Recall Mark’s account of the disciples’ question, as he reports their asking “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that all these things are about to take place?” (13:4) In Luke, the disciples pose a similar question which, one can also recall, differed from Matthew’s report, as there they instead went on to ask “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age” (24:3c). As has been adequately demonstrated, this question was not making reference to Jesus’ return to earth, nor to the end of the world, but was a question that was ensconced in a worldview shaped by the presentation of Daniel seven, as the Son of Man comes to the Ancient of Days to receive His kingdom, thus ending the present age and ushering in the age in which the Creator God exercises cosmic dominion through the Son of Man.
So how should this statement by Jesus be heard? It should be heard as plainly as possible. When Jesus says that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” making reference to the fall of the Temple, what He means is that this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Simple. Jesus is informing His hearers that the Temple will fall during the lifetimes of many of those that were listening to Him speak at that moment. Seeing as how the Temple actually did fall in the year seventy, with not one stone left upon another, and with this taking place roughly forty years beyond the time of His speech, it appears that He was right. As one contemplates that, it should be remembered that Jesus was very clear in His insistence that the fall of the Temple would coincide with “the Son of Man arriving on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (24:30b).
So, pausing here for a bit before going on to the remainder of the statement about that generation and their capacity to witness these things, it’s now clear 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 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 this point, goes a long, long way in demonstrating 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 (presumably an earth to heaven movement) quite seriously. Indeed, it would appear that a great amount of weight was placed on these words.
This, in fact, when one gets right down to it, is one of very few places where Jesus can be seen offering up a prediction 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 like) 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 one to consider that there was an expectation, throughout the time following Jesus’ ascension, that the Temple needed to fall, so that Jesus could receive a final validation as a prophet.