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I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book:  IGNITING AN IMPASSIONED PRAYER LIFE – How to Develop the Energized, Extended, and Sustainable Life of Prayer You’ve Always Wanted. Do you wish you were more motivated to pray? Is your prayer life sporadic and...

What is the best way to pray?

Prayer, like most spiritual practices, is subject to a spectrum of opinion and conviction as to how it is best practiced. Prayer in a word, means different things to different people. Typically we associate prayer with some form of communication and personal encounter with God....

Leadership Principles and Prayer

When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the LORD… Numbers 11:2 (NIV) Why is prayer often the great omission when it comes to discussion of spiritual leadership? In my humble estimation the topic of leadership is the most frequent focus of...

February 6th, 2018 · by Tom Stuart · Check this out!, Church History, News & Reflections, Overcoming

Jerusalem’s Relentless March to Divine Destiny – Pt 9

“I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” Acts 5:38-39 NIV

Putting Jesus to death did not put an end to the challenges facing the Sanhedrin. Just fifty days later, on the feast of Pentecost, with Jewish pilgrims flooding Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven” their problems were quickly multiplied. While a small band of Jesus’ followers were assembled in an upper room in the city for prayer, the Holy Spirit suddenly fell with the appearance of tongues of fire coming to rest upon each of them. Empowered with boldness and gifted to speak in the diverse tongues of all the nationalities gathering at the scene, the Apostle Peter with the other apostles began to preach about Jesus. Issuing a call to repentance, Peter concluded his message declaring “therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36 NIV). Before the day was up, there were three thousand converts. Jewish leaders now had to contend with more praising, praying, and preaching Christ followers populating their Temple courts. This is because for the early believers, all being of Jewish origin, the Temple was the focal point and daily gathering place for corporate prayer and worship. It would continue to be so for the next thirty five years. (Until the Temple’s destruction)

The apostles Peter and John complicated matters further when they healed a crippled man whom they met on their way to afternoon prayer at the Temple. The man, lame from birth, made it his daily practice to sit and beg at the entrance. Multitudes came running when they heard the man had been healed. The apostles, seizing the opportunity, proceeded to preach about Jesus and proclaim that He had been resurrected from the dead. When the Jewish religious leaders heard this they were deeply disturbed and had the two arrested and jailed overnight. The Sanhedrin met in the morning with the apostles. Having questioned them both, reckoning there was no way to refute the testimony of the healed man, they charged them to cease speaking about Jesus and released them.

Despite the opposition, the apostles continued to teach and perform miracles, the followers of Jesus continued to multiply, and their assemblies, now referred to as the church, continued to meet and make an impact upon the community. Not surprisingly, as the Peter and the apostles continued to preach and heal people, they were arrested and thrown into jail again. On this occasion however, an angel of the Lord came to them in the middle of the night and set them free. The guards and chief priests were perplexed when they found them preaching the next day at the Temple. They immediately had them arrested a second time and were now determined to put them to death. One of the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee by the name of Gamaliel, stepped forward in their midst and offered some inspired wisdom that gave them pause. “I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39 NIV). Hearing this, the Sanhedrin thought it best not to execute them, but decided instead to have them flogged and released.

It was not long before another miracle working Christ follower, named Stephen, raised their ire. This time, the Sanhedrin was so incensed by his preaching, they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death. He became the Christian faith’s first martyr. His death triggered a severe persecution in Jerusalem intent on destroying the church “and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1 NIV). Gamaliel’s warning was proving to be true. The Jesus movement was unquestionably from God. Set ablaze by the Holy Spirit it could not be quenched, though the Sanhedrin and later the Roman government would try repeatedly to do so. Within a quarter of a century it would be rapidly expanding to the “ends of the earth” just as Jesus, at His ascension, had predicted (Acts 1:8 NIV).

Ironically, it was a Pharisee who had studied under Gamaliel named Saul, whom God would choose to carry the revival fire beyond Israel into the non-Jewish world. Saul, who consented to Stephen’s death and zealously took the lead in the persecution of Christians, had a dramatic conversion experience while in route to imprison believers in Damascus. With a blinding light from heaven, Jesus appeared to him. The course of Saul’s life changed. Called by God as an Apostle to the Gentiles, he spent nearly five years preparing in anonymity before officially being launched into ministry from the church in Antioch, Syria, in 43 AD. Paul, as he was now called, set sail from there with a companion named Barnabas. It was the first of three major church planting journeys that would take him into the heart of the Asia Minor. It should be noted that it was in Antioch where followers of Christ first began to be called Christians.

The stoning of Stephen and outbreak of persecution, coincided with other winds of change that were beginning to blow both in Jerusalem and the Roman Empire beyond. Growing dissatisfaction with Pontius Pilate’s brutal rule, particularly among the Samaritans, threatened to break into an open revolt in Jerusalem. In 36 AD, the Governor of Syria stepped in, and had both Pilate and Caiaphas deposed and sent to Rome. Tiberius, the Emperor since 14 AD, died in 37 AD. Caligula became Emperor in his stead, through a murderous plot to eliminate a rival claimant. One of his closest friends was Herod Agrippa, with whom he had grown up with in Rome. Herod Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great, and nephew of Herod the “fox” Antipas and Philip, both who governed the regions northwest of Judea. In order to avoid confusion, it should be pointed out that royal descendants of Herod the Great usually took the family name of “Herod” as a prefix to their name. His descendants were also referred to as “Herodians.” Several years earlier when Philip died, Agrippa was granted the rule of his territory by Tiberius. Now, he convinced Caligula to depose Antipas, and give him that territory as well. Caligula exiled Antipas to Lyons, in what is now France, and there the fox died, a fitting end to the killer of John the Baptist and interrogator of Jesus. Caligula, an egotistical despot, ordered his image to be set up and worshiped throughout his domain, including in the Temple. When the Jews refused, protecting the sanctity of the Holy of Holies, Caligula sent the Governor of Syria to move in and crush the rebellion. Agrippa, a Jew by birth and convinced of the sacredness of the Temple, made a courageous appeal to his friend Caligula on behalf the Jews to rescind the order. Uncharacteristically, Caligula acquiesced.

