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.