Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” And Jesus answered them, “Take heed that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, `I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come.”
— Matthew 24:1-14
Jesus said these words as he sat on the Mount of Olives, looking out across the Kidron Valley at the Temple Mount and the city of Jerusalem, sitting in just about the same spot as the photo above was taken. The skyline of Jerusalem has changed since then, but the city wall in the midground and some of the structures below it were there in his day.
I can imagine Jesus sitting on the side of the mountain under an olive tree, tossing small stones as he reflects on the view and talks to his disciples.
The disciples remark on the magnificence of the complex of buildings that made up the Temple. In those days the Temple would have dominated the skyline, dwarfing everything around it; yet Jesus, rather than enjoying the impressive architecture, predicts its destruction. (Less than a generation later, in 70AD, his prediction would come true.)
This isn’t the point of the passage, but as an aside: Jesus’ words make me think how attached we religious folks often are to the buildings in which we worship. Feelings for our “home church” are a lot like the feelings we have for the homes in which we were raised: when the time comes (as it inevitably does) that the family homestead must be sold off, there is a great feeling of loss. How often do we drive by a home we once lived in and find it shocking that other people now live there — as if the home would always be ours? The churches in which we were raised evoke many of the same feelings. Yet the loss of church homes is as inevitable as the loss of old family homes. Nothing in this life is permanent, no matter how magnificent it is. But I think perhaps this universal experience, this feeling of I-once-lived-here-and-part-of-me-always-will, speaks of something God has planted in us, something that longs for a forever home, something designed for eternity. [end of aside]
The disciples interpret Jesus’ prediction about the Temple to be something that belongs to “the end of the age” — that is, the end times — and when they ask about it Jesus takes the opportunity to warn them about things to come.
Jesus begins and ends with warnings about deceptive leaders and false prophets who would “lead many astray”. He doesn’t give a direct answer to the disciples’ question of when this will all happen, but he does answer their question about signs: there will be wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes (all of these being just the beginning)… followed by worldwide persecution of faithful people and a marked increase in wickedness with a resulting chilling effect on peoples’ love for one another. Finally, the kingdom will be preached to all nations, and then the end will come.
Ever since then, people have been trying to read the signs like tea leaves to try to predict when the end will come.
I would suggest instead that Jesus’ words speak to every generation: they are a warning to us all in all times. Every generation needs to be on guard against leaders who deceive and false teachers in the church. In every generation there will be wars… and rumors of wars (rumors spreading even faster via cable news than they ever have before in human history)… and famines and earthquakes that test how well we care for our fellow human beings.
And I find it interesting that the signs of the *very* end — an increase in martyrdoms, an increase in wickedness, and love growing cold — are nothing like what the end times look like in popular imagination. Forget Hollywood. Forget Left Behind. The martyrs, the victims of wickedness and cruelty, the people deprived of love — how few names we know, how few of their stories are ever heard. But God knows. And his time is coming…
The last sign is that the kingdom will be preached to all nations.
The preaching of the kingdom of God is the central thrust of Jesus’ message. He himself preaches “the kingdom of heaven is near — repent and believe the good news”. He commands his followers to preach the same message. And the preaching of the kingdom is the focus of the last events on earth.
This is the good news: that wickedness and evil will not have the last word… that wars and earthquakes and famines will come to an end… that those who kill the faithful and quench the flames of love will never win. The kingdom of heaven is — and always has been — closer than we think. Change course and believe the good news.