Herod Agrippa’s influence would continue to rise, but like his friend Caligula, it would eventually go to his head and be his undoing. A few years later, in 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated. Agrippa took charge of the chaos that ensued. Through his counsel and persuasion, a reticent Claudius was appointed by the Senate as the new Emperor. Claudius, expressing his gratitude, gave Agrippa Jerusalem and virtually all of Herod the Great’s Kingdom, consolidating once again all the territories in the region under his supreme rule as King. When King Agrippa arrived to take charge, the Jews welcomed him with open arms. They were won over by his devotion to daily sacrifice at the Temple and commitment to enhancing the city of Jerusalem with building projects. By 44 AD, Herod was targeting the Christians in Jerusalem for persecution. In the process he arrested the apostle James and put to death by the sword. Seeing this pleased the Jews, he also arrested Peter, planning to put him on trial and execute him. But the earnest prayers of the church were answered when an angel appeared and delivered Peter from prison, reminiscent of his jail break with the apostles years earlier. By morning he was in safe hiding and a thorough search was being made for him. Lacking the prisoner and an explanation of what had happened, Herod had the soldiers who had been guarding him executed. Shortly afterward, Herod traveled down from Jerusalem to his imperial palace in Caesarea on the Mediterranean. Filled with pride at having resolved a regional dispute with the people of Tyre and Sidon, he appointed a day to herald his triumph. As he sat upon his throne, arrayed in his royal robes, the people attending his address shouted “’This is the voice of god, not of a man!’ Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:22-23 NIV).

As the Jews mourned the King’s death, riots broke out in Jerusalem. News of the turmoil over who should rule in his place reached Claudius in Rome. While some lobbied for his son Agrippa II to ascend to the throne, Claudius ruled he was too young at seventeen to govern such a sprawling, volatile kingdom. He decided instead to institute a government ruled by procurators or governors, reverting back to a regime in which Rome exercised more direct control. With regard to the management of the Temple, Claudius authorized the late Agrippa’s brother, the King of Chalcis (Greece), a Herodian Jew, to appoint the high priests. This awkward balance of power shared between Roman governors and Herodian kings would endure for twenty-five years. It was not long before the young Agrippa II, like his father, began to find favor both with the Emperor Claudius and his successor Nero. When the King of Chalcis died, Agrippa II was chosen to replace his uncle and assumed the rule over the Temple in Jerusalem. Around 54 AD, Nero expanded Agrippa II’s kingdom to include Galilee, Syria, and Lebanon. In the meantime, a Greek named Antonius Felix was appointed the governor of Judea. Scandalous intrigue surrounded these two rulers in their relationships with Agrippa II’s two sisters Bernice and Drusilla. Bernice, having been the wife of her uncle King of Chalcis, moved in with her brother Agrippa II stirring rumors of incest. The other sister, Drusilla, known for her beauty and being unhappily married to an Arab king, left her husband for Felix when he began a passionate pursuit of her.

Meanwhile the church continued to grow and prosper in Jerusalem under the leadership of James who was the brother of Jesus, and the council of elders. Though a multiplication of house churches was taking place in the expanding Christian world, the Jerusalem church remained the preeminent church. Positioned in the city where Christianity was birthed and where the Temple continued to be the center of worship and prayer, it became the site of the first ever council on doctrinal matters. When Paul and Barnabas returned from their ministry trip they sought a ruling with regard to the adherence to Jewish Mosaic laws among Gentile believers. A council of apostles and elders was convened in 49 AD to seek the Holy Spirit for a resolution. Led by James they crafted a statement limiting the Gentiles to just four prohibitions: abstaining from food offered to idols, meat of strangled animals, blood, and sexual immorality. Shortly thereafter Paul embarked on a second church planting mission that would last three years and take him as far as Macedonia. Returning briefly to both Jerusalem and Antioch to greet the churches and give report he then launched out a third time in 53 AD to visit the churches he had established. Paul was becoming the most influential man in the Christian world through his indefatigable expansion of the faith through evangelism, church planting and letter writing. His epistles began to shape Christian doctrine and ultimately constituted half of the books in the New Testament.

When Paul returned to Jerusalem in 57 AD, he gave testimony to James and the elders of all God had done. As he was participating in a Jewish seven day ritual of purification in the Temple, some Asian Jews recognized him. Charging him with teaching things contrary to Jewish laws and bringing Greeks into the Temple, they stirred up a mob against him. They seized Paul, dragged him from the Temple, and proceeded to beat him. The entire city was in an uproar and only the arrival of the Roman troops saved him. The commander had Paul arrested and bound in chains, but at his request gave him permission to say some words to the crowds. Paul ever the preacher gave his testimony, but at the end when he mentioned his call to minister to the Gentiles the crowd went berserk again demanding his death. The commander had him whisked away to the military barracks and was preparing to have him flogged when Paul questioned their authority to proceed, given the fact that he was a Roman citizen. Being born a Roman citizen gave Paul the right for a trial and legal protection from unjust treatment. Hearing this the commander immediately put a halt to everything. Wanting to find out what the Jews were charging Paul with, the commander arranged to have him appear before the Sanhedrin the following day. A tumultuous and inconclusive meeting ensued due to Paul’s deftness in pitting the Sadducees against the Pharisees. The next day a conspiracy to have Paul assassinated was hatched by some Jews in concert with the Sanhedrin. When the plot was discovered, the commander immediately prepared a detachment of two hundred soldiers and in the middle of the night whisked Paul out of Jerusalem to take him to Caesarea. It was Paul’s final farewell to the Holy City, never to return.

