There were three Jewish revolts against the Romans in the late first and early second centuries. There was the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (AD 132-136), the Kitos War (AD 115-117) and the first Jewish revolt (AD 66-73), often referred to as the Great Revolt. It is the Great Revolt (and specifically the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 under Titus) that provides the background for Jesus’ words in Matthew 24. (See this in v. 15 and compare it with Luke’s language to the gentile Theophilus in 21:20 of his gospel). The fall of the city was the decisive event of the failed rebellion.
The revolt began with an uprising that resulted in the Romans being driven out of Jerusalem in AD 66 and the formation of a government by the Jewish resistance. Nero appointed Vespasian to put down the rebellion and by AD 69 he had secured all of Galilee and Judea with the exception of Jerusalem. Nero died by his own hand and Vespasian became emperor. His second-in-command, his son Titus, took over and invaded Jerusalem at the time of the Passover (according to Josephus) in AD 70. His forces quickly broke through the first two walls of the city, but it took a few months before the final wall was breeched. During this time Titus built his own wall around the city to keep people from escaping and increase the effectiveness of his blockade aimed at starving the resistance. At several unsuccessful attempts, they broke through the third wall and destroyed the temple and the city. The rebel forces that escaped held out a few more years before their defeat at Masada in AD 73.
The blockade and destruction of Jerusalem featured all of the cruelties of war and more. There was infighting among the Jewish leaders that resulted in betrayal and murder. Some of the Zealots were responsible for destroying the city’s food supply. The Roman blockade resulted in starvation and when the city fell there was a widespread massacre (Josephus puts the number of casualties as over a million due to the festival attendees). Survivors were enslaved or sent to the arenas.
To say it was a difficult time would be an understatement. It was horrific. Jesus would note that in the events leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). We see this kind of thing in lesser situations—many people tend to be like thermometers and simply reflect whatever the prevailing mood is. When coarseness and cruelty dominate, they go right along with it. In the midst of the enmity, rebellion, betrayal, and shifting alliances prior to Jerusalem’s fall, it would be easy to adopt an attitude of survival at all costs. Looking out for others would draw the short straw. Their needs might be noticed but heads would quickly turn the other way.
Even though we are far removed from the circumstances of Matthew 24, the challenge of loving in adversity is very much with us. Jesus spoke to this when talked about loving people who aren’t like us (5:46-48). If we are pursuing our Father’s image, then we are serious about loving all people at all times. That means we will love people when it is easy and when it is not. It means we will love our enemies as well as our friends (v. 44).
To do this, we can’t allow our love to grow cold. We keep it alive and growing by remembering that God’s great love for us is His love for all. We reach beyond ourselves (one step at a time) and commit ourselves to doing good wherever and for whoever we can. We freely give and receive forgiveness in our relationships.
And most of all, we remember that love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:7). Walls will fall. Cities and civilizations will come and go. The one who walks in love has been born of God and overcomes the world (1 John 4:7,5:5).