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Jesus’s words in Matthew 24 are some of the most intense and also confusing passages of his teachings. In it, he warns of a period of great tribulation, wars, famine, apostasy, and false prophets, so intense that if it had not been cut short, no one would be spared. His apocalyptic language has inspired the imaginations and hopes of many Christians until today. However, they have also sparked many heated debates about what exactly he meant to communicate.
Some believe that Jesus was predicting a yet future, cataclysmic end-time period and the rapture of the Church (a snatching away of believers from the earth) for a period of seven years before this time of intense tribulation. As a result, their expectation for the future is that things in the world will continue to get worse and worse as we near this end-time period. Many who believe these things will point to this passage to support their position which is called Dispensational Premillennialism. This view has become incredibly popular in modern Evangelicalism and has many implications on how Christians live out their faith.
However, I believe this interpretation of Matthew 24 is wrong and actually can lead to many of the problems in the Evangelical church today.
Our eschatology (beliefs about the End Times) matters.
While it is not a primary issue to divide Christians who believe in salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, it does have major implications on how we live our faith and what are our hopes for the future. Many Christians who see Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 24 as referring to yet future Great Tribulation and Rapture live in light of that – seeing things in our world getting worse and worse as a “sign of the times”. Charles Ryrie in 1976, author of the famous and popular Ryrie Study Bible wrote in his days, “[T]ake a good look again at current events. . . . How do you account for these unusual events converging in our present day? Jesus said: ‘Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door’ (Matthew 24:33 NIV).”
Thus, some Christians resign themselves to hunker down and wait for the Second Coming which they think is imminent because of the moral decline of the world around them. Though this is not the unanimous disposition of people who hold this view (as many still have a big passion to impact culture and try to curb its demise) it does seem logically consistent with it. Others just focus on “saving souls” – taking an almost Gnostic approach – disregarding the physical world and its institutions, thinking them doomed to decay and destruction. This can lead to much pietistic overemphasis on the “spiritual” as if it is totally unconnected to the real world of flesh and blood, culture and politics, arts and entertainment, law and justice, etc.
Ted Peters, in his book, Futures: Human and Divine notes that this sort of pessimistic eschatological belief sometimes “functions to justify social irresponsibility,” and many “find this doctrine a comfort in their lethargy.” Many feel like it is pointless to work for cultural transformation because it is supposed to go this way – a sort of fatalistic pessimism that leads to the perpetual retreatism of Christianity into lesser and lesser spheres of life. For some, every disaster or war or tragic news story confirms their belief that we’re living in the End Times and that soon we’ll be raptured out of here as the world continues to descend into chaos.
W. Ware Gasque comments,
“The problem with the evangelicals who turn the Bible into a kind of crystal ball is that they show very little historical awareness. They speak assuredly about the signs that are being fulfilled “right before your very eyes” and point to the impending end. [Hal] Lindsey confidently refers to our own as “the terminal generation.” However, these writers do not seem to be aware that there have been many believers in every generation—from the Montanists of the second century through Joachin of Fiore (c. 1135– 1202) and Martin Luther to those Russian Mennonites who undertook a “Great Trek” to Siberia in 1880–84 and the nineteenth-century proponents of dispensationalism—who have believed that they were living in the days immediately preceding the second coming of Christ. So far they have all been mistaken. How many people have lost confidence in clear doctrines of Scripture affecting eternal life because misguided prophetic teaching is, unfortunately, not likely to be investigated?” (W. Ward Gasque, “Future Fact? Future Fiction?,” Christianity Today (April 15, 1977), p. 40)
We all have a tendency to read the Bible with our own modern lenses on. I believe that part of the confusion surrounding this important text of scripture comes from a lack of understanding of the original historical context and a careful exegesis of the text. I realize that for many, it may be the first time interacting with a different interpretation of the text than what they’ve been used to. Many may even be surprised to find out that this interpretation has been around far longer than the one popularized by many popular End Times authors and preachers such as John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, David Jeremiah, and even the prolific Bible teacher – John MacArthur. Our presupposition of a system of eschatology can unwittingly impose itself on a text (eisegesis) and cloud our interpretation of it so that we cannot see it any other way until it is challenged. We must be willing to challenge our traditions and see if they stand up to scrutiny.
