A desolate house (Matt 23:34-39)

In our final installment of Matthew 23, Jesus tells of the judgement that was to come on the Pharisees – and, indeed, all of Jerusalem – because they rejected the offer of God’s kingdom, and they rejected Jesus, God’s Messiah.

Matthew 23:34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.

Since the Jews had shown themselves to be just like their ancestors – rejecting and killing God’s messengers, culminating in Jesus – this pattern will continue. Even after Jesus, God will continue to send messengers who will announce God’s kingdom to his people. But still, for the most part, God’s people will persecute and kill these messengers: people like Stephen (Acts 7), Peter (Acts 4-5), and Paul (Acts 14 onwards…). Not to mention those Jewish believers to whom Matthew is writing.

Matthew 23:35-36 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.

Despite having witnessed all that Jesus said and did, they still persisted in killing him. So upon them will come the judgement for “all the righteous blood” (i.e. innocent killing) that has been shed. This generation is the most culpable, so upon them will come the judgement.

Sidenote: “from… Abel… to Zechariah son of Berekiah” – in the Hebrew Scriptures, the order of the books is different from our Old Testament. Abel’s murder is the first, but Zechariah’s is the last (2 Chron 24), as Chronicles is the final book. This also gives us evidence that the Hebrew canon had reached its final form at the time of Jesus.

But what is the nature of the judgement that will come on “this generation” of Jerusalem? Let’s read on.

Firstly, Jesus reiterates the fact that they had every opportunity to experience God’s restoration, but they were “not willing” – killing prophets and rejecting God’s messengers at every opportunity:

Matthew 23:37 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.

Then, he hints at what will happen:

Matthew 23:38 Look, your house is left to you desolate.

Here, “house” may refer to the household of Israel. But it could also refer to the temple – the “house” of God. And when you look at the next chapter – which is all about the destruction of the temple – this seems more likely. God will abandon his house to destruction a mere 40 years later, as a sign of judgement upon the generation that rejected the Messiah.

Matthew 23:39 I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” is what the crowd said back when Jesus entered Jerusalem, on Palm Sunday. Back when it looked like they were going to embrace him as Messiah. But when he failed to deliver the kingdom as they understood it, they turned on him.

Funnily enough, that phrase is from Psalm 118:26. A few lines before, it says this:

Psalm 118:22 The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone

So Jesus seems to be saying that they won’t see him again until they’re prepared to acknowledge him as being the one who has come in the name of the Lord. And perhaps hinting that although their “house” will be left desolate, the stone they have rejected will become the cornerstone of a whole new “house.”

Theologically, this is all about a changing of the guard. The pattern that had been happening for centuries (rejection of God’s messengers) wasn’t going to be tolerated forever. God’s latest and greatest messenger, Jesus, had now come – and Israel’s response to him was pivotal. Because they rejected him, too – and would soon kill him – they would be judged. No longer would they be his people, with the temple as the symbol of his presence. God would again destroy the temple, just as he did back in 587BC. Not by the Babylonian army this time, but the Romans, in 70AD. It would be both an act of judgement on the generation that rejected the Messiah, and vindication for those who did accept him. It would be a sign that the old temple had gone, replaced by a new temple, the New Testament people of God in whom God’s presence dwelt by his Spirit.

And it’s this significant (yet often overlooked) event that the next chapter of Matthew is all about…

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