Several decades after Solomon’s magnificent temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians, the Jewish people were allowed to return to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding it by a decree from Cyrus king of Persia. There was a great celebration when the foundation of the new temple was laid. Though many rejoiced, there were many still around who had been quite young when Solomon’s temple was destroyed. Their response was one of lament:
But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.Ezra 3:12–13 ESV
It was clear to them that the grandeur of this new temple would not come close to matching the grandeur of Solomon’s temple. It was much smaller and as King Herod would complain centuries later, it looked like a fortress. Being a great builder, Herod sought to expand and beautify this temple. He insisted he was not building a new temple but expanding and beautifying the existing temple. He made a deal with the people of Israel to train Levites as builders and masons and only allow them into certain parts of the temple complex. In addition to these thousand trained Levites, there are about 10,000 other skill laborers who worked on the temple complex.
As part of the construction Herod had the small valley in between two hilltops filled in and leveled for the temple mount. This complex was built with massive stones, including the “Western Stone”—a single block of stone 44.5 feet long by 11 feet high. It’s width is unknown as it is inside the wall. This single building stone is estimated to weigh several hundred tons.
After the foundation was laid construction began on the Most Holy Place and the altar. In this way the daily sacrifices were not interrupted by construction. On one day they were performed on the older altar and the next day on the newer altar. Construction continued for many decades. In John 2, for example, Jesus told the Jews if they destroyed this temple, that is, the temple of his body, he would raise it up in three days. They misunderstood and declared that the temple had taken 46 years to build—and it was still being built!
The new temple complex contained the temple proper, which consisted of the Most Holy Place and the Holy Place. There was a court for Israelites to observe the sacrifices and a court for women. Further away from the temple proper there was a massive court for Gentile worshipers and behind that massive court were the “porticos of Solomon”, which were very large meeting places. Hundreds of thousands of worshipers could fill the temple complex.
Construction was so extensive that the work that began in 19BC would not be completed until the year 63AD—more than eighty years! It was widely praised for its beauty and opulence. The white stone would gleam in the bright sun. The sheer magnitude of the place would overwhelm first-time visitors. The unparalleled beauty would overwhelm frequent visitors. While first-century Jews suffered in many ways, they took great pride in what would have been one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was such a significant part of Jewish life as it was both a religious monument and an ethnic symbol. Jews from all over the Roman empire sent donations during construction though many would never travel to Jerusalem to even see it.
Though they had been there many times Jesus’ disciples were amazed by the enormity of the temple complex and its sheer beauty. One day as they were leaving the temple, they were again overwhelmed by the magnificence of the building and pointed this out to Jesus. Matthew records this interaction for us.
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”Matthew 24:1–2 ESV
It is not hard to imagine the sense of devastation and bewilderment the disciples would have felt upon hearing this from Jesus! This was the temple to the God of Israel, yet it would only last for seven years after its construction was completed. The Romans came in the year 70 in response to Jewish revolt and destroyed this temple, tearing it down stone by stone. All that remained was the mount the temple was built on.
As Americans we do not have this sort of attachment to any building. I suspect the closest we might come would be the White House or the US Capitol Building or perhaps the Washington and Lincoln Memorials. These are symbols of our nation. Imagine hearing Jesus says that these buildings and monuments would soon crumble into dust! The truth is that Jesus does say this about our monuments and buildings.
When Jesus told the Jews if they destroyed the temple he would raise it up in three days, neither they—nor his disciples at the time!—understood he was speaking about his body. It was only later, after his resurrection and the sending of God’s Spirit, that they began to understand that they did not need a building to be near God. Through the Spirit’s presence and activity among them, they were experiencing the direct and immediate presence of God. This is why Paul could tell the small church in Corinth that they were the temple of God, for God dwelt among them. As painful as it would have been for those who had given sacrificially for its construction and whose lives had once centered around the temple to see it destroyed, what replaced it was far better.
The hard truth is that one day our monuments and buildings will lie in ruins, crumbled into dust. When the Lord comes again he promises to re-create the world. There won’t be a White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, nor a US Capitol Building. There won’t be a structure at 214 Spencer St NE where New City Church currently gathers for worship! One day there will be the full and complete assembly of Jesus, gathered around him on the new earth, worshiping him and enjoying him forever.
For the sake of the gospel of Jesus the apostles were able to let nation and heritage go for the knowledge of what was coming. They could hold loosely to ethnic heritage and earthly citizenship, to wealth and position, even to family and friends, such was their hope of resurrection and the return of Jesus.
As we saw in our sermon last Sunday, we are called to be faithful witnesses to Jesus. Whether Inauguration Day brings more violence and unrest or it is the peaceful transfer of power, our role is to witness to who Jesus is and what he has done, and that includes what he will do when he comes again. Let us hold loosely to that which is temporary, and let us hold tightly to that which is eternal.