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This Generation, Part 2


In Part 1, we saw that the words for “generation” (Hebrew, dowr; Greek, genea) can have more than one meaning, and one of the meanings is a group of people with like characteristics, especially a group characterized by negative traits, as in “this crooked and perverse generation.”  We saw examples in the Old Testament, and we saw that this sense was in fact used more often than the literal sense in the Gospels.

When it comes to the statement Jesus made that “this generation will not pass till all these things be fulfilled” (in Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, and Luke 21:32), is he identifying the generation chronologically or morally?  Is he talking about all his contemporaries who lived at that time, or is he speaking of “this wicked generation”?  Scholars have given various interpretations of this passage, and frequently miss the figurative use of “generation” as it is more common in Hebraic thought than in Western. Nevertheless, that passage must be considered in light of its context and other related Scriptures.

The Olivet Discourse is found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. A detailed examination of it from a Futurist viewpoint can be seen in the Three Schools article. But briefly, Jesus had told his disciples that the very Temple they were looking at would be destroyed. They asked when these things would happen and what would be the sign of his coming and the end of the age. In response, the first thing Jesus says is not to be deceived, for many would come in his name and say that the end times had come.

Following that warning he described things that would happen from that time forward, and exhorted the disciples not to be shaken because those things would happen but the end would not be yet. Then in the second part of the Olivet Discourse, he tells them what would indicate that the end was approaching.  The Abomination of Desolation is the specific signal they would see that would tell them that the final stage had begun.  It would trigger the Great Tribulation, which would be a time of tribulation such as the world had never seen, nor ever would after that.  This Great Tribulation would be so bad that unless the Lord shortened those days, there would be no flesh left on earth. In this context Jesus again says there would be false Christs and false prophets who would, if possible, deceive even the very elect. If they said Christ is here or there, the disciples were not to believe them or follow them, as the real return will be like lightning, lighting the whole sky from east to west.

Jesus specifically says that “immediately after” the Tribulation, there would be signs in the heavens affecting the sun, moon, and stars, the powers of heaven would be shaken, and then the world would see the Son of Man coming in the clouds. It will be seen by all (“every eye shall see him,” Revelation 1:7) and there will be no question about it. But it will be sudden and unexpected, like a thief in the night to those who are not prepared (I Thessalonians 5:2; II Peter 3:10; Revelation 16:15). But they that are watching are told what to look for. In contrast to false reports of his return, the real one would be identifiable by its close connection with the final events he had described. After speaking of all these things, he brings up the parable of the fig tree.

Matthew 24:
32 Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh:
33 So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.

The point of comparing it to a fig tree was to illustrate that the things he spoke of would lead up to the end, and would be the indication that it was near. It had nothing to do with how soon it would be, relative to their lifetimes. It is in this context that he says:

Matthew 24:
34 Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
35 Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.
36 But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.

To interpret this as meaning the generation alive in Jesus’ day would not pass until the signs are fulfilled would, first of all, contradict his statement that no man knows the day and hour of his return. Some have claimed that he meant only that no one knows the exact time (day and hour), but that the general time-frame was at hand. But in Mark he follows the statement, “of that day and that hour knoweth no man,” with an even more specific declaration: “Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is” (Mark 13:33).  The word for “time” here is kairos, a word used for a season or appointed time. His answer to the disciples’ question of when the end would come was that nobody knows the time, but the signs, when they come, will indicate that it is approaching.

Secondly, assuming that he meant the generation of people living at that time would not pass away till these things were done would make it a false prophecy. In hindsight, we know that while the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the other signs to which Jesus referred did not happen. There was no Abomination of Desolation followed by the Great Tribulation, followed immediately by signs in the heavens and the return of the Son of Man in the clouds.

To avoid it being a false prophecy, we’d have to either change the meaning of “these things” or change the meaning of “this generation.” Since a simple reading of the events described in the Olivet Discourse fit with Daniel and other Old Testament prophecies, changing “these things” would require completely changing the meaning of those prophesies, ultimately changing the nature of the coming Kingdom of God.  On the other hand, some scholars have theorized that “this generation” refers to the nation of Israel, but we are told that God will never completely forsake Israel (Romans 11:1-2) so it wouldn’t make sense to refer to the nation passing away. A much simpler solution is to understand that the Gospel writers were using “this generation” to mean this wicked generation, as it is so often used in the Gospels.

The whole Olivet Discourse was in answer to the disciples’ questions of when things would happen and when the end of the age and Jesus’ coming would be. Jesus was saying that nobody knows the exact day and hour, but the general time frame would be indicated when those signs are seen. In the meantime there would be many things happening that would be like the beginning of birth pangs, but the end would not be yet. However, this evil generation will not pass away until all the signs are fulfilled.

Why did he need to tell them that this evil generation wouldn’t pass until the signs were fulfilled? He had said twice that false prophets would try to deceive them and say that Christ had returned. Yet they were to take heed not to be deceived, and not to be shaken when they saw some things happening.  Such false prophets did in fact do so in Paul’s time, which was why he had to write in II Thessalonians 2 that they should not be shaken if they heard from anyone that the day of Christ was at hand. He assured them that that day would not come unless there was first a falling away, and then the Man of Sin revealed. Like Jesus, he assured them that certain prophesied events must happen before the end would come. Both Paul’s and Jesus’ words tie together the prophecies in Daniel and the other prophets, and all must be understood in light of the coming Kingdom of God.

Part of the reason so many tend to interpret “this generation” as a literal generation living at the time may be because of a couple of other statements, which appear even more specifically to indicate that Jesus thought the end would be in their lifetime. One of them is the statement that “There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28; Mark 9:1). However, there were no chapter breaks in the original manuscripts. Continuing to read in context, we see that this was actually fulfilled a few verses later, when Peter, James, and John went up the mountain with Jesus and saw the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-9). This was a vision (Matthew 17:9) of Christ’s glory which will come to pass when he returns to reign in his Kingdom. Relative to that vision, Peter specifically states, in II Peter 1:16-18, that they were eyewitnesses of his majesty, related to his power and coming (parousia).

One other verse that has puzzled many theologians is when Jesus said in Matthew 10:23, “Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.” Does this mean that Jesus thought his coming in power and glory would be in such a short time? That couldn’t be the case, because he told his disciples he didn’t know when his return would be (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:32). Also, it would imply that the disciples were to continue preaching to Israel up to the coming of the Lord, which does not account for the command (after Christ’s resurrection) to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. In addition, verses 14 and 15 say that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for the cities who do not receive the words of the disciples. If the disciples would not complete the preaching of the Kingdom in Israel before the coming of the Son of Man, then not all of the cities would have had the opportunity to receive the word. So on what would the Son of Man base his judgment?

Because of these difficulties, some have proposed theories which interpret this phrase “till the Son of Man be come” as something other than the return of Christ.  Some suggest that it refers to the outpouring of the holy spirit on Pentecost, but nowhere else is that called the coming of the Son of Man.  Others suggest that it refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, but unlike the Preterist view, they see it as being part of the Lord’s judgment (referred to as his “coming”) but not to the complete fulfillment of it.  Some have even suggested that Jesus was referring, not to his coming in glory, but to his catching up with them during their missionary journey.

Dispensationalists often interpret this entire passage as dealing with believers in a future time, but then why would Jesus have said “you will not have gone over the cities of Israel…”?  His reference to “when you see these things” in the Olivet Discourse could be understood generally to mean either the disciples to whom he was speaking or any subsequent disciples (since he said he didn’t know when these things would happen).  But such a specific statement as “you will not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of man be come” would not be so flexible.

All these interpretations neglect to consider the context in which this verse appears. Chapter 10 of Matthew begins with Jesus selecting his twelve apostles. He then sends them out with the instructions recorded in the rest of the chapter.

Matthew 10:
5 These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not:
6 But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
7 And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.
8 Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.
9 Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses,
10 Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat.
11 And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, enquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence.
12 And when ye come into an house, salute it.
13 And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you.
14 And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.
15 Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.
16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
17 But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues;
18 And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles.
19 But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak.
20 For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.
21 And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.
22 And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.
23 But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.

This passage has several elements in common with Luke 21:12-19 and Mark 13:9-13. Those passages are in the context of the period during which there would be the “beginnings of sorrows” but the end would not be yet. He is giving general instructions for an undetermined length of time, which will continue until the Abomination of Desolation marks the beginning of the end.

