November 17, 2008
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Question: Is Christ my heart’s desire?
The disciples were Galileans who lived far north from the magnificent temple of Herod in Jerusalem and any trip there would, of course, take in the sights. With my wife and I living today just a few minutes away from the beautiful Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, we have seen tourists “ooh” and “aah” over this beautiful edifice and I think the apostles had a similar experience with the temple, as religious pilgrims have had through the centuries. Or, perhaps they were seeking to cheer Jesus up during the Passion Week, after all he had spoken about his coming death at the hands of the religious leaders frequently.
But Christ saw through the entire issue and foretold the soon coming destruction of the temple. His reply did not come from someone who was unimpressed simply because he had seen the temple regularly – familiarity does breed contempt and for years in Cologne, for example, prostitutes who crowded around the cathedral looking for customers were a real embarrassment for the city officials. Christ knew that the temple by itself could not truly change anyone; If beautiful church buildings were all it took for people to be converted and made righteous, then all of Europe would have been made holy centuries ago.
But his reply was not the cynic’s quip either, that rejected the temple out of bitterness. Aesop told the story of the fox who personified this cynical attitude as he repeatedly tried to reach some grapes high on a vine. Finally, when he gave up and he said, “Those grapes were sour anyway.” And though the issue of Jerusalem’s rejection of him was central in this entire question of its future, a cynical “sour-grapes” attitude was not on the heart of Christ.
At the end of the 23rd chapter of Matthew, Christ wept over the city because of their unbelief. Faith or lack of it determines our future more than anything else in our hearts, and because Jerusalem had largely rejected Christ, not entirely but mostly and in terms of its institutions and leaders certainly, their future was limited. In A.D. 70 the Roman forces laid siege to Jerusalem and the prophecy was carried out, that not one stone was left upon another. Acceptance of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God was for them and it remains so for us the central question of life and eternity. Trust, acceptance, and worship leads to one set of experiences, and rejection and unbelief leads to another set of experiences.
The disciples asked three questions, but they linked them together and realized they were really inseparable as issues.
· When will the temple be destroyed?
· When will Christ come in his royal power and abiding presence?
· When will the current age end?
The prophet Zechariah, in chapter 14 of his prophecy, described these events as taking place in a sequential manner, so the disciples showed they were familiar with the Old Testament perspective. The term used to describe Christ’s coming, parousia, had the idea of presence and not just arrival. It was used for the official visit of a king, for example, in Greek, so they were asking about the coming in power and abiding presence of Christ, not just a short and temporary visit, even if very meaningful. They were asking when things will substantially change, so that the temporary would be done away with and the eternal become permanent.
There is something important here that we need to understand and consider how this can encourage us: All that our hearts long for are found in Christ and no one can separate us from his love. We have many things that are physical that remind us of this truth, but none of these things is Christ. The temple and its rituals were called a “shadow of the things to come but the reality is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:17 and Hebrews 10:1-10). These things are not to be made light of, for they did provide a meaningful picture of Christ in their time, and we as Christians have also many things that are meaningful to us for that same reason – they have been instruments that the Holy Spirit has used to instruct us about Christ: hymns, church buildings, church programs, and, dare I say it, even one another. But these are not the real thing, they are at best temporary, fleeting, and either will be destroyed or will decay on their own over the course of time. We have precious memories in many of these things, and we may, when our sentiment gets the better of us, think more highly of them than we do of Christ, so there is a danger inherent with these matters.
We can ask as well: “Lord, when all that we touch and feel are gone, will you still be here?” And God’s answer is a resounding, “Yes,” uttered by the one who created the universe and whose word is always faithfully fulfilled, whose promises are as eternal as he is. Church buildings may be destroyed, some in anger by the enemies of Christ and some through mockery and neglect through the generations of believers’ progeny who have turned away from Christ, singing styles of worship may change, church programs certainly will come and go, and even some of those dear saints whose hands and voices and facial expressions God used to touch us will precede us in death, but Christ is not just one more factor in the long parade of positive influences in our lives. He is the very One who has inspired all those before to act for our edification on His behalf. And when the temporary is gone the eternal steps forth; the shadow is dispelled by the presence of light.
This is why in times of loss people of faith take great leaps toward God, that though we miss our loved one, and though we may rue the destruction of a house of worship, and though we may be nostalgic about a style of worship music, we may also recognize that one more shadow has been removed from between us and God and now we are standing more closely to the true light of Christ. Zechariah did not say that the city would be destroyed and then there would be no hope, but he said that when those things happened then the Lord will go out and fight for his people. Christ said that difficulties are part of our experience in living in this fallen world, that we can expect false christs and wars and conflicts, but they are to be seen as birth pains leading to the renewal of all things. One day according to the timetable of God, Christ shall suddenly break into history, “for as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:27), and to certify that promise he said, “My words will never pass away” (Matt. 24:35).
But today by His Spirit he is with us and his presence can be known and experienced.
Lord, we thank you for your faithfulness to us. We live in an era of loss, in an age where what we touch and feel is often taken from us, and we can become discouraged by the many changes in our lives. Lord, let us rejoice though that you are the same, yesterday, today, and forever. Let us seek you and your face more than the religious forms about us. Amen.