“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up then the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I say to you, all this will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold your house is forsaken and desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple [‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ – Mark 13:1]. 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…” (Matt. 23:29 – 24:4 RSV).
That was a longer quotation than I would normally give, but I believe it is necessary to properly set the background for Jesus’ “Olivet Discourse”. There have been so many wildly speculative ‘interpretations’ of Jesus’ prophecy concerning ‘his coming’ and the events surrounding it; and they would all be put to rest if the setting in which the prophecy was made were understood. Matthew’s gospel sets this prophecy against the backdrop of Jesus’ “woes’ pronounced against the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees of his generation (chapter 23). He said that they were ‘children of hell [Gehenna]’; and that when they made converts, those converts were twice as much ‘children of hell’ as the Pharisees themselves. He showed the foolishness of their interpretations of the law, and the hypocrisy in their practice of the law. He spoke of how the Pharisees built and adorned the tombs of the prophets whom their fathers had murdered, but they themselves were about to outdo what their fathers had done. The sins of previous generations was spoken of as if those ‘fathers’ had been filling up a container with their sins, and the hypocritical Pharisees Jesus was addressing were about to finish filling up the container and cause it to overflow. “Fill up then the measure of your fathers.” As a result, the judgment which had been held in abeyance for generations, while the container was filling up with sins as it were, was now ready to fall on this current generation. Previous generations had mistreated and killed the laborers sent by the king into the vineyard, but ‘this generation’ was about to kill the king’s son (Matt. 21:33-44). So how could they possibly escape judgment? Yet they would still be given ‘opportunity’ for repentance, as this ‘son’ would send still more “prophets and wise men and scribes”; but it was a foregone conclusion that they would mistreat and kill those messengers also. So all the pent up judgment would fall on ‘this generation’ – the generation that filled up the sins by murdering the son and the messengers he sent.
Note, though, that despite the harshness of the ‘woes’ being pronounced, Jesus did not speak in anger, but sorrow. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” That is the unchanging character of this Savior, Jesus. He came as the representative of his Father, proclaiming the love of God; and when it was necessary for the Father to punish the children, it came with great sorrow – not vindictive anger. And keep in mind that punishment is corrective and restorative. Jerusalem’s “house” was indeed to be forsaken and desolate, and the Anointed One would be removed from their presence; but there is a hopeful promise: “You will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” As Paul put it in Romans 11:12 – “Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!”
The disciples must have had a good bit of trouble taking in this pronouncement of judgment against the scribes, Pharisees, Jerusalem and its ‘house’, because as they were leaving the Temple some of them felt it necessary to point out to Jesus the magnificence of the Temple with its buildings and massive stones. Surely Jesus couldn’t have meant that this wonderful Temple complex would be forsaken and desolate! Yet Jesus further stunned them by asserting that despite the massive size of the Temple’s stones, the day was soon coming when not one of them would lie on top of another!
It was this that caused consternation to the disciples, and provoked them to question Jesus when they were alone with him: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” Here is where the confusion in ‘interpretation’ begins. Many commentators treat this question of the disciples as if they were asking about 2 or 3 different things – as if “this” was something different than Jesus’ coming and the end of the age. But Mark and Luke correct this misapprehension in their accounts of this question. Mark says the question was: “When will this be, and what will be the sign when these things are all to be accomplished?” – (Mark 13:4). Luke says virtually the same thing: “When will this be, and what will be the sign when this is about to take place?” – (Luke 21:7). So in Matthew’s account, “this” (“When will this be”) is equivalent to “your coming and the end of the age”. The question is when will this coming occur, and what will be the sign they could watch for?
It was this question Jesus was addressing, and no other. He did not seek to confuse his disciples by talking about 2 different events that would take place thousands of years apart, and mix up the 2 events so thoroughly that we still have trouble telling which of his statements refer to which event. No indeed! This ‘Master Teacher’ faithfully answered the question he was asked in a way that was clearly understandable to his questioners, so that they would have no doubts when they saw the signs occurring, and would not be led astray by the false christs and false prophets about whom Jesus proceeded to tell them. All of the confusion and conflicting ‘interpretations’ are in fact the refusal of future commentators to believe Jesus really meant what he said! But that will become very clear (hopefully) in my next article or two when I examine the prophecy itself.