Venturing on to the twenty-fifth verse, and not allowing for a breach in the continuous stream of thought, we continue to hear Jesus speaking of the Temple and its corrupt rulers (though those who were Pharisees were not necessarily Temple authorities, nor is this necessarily true of the experts in the law, but they would represent that which stood behind the laws and traditions, which was the Temple) when He says “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgences. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside may become clean too!” (23:25-26) Though a personal application is surely intended here, we should not allow the personal and individual application to completely override the major focus of the woeful discourse that is on offer from Jesus.
With yet another statement that could be dually applicable to individual and Temple, Jesus adds “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you look righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (23:27-28). Piling on, and making sure that it is well understood that Jesus still has the Temple not only as the setting, but within view of His judging speech, He adds “For this reason I am sending you prophets and wise men and experts in the law, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that on you will come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar” (23:34-35). With the close of this statement, we are reminded of the earlier mentions of Temple and altar, giving this portion of the statement even greater weight as it relates to the pronounced judgment. Jesus then adds: “I tell you the truth, this generation will be held responsible for all these things!” (23:36)
Now, what would His hearers and the Gospel hearers/readers have understood by “this generation”? Most likely, they would have understood that in its very plain and literal sense of “this generation,” meaning, those that were hearing him would be held responsible for what has been outlined throughout His discourse---they would experience that which represented God’s judgment. Jesus then goes on to say, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it!” (23:37) Then, while standing in the Temple courts, Jesus makes yet another very clear reference to the Temple, continuing His speech to Jerusalem and saying, “Look, your house is left to you desolate!” (23:38) The house, of course, is the Temple---the house of God. The desolation of the house could be a backwards and present reference to the fact that the glory of God had never rested in this Temple from the time that it was rebuilt in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, or it could be a forward reference, encompassing the generation to be held responsible, pointing to the desolation of the Temple that would result in its destruction. Though both are probably legitimate inferences to be drawn from the statement, Matthew’s narrative seems to clearly point toward the latter, as he moves us on to find out that “as Jesus was going out of the Temple courts and walking away, His disciples came to show Him the Temple buildings” (24:1).
This seems like an odd action on the part of the disciples, especially since Jesus has been in the Temple. Does Jesus really need to be shown the Temple buildings at this point? Our questions are answered when we hear what Jesus says next, as Matthew has drawn our attention specifically to the Temple buildings so that we might hear Jesus quite clearly when He says to His disciples “Do you see all these things? I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down!” (24:2) Matthew reflects a similar maneuver by Mark, but reports a statement from the disciples that shows us that the disciples well understood that Jesus was speaking of the Temple itself when He speaks about Jerusalem’s house being desolate. “One of His disciples said to Him, ‘Teacher, look at these tremendous stones and buildings!’” (13:1b) To complete the picture, we note that Luke’s rift on Mark’s record differs, stating “Now while some were speaking about the Temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and offerings” (21:5)
So why this sudden mention of buildings? Clearly, there is something being communicated here at an even deeper level, and it is perhaps best presented by Matthew. It appears to reflect the post-Resurrection understanding of the nature of the Temple. With this thought, we can think about what is said in the second chapter of John. As Jesus, as part of the Gospel of John’s record of His actions in the Temple, is questioned about His activity, we read that “the Jewish leaders responded, ‘What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?’ Jesus replied, ‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up again.’” (2:18-19) An editorial comment is provided, telling us that “Jesus was speaking about the Temple of His body” (2:21). There is also the post-Resurrection, pre-synoptic conception of the nature of the Temple of God, perhaps best reflected in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, in which He writes, in reference to the church community, that “your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” (6:19a). To this can be added thoughts from the second chapter of the Ephesian letter, where we find the church community (or communities) being told that “you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. In Him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you are also being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (2:20-22). This language of Jesus as cornerstone borrows from the one hundred tenth Psalm, which, as we have seen, Jesus references during His time in the Temple. What is being made quite clear by Matthew, and the other Gospels to a slightly lesser extent, is that even though Jerusalem’s Temple will be torn down, all that is actually being torn down is a building. God’s Temple, in Christ, will never be torn down.