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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Being a Two-Testament Church

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I’m taking a class at Reformed Theology Seminary this Spring on the church and sacraments.

One discussion that always comes up when discussing the nature of the church is how the New Testament church relates to the Old Testament. Or put another way, in what way does the Israel of the OT relate to the church of the NT? Is there inherent unity between the testaments, as in, is God making one people throughout the Bible? Or, is there a break, a separation, which distinguishes the people of the OT from the people of the NT?

There is a diverse series of stances on this question, ranging from what is called dispensationalism all the way to common Reformational covenant theology. Dispensationalism answers the question of the church and the OT by essentially explaining that there are two peoples of God, Israel and the church. While they intersect, the church and Israel are two separate redemptive programs in God’s plan for the world.

Reformed theology, in contrast, boasts itself in being a two-testament church; meaning, there is an inherent unity between the Israel of the OT and the church of the NT. And while there are certainly things which distinguish the two testaments (the Christ-event no less), there is in principle one church which bridges the gap of the two testaments.

In attempt to prove the Reformation understanding of the church, professor Scott Swain listed several metaphors that describe the people of God throughout both testaments. In doing so, he hoped to show that the people of God or the church was one organism in both testaments, though brought to new fulness in the NT.

For instance, one metaphor found all throughout the Bible is the picture of God’s people as a building. This metaphor is found in both Ephesians and Corinthians. Also, Jesus himself famously alludes to the church as a building when he promises to Peter in Matthew 16: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it”.

In alluding to the church as a building, Jesus, Paul et al, were not creating a new metaphor, but actually drawing from the prophets, who often referred to Israel as a building, or a temple, which could be broken down or built up depending on covenant faithfulness.

For instance, in Jeremiah 1:10, God threatens to “break down” Israel for their covenant unfaithfulness. In another text, Jeremiah 24:6, God promises that although Israel will been torn down for their sin, he “will build them up” again.

Another metaphor which is found in both testaments is the metaphor of God’s people as a plant, or vineyard, or tree. Both Jesus as Paul refer to the church in botanical terms: Jesus refers to the church as a vineyard, which requires faithful workers. In Mark 12, Jesus warns the Pharisees that he will replace unfaithful vineyard workers with faithful ones (implying a new regime in the apostles). Jesus compares himself to a vine onto which believers are grafted; if any do not bear fruit, the Father will prune them and throw into the fire. Or Paul, for instance, in Romans 11, refers to the church as an olive tree, which God will prune and graft in order to bring forth fruit.

Again, this is not a new metaphor. It is found all throughout the prophets. Isaiah 6 refers to Israel as a dead stump which God will bring to life again. Jeremiah 12 compares Israel’s leaders to unfaithful vineyard workers who will be punished for their sin.

There are other metaphors, but the point here is that the church is not a new program. The metaphors and themes bleed across testaments. And the point the NT writers wanted to make was that Israel found her final fulfillment in the church. The church is not a new program, but a renewed covenant people. Israel was a broken down building, a dead plant, because of their unfaithfulness; and yet God promised to renew covenant with her; to rebuild, to replant, to breathe life into his people. Christ came to do that very thing. He did not come to create a new people, but to assume the covenantal responsibility of Israel, bear her curses, and fulfill God’s purposes for the world he had from the beginning. For this, the church must be thought of as two-testament.

Why Christians Need the Old Testament

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I mentioned in my preceding post that Christians need the scriptures for encouragement, growth, and spiritual fruit, because of the very fact that the scriptures reveal God’s saving purposes for mankind. Martin Luther went so far to say that the Word of God is itself a lengthened telling of the gospel.

In this post, I want to consider just exactly how the Old Testament tells this gospel-story.

And what I want to propose is that the Old Testament is just as much about the gospel than the New. And because of this, the entire biblical narrative is concerned and centered on Jesus — and, as I said in my last post, this is why we need the scriptures, Old Testament too!

So then, how does the Old Testament bear witness to the gospel?

If read carefully, and in context, it should become clear that the Old Testament is concerned with the gospel as much as the New; it just communicates it in different ways. Vaughan Roberts says (source),

[Many] have debated for years whether or not it is possible to point to a unifying theme that binds the whole Bible together…Any unifying theme that is used to help us to see how the Bible fits together must arise from scripture itself…and it must be broad enough to allow each part to make its own distinct contribution. The theme of the kingdom of God satisfies both requirements…

[God’s kingdom can be defined as] “God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule” …[Scripture throughout presents] God longing  for human beings to enjoy an intimate relationship with him in his presence. As he is a perfect, holy God, that is possible only as we submit to his loving rule and do not sin.

What Roberts wants to communicate here is that the Old Testament may not mention the word “gospel”, but the concepts of the gospel are there. Roberts proposes that it’s easier to present “kingdom” as a unifying principle that presents the same gospel-truths, both across the Old and New Testament. I agree with him. I think that the beginning chapters of Genesis present God’s people under his rule and blessing, submitting in humility to him — they present God’s kingdom in perfect form. And Revelation 21, at the very end of the Bible, presents it that way too: God’s people under God’s rule and blessing. This is God’s goal a presented throughout the entire Bible, from beginning to end. However, we find that Adam’s sin (and ours too) corrupted and ruined this kingdom relationship. And for that, all have fallen short and deserve God’s condemnation (Rom 3:23).

God’s response, however, was not to destroy us, but to provide a means for humanity to be in blessed fellowship with him once more. Roberts says well, “[God] is certainly not defeated by the fall”; because in Genesis 3:15, we are told that God promises to restore his kingdom relationship through a Seed (a child) who would come from Eve and undue the effects of our sin, ultimately restoring creation to its original state. How will this happen? Through Jesus. This Seed is Christ, and God will use him to restore his fallen creation. Even in the first few chapters of the Bible, Jesus comes into the picture.

And this is the theme of the Old Testament, which finds fulfillment in the New: God will provide someone who will rescue humanity from their sin. The Old Testament presents God’s preparation for this great rescue.

God begins this rescue-plan by calling Abraham from his land, and giving him a promise. God promises to Abraham that through his Seed (recall Genesis 3:15?) he will bless the world. Roberts rightly says, “the covenant with Abraham is a promise of the kingdom of God…It is a promise to reverse the effects of the fall”. Paul would eventually explain that although Isaac was Abraham’s immediate “seed”, Christ is the final Seed who would bless the nations (Gal 3:16).

Then, after God established this promise, he created a nation called Israel whereby he would reveal this Seed, and set a context for redemption. Many may ask exactly why God dealt with this nation Israel before Christ’s coming? John Piper aptly answers this (source):

Israel’s history is not just about Israel. It’s about “every mouth” and “the whole world.” This was not a 2,000-year detour. God was writing a lesson book for the nations. It’s not an accident that our Bible has the Old Testament in it…Because in God’s wisdom he knew that the nations of the world would grasp the nature of Christ and his work better against the backdrop of Israel’s 2,000 year history of law and grace, faith and failure, sacrifice and atonement, wisdom and prophecy, mercy and judgment.

What Piper here is explaining is that God established Israel’s kingdom in order to teach both Israel, and the observing nations about their need for redemption. God wanted to communicate to all peoples that they could not save themselves. And God needed years of history in order to accomplish this. Paul tells us that the sacrifices, the Law, the priesthood, the temple, everything, was given in order to be a tutor to explain our state in sin, and our need forgiveness and holiness. Paul says that the Mosaic Law “was added because of transgressions…until the Seed would come to whom the promise had been made…The [Law] has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal 3:19-22). So, God used Israel and the Mosaic Law as a training station to teach the nations how one is to be saved; namely through an atoning Savior who would die for the sins of others.

In this way, the Old Testament presented the promise of a Savior, and also presented our need for him. And in the New Testament, Christ became the embodiment and fulfillment of that promised. As Paul says, the Old Testament was “a mere shadow of what was to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17). God is a great strategist, and this is how he accomplished this great redemption.

So when we read the Old Testament, we are reading God’s promises. God is “getting ready” to present Christ. And he is doing it by revealing through Israel what he will look like, and accomplish.

In this way, the Old Testament is just as much about the gospel than the New. For this reason, we should read, treasure, enjoy, and consume God’s Word on every page.

Wrestling with God, Finding Grace (Genesis 32)

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Genesis 32 has always been a chapter dear to me. In it, Jacob comes face to face with his past. Since the start of his life, Jacob’s life was full of deceit and lies. He was the type of person that made his way in life by taking from others; he was a characteristic trickster. He was also the type that would divert responsibility to others. While his older brother Esau was out hunting, providing for his family, Jacob was home. In fact, Genesis 25:27 describes him as a “quiet man, dwelling in tents”. Suffice to say, you would not find Jacob out hunting for food, but rather spending time in the kitchen with his mother. He was a bit of a coward.

Jacob’s irresponsibility and trickery climaxed in his swindling of the birth right that belonged rightly to Esau. In fact, he did this by dressing up like his brother, and tricking his father into blessing him (Gen 27). Because of this, Esau was enraged and threatened to kill his brother (Gen 27:41), and Jacob was sent away by his mother into hiding. Jacob’s lying and scheming had made him an exile. And in fact, Jacob never returned home for fear of his brother. And as a result, that part of his life became a burden that he simply couldn’t shake. It was a sin that he had always tried to run from.

And when we arrive at Genesis 32, we find that Esau, his brother, had found where his brother Jacob was living; and, Esau desired to confront him (Gen 32:6). This reasonably made Jacob fear for his life (Gen 32:8); that all his past sins had come back to condemn him. How was Jacob going to rid himself of his past? How could he appease his angry brother?

Interestingly enough, Jacob tries to buy off his brother by giving him gifts (Gen 32:13-21). Jacob did this, thinking that just maybe, Esau would “accept [him]” (Gen 32:20). Jacob was trying to atone for his own sins against Esau by way of bribery! He was trying to satisfy Esau’s anger by providing gifts. He was trying to purchase his own redemption.

After having sent the gifts, Jacob waited anxiously for his brother’s response all night long, alone (Gen 32:24a). How much his conscience must’ve tormented him! One could picture him as wrestling with his own conscience throughout the night.

But this wasn’t the only thing he wrestled with…

As he waited in agony, Jacob was interrupted when a person began to wrestle with him. Ironically, as Jacob wrestled with his own sin, this man began to wrestle with him. Hopefully you can see the symbolism here; as Jacob was trying to subdue his own sinful past, this man was subduing him. In fact, the struggle was so real, and so hard, Jacob’s hip was immediately dislocated as result (Gen 32:24-26).

I think at this point, Jacob figured out that this man wasn’t merely human, but divine. He didn’t have normal strength, but a supernatural strength. This was God forcing Jacob into submission to his divine will (Gen 32:30). God himself tackled Jacob in order to communicate something very important: as Jacob tried to wiggle himself out of his past, God was willing to redeem him from his past. While Jacob was trying to appease his own conscience, God was willing to cleanse his conscience. And it took the pain of a dislocated hip to realize this.

Jacob came to apprehend this, and rather than simply giving in, he asked for a blessing from his divine opponent. God was pleased to do this. And it’s interesting that God not only blessed Jacob, but he renamed him. God made him into a new person. He gave him a new identity. I think that this detail cannot be overlooked. Right in the middle of a personal struggle to rid himself of his sinful past, the God of the universe struggled with Jacob to redeem and make him a new creation.

And I think we learn from this episode that Jacob had to learn to stop trying to escape, lie, or atone for his past sins and submit to justifying grace. Jacob needed to submit to the subduing grace of God for sinners.

Amazingly, the next day, Jacob felt a new courage to approach his past (Gen 33:3). And, rather than receiving condemnation from Esau (what he justly deserved), Jacob received a warm embrace (Gen 33:4). This was confirmation for Jacob that God himself had forgiven him of his sin. He says to Esau, “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me“. Jacob knew that he was accepted by God!

Is this not the same grace that God has for us all? Is it not a grace that wrestles us into a faith that trusts in God’s forgiving provision alone? It is! God wrestles with us every day to rest in the justifying love given to sinners in Christ; a justifying love that we, like Jacob, can neither buy nor work toward. It is a merit that comes through Christ’s own righteousness, and certainly, not our own.