What Did Christ Mean When He Said in Luke 13:33: “… it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.”?


The entire passage reads, in context: “On that very day some Pharisees came, saying to Him, ‘Get out and depart from here, for Herod wants to kill You.’ And He said to them, ‘Go, tell that fox, “Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.” Nevertheless I must journey today, tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem’” (Luke 13:31-33).

Christ made the statement in the context of His violent death which would occur in the city of Jerusalem. Halley’s Bible Handbook points out that Jesus spoke His words when He was “in Perea, Herod’s domain. He was safer there than in Judea. His answer: ‘You, not Herod, are my murderers. Jerusalem, not Perea, the place for it.’”

In fact, many prophets were and are going to be killed in that city (compare the death of the prophet Zechariah, 2 Chronicles 24:20-22; the death of the prophet Urijah, Jeremiah 26:20-23; and the future death of the two witnesses, Revelation 11:3, 7-8).

As we explain in our Q&A about the role of Christ as a prophet, Christ was indeed a prophet, and He was recognized as such by the people and the religious establishment (Matthew 21:11; John 9:17; Luke 7:16; Luke 24:19). He referred to Himself as a prophet in the above-quoted passage in Luke 13:33. In fact, He was THE Prophet spoken of by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15 (compare Acts 3:19-26), and some recognized Him as such (John 6:14; 7:40).

But did Christ mean to say that every prophet was or will be killed in the city of Jerusalem?

In addressing the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes and lawyers who resided in Jerusalem, He said in Luke 11:49-51:

“… ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute,’ that the blood of all the prophets which was shed from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who perished between the altar and the temple. Yes, I say to you, it shall be required of this generation.”

Christ might have had in mind that His generation would be severely punished through the Romans in 70 AD when Jerusalem was occupied and the temple was destroyed. Or, He could have referred in general to the Jewish race (note our Q&A on the meaning of “generation”).

His recorded words in Matthew 23:34-35 shed further light on His statement:

“… I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come  all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.”

Notice that He says in Matthew 23:34 that the prophets, wise men and scribes would be persecuted from city to city… showing that His statements (including in Luke 13:33) were not limited to the city of Jerusalem.

Not every prophet was killed in the city of Jerusalem. Abel was not killed in the city of Jerusalem (the city did not even exist at that time), even though Christ called him a prophet. As Noah was a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5), warning the people of the coming flood, so Abel probably prophesied to Cain and others about the consequences of their evil lifestyle; and we read that Abel’s blood still speaks to us today in a figurative sense (Hebrews 12:24).

We stated in a previous Q&A on the death of Paul:

“It is therefore reasonably certain that Paul was murdered under Nero through beheading. He was buried in Rome, but his body was later transferred to England, where it is today.”

Paul was a prophet (Acts 13:1), but he was apparently not killed in the city of Jerusalem.

What, then, might Christ have meant with His statement that “it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem”? Did He utter an historically and prophetically inaccurate statement?

Several explanations are possible.

(1)  Exception: Death of a Prophet through Foreigners

John the Baptist was a great prophet (Matthew 11:7-9; Luke 1:76), but he was not THE Prophet (John 1:21-25). He was beheaded in the palace of Herod (called the fortress Machaerus), which was not in the city of Jerusalem, but which was a fortified hilltop palace located in Jordan 25 kilometers (16 miles) southeast of the mouth of the Jordan river on the eastern side of the Dead Sea (compare Wikipedia on Machaerus; note also comments in the Nelson Study Bible).

But “John died at the hands of Herod and Herodias, neither of whom were, properly speaking Jews. John, therefore, died as a prophet to foreigners rather than as a prophet to the Jewish people” (The Fourfold Gospel).

The same can be said about the murder of other prophets through foreign people. We read in Revelation 18:24 that the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who were slain on the earth, were found in “Babylon”—the Gentile political, military and religious Babylonian system (compare Revelation 16:6; 18:20; 19:2).

The Schlachter Bible comments that Jesus wanted to show that most prophets in the Old Testament had not been killed by foreign enemies, but by the Jewish people. At the same time, Christ would have excluded those prophets in His statement in Luke 13:33 who were not killed by Jews.

Passages such as Acts 7:52 and 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 reiterate the murder of the prophets through Israelites and Jews. Hebrews 11:37 speaks of the death of God’s followers, and that some were sawn in two. Tradition has it that the prophet Isaiah was killed in this manner.

(2)  “Jerusalem” Symbolic for Jewish Nation

From the previous statement, it would follow that Christ’s use of the word “Jerusalem” in Luke 13:33 was not limited to the city.

The Life Application Bible says:

“Jerusalem, the city of God, symbolized the entire nation. It was Israel’s largest city and the nation’s spiritual and political capital, and Jews from around the world visited it frequently. But Jerusalem had a history of rejecting God’s prophets … and it would reject the Messiah just as it had rejected his forerunners.”

(3)  “Jerusalem” Symbolic for “Forces of Evil” and Babylonian System

However, the term “Jerusalem” might have a much broader application than just referring to the nation of Judah.

The Bible Study New Testament writes:

“Jerusalem (the earthly city) was symbolic of the forces of evil which fight against God (see Revelation 11:8). Jesus would die there, and his church would begin there!”

Note that Revelation 11:8 states that the two witnesses will be killed in Jerusalem, “which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.” Note also God’s harsh condemnation of end-time Israel and Judah in Isaiah 1:10; 3:9, describing them as “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah.”

As mentioned above, Revelation 18:24 says that the blood of ALL who were slain on the earth can be found in “Babylon.” It is clear that this statement must include the blood of those who were killed in “Jerusalem.” This means that “Jerusalem” is part of the worldwide ancient and modern Babylonian system which reigns over the kings of the earth (Revelation 17:18; Isaiah 47:5); which deceived ALL the nations through its sorcery (Revelation 18:23; Isaiah 47:9); and which has made the inhabitants of the earth drunk with the wine of her fornication (Revelation 17:2; Jeremiah 51:7). Revelation 18:2 tells us that Babylon is fallen twice (“Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen”), referring to ancient Babylon in Old Testament times and modern Babylon with its capital Rome, under the rule of the beast and the false prophet.

This is the reason why God’s people throughout the centuries and millennia are told to come out of Babylon, so that they don’t have any part in this rotten ancient and modern system (compare Revelation 18:4; Isaiah 48:20; Jeremiah 50:8; 51:6, 45, 50). Rather, God’s people wait for a heavenly, better country and a continuing city (Hebrews 11:9-10, 14-16; 13:14).

In this day and age, “Jerusalem” is part of this present evil world, which is ruled by Satan the devil (Luke 4:5-7), who is responsible for the persecution of the saints and the murder of God’s prophets. God’s people are to worship God the Father in spirit and in truth, and not in Jerusalem (John 4:20-24).

(4)  Only Jewish Court in Jerusalem Could Legally Condemn a Prophet

At the same time, Christ might have focused on legal requirements.

The Benson Commentary says:

“… the supreme court, whose prerogative it was to judge prophets, had its seat at Jerusalem. Inferior courts did not take cognizance of such causes; and therefore, if a prophet was put to death, it must be at Jerusalem… Our Lord, ‘in saying a prophet could not perish out of that city, insinuated, that he knew the intentions of the Pharisees too well to pay any regard to their advice respecting departing from Galilee for fear of Herod…”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible says:

“… the great sanhedrim only sat at Jerusalem, to whom it belonged to try and judge a prophet; and if found false, to condemn him, and put him to death… Not… that prophets sometimes perished elsewhere, as John the Baptist in Galilee; but not according to a judicial process, in which way Christ the prophet was to be cut off, nor was it common; instances of this kind were rare, and always in a violent way; and even such as were sentenced to death by the lesser sanhedrim, were brought to Jerusalem, and publicly executed there, whose crimes were of another sort; for so runs the canon…”

Meyer’s NT Commentary disagrees with Gill’s conclusion, saying:  “‘it cannot be done, it is not possible’… with ironically excited emotion makes the frequent and usual hyperbolically [sic] to appear as necessary (for all the prophets were not actually slain in Jerusalem, as is shown even in the instance of the Baptist) for the purpose of showing how empty the threatening of Herod appears to Jesus, since He must rather go to Jerusalem to die. The opinion… that He refers to the right belonging exclusively to the Sanhedrim of judging prophets and condemning them to death… is mistaken… since Jesus could not place Himself on a level with those who were condemned as false prophets.”

But Meyer’s conclusion is wrong. The people demanded Christ’s death because they considered Him to be an imposter, a false prophet, someone who did not come as their King to free them from the Romans, even though they had thought at one time that He had promised them such deliverance (Luke 19:38). They later changed their minds, claiming that they had no king but Caesar (John 19:14-15).They simply did not understand—nor do people understand this today—that His Kingdom was and is NOT of this world (John 18:36), and that He had not come to establish the Kingdom of God on earth at that time (Acts 1:6-7), but “to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

Compare Adam Clarke’s commentary: “A man who professes to be a prophet can be tried on that ground only by the grand Sanhedrin, which always resides at Jerusalem; and as the Jews are about to put me to death, under the pretense of my being a false prophet, therefore my sentence must come from this city, and my death take place in it.”

(5)  Greek Meaning of the English Words “Cannot Be”

Reviewing the Greek, the translation “cannot be” is not compelling.

The Greek word for “can be” is endechomai and is defined in Young’s Analytical Concordance as “to receive” and “to admit.” Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible adds the additional meaning (under Number 1735), “it is accepted.” Strong’s explains that the word dechomai (under Number 1209) means, “receive” (in various applications, lit. or fig.).” The Greek words for “it cannot be” are ouk endechomai.

This Greek expression is only used in the passage in Luke 13:33. Therefore, its meaning is somewhat open to interpretation.

Several alternate renderings have been proposed: “impossible” (New Revised Standard Version); “unthinkable” (Revised English Bible); “it would not be right” (New Jerusalem Bible); “it will never do” (Amplified Bible); “it’s against the rules” (Gaus, The Unvarnished Gospels). The German Bibles have virtually unanimously: “es geht nicht an” (“that won’t do”).

Barnes’ Notes on the Bible says:

“The reason why he said that a prophet could not perish elsewhere than in Jerusalem might be:

“1. That he knew that he would be tried on a charge of blasphemy, and no other court could have cognizance of that crime but the great council or Sanhedrin, and so he was not afraid of any threats of Herod,

“2. It ‘had been’ the fact that the prophets had been chiefly slain there. The meaning is, ‘It cannot easily be done elsewhere; it is not usually done. Prophets have generally perished there, and there I am to die. I am safe, therefore, from the fear of Herod, and shall not take the advice given and leave his territory.’”

Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible states:

“It does not usually happen… It usually happened that the prophets were slain there…”

Bengel’s Gnomen states:

“… it is not usual… This phrase admits of exceptions: for instance, John the Baptist was ‘a prophet’ who ‘perished out of Jerusalem.’”

(6)  The Prophet Had to Be Condemned in Jerusalem

There is still another possibility as to what Christ might have meant, considering that He was THE Prophet.

In the Greek, there is no indefinite article (“a”). There is only a definite article (‘the”). But when a definite article is omitted, that does not necessarily mean that an indefinite article must be used in the English. Compare our Q&A on 2 Corinthians 6:2 and the day of salvation.

According to the Disciples’ Literal New Testament, the literal Greek wording is as follows (quoted from the original; note that the English words in italics and underlined are not in the literal Greek):

“Nevertheless, I must proceed today and tomorrow and the next day, because it cannot-be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.”

So, it is possible that the definite article (“the”), rather than the indefinite article (“a”) must be added here in reference to the word prophet, so that Christ was actually referring to Himself, saying that it is impossible that THE prophet would be condemned to death outside of Jerusalem. The modern Weymouth New Testament seems to imply this conclusion, by rendering Christ’s wording in this way: “Yet I must continue my journey to-day and to-morrow and the day following; for it is not conceivable that a Prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.”  Even though they do not say, “the” Prophet, they do capitalize the word “prophet.” The word “prophet” is also capitalized in the following older renditions: King James Bible 1611; Geneva Bible 1560; The Great Bible 1539; and Tyndale Bible 1534.

This understanding finds support in the very next two verses, in Luke 13:34-35, where Christ speaks about Himself, stating: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; and assuredly, I say to you, you shall not see ME until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is HE who comes in the name of the LORD!’”

In conclusion, Christ’s words might have had a variety of meaning, but it is clear that He spoke with compelling and indisputable accuracy, while in no way contradicting other biblical passages, history or the prophesied future.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

©2024 Church of the Eternal God