So, pausing here for a bit to consider the import and impact of the statement about that generation and their capacity to witness these things, we do so with clear and almost incontrovertible knowledge (if we are taking the Gospel narratives seriously and letting them speak to us rather than imposing our own notions on to them) that Jesus was referencing the fall of the Temple when He spoke in this manner. Would this really have been so clear to those that heard Him? Was this really and truly clear to His disciples? Were these words of Jesus unambiguously clear to the early church? It would seem so. The very fact that identical language is in use at this point in the records of the three evangelists, when such a thing cannot be said up until that point in the parallel passages in Matthew twenty-four, Mark thirteen and Luke twenty-one, goes a long, long way in informing us that Jesus’ disciples and the early church well understood what Jesus meant, taking this speech about the Temple and about the coming of the Son of Man quite seriously. Indeed, it would appear that a great amount of weight was placed on these words.
This, in fact, when we get right down to it, is one of very few places where we see Jesus offering up a prediction, then trumpeted by those that believed in Him, that could be empirically verified and tested by a watching world. Yes, He often speaks about His pending death and Resurrection, but it is with these words about the Temple that He pushes His predictions (prophecies if you will) into a time in the future, with a determinate end-point (i.e. this generation). Now, one could argue that these words, as recorded in the Gospels, did not actually come from Jesus, and that they are interpolations by later authors, placing words in Jesus’ mouth. However, the univocal witness of the Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as Jesus reaches this point in His discourse about the Temple, forces us to consider that there was an expectation, throughout the time following Jesus’ ascension, that the Temple needed to fall in order for Jesus to receive a full and final validation as a prophet.
If we think about it, this makes a great deal of sense. Jesus was painting Himself into a corner, relying on Israel’s prophetic tradition and demanding that He be judged in the same way that all prophets were judged---based on the verifiability of their predictions and assertions. In His actions in the Temple, Jesus presents Himself in the mold of Jeremiah, making reference to His very words. We know that Jeremiah would have been lambasted as a false prophet, held up to scorn rather than honor, if His prophecies did not come to pass. The same would have been true of Jesus. Would anybody listen to Him, or have any use for Him, if the one distant prediction that He made, which was well understood to be a prediction about the demise of the Temple within the lifetimes of many of His hearers, did not occur? One would think that the answer to that question would be in the negative.
Certainly, the Resurrection was and is vital. However, those that witnessed and interacted with the risen Jesus following His Resurrection were limited in number. Accordingly, skepticism towards such a claim would be natural and completely understandable, as people simply did not come back to life, especially after undergoing a Roman crucifixion (nor survive such an ordeal). While Jesus obviously staked a great deal of validation on His Resurrection, He also appears to have staked a great deal on the fall of the Temple as well. If Jesus staked much on this claim, then His church could do no less. Not only did He claim that the Temple would fall, but perhaps more importantly, as it concerns the church that would follow Him, He claimed that when the Temple fell, He, as the Son of Man, would go before the Ancient of Days to receive His kingdom, power, and authority. Is this not important?
Now, glimpsing into very early Christianity to see how the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus was being interpreted in accordance with first-hand knowledge and the developing oral Jesus tradition, and mindful of Jesus’ statements concerning the still-standing-but-judged-by-His-words-and-actions Temple and His references to the Son of Man, it could be said that we get a sense of this way of thinking in the first chapter of Romans, as Paul declares that Jesus “was appointed Son-of-God-in-power according to the Holy Spirit by the Resurrection from the dead” (1:4a).
The letter to the Romans, of course, was written between the Resurrection of Jesus and the fall of the Temple. If the early Christians knew that Jesus had staked His claim on the fall of the Temple, linking its fall with His receiving of His kingdom, then we can easily hear this as Paul speaking about this appointment as an appointment-in-waiting, expecting the validation to come (while also recognizing the importance of Son of God language in the history of Israel, alongside the knowledge that the Roman emperor was referred to as the son of god). We can also imagine Him being quite confident that the validation would come, especially considering the reported fact that Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to Paul, which was the basis for his dramatic transformation from persecutor of the church to its chief proponent, and the complete re-orientation of his life around the claims of Jesus.