Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ shocked His audience with one of the most incredible statements ever uttered. He made a startling declaration that the religious centerpiece of His people would come tumbling down.
He framed the statement by saying, "Assuredly, I say to you." Next, He broke the news—"Not one stone shall be left here upon another" (Matthew 24:2).
What was He talking about? He was pinpointing the total destruction of the sacred temple, which was the crowning jewel of a massive religious complex. It is hard for the modern mind to grasp the impact of such words on His audience.
Why did Christ declare such a target-specific prophecy? This statement is often regarded as the opening salvo to the Olivet Prophecy of Matthew 24. But unfortunately, as with other biblical studies, people are prone to start studying from verse 1 of any given chapter rather than exercising a basic key of Bible study, which is to find "the beginning of the story." The context often begins in previous chapters. Matthew 24 is no exception. In this case, the story actually begins in chapter 23.
Let's understand the setting
The setting of Matthew 23 places us in the last days of Jesus Christ's human existence. He had only a few days to complete His calling as the "Son of Man." Jesus foresaw this moment and knew what He had to say. He directs His message to the religious audience, to people of the covenant who should have been more spiritually aware and mature.
He chides them by saying, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness" (Matthew 23:27).
He was basically saying, "Spiritually speaking, you are empty suits, and on top of that, you stink in how you proclaim your own spiritual self-worth." You know, sometimes, religious folk, even those who sincerely believe they are doing God a favor by their devotion, just need to be whacked with a strong verbal two-by-four to understand that God is much more concerned about who we are inside than He is about the outward appearance of righteousness. Here, Christ supplied the whack!
Your house is left to you desolate
Jesus completes His thoughts by stating His judgment, tempered with love. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!'" (Matthew 23:37-38).
Christ is basically setting up the parallel reality that as their hearts are empty and apart from God, so too their houses are left empty. That is, God is removing His presence and blessing from that spot until they would recognize that He is the One who "comes in the name of the Lord." This is pretty sobering stuff to absorb if you had been in earshot.
Immediately after such stern judgment is rendered, let's ask ourselves, "What course of action will the disciples embark upon?"
Matthew 24:1 sets up the rest of the story. "Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple." It was like saying, "Hey, we're in the big city. Let's look at the sights!"
Not all that glitters is of God
William Barclay in his commentary paints a picture of what the disciples beheld. "The summit of Mt. Sion had been dug away to leave a plateau 1000[-foot] square [that's more than the length of three football fields each way]. At the far end was the temple built with white marble, plated with gold, that shone brilliantly in the sun's light so brilliantly that at times it was hard to view.
"The temple area was surrounded by great porches, Solomon's Porch, and the Royal Porch. These porches were upheld by 38[-foot] high solid marble pillars cut in one piece—so thick that it took three men to wrap their arms around them. At the corner of the temple's angles, stones have been found that measured 20[-foot] to 40[-foot] in length weighing up to 100 tons. How they were cut and placed in position is one of the mysteries of ancient engineering" (Barclay's Commentary, Matthew, Vol. 2, p. 305). It is little wonder that the disciples said "wow" and wanted Jesus to join them on the tour.
That's when Christ has to whack them with a verbal two-by-four just as much as the previous audience. In effect, He says, "Take a look! Soak it all in, real good. Not one stone will remain standing. It's all coming down."
Here, Christ is attempting to rouse His followers from the powerful spell of distraction from discipleship. Here, Jesus is days away from His death. He is challenging His disciples to view, review and renew their thoughts as to what they will choose to build on for a spiritual foundation. Will it be the massive stones of a temple that they can see, touch and feel? Or will it be a different structure with a different foundation that will require their total focus and life's devotion?
Now that He has their attention, they ask the big question: "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3).
Now, Christ reveals in advance the broad prophetic overview of world history from the time of His ascension till His second coming. He describes the pattern of human history apart from worship of the true God. He reveals a cyclical pattern of religious deception, warfare, famine and pestilence that ultimately comes to a final global crescendo before the return of Christ.
The brutal honesty of Christ
It is noteworthy that He not only informs them about world events affecting others but also what lies in store for His followers. He told them, "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake" (verse 9).
Here, as always, Christ is brutally honest about what this new supreme loyalty to Him might entail. It would divide His followers from others who could not understand or would not accept the truth.
Christ's own words and devotion to His Father's will would cost Him dearly. Is it any wonder that His followers could expect similar treatment?
The religious people of His day would twist Jesus' words regarding the resurrection of His own body, which He referred to as "this temple" (John 2:17-22), as an immediate act of destruction on their holy shrine. Ultimately, they would claim that His statements were a sacrilege worthy of death.
Their hatred of Christ puts into play the prophetic reality that the temple of His body would be destroyed and yet be raised to life in three days. Just a short time later, the first Christian martyr, Stephen the deacon, would be led to execution over a charge centering on the destruction of the temple (Acts 6:13). Prophecy is coming true.
It came to pass as He said
Eventually Jesus' words did come to pass regarding the most beautiful building in Jerusalem. Some of those same people who heard those chilling words were alive when the temple was sacked and the Roman General Titus hauled off its sacred instruments of worship to Rome in A.D. 70. The prophecy of "not one stone shall be left here upon another" had begun.
But prophetic development often comes in stages. In A.D. 130 Emperor Hadrian decided to change the name of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina in tribute to Jupiter whose major temple was situated on "the Capitoline" in Rome. He further cleared the ruins of the previous holy structure and built over it a temple to Jupiter.
This caused a tremendous revolt among the Jews known as the Bar Kochba rebellion. The Romans decided to finish what they had begun nearly 60 years before. Christ's words had come true—the house was left desolate.
The big question needing your answer
But allow me to conclude with a question that only you can answer: Is there a broader application for what appears to be an event-specific prophecy whose time has come and gone? Does the phrase "not one stone" touch our present circumstances and reach into our future?
Just like the disciples of old, we, too, can pretend that Christ's prophecies about our times are not really going to come to pass. We, too, can suffer from momentary disbelief. We, too, can call a spiritual time-out and become bedazzled by what seems so big, so beautiful, so very permanent.
We, too, can receive the word of God by eye or ear but then, just like the disciples, want to go on our own "temple tour" of what God says has been found wanting and will pass away.
I believe Jesus designed the words of "not one stone" for a modern audience as well in order to jolt us from a world of distractions that can lure us from the high calling of being transformed.
The words the apostle Peter expresses in 2 Peter 3:11 seem to concur with this broad application, as he grabs our spiritual attention by declaring, "Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness?" He's not just speaking of a few stones on a hilltop in the Middle East; he is saying that "not one stone" of society as we know it will exist.
God doesn't want to see you tumble down like those stones of old. He is building a new temple made out of flesh and blood and, yes, Spirit.
What do I mean? Let the apostle Paul fill in the details. He said, "Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" (1 Corinthians 3:16).
Oh no, this time stones won't do! He wants heart. And He shows us the way by pinpointing what eternal foundation He is building on to secure His dwelling in us, even as the exterior world of alluring sights and sounds comes tumbling down.
So where do we start? The encouraging directive of Isaiah 30:21 ("this is the way, walk in it") is mirrored by the apostle Paul's encouragement in 1 Corinthians 3:11, which gives us the foundational blueprint of the new temple: "For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ."