The difficulty of Jesus' earliest disciples to grasp the nature of His coming kingdom was manifested in a number of ways. From their failure to understand and accept that Jesus would die (Matt. 16:21-23) to their jockeying for position and arguing amongst themselves about who would be the greatest (Matt. 20:20-28; Lk. 22:24), we realize that even those closest to Jesus had a very materialistic/physical concept of the Messiah and His reign. We may excuse the first disciples for these misconceptions on the basis of incomplete understanding; but nearly 2000 years after Jesus announced that His kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36), some insist that it will be of this world.
Another example of Jesus' disciples' initial failure to comprehend His mission as the Messiah is seen a few days before His crucifixion. The Jewish leadership had attempted to entrap Jesus in His words and had utterly failed. While their thoughts turned to more devious plots, Jesus continued to teach and uncover their hypocrisy and the futility of their external religion. How important Jesus' disciples must have felt to be the companions of this master teacher who was clearly on the verge of beginning His reign as Messiah. No doubt they were excited!
It was in this giddiness that; as they left Jerusalem with Jesus, they pointed out to Him the temple complex (Matt. 24:1) and observed its magnificence (Mk. 13:1) and its beauty (Lk. 21:5). This certainly was not the first time any of these men had seen these things, but they were looking at them with a new perspective. Their Master, their King, was a rising star who had demonstrated His mastery over the wicked and hypocritical powers that controlled the temple. No doubt they believed Jesus would soon rise to power and all of that beauty would be His, and they would reign with Him.
I wonder if we can imagine their shock when Jesus proclaimed that not one of those glorious buildings they found so remarkable would be left standing. Indeed, not one stone would be left upon another. I imagine gaping mouths and complete incredulity as Jesus turned His back to those buildings and led His disciples out the city gates and across the Kidron Valley. The wind had been knocked out of them. It was not until they had ascended the Mount of Olives that the disciples composed themselves enough to question their Master's words.
Jesus was likely seated facing the city in quietness when Peter, James, John, and Andrew approached Him privately (Mk. 13:3). This was the inner circle of Jesus' disciples; they wanted to know more, to understand. “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?” (Mk. 13:4). The answer that Jesus gave them has been the source of much controversy because of a failure to understand the question He was asked. Notice that I said, “question” singular. Yes, it is a two-part question, as Luke also records (Lk. 21:7); but the question is when will this destruction take place.
In an attempt to harmonize the three gospel accounts of this question, some have imagined as many as four questions being asked with the additional questions coming from Matthew's record (Matt. 24:3). Thus, it is asserted, that one question is about the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, one about the signs preceding the destruction, one about the sign preceding His final coming, and one about the end of the world. Yet it should be apparent that these relatively ignorant men who were struggling to grasp even the idea of Jesus' death and the destruction of Jerusalem did not have enough acumen among the twelve of them to ask anything about a “second coming.”
It is more reasonable to understand their question about the sign of His coming (Matt. 24:3) to be identical to the question about the sign of when “these things” (Mk. 13:4; Lk. 21:7) were about to take place. Similarly, the question about the end of the world was not about the end of the planet, but the end of their Jewish world as they knew it. Thus “the end” corresponds to “when all these things are going to be fulfilled” (Mk. 13:4).
Jesus first answers the second part of their question by giving them many signs which would precede “these things.” Conflicts would increase and persecutions would intensify (Mk. 13:5-13). Eventually Jerusalem would be surrounded by armies (Lk. 21:20). The description of turmoil in the heavens (Matt. 24:29) is like the figures used by the prophets of old to describe the fall of the human powers that were coming under divine judgment (Isa. 13:1,6-10,13,17-19; Joel 2:28-32).
The beginning of these signs were like the contractions of a pregnant woman (Matt. 24:8). The event was not imminent, but would come in a relatively short time. However, when people saw Jerusalem surrounded, they were to flee from Judea to the mountains (Lk. 21:21). It is then that many would comprehend that the One who had chastised the daughters of Jerusalem to not weep for Him but for themselves and their children (Lk. 23:28-31) was coming in judgment (Lk. 21:27). The desolation of Jerusalem was at hand, and the redemption of those who had endured her persecutions was near (cf. Matt. 23:37,38). No remnant of God would be found in that forsaken city; instead the chosen people of God would be gathered from all over the world (Matt. 24:31).
Jesus' parable of the fig tree illustrated what He meant by all these signs. Just as men observe a tree putting forth its leaves and understand that summer time is near, so they --when they saw these signs --would know Jerusalem's desolation was near. As Amos' basket of summer fruit meant Israel of old was ripe for picking (Amos 8:1,2), so it would be for Jerusalem.
To the first part of the disciples' question about specifically when these things would take place, Jesus gave a partial answer because it was all He knew. All three gospel accounts have the identical answer, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” Jesus was not speaking about two different events any more than the disciples were asking about two different events.
There is no reason to assume that the passing away of “heaven and earth” in Matthew 24:35 is any different than that which is described in Matthew 24:29,30. His point is that “heaven and earth” would pass away before that generation passed away and that His words would never pass away. Jesus knew that the destruction of Jerusalem would take place relatively soon (within the lifetime of at least some of those to whom He was speaking), but He did not know the day or the hour of that event (Matt. 24:36).
Unfortunately, many today (like the first century Jews) believe that the Messiah's kingdom is physical and, therefore, misunderstand Jesus' words in their context. They entirely miss Jesus' answer to His disciples. God is finished with physical Jerusalem. It is no longer part of His plan. Jerusalem has passed away, as has the generation that crucified Jesus. Yet, His words will never pass away, demonstrating that He rules now as King of kings.
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