I read J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy back in high school, but I never really got sucked in by them the way a few of my friends did. I enjoyed the movies, though, despite the fact that one of the characters in The Return of the King creeped me out. This was Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, played by the terrific actor John Noble.
The problem with Denethor is that he’s supposed to be a Steward to the throne of Gondor, governing the kingdom until its king reappears. Yet he sees Aragorn (the rightful king) and his allies as a threat to his authority. He doesn’t want to yield to them when the time comes to relinquish his power. Rather, he gives in to despair because of the enemy armies arrayed against him and ends up committing suicide.
Sometimes fiction has a firm basis in history.
Throughout Mark’s account, Jesus has come into conflict with the religious leaders of his day. They enjoy their positions of authority and prestige among the Jewish people. They are quite confident that God is on their side—after all, isn’t a magnificent temple, a symbol of his presence, being constructed in Jerusalem? They see this hick preacher from the backwater region of Galilee—condemning them for their vices, humiliating them in debate, and confirming his authority with miracles—and they are determined to get rid of him. They refuse to accept his claim as their King appointed by God, their Messiah.
After a series of confrontations with them, Jesus leaves the temple for the last time and heads out of Jerusalem. Now, his disciples are taken aback by the grandeur of the temple. Even in modern days it would be an impressive, colossal structure—let alone in a time before the invention of trucks and cranes and other construction technology! To these simple men from Galilee, the temple is the grandest monument to the religious establishment of Jerusalem. It seems an impregnable fortress, a sign of God’s eternal favor.
“Look, Teacher!” one of them exclaims. “What wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”
“Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus replies. “There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
That’s Jesus for you: whenever someone wants to talk about the triumph of the human spirit, he’s nothing but a killjoy.
Coming immediately after his conflict with the temple leadership in chapter 12, Jesus’ announcement can only mean one thing: the time of the temple and its religious establishment is over. God will punish them for rejecting their rightful King and attempting to usurp his authority as wicked stewards of his kingdom (Mark 12:1–12).
It’s no surprise that Jesus’ prophecy will come to pass. In the year 70 A.D.—several years after Mark’s gospel was likely written and nearly 40 years after Jesus spoke these words—the armies of Rome will surround Jerusalem in response to a Jewish revolt. They will conquer the city and raze the temple complex to the ground. Only a few of the foundation walls of the courtyard will remain. The glory and might of the temple will be undone.
When Jesus pronounces this judgment, the religious leaders and the temple are finished. The hammer of God’s judgment is about to fall. Even a human edifice as grand as the Jerusalem temple cannot stand before the righteous wrath of the almighty God.
So don’t be impressed by human achievements or establishments. Don’t be impressed by the laws and principles of Western democracies, or by the skyscrapers of Dubai, or by the economic engine of China. They have been given a season in which to flourish, but it will not last forever. If God is willing to destroy the temple of his chosen people, how will the grandeur and power of these modern institutions rescue them from his judgment? Will he not overthrow all kingdoms when his chosen King returns? They will all be undone on the day of the Lord.
Do not be impressed with the Stewards. Stand in awe of your King.
My flesh trembles for fear of you,
and I am afraid of your judgments.