Blog

Distracted by Human Achievement

Readings

Matthew 24:1-14

If you have you been to London you may well have admired the magnificent buildings such as the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral and many more.

In this passage the disciples are overawed by the beauty of The Temple which has been rebuilt by Herod the Great (who was King when Jesus was born). This is perhaps not surprising as just the ‘Holy Place’ part of the building in the centre of the site was nearly as tall as St. Paul’s and the largest stones weighed 600 tonnes (the weight of an 8 coach train).

In some versions this passage is headed ‘The destruction of The Temple and signs of the End Times’ but it should always be remembered that these titles are translators’ views (or interpretations) and not actually scripture. There are other views as to the meaning of this passage as I shall explain.

Behind the disciples’ admiration of the Temple is their very wordly view of life including the nature of the promised Messiah. The disciples are still thinking of Jesus as a great military leader who will restore the status of Israel to as it was in the time of David and Solomon. This is despite all the times he has told them God is working in a very different way and is to be killed.

To bring them down to earth Jesus, in response to their comments about The Temple says in verse 2:

I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.
This illustrates the timeframe about which Jesus is speaking. This happens less than 40 years later in AD 70 when the Romans burn the temple to the ground and the gold melts and goes into crack. People move the stones to get to the gold.

In verse 3 the disciples ask, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’

Coming is not a very good translation of the original Greek and seems to have been used to support an ‘end times’ interpretation even though the Greek word concerned is not used in any of the descriptive passages regarding the Second Coming of Jesus.
Presence better reflects the Greek. The disciples seem to be asking when Jesus will lead the new Jewish revolt and be present to overcome the Romans and thus end the age of occupation. They are most unlikely to be asking about the Second Coming and the ‘end of times’ as they have not yet even properly understood that Jesus is to be killed and resurrected let alone that he would then subsequently return to Earth.

Jesus does not really answer this question about coming (presence) and the question is not in the Mark or Luke versions. The only clue perhaps is the prophesy in Daniel 7 when Jesus (Son of Man) is in the presence of the Ancient of Days (Father God). This is about Jesus’ vindication as being seen to be righteous and correct as opposed to the Religious establishment who are effectively destroyed in the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70.

This brings us to the ‘end of the age’. In Jewish thought all time was divided into different ages; thus the age of slavery in Egypt, the age of the Exodus, the age of the Exile etc. The disciples may have looked forward to the end of ‘The Age of Roman Occupation’ but Jesus knows that the next age to end is that of traditional Temple worship and the end of the Temple itself followed later by a dispersion of Jews away from the ‘Promised Land’. When this will occur is in verse 14 ‘And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come’. This is often taken to support an ‘end times’ interpretation of the passage but in the thought of the time, the Roman Empire represented ‘the whole world’ with ‘all nations’ within it and again by AD 70 (the end of ‘The Temple Age’) the Gospel was being preached right across it. This would mean more to the disciples in the first century than the idea of the Gospel being preached in far off countries, the existence of which they were unaware of, as is required in an ‘end times’ interpretation.

The moral for both them and us is not to get distracted by human achievements whether physical: such as buildings; or things like new technology. Whilst we should have Christian concern for what is happening in the world especially evil, wickedness, conflicts, disasters etc. we should not be overawed by them. These happened then, nearly 2000 years ago, and have continued ever since. We should not become obsessed about ‘signs of The End’ or about when precisely Jesus will return. We need to act in the same way as Christians whether that will be tomorrow or after we die. In short we need to maintain our love of Jesus and follow his instructions.

Just after this passage Jesus gives a very precise instruction to the disciples. Verse 16 states, ‘then those who are in Judaea should take to their heels and run to the mountains’. This was practical advice and when the disciples followed it nearly 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection it meant that the disciples were not in Jerusalem when the Romans laid siege to, and destroyed the temple. It would appear to be meaningless if the ‘End of the Age’ represented Jesus’ Second Coming and the ‘End Times’. However unlike many thousands of others by following this at that time, they were not killed and this enabled them to spread the Gospel to the remaining Jews and to us, Gentiles. It is a sobering thought that had they not obeyed this instruction to effectively run away, we would not be here as Christians today.

This is another lesson for us. We may believe that we always have to remain and stand firm but this may just be our own human thoughts. God may sometimes need us to run away and hide to fulfil his plans. We shall only know what is required in any particular circumstance (as usual) by listening to God in prayer rather than just doing what we humanly consider best. We also need to remember from verses 9 to 13 that this may not be easy to do now as it was not easy for the disciples then and we can think of those places where Christians worshipping risks their lives such as in totalitarian regimes such as North Korea.