This scope, along with the statement, “he that endureth to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 10:22), shows that many of his instructions were not limited to just that first mission of the twelve. Evangelism was to be the overall purpose of all of his followers, including those who came later. “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world…and then shall the end come.” (Matthew 24:14). Jesus was warning his disciples of the difficulties that would be encountered when preaching the Gospel. There would be some places where the people would not hear their words, and even some where they would be persecuted and mistreated. In the cities where they met with resistance and hostility, they were not to make any special efforts to reach the people, but flee to the next city.

When read in this context, we can begin to see that the purpose of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 10:23 was not to tell the disciples when he would return (he said he didn’t know). The word for “gone over” in that verse is teleo which means to finish or accomplish a task. He was not saying that they wouldn’t have time to visit every city before his return, but rather, that they would not be able to complete the task of preaching in all the cities of Israel due to resistance, hostility, and the need to sometimes flee. This has proven to be true even to this day. Those who have tried to preach the Gospel in the cities of Israel (or among the people of Israel) are still met with such opposition, as they are elsewhere at times. This is the point of the passage, not the timing of the Lord’s return.

The passages examined in this article have frequently been taken to mean that Jesus promised the Kingdom within the lifetimes of his disciples, but they can also be interpreted in other ways with equal validity. The ESV (English Standard Version) Study Bible has the following notes on Matthew 24:34:

Several interpretations have been offered for this difficult passage:

(1) Some think “this generation” refers to the disciples who were alive when Jesus was speaking, and “all these things” refers to the beginning but not the completion of the sufferings described in vv. 4–25.

(2) Others see in “all these things” a prediction with multiple fulfillments, so that Jesus’ disciples will be both “this generation” that sees the destruction of the temple in a.d. 70 and also those at the end of the age who see the events surrounding the “abomination of desolation” (v. 15).

(3) Since “the generation of . . .” in the OT can mean people who have a certain quality (cf. Ps. 14:5; 24:6; cf. Gk. genea in Luke 16:8), others understand “this generation” to refer either (a) to “this generation of believers” throughout the entire present age, or (b) to “this evil generation” that will remain until Christ returns to establish his kingdom (cf. Matt. 12:45; Luke 11:29).

(4) Others, particularly some dispensational interpreters, understand “generation” to mean “race” (this is another sense of Gk. genea) and think it refers to the Jewish people, who will not pass away until Christ returns.

(5) Others understand “this generation” to mean the generation that sees “all these things” (Matt. 24:33), namely, the generation alive when the final period of great tribulation begins. According to this view, the illustration of the fig tree (v. 32) shows that when the final events begin, Christ will come soon. Just as “all these things” in v. 33 refers to events leading up to but not including Christ’s return, so in v. 34 “all these things” refers to the same events (that is, the events described in vv. 4–25).

So one can see that equally qualified scholars have put forward equally valid theories. Chances are there will never be a consensus until the Lord returns. Which understanding one chooses will usually be determined by which overall system of theology one has to begin with. I don’t believe these passages can be used to prove Futurism, Preterism, or Historicism by themselves. That choice is best made from examination of other Scriptures, as presented in the Three Schools article.

But the purpose of this study is to show that there is more than one way to understand these passages. I happen to prefer option 3b in the ESV notes, because I think it best fits with a Futurist viewpoint, rather than requiring the abandonment of a straight-forward reading of prophecy. But we shouldn’t become divided over such matters, or we will miss the very essence of what Our Lord taught us.

2 Responses to “This Generation, Part 2”

  1. on 14 Aug 2010 at 8:13 pmDoubting Thomas

    Mark C
    I just read this great article here, dated Nov 16th. 2009. It answered many long standing questions that I have had about some of the things that Jesus had said, that (up until now) had made no sense to me. Thank you for your great insight into this. I have to go out for the evening, but tomorrow I will read the ‘Three Schools’ article that you mentioned above…

  2. on 19 Dec 2010 at 10:01 pmDoubting Thomas

    Mark C.
    I just reread these two articles.

    You said, “So one can see that equally qualified scholars have put forward equally valid theories. Chances are there will never be a consensus until the Lord returns. Which understanding one chooses will usually be determined by which overall system of theology one has to begin with. I don’t believe these passages can be used to prove Futurism, Preterism, or Historicism by themselves.”

    You also said, “But we shouldn’t become divided over such matters, or we will miss the very essence of what Our Lord taught us.”

    I agree that we shouldn’t let our different interpretations divide us. Like I said in my posting above msg. #1, “Thank you for your great insight into this…”


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