Confrontation in the Temple

SYNOPSIS - The teachings of Jesus on the Mount of Olives followed his confrontations with the Jewish religious authorities and his departure from the Temple for the last time, leaving it “desolate.”

Calvary - Photo by Sangia on Unsplash
Sangia on Unsplash
The so-called 'Olivet Discourse' is part of the larger story of the final week in the life of Jesus, all of which occurred in the city of Jerusalem. The final days of his life were dominated by his growing conflict with the Jewish religious authorities that culminated in his execution at the hands of the Roman government (Matthew 24:1-25:46, Mark 13:1-37, Luke 21:5-38.

The Discourse began with a prediction by Jesus of the impending destruction of the Temple. He gave this shortly after his striking denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, and his final departure from the Temple (Matthew 23:34-3924:1-3Mark 13:1-4).

Several terms in his denunciation of the religious leaders become literary links to his subsequent discourse on the Mount of Olives (e.g., “this generation,” “desolate”). Likewise, verbal allusions to clauses from Daniel 11:30-36 prepare the reader for his later reference to the “abomination that desolates (Matthew 24:15).

The gospel of Mark began with a citation from Isaiah, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:2-3, Isaiah 40:3-4).

In n the gospel of Mark, the story of Jesus is that of the Messiah on “the way” from Galilee to Jerusalem where he meets his inevitable death at the hands of the Temple authorities; his final confrontation with the leaders of Israel centers around the Temple. Members of the major Jewish sects and political parties all conspire to betray him to the Roman authorities for execution, just as foretold in the Hebrew Bible (Psalm 2:1-2Acts 4:25-27).

His ministry began only after John the Baptist was betrayed into the hands of Herod; only then did Jesus commence to proclaim the gospel. The arrest of John set the stage: the ministry of Jesus would be characterized by opposition; from start to finish, priests, scribes, Herodians, Sadducees, and Pharisees all resisted him (Mark 1:14, 2:6, 2:15-23, 3:1-6, Mark 3:22).

The opposition peaked with his arrival in Jerusalem. The account in Matthew is the most complete. In it, the final confrontation began with the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem and his teaching activities in the Temple. The enthusiastic reception by the crowds annoyed Temple authorities; further, the “chief priests and scribes” took offense when he overturned the tables of moneychangers (Matthew 21:1-17).

As he was returning to the city the next morning, Jesus hungered and approached a fig tree. Finding only leaves but no “fruit,” he cursed and withered the tree. This was an enacted parable, a picture of the fruitlessness of the Temple and the consequent judicial sentence against it (Mark 11:12-26).

When he returned to the Temple, the “chief priests and scribes” confronted him about the previous day’s activities. By what authority did he presume to act within their domain? Jesus responded by exposing their duplicity. They had refused the preaching of John, unlike Jews who were less scrupulous about ritual purity; therefore, “tax-collectors and whores are entering the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:15-32).

Examined by Pilate
Examined by Pilate
Christ next gave a parable about a landowner who leased his vineyard to others. Just like the “son” in the parable, the Temple authorities conspired to kill God’s Son; “let us kill him and take his inheritance!” But they would learn, inevitably, that the “stone which the builders rejected was made the head of the corner… I declare to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation bringing forth its fruits.” The “chief priests and Pharisees” perceived they were the targets of his parable. Enraged, they intended to arrest him but feared the crowd (
Matthew 21:33-46).

The Pharisees next took their shot at Israel’s Messiah, along with their political rivals, the Herodians. This mismatched pair proceeded to “take counsel how they might ensnare him in his words,” words remarkably similar to the Septuagint rendering of Psalm 2:2, “the rulers took counsel against the Lord and against his Christ.” Jesus outfoxed his opponents by using the very coin by which they intended to trap him. Dumbfounded, they could only walk away (Matthew 22:15-22).

Next, the Sadducees challenged him about the bodily resurrection, a belief they denied. This group looked to the five books of Moses for scriptural authority and rejected the oral traditions of the Pharisees. While Jesus also rejected that oral tradition, he used a passage from the Torah to demonstrate that the Sadducees understood neither the scriptures nor the power of God (Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27, Luke 20:27-39).

As the Sadducees slinked off, the Pharisees made one last attempt. They sent one of their lawyers to ask Jesus, what is the greatest commandment in the Torah? He responded swiftly, “to love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” To this, the Pharisees could only assent. Jesus posed a question in response. If the Messiah is the son of David, how then could David call him “Lord”? No one could answer; from then on, “no one dared ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22:34-46).
Matthew gives a detailed account of Christ’s denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, a chapter that continues the narrative about Christ’s last week in Jerusalem; he was still in the Temple as he began to speak.
Jesus pronounced judgment on the scribes and Pharisees, a series of woes that list his indictments of them. This culminated in a judicial pronouncement against the Temple, the city of Jerusalem, and its religious leaders (Matthew 23:1-39). In this denunciation, key terms are used that surface again in the Olivet Discourse (e.g., “this generation,” “these things,” “desolate”). Chief among their sins were hypocrisy and the violent rejection of the messengers of Yahweh.

The scribes and Pharisees “sit on Moses’ seat and love the chief seats in the synagogues,” yet they employ their traditions to create loopholes in the Law. “You blind guides that say, Whoever swears by the temple it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated” (Matthew 23:1-22).

Outwardly, the Pharisees appear righteous and law-abiding, but “within are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness,” their religious attitudes and practices rendered them ritually unclean.

The scribes and Pharisees adorned the tombs of the prophets, claiming that if they had been around in the “days of our fathers” they would not have slain them. But this very claim demonstrated their descent from the men who did murder them.

Jesus, therefore, declared to the religious leaders of Israel:
  • Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers,” a clause that alluded to Daniel 9:24, “seventy weeks have been divided concerning your people and concerning your holy city, to consummate transgression and to sum up sin.”
In their plot to murder the Messiah, the sins of the nation reached their zenith; destructive judgment was inevitable. The time had come, iniquity had run its full course, therefore:
  • All righteous blood poured out upon the earth, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zachariah, son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar, all these things, will come upon this generation…Behold, your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:27-38).
These things” (tauta) is a term used multiple times in the Olivet Discourse to summarize future events, especially, prophetic events linked to the destruction of the Temple (Matthew 24:2-3, 24:6, 24:33-37).

Likewise, “this generation” is a chronological key - All “these things” would come to pass before “this generation” reached its end. Furthermore, “this generation” was used previously to refer to the generation contemporary with Jesus, the very one that rejected him (Matthew 12:34, 12:39-45, 16:4, 17:17).

The reference to a “house left desolate (erémos)” is another allusion to Daniel 9:24-27He will confirm a covenant to the many for one week, but in the middle of the week will cause sacrifice and offering to cease, and in his stead shall be the abomination that desolates (erémōseōn), even until a full end and that a decreed one, shall be poured out on him that desolates (erémōsis)” (Septuagint).

The Greek term erémōsis does not mean “destruction” but “desertion, abandonment.” In the book of Daniel, the “abomination” or “trespass” that desecrated the Sanctuary caused the presence of Yahweh to abandon it (Daniel 8:13, 9:26-27, 11:31, 12:11).
The “desolation” of Israel was promised in the Torah if the nation broke its covenant. Yahweh would “desolate” its highways, bring its sanctuaries and land into “desolation,” let the land lie “desolate” and enjoy its “Sabbaths,” and all this because “they despised my judgments and abhorred my statutes” (Leviticus 26:22, 26::31-32, 26:34-35).
Desolation” in Matthew Chapter 23 translates the same Greek term used by Jesus for the “abomination of desolation” or erémōsis in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14; Luke 21:20). It occurs in the Greek New Testament only in these three passages and is applied to this event alone.

Jesus completed his dirge with a declaration:
  • For I am declaring to you, you will certainly not see me from this time until you say, ‘Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:39).
Up till that moment, Jesus had revealed himself to Israel in his teachings and miracles. However, once he left the Temple for the last time, that generation of Israel would not see him again unless they recognized their Messiah. The warning is addressed to his contemporaries, that is, “to you,” which in the Greek clause is plural and emphatic. Though by association, this may have included future generations, the words were addressed to “that generation” contemporary with Christ; that is, “to you.”

The context of Matthew Chapter 23 reminds us that Jesus first addressed the “multitude and his disciples,” then the “scribes and Pharisees.” His criticisms were aimed at the latter group; the multitudes were exhorted to heed the teachings of the latter but not to emulate their deeds (Matthew 23:1-12).

Examined by the High Priest
Examined by the High Priest
Jesus gave a faithful witness before the nation of Israel and its leaders, including priests, scribes, lawyers, Herodians, and Pharisees. But from the moment he abandoned the Temple, members of the nation would not see their Messiah until, like the multitude that greeted him on his arrival in Jerusalem, they also recognized him as Lord and Messiah.

His confrontation with the religious authorities culminated in his departure from the Temple and the announcement of its doom. “Do you see these great buildings? There shall not be left here one stone upon another, which shall not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:1-3).

Chapter 24 of Matthew begins, “Jesus, having departed, going away from the temple.” He is the Son of God, the designated Messiah and the Lord of Israel. His final departure signified the abandonment of the temple by Yahweh’s presence. It would, henceforth, be “desolate.”

In reaction, the disciples attempted to bring his attention to the Temple, to its great buildings, beautiful facades, and enormous stones. The idea of Yahweh abandoning His temple was unthinkable to any devout Jew. It was the very heart of Israel’s faith and its religious rites. It was the only place where sacrifices could be offered for atonement and purification.

Jesus responded, “Do you see these things.” The text uses the Greek demonstrative pronoun tauta, already seen in Matthew 23:36 (“all these things shall come upon this generation”). The only antecedent in the context for “these things” is the Temple standing in Christ’s day, the very one upon which he pronounced its utter destruction.

The disciples responded with two questions; first, “when will these things (tauta) be?” Second, “what will be the sign of your arrival and of [the] consummation of the age?” They linked both events; the demise of the Temple could only mean the end of the present age, or so they thought.

The first question included the demonstrative, tauta, “when will these things be?” That is, the destruction of the Temple. The second question concerned the “sign” (sémeion) of the Son’s “arrival” and “the conclusion of the age.”
Both questions set the stage for the discourse that follows - What led to his predictions about the Temple's demise was the opposition to his word by the religious authorities of Israel.
The Olivet Discourse includes thematic and verbal links to the concluding acts of the gospel narrative - The arrest, trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The geographic range of the Discourse alternates between the local and the universal, depending on what event is in view: the destruction of the Temple or the coming of Jesus. Events that culminated in the Temple’s destruction are regional; the events that culminate in the arrival of the Son of Man are universal in scope.

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