Jesus spoke of a time when men would be in great “perplexity” with their “hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth” (Luke 21:25-26). The calamity of which He spoke was the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Romans. This was a time of “great tribulation” the likes of which the world had never seen or ever would know (Matt. 24:21).
The years leading up to this horrific war were a time of anxiety and distress that grew worse as that day drew near. The unpredictable and brutal emperor Nero astonished Rome with his madness. In 64 A.D. a great fire destroyed much of the city of Rome. Not one to let a crisis go to waste, Nero blamed the fire on Christians and had them killed by the most inhumane methods. Some were nailed to crosses and burned at night to give light to streets. Nero continued this reign of terror on Christians and on anyone else he disliked, including murdering his own mother and a host of senators who stood in his way. These were frightening and unstable times for everyone.
Meanwhile Jewish leaders poured out their hatred on Christians as they had since the church began. But they also hated Roman rule. The tension between them grew just as Jesus had said and fighting broke out in different cities. Josephus, a Jewish soldier who was captured during the conflict between the Jews and Romans, recorded the terrifying events of this war. He described the unbelievable suffering when the Romans finally took Jerusalem. But he also wrote about the bloodshed that occurred prior to that tragedy and the tense air of fear that gripped the people. Jesus said men’s hearts would fail them for fear and the expectation of things that were coming. Those words were about the general population. Christians who heeded His words in Matthew 24 knew what was coming and how to save themselves. But others were filled with anxiety.
Josephus tells of one battle where in one hour’s time over twenty thousand Jews were killed in Caesarea and the bodies of old men, women, and children were left lying on the ground. He observed that “you might then see the whole province full of inexpressible calamities, while the dread of still more barbarous practices which were threatened was everywhere greater than what had already been perpetrated.” People feared that the situation would become worse, though they didn’t see just how bad it would be.
How did Christians keep their sanity and their faith in such an unstable and dangerous world? How did they endure a time of political upheaval, family division, and religious persecution? They remembered what Jesus said as He warned about the troubling times. Just before He told the disciples about the fear that would fill men’s hearts in those days, He said these words: “By your patience possess your souls” (Luke 21:19). There was nothing they could do to change what was coming. They just had to wait by faith until it was over.
We are living in trying times. People are anxious and afraid of what will happen in the weeks ahead. If the past teaches us anything, it is that if Christians could endure the perils and worries the troubles we have just noticed, we can surely make it through this storm today. Be patient. Trust in God. Read your Bible instead of depending on the news. Above all, put your hope on heaven and not on the earth and remember that we are pilgrims passing through.