By Pastor Glenn Pease
A man stood before the judge and told him this story. One day when my rheumatism was bad, and my daughter had just eloped with a good for nothing scalawag, and fire had destroyed my barn, and my best hog had up and died of the cholera, and they had foreclosed the mortgage on me, and the sheriff was looking for me with a warrant, I told my troubles to one these here optimists and he said, "Cheer up, old man, the worst is yet to come." So I shot him.
Nobody, let alone a troubled person, likes to hear that the worst is yet to come, but sometimes it happens to be the truth and it needs to be faced. Jesus had to do this in Mark 13. He makes it unmistakably clear to His disciples that the clouds of doom hang over the future, and darkness rather than sunshine covers the horizon. Jesus is not being a pessimist here, however, in spite of the gloomy nature of His prophecy. He is being a realist with an optimistic foundation. You can afford to face the worst when you know the best will finally triumph, and that is why Jesus taught His disciples about the trials ahead. Jesus was optimistic about the ability of His followers to stand in the storm of testing and bear a fruitful witness. Therefore, He opens up the scroll of the future and reveals the dreadful consequences that will befall them as well as unbelieving Israel. He had some pessimistic facts to share, but in an optimistic attitude, and so Jesus was revealing and attitude of optimistic pessimism.
The greatest tragedy ever to befall the Jewish nation was on the threshold of history. The hand of mercy had been knocking at the door of Judaism, but they would not open the door. Instead, they nailed that hand of mercy to a cross. Jesus knew this was going to be their response, and that the next response would be God's hand of wrath which would not knock at the door, but demolish the door. The Jews had been captives in Egypt for 400 years. They had been captives in Babylon for 70 years, and they had had their share of troubles ever since, and were now under the domination of Rome. In this chapter Jesus says in effect, "Cheer up, the worst is yet to come."
In 70 A.D. the Jews would suffer the most shattering defeat in their history. The temple would be destroyed and all the records and genealogies would be destroyed, and the whole ceremonial and sacrificial system of Judaism would be demolished. Since then Judaism has not been the same for 1900 years. Nothing of such catastrophic proportions had ever happened before, and unless we believe history will go on for several thousand more years, nothing like it can ever happen again. The killing of millions of Jews by Hitler did not change the essence of Judaism at all, nor has any other tragedy, as did the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
This being the greatest calamity ever to hit Judaism made it the ideal type for the greatest calamity to ever hit the world-namely, the end of the world-the second coming, and the judgment. God's judgment on Israel has many parallels with God's judgment on the world at the end of history. Jesus is the actually speaking of both of these events in this passage, and this has lead to confusion. The chapter is impossible to unscramble unless you see he has both the immediate and the far off judgment in mind. He talks of wars and earthquakes, and says don't be alarmed, the end is not yet. He says in verse 10 that the Gospel has to go into all the world before the end, so there is a long period of history ahead. Yet in verse 30 He says all this will happen before this generation passes away. It is common sense to recognize that the same event cannot be around the corner and far in the distance at the same time. But it is clear that around the corner was judgment on Israel, and far off was the judgment on the world. The fact that Jesus put the two together indicates that the first is a type of the second, or at least that they are similar.
Men disagree a great deal in trying to determine what parts of this chapter apply to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and what verses apply to the second coming. The variations of scholars are so numerous that it is a waste of time to try to set up a system before hand. We have to take a verse at a time, and from within that verse look in both directions, and see how far, or how near the perspective is. The expert will breeze through this chapter with a clear cut outline, and make it seem as simple as a nursery rhyme as he fits it neatly into his pre-conceived system. This is the easy way and eliminates the need for thinking, and asking questions. However, for the person who is really more interested in what Jesus is saying then in what men say He is saying, there is the need to move slow and think seriously about the implications of each verse.
