As Jesus departs from the temple for the last time, His disciples point out the exterior beauty and magnificence of the structure (as well as the decorative "beautiful stones and donations" - Luke 21:5; cf. Mark 13:1). Such was very impressive to them. According to Jewish tradition, it was stated that those who had not seen the temple of Herod had never seen a fine building. Josephus described some of the stones as being nearly 70 feet long, 12 feet high, and 18 feet wide. He also wrote of the crowns, shields, goblets, and dazzling golden gifts given by certain kings. The temple of Jesus' day certainly should have been an impressive structure since it took 46 years to finish, and approximately 10,000 skilled workman were employed in its construction.
"Not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down" - Historically, that is precisely what happened in 70 A.D. The destruction of the city and temple was so complete that those who visited it thereafter could hardly believe that it had ever been inhabited. Although the disciples seemed to have indirectly praised the permanency of the temple, Jesus did just the opposite. His comment here about every stone being thrown down would certainly have been a surprise to His disciples and they would have had difficulty imagining it, especially since the world was at peace at that time and the Jews, though subject to the Romans, were also being protected by the greatest earthly power. Though they were curious, they did not inquire about the statement at that moment but choose to wait until a more private setting where they hoped Jesus would speak more fully about the matter.
Jesus and His disciples stopped on the Mount of Olives after leaving Jerusalem. It is known that Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked the following questions (cf. Mark 13:3). It is unknown who all may have heard Jesus' lengthy response.
There are many different views regarding the questions that the disciples asked Jesus at this time. Some think that two questions are asked, others three, and still others see four distinct questions among the synoptic accounts. It is likely that the disciples assumed that the day the temple stones would be thrown down would be the end of the world (i.e., Jesus' second coming). Thus, it seems reasonable to suggest that they probably had two questions in mind, namely: (1) When would this happen? and (2) What signs would precede it?
However, if in fact they did assume that the destruction Jesus spoke of would be simultaneous with the end of the world, they were mistaken. Overall, in Matthew 24 and 25, Jesus answers four questions: (1) When would Jerusalem (and the temple) be destroyed?, (2) What signs would precede Jerusalem's destruction?, (3) When would the world end?, and (4) What signs would precede the end of the world? The first two questions are answered in Matthew 24:4-35 (and, of course, the parallel accounts). The last two questions are answered in Matthew 24:36ff.
Matthew 24 is unquestionably a difficult passage of God's word to properly understand. When studying the Scriptures, it is always wise to properly consider the context. If one is willing to emphasize certain verses and ignore others in a particular context, then he shows disrespect for the inspired word of God and will not likely learn the truth. It is our aim to avoid that mistake as we endeavor to understand God's word here.
Contextually speaking, Matthew 24:34 is the key to properly understanding Jesus' difficult words here. There He explicitly declares that all that He has said (i.e., in His speech in 24:4-33) will come to pass in that generation (specifically, it will be shown that these verses detail the events related to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, which was 40 years after Jesus spoke these words; that is, within that generation). Thus, one can be certain that anything discussed in these verses happened in the first century (or else Jesus is a liar). Hence, to point to any verse in this context and conclude that it is written about the end of the world (as many religious folks do) is to ignore 24:34 and to draw false conclusions.
We will begin studying Jesus' response to their questions in our next lesson.