“And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’” (Mark 13:2)
So begins the longest speech recorded of Jesus in the gospel of Mark.
Since arriving in Jerusalem in Mark 11, Jesus has viewed the temple, cleansed it, argued in it, and now, he condemns it. In the next verse, Jesus leaves the temple never to return.
The disciples, however, like Job’s wife leaving Sodom, do not appear eager to leave. “Look, Teacher” they said, “what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”
And the architecture was magnificent. Josephus (who saw the building) wrote: “The exterior of the building lacked nothing that could astound mind or eye. For being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as if looking at the sun.” Another wrote: “He who has not seen the Temple in its full construction has never seen a glorious building in his life.” Herod built it for his own honor, but also to burnish the image of Judea in the pagan world.
Magnificent or not, God was not impressed. People, and their behavior, are more important than architecture, and in the verses that follow, Jesus makes it clear that the temple is to be destroyed and it will be the judgment of God that does it.
It wasn’t a new value system. Even in the Old Testament, the orthodoxy of pious people was condemned when their day to day behavior didn’t match the holiness of their calling (see Isaiah 58:1-9 and Jeremiah 7:2-11). An enduring message is this: There is nothing we should prize more than our relationship with God, a valuing that is reflected in our obedient behavior. Whatever gets in the way of that, no matter how majestic or noble in our own eyes, is slated, like the temple, for destruction.