives towards the great Holy City:
“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he 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 Godʼs coming to you.'” (Luke 19:41-44)
This moment of emotion and prophecy marks the beginning of a tumultuous week. Jesus was greeted as a king and yet simultaneously weeps over Jerusalem. The week continues with him dramatically cleansing the temple of commerce. He spends an intimate last meal with his disciples after which he is betrayed by one of them. He is put on trial, crucified under a mocking “king of the Jews” sign. But not before making several claims about a destruction coming and an end that was very near at hand.
In a sermon (Seven Woes of Matthew 23) Jesus severely rebuked his religious critics for their hypocrisy. He told them that they are no better than their ancestors who murdered prophets. Jesus warns once again of a judgment that would befall their generation, and laments:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (Matthew 23:37-39)
Jesus laments their unwillingness to trust him. But also uses “desolate” (erémos) to describe their “house” (oikos) which is a strange way to describe a thriving city and is a foreshadowing statement. He ends the sermon by saying only those who acknowledge him will see him again.
Following that, in the next chapter, we read this account:
“Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see all these things?’ he asked. ‘Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.'” (Matthew 24:1-2)
Wow! Talk about shocking!
Can you imagine?
It would be like being with a group of friends taking in the sights in Manhattan and talking about the beauty of the architecture, but then in response the tour leader tells you that in forty years it would all be rubble.
It was the temple (according to Luke 21:5) that had the disciples most captivated and Jesus tells them it will soon be destroyed. Naturally, as we continue to read, this awful prediction provoked more questions from those who heard about when and how:
“As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’
Jesus answered: ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. […] Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.'” (Matthew 24:3-5)
Two observations: 1) These words are all spoken entirely in the context of the temple and the Jerusalem that the disciples saw with their own eyes. 2) This is the second time Jesus promises that “this generation” (to the audience with him then) would see these things happen.
So what did happen?
The end of Jerusalem and temple worship came to pass in AD 70.
It is amazing to me that this event, an astonishing fulfillment of prophecy, is not front and center for more Christians. The destruction of the temple and sacrificial system it represented was so complete that it has lasted until this day.
Furthermore, this total destruction happened (as predicted) in the very generation that first heard the words of Jesus about the end of the age. It is a well-documented historical event that would seem to completely fulfill the words of Jesus and yet it is hardly acknowledged.
So why is this such a secret?
Well, maybe because it throws a monkey wrench into the eschatology of many modern Bible readers who have been indoctrinated to believe Jesus is speaking of events in our own future?
But we do know that the historical evidence is clear. The city of Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple of stone at the center of Jewish religion reduced to rubble, and with that came an ending of an age. Some skeptics may dispute the details, yet one only need to go to the modern city built on the ruins of historical Jerusalem and see for themselves that the temple is gone.
The end of the former age is the beginning of something new and better.
The end of earthly Jerusalem had begun the week Jesus was crucified. The destruction of the old way came as the beginning of a new and better way. It is as Jesus promised:
“‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’
‘Woman,’ Jesus replied, ‘believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.'” (John 4:19-24)
There is a city spoke of by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It is a metaphor used to describe a greater reality “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14) It is also the likely origination of Puritan John Winthrop’s “a city upon a hill” phrase.
We also know, in the writing of Paul, that he says the church is collectively and together is the temple of God:
“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
It is a funny thing how so many who claim to be Biblical literalists read that and still await a third temple built of stone. Paul says that his audience, believers, are the temple and God dwells in them. Believers, according to Scripture, are literally the temple of God and yet some wait for the constitution a third temple?
Perhaps those still waiting for a third temple have also missed out on the promised second coming of Jesus as well?
Read this assurance that Jesus left for his disciples:
“‘Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.’
Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, ‘But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?’
Jesus replied, ‘Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…'” (John 14:12-23)
So there we have a new city, a better temple and a greater coming of Jesus—each of these iterations being far better than the ones replaced. If we believe we will be the fulfillment of Scripture in the same way as Jesus and do even greater things as he promised we would. We will not be looking forward to a new version of the old way and instead be bringing the better kingdom into our reality.
Why then do some amongst us still wait for another physical fulfilment rather than live in the fullness of the kingdom promise today?
Perhaps it is because they, like those who rejected Jesus in his first coming, do not have the truth in them and need to repent?
So, anyhow, cutting to the chase, why is the fall of Jerusalem relevant to us today?
The point of this blog post is not history or eschatology, those can be topics for another day, but it is to discuss the choice we have to learn from history or repeat it again. We can look at the future as something set in place and beyond our own influence or we can consider that Jerusalem had a choice and that is contained in the last words of the Old Testament:
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6)
Do you see the option A and the option B?
John the Baptist, while not literally Elijah, came in the Spirit of Elijah, preaching “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2) and yet was rejected by those who expected a literal return. Because of their refusal to repent they choose the “or else” of option B and we too face that choice: Will we repent and bring the Lord’s prayer “thy kingdom come” to life or will we continue waiting for fulfilment on our own terms and be destroyed?
The American church today is not much different from Jerusalem. We face an uncertain future, we have been divided into competing political factions, there are angry zealots ready to run amok railing against foreigners, oppressors, etc. We too have become woefully arrogant and blinded by our ambitions. It is very much the same climate Jesus lived in two millennia ago. It is the attitudes that Winthrop warned against nearly four hundred years ago:
“But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.”
We are at a crossroads as a people today.
The next forty years will probably hold dramatic changes. How we respond to opportunities today could very well define the future of our nation. America will need to choose repentance or it will continue to slide further away from greatness and towards destruction.
Our end as “a city upon a hill” may not be as spectacular as the fall of Jerusalem, we might simply fade from prominence like other great nations before us, but be ready.
Be ready for the fall.