Thus, in this article series, I will cite my sources and seek to show how this interpretation arises naturally from the text itself (exegesis) to hopefully correct some of the misunderstandings. In all of this, I pray that the reader would be encouraged and blessed by the proper exposition of the meaning of the text and that it would lead them to greater trust and hope in our Lord, Jesus Christ.
As always, context is vitally important to properly understand a passage. Just in the prior chapter, Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees of his own day (Matt. 23:2ff), urging them to fill up the measure of their judgment for being like their fathers who killed the prophets. he pronounces 7 woes upon them, and in the following section in chapter 24, he predicts 7 judgments. He calls them a “generation” of vipers (Matt. 23:33) who persecute and slay his followers (v.34). Then then pronounces that upon them will come all the righteous blood shed (v.35). His pronouncements of judgments are guaranteed to come upon “this generation” (23:36). Then he weeps over Jerusalem that he often desired to gather them like a hen with her chicks but she was not willing (v.37). He ends by pronouncing their house “desolate” (v.38).
Next, we see in the beginning verses of Matthew 24 that Jesus was leaving the temple and his disciples pointed out to him the amazing buildings of the temple after he had just pronounced it desolate. It’s almost as if they were incredulous at his statement that such a magnificent ediface could ever become desolate. He tells them,
“You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (verse 2b)
So, in response to the disciples, Jesus makes the awesome prediction of the complete and utter destruction of the glorious Temple. This would have been mind-blowing for the disciples to comprehend. The Jerusalem Temple was a marvel of ancient Israel, overlaid with gold and could be seen from miles away shining in the sun. That this magnificent structure would ever be totally demolished was unthinkable to the Jews.
Jesus and the disciples then proceeded to the Mount of Olives, just outside of Jerusalem where his disciples asked him a question about what he had said:
“Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (verse 3b)
Notice that there are actually two main questions the disciples are asking:
- WHEN will Jesus’s prediction take place
- WHAT is the sign to tell them of his coming and the end of the age
These are the same questions the disciples ask as recorded in all three synoptic Gospels (Matt. 24:3; Mark 13:3-4; Luke 21:7). This context is important to understand what Jesus says next because he is answering these two basic questions. Some argue that these two questions are in relation to two separate events – one near to the disciples and one far off in the distant future. I think it will become apparent as we work through the text in this series that this is not the case. We’ll start by considering his answer to the first question, “when?” and in later articles we’ll consider “what” the signs are of his coming and the end of the age.
This Generation Will Not Pass Away (v.34)
There are two basic positions concerning the timing of the fulfillment of these events predicted by Jesus in Matthew 24. The first is called the FUTURIST position. As the name implies, they believe that the fulfillment of these predictions is in the future to our present time, and so it is something yet to be fulfilled. The other position, which I will be arguing for in this series, is called the PRETERIST position. The name comes from a Latin root meaning “past” and it sees these events as already having been fulfilled in the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
One of the main points of debate has been over what Jesus meant when he said that all these things will happen in “this generation”. Which generation was Jesus referring to? Some think it was the generation of people in Jesus’s time in the first century. Others think it is in reference to a type or kind of people that continue till this day.
Did Jesus get it wrong?
This issue is not just a debate within the church. Even popular atheists have used this passage to ridicule Christians. The famous atheist, Bertrand Russell commented,
“I am concerned with Christ as He appears in the Gospels, taking the Gospel narrative as it stands, and there one does find some things that do not seem to be very wise. For one thing, He certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time.” (Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian, p. 16)
He then goes on to cite verses such as Matthew 10:23 and 16:28 as evidence that it was clear that Jesus believed his Second Coming would happen during the lifetimes of those before him in the first century. Even the late atheist Christopher Hitchens referred to this in his debate with Pastor Doug Wilson at Westminster Theological Seminary as proof that Jesus was wrong. So, for Russell, Hitchens and others like them, this is clear evidence that Jesus was not a true prophet and thus not who he claimed to be.
