Over the past five days we’ve looked at Matthew chapter 23, in which Jesus took the Pharisees to task for their hypocrisy – and their failure to recognise the kingdom of God when it turned up in their midst. It ended with a mic drop moment in which Jesus spoke of their “house” being left desolate (23:38) and hinted at the fact that the cornerstone they’d rejected was heading off to build a whole new house (23:39, echoing Psalm 118). So how and when was this going to happen?
That’s what chapter 24 is all about. Starting off when Jesus – the glory of God – leaves the temple and heads to the Mount of Olives. Just like as it did back in 587BC (see Ezek 11:23), when God abandoned it to destruction by the Babylonian army.
Matthew 24:1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings.
Although I’ve lived in Sydney all my life, any time I’m travelling across the harbour bridge by train, I look up from whatever I’m reading and take in the sight. No matter how often you see it, it’s still spectacular. And for someone from further afield who only comes to Sydney occasionally, I’m guessing that would be even more the case.
Jesus’ disciples were from Galilee, in the north. They would only occasionally travel to Jerusalem for festivals, so seeing the temple would be a rare treat. And in the ancient world, the sheer scale of the temple was mind-boggling – some of the stones were enormous (almost as long as the big 40-foot shipping containers we see on the back of trucks, and more than twice as wide). Their colour was a bright white, decorated with gold. This shining structure took up more than one sixth of the city. No wonder the disciples commented on it! It was a wonder of the ancient world, and had been under construction for nearly half a century.
So what Jesus says next would have been shocking, to say the least:
Matthew 24:2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
Not just damaged. But deliberately “un-built,” reversing the process described by the prophet Haggai:
Haggai 2:15b consider how things were before one stone was laid on another in the Lord’s temple.
One of the most impressive buildings in the ancient world would be destroyed. Which, to the disciples, must have felt like it would be the end of the world. Or at least, the end of an era in which God dwelt among his people in a building staffed by priests. The time when a new age would be ushered in, where God’s kingdom that Jesus had been preaching about would come and set things right once and for all.
So they ask Jesus the obvious question:
Matthew 24:3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
And here’s where it gets messy. In the disciples’ minds it seems that the destruction of the temple is linked with the coming of the Messiah and God’s kingdom on earth – the end of the present age. But in Jesus’ answer, there’s more than a hint that it might not be so straightforward:
- There are signs to look out for that will warn you when the temple will fall (e.g. “wars and rumours of wars” in v6, and “the abomination that causes desolation” in v15).
- But no-one will get any warning when the Son of Man comes (“But about that day or hour no one knows…” in v36).
So most* would see two horizons in the answer Jesus is about to give: the near horizon, which is now in our past (when the temple fell in AD70), and the far horizon, which is still in our future (when he returns and establishes God’s kingdom in the age to come). The difficulty lies in determining which statements of Jesus belong to which horizon, since Jesus seems to speak like an Old Testament prophet.
The OT prophets would routinely blend predictions of God’s immediate actions in history, with assurances that God would ultimately intervene once and for all to put things right at the end of the age. With hindsight, we can see how the immediate stuff was fulfilled, and how the future stuff remained unfulfilled (until either Christ’s first or second coming).
This is the task we’re faced with when trying to make sense of Matthew chapter 24. When is Jesus talking about the destruction of the temple, and when is he speaking of his personal return?
More tomorrow! In preparation for that, read the whole chapter so you’ve got the big picture in mind before we try to make sense of the detail.
*This would be the majority position, in which the temple destruction was fulfilled in AD70, but the coming of Christ and the end of the age is still in our future.
However, some see it all as still to occur in the future, involving a temple that still needs to be rebuilt before being destroyed again – but that seems a bit unnecessarily elaborate, particularly when the signs leading up to the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 fit his words quite neatly. Remember, the straightforward context is Jesus talking about the temple he was standing in front of, not some future temple that might be built in its place more than 2000 years later. And it makes Jesus’ teaching irrelevant to his disciples and their generation, despite saying that it would occur in the lifetime of “this generation” (v34).
Still others see all of it as being in the past, which is more plausible. The “coming” of the Son of Man, as we’ll see in later days, doesn’t have to refer to Jesus’ personal return at the end of history. His disciples (to whom he was speaking) weren’t told of this until after his resurrection (see Acts 1:10-11). And there’s plenty of OT precedent for it being used for his presence in judgement. Indeed, this is how I read the “sign of the Son of Man” and “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” in verse 30. But some also see v36 onwards as still referring to the fall of the temple; the “end of the age” would therefore be the end of the temple / old covenant era. It’s certainly possible, but it means we have to reconcile two incompatible ideas: (a) you’ll be able to read the signs and know when the temple will be destroyed, but (b) no one will know when the Son of Man comes. I’ll be going with the majority view in these notes, but I haven’t yet written off this understanding.