Because of the hardness of heart of many of the Jews, the punishment of God came upon the people and on the city of Jerusalem. Toward the end of his life, Jesus warned of this more than once, as he wept for the city he loved. One day as he left the temple court, he added a striking detail. Matthew 24:1,2 says, “Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.’”
According to historians and archaeologists, the Jewish temple at the time of Jesus was very big, very beautiful and very impressive. It was the pride of all the Jewish people. It was adorned with gold and reflected the light of the sun to the point of blinding the spectator. It had been constructed five centuries earlier when the Jews came back from their Babylonian exile. About 50 years before the death of Christ, King Herod had begun to renovate and enlarge the temple, and the work had not yet ended. Some of the stones used in the construction measured a dozen meters long and weighed many tons. One of the temple galleries was more than a third of a mile long. In a world without dynamite, without bulldozers, without cranes or other modern machines of construction and demolition, it is very difficult to grasp the fact that such an enormous building was so completely destroyed. But Jesus said, “Not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”
These words of Jesus obviously astonished the disciples. The little band of men followed him out of the city, across the narrow Kidron valley, and sat with him on the Mount of Olives, where they had a magnificent view of the temple. There they asked the questions which had burned in their hearts since the declaration of the Lord about the temple. “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3). The two chapters that follow contain Jesus’ response.
The disciples’ error
The Jews believed that there would be a great judgment at the end of the world. Jesus himself had often spoken of the Day of Judgment, as well as states of eternal happiness and eternal punishment. The men of Sodom and of Nineveh, the queen of Sheba, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the contemporaries of Jesus—all of them would be there for this judgment. Jesus had said in John 5:28,29 that the day would come when all the dead would hear his voice and come forth from their graves. Some would be resurrected for eternal life and others for damnation. After this day, all would find themselves either in hell or in heaven—there would be no more need for earth. The Old Testament said that the physical heaven and earth would not last forever, but the skies would vanish like smoke and the earth would wear out like a garment (Isaiah 51:6). According to 2 Peter 3:10, “The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.”
When the disciples of Jesus heard him say that the enormous, magnificent temple of Jerusalem would be totally destroyed, they assumed the Lord was speaking of the end of the world. They thought the temple could be destroyed only when all the earth had served its purpose and disappeared. They associated the destruction of the temple with the end of the world as if the two events would happen on the same day. But they were wrong.
The destruction of Jerusalem
Jesus warned them in the next verse of Matthew 24, “Take heed that no one deceives you.” Then he began speaking of certain things which would not be signs of the end. He said that false Christs and false prophets would come to deceive men. There would be wars and earthquakes and famines, and the gospel would be preached to the whole world. These things would happen before the end, but it would not be the end yet. Actually, these things have existed in all periods of history from Jesus’ time until now.
Beginning with verse 15, he not only gives a clear sign that he is speaking about the destruction of Jerusalem rather than the end of the world, but he gives instructions that would make no sense if he were speaking about his coming to judge all people. He said:
“‘Therefore when you see the “abomination of desolation,” spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place’ (whoever reads, let him understand), ‘then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes.’”
The sign that Jesus gives here is “the abomination of desolation.” In the Gospel of Luke, the language is clearer. There Jesus said, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near” (Luke 21:20).
Jerusalem was a fortified city and well situated for easy defense by its inhabitants. Normally, when an enemy came against a country, its citizens would take refuge in the fortified cities. This is the reason that they put in so much effort to build high bulwarks, or strong walls. But Jesus advised his disciples not to seek the protection of a fortified city but to flee toward the mountains, leaving Judea. He said that because it would be necessary to flee, things would be more difficult for pregnant women, more difficult in bad weather and very difficult if it were a Sabbath day when the gates of the city would be closed. Clearly, if Jesus comes for the final judgment, it would do no good to flee to the mountains. No one will be able to hide on that day.
The first Christians well understood that Jesus was speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem. When they saw, nearly 40 years after the death of Jesus, that the Roman armies had surrounded the city, the Christians did the opposite of the non-believing Jews. Instead of going to the city to take refuge there, they fled to the other side of the Jordan, to a place called Pella. More than a million Jews were killed in the fall of the city, but the Christians escaped by following the instructions of the Lord. Jesus had warned them. In Matthew 24:32,33, he said: “Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors!”
Jesus is the Son of the man who would be near, because the coming of the army of the Roman Empire to destroy the city of Jerusalem was, in a way, a coming of the Lord Jesus. The coming of the Lord on the clouds, as if on a chariot of war, is an image that was often used in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 19:1, for example, the prophet speaks of an intervention of God in the story of Egypt’s punishment. He said, “Behold, the Lord rides on a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt; the idols of Egypt will totter at His presence, and the heart of Egypt will melt in its midst.” God would not come visibly in the clouds. This language was intended to say that God is in control of history, and it was He who would send the misfortune on the Egyptian nation. Jesus used the same style of language to predict judgment against the Jewish nation when he said to the high priests, “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). Jesus was not coming visibly at that time as he will at the end of the world, but he really was the One who was acting through the Roman armies to punish the rebellious Jews.
The end of the world
Up to verse 34 of Matthew 24, all that Jesus said can relate to the issue of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. This judgment symbolizes the judgment of the whole earth which would come later. Many expressions used in this passage to speak of the coming of Jesus to judge the Jewish nation in the year A.D. 70 apply more profoundly and more literally to his coming for the final judgment of the whole world. According to the angels in Acts 1, Jesus would return at the end of time as he had left—in the clouds. This will be more than a simple figure of speech. Beginning with verse 35 where Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away,” Jesus is speaking of the day when the world will end. But whereas he had given signs to recognize the time when Jerusalem would be destroyed so that the disciples could avoid the disaster, Jesus takes the trouble to emphasize the total absence of early warning signs for the end of the world and for his second coming. He says in Matthew 24:36, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” He declares that his return will be as the flood in the time of Noah, completely unexpected. Until the day that Noah and his family entered the ark, life continued as usual. No signs! Jesus compares the unexpected nature of his own return to the actions of a thief. The coming of a thief in the night is not preceded by any warning; in the same way, absolutely no signs will precede the coming of Jesus.
Jesus presented a series of three parables to make his disciples understand the necessity of always being ready. These are the parables of the two servants, of the ten virgins and of the talents. They all emphasize the importance of doing our duty in order to be rewarded at the unexpected coming of the Lord. After these parables, Jesus described a judgment scene which still does not apply to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 but to the great day which is coming.
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’… Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels…’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-34,41,46)
The words of Jesus concerning the destruction of Jerusalem were fulfilled. In A.D. 70, the Romans took the city, and as Jesus had said, they left not one stone of the temple on top of another. But those who followed the Lord’s Jesus’ advice saved their own lives. His words concerning the end of the world and the last judgment will certainly come to pass too. So obey the Gospel, and remain faithful each day. In the words of Matthew 24:46, “Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing.”