5 And while some were talking about the temple, that it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive gifts, He said, 6 “As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down.”
7 They questioned Him, saying, “Teacher, when therefore will these things happen? And what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” 8 And He said, “See to it that you are not misled; for many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not go after them. 9 When you hear of wars and disturbances, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end does not follow immediately.”
10 Then He continued by saying to them, “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, 11 and there will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.
We Christians love the End Times. We’re fascinated by it. Always have been. Since the first groups of Christians gathered together and stories were circulated about the promise of Christ’s return, we’ve been enamored with the Apocalypse and all the various theories and trappings that surround it: books, movies, video games, countless sermons in countless churches all focused on the future and unraveling the various prophetic utterances within scripture, with some trying to apply them to the past and others trying desperately to apply them to the future.
I was raised in a tradition where every new year, the pastor would say, “This could be the year when Jesus returns…” He obviously hasn’t, but every year like clockwork, the pastor would say it anyway. I grew up surrounded by radio broadcasts and literature breathlessly relating each new conflict in the Middle East with various pastors speculating on what series of events could lead from the present crisis to an attack on Israel, the commissioning of a third temple, and the rise of Anti-Christ. Each new Middle Eastern crisis has thus far come and gone or come and lingered on slowly burning away the lives of men, women, and children, with none of their predicted events coming to pass.
Coming to seemingly prophetic passages requires a good deal of humility is what I’m getting at, and a proper focus. I don’t think prophetic passages are supposed to be an all-important focus of our lives and study. I think they’re there mostly to get across to us a few key points: Christ will return; Justice will be served; Good will win; Remain faithful.
My own approach to prophesy will be that of common sense. If something happened in the past, I’ll say it happened in the past. If something appears to be pointing towards the future, I’ll say it’s prophetic. If something is just weird, it’s probably symbolic. If the text explains it, I’ll go with that explanation. You won’t see me try to discern how a verse relates to the Syrian Civil War or try to calculate the numeric value of Barack Obama’s name to try and arrive at 666. That’s silly.
So we start the passage with the disciples marveling at the beauty of the Temple and Jesus calmly telling them that the time would soon come when every stone would be torn down from the building. The disciples are good Jews religiously and patriots who love their nation and wish her good. This was seemingly impossible and shocking that the Temple would undergo such a fate. They ask Jesus when these things would occur. In Matthew, they also ask when would be the sign of His coming. In their minds, the two events would be linked. Surely the end of the Temple would mean the return of the Messiah and the establishment of His kingdom. That was not the case.
Jesus starts out with a warning that there will be a lot of false messiahs or false prophets arising. This started with the early church and has continued to this day. Early Christianity had several sects with their own interpretations of what Jesus’ teachings meant and who Jesus was. Some of them were downright bizarre and some of them were led by men who would be apostles or Christ Himself. The warning here is for the disciples to remain faithful to the teachings of Jesus and to have faith.
Christ speaks in generality of wars and disturbances. This may be referring back to the original question about the destruction of the Temple and could be a reference to the early clashes within Judea that sparked the Jewish revolt. The disciples are encouraged not to be afraid, but to trust in God through this period of false churches and civil unrest.
In what appears to be a shift forward, Jesus speaks of a more general worldwide disturbance with nations pitted against one another, plagues, famines, earthquakes, terror, and signs in the heavens. These are pretty general prophesies and could fit with any era. But the point appears to be that things will be getting worse before Christ’s return. The Earth and society are degenerating.
12 “But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake. 13 It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; 15 for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute. 16 But you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, 17 and you will be hated by all because of My name. 18 Yet not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.
Back to the past (and possibly future), the disciples would go through a period when they would be wanted men by the religious and civil authorities. They would be hounded, arrested, tried, and some would be put to death. The central tenet running through this is that God is still in control. Despite all circumstances pointing to the contrary, God is in control of their lives and He remains faithful. He will provide them with wisdom and words to speak on their behalf before the authorities. He will remain faithful even as they die, because He will raise them to eternal life.
The message, apt for the early church, is to be faithful and endure.
20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. 21 Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; 22 because these are days of vengeance, so that all things which are written will be fulfilled. 23 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; 24 and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
Following this period of persecution, the Roman armies would arrive at Jerusalem and she would be put under a siege. The disciples are told to flee the cities and go into the country because the desolation is coming.
According to Josephus, at the end of the siege of Jerusalem, the city was largely demolished. Only a wall and a few towers were spared by Titus’ command. Josephus places the death toll at 1.1 million, with another 100,000 captured as slaves. The siege itself was a brutal affair, with starvation and disease rampant, and acts of cannibalism. It was an utter desolation of the great city. The Temple, as mentioned above, was almost completely destroyed.
25 “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Past the siege of Jerusalem and past whatever the times of the Gentiles refers to, we jump to the end. There are disturbances in the heavens, a general sense of dread and disquiet, and then the return of Christ in power and glory.
29 Then He told them a parable: “Behold the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they put forth leaves, you see it and know for yourselves that summer is now near. 31 So you also, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near.
Most of the signs given by Jesus here are pretty general, save for the siege of Jerusalem. So I guess the message would be that once that happened, we should all be ready for the end whenever it comes. Though the use of the Kingdom of God here is different in that in previous references, the Kingdom has referenced the church.
32 Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.
And then there’s this. The disciples are dead. The generation that lived with them are dead. Jesus isn’t here.
- Jesus was wrong. He expected His return to take place within the lifetime of the disciples and the witnesses of the siege of Jerusalem.
- Luke (or Matthew) added a few pious frauds to this passage to encourage their persecuted Christian readers to keep holding out.
- All of this stuff happened in the past. Jesus’ return was a symbolic return in judgment in the form of the Roman armies. The Kingdom of God was established within the church that quickly rose in prominence and power.
- “This generation” refers to the generation alive at the times when the world begins to worsen prior to the return of Christ.
- Alternatively, all of this happens in the future. There will be another siege of Jerusalem, another destruction of a Temple, and all of this happens close to the return of Jesus Christ.
- “This generation” refers not to a group of people in a specific timeframe, but to a group of people exhibiting the same characteristics. That is the same kind of people. In this case, perhaps, Jewish people in general or unbelieving Jewish people. The former would make sense as the disciples perhaps seeing the utter calamity that would befall the Jews (not just in Jerusalem, but in other Roman controlled cities as well), might despair that God would preserve any of the sons of Abraham. This assurance would be that the Jewish people would survive until the end of the world and would see the return of Christ.
I think I like the latter explanation the most. And I think the words used for generation and how it’s used elsewhere make it a plausible interpretation.
34 “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; 35 for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. 36 But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
A final passage encouraging faithfulness among the disciples. They are to remain focused and they are to remain committed to living a life of selflessness, compassion, mercy, and charity. They are to continue in the works of Jesus and not to be distracted by the cultures they lived in or to go back to its values and teachings.
37 Now during the day He was teaching in the temple, but at evening He would go out and spend the night on the mount that is called Olivet. 38 And all the people would get up early in the morning to come to Him in the temple to listen to Him.
And a final note detailing Jesus’ habits this week in Jerusalem. He slept outside of the city, not wanting to spend the night there and be walled in where the Pharisees and priests could find and capture Him without causing a big disturbance. Jesus demonstrates a control over His own fate. He would elsewhere say that no man would take His life, but He would lay it down freely and take it back up again. Here He demonstrates foreknowledge and control. There would be no early death for Him. He would control the time and circumstances surround His demise.