This posing of a question to Jesus in regards to the Temple 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? These questions are answered when one hears what Jesus says next, as Matthew has drawn attention specifically to the Temple buildings so that Jesus can be clearly heard 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 demonstrates 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, it should be noted 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, one 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, it is reported 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, informing the audience of the Gospel that “Jesus was speaking about the Temple of His body” (2:21).
There is also the post-Resurrection, pre-synoptic Gospel composition (reflecting the position of the earliest Christians and the stories that they told about Jesus) 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 saying 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 the church community (or communities) is 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). The language of Jesus as cornerstone borrows from the one hundred tenth Psalm, which, as has been seen, Jesus references during His time in the Temple. What is being made quite clear by Matthew, and by 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. The Creator God’s Temple on the other hand, in Christ, will never be torn down. It is this tearing down of the physical Temple of Jerusalem that provides the preface and the context for what comes next.
As tempting as it may be, an observer cannot at this point allow him or herself to be dragged out of the appropriate mindset and context when hearing Jesus speak throughout the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew. 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. Moving away from the scene of the Temple at this point would be moving in the direction of extreme and extraordinary 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 be an indication of little more than 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.