The Siege of Jerusalem

The sermon for January 26th comes from 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, and draws heavily on the history of Jerusalem.

The Siege of Jerusalem

The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD is for the New Testament what the fall of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon were for the Old Testament. It is the defining, cataclysmic event behind the books, that shaped the texts and the communities that read them. Matthew, Mark and Luke, all make reference to the destruction of the Temple, and some suggest that Mark may have been written during or maybe just after the siege. The Book of John makes frequent reference to people being kicked out of synagogues, which were radically increased in stature following the destruction of the Temple.

The Second Temple, also called Herod’s Temple because Herod the Great had expanded on the Temple in massive ways, was the center of Jewish life at that time. Everyone, save a couple of fringe groups such as the Essenes, from whom we’ve recovered the Dead Sea Scrolls, held the Temple as the center of religious life. People from all different background and political beliefs came together and worshipped side by side, because this was where you worshipped. But its destruction changed all that. Suddenly religious and political life for Jews in Jerusalem and around the world had no center. And I want to talk for a minute about how that happened.

Unrest was common in 1st century Judaism. There were numerous rebellions and riots, over taxes, over Roman disregard of Jewish faith, and over oppressive economic conditions. Most of the Roman governors who had been assigned knew they were sitting on a powder keg went out of their way to keep the peace. But when Judea got a corrupt and brutal procurator named Gessius Florus and couldn’t get rid of him, the tensions in the region were too much. The powder keg was going to blow.

When it finally did blow, Romans were surprised by the effectiveness of the rebellion. The legion that they sent to pacify the rebellion was destroyed at Beth-Horon, one of the greatest defeats in Roman military history. After they recovered from the shock, the Romans sent their great general Vespasian, along with a force more than 4 times the size of the one sent previously.  Vespasian methodically worked his way through Galilee, but he and the rebellion both knew that the conflict would come down to a siege of Jerusalem.

Knowing how difficult it would be to conquer the city, Vespasian avoided it, holding his army on the coast and choosing to wait rather than risk a costly battle. This turned out to be the ideal strategy, because even though 4 Roman legions were only a few days march away, the leaders of the rebellion quickly turned on each other.

The war party for the past hundred years was called the Zealots. In Jerusalem, they controlled the Temple, which was a fortress in its own right. The walls of the Temple were so thick and strong that Pompey the Great took three months to get through them in 63 BC. I’m sorry did I say through? I meant over. It took Pompey three whole months working with siege engines just to get over the walls, he never breached them. The Zealots had been advocating for war against the Romans for generations, and now that they had their war, they wanted to make sure no talk of surrender or negotiation would prevent its conclusion. They assassinated or executed anyone who talked of accommodation. And with the Roman army preparing for a siege, they burned many of the city’s food supply to force the people to fight.

But outside the Temple, the people were becoming more and more frustrated with Zealot extremism. Led by a former high-priest Ananus Ben Ananus, they began to take up arms against the Zealots. When the Zealots learned that the people were arming themselves, they attacked, but ended up retreating to the inner court of the Temple. Before the Romans could arrive to lay siege on Jerusalem, the people of Jerusalem sieged themselves, surrounding the inner court with 6,000 of Ben Ananus’s men.

When the Zealots heard a rumor that Ben Ananus had sent to negotiate with Rome, they asked the Edomites, allies from a neighboring territory to intervene. Under the cover of a thunderstorm, the Zealots went with saws to the outer walls of Jerusalem, and opened them to the foreigners, who destroyed Ben Ananus’s forces, and massacred the people with abandon. When they discovered that Ben Ananus had never in fact contacted Rome, they repented, and left. It was not long after, that the man who started the rumor, John of Giscala, rose to power over the Zealots, and ruled the city with an iron fist.

Soon, a new threat arose. Simon Bar Giora, a peasant leader who had been rejected by Jerusalem’s rulers for a leadership position, had raised an army of peasants and was leading it towards Jerusalem. When Simon’s armies arrived, he was hailed as a savior, and invited in, so that he might defeat the forces of John of Giscala.

Over two years, the forces of Jerusalem fought two three front wars among themselves, until the leftovers finally banded together when Vespasian’s son Titus set his forces against the city. But by that time, the Jewish forces were weak and devastated. Their food stores had been destroyed; many had already died of starvation. They’re numbers were severely diminished from all the fighting that had gone on before Titus’s armies arrived. Josephus reports that more than a million people died during the siege of Jerusalem. The majority of them did not fall at the hands of the Romans.

In the end the story of the fall of Jerusalem is a story of defeat from within. They were so focused on their own little battles with each other that they destroyed themselves before they could even begin the real battle.   Their leaders were so unwilling to accommodate their own allies that they attacked the people they needed the most. Each of the various factions chose ideological purity over victory. They became so obsessed with being right and with their party being victorious that they let the whole effort fail.

It’s a tragic story, and it’s not so far from being ours, at least figuratively. Christianity has real enemies at its gate. We are facing real, existential threats. All of the major denominations in America are experiencing declining membership, and the number of people who identify as Christian is decreasing. Even among those who identify as Christians, the church is remarkably unpopular. Christians are increasingly known as bigoted and hateful on one end, and empty-headed and irrelevant on the other. Fewer people are coming to church simply because they think that the church doesn’t have much to offer, to them, or to the world. and because we’ve exhausted ourselves fighting with each other and trying to tell convince ourselves that nothing has changed over the last fifty years, very few of us have the ability to tell them any different.

And in the meantime, we fight. We talk about Bible-believing churches, calmly insinuating that some churches aren’t really Christian simply because they don’t agree with our politics. When my cousin was a new Christian, he called me one day because a pastor had told him he needed to make sure and join a Bible-believing church. He said, “are there really churches that don’t believe the Bible?” Do you know how heartbreaking it was to tell him that that pastor was just dogging on churches he disagreed with? Or we try to separate ourselves out from other Christians, by saying things like, “well we’re not THAT kind of Christian, we’re not the crazy kind, with the (arms waving in the air)” we’re doing the same thing.

When Paul hears about division in the church that he started in Corinth, his words are swift and harsh.

“Has Christ been divided?” he asks, “were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Paul’s point is that although Paul might have been your teacher, or Apollos, or Peter, or although your church may have been founded by Timothy or Barnabus, that isn’t your primary identity. First and foremost we belong to Christ. The identity we share is more important than the identities that divide us. And whether we’re Presbyterian and not Lutheran or Baptist or non-denominational, we will not win victories for the Kingdom of God by tearing down some other part of it.

After making it even clearer how disappointed he is, Paul adds something profound that should give us pause. “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” Not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. In other words, our proclamation does not need to be perfect. We don’t have to have everything right, or even understand everything. In fact, Paul seems to suggest that eloquent wisdom might obscure the message, lest people be impressed with the perfect wisdom of our arguments, rather than the perfect love of Christ’s sacrifice. We simply have to proclaim what Christ has done for us.

We don’t realize how much damage we do when we fight each other instead of facing the forces arrayed against us. It’s not about being right. It’s not about being in the right group. When we focus on ourselves and the divisions between us, we lose track of what it’s really about. It’s about telling the story of what Christ has done for us. Not in the right way, or the smart way, but in our own way, that through us others might find that power in their lives. We’re not here to be perfect. We’re here to be imperfect, so that others might see glimpses of Christ’s perfection in our stories, shining through us like light shining through a cracked pot.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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