In the Olivet Discourse (Mt 24, Mk 13, Lk 21), Jesus seems to predict the end of all things—using such cataclysmic language as the following: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the stars will fall from heaven …” (Mt 24:29). Further, Jesus claims that these things will happen within a “generation” (Mt 24:34).
Use of Cataclysmic Language in the Prophets
The prophets often used such language to describe the judgment in history of some earthly power that had come to oppress the people of God. For example, in Isaiah 13:1 we have an oracle concerning “Babylon,” followed by cataclysmic language: “For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light” (13:10). Finally, in verse 17 the historical reference becomes clear: “Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them”—a reference to the Medo-Persian Empire (founded by Cyrus) that will end Babylonian hegemony in 539 BC (cf. Isa 44:28-45:1). Babylon had of course decimated Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and exiling the Jews in 586 BC. Cyrus sets in motion the return from exile, beginning in the mid-530s and culminating in the rebuilding of the Temple in 515 BC.
So What Did Jesus Mean?
In short, Jesus is referring—not to the end of the world—but to the end of a world, namely, the end of the Old Covenant embodied in the Temple. Jesus’ words most directly refer to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 by the Romans, which would indeed mark the end of the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system—those aspects of the Old Covenant which definitively come to an end in Christ.
What Was So Problematic about the Temple?
In Jesus’ day, the Temple had come to stand for something directly inimical to Jesus’ purposes. God’s ultimate promise to Abraham was that of a worldwide family (cf. Gen 12:2-3). But in Jesus’ day, holiness was often equated with separation from all that is unclean, especially the Gentiles. In this context, the Temple embodied this Jewish nationalism and separation. While the Gentiles could enter the outer court, a sign overhung the entry into the inner courts which prohibited on pain of death the entry of any non-Jew. Thus, the Temple embodied the sequestering of God’s presence to the Holy of Holies. Jesus’ death on the Cross unleashes the presence of God for all people, a point symbolically made when the Temple veil (which separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place) is torn upon Jesus’ death (cf. Mk 13:38; cf. CCC 586). And in fact, when we go before the Blessed Sacrament, we approach that of which the Holy of Holies in all its glory was merely a type.
Jesus is the New and Living Temple (cf. Jn 2:19-21; Mt 12:6). From the Cross to the fall of the Temple is a transition period—from the earthly to the heavenly, from the Old to the New. Since Jesus said these words around AD 30 just before his death, it appears he got the prophecy exactly right: about a generation later, the Romans destroyed the Temple, effectively marking the end of the Old Covenant and the definitive ushering in of the New.
Does Any of This Refer to the End of the World?
In the Jewish mind, the Temple was thought to be a microcosm of creation (and creation a macro-temple). Accordingly, the fall of the Temple does bring to mind the end of all things; in short, the destruction of the Temple prefigures the end of the world. So, yes, Jesus is indirectly and secondarily referring to the ultimate end; but his primary and most direct meaning refers to the end of the Temple.
Thus, Jesus didn’t get it wrong; we just need to be more attentive to the first-century meaning of his words, and not immediately jump to their twenty-first-century connotation.