“This generation” in Matthew 24:34

Something I came across the other day:

Jesus’ words, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” are the chief cornerstone in the preterists’ defense of their system. R. C. Sproul, a moderate or partial preterist, states, “The most critical portion of this text is Jesus’ declaration that ‘this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.’ ” Preterists point out that in all the other instances in the Gospels “this generation” refers to the then-present generation (Matt. 11:16; 12:41-42, 45; 23:36; 24:34; Mark 8:12 [twice], 38; 13:30; Luke 7:31; 11:29-32, 50-51; 17:25; 21:32).

Preterists also assert that Christ was warning people who were living then. For instance in the same general context the Lord said, “Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation” (Matt. 23:36). Dispensationalists agree that 24:34 refers to the Lord’s contemporaries. To make the saying even more emphatic, οὐ μή with the aorist subjunctive occurs in all three Synoptic references (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32). The verse may be rendered, “By no means will this generation pass away.”

How then is this verse to be explained? Actually it is difficult for any theological position, including that held by moderate preterists. (They struggle to interpret “all these things,” which clearly implies the coming of Christ in glory described in verses 27-31 and 37-41.) A number of explanations of verse 34 have been proposed. First is the interpretation of the preterists, who say all the predictions of Matthew 24:4-33; Mark 13:5-29; and Luke 21:8-31 were fulfilled in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. However, this view can be held only by overlooking the meaning of several verses in the discourse, including Matthew 23:39; 24:22, 27, 30, and the meaning of παρουσία.

A second interpretation, held by a number of futurists, affirms that the noun γενεά means race, that is, the Jewish race. Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich give “clan” as a primary meaning, but they list only Luke 16:8 as an illustration in the New Testament. It is difficult for dispensational premillennialists to take this view because this would imply that Israel would cease to exist as a nation after the Lord’s return: “This race of Israel will not pass away until the Second Advent.” But Israel must continue after the Second Advent into the millennium in order to fulfill the promises God made to that nation.

A third interpretation, common among dispensationalists, is that “this generation” refers to the future generation of Jews who will be alive when the Lord Jesus returns. For example Hiebert says, “It seems best to preserve the natural meaning of generation as denoting the people alive at a given time and accept the view that the reference is to that future, turbulent, wicked generation that will see the actual beginning of those eschatological events (vv. 14-23). The assurance is that the end-time crisis will not be of indefinite duration.”

The near demonstrative pronoun may have the meaning of a near concept (cf. “this bread,” 1 Cor. 11:26). But the problem remains that in the New Testament “this generation” normally refers to the generation contemporaneous with the speaker or writer. As Carson affirms, ” ‘This generation’ . . . can only with the greatest difficulty be made to mean anything other than the generation living when Jesus spoke.”

A fourth interpretation says this is an illustration of multiple fulfillment. As Mounce asserts, “Biblical prophecy is capable of multiple fulfillments.” He comments as follows on Matthew 24:32-35. In the immediate context, the “abomination of desolation” (v. 15) builds on the defilement of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes, is repeated when the sacred temple in Jerusalem is destroyed by the Roman army in A.D. 70, and has yet a more complete fulfillment when the eschatological Antichrist exalts himself by taking his seat in the “temple of God” proclaiming himself to be God (2 Thess. 2:3-4). In a similar way, the events of the immediate period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem portend a greater and more universal catastrophe when Christ returns in judgment at the end of time. Gundry is right in his observations that double fulfillment (I would say “multiple fulfillment”) involves an ambiguity that needs to be accepted as fact rather than objected to on literary grounds. A number of commentators agree with this explanation.

Another question for all interpreters is the meaning of “all these things” in Matthew 24:34 and Mark 13:30 (Luke 21:32 has “all things”). It is possible that the “these things” looks back to the question of the disciples when they asked, “When will these things [the destruction of the temple] happen”? (Matt. 24:3; Mark 13:4; Luke 21:7). But there are difficulties with this explanation. First, the question of the disciples is so far removed from the Lord’s statement in Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30; and Luke 21:32 that it makes such an interpretation improbable. Second, when the Lord said “all these things,” He undoubtedly was looking at more than the destruction of the temple. “All these things” must include His glorious return to reign, as the immediate context clearly implies.

A fifth interpretation seems best. It takes the verb γένηται as an ingressive aorist. The same verb is found in all three Synoptics and is translated “takes place” (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32). As an ingressive aorist it emphasizes the beginning of the action with the meaning “begin to take place.” All those things would begin in that generation and find their ultimate completion at the Second Advent. This fits with the idea of not being deceived by the events mentioned in Matthew 24:4-8. The Lord specifically referred to these as “the beginning of birth pangs” (v. 8). Interestingly, although Mounce does not accept this interpretation, he suggests it as a possibility and gives no refutation of it.

[Stanley D. Toussaint, BibSac 161:644 (Oct 2004) p. 483-86]

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on March 28, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    Paul: Fascinating possibility. I’ve always leaned toward the third view, but Toussaint has given me something to think about. Wallace writes that ingressive aorists commonly occur “with verbs that denote activities, especially in contexts where the action is introduced as a new item in the discourse.” Do you think this strengthens Toussaint’s argument?

  2. Matt,

    I think it does strengthen the overall argument. This is especially so since Wallace correctly identifies an ingressive as having the force of “began to do” or “became.”

    Another outside strength of this argument is that it doesn’t overload the phrase “this generation” but places stress on the verb γένηται.

  3. I’m an Option 4 guy, but that 5th is interesting enough that I would examine it further.

  4. Posted by Jerry Wragg on April 1, 2008 at 2:06 am

    Guys –
    I take the view that “this generation” means just what it designates: The generation that witnesses the blooming of the tender branches of the fig tree. In other words, Jesus, by using the illustration of spring leaves and an approaching summer, puts the emphasis on the swiftness with which the ultimate end arrives once the “signs” ensue.
    Vv23-26 – Don’t be mislead as to the actual arrival of the Son of Man.
    vv27-30 – The signs will be obvious, especially the “sign” of His appearance in the sky, and the gathering of the elect by angels.
    vv32-35 – When the “signs” begin (24:5-22 – the branches of the fig tree become tender), then the end will come swiftly (as swiftly as summer comes after the spring sprouting).
    It seems clear to me that the “generation” that witnesses the “spring leaves” will not die before the “summer” arrives.
    The swiftness of the arrival is further emphasized with the declaration of certainty in v35. It’s as though Jesus is saying that anyone who disregards this sequence, both as to its certainty and its rapid onslaught, is foolishly denying a swift and clearly visible doom. How foolish!

    • Posted by tony on December 15, 2009 at 1:39 am

      im with Jerry, Jesus wasn’t talking about the current generation but the generation that sees the fig tree giving its leaves.

  5. Posted by Mike Winfield on January 28, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Jerry Wragg,

    I’m with you. Even though Carson suggests the meaning must be the generation contemporary with Jesus, it makes sense when referring to the future generation (in which all these things take places) as “this generation”.

    I have to wonder why the author did not record the reference as “that generation”, but it could be Jesus used the term “this generation” to keep everybody on their toes.

  6. Posted by Matthew O'Byrne on March 22, 2009 at 1:00 am

    Hi Guys, I have been moved to put a response here because I think a lot of people may be missing the meaning of 3 passages that foretell of the second coming of Jesus. I think this because I had initially misinterpreted the same passage myself and found many crazy justifications and stories on the internet about how to explain these passages that just are not true! I got so confused myself with all the garbage and incorrect information on these passages that it took me a little bit of time to cut through the lies and find the truth. I want to relay that truth to you! The same message creating the confusion is relayed in the following 3 verses of the Olivet Discourse in the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew 24:34 , Mark 13:30 , and Luke 21:32. Let us clear this controversy up together so that we have no more doubt over these passages!

    To start, it is important to read the entire passage especially the preceding 2 verses in each passage: Matthew 24:32-33 , Mark 13:28-29 , and Luke 21:29-31. These verses are giving the illustration of the fig tree as an example that when a generation sees a fig tree’s leaves come out , that generation also knows that summer is near and that summer will come to pass in that same generation. The generation being mentioned in the passages of our discussion was not the generation that Jesus was speaking in, but rather the generation that will see the signs of his second coming happening — I.E. the sun and moon being darkened and the stars falling. It is the generation that sees all of these signs that knows they will also see the second coming of Jesus. No one knows when this will happen before the signs happen! A good translation of the passage can be found in the New Living Translation that phrases Luke 21:32 “I assure you, this generation will not pass from the scene until all these events have taken place.” The scene is implied in other translations meaning that the generation that sees the signs including that sign of the sun and moon darkening and the stars falling will also be the generation to witness the second coming of Jesus. The scene is a period of time on earth when these signs will happen. The generation that experiences this scene also will experience the second coming of Christ. If you trust God and the Bible, this is what the implied meaning of the passages is! These passages DO NOT refer to the generation Jesus was speaking in at the time or any other generation other than the generation that will witness the signs mentioned! The reason this passage can create such controversy is because Satan is working in many peoples minds (including my own at one point) to distort the meaning to be that Jesus was wrong because his generation never witnessed the second coming of Jesus! This is completely wrong and all of you who trust Jesus will know in your hearts that JESUS IS GOD AND IS NEVER WRONG. Who is more likely to be wrong — the humans misinterpreting this passage and non believers or Jesus our God? This is a rhetorical question of course and the obvious answer is that humans make mistakes but God never does. Sure it is easy to see how this passage could be misinterpreted, but I can assure you that GOD IS RIGHT and his meaning of generation in the passages being discussed is the generation that sees the signs. Just as someone who would see a fig tree’s buds become tender and predict when summer is near so can the generation that sees the sun and moon darken and the stars fall also predict the second coming of Christ. No one can predict when this will happen until the signs mentioned in the passages come to reality! Again, who is more likely to be wrong here — your initial interpretation of the word of God or the author of the work you misinterpreted — The almighty living GOD Himself? God is never wrong. Our God was. Our God is. And our God will always be truth and love. Let’s not kid ourselves here — If we use this verse to try to discredit the Bible or God, we are only being blinded by thoughts put into our heads by the father of lies himself. Don’t believe a lie. Believe the truth. Trust in Jesus — He died for our sins.

    We know that the things contained in: Matthew 24:29 , Mark 13:24-25 , and Luke 21:25 have not yet happened as obviously the sun and moon still produce light and the stars are still in the sky; therefore, we know that Christ’s second coming has not yet happened! We also know that the Jesus is not wrong and that the Bible is true to its meaning not a misinterpreted meaning. 2 Timothy 3:16-17

    I also agree with Jerry because he too is saying that the generation being referred to is the generation that will witness the signs. I think as Mike said, the confusion is stemming from the use of “this generation” in the Bible, but it is important to note that because Jesus has been describing a people or generation that will witness the signs “this generation” is referring to that specific generation that will witness the signs and not the current generation or time period he was speaking in.

    Stay Blessed!
    Jeremiah 29:11

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: