We saw last week that Jesus’ death and resurrection mean the end of the old system, and the start of a new era, when the Kingdom of God is to be established. His two parables – the fig tree that withered from its roots, and the parable of the tenants, symbolised the end of God’s purposes in the nation of Israel, as all is fulfilled and completed in the person of Christ.
The heart of Israel’s identity was the Temple. The presence of the Temple in Jerusalem meant that the Lord was dwelling with His people. It was the centre of their worship and prayers.
The Temple that Jesus knew was the second Temple. The first had been built by Solomon, but was destroyed when Nebuchadnezzar ransacked Jerusalem in 587 BC. At that time, the Ark of the Covenant and all its contents were lost forever.
When the exiles retuned from Babylon in 516 BC they built a second Temple under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. There was great celebration, as this was a sign that God had not abandoned His people.
167 BC the Greek Emperor Aintiochus Epiphanes set up an idol and altar to Zeus in the Temple, and had pigs sacrificed in it. The Jews were brutally slaughtered if they refused to worship the greek idols. 25th December 165 BC (3 ½ year later) the temple was rededicated – celebrated still today by Jews in the festival of Hanukkah. This 3 ½ year period was remembered as one of the darkest times in Israel’s history (the number 3½ is used often in the book of Revelation to symbolise the persecution of the church).
This Temple stood for 500 years, before it was renovated and expanded in one of the biggest building projects of that era. At the time of Jesus, the building had been going for 46 years. This project was more about King Herod and his sons making a name for themselves, than wanting to enable the Jews to worship. This building continued after Jesus, and was only completed a few years before it was then destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans.
Each attempt by Israel’s enemies to destroy or defile the Temple was only temporary; however what happened in 70 AD was unprecedented; since that time there has never again been a Temple in Jerusalem. And because of Jesus, we have a good case for saying that there never will.
It is understandable that the disciple mentioned in v. 1 was in awe of the building – it would have been the largest, most magnificent building he had ever seen. Jesus’ words would then have been quite troubling, and as they sat on the Mount of Olives where they would have had a clear view of the Temple, these four disciples could not contain themselves – they had to know what Jesus was talking about.
A lot of the language that Jesus uses had made people think that He is speaking of His second coming, and the end of the age. But notice two things:
Firstly, the disciples’ question is specifically about Jesus’ words about the Temple being destroyed. In Matthew’s account (Matthew 24) we see the disciples actually had two questions – about the Temple, and also about the ‘end of the age’. Matthew 24 is Jesus’ answer to the first question, and Matthew 25 is his answer to the second – but Mark only records the first.
Secondly, Jesus gives a timeframe:
Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Mark 13:30
This will all happen while some who are alive as he speaks will still be alive.
In Jewish thinking, a generation is 40 years. And it was just under 40 years between the time that Jesus was crucified and rose again (around 33), and the destruction of the Temple in 70. A number of Jesus’ apostles were still alive at the time.
It’s because the Temple was so central to the life of Israel that Matthew Mark and Luke all spend a whole chapter on Jesus’ prediction.
Along with the Temple came the priests and the sacrifices, both also central to the worship and spiritual life of Israel. These three things have all been superseded by Jesus, and now given new expression in the church:
Jesus has replace the Temple. He is God dwelling among us, Immanuel. When Jesus said to the Jewish leaders, ‘Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ (John 2:19) he was speaking about his body. Now, united to Christ, the Church is called the Body of Christ, and Paul tells the Corinthians:
‘…we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”’ (2 Corinthians 6:16)
Jesus has replaced the Priests. A Priest was the mediator between the people and God; he represented the people to God, and God to the people; and through the Priest the prayer of the people were brought before God. Jesus is our great High priest, who intercedes before the throne of God continuously; at his death the Temple curtain was torn in two, allowing access to the Father. Now, united to Christ, the church is called a ‘Royal Priesthood’ as we go about proclaiming the message of the Gospel and as we are the means by which people are brought to faith in God. Paul called his ministry to the Gentiles a ‘priestly service of the gospel of God.’ (Romans 15:16)
And Jesus has replaced the sacrifices, by the once-and-for-all sacrifice of himself, making atonement for our sin in a complete and permanent way that no animal sacrifice could do. The Church is now the community of the forgiven, and we pass on the message of forgiveness not only as we proclaim the Gospel, but as we reflect Jesus’ humility and love by ‘offering our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God.’ (Romans 12:2) by laying down our lives for one another and for the Gospel.
So, depending on where you stand, the destruction of the Temple is either the worst news ever, or the best news ever. Hypothetically, if the Jews had all received the risen Jesus as their Messiah, the Temple era would still have come to an end – probably dismantled by the Jews themselves. However, because they had turned their worship into idolatry, and replaced God’s grace with their own self-righteousness, they did not receive him, and the judgement that he predicted came upon them.
But the Father was gracious and patient. He could have destroyed the Temple at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But He waited a full 40 years – a generation – to give them the opportunity to turn and be saved.
So, what do we make then of the language that Jesus uses – that seems like ‘end of the age’ terminology – especially when in verses 24-27 he speaks of stars falling from heaven, the Son of Man coming in clouds, and the angels gathering his elect?
We need to see that Jesus is using ‘Apocalyptic’ language here – the same style of language used in Revelation, as well as some Old Testament prophets, notably Daniel.
Apocalyptic is not meant to be taken as a literal account, but uses symbols and images that are designed to convey the meaning and significance of events.
We are used to a form of apocalyptic today, albeit lighthearted, whenever we see the political cartoons in the paper.
We know that election promises are not literally a giant carrot, but the picture conveys to us the nature of election promises (at least in the opinion of the cartoonist).
In the same way, we know that stars will not literally fall out of the sky, as most of them are at least thousands of times larger than the earth; however it’s a picture of things being shaken up; of a significant turning point in history; of authorities being uprooted and overthrown and kingdoms being brought to an end. It’s the same kind of language used by Joel, which Peter said was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, even though there was not literally blood and pillars pf smoke, the Sun didn’t go out and the moon didn’t turn to blood.
When Jesus says, ‘they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory,’ he is making a direct reference to Daniel 7:
“I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.
14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
We may automatically think of his ‘coming’ as coming from heaven to earth – but in Daniel’s vision he is not coming to earth, but coming into the presence of the Ancient of Days – the Father – and receiving dominion, glory and a kingdom. This is a vision of Jesus’ ascension, not his second coming.
When in chapter 14 during Jesus’ trial the High Priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:61-62)
We know that Jesus’ ascension took place 40 days after his resurrection when the disciples saw him ascend in a cloud; but in that place of authority at the Father’s right hand, he would patiently wait, as his people are called through the Gospel to receive Him by faith, until the day when, by his authority, the Temple comes to an end. On that day, the Priests and leaders of Israel saw the Son of Man exercise his authority and dominion, as the time of grace for Israel came to an end.
The event that we speak of as Jesus’ ‘second coming’ is actually spoken of mostly in the New Testament in terms of ‘appearing’ rather than ‘coming’. When Jesus sent his disciples into the world with the Gospel, he gave them the promise, ‘Surely, I am with you, even to the end of the world.’ We know, by the power of His spirit, that Jesus Christ is present with us now. We speak in these terms all the time. The day of his appearing will not be an arrival from a distant place, but a pulling back of the curtains that veil his glory, so that every creature in heaven and earth will see him and know that he has always been reigning as King.
What happened then, after the Temple was gone? Jesus had already warned his disciples – and through them all the Christians living in Jerusalem – to flee the city. As the Romans converged on Jerusalem, the Christians fled, and were scattered. This was not the first time they were scattered from Jerusalem, but it was the final time. As they went out, they took the Gospel as they went. That movement had been happening for the last 2000 years, as the Gospel has reached the ends of the earth. The Greek word for Angel is literally ‘messenger’. Jesus, the Son of Man, from his place of Authority over heaven and earth that has been given to him by the Father, send us our to make disciples of all nations – to ‘gather his elect from the four winds.’
Philip Schaff was a famous church historian at the end of the 19th century. He wrote:
“The awful catastrophe of the destruction of the Jewish theocracy must have produced the profoundest sensation among the Christians. . . . It was the greatest calamity of Judaism and a great benefit to Christianity; a refutation of the one, a vindication . . . of the other. It separated them forever. . . . Henceforth the heathen could no longer look upon Christianity as a mere sect of Judaism, but must regard and treat it as a new, peculiar religion. The destruction of Jerusalem, therefore, marks that momentous crisis at which the Christian church as a whole burst forth forever from the chrysalis of Judaism, awoke to a sense of maturity, and in government and worship at once took its independent stand before the world.” (History of the Christian Church, Vol. I, pp. 403-404)
However, Christianity is not a new religion, seperate from Judaism. Rather, it is the true continuation of Judaism. In Christ, we are in the continuous flow of salvation history; the ongoing work of redemption that began in Eden the moment our first parents fell. In patient grace, the Father gave the Jewish nation 40 years after Jesus’ resurrection to receive and believe in their Messiah, before bringing to an end forever the Temple system. At that point, Judaism became the seperate religion, no longer able to access God’s gracious presence apart from turning to Jesus in faith – just like everyone else.
Now, there is no distinction. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile: all must come to Jesus through faith alone. A new people has been formed, no longer defined by race, nationality, tribe or language, but by their union with Christ by grace.
The most devastating event for the Jews happened because of the most glorious event for people from all nations. The same Jesus who declares judgement upon the Temple and the nation, in few short days then gives himself up to be mocked, beaten and crucified. The judgement he brings is the judgement he bears – a judgement that belongs not only to the Jews, but to all people, including us. And so the grace that he offers in the Gospel is also for all people – Jew and Gentile, male and female, young and old, wealthy and poor. The end of the centre of worship in Jerusalem now means that people in all places, from every corner of the globe, can worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth.
The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70AD was not just a trivial historical tragedy. It tells me that God has been faithful to His promises; the Old has truly been replaced by the New. Jesus Christ really is the Temple: the Holy of Holies; the Great High Priest, the Atoning Sacrifice, the Mercy Seat, the Mediator, the Dwelling Place of God, the head of the Church, the true Israel, the Word of God. The fact that no Temple has stood on that mountain for nearly 2000 years tells me that when I gather with His people on the Lord’s Day (or any other day), what I do has cosmic significance; it is a stepping into the trajectory of God’s purposes for the whole Creation.