THE TEMPLE’S FAILURE AND DECLINE (3)

PMW 2018-045 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

As we conclude our focus on Israel’s temple (see previous article), we must note that Jesus prophesies the temple’s destruction so clearly (Jn 2:19-20; Mt 24:1ff) that the Jews mock him on the cross regarding the matter (Mt 27:40//). Later they recall this statement against his disciples (Ac 6:14). After cursing the fig tree as representing Israel (Mt 21:19) he declares that the temple mount will be cast into the sea (Mt 21:21//) (Morna Hooker The Gospel according to Mark 269). His trials specifically recall his statements about the temple’s destruction (Mk 14:58; Mt 26:61), though falsely claiming he said he would personally destroy it. Late in his ministry he presents a major discourse on the temple’s coming destruction (Mt 24:2ff //).

At his death the temple veil is “torn in two from top to bottom” (Mk 15:38//). “Jesus’ references to the temple hitherto in this gospel have concerned its destruction and replacement, and the tearing of the more visible and magnificent outer curtain would more naturally pick up this theme. Following the jibe of [Mk 15:29-30], this would be a particularly appropriate divine riposte: the process of the temple’s destruction and replacement has indeed begun, even as Jesus continues to hang on the cross” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, 657). The rending of the veil, then, was a “clear sign of impending destruction of the Temple” (Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, 162).

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In fact, due to its embroidery with the starry heavens, [1] “its tearing would be an apt symbol of the beginning destruction, not only of the temple (which itself even as a whole symbolized the cosmos) but of the very cosmos itself” as the new creation process is begun in Christ’s death (G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 189). Consequently, this pictures “the inbreaking destruction of the old creation and inauguration of the new creation, which introduces access for all believers to God’s holy presence in a way that was not available in the old creation” (Beale, 190). The church Fathers often link the Temple’s destruction with Christ’s death. [2]

As the very heartbeat of their religion, the temple is a key element in the self-sufficient pride of the Jew. Rabbis proudly exclaim: “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never in his life seen a beautiful structure” (B. Bat. 4a; cf. Mt 24:2; Lk 21:5; Philo, Spec. 1, 72, 73; Jos., Ant. 15:11:3 ). Even the Lord’s disciples were enamored of the temple’s majesty (Mt 24:1//). The revolutionaries in Israel during the Jewish War are confident God’s temple would survive the assault of Rome — even as they endure seducers and false prophets (J.W. 6:5:2 §285-86). Even during the war the Jews think the city of Jerusalem where God’s temple resides could not be defeated: ““the fighting men that were in the city were lifted up in their minds, and were elevated upon this their good success, and began to think that the Romans would never venture to come into the city any more; and that if they kept within it themselves, they should not be any more conquered” (J.W. 5:8:2 §)

Prior to AD 70 the temple’s significance is such that it was the very “foundation and focus of national worship,” one of “the three great pillars of popular Jewish piety,” “the cardinal postulates” of the Jewish faith, which includes also the Land and the Law (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:336, 337). And given the structure of ancient life in merging religious and political outlooks, “the function of the Temple was more extensive and central in Jewish society than the typical modern theological reduction to the religious dimension allows” (Horsley, 286).

Along with pride in their national shrine the Jews boast of their physical descent from Abraham, as Paul strongly indicates: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I” (2Co 11:22). [3] This involves a trusting in the flesh (Gal 4:23, 39; 1Co 10:18 [Gk]). They pride themselves in physical circumcision (Ro 2:25-29; Gal 5:11; 6:12-13; Php 3:2-3; Tit 1:10). Indeed, they trust in all their ritual traditions as Paul’s testimony shows: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Gal 1:14). When he defends his apostleship against his opponents he writes: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I” (2Co 11:22).


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We see Judaism’s strong ritual concern early in the post-Pentecost Christian witness. In Ac 6:14 Stephen is charged with an attempt to “alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.” Scharlemann (Stephen: A Singular Saint, 102) observes that “the word translated as ‘customs’ reads ethē in Greek; and this, in turn, is a translation of the Hebrew minhāgot. It was used to cover the whole complex set of ritual prescriptions and religious obligations assumed by the Jew when he took upon himself the yoke of the kingdom. It was the word used to refer to carrying out the requirements of the oral tradition.”

Jewish pride ultimately leads them to engage war with Rome, vainly believing they hold “God as their only Lord and Master” (J.W. 7:10:1 §410). The Zealots particularly affirm “an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord” (Ant. 18:1:5 §23). John of Gischala responds to Josephus’ calls to surrender, noting that “he did never fear the taking of the city, because it was God’s own city” (J.W. 6:2:1 §98). This repeats the error of their fathers before the first temple’s destruction. According to the Mishnah: “Upon three things the universe stands: upon Torah, and upon the Temple service, and upon deeds of lovingkindness” (Avot 1:2:).

Scharlemann comments: “How badly Jerusalem and its High Council needed to hear Stephen’s [Ac 7] warning can be demonstrated from the fact that, at almost the very moment when the temple was about to be destroyed by Roman soldiers, in August A.D. 70, a prophet was able to persuade many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem that they ought to resort to the courtyard of the temple on the conviction that the God of Israel would never permit this sanctuary to fall into the hands of Gentiles.”

During his ministry the Pharisees called for Jesus to rebuke his disciples for praising him at the Triumphal Entry. Jesus warns that the temple’s destruction will result when Israel fails to accept him: “And He answered and said, ‘I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!’” (Lk 19:40). This means that “if the disciples do not speak, if they do not proclaim Jesus as the redeemer of Israel and the bringer of peace, then the eloquent message of the tumbled stones of a destroyed city will cry out to the survivors that Jerusalem should have repented” (Lloyd Gaston, No Stone On Another, 359). This becomes clear four verses later when he declares that their enemies “will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation” (Lk 19:44).

DeYoung has provided a careful and insightful analysis of the role of Jerusalem as a feature in the NT polemic against Israel. Paul castigates Jerusalem, the home of the temple, in Gal 4:21-31. In that passage Paul provides “a description of the hollow religious residue to which Jerusalem tenaciously clung after she rejected the salvation offered by Christ: a religion of servitude to the law” (DeYoung, 103). That is, Israel clings to the ceremonial strictures of the old covenant economy as if that was the very heart of true religious devotion. Paul is showing “that Judaism, with its center in Jerusalem, was practicing a religion of bondage to the [ceremonial] law. This he does first of all by characterizing Hagar, then charging that by virtue of these characteristics she and Jerusalem have a basic similarity” (DeYoung, 104). Jerusalem has become a “slave woman” (Gal 4:22-23). This whole passage “represents, perhaps, the sharpest polemic against Jerusalem and Judaism in the N.T. It must have been quite a shock to the Jews to have their holy city linked up with ‘Hagar and her seed” (DeYoung 106).

Continuing his analysis, DeYoung (109) notes that in Heb 10-13 “there can be little doubt that the author intended these verses as an exhortation for his readers to break all ties with the Judaism of his day centered at Jerusalem. He has produced two of the most powerful arguments available. Jerusalem has lost all redemptive significance for the Christian because Christ has made the final sacrifice for sin outside the gates of Jerusalem, and redemption can only be found where he is — without the camp. Jerusalem has lost all eschatological significance; there is no abiding city on earth; hence the Christian, like Abraham, looks for the city which is to come (13:14), the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22) whose builder and maker is none other than God himself.”

Charles E. Hill cites J. B. Lightfoot’s observations on the significance of Stephen’s sermon. Hill writes “it was Stephen, the ‘martyr of liberty’ and acknowledged ‘forerunner’ of the apostle Paul, who ‘was the first . . . to sound the death-knell of the Mosaic ordinances and the temple worship” (Hill, Regnum Caelorum, 9). In fact, according to Delbert Weins’ (Stephen’s Sermon and the Structure of Luke-Acts, 51) reflections on Acts 6:11, “the charge of abandoning Moses could soon be turned against the officials hearing and judging Stephen.” This is because Stephen points out that their own fathers themselves turned against Moses (Ac 7:39-40), even making the golden calf (7:41). And they were as guilty as their fathers (7:52-53). Scharlemann (16) notes that Stephen’s sermon is the longest speech in Acts and that “its very length suggests that the author of Acts intended it to reflect some important facet of primitive church life.”

Notes

1. Philo QE 2:85; Mos. 2:87-88; Jos. J.W. 5:5:4 §212-14; Ant. 3:6:4 §123, 183.

2. Barn. 5:11-13; Justin, 1 Apol. 35; 38; 40; 47; Dial. 108; Tertullian, Adv. Jud. 13:14; Apol. 26; Origen, Ag. Cels. 1:47; 4:22; it. 1:1; 7:25.

3. Cp. Lk 3:8; 16:24, 30; Jo 8:39, 53, 56; Ro 2:17ff; cp. Ro 1:16; 2:9-10; 10:12; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11.


Commentary on Matthew 21–25 Notice
I am currently raising funds to engage research and writing on a commentary on Matthew 21–25, which contains the Olivet Discourse. This commentary will provide a Composition Critical approach to this textual unit in Matthew. In doing thus, it will show why Matthew presents Jesus’ Olivet Discourse as he does, in a way that differs in several respects from Mark and Luke. This commentary will demonstrate that the Olivet Discourse deals with both the AD 70 destruction of the temple and the Second Advent (which is anticipated by AD 70). This is important for presenting Christ as more than just a Jewish sage concerned for one nation.

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2 thoughts on “THE TEMPLE’S FAILURE AND DECLINE (3)

  1. gracealternative December 5, 2018 at 9:56 pm

    Dr. Gentry,
    The synoptic gospels all report that the temple veil was torn when our Lord died. So certainly that was a significant event for the Jews, no? What did they do with it? Did they sew it back up again or replaced with a new one? And did they continue the Judaistic rituals as if nothing happened? We know eventually it was destroyed in AD 70.

  2. Kenneth Gentry December 6, 2018 at 5:31 pm

    Over the hundreds of years of the temple’s existence, I am sure they had to repair or replace the temple veil many times. They certainly had to clean it. They almost certainly had extras for emergencies and upkeep. And as before, they would continue in their sacrificial rituals.

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