“As he was going out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Teacher, look! What massive stones! What impressive buildings!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another – all will be thrown down.’ While he was sitting on the Mount of Olives across from the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever been to Washington, D.C.? The capital city is truly a wonder of human engineering and architecture. Now, the city itself is a mess. It’s been poorly run for decades. It is generally an uneasy mashup of the very wealthy and the very poor. Its cost of living is sky high. Its crime rate is high and the quality of its school system is low. And the weather is pretty awful most of the time. Except as a matter of pure convenience, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to live there. But when you get to the National Mall, all of that is completely forgotten as you stand in awe and wonder at the beauty surrounding you on all sides. It was designed to impress and it certainly does. It conveys the strength and power of the United States, her people, and her government in a way few other things accomplish. It suggests a permanence that nothing can touch. The temple complex in Jerusalem suggested many of the same things and was built for many of the same purposes. Yet when His disciples stopped to marvel at the whole thing, Jesus gave them a dose of reality that hit like a bucket of cold water. This is a dose of reality we could use ourselves. Let’s talk about it.
The temple complex in Jerusalem in the first century would have indeed been impressive. For all of his many, many faults, Herod the Great earned his moniker through his many building projects, which included repairing and expanding the temple complex for the Jews. The whole place spanned 35 acres. Josephus wrote that the double colonnade surrounding the whole thing was 25 cubits high. That’s nearly 40 feet high. The whole place was designed to make you feel small and God seem big. The stones of the temple were particularly impressive. This was mostly because of their massive size. They were as much as 40 feet long, 8 feet wide, and nearly 4 feet tall. Stones of that scale are, frankly, hard to imagine without seeing them firsthand. To put it in perspective, each of these stones was about the size of a standard shipping container. Personally, I can’t even conceive of the engineering that went into building the complex without access to any of the modern heavy equipment we have today. The temple complex would have been an incredible feat of construction today. Two thousand years ago it was an absolute marvel. It’s no wonder the disciples caught their breath and gaped in awe at it.
Now, imagine seeing what they were seeing for a minute. If that’s too much, put yourself on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Imagine you are standing there blown away at all your eyes are taking in and someone comes up and says, “Do you see all of this? It’s all going to be destroyed someday.” How would you react?
You’d probably start by scoffing at them. What an insane notion! Of course this isn’t going to be destroyed. Nothing could take this down. It was built to last. Then will come the wave of offense. What do you mean, it’s going to be destroyed? Do you have something against our great nation? What a terrible thought to have, let alone express! Then, if you let your mind process the full weight of the observation, you might reach the place of shock. There will one day be someone bigger and stronger than us? We are settled and established. We couldn’t be conquered to such an extent, could we? Suddenly, nothing would seem quite as permanent as it once did. There would be a whole mixture of emotions and reactions swirling about inside your head and heart. It’s no wonder the quartet of disciples came up later and asked Him when all of these things would happen.
So, why did Jesus say it? What was His purpose in shaking them up so much? Hadn’t they already been through enough this week? Perhaps they had been through enough, but there was much more to come. Jesus was at a point where He wasn’t going to hold back on them anymore. There was much they needed to know and He didn’t have time to be anything less than explicit with them in every single conversation they would have. Maybe Jesus wanted to create an opening for all the things He said to them in the rest of what ancient scholars decided to call “Mark 13.” And we are indeed going to talk about several of those things this week and next. But for now, I want to direct our attention to just one single idea that comes out of His words here.
I don’t think Jesus was trying to chide the disciples for marveling at the temple complex. This wasn’t His passive-aggressively expressing His frustration and impatience with the Jewish religious authorities. It is perfectly okay to marvel at incredible works of human engineering and architecture. The ability to ideate, design, and build such things are gifts given by God and the works can absolutely glorify Him. What Jesus was trying to do was to take a teaching moment when it arrived and run with it. His opening certainly got their attention. And again, we’ll talk more this week and next about the other things Jesus says in this chapter, but here is the thing worth noting right now for us just as it was for them: Nothing lasts forever but the kingdom of God.
It is amazing how quickly we can get accustomed to things being in certain places or working in certain ways. You probably have some places that you always go to do certain things. There are certain institutions you always turn to for certain services. Those things and others like them are part of the normal rhythms of your life. You don’t even think about their being there. They simply are and life is like it should be.
Perhaps you have been through the experience, though, of having one of those things removed from your rhythm for some reason. There was a restaurant in the town I went to college that closed overnight without telling any of the employees. They showed up to work, and they didn’t have a job. The change was no doubt as jarring to you as it was to them. Now, imagine something even larger and more seemingly permanent being suddenly and violently removed. Imagine Washington, D.C. lying in smoldering ruins. It’s hard to fathom and, frankly, I don’t want to. And yet, should our Lord tarry, there will be a day in the future when the great city is known only to history books and archaeologists. The disciples standing there with Jesus certainly couldn’t have imagined such a thing, and yet but for a bit of the western foundation wall, that is exactly what happened to the temple complex. About 40 years later, Rome invaded and literally pulled down every one of those massive stones such that not one was standing on another.
Everything eventually comes to an end except the kingdom of God. Even the things we consider to be good and strong will one day go. Nations rise and fall. Corporations thrive and fail. Cities are founded and lost. Large and successful churches run their course and fade into oblivion. The things of this world will not last. Any of them. The only thing that will last in the end is the kingdom of God, and if we place our hope in anything except that, that hope will eventually fail us. The lesson here, I hope, is as clear as it is obvious: Place your hope in the kingdom of God. Enjoy the institutions and artifices around you for all they are worth, but don’t hope in them. When they are gone, mourn the loss, and move on with your eyes fixed firmly on what will last. And if your hope is not there, now is a great time to fix that.