We started this series by taking a glancing look at the Old Testament and saw how the prophets and poets used poetic language that depicted the complete desolation of the cosmos as a symbol of the destruction of various nations. These included Egypt (Ezekiel 32.2, 7-8, 11-12), Babylon (Isaiah 13.1, 10, 19), and, yes, even Israel (Jeremiah 4.14, 16, 23ff). With these things in the back of our minds, we now turn our attention to the New Testament. While we’ll be addressing some of the New Testament passages that refer to eschatology there’s one question that a lot of people don’t ask but it’s just under the surface yearning to be asked—“From where did the New Testament writers get their views on eschatology? What was the basis for their ‘time of the end’ beliefs?”
The most obvious answer is the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament). Since (almost) all of the New Testament writers were Jewish, they would have been very familiar with the passages we’ve glanced at (and many, many others). But there was an added element that made them rethink their view of the “time of the end.”
That added element was Jesus.
Jesus said things that made them believe that “the end” would come within their lifetime. And that’s what they taught others to believe, as well. Furthermore, because Jesus was raised from the dead, their understanding of “resurrection” had to be rethought. Like a lot of Jews at that time, the disciples believed that the resurrection would happen at the end of history to all people (or at least all of G_d’s people). But, Jesus was resurrected in the middle of history. Therefore, they had to look at their Scriptures in a different light. Because of this, and before we look at some of the New Testament letters, we’ll look at some of the statements from Jesus. While we could look at several passages (e.g., Matthew 10.23; Matthew 16.24ff; etc.), we’ll focus on what’s commonly called “The Olivet Discourse.”
Let’s paint the scene. While in the Temple, in front of his disciples and crowds of people, Jesus berates the religious leaders of his day (Matthew 23). His closing statements are quite shocking:
Matthew 23.29-36, 38 (NLT): “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the G_dly people your ancestors destroyed. Then you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would never have joined them in killing the prophets.’
“But in saying that, you testify against yourselves that you are indeed the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead and finish what your ancestors started. Snakes! Sons of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of hell?
“Therefore, I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers of religious law. But you will kill some by crucifixion, and you will flog others with whips in your synagogues, chasing them from city to city. As a result, you will be held responsible for the murder of all G_dly people of all time—from the murder of righteous Abel to the murder of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you killed in the Temple between the sanctuary and the altar. I tell you the truth, this judgment will fall on this very generation...And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate.”
Can you imagine this scene? The temple was the very center of the Jewish world and here is this (so-called) prophet claiming it would be abandoned and ravaged and the Jewish people, especially the leadership, would be responsible! I can see Jesus leaving the Temple and everyone just standing there in stunned silence for what seemed like an eternity. And then—BOOM!—everyone erupts! The Pharisees start yelling at each other and everyone else, pointing fingers, and passing the blame.
The disciples, on the other hand, chase after Jesus. “Surely, he didn’t really mean that,” they think. So, they point out the beauty of Temple, just to make sure. Jesus replies, “Do you see all these things? I assure that no stone will be left on another. Everything will be demolished.” (Matthew 24.2).
Well, that settled it. Jesus was definitely talking about the Temple. Not some future Temple as some people today would have us believe. Nope. They showed Jesus their Temple and he told them that their Temple would be destroyed. No question about it.
So, if we were standing there with them that fateful day, what do you suppose would be the one question on everyone’s mind?
And that’s exactly what we find.
Matthew 24.3: “Tell us, when will these things happen? What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?”
Notice that the disciples didn’t ask about the “end of the world,” as some translations put it, but about “the end of the age” (Greek = aion). This is significant because all throughout Jesus’ ministry, he’d been talking about the coming of G_d’s Realm. He even taught the disciples to pray for G_d’s Realm to come “on earth as in heaven.” This meant that G_d’s age of rule was being ushered in (somehow) through Jesus’ own life and ministry. And for that to happen, the (then) present Jewish age would have to be dissolved. It’s time was coming to a close.
On another side of this, I think when we see or hear the phrase “the end of the world” we think in terms of our understanding of what that would mean. That is, a cosmic desolation that is almost more than we can imagine. The complete and utter destruction of the whole cosmos. It’s because of this (i.e., we reading our definition into the phrase) and how that understanding is fueled by a lot of modern interpretation of Jesus’ answer, that I think “age” is a better translation.
So, to summarize this: Jesus just blasted the Religious Elite of his day and proclaimed that their Temple would be destroyed. Since one of the “jobs” of the Messiah was to either establish the Temple or re-build it, the disciples could hardly believe their ears. So, they pointed out the Temple and its buildings as they left it. Jesus told them as plainly as possible, that yes, they had heard him correctly—the Temple would be completely demolished and “no stone” would be “left on another.” Still reeling in shock by this, the disciples approached Jesus very timidly (I would imagine) and asked him when that would happen (understanding that what Jesus was talking about was nothing short of the complete end of their “world”).
I submit that Jesus actually answers their question. Jesus wasn’t talking about the end of the “world” as we understand it, but, like the prophets before him, Jesus used poetic (apocalyptic) language to describe the fall of Jerusalem. Over and over again, Jesus was emphatic that the disciples would witness the events he was describing.
Next time, we will start looking at Jesus’ answer to the disciples. Click here for the next post in this series.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC