I have recently been rereading Matthew’s Gospel and I have observed several details regarding a series of repetitive announcements about the destruction of Jerusalem. It’s not just the destruction of Jerusalem in view, but also the entirety of the cultic institution of the Temple under the Sinaitic covenant and the religious leaders who think they are righteous. While we are familiar with Jesus’ prophecy of the Temple’s destruction in Matthew 24:2 (NIV) “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down,” this is actually more like the explicit prophecy of what is foreshadowed in a number of actions, statements, and parables beginning with Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem for his final Passover.
I will merely list what I have observed with a few comments.
1) Upon his entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus proceeds to flip over tables driving out the money changers with a whip. His actions are not just to stir up ruckus, but rather as a means to cleanse the Temple and restore it to its intended purpose: “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.” (Mat 21:13 NIV)
2) The next day as Jesus returns to Jerusalem from nearby Bethany, he sees a fig tree. He reaches for fruit, but finds nothing. As a result he curses the tree: ”May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. (Mat 21:19 NIV) While some may think Jesus seems irritable and strangely temperamental with such a harsh response, it actually has very little to do with the tree itself. Instead the fruitless fig tree is like Jerusalem/Religious Leaders/Temple and Jesus is symbolically pronouncing a curse on the fruitless religious system.
3) Back in Jerusalem, the Pharisees and religious leaders want to know where he got the authority to do the things he was doing. He turns the tables on them by asking if they believed John’s Baptism was from heaven or from human origin. Because they feared the crowd who revered John as a prophet, they opted not to give a real answer. Jesus in turn refuses to answer their question. He then tells a parable of a father who had two sons. He asked one to do something and who said “no” at first, but later did what his father requested. The other said “yes” to his father, but failed to act. Jesus explains the meaning of the parable as a denunciation of the religious leaders: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”(Mat 21:31 NIV)
4) Jesus immediately tells another parable that clearly foreshadows the judgment of the current religious leaders. The parable is about a landowner who builds a vineyard and hires tenants to run it in his absence. When he sends his servants to collect some of the fruit at harvest time, ”The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.” (Mat 21:35 NIV) The landowner finally sends his own son to the tenets who promptly kill the son supposing to gain his inheritance. The tenets are the religious leaders throughout history who have killed God’s prophets and they are the ones who will soon kill God’s son. Jesus, then, asks the crowd what do you think the Landowner will do? To which they replied: He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” (Mat 21:41 NIV) The stone the builder rejected (Jesus) is the chief cornerstone and “anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” (Mat 21:44 NIV) The crushing, in my opinion, could be a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem.
5) Jesus targets the religious leaders again in the parable of the wedding banquet, but this time the connection to Jerusalem’s destruction is more explicit. He tells a king who prepared and invited the citizens of his kingdom (i.e. Jewish leaders) to a wedding banquet. Yet, those invited had other things to do and made lame excuses. Others actually “seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them” (Mat 22:5-6 NIV). As a result of their refusal and blatant crimes, The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. (Mat 22:7 NIV) The destruction of their city is followed by the invitation of those who were previously unworthy of attending (i.e. Gentiles).
6) Matthew 23 is a scathing denouncement of the religious leaders replete with oracles of woe. Toward the end of this blistering critique, Jesus condemns them for all the blood of the martyrs from Abel to Zechariah. He not only identifies them as murderers in the past, but also in the present. He pronounces certain judgment upon them and Jerusalem when he declares:
33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. 37 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 38Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ” (Mat 23:33-39 NIV)
7) All of this leads up to Matthew 24 and the Olivet Discourse where Jesus discusses the destruction of Jerusalem in specific detail.
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mat 24:1-2 NIV)
I would argue that Jesus announces the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple as a divine act of judgment against those who crucified the Son of God. What we see, in true prophetic fashion, is that Jesus holds the religious leaders accountable for their rejection of him as the promised Messiah and heir of the kingdom. Not only that, but we see how their rejection of him resulted in the salvation of all kinds of people. The destruction of the Temple brought an end to the sacrificial system because it was no longer necessary. According to the writer of Hebrews, Jesus was the final once-and-for-all sacrifice for atonement, he entered into the heavenly tabernacle, and instituted a new and better covenant. Those who reject Jesus and the covenant have trampled the son of God underfoot and no more sacrifices remain for the forgiveness of sins (Heb. 10).