When the Temple Falls

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on October 11, 2020.

“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.  Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak.  And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days!  Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.  For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.  Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.  For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand.  So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.  For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (Matthew 24:15–28).[1]

Following his sermon of “woes,” Jesus pronounced judgment upon the leaders of Israel. Pointing at the temple Jesus said, “See, your house is left to you desolate” (Matt. 23:38). The word translated “desolate” may also be translated as “empty,” but the word “desolate” is fitting: The temple was empty of its intended purpose. It had become their house not God’s house. Like the child of the Old Testament priest Phineas was named “Ichabod,” meaning “The glory of God has departed from Israel” (1 Sam. 4:21), so the temple had become Ichabod, desolate indeed.

As Jesus departed the temple mound, his disciples remained fixated on its architectural grandeur, but Jesus says to 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” (Matt. 24:2). They were sobering words for those who had been raised to revere the Lord’s temple. So sobering in fact the disciples want to know more, asking privately, “when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). Jesus’ answer to their two questions is lengthy, alternating between warning and encouragement and between near and distant fulfillment.

Specifically, our passage today answers the first of the disciples’ two questions: “when will these things be”? To which Jesus answers, “when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place…” But within Jesus’ answer of when the temple falls, there are also warnings and points of examination, and it is these that I want to draw out as we consider the historic fulfillment of the temple’s demise.

What is your hope?

Jesus tells his disciples that the temple will fall “when you see the abomination of desolation,” which he then ties to a prophecy of Daniel. Daniel prophesied that a king from the north would invade Jerusalem and end the regular burnt offerings in the temple (Dan. 11:31). This king would then set up an “abomination” that would desecrate the temple altar (Dan. 12:11). According to Jewish history, this prophecy was fulfilled in 168 B.C. when Antiochus Epiphanes invaded and subdued Jerusalem and established pagan worship in the temple, including sacrificing pigs on the altar. Antiochus controlled Jerusalem for three years, as Daniel had prophesied, until Judas Maccabes arose and regained control of Jerusalem and reconsecrated temple worship.

Jesus certainly knew this history, but his answer includes something yet to come, “when you see,” something the discerning reader of Daniel is to “understand.” For, it was Daniel who cried out to “the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments” (Dan. 9:4). In his prayer, Daniel confesses, “we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules” (Dan. 9:5). He confesses that they sinned exceedingly and repeatedly and punished accordingly, and yet Daniel pleas for mercy, not based on the merits of God’s people but because of God’s “great mercy”: “O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name” (Dan. 9:18-19).

God heard and answered Daniel’s prayer. Jerusalem was regained and temple worship restored, but Israel’s sins continued. For, they glorified not the Lord God almighty but their place of worship. The temple was not merely the national emblem of Israel’s identity, it was the seemingly formidable image of their hope.

Jesus, like Daniel before him, prophesies of God’s judgment upon Jerusalem so severe that people should flee to the surrounding mountains. It would be a judgment so sudden that household belongings would be abandoned, clothing would be shed, and pregnant women and nursing mothers would suffer especially. In A.D. 70, Jerusalem experienced the horrific fulfillment of Jesus’ words. As the Roman military besieged the city, few could escape as women were raped, houses were pillaged, and the city was plundered…including the temple mound. Those who did not flee to the mountains watched as the temple was desecrated and then burned. Not one stone was left upon another as the Roman soldiers looked for the remains of melted gold. The temple was left in ruins as was the hope of a nation.

This is not merely a historical tragedy. It is also a reminder of how easy it is to put our hope in temples of this life rather than the Lord. We are quick to put our hope in the gifts of God while forgetting the Giver. What is your hope? Is there anything in your life that if it fell to pieces so would your hope? Have you built your hope out of temporal stones, a seemingly sturdy structure, until it comes crashing to the ground?

In A.D. 70, when the temple fell, so did the hope of many, but not those whose hope was built on “nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”[2] Can the same be said for you? What is your hope? By God’s grace, may it be upon Christ the solid rock, for all other ground is sinking sand.

Where is your rest?

When the Roman emperor’s son, Titus, and his army entered Rome, every citizen was vulnerable to their rampage, but Jesus has specific sympathy for “women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants.” It is a stage in a woman’s life when the comforts of a home are so important, the certainty of a bed and a warm blanket, not the cold of hiding in the mountains. At a time when a woman and her newborn child need rest, there would be none.

