And He said to them, “Do you see all these things? I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down!” – Matthew 24:2 (NET)
As tempting as it may be, we cannot allow ourselves to be dragged out of the appropriate mindset and context as we hear Jesus speaking throughout the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew. With what comes in the previous three chapters, the setting is clear. The context is clear. The scene has been in the process of being set since Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem and went straight to the Temple. The Temple has remained the setting. In the process of interpreting Jesus’ words, moving away from the scene of the Temple at this point would be moving in the direction of extreme unfaithfulness to the text. Pretending that Jesus has somehow changed His entire mode of thought and that He is no longer speaking about the Temple, would indicate that we have a disjointed and confused Jesus. Additionally, doing the same thing to Matthew’s treatment (or that of Mark or Luke), renders the Gospel treatment as incoherent and lacking in any real value or substance for their community of hearers and readers, or for the wider community of Christ-followers in the first century.
It is nearly beyond the pale of comprehension to hear Jesus make a reference to the Temple, saying “I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down” (24:2b), and to then have the disciples make a massive and dramatic shift, away from that very Temple to which Jesus has just referred, when they “come to Him privately” and say “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3b) Clearly, as Matthew puts it, the disciples well-understood that Jesus was speaking about the Temple in which He had acted and in which the events of the previous three chapters of the narrative had all occurred.
Why this talk of the coming of Jesus and of the end of the age? Well, seeing as how Jesus has just been reported to have said, “For I tell you, you will not see Me from now until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (23:39), which is only to be found in Matthew’s account, the question about Jesus’ coming is reasonable. That statement, of course, followed the statement concerning the house of Israel, that being the Temple, being left desolate (23:38). The desolation of the Temple, combined with the insistence that “not one stone will be left on another” and “all will be torn down,” would be an unimaginably catastrophic event for a Jewish hearer of Jesus, and this point must be under continual consideration as we hear the words of Jesus. In addition, there is no need to be hung up on “end of the age” language, because inevitably we will import our non-Jewish “end of the age” thinking, which has been long and unfortunately associated with the end of the world. The idea of the physical world coming to an end---the demise of the created order---is foreign to the Jewish way of thinking, as the constant affirmation of Scripture is that of a good creation gone wrong and God’s activity in the world to set things right and restore that has fallen.
In that light, it would be better to hear the words of Mark at this point, in which the disciples, in reference to Jesus speaking about the tearing down of the Temple, say “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that all these things are about to take place?” (13:4) Similarly, Luke reports the disciples asking, “Teacher, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that these things are about to take place?” (21:7) Neither Mark nor Luke have the disciples asking about Jesus’ coming, which, as we have seen before in regards to the devouring of the property of widows and the story of the widow making her offering to the Temple (found in Mark and Luke, but not in Matthew), is an indication of textual integrity, as they do not, as has just been said, have Jesus talking about His coming. So while the Jewish conception about “the end of the age” is a legitimate point of discussion and concern, it shall be sufficient for our purposes to say that it makes no reference to a supposed end of the world, and confirm that, regardless of the language used in Matthew, the question that is being asked is the same as that being asked in Mark and Luke.
The point that must be underlined is that the disciples are asking the question in relation to what Jesus has been saying about the Temple. This appears to be the authorial intention. Along with that, we need to make ourselves aware of the very strong possibility that the Gospels authors are writing after the Jewish revolt and after the Temple has been destroyed by the Romans, which most certainly colors our approach to the narrative, our attempts to understand what is being said, and our responsibility to make the correct applications as Christ-followers in our own day. Now, this is not to take away from the prophetic activity of Jesus, but allows for a dimension of analysis, in which the authors, and therefore those who are hearing and reading these biographical compilations about the life of Jesus, are reporting these words of Jesus from the perspective of a world in which revolution has been attempted and crushed, and in which Rome and its legions have destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem.