Jesus expected the Jerusalem temple to be destroyed? The temple hierarchy maybe, but the literal temple buildings? The disciples wondered if they’d heard him right.
Matthew went to great lengths to set the scene for this discourse. Arriving in Jerusalem as king, Jesus’ first act was overturning the temple (21:12-13). He called the leaders in God’s house bandits in a den — the phrase Jeremiah used to explain why God abandoned his house, leaving it (and the city) vulnerable to destruction (Jeremiah 7:11). Jesus says the second temple was occupied by murderers who were about to complete what their ancestors started — killing the one God sent them (23:32-36). What hope has a city that won’t heed the warnings of its king? (23:37)
Tragically, the second temple and its city sealed its fate (23:38). The time for warnings is over. Jesus walks away (24:1).
But the disciples can’t leave it at that. They call Jesus back, drawing his attention to the temple buildings (24:2). This is not a picture of country-hick tourists gawking at something they’ve never seen. Like Jesus, they’ve all been there every year for the festivals. Like Korah’s sons, they feel the attachment to this place: How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty (Psalm 84:1). This house is where their heavenly sovereign said he would dwell among them … to meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites (Exodus 25:8, 22).
Surely Jesus can’t just walk away like that, leaving the city to its fate?
He can. “You see all these, don’t you? I tell you the truth, nothing will be left here. There’s not a stone on top of another that won’t be knocked down.” (24:2).
That’s not the kind of thing to discuss in public. People might think you’re a traitor or a terrorist (compare 26:61; 27:40). The disciples fall silent. But they can’t get it out of their minds. If the city falls and the temple destroyed, who will be leading God’s people?
Surely the Empire doesn’t annihilate God’s project? Does the invasion clear the ground for David’s reign to be restored? Is this how God’s anointed will receive the throne? That’s their question: “Tell us! When will these things be? What will be the sign that you’ve arrived and the era has finally reached its goal?” (24:3).
We know what happened. Roman armies attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple forty years after Jesus spoke these words. But well before that, Jesus had been raised up and given all authority on earth as in heaven.
By AD 70, the good news of his kingship had been announced throughout the known world. The Book of Acts starts with Jesus explaining the kingdom and ascending the heavenly throne (Acts 1:3-8), and ends with his emissary proclaiming the kingdom of God in King Jesus our ruler at the heart of the empire (Acts 28:31).
Before the old temple buildings were demolished, God was already living in the new temple of his own construction (Acts 7:48; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17), a temple being built on the foundation of the Messiah’s kingship over all nations (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-10).
So, I guess the disciples’ question was not as wide of the mark as some have thought. Jesus’ global kingship does indeed establish the house of God that is much more than the localized temple in Jerusalem could ever be.
The good shepherd knows he must provide pastoral support before they can receive the details of how his kingship will be established. That’s where he starts. Without minimizing the extent of the suffering, he assures them that God’s goal (the kingdom) will be realized. (See on 24:4-14).
Having provided that support, Jesus prepares them for the horrors they would face in the Roman invasion, the destruction of the city and its temple.
We can discuss the details next time. For now, just take in the big picture, framed in their question about the temple’s demise:
Matthew 24:15-28 (my translation, compare NIV)
15 So, when you see ‘the abomination of the desolation’ (Daniel the prophet’s phrase) erected in the holy place (comprehend, reader), 16 then, people of Judea, run for the hills! 17 If you’re on the rooftop, don’t go back to get anything from inside. 18 If you’re in the field, do not go back to get your clothes. 19 How difficult it will be for those with a baby in the womb or in your arms when this happens. 20 Pray your flight isn’t in winter or on a Sabbath. 21 For the pressure will be severe, unlike anything since the world began until now. 22 Unless the days were limited no one would survive, but the days will be limited for the sake of the chosen.
23 Then, if someone tells you, ‘Look! Here’s the Anointed’ or ‘Here!’ — don’t believe it! 24 For pseudo-messiahs and pseudo-prophets will be raised up providing great signs and wonders in order to mislead the chosen if possible. 25 Look, I’ve pre-warned you.
26 If they tell you, ‘Look! He’s in the wilderness’ don’t go out there. ‘Look! In the storerooms’ — don’t believe it. 27 As lightning shoots out from the east and flashes to the west, the arrival of the son of man will be like that. 28 Wherever there’s a corpse, the eagles will be gathered.
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 910:
The Jewish revolt began in AD 66, and during 67–68 the Roman commander Vespasian conquered most of Palestine. The Roman civil war in 68–69 led to a suspension of military operations in the East, but during that period Jerusalem was torn apart by its own civil war, as different Jewish parties battled for control, with the temple (the inner courts controlled by the Zealots under Eleazar and the outer court by John of Gischala) at the centre of the fighting. When eventually the Roman attack was resumed in 69, Jerusalem was already in a weakened and demoralized state. The rest of Judea was quickly reduced (apart from the strongholds of Herodium and Masada), and when Vespasian returned to Rome to take up his new office as emperor his son Titus put Jerusalem under siege for five terrible months until the temple and much of the city were destroyed in the fall of ad 70.
The depiction of these events in vv. 15–28 is in the allusive language of OT prophecy and apocalyptic, so that it is not necessary, and probably not possible, to identify specific aspects of the final events, as we know them from Josephus’ account, with the terms used. This is, after all, presented to us as prediction, not as historical narration.
Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 251:
Verses 15–22 are particularly concerned with the fall of Jerusalem. It was a terrible siege, lasting nearly four years, and it involved unimaginable hardships. The city was hard to capture, and was defended with fanatical zeal. The Romans made a sustained attempt to starve its inhabitants into submission. Parents were reduced to cannibalism. There was indeed unparalleled affliction, as Jesus had predicted (21). In AD 70 the troops determined as a last resort to storm the city and the temple, and so they did. The temple, one of the greatest architectural masterpieces of antiquity, made of marble and faced with gold, was smashed to pieces. The city was reduced to rubble. The carnage and slaughter were terrible. More than a million Jews died in the operation, and Josephus, who was there, tells us that more than 97,000 Jews were taken captive. The Romans were so pleased and relieved at the satisfactory solution of the Jewish problem (as they thought) that they erected Titus’ Arch in the Forum at Rome to celebrate the victory.