Curiously, Jesus adds to his sympathy a reference to traveling on the Sabbath. For a Jew, traveling on the Sabbath was prohibited. In fact, the scribes and Pharisees had built an entire framework of rules to be kept (and policed) in order that the day of rest be not profaned. If the temple represented Israel’s place of worship, Sabbath-keeping represented their practice.

Just as a pregnant woman and a nursing mother need care and rest, so God blessed his children with the care and rest of the Sabbath. But rather than enjoy God-given rest and glorify him for it, Israel had turned the Sabbath into a burden, glorifying anyone who could keep it. It is not surprising that the Sabbath was a consistent point of conflict between the Pharisees and “lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8).

In one encounter, Jesus directed the Pharisees to the temple, asking, “have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” (Matt. 12:5). In essence, he is asking, “How can Israel’s practice of worship be profaned in its place of worship?” This presents a problem unless both the practice and place of worship point to something greater. And indeed they do, for Jesus says, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here,” and “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:6, 8).

As Jerusalem was pillaged and plundered in A.D. 70, there was no rest, even for the most vulnerable. In its strict Sabbath-keeping, Israel had missed the “Lord of the Sabbath” and therefore his rest. Where is your rest? Are you so busy keeping your religious practice that you miss the Lord? Are you weary from trying to please God through rules and regulations? Jesus invites you, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-29).

Where is your rest? True rest is not situational, which is why neither leisure nor recreation gives us the deep rest we need. True rest is known only through faith in Christ alone, and living by faith in him for life. And part of that rest is found in worshiping in Christ alone.

This is why the Lord’s Day is such an essential part of the Christian life. It is the day in which we assemble in worship, praising God not for what we have done but for what Christ has done for us. And it is a day that we cease from our work, reminding us of the gospel and Christ’s finished work upon the cross. Indeed, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Every Lord’s Day, every Christian Sabbath, we are reminded to rest because ultimately, we rest in the Lord of the Sabbath.

Who will you follow?

It should not surprise us that in the midst of trials and tribulations, deceivers will come. Why? Because when life is seemingly falling apart, everyone is looking for a savior. This is no less certain today than it was when Jesus warned his first disciples. Jesus explains that when the temple falls, there will come “false christs” and “false prophets.” They will be charismatic in persuasion and gifting, leading many astray, even if it were possible for those chosen before the foundation of the world. Of course, it isn’t possible for the elect to eternally fall away, but that isn’t Jesus’ point. The point is that bad times breed bad actors, preying upon the vulnerable and the gullible, and often Christians are both (gullible as doves and innocent as serpents).

The Apostles Paul, Peter, and John warn the church of these deceivers. Some will even come from within the church. Why was this and why is this such a problem in these last days? Everyone is looking to be saved from something. And if someone comes along and can make you feel like they can solve your problems, then you will follow them. You must.

This should be our warning loud and clear: Anyone who points you to themselves (or someone else) rather than Christ is to be avoided. While false christs and false prophets will appeal to your passions, faithful teachers and preachers will point you to Christ. Listen to those who preach Christ and him crucified; run from those who exalt self.

So, who will you follow? Will you “turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:4)? Will you follow those who “pervert the grace of God into sensuality” (Jude 1:4)? Will you be taken “captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” (Col. 2:8). Or, will you stand on the simple yet firm foundation of the gospel? Do not be deceived: We have but one Savior. He resides in us through the presence of his Spirit and guides us by his ordinary means of Word, sacrament and prayer. And when he returns, there will be no question about it. The question is: What is your hope? The question is: Where is your rest? The question is: Who will you follow? The answer is one and the same:

            In Christ alone my hope is found;

            He is my light, my strength, my song;

            This cornerstone, this solid ground,

            Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.

            What heights of love, what depths of peace,

            When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!

            My comforter, my all in all—

            Here in the love of Christ I stand.[3]

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less,” in Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, 1990), 521.

[3] “In Christ Alone,” Getty Music, accessed October 8, 2020, https://store.gettymusic.com/us/song/in-christ-alone/.

%d bloggers like this: