07 August 2022

The Olivet Discourse: The temple’s destruction, and preterism.

Mk 13.1-2, Mt 24.1-2, Lk 21.5-6.

In the synoptic gospels there’s a narrative we Christians have historically called the Olivet Discourse, named for Olivet Hill (KJV “the mount of Olives”) where Jesus told his students about the near future and his second coming.

Christians spend a lot of time analyzing and discussing it. For good reason; we wanna know about the second coming! (And want it to happen sooner rather than later.) We wanna know the future. We wanna know our futures. Should we make grand plans for our lives, or is the great tribulation gonna get in the way?

I grew up in churches which had adopted the Darbyist view of the End Times. It’s a futurist interpretation of the scriptures: It insists everything in the bible about the End Times takes place in our future, and none of it has yet happened. Yeah okay, there might be historical events which look like they fulfilled it, but they didn’t really. Darbyists have a timeline of the seven years before Jesus returns, and End Times prophecies are only to fit within that timeline. Anybody who claims otherwise is, depending on the zeal of the individual Darbyist, either naïve, seriously wrong, heretic, or secretly working for the Beast and intentionally trying to lead us astray. Feels like it’s usually that last one.

Thing is, when I grew up and studied history, I quickly came to the conclusion the historical events which look like they fulfilled it… in a ludicrously obvious way, do fulfill it. Everything Jesus said would happen, did. (Except his actual second coming. ’Cause come on.) That’s why the Holy Spirit inspired the gospel authors to include this lesson in their books: The gospels were written, and widely circulated, less than a decade before these events happened. Which meant Christians were ready for these events to happen, got out of the way, and could point out to every pagan around this proves Jesus knows the future. It’s a mighty useful evangelistic tool.

Of course people of our day don’t know ancient history, so of course this goes right over our heads.

We Christians who believe the Olivet Discourse was fulfilled in the first century, and that most of the stuff in Revelation was also fulfilled by the second century, are called preterist 'prɛd.ər.ɪst —a word that’s related to the grammar word preterite, “past tense.” Some nitpickers call us “partial preterists,” because we don’t claim the second coming has also already happened. Yeah, on very rare occasion you’re gonna find a “full preterist” who does believe it—who claims Jesus appearing to John in Revelation somehow counts as his second coming. It doesn’t. Nor does “pretrist” automatically mean “full preterist”: It only means we believe the bulk of the bible’s End Times prophecies were fulfilled, so the only things yet to come are Jesus’s return, probably the millennium, and New Earth. Contrary to Darbyist fearmongers, there are no seven years of mayhem delaying his return.

If you wanna know about the events Jesus predicts in his Olivet Discourse, I refer you to the very useful Bellum Judaicum/“The Judean War,” written by Flavius Josephus in the years 75 to 79. He’s an eyewitness to when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70, and tells of it in gory detail. William Whiston’s translation is in the public domain, and is a bit of a slog to get through; there are better ones. I’m partial to G.A. Williamson’s The Jewish War for Penguin Classics.

The impressive temple.

What triggered the whole Olivet Discourse was a casual statement Jesus made while someone—identified by Mark and Matthew as Jesus’s students, though Luke keeps it vague—was praising the temple.

Mark 13.1-2 KWL
1 As Jesus comes out of temple,
one of his students tells him,
“Teacher, look at what sort of stones these are!
And what sort of architecture!”
2 Jesus tells him, “You see these things?
—the great architecture?
There might not be one stone upon stone here
which might not be pulled down.”
Matthew 24.1-2 KWL
1 Jesus is leaving, and as he comes out of temple,
his students come beside him
to show him the temple architecture.
2 In reply Jesus tells them, “You see all these things?”
Amen, I promise you:
There might not be one stone upon stone here
which won’t be pulled down.”
Luke 21.5-6 KWL
5 As some of them are speaking about the temple—
that the stones are good, and arranged in holy ways—
Jesus says,
6 “These things which you see: Days will come
in which there won’t be stone upon stone
which won’t be pulled down.”

The temple Jesus and his students are speaking of is the fourth temple to exist on this spot. Yeah, I know; many Christians call it the second temple. It’s not really.

  1. The first temple was the tabernacle, a portable temple constructed by craftsmen under Moses’s rule sometime in the 1300s BC. Between Moses and King David ben Jesse, the tabernacle was located near a few different cities in the land, but under David it relocated to Mt. Moriah in the 1000s.
  2. The second was Solomon’s temple, a gold-plated, ornately decorated cedar building, following the tabernacle’s layout. It’s named for King Solomon ben David, who built it the 900s BC. (Probably had it built, but the biblical text says he built it, and who knows?—maybe he did. It’s a lot of work for one guy, but still.) Burnt down by the neo-Babylonians in 587BC, Christians and Jews usually call this “the first temple,” ’cause it was a permanent structure.
  3. The third was Zerubbabel’s temple, built under the Persian governor Zerubbabel bar Šealtiel in 522BC after Babylonian Jews returned to Jerusalem to re-establish it. We don’t know a lot about its construction, but it was likely a stone building. Christians and Jews usually call this the “second temple.”
  4. The fourth was Herod’s temple, the temple of Jesus’s day. Herod 1 decided to renovate it entirely, and brought up to Roman standards. Next to nothing was left of Zerubbabel’s original structure. But people still call it “the second temple” because the worship continued despite the renovations—as no doubt happened when Solomon replaced the tabernacle. The Romans destroyed it in 70CE.
  5. The fifth was the Dome of the Rock, which is still there. It’s a Muslim shrine, constructed by Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan in 691–92 on the ruins of Herod’s temple. Yeah, Christians don’t identify it as a temple anymore, and Jews never did. But during the first crusade, after the Europeans took Jerusalem from the Umayyad Empire, the crusaders called it the Templum Domini/“Lord’s temple,” and worshiped Jesus in it; and the warrior monks who named themselves the Knights of the Temple (the “Templars”) based themselves in it. There; there’s some fun historical trivia for you.
  6. And because Darbyists insist most prophecies have yet to be fulfilled, including ones which include a temple, they posit another temple, to be built either before or during the great tribulation. Some insist it’s gotta be in the Dome of the Rock’s current location; others recognize it could be anywhere, same as the tabernacle originally was.

Again, Jesus was speaking of the fourth temple. This temple was under construction all his life, and wouldn’t be complete till the mid-60s. Seriously. Herod 1 began the renovations in 20BC, and they’d taken this long. In part it’s because the temple was kept in continual use. Construction had to take place in a way which didn’t interrupt the ritual sacrifices, the music, the prayer, and the instruction which various rabbis (like Jesus) held in the courts.

Before Herod’s renovations, the temple was built atop Mt. Moriah, on as big a plot of level ground as Solomon could find. Herod determined it simply wasn’t big enough. He had a wall built round the hill, had it filled with earth, and made it a level platform on which his new temple would be constructed. It’s still there. The Western Wall, which used to be called “the wailing wall” (and still is, by Christians who think Jews go there to mourn, not pray) is the west retaining wall of that platform. The Eastern Wall is what you usually see in tourism photos of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem nowadays. This is actually the view from Olivet, so it’s the angle Jesus and his students had when Jesus gave his discourse.

Parts of the temple were required to be Levites-only, so according to Josephus, Herod had Levites trained in stonework so they could do all the construction without ritually defiling the building and interfering with daily sacrifices. This non-interference meant the building went really slow. But it also gave the workers time to make it really impressive. Some of the stones used in construction were the size of a bus. Go to Jerusalem and take the Western Wall tour; they’ll show ’em off.

So when the students pointed out the architecture, no doubt they were noticing something new which hadn’t been there the last time they’d visited temple. Hey, check that out! Look what a fine job the stonemasons had done. And since Jesus used to be a handyman, wouldn’t he appreciate it too?

And maybe so… but y’know, the day would come when it all came down.

It’s awfully hard to move bus-size stones into place. Just as hard to knock ’em over, or destroy them. But Jesus told his students all the stones they found so impressive… were coming down. And that’s what happened less than 40 years later: The Romans marched in, flattened the temple, and left nothing behind but the platform.

Does there even need to be a temple?

You may be aware the Holy Spirit built himself a temple out of living Christians. Arguably that’s the only temple he cares about.

But for the longest time humans have insisted—and still insist—there needs to be a temple. There needs to be a physical location where we can interact with the Almighty. And yeah, the LORD spelled out what his tent in the center of the Hebrews’ camp oughta look like, and stated that if Moses needed to speak with him, he oughta go to the tent. But still: Does God need a physical building for his presence to be contained?

St. Stephen voted no:

Acts 7.47-50 NET
47 “But Solomon built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands, as the prophet says,
49 ‘Heaven is my throne,
and earth is the footstool for my feet.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is my resting place?
50 Did my hand not make all these things?’ ” Is 66.1-2

I’m with Stephen. The Holy Spirit has a house he’s made of Christendom, and Jesus himself said we don’t need another.

John 4.21-24 NET
21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You people worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But a time is coming—and now is here—when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

(Yeah, this too is a subtle prediction there wouldn’t be a temple in Jerusalem much longer.)

Jesus isn’t the first (nor the last) to predict the temple’d come down. The Old Testament is full of prophets who warned the Hebrews to not assume the temple—magnificent though it was back then—was a permanent landmark. ’Cause the Hebrews regularly made that mistake: They figured God would never let foreign invaders touch his temple. He’d do as he did in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and melt ’em for daring to touch his stuff.

The Indiana Jones movies may be really entertaining, but they never did get God right. He didn’t spare his people, his temple, nor even his own Son: If sin needs to be destroyed, God has no trouble destroying whatever it takes to get sin destroyed. Don’t fool yourself.

God already has a temple in heaven; Rv 11.1 heaven kinda is his temple. He doesn’t need a redundant temple on earth. His intent has always been to build a temple of his followers, whom he lives in and among. 1Co 3.16 The Herod family might’ve built an impressive structure, and there’s nothing wrong with approving of their job. But man-made structures are never permanent. Only God-made structures are.

Christians still make this mistake. We assume God would never let something he loves—something which serves him so well!—be destroyed. It’s naïve of us, considering God lets lots of people suffer martyrdom for Jesus. God lets churches be dissolved, ministries be shut down, Christian schools close, cities and homelands be invaded, and people die, all the time.

Do any of our favorite preachers, any of the best servants of God we’ve ever seen, get to live forever? Not yet. And since God cares for people far more than institutions, why should we assume institutions automatically get to last till Jesus returns? God considers everything and everyone to be expendable. ’Cause we are.

Everything will pass away. Everything. We Christians are coming back, but everything else will go. So let it go. Enjoy it while you have it; keep it functional in case the generations to come still wanna use it; but don’t cling to anything that’ll pass away. Let it go.