In Caesarea, the seat of Judean government, Paul would embark on a two year process of imprisonment and legal appeals within the Roman judicial system that would eventually take him all the way to Rome. He began by defending himself against the Jewish accusations in the presence of Felix, the governor. After the proceedings were adjourned, Felix chose to delay his decision. He and his wife Drusilla, were intrigued by Paul and initiated an audience with him. Paul witnessed to them about Jesus, but when Paul spoke of “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said ‘That’s enough for now!’” (Acts 24:25 NIV). Over the course of two years, Felix met frequently with Paul and even offered to set him free for a bribe, which Paul declined. A new governor, Porcius Festus replaced Felix in 59 AD and inherited Paul’s case because Felix chose to leave him in prison to placate the Jews. Festus reopened the case, and hearing the charges of the Jewish leaders against Paul, offered him a trial in Jerusalem. Paul, once again standing on his rights as a Roman citizen said “’I am now standing before Caesar’s court where I ought to be tried. . . . I appeal to Caesar!’ After Festus conferred with his council, he declared: ‘You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you will go!’” (Acts 25:10 NIV). Several days later King Agrippa II and Bernice came to Caesarea to visit the new governor. During their days together Festus shared Paul’s case with them and Agrippa II asked to meet with Paul. The following day the King and Queen convened their royal court with great pomp and circumstance, surrounded by all the preeminent officials of the city. When Paul was brought in Agrippa II invited him to speak. Paul’s address was so compelling, as he shared the Gospel and his testimony, the King replied “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28 NIV). When the audience ended, all three of the Roman leaders agreed privately that Paul had done nothing deserving death or imprisonment. Agrippa II confided that if Paul had not appealed to Caesar he could have been set free. And so it was off to Nero, the ruling Caesar, Paul would go.

To be continued in my next blog post. Your comments and feedback are always welcome. 

January 31st, 2018 · by Tom Stuart · Check this out!, Church History, News & Reflections

Jerusalem’s Relentless March to Divine Destiny – Pt 8

His blood be on us and on our children.” Matthew 27: 25 NAS

In the late night rush to judgment they brought Jesus first to the court of Annas, head of the preeminent priestly family of the time in Jerusalem. Five of his sons would be high priests and Caiaphas the current high priest was his son-in-law. Annas questioned Jesus and then sent Him on to the house of Caiaphas where the scribes and elders were gathered. There He was again interrogated and when Jesus admitted to being “the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One” Caiaphas tore his robe crying “blasphemy!” Those assembled declared “He is deserving of death!” and began spitting on him, pummeling Him with their fists and slapping Him (Matthew 25:65-68). In the morning, after being mocked and beaten throughout the night, Jesus was taken to the council chambers of the Sanhedrin. It was now Friday. The questioning continued. “’If you are the Christ, tell us.’ But He said to them, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe.’” …. “’Are you the Son of God, then?’ and He said to them, “Yes, I am” (Luke 22:66-70). Hearing the testimony from Jesus’ own lips, the religious courts of the Jewish hierarchy concluded their inquiry. Convinced of His guilt, but requiring a Roman death sentence to do away with Jesus, the Sanhedrin now had Him bound and brought to the Roman court of Governor Pontius Pilate.

The civil headquarters from which Pilate governed while in Jerusalem was the Praetorium, likely part of the Citadel and Palace complex constructed by Herod the Great west of the Temple. Pilate had a reputation as an abusive, violent ruler and in the natural was no friend of the Jews, having become odious in their sight with his frequent punishment and executions of their own people. Pilate, upon hearing the religious leaders’ accusations against Jesus, questioned Him personally. Jesus’ answers were brief and to the point. He admitted to being the “King of the Jews,” spoke of His kingdom as not being of this world, and ended with “Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate’s response of “What is truth?” is ironically self-condemning. (John 18:37-38 NAS). Jesus, who declared “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” was standing right before him and he failed to recognize the very person who is The Truth (John 14:6 NIV). Despite the insistence of the Jewish leaders, Pilate could find no reason to condemn Jesus to death. Upon hearing Jesus was a Galilean and therefore under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas who was in town for the feast, Pilate decided to send Jesus to him. Herod was delighted to finally meet Jesus face to face and questioned Him at length. But unlike all the others before whom He stood, Jesus refused to answer “that fox” a word. Filled with contempt, Herod and his soldiers mocked Jesus, dressed Him in a royal robe, and sent Him back to Pilate. Up to this time, these two Roman rulers, Pilate and Herod, had been enemies, but their shared interrogation of Jesus made them fast friends.

Pilate was faced with a dilemma. Both he and Herod found no guilt in Jesus warranting the death sentence, but the chief priests, elders, and Jewish crowds were demanding otherwise. “Crucify him, crucify him!” Despite the hue and cry, Pilate, being warned by his wife to have nothing to do with “this righteous Man” sought to release Him. Jesus, who had been silent refusing to speak, was questioned by Pilate one last time. “’Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin’” From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar’” (John 18:10-12 NIV). With that, Pilate, fearing a crowd on the verge of riot and accusations of being disloyal to Caesar, gave in to their demands. In accordance with their request, he set the insurrectionist Barabbas free and in his place sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion. As Pilate washed his hands in front the mob, he proclaimed “I am innocent of this Man’s blood.” History records it would not be enough to absolve him of his guilt. All the people assembled replied “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:24-25 NAS). Unbeknownst to them, within a generation, what they had pledged would be exacted from them in the destruction of Jerusalem.

Jesus was then scourged by the Roman soldiers and led, along with two others condemned to die, to the place of execution located just outside the city walls called Golgotha or “Place of the Skull.” In the years to come, many followers of Jesus would suffer a similar fate at the hands of the Jews and the Romans. Perceived as a threat to the status quo, their gospel testimonies rejected, they would be persecuted, arrested, and taken from Jerusalem to their appointed places of martyrdom just like Jesus. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” He had said (Jon 15:20 NIV). As the three cross bearers proceeded along the street, great multitudes of people were following them, including some women who were mourning and lamenting for Jesus. Turning to the women, Jesus issued a somber warning. It would be the fourth and last such prophetic pronouncement given over the course of the past week regarding the fate of the Temple and the city because of their rejection of Him. “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then “ ‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!”’ For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry” (Luke 23:28-31 NIV)? In other words, if the Romans treat the blameless Christ this way, beware of what judgments and punishment they will mete out on a guilty city!

When the Roman soldiers had crucified Jesus, they affixed to the His cross an inscription written by Pilate. “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37 NAS). It was written in the three languages used throughout the Roman world, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, so that everyone who passed by could read it. Pilate wrote this not realizing the prophetic nature of what he was saying – the universality of Jesus’ salvation offer to all who would look to the cross and believe in Him, be they “Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free” (Colossians 3:11 NLT). Jesus’ offer of grace from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” would echo from there throughout the ages, to all who would receive it. The thief, crucified on His right, took up the offer and received the promise of paradise. It appears the centurion, standing in front of Jesus when He died, may also have done so. Praising God and declaring Jesus’ innocence he confessed “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Luke 23:47, Mark 15:39 NAS).

Simultaneously as Jesus died, the veil in the Temple was ripped from top to bottom (symbolic of God’s initiative from heaven) and an earthquake shook all of Jerusalem and Golgotha. Fear gripped the hearts of those looking on, as rocks split, tombs were opened, and many saints were resurrected and made appearances in the city. The elimination of the veil, guarding access to the Holy of Holies, marked the commencement of a “new and living way” into God’s presence through the blood and sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:20). Through the predetermined death of His Son, albeit at the hands of the Romans and His own Jewish people, God was fulfilling His Old Covenant promises by instituting a New Covenant. Through this covenant, redemption and unrestricted access to God’s mercy, grace, and presence would be extended to all of humankind, including the perpetrators.

A courageous man named Joseph, who was from a Judean city north of Jerusalem named Arimathea, went to Pilate to request the release of the body of Jesus for burial. Joseph was a secret disciple of Jesus and member of the Sanhedrin who had refused to consent to their actions to have Him put to death. Together with Nicodemus, another Sanhedrin member and clandestine believer, Joseph retrieved the body and gave Him a proper burial in an unused tomb nearby. Pilate, at the urging of the Jewish leaders, then had a seal set on the stone covering the tomb and posted a guard, lest Jesus’ disciples “come and steal the body and tell the people that He has been raised from the dead” (Matthew 27:64 NIV).

As with so many details surrounding the death of Jesus, the sovereignty of God prevailed once again, insuring His resurrection while befuddling the plans of man. As predicted by the Scriptures and Jesus’ own words the grave could not contain Him. On the third day God shook the place with violent earthquake. An angel, appearing like lightning rolled the stone away and the guards fainted with fear. When the soldiers came to, seeing the empty tomb, they went into the city to report what had happened to the chief priests. Given huge sums of money as a bribe, they were instructed to say Jesus’ disciples came and stole His body while they slept, and not to report the arrangement to governor.

During the next forty days, the risen Christ appeared to over five hundred people both in Jerusalem and in Galilee. He gave significant time to instructing the eleven disciples, including commissioning them to take His gospel of the kingdom and His healing, delivering power to all creation throughout the earth. When it came time for His ascension into heaven, He led them to the top of the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city and Temple for which He had wept and pleaded. Reminding them that they could not know the times and dates the Father had set for the things He had predicted, He instructed them instead to make being His witnesses, empowered by the Holy Spirit, their priority. Finally, lifting up His hands He blessed them and was taken up, disappearing into the clouds. As they continued to gaze skyward, two angelic beings appeared. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11 NIV). Bottom line, be assured, Jesus will return to Jerusalem, but only when it is ready to receive Him and declare “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

To be continued in my next blog post. Your comments and feedback are always welcome.

January 25th, 2018 · by Tom Stuart · Check this out!, Church History, News & Reflections

Jerusalem’s Relentless March to Divine Destiny – Pt 7

“Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’” (Luke 13:21-32 NIV)

The oppression of Roman occupation in Israel (Judea, Samaria, Idumea, and Galilee), the land promised to Abraham’s offspring over two thousand years earlier, was a constant thorn in the side the Jews. Although there was a measure of religious freedom, the injustices of excess taxation, military abuse, and peril of imprisonment and/or death to anyone who dare challenge Roman authority were constantly looming over them. The threat of Herod the Great’s wrath upon the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, who were directed by an angelic visitation to flee to Egypt, is emblematic of the demonic assignments seeking to thwart God’s purposes for the Jewish people and their land.

When Herod died unexpectantly in 4 AD, after a thirty-seven year reign, chaos ensued in Jerusalem. At the time, the city was flooded with pilgrims attending the annual Passover celebration. With Herod’s 18 year old son Archelaus assuming the kingship, Jews rebelled, stoning his soldiers stationed at the Temple. Archelaus, seeking to establish his authority, retaliated. Attacking with his cavalry, he massacred 3,000 in the Temple area, and cancelled Passover. Needing Augustus Caesar’s official approval to be king, he then sailed for Rome to make his appeal. In his absence other claimants to the kingdom converged upon Jerusalem including various ambitious Roman successors to Herod, rebel Galileans and Idumeans, and self-appointed Jewish prophets. Herod’s palaces were burned and the Temple seized. In the end, the troops of the Roman Governor of Syria prevailed and he had 2,000 of the rebels crucified. Meanwhile in Rome, Augustus settled the matter by decreeing that the rule of Herod’s kingdom would be split between his three sons as regional governors, rather than give any one of them the supreme authority as king. Herod Archelaus was appointed to govern Judea, Samaria, and Idumea; with Herod Antipas given Galilee and Peraea (portions of modern day Jordan). Philip, their half-brother was named governor of Bataneae and Trachonitis (today’s southern Syria and northern Jordan).

When the turmoil finally subsided, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in Egypt, where he had fled with the Holy Family, and released them to return to the land of Israel. The scriptures tell us that Joseph, fearing the reign of Archelaus in Judea and being warned in a dream, was guided to settle the family in Nazareth of Galilee (Matthew 2:19-23). Archelaus turned out to be a self-serving, incompetent, and cruel ruler. As a consequence his governorship only lasted ten years. Augustus Caesar, hearing mounting complaints of his corruption, removed him from office and banished him to Gaul (Western Europe). Augustus turned Judea, Samaria, and Idumea into a Roman province calling it Iudeae (Latin for Judeae), moved the seat of government to Caesarea on the coast, and set up the office of “prefect” as his delegated authority to govern. Prefects, also referred to as procurators or governors, were primarily military rulers who collected imperial taxes and exercised judicial powers. All this was distressing to the Jews because it represented an even greater imposition of Roman control upon their lives.

Herod Antipas, the governor in Galilee for over forty years, was paranoid of anyone threatening his authority, just as his father King Herod had been before him. In 32 AD the Jewish prophet John the Baptist publically criticized Antipas for marrying Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. Herodias also incidentally, was his niece. Fearful of public opinion being stirred up against him, Antipas had John arrested. Reckoning that John was a righteous man and someone he liked listening to, he decided to preserve his life, contrary to the demands of the offended Herodias, that he be killed. Herodias however, eventually had her way. At Herod’s birthday banquet Herodias’ daughter did a dance that so pleased the governor that he boastfully made an oath to grant her anything she requested. The daughter, at the prompting of her mother, asked for the head of John on a platter. Herod though distressed at his predicament, ever the man pleaser, granted her wish.

As Jesus’ miraculous ministry in Galilee became widely known, and conjecture that He was a prophet like the prophets of old, Herod Antipas’s interest was piqued. “John, whom I beheaded has been raised from the dead!” he declared (Mark 6:16 NIV). Realizing the threat of retaliatory steps by Herod because of the widespread publicity of His ministry, Jesus withdrew from the limelight with His disciples to more remote places. After a time, He resumed ministry in Galilee but began to set His face toward His destiny in Jerusalem. “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21 NIV). In His final approach to Jerusalem, while ministering in the Jordan valley some Pharisees came to Him. “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” Jesus’ reply tells us plainly His disdain for Antipas and His unrelenting purpose to continue on to Jerusalem. “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” (Luke 13:31-33 NIV).

Jesus then cuts to the heart of the matter, addressing the tortured fate, yet hopeful future, of Jerusalem in three prophetic sentences. “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. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Luke 13:34-35 NIV Emphasis added).

It was the week of Passover, and because of the feast, Jerusalem was teeming with pilgrims. Roman officials were also in the city as was their custom during feasts. Pontius Pilate, the ruling Judean Prefect had traveled up to Jerusalem from his seat of government in Caesarea and Herod Antipas, Galilee’s ruler had arrived in town. Jesus and His disciples took up residence just outside of Jerusalem in Bethany. It was the village of Lazarus, whom He had recently raised from the dead. Tension-filled uncertainty gripped Jerusalem. There had been a recent Galilean rebellion in the city which Pilate had cruelly suppressed, killing eighteen Jews and mixing their blood with their sacrifices. The aftershocks of that were still reverberating as an insurrection leader and convicted murderer named Barabbas sat on death row. Jewish leaders were on edge. The chief priests and elders of the Sanhedrin, jealous and fearing the influence of Jesus upon the worshippers, gathered at the palace of Caiaphas the high priest. They were scheming to secretly arrest and kill him, but hesitant to execute the plan during the feast, lest there be a riot.

On Sunday, the first day of the week, Jesus began his descent with His disciples down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. Multitudes greeted Him crying “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:9 NIV Emphasis added). Referred to as the “Triumphal Entry,” the crowds of people were throwing their cloaks and palm branches on the road before Him, while rejoicing and praising God for all the miracles they had seen. As they got closer to Jerusalem and Jesus gazed upon the city with its magnificent Temple Mount, He began to weep over it. “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 NIV Emphasis added). Jesus eventually made His way into the Temple courts where even the children were chanting the “Hosanna” refrain, much to the consternation of the chief priests and teachers of the law. The Bible tells us Jesus simply looked around at that point, but then departed for Bethany with His disciples, because it was late in the day.

On Monday morning Jesus again set out for the Temple. This time, grieved in His spirit at what He had seen the day before, He was on a mission to cleanse the Temple of all those of who were defiling it with buying and selling. On the way He cursed a fruitless fig tree, which reminded Him of the fruitless condition of His people and their Temple worship. Arriving at the Temple He cast the transgressors out, overturned their tables and chairs, and would not permit any goods to be carried therein. Then reminding all within earshot of God’s original intention for the Temple, instituted by King Solomon a thousand years earlier “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers’” (Mark 11:17-18 NIV). At this, with the crowds hanging upon Jesus’ every word, the chief priests and scribes determined they must destroy Him.

On Tuesday, Jesus spent the bulk of the day in the Temple teaching in parables and sparring with the Jewish religious leaders and governmental officials over His authority and doctrine. At one point some Pharisees and Herodians sought to trap Jesus with a question about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus, in a clear acknowledgement of the tension of living under Roman rule, said “”Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17 NIV).

Later in the day Jesus and the disciples were alone on the Mount of Olives. Gazing down upon the Temple Mount complex, His disciples said “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” “’Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus.” Then, somberly repeating what He had said just two days earlier when weeping over Jerusalem “Not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down” (Mark 13:1-2 NIV Emphasis added). As they continued to question Him as to the timing and details of such a catastrophic event, Jesus launched into a long discourse describing not only that eventuality, but also the times that would usher in His second coming and the end of the world. Terming the precursors of the end as “birth pangs,” Jesus warned of wars, earthquakes, plagues, persecution, martyrdom, betrayal, tribulation, signs in the heavens, and even Daniel’s ”Abomination of Desolation” in the holy place. Throughout the unfolding of Jerusalem’s history it is a marvel to see the accuracy and timelessness of these predictions. For two millennia, century by century, every one of these birth pangs have at some point convulsed Jerusalem. The world yet awaits their culmination, but the recognition of what has gone before is a necessary preparation for what lies ahead.

The prophetic pronouncements of Jesus regarding Jerusalem, during His final days of earthly ministry, warrant careful consideration. As stated earlier, they predict both its fateful judgments and hopeful promise. With Jesus’ Messianic visitation in His first coming, Jerusalem was at a cosmic crossroads. Tragically, the refusal to receive Jesus or His gospel message, by both the city and the nation, sealed their destruction for generations to come. The day was quickly approaching when “not one stone [would] be left on another.” But fortuitously, the promise of a second coming remains. Far more recognizable than the first, the second coming of Jesus will proceed from heaven and the whole world will behold Him. At that time, the cry of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” will be a universal one; uttered not by a enlightened few, but by redeemed Jewish Israel as well as Gentile believers the world over.

Jesus likely spent Wednesday teaching in the Temple as was His daily practice, although no direct reference is made to that day in the Bible. On Thursday, preparation was made for the Passover meal which Jesus celebrated with the twelve apostles in the evening. During the supper, Judas abruptly left the upper room where they were gathered. He had made previous arrangements with Caiaphas to betray Jesus. Later that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas reappears leading an armed mob that included a Roman cohort (60-100 men) and officers from the chief priest. The hour of Jesus’ appointment in Jerusalem had arrived. Seizing Him, they led Him into the city, taking Him to the palace of the high priest. It would be His last time in Jerusalem and in the whirlwind of destiny He would appear before all the top religious and Roman leaders of the time. The high priests Caiaphas and his father-in-law Annas, the Sanhedrin, Pilate, and even “that fox” Herod Antipas would all have their say and seal their fate as they confronted Jesus.

To be continued in my next blog post. Your comments and feedback are always welcome.

January 17th, 2018 · by Tom Stuart · Check this out!, Church History, News & Reflections

Jerusalem’s Relentless March to Divine Destiny – Pt 6

“It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” John 2:20 NIV

It took nearly twenty-five years after Pompey’s triumph in Jerusalem for the Romans to finally establish a stable government in Judea. Pompey returned almost immediately to Rome where he was vying with Caesar for supreme rule of the Empire. In his absence he appointed two men to govern from Jerusalem, his minister Antipater, who was the son of an Edomite convert to Judaism, and a High Priest named Hyrcanus, who was of Maccabean descent. In 48 BC Pompey was defeated by Caesar in Italy and he fled to Egypt. Caesar gave hot pursuit but two days before he arrived, the Egyptians had already put Pompey to death. Egypt was in the midst of a civil war between King Ptolemy XIII and his deposed queen Cleopatra. During Caesar’s brief stay in Alexandria he threw his lot in with the enchanting young queen. Meanwhile in Jerusalem Antipater, Pompey’s former ally, seeing an opportunity to ingratiate himself with Caesar raised an army to 3,000 local Jews, rallied sympathetic Egyptian Jews, attacked, and defeated Caesar’s opponents. Before returning to Rome, Caesar restored Cleopatra to the throne and then gratefully turned his attention to Judea. He confirmed the high priestly rule of the Jews to Hyrcanus and gave permission for the walls of Jerusalem to be repaired. He granted the governmental power over Judea to Antipater as procurator. In addition, Antipater’s older son, Phasael, and younger son, Herod, were appointed tetrarchs of Jerusalem and Galilee respectively.

Herod, just fifteen years of age at the time, would soon become a rising star on the Roman political stage. Highly educated and gifted with looks, charm, and grit, he was a natural leader with an appetite for power. Herod would deftly handle the malevolent machinations of the Roman government within the next ten years to eventually become the second most powerful individual in the Empire. As the son of a Jewish convert father and an Arab mother, he was also uniquely equipped to navigate both the ethnic and religious dichotomies permeating that part of the world.

The assassination of Caesar in 44 BC triggered a series of events that shook the Roman Empire and once again put Jerusalem in the cross hairs of conflict. When Antipater, Herod’s father, sought to align his rulership of Judea with Cassius, one of Caesar’s murderers, he himself was assassinated. A rival poisoned him and took control of Jerusalem. But the rule of this usurper was short lived as Herod quickly managed to murder him in retaliation and seize power. In the meantime, the vacuum left by Caesar’s death resulted in his adopted son Octavian and his general Mark Antony splitting the Empire between them. The Jews, perceiving an opportunity to cast off Roman rule began an uprising against Herod and his brother. The two of them immediately quelled the rebellion.

In response, a more insidious plot to overthrow these two unwanted Roman puppets was hatched. At the time Jerusalem was being threatened from without by an army invading from the expanding kingdom of Parthia which already occupied territory from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. Jews seeking to restore Maccabean rule forged an agreement with the Parthians, and opening the gates invited them in to liberate the city. The rampaging Parthians were triumphant and in the process murdered Herod’s brother Phasael. They also removed Hyrcanus the High Priest from office and cut off his ears disqualifying him from any further priestly service. Keeping their end of the bargain they crowned a Maccabean prince named Antigonos as king. It was a dream come true for the Jews as they celebrated the return of Hasmonean rule. A despairing, yet combative Herod just barely escaped with a select company including his mother, sister and concubines. Taking them to his mountain top fortress at Masada which he had built earlier, he fled alone to Egypt and from there sailed for Rome.

Antony and Octavian welcomed Herod to Rome where they invited him to join them in their plans to counterattack and expel the Parthians. In 39 BC they declared Herod King of Judea (or King of the Jews) before the Roman Senate. Now an official Roman ally, Herod headed east to enjoin the battle to recapture his kingdom. After three years of conflict with the Parthians, Herod, with the help of Antony’s army, finally reached Jerusalem. Following a siege that lasted forty days they breached the outer walls, ravaged the city, burst into the temple, and killed forty-five of the seventy-one members of the Sanhedrin. They deposed Antigonos the King and dispatched him to Marc Antony for execution, putting an end, once and for all, to Hasmonean/Maccabean monarchs.

The joint rule of Antony and Octavian over the Roman Empire came to an end when they squared off against one another in a naval battle off the western coast of Greece in 31 BC. Octavian triumphed convincingly. Mark Antony escaped to Egypt where he and his paramour Cleopatra, having lost hope, committed suicide. Octavian was now the sole ruler of the Empire and adopted the name Augustus Caesar. Herod, ever the crafty politician, denounced any connection with Antony and won favored status with Caesar who increased his kingdom to include parts of modern Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Shrewdly leveraging his holdings, Herod would become the wealthiest man in the Mediterranean second only to Caesar. Herod was a builder and he wasted no time in constructing two magnificent cities in honor of the new emperor. They were Caesarea on the coast and Sebaste (Greek for Augustus) inland on the former site of Samaria.

Herod the Great, as he would eventually be called, now turned his focus to Jerusalem where he set about to embellish it as an architectural wonder and testimony to his greatness. First he built a military fort north of the Temple named the Antonia Fortress. Then he constructed a towered Citadel and Palace complex with courtyards, colonnades, groves of trees, lawns, and pools all surrounded by a 45 foot wall. Not to be outdone by other leading cities of the era he also build entertainment venues including a Greek style theatre and hippodrome. But his most ambitious project, the remnant of which would be the center of world attention for two thousand years was his construction of an expanded Temple Mount and replacement of Zerubbabel’s Second Temple. He began this, the greatest of his accomplishments, in 20 BC. As a Jew, albeit the descendant of a convert, Herod understood the historical and biblical significance of the Temple both to Jerusalem and the Jewish faith.

Herod was meticulous in his approach to making the reconstruction of the Second Temple incomparable to anything that had preceded it. Sensitive to the apprehension of the Jews and wanting to curry their favor, he engaged them in every aspect of the planning. He saw to it that a thousand priests were trained as builders and arrangements were made for the daily offerings to continue without interruption throughout the construction. The sheer size of the undertaking was mind boggling. Erasing any vestige of the Second Temple and excavating even the remnants of Solomon’s Temple, Herod dug foundations to bedrock. Choosing to greatly expand Mount Moriah’s natural plateau to the south, he built massive retaining walls using gigantic stones weighing up to 600 tons. The precisely cut stones were transported from nearby quarries using thousands of ox-drawn wagons and put in place without the sound of hammer, just as in the construction of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:7).

The Temple Mount and main Temple, with the Holy of Holies positioned over the rock where Abraham had sacrificed Isaac, was completed in two years. Legend has it that during that time it never rained in the day, so the work was enabled to continue without any interruption. The entire project would extend beyond Herod’s lifetime and take decades to complete. Reference to its lengthy construction is recorded in John’s Gospel. It was on the occasion that Jesus was driving out the money changers from the Temple and His authority to do so was challenged by the Jews. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” Jesus retorted. He was speaking prophetically of His body as the temple which would die, but be raised to life in three days. Perplexed, the Jews replied “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days” (John 2:19-20 NIV)? Biblical and other historical accounts of the impressiveness of the Temple complex agree. Jesus’ disciples marveled at its magnificence (Mark 11:1). Historical descriptions speak of its gleaming limestone with gold plating reflecting a fiery visage in the morning sun from the Mount of Olives, so bright that beholders of its glistening glory had to look away.

Despite his magnanimous investment in beautifying Jewish worship Herod was no saint. His lust for power was entangled with and matched by his lust of the flesh. He had at least ten wives in addition to a harem of five hundred. His tempestuous marriage to his favorite wife Mariamne, a Maccabean princess esteemed by the Jews, ended with him having her killed. A niece of Antigonos, she had been plotting his overthrow, suspecting him of killing her brother. Before Herod’s purge of threats to his supreme rule was finished, he had Mariamne’s mother and four of his closest friends put to death as well. It is little wonder therefore that when three wise men from the East came to his Jerusalem court seeking to locate a baby they believed born “king of the Jews” this maniacal possessiveness of his throne was piqued. After all, that was his title, and woe to whomever should dare to take it from him. Having inquired of the chief priests and teachers of the law, Herod had a secret audience with the wise men and sent them to Bethlehem with the scheming appeal “As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:8 NIV). We know the rest of this story that ended tragically with every baby boy in the Bethlehem area being slaughtered at Herod’s command (Matthew 2:16-18).

It was into this politically charged Herodian ruled world, when his capital Jerusalem was at its Roman and Jewish architectural zenith, that the long awaited Messiah would be born, would live, and would die. It was this magnificent Temple that the Messiah would call “My Father’s house” and a “house of prayer for all nations.” There, Jesus would be dedicated as an infant, visit during the feasts from His youth, and cleanse twice at the beginning and end of His three year ministry.

To be continued in my next blog post. Your comments and feedback are always welcome. 

January 10th, 2018 · by Tom Stuart · Check this out!, Church History, News & Reflections

Jerusalem’s Relentless March to Divine Destiny – Pt 5

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.”  Isaiah 49:14-16 NIV

The restoration of the Temple in 516 BC and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem seventy two years later in 444 BC once again secured the Jewish people in their identity and in their relationship with God. It established a focal point for their worship, prayer, and sacrifices. Even those Jews yet scattered among the surrounding nations in the Diaspora, first dating from 700 BC, found solace in being able to pray toward the Temple in Jerusalem as Solomon had prescribed in his dedication prayer (1 Kings 8:29-30, 35,38,42, 44, & 48). With successive generations of Persian kings, plagued by internal power struggles, the influence of their empire began to wane. This gave opportunity for a period of Jewish self-rule by a dynasty of high priests claiming to have descended from the Davidic priest Zadok. Unfortunately these priests, like the secular rulers of the empire of which they were a part, fell prey to infighting and division themselves. Peace and stability in Jerusalem under their rule could not be sustained and sedition within their ranks eventually led to the murder of a high priest over contention as to who should control the riches of the Temple treasury. News of the unrest in Jerusalem gave incentive for the Persian governor to attack Jerusalem and loot its wealth.

While all this was going on the Greek nation of Macedonia was growing in strength both militarily and geographically. As all the city states fell under their control, the Macedonians began to set their sights on the Persian Empire purposing to take revenge for its previous invasions of their land. In 336 BC a twenty year old named Alexander succeeded his father to the throne becoming the king of Macedonia. Within three years Alexander the Great, as he would be called, had conquered the western Persian Empire and began to march south along the Mediterranean coast to Jerusalem. The Jewish historian Josephus records that a most cooperative high priest welcomed the conqueror at the gates of the city with much pomp and circumstance. Remarkably the priest then led him to the Temple where Alexander is said to have made a sacrifice to the God of the Jews. Some historians question the plausibility of this account. Regardless, it is a fact that Alexander, like Cyrus before him, did choose to accommodate the Jews by deciding to support the continuance of their Temple worship. Obviously the hand of God was upon Alexander just as it had been upon Cyrus. Perhaps Alexander’s greatness could be attributed as much to this kindness as to the fact that he was undefeated in battle and established one of the largest empire of the ancient world before age 30. Leaving Jerusalem, never to return again, he continued south to conquer Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria as its new capital. It would eventually become one of the great centers of influence in the Mediterranean world for almost a thousand years. From there he marched east completing his triumph of the Persian Empire and eventually extended his kingdom all the way to Pakistan.

In 323, while ruling from Babylon, Alexander just 33 years of age, became mysteriously ill. As he lay upon his death bed and subordinates questioned him as to whom he would leave his kingdom, he replied “To the strongest.” This set in motion a power struggle between generals which resulted in the division of Alexander’s empire into two dynasties that lasted for over 250 years. Known as the Hellenistic period (from the Greek word Hellas for Greece) the influence of Greek culture with its arts, architecture, philosophy, science, and language permeated every aspect of life. In the North was the Seleucid Empire which included Greece, Turkey, Syria, Persia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the South the Ptolemaic Dynasty ruled Egypt. Judea had the misfortune of being situated between these two empires and quickly became their battleground. Jerusalem changed hands six times within the first twenty years.

Finally in 301 BC the Ptolemy’s took control of Jerusalem and ruled it for one hundred years. Initially they rampaged through the city and carried off half the inhabitants into exile. However, sixteen years later when King Ptolemy II took the throne he reversed its fortunes by granting favor to the Jews. During his reign from Alexandria he ordered the translation of the Jewish Tanakh (Law, Prophets, and Writings), into Greek. Legend has it that it was completed in just seventy-two days by seventy-two Alexandrian Jewish scholars who, working independently, miraculously came up with identical translations. It became known as the Septuagint, taken from the Greek word septuaginta which means seventy. This was a hallmark event for the Jews, and later for the Christians, as they sought to spread the faith. Greek continued as the internationally accepted language for centuries to come. The Septuagint translation made the Bible accessible for virtually everyone to read. Judah thrived during this period with Jerusalem ruled by high priests and the minting of its own coins inscribed with its Hebrew name “Yehud.” As an aside, it should be noted that the term “Jew,” meaning “from the Tribe of Judah” is derived from this word.

In 201 BC the Northern Empire of the Seleucids overthrew the Egyptian Ptolemy’s taking control of Jerusalem. Under their indulgent rule Temple life continued as the center of Jewish life, the feasts were celebrated and pilgrims poured into the city. The high priest at the time, a man called Simon the Just, was a paragon of virtue ruling both the political and religious affairs of the city. The first use of the term “theocracy” was coined by Josephus the historian to describe his reign. Things took a turn for the worse however in 167 BC when Antiochus, an evil Seleucid king turned on Jerusalem. Capturing the city, he slaughtered thousands, destroyed the walls, and forbade upon pain of death possession of the Torah, all Jewish observances, and services in the Temple. To heap insult upon injury he desecrated the Temple with the flesh of pigs, revelry, harlotry, and idol sacrifice. While not the first, nor the last, it was a foreshadowing of the “abomination of desolation” predicted by Daniel to be an end time occurrence in a future Third Temple (Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11).

This intolerable oppression sparked a Jewish uprising against the Seleucids led by an old priest named Mattathias and his five sons. Although he died soon afterward, his third son Judah took the lead and finally succeeded in conquering all of Judea and he recovered control of Jerusalem in 164 BC. After four hundred years, Jewish independence was finally restored. The Temple, deserted and overgrown, was reclaimed and the Holy of Holies was rededicated in an eight day ceremony. Despite a shortage of oil, the candelabra miraculously continued to burn and never went out. Though some hold this aspect of the account to be a myth, this memorable event and the rededication of the Temple is annually celebrated among the Jews today as Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. This triumph began a one hundred year Jewish reign by the Maccabees, a name given to the sons of Mattathias. According to Jewish tradition the word “Maccabee” was derived from a Hebrew acronym for the verse “Who is like You among the heavenly powers, Adonai!” which had become their battle cry. Also known as the Hasmonean Dynasty, some of their early history is recorded in the Old Testament apocryphal books of First and Second Maccabees.

The century long Maccabean rule, like every dynastic era before them lacked sustainable peace and tranquility. It was fraught with ongoing battles with the Seleucids, the death or capture of all the ruling brothers, and infighting and atrocities perpetrated by their descendants. Finally in 64 BC with the ascendancy of the Roman Empire, Pompey its all-conquering general, took Syria ending the Seleucid kingdom. He then descended upon Jerusalem and bombarded the fortified Temple Mount with catapults for three months. Taking advantage of the pious Jews who were marking the Sabbath with a fast, he stormed the Temple, killed the priests guarding the altar and entered the Holy of Holies. Looking around, he realized there was nothing there of significant value save the sanctity of the space and withdrew. Twelve thousand Jews died in the conflict, fortifications were destroyed, and the Maccabean monarchy abolished. Judea and Jerusalem were now ruled by Rome. In spite of four centuries of wars, occupation, profane abuse and misuse, the Second Temple was still standing. The only plausible explanation for its miraculous preservation is that her walls are indeed, ever before the Lord (Isaiah 49:16).

To be continued in my next blog post. Your comments and feedback are always welcome.