G. Campbell Morgan after of years of study in God's Word said of this chapter, "None of these things, which I confess I am less able to explain today than yesterday, for the puzzle and the wonder grow-were unknown to my Lord." The deeper he went the less of an expert he became, and so he had to be content with mystery, but assured that Christ knowing was sufficient. Strange as it may seem, it is a great growth in knowledge just to learn that you do not know, for none are so ignorant as those who have eliminated all the mystery of God's revelation, and especially the prophetic portions as we have here. It is, therefore, with an attitude of optimistic pessimism that we begin the study of this chapter, for in spite of all the conflict and confusion, there is still much truth to be gained by this study. You don't have to exhaust a mine to enjoy its riches when there are gems right on the surface.
Let's begin by reading the first verse from the New English Bible. "As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples exclaimed, look Master, what huge stones! What fine buildings!" This verse gives us the setting and the reason why Jesus began teaching about the destruction of the temple. Jesus was coming out of the temple for the last time, and it was symbolic of the departure of the divine presence from the temple. The Jewish hierarchy had rejected him. God had literally descended and come to His temple in His Son, but they who kept the temple would not accept Him. With the departure of Christ the true glory of the temple also departed, and Jesus knew it.
That is why Jesus did not share the same awe and appreciation with the disciple who said what a marvelous place this is. Many think the disciple was Peter, and that he was being his impetuous self and was just expressing his sense of amazement at the beauty of the temple. The Rabbi said of it that whoever had not seen it had not seen the perfection of architectural beauty. It had huge stones 20 feet long and 7 feet high and 10 feet thick, and there were great Corinthian pillars 37 and a half feet high cut out of solid marble. Josephus, an eye witness, wrote, "The temple appeared to strangers, when they were at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow, for as to those parts of it which were not gilt, they were exceeding white." No one can doubt the magnificence of the temple, and certainly Jesus had an aesthetic nature, and love beauty, but this time he did not respond positively to the beauty being pointed out.
Instead, in verse 2, he as much as says, it may look like something now, but before long it will be just a pile of rubble. Not a stone will be left upon another he said. Jesus was not much impressed with an external beauty when the heart and soul were gone. The inner glory of the temple was gone, and so when God came to the temple again it would be in judgment. What good is a beautiful shell if the egg is rotten inside? What good is a beautifully wrapped package if the precious gift that is to be inside has been removed? The disciple was still impressed with the huge stones and the external inspiring appearance of the temple, but Jesus who looked beyond the externals was no longer inspired by the temple.
There is a worth while lesson conveyed in these first two verses, and it is this: Where there is true worship and obedience to God, and where the Spirit of God is not quenched but yielded to, no amount of external beauty and magnificence is great enough to symbolize the values that are there. On the other hand, where the word and will of God are despised, and where the Spirit is denied, all external beauty is sham and blasphemy. The point is, the inner life of a person or church must be beautiful before externals are legitimate. External symbols that imply internal character are disgraceful when the internal character they imply is missing. When a very foolish or wicked person wears a cross, it gives you an idea of how Jesus must have felt as He looked at the beauty of the temple.
Externals are only beautiful to Christ when they are true expressions of what is within. The beauty of the temple was a sham, and only deceived people by its beauty into thinking it represented a living and dynamic faith. It was dead and would soon be buried. As huge as its stones were it was no match for the Rock of Ages, and when his blow came it was to be thorough. Josephus confirms the prophecy of Christ and writes about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. "It was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those who dug it up to the foundation that there was nothing left to make those who came hither believe it had ever been inhabited."
Jesus was not being a pessimist, He was being a prophet. You are not being negative when you tell what you know, even if the facts are negative. The facts were that Judaism was but an empty shell after it rejected and crucified Christ. The sacrifices and atonement and the holy of holies were all meaningless after Jesus made atonement for all sin, and opened up the holy of holies to all men. The destruction of the temple, and the whole sacrificial system was necessary as a concrete demonstration that in God's eyes it was obsolete and no longer acceptable. 70 A. D. was an historical witness to the effectiveness of Christ's atonement. From that point on Christianity represented the true God and the true message of salvation. God was no longer centralized, but could be worshiped everywhere in spirit and in truth. This is old news to us, but to the disciples it was the most fantastic and revolutionary prophecy imaginable.