The End of the Age and the Destruction of the Temple

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In Matthew 24, after his parables and woes of judgment against the leadership of the Jews, the Pharisees, Jesus begins a long and complicated discourse on “the end of the age” (Mt 24:3).

This discourse, at least in recent years, has popularly been taken to be about the end of the world; or, the Second Coming. What I want to suggest in this post is that this was never in the mind of Jesus when he gave this teaching, and more than that, the disciples would not have understood this teaching to be about his second coming. Rather, this prophecy is about the destruction of the temple in AD 70. How can we know?

First, the context of the preceding chapters, going back to chapter 21. The chapters before this begin with Jesus’ self-presentation as Messiah in chapter 21. Immediately following this, Jesus goes into the Mosaic temple to cleanse it of the corrupt money-changers who were selling sacrifices for profit (21:12-17). Following this, we are told that Jesus curses a fig tree for “not producing fruit” (21:19). The fig tree was a long-used metaphor for Israel: Israel was supposed to produce fruit through the Mosaic ministry given to them by YHWH; instead they became corrupted, legalistic, selfish. After this, Jesus launches into a number of parables renouncing the Jewish leaders and their sinfulness, at the end of which he tells the Pharisees that they will be replaced by a “people producing fruit” (21:43-44). This fruit-producing people is almost certainly a reference to the disciples, who were chosen to be a new leadership of a renewed Israel through the Messiah’s death and resurrection. All of this leads up to Jesus’ woes against the Pharisees, and a prophecy of impending doom in Matthew 23. Jesus finishes this series of woes with the warning that “your house is left to you desolate” (23:38). The house to which Jesus refers is unquestionably the temple. All that being said, the entire context is judgment against Israel — particularly the Pharisees — and a prophecy of the destruction of the temple with its sacrificial system.

Second, the context of the immediately preceding verses tells us what the chapter is about: chapter 24 starts off with the disciples pointing out the “buildings of the temple” (24:1). Jesus answers them, saying: “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be throne down”. Immediately after this, it is the disciples, and not Jesus, who ask about the ending of the age (24:3ff). Presumably, there is some connection between the topic of the temple and the end of the age, yes? It is odd that Jesus would prophesy the destruction of the holy temple, and the disciples would then change subject! Even more suspect, after this question of the end of the age, Jesus proceeds to tell them about various frightening “signs” that will take place before the revelation of “the abomination of desolation” who will stand “in the holy place”, referring to the temple. Whoever the abomination of desolation is, they will in some way desecrate the holy place, and presumably destroy it. All the signs point to a connection between the temple and the end of the age.

Third layer of context is found in the verses following the prophecy. After prophesying the coming of the abomination and the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds (24:30), Jesus clarifies that all of this dramatic prophecy will happen within the disciples’ “generation” (24:34). Put another way, the disciples will experience all that Jesus had prophesied. This was never meant to be taken as a distant event in the future.

Putting all this together, it makes total sense to see Jesus’ warning of judgment as referring to AD 70. This is when Titus and the Roman armies not only destroyed Jerusalem, killing literally hundreds of thousands of Jews, but they also destroyed the epicenter of the Jewish religion: the temple and the holy of holies. Jesus referred to this event as a judgment of God on Israel and the fruitlessness of their ministry. What we must understand is that the destruction of the temple was in quite a literal sense the end of an age; the temple was the place where God met with man. Nowhere else did the divine presence, the Kavod, dwell, except in the holy of holies. And because of this, many Rabbis understood the temple to be the beginning of a renewed Eden. It was in the holy of holies that God and man were, in a sense, perfectly united. Redemption had in its own way been accomplish in the center of the temple. Without the temple, God was once again inaccessible. Man was once again lost, barred from the garden, left to wander on his own.

Joseph Ratizinger explains it this way:

For Judaism, the end of sacrifice, the destruction of the Temple, must have come as a tremendous shock. Temple and sacrifice lie at the heart of the Torah. Now there was no longer any atonement in the world, no longer anything that could serve as a counterweight to its further contamination of evil. What is more: God, who had set down his name in the Temple, and thus in a mysterious way dwelt within it, had now lost his dwelling place on earth. What had become of the Covenant? What had become of the promise? (Jesus of Nazereth: Holy Week, 32-33)

The words “end of the age” are appropriate. The destruction of the temple signaled the end of an age of atonement: God and man were once again separated. The Kavod had been lost by Israel as it had by Adam. Adam, as primordial priest, lost the divine presence by grasping for power. And likewise, the Pharisees lost the Kavod by grasping for power. This was not properly the end of the world, but certainly the end of the Mosaic age of atonement. We can anticipate then the significance of this end: the temple was done away with to make room for the coming of the age of the Messiah. And the Messiah, who in himself was the perfect union of God and man, a fruitful and faithful High Priest, would bring about the renewal of the entire earth by the giving of himself as sacrifice and atonement. Eden would be restored across the entire world.

OK then, but there is still a nagging question: what do we make of the cosmic “signs of the time” to which Jesus points in Matthew 24? All of what I have said lines up with the destruction of the temple and the replacement of that temple in the person of Christ except for these cosmological signs: Jesus refers to wars, earthquakes, sun and moon being darkened, and the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds. How can this have occurred in AD 70?

What we must recognize here is that Jesus, in giving these dramatic descriptions, stood in a long prophetic tradition of using cosmological signs as metaphor for the falling of powerful nations and the judgment of God. So often in the prophetic literature, the fall of a nation was described in terms of the falling of sun, moon, stars. Even more, the destruction was signaled by the coming of God in the clouds.

For instance, Isaiah 14 describes fallen Babylon as “fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!” (Is 14:12). Ezekiel 32:7-8 describes the fall of Egypt, saying,

When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness on your land, declares the Lord God

These are cosmic images used to describe the fall of powerful nations. In fact, this is how both Isaiah and later Jesus describe the fall of Satan, as a star falling from heaven.

Beyond this, the prophets often speak of the judgment of God as “riding on the clouds”. Isaiah 19:1 speaks of God coming to judge Egypt, saying: “Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them”.

What is Jesus doing then in Matthew 24, but continuing in the traditional language of the prophets. The Son of Man is coming in the clouds to judge Jerusalem by the hand of Rome. The Mosaic age is being done away with as unfruitful and corrupted; and a new age of the Messiah is enacted by the cross and resurrection.

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A New Temple, Priest, and Sacrifice

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One of the more famous stories from the life of Jesus is his cleansing of the temple. It is famous, of course, because it highlights Christ’s anger against the money-changers who were selling animals for sacrifice at a hefty price.

They were in essence using the temple sacrificial system for their own benefit. And not just that, the money-changers were hindering worshippers. The temple was a place of communion of YHWH with his people. And not just His people, but with the watching world. The outer most court of the temple — called the court of the Gentiles — was open to any and all who would want to come and see the temple. And yet, as soon as they walked through the door, any who entered would be halted by the swindling money-changers. It is certain that any righteous Israelite would be scandalized by it. It makes total sense that Jesus himself was infuriated.

Matthew’s account tells us that Jesus, upon entering, “overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold the pigeons. He said to them, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers'” (21:12-13). Jesus says in essence that the money-changers had perverted the purpose of the temple as a place of prayer and fellowship into a place of profit.

While Luke ends his version of the story there, Matthew includes an additional part. He tells us that after Jesus overturned the tables, that the “blind and lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (vv. 14).

Now why would Matthew include this little addition? It certainly isn’t random. Matthew doesn’t waste space in his gospel. What is the connection?

The connection is this: the blind and the lame were seen as unclean according to the law of Moses. And should they desire to enter the temple beyond the outer courts, they would need to be cleansed by a sacrifice. And yet, Matthew tells here that when they entered they not only had no sacrifice (presumably they wouldn’t have been able to afford the animals the money-changers were offering!), but they were also immediately cleansed by Christ himself without a sacrifice. What I want to suggest is that within the context, Matthew means to picture Christ as a new temple and sacrificial system, one better than the old; one that supersedes and fulfills the old.

Matthew is presenting Christ as replacing the old cultic temple system. The old way of the Mosaic system had been perverted by the money-changers, and thus Christ becomes the new way into the presence of God. He is in himself a temple, housing God’s glory. And, he is in himself a new priest presenting himself as a cleansing sacrifice, thus enabling us to enter “through the veil of his flesh” (Heb 10:19-22). Matthew is, in his own brilliant way, presenting a rich atonement theology!

The Divine Pedagogy

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One thing that may puzzle some people, is why, after the fall of Adam, God waited for literally thousands of years to provide the remedy to our sin problem. We know that Christ is the only remedy for our fallen state — and yet, God waited for so long to provide this solution. Why did God do this?

Why the long and arduous history of Israel? Why the law? Why the sacrifices? Why the priests and Moses and the tribes and all that stuff?

This is actually a really good question, and one that requires an answer from Paul himself! In Galatians 3-4, Paul is combatting a teaching that the Mosaic law, with all of it’s ceremonial and civil commands, gives life, or saves. Paul repudiates this pretty harshly, explaining that it is only Christ who saves, and to lean upon the law is to reject Christ himself.

Of course then, the question arises as to the reason or purpose of the law. “If the law can’t save, then why would God give it?”, an opponent of Paul might ask. This question is directly related to our question: why this whole history of Israel (which includes Moses and the law and sacrifices etc), if only Jesus saves?

Paul gives a profound answer. And in essence, what Paul says, is that law, and the history of Israel, was God’s means to preparing and tutoring mankind for the coming of Jesus. It was a sort of like a preparatory school, to get humanity ready, as it were, to receive Jesus. In Galatians 3:24, Paul calls the law a “pedagogue”, or a tutor, which taught basic principles to humanity. He also compares mankind to children in Galatians 4:3 (“in the same way, when we were children…”). And what Paul is attempting to explain here, is that post-fall humanity, was not only in a state of fallenness, but also in a state of infancy, or immaturity, and had to be “schooled”, as it were, in order to understand Christ.

Frank Sheed says of Paul’s explanation here, that “by [Adam’s] sin, mankind threw away the maturity God had conferred upon it, started it off with, so to speak. It had gone after a childish dream and must now go through all the pains of growing back to the maturity it had lost” (Theology and Sanity, pg 187).

So mankind was in a sort of childish, immature state, after the fall. And God could not send Christ at that time — why? — because they would not have received him, nor would they have understood him! With that in mind, Paul says that God gave the law to Israel, with all of it’s civil and ceremonial rules, to teach mankind divine principles, which would in time prepare them for the coming of Christ, with the end goal that mankind “might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:5).

How did the law teach mankind? Paul says that the law was a sort of “ABC’s”, or basic building blocks, for relationship with God. The law taught the moral character of God. The sacrifices taught the penalty of disobedience. The priesthod taught the principle of mediation, and so on. In other words, the law was, in essence, elementary school. Philip Ryken explains further:

To follow [Paul’s] analogy through, the Old Testament law was like elementary school for the people of God. The Jews had specific rules to govern their conduct, what the writer of Hebrews called “regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (Heb 9:10). When it came to worship, the Jews had to go to a particular place and offer particular sacrifices in a particular way. Keeping all these requirements was like being in grammar school, tracing the ABCs that were first written by the hand of God.

Eventually, schoolchildren outgrow their elementary education. They master the alphabet and move on to composition. In the same way, God raised his people on the law to prepare them for the gospel. The Puritan William Perkins thus described Israel as “a little school set up in a corner of the world; the law of Moses was, as it were, an ABC, or primer, in which Christ was revealed to the world…

Those Judaizers had been telling the Galatians that the law was a graduate school for the gospel. But Paul insisted that being under the law was actually a sign of spiritual immaturity. For the Galatians to go back to the law would be like a Ph.D. repeating kindergarten to work on his alphabet. (Galatians, pg158)

The law, then, was a pedagogue, or a tutor, which gave context and prepared Israel (and the watching world) for Christ! And apparently this divine pedagogy took thousands of years. And, as Paul says, “when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:5). Paul says, that there was a fullness of time, a time when God’s tutelage was complete — and that was the right time to send his Son.

Frank Sheed explains this verse further:

Mankind did, in some way clear to the eye of God and half-clear to the eye of man, grow up. The fullness of time came… We seem to see, though it would be absurd to pretend in such a matter that we could be certain, that the Law had done for the Jews all that it had in it to do. Trained by the Law and hammered by their enemies, they had come to a splendid point of development…

But the preparation was not only of the Jews, nor the fullness of time only a matter of their coming to maturity. For the Gentiles, too, the time was at the full. The history of the human race is one story from end to end, not a collection of unrelated short stories. The history of the race, says St. Augustine, is the story of one man. It was the race that fell in Adam, it was the race that was to be redeemed: in between the race had to be made ready… For Jew and for Gentile [then], it was the fullness of time. Christ came that all things might be re-established in Him. (Theology and Sanity, pg 188, 205-06, 209-10)

So then, we might say the mankind had matured (if we keep the imagery Paul gives), or graduated, and was ready to understand Christ. God was, as St. Irenaeus says, a Divine Pedagogue, a Divine Tutor. He says in his Against Heresies,

[In the time of the OT, God] took His people in hand, teaching them, unteachable as they were, to follow Him. He gave them prophets, accustoming man to bear His Spirit and to have communion with God on earth. He Who stands in need of no one gave communion with Himself to those who need Him. Like an architect He outlined the plan of salvation to those who sought to please Him. By His own hand He gave food in Egypt to those who did not see Him. To those who were restless in the desert He gave a law perfectly suited to them. To those who entered the land of prosperity He gave a worthy inheritance. He killed the fatted calf for those who turned to Him as Father, and clothed them with the finest garment. In so many ways He was training the human race to take part in the harmonious song of salvation.

God, the great trainer, the great tutor, prepares mankind to receive Christ!

Why then the Law?

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In his letter to the Galatians, Paul had entered into a discussion on the function, and the purpose of the law. Apparently some Jews had been teaching these Galatians that obedience to the Mosaic Law was necessary for salvation.

For Paul, this was spiritual suicide. He said in Galatians 3 that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse”, because “cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the law” (3:10). In other words, trying to be justified by the law is impossible, because the law demands perfect obedience (abiding by all things). And because all men are enslaved to sin, anyone trying to obey all things written in the law is attempting the impossible. They are committing themselves to a standard that they will never live up to, even fall constantly short of. Paul concludes by saying that “no one is justified before God by the law” (Gal 3:11).

Of course, a question naturally arises from this whole discussion: why did God give his law? If the law does not and cannot save anyone, then what is its purpose? Why would God give a standard impossible to meet? What was his purpose in giving it?

Paul takes up this question in the next section of Galatians 3. Paul himself asks, “why then the law?” (Gal 3:19). He answers by saying that the law “was added because of transgressions until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made…” (Gal 3:19). Now, what does Paul mean by this? And in what way is the giving of the law connected to the coming of Christ (the offspring)?

James Boice answer this question, saying,

On the surface the [verse] is ambiguous. The phrase [“was added because of transgressions”] can mean either that the law was given to restrain transgressions (which is the natural function of law) or that the law was given to make the transgression known, even in one sense to encourage them or to provoke them to a new intensity. In view of Paul’s choice of word “transgressions” rather than “sin” in this context and of his discussion of the purpose of the law elsewhere, the latter is the only real possibility. In Romans, Paul argues that “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom 3:20) and that “where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15). The point is that though sin was in the world before the giving of the law, sin was not always known as such. The law reveals sin as sin. Hence, it may be said that it is the law that turns sin into transgression — transgression of law — and even accentuates it (Rom 5:20). In this act, law performs the function of showing man’s need of a Savior.

In other words, the law makes us aware of our sin. Paul himself says in Romans 7:7, “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet'”. The law functioned in making Paul aware of his covetousness. In this way, the purpose of the law is to make us aware of our own transgressing of God’s commands. And in making us aware of our transgressions, it makes us aware of our need for a Savior.

Phillip Ryken adds,

When [Galatians 3] says that the law was “added”, it literally says that the law came in by a side road. The law feeds into the promise [of the gospel]; it is the on-ramp to the gospel highway. [The reason for this is because] the more we know the law, the more we see our sin, and the more we see this, the more we confess that we need a Savior. “The law was given”, wrote Calvin, “in order to make transgressions obvious, and in this way to compel men to acknowledge their guilt”. And it is only when we see our guilt that we see how much we need Jesus. The law is the law so that Christ can become our Savior.

In this way, the law came alongside the promise of Christ. The law was never opposed to the promise of the gospel. Rather, the burden of the law serves to make sinners more and more aware of the exceeding sinfulness of their sin! And then, it leads sinners straight to the gospel, in which the whole curse of the law is lifted and placed on Christ.

Born Under the Law

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One of the most profound truths of the gospel, is that Christ not only took the penalty of our law-breaking, but he also fulfilled the law on our behalf during his life on this earth.

Christ himself said as much in Matthew 3:15, that he came to “fulfill all righteousness”. Christ said this just before he was baptized. John the baptist, rightfully noticed that Jesus didn’t have to be baptized, because he was perfectly righteous. Yet, Jesus didn’t do it for himself — he did it to fulfill a righteousness that we did not have. Paul also expounds on this fact. He says in Galatians 4:4 that Jesus came at God’s predetermined time, and he was “born of a woman, [and] born under the law“. This is a profound verse. As God the Son, Jesus was the very revelation of the law. His very character helped shape the very giving of the Mosaic Law. As such, this means that Jesus was not forcibly subject to the Mosaic Law, as humans are. Mankind is part of God’s creation, being created in his image; and therefore we are held accountable to reflect his character and righteousness through obedience to him. However, Jesus is already the very radiance of the Father (Heb 1:3), being the second person of the Trinity, and therefore already contains the righteousness demanded in the law. So Jesus never had to submit to the law. Instead, Jesus willingly, voluntarily, humbly, subjected himself in the incarnation to full obedience to the Law.

And Jesus didn’t do it for no reason, or for show. Jesus subjected himself to the Law, in order that he might “redeem those who were under the law” (Gal 4:5). In other words, Jesus came to fulfill the law’s demands on behalf of sinful men, that they might be counted righteous. He took the full weight of the burden of the commandments, not for himself, but for us. And all that we might be delivered from the curse of the law (Gal 3:10-14). Jesus was perfectly obedient, as a disciple of the law, that we might be counted as righteous disciples of the law. As Paul says later in 2 Corinthians 5:21, that we might become “the righteousness of God” in him.

Martin Luther says of Galatians 4,

Christ, a divine and human person, begotten of God without beginning and born of the virgin at the appointed time, came not to make a law, but to feel and suffer the extreme terrors of the law and to overcome it, so that he might completely abolish it. He was not a teacher of the law but an obedient disciple of the law, so that by his obedience he might redeem those who were under the law. He was the one acted upon, and not an agent, in respect to the law. He bore its condemnation and delivered us from its curse.

Luther makes a helpful distinction here that many misunderstand. While Jesus did teach the law, this was not his main purpose in the incarnation. In other words, Jesus was not just “a good moral teacher”, as many say. Jesus himself denied this claim. His main mission was to deliver those who were under the law. And he did this by obeying its demands perfectly, and by dying under its curse — this was all done for us. Luther finishes his section on this verse, saying, “to teach the law and to perform miracles are particular benefits of Christ, [but are] not his main reason for coming into the world”. Christ came to to deliver us from condemnation, and he did it through representative obedience and vicarious death.

Phillip Ryken expounds on this principle further, saying,

[Christ] was born “under the law”. By his birth he was required to keep the whole Torah, which he did with total perfection. Jesus kept the whole law for his people. He was circumcised on the eighth day, as the law required. He never broke even one of the Ten Commandments. He followed the biblical pattern of worship. He went to Jerusalem to keep the feasts. He celebrated Passover. He did everything the law required.

Jesus even died under the law. For God’s Son, coming under the law included accepting the death penalty his people deserved for breaking it. This is what Paul explained in chapter 3[:13], when he said, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for  us”. When Christ came under the law, he also came under its curse. He not only kept the whole law for his people, but also suffered the punishment due to their sins.

Oddly, many believe that Jesus was opposed to religion. This isn’t really true. Grace and religion (earning God’s love through strict obedience) may be opposed. But this is only because Christ was the perfect law obeyer. He was the perfect Jew. He was the one in whom God was “well pleased” (Mt 3:17). And because of that, we are under grace. Because by virtue of faith in Christ, we receive his perfect obedience and death to the law, thereby being redeemed from the curse of the law.

The Reformers on Works-righteousness

“For if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal 2:21).

John Calvin, from his commentary on Galatians, writes,

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Hence it follows, that we are justified by his grace, and, therefore, not by works… If we could produce a righteousness of our own, then Christ has suffered in vain; for the intention of his sufferings was to procure it for us, and what need was there that a work which we could accomplish for ourselves should be obtained from another? If the death of Christ be our redemption, then we were captives; if it be satisfaction, we were debtors; if it be atonement, we were guilty; if it be cleansing, we were unclean. On the contrary, he who ascribes to works his sanctification, pardon, atonement, righteousness, or deliverance, makes void the death of Christ.

Martin Luther, from his commentary, says:

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Is it true that Christ suffered death or not? Did he suffer in vain or not? Unless we are quite mad, we have to answer that he did indeed suffer, not in vain or for himself, but for us… Take the…law, which contains the most perfect religion and the highest service to God — that is, faith, the fear of God, the love of God, and the love of our neighbor — and show me anyone who has been justified by it. It will then be true that Christ died in vain, for anyone who is justified by the law has power to obtain righteousness by himself… If you grant this, it must follow that Christ died in vain… Are we to allow this horrible blasphemy that the divine Majesty, not sparing his own dear Son, but giving him up to death for us all, should not do all these things seriously but as a sort of joke? I would rather see all the saints and holy angels thrown into hell with the devil. My eyes will see only this inestimable price, my Lord and Savior Christ.