Jesus left the Temple and went away. As he did so, his disciples came and pointed out the Temple buildings to him. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and you see all these things? I’m telling you the truth: not one stone will be left standing upon another. All of them will be thrown down.’
As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came to him privately.
‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that you are going to appear as king, and that the end of the age is upon us?’
‘Watch out,’ replied Jesus. ‘Don’t let anyone deceive you. You see, there will be several who will come along, using my name, telling you “I’m the Messiah!” They will fool lots of people. You’re going to hear about wars, actual wars and rumoured ones; make sure you don’t get alarmed. This has got to happen, but it doesn’t mean the end is coming yet. Nations will rise against one another, and kingdoms against each other. There will be famines and earthquakes here and there.All this is just the start of the birth pangs.
‘Then they will hand you over to be tortured, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then several will find the going too hard, and they will betray each other and hate each other. Many false prophets will arise, and they will deceive plenty of people. And because lawlessness will be on the increase, many will find their love growing cold. But the one who lasts out to the end will be delivered. And this gospel of the kingdom must be announced to the whole world, as a witness to all the nations. Then the end will come.’
We went together to see the doctor, one rainy day in the autumn. We were excited but also very apprehensive. We had a sense of going down a road we’d often heard about but had never quite believed we would travel ourselves.
He talked us gently through the whole process. Yes, the first few months were sometimes difficult. People often felt sick, especially in the morning. There were some dangers during that time but it was normally under control. Then there would come a period of quite dramatic changes, as the new little life inside the womb made its presence felt. One would need to take care, especially with diet and with strenuous activities. Then at last, as the day grew nearer, there would be all sorts of things to watch out for: high blood pressure, various potential risks for the baby. And the birth itself: well, that was something else again, and we’d talk more about it nearer the time. But our task in the meantime was to take care, be patient, and not be alarmed by some of the strange things that were going to happen.
One of the greatest biblical images for God’s future is the approaching birth of a baby. It is a time of great hope and new possibility, and also, especially before modern medicine, a time of great danger and anxiety. The medical profession can describe and study each stage of pregnancy in detail. But every couple, and of course particularly every mother, has to face them personally and live through them, even though for some it is a traumatic, painful and upsetting time. The biblical writers draw freely on this well-known experience to speak of the new world that God intends to bring to birth. And one of the high-water marks of this whole biblical theme is this chapter in Matthew, and its parallels in Mark (chapter 13) and Luke (chapter 21). This, said Jesus, is just the start of the birth pangs.
It’s only with images like this that one can speak of God’s future. We don’t have an exact description of it, and we wouldn’t be able to cope with it if we did. What we have are pictures: the birth of a baby, the marriage of a king’s son, a tree sprouting new leaves. God’s future will be like all these, and (of course) unlike them as well.
As far as Jesus is concerned, there are two central features of God’s future. On the one hand, there is his own calling and destiny; he has spoken about it often enough in the last few chapters. He has come to Jerusalem knowing that by continuing his dramatic mission of summoning Israel to repentance he will precipitate hostility, violence and his own death. And he believes that God will vindicate him after his death, by raising him from the dead.
On the other hand, there was the fate of the Jerusalem Temple. Throughout his public career Jesus had done and said things which implied that he, not the Temple, was the real centre of God’s healing and restoring work. Now he had done and said things in the Temple itself which implied that the whole place was under judgment and that he had the right to pronounce that judgment. And when the disciples pointed out to him the magnificent buildings (the Temple was generally recognized as one of the most beautiful sights in the whole world) he warned them explicitly: it was all going to come crashing down.
The disciples put two and two together. The destruction of the Temple on the one hand; on the other hand, the vindication of all that Jesus has said and done. Somehow they go with each other. If Jesus has been right all along, then the Temple will have to go. But how? And when? When will the world see that Jesus really is God’s Messiah?
If you were a Roman citizen, believing that Caesar was the rightful king of the world, but living at some distance from Rome itself, you would long for the day when he would pay you a state visit. Not only would you see him for yourself, but, equally importantly, all your neighbors would realize that he really was the world’s lord and master.
Much of the Roman empire was Greek-speaking; and the Greek word that they would use for such a state visit, such an ‘appearing’ or ‘presence’, was parousia. The same word was often used to describe what happened when gods or goddesses did something dramatic—a healing miracle, say—which was thought to reveal their power and presence. And it’s this word parousia which the disciples use in verse 3, when they ask Jesus about what’s going to happen.
They speak of three things. Each is important in the long chapter that is now beginning, containing Jesus’ answer to them: the destruction of the Temple, Jesus’ parousia or ‘appearance as king’, and ‘the end of the age’. Throughout this chapter we have to face the questions: what did they mean, what did Jesus mean in answering them, what did Matthew understand by it all—and what’s it got to say to us? This calls for a cool head and an attentive mind.
For the moment we can begin to glimpse what Jesus thought it was all about. The disciples wanted to see him ruling as king, with all that that would mean, including the Temple’s destruction and, indeed, the ushering in of God’s new age. The present age would come to its convulsive conclusion, and the new age would be born. Well, Jesus says, there will indeed be convulsions. The birth pangs of the new age will start, in the form of wars, revolutions, famines and earthquakes. Terrible times are going to come, and those who follow him will be tested severely. Many will give it all up as just too demanding.
But they shouldn’t be deceived. New would-be messiahs will appear, but the vindication of Jesus himself—his royal ‘presence’ or ‘appearing’—won’t be that sort of thing, someone else coming and leading a revolt. They must hold on, keep their nerve and remain faithful. Between the present moment and the time when all will be revealed, and Jerusalem will be destroyed, the good news of the kingdom of God which Jesus came to bring will have to spread not just around Israel, as has been the case up to now (10:5–6; 15:24), but to the whole world. There is a task for them to do in the interim period.
All of this related very specifically to the time between Jesus’ public career and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. But the echoes of meaning rumble on in every successive generation of Christian discipleship. We too are called to be faithful, to hold on and not be alarmed. We too may be called to live through troubled times and to last out to the end. We too may see the destruction of cherished and beautiful symbols. Our calling then is to hold on to Jesus himself, to continue to trust him, to believe that the one who was vindicated by God in the first century will one day be vindicated before the whole world. We too are called to live with the birth pangs of God’s new age, and to trust that in his good time the new world will be born.