Jesus’s doubly-emphatic statement
In the Greek text, we can clearly see Jesus’s emphasis on this statement. It starts off with the word ἀμὴν – amen or truly. Jesus is saying that this is an assured statement – you can take it to the bank. In fact, the whole clause which begins the statement is extra emphatic of this. Jesus puts the phrase – ὅτι οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη – which can be literally translated, “that no, not by any means shall have passed away this generation”.
By placing a double negative construction (οὐ μὴ) paired with the opening ἀμὴν (amen) first in his statement, he is putting extra emphasis on what he says. He is staking his whole reputation on whether or not what he says will take place actually will come true. Indeed he claims to his hearers in the first century that even heaven and earth would sooner pass away than his words pass away (again using the double-negative construction – οὐ μὴ). What kind of genuine offer of proof to the validity of him being God’s True Prophet would it be if we were to take this to mean that the fulfillment of his words would happen thousands of years after his hearers were already long dead and gone?
If what he predicted would happen in his generation did not actually happen, then Jesus is a false prophet. This is a huge implication of this issue and one which Christians must wrestle with honestly.
Alternative interpretations of “this generation”
Many Christians have recognized this dilemma and tried to come up with solutions. Some Christians, who are typically Dispensational (whether knowingly or not), believe that Jesus was speaking about a certain kind of people – meaning, “this sort or kind of people shall not pass away before these things come to pass.” Thus, this does not exclude the original hearers and disciples from being numbered among this designation. Others think it refers to the Jewish race as a whole. So, they reason that Jesus’s prediction was meant for some time in the distant future. For example, David Hill in his commentary on Matthew says that “‘this generation’ indicates “the people of God” which will survive till the end of time.” (Hill, Matthew, NCBC, p. 323)
However, Jesus could have said all those alternative options very easily in Greek. If he wanted to communicate “this kind of generation” he could have easily used the word ποταπὸς. It’s not like the language was lacking the ability to communicate any one of those things if he intended to. If we believe in the inspiration of the Bible, then we must wrestle with the specificity of his words as written. Furthermore, as R.C. Sproul notes,
“Because the day and hour are not known does not preclude the application of a time-frame as lengthy as a human generation. Someone, for example, could predict that an event will take place in the next forty years, and then qualify the prediction by saying “I don’t know the particular day or hour” within that span of time.” (Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, p. 52)
The Amillennial theologian, Anthony Hoekema holds that, “this generation” is used in a qualitative sense, as of an “evil” (Matt. 12:45), “adulterous” (Mark 8:38), or “perverse” (Matt. 17:17) generation. “By ‘this generation,’ then, Jesus means the rebellious, apostate, unbelieving Jewish people, as they have revealed themselves in the past, are revealing themselves in the present, and will continue to reveal themselves in the future.” Herman Ridderbos, in his book, The Coming of the Kingdom, takes a similar approach and interprets “this generation” as referring to a certain frame of mind or disposition in people who are opposed to Jesus and his words. He argues that Jesus’s purpose was not to disclose the exact time of his coming but rather the certainty of his coming.
However, Dr. Sproul points out why this is problematic:
“One of the chief problems with this interpretation is that Jesus was answering not a question of certainty, but a question regarding chronology. The disciples were not asking if these things would come to pass. They were asking when they would come to pass.” (Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, p. 58 – emphasis mine)
Some try to argue that Jesus meant “the Jewish race” by “generation” – meaning that the Jewish race would not be annihilated before his Second Coming. However, as David Chilton notes,
“Not one of these references is speaking of the entire Jewish race over thousands of years; all use the word in its normal sense of the sum total of those living at the same time. It always refers to contemporaries. (In fact, those who say it means ‘race’ tend to acknowledge this fact, but explain that the word suddenly changes its meaning when Jesus uses it in Matthew 24!)” (Chilton, The Great Tribulation, p. 3)
Moreover, the argument that γενεά (genea) means “the Jewish race” seems absurd when considered. Furthermore, this interpretation of this phrase simply to mean that Israel as a nation or the Jewish race will never pass away until these things happen is precluded by Dispensationalism itself which believes that Israel will never pass away! So, this would be a totally irrelevant statement.
But, just for the sake of argument, let’s think it through some more… Think about it: Jesus used very solemn language (“truly I say to you…”) to emphasize this statement. The disciples had asked, when will these things take place? Are we to believe that he gives them such a generic answer as “the Hebrew race will not become extinct until these things happen”? Doesn’t seem like a very impressive prophecy. It would be similar to me saying that the city of Toronto is going to be destroyed and the CN tower totally levelled to the ground brick by brick and there’s going to be a terrible slaughter of the people in the city. Then, someone asks me “when is this going to happen?” And I answer, “the caucasian race will not go extinct before all this takes place.” Wouldn’t that be an absurd and unsatisfactory sort of prophecy?
For the early church, they were in the midst of a life-and-death crisis with increasing persecution from the Jews who rejected Christ and pressure from the Roman authorities. Their founder, Jesus Christ, had been publicly executed (and raised). If we believe with futurist interpreters that he gave these early believers warnings of what would happen some 2000 or more years in the future to some distant generation, then what use would his words have been to them in their day? Would it have been relevant to their daily walk before God or their life in the local church? No. So are we to think that Jesus told them something that was totally irrelevant to them? This seems to me plainly absurd.
So what does “this generation” actually mean?
The phrase “this generation” occurs six times in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 11:16; 12:41, 42, 45; 23:36 and 24:34). Meanwhile, the word for generation (γενεά) occurs another few times in the genealogy of chapter 1 (1:17), and when Jesus speaks of “an adulterous” or “perverted” generation in 12:39, 16:4 and 17:17. Those are all the usages of the word generation in Matthew’s Gospel. So, this makes it pretty simple for us to determine what is meant by this word.
Linguist, A.T. Robinson affirmed that in the OT a generation was commonly reckoned as 40 years. If we look at each of the uses of “generation” in Matthew’s Gospel, it always refers either literally to a generation (i.e. a period of time of about 30-40 years), or the contemporaries or collective people living at that particular time. Here are a few texts to illustrate:
- In Matthew 1:17 it is clear that generation means the people living at the same time, “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.”
- In Matthew 11:16, Jesus is speaking about the people of his time when he asks, “to what shall I compare this generation?” – he’s clearly talking about his contemporaries.
- In Matthew 12:38-45, Jesus is rebuking the scribes and Pharisees who asked him for a sign, telling them that it is “an evil and adulterous generation” who seeks for a sign and that the men of Nineveh and the queen of the South will judge “this generation and condemn it” because they have something far greater right in front of them. He was again clearly speaking to his contemporaries there – it was they that would be given the sign of Jonah at his crucifixion and resurrection.
If we tried to replace “this generation” with “the Jewish race” or some of the other suggestions it would dismantle the clear meaning of the text. In all of these references to “this generation”, Jesus is clearly speaking to the people of his day. Grammatically, the use of “this,” (a near demonstrative) identifies the generation as the ones to whom Jesus was addressing in the first century. Thus, it is logical to assume that when he uses this phrase again in Matthew 23:36 and 24:34 that he means the same thing. To say otherwise would be to import a meaning from outside of Matthew’s usage of the term. As John Nolland in the New International Greek Testament Commentary volume on Matthew notes that,
“Matthew uses γενεά here for the tenth time. Though his use of the term has a range of emphases, it consistently refers to (the time span of) a single human generation. All the alternative senses proposed here (the Jewish people; humanity; the generation of the end-time signs; wicked people) are artificial and based on the need to protect Jesus from error. ‘This generation’ is the generation of Jesus’ contemporaries.”
Some counter that if one goes to the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) or to some classical Greek authors you can find usages of the word γενεά to refer to a nation or a race. However, even in the Septuagint, the primary meaning is “contemporaries” and the word γενεά occurs 38 times in the NT and its normative meaning is primarily that of “contemporaries”. Thus, for those trying to say it means otherwise, the consistent direct testimony of scripture is against them.
Indeed, this is how many notable commentators from since the Reformation have understood this phrase. Dr. Gary DeMar gives a helpful list of a few:
- John Lightfoot (1658): “Hence it appears plain enough, that the foregoing verses [Matt. 24:1–34] are not to be understood of the last judgment, but, as we said, of the destruction of Jerusalem. There were some among the disciples (particularly John), who lived to see these things come to pass. With Matt. xvi. 28, compare John xxi. 22. And there were some Rabbins alive at the time when Christ spoke these things, that lived until the city was destroyed.”
- Thomas Newton (1755): “It is to me a wonder how any man can refer part of the foregoing discourse to the destruction of Jerusalem, and part to the end of the world, or any other distant event, when it is said so positively here in the conclusion, All these things shall be fulfilled in this generation.”
- John Gill (1766): “This is a full and clear proof, that not any thing that is said before [v. 34], relates to the second coming of Christ, the day of judgment, and the end of the world; but that all belongs to the coming of the son of man in the destruction of Jerusalem, and to the end of the Jewish state.”
- Henry Cowles (1881): “Some interpreters have construed the words—‘this generation’—to mean this sort of people, i.e., the Jews, or the wicked, etc., seeking to set aside its only legitimate sense, viz., the men then living. Such wresting of Christ’s words cannot be reprobated too severely.”
- G. R. Beasley-Murray (1957): “Despite all the attempts to establish the contrary, there seems to be no escape from the admission that here [in Mark 13:30] ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη is to be taken in its natural sense of the generation contemporary with Jesus.”
- Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida (1961): “[T]he obvious meaning of the words ‘this generation’ is the people contemporary with Jesus. Nothing can be gained by trying to take the word in any sense other than its normal one: in Mark (elsewhere in 8:12, 9:19) the word always has this meaning.”
- D. A. Carson (1984): “[This generation] can only with the greatest difficulty be made to mean anything other than the generation living when Jesus spoke.”
- F. F. Bruce (1983): “The phrase ‘this generation’ is found too often on Jesus’ lips in this literal sense for us to suppose that it suddenly takes on a different meaning in the saying we are now examining. Moreover, if the generation of the end-time had been intended, ‘that generation’ would have been a more natural way of referring to it than ‘this generation.
- R. T. France (2007): “‘This generation’ has been used frequently in this gospel for Jesus’ contemporaries, especially in a context of God’s impending judgment; see 11:16; 12:39, 41–42, 45; 16:4; 17:17, and especially 23:36, where God’s judgment on ‘this generation’ leads up to Jesus’ first prediction of the devastation of the temple in 23:38. It may safely be concluded that if it had not been for the embarrassment caused by supposing that Jesus was here talking about his parousia, no one would have thought of suggesting any other meaning for ‘this generation,’ such as ‘the Jewish race’ or ‘human beings in general’ or ‘all the generations of Judaism that reject him’ or even ‘this kind’ (meaning scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees). Such broad senses, even if they were lexically possible, would offer no help in response to the disciples’ question ‘When?’”
- Grant Osborne (2010): “‘[T]his generation’ (ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη) in the gospels always means the people of Jesus’ own time (11:16; 12:41–42; 23:36) not, as some have proposed, the generation of the last days in history, the Jewish people, the human race in general, or the sinful people.”
Also in this list are commentators such as Henry Hammond (1653), Philip Doddridge (1750) Thomas Scott (1817), Milton Terry (1898), John Broadas (1886), William L. Lane (1974), Jack P. Lewis (1976), William Sanford LaSor (1987), and Paul Copan (2008).
Some try a third way and apply the principle of primary and secondary prophetic fulfillment where a bible prophecy may have a near fulfillment in the time of the hearers and a further secondary fulfillment at a later date. They admit that his predictions were fulfilled in 70 AD with the destruction of the Temple, but also that they have a secondary, future fulfillment yet to come. They point to passages like Isaiah 9 which had a primary fulfillment in Isaiah’s day, and also a secondary (and greater) fulfillment in the birth of Christ.
However, for these sorts of passages that legitimately have a “double fulfillment”, the only reason we know there is a secondary fulfillment is that Scripture itself tells us this! Without a definitive word from God, it is pure speculation to say there is another secondary fulfillment to Jesus’s words. Also, with such a principle, what prevents us from looking for double, triple, or multiple meanings of prophecies within prophecies? How would we ever be sure we could understand what scripture’s prophecies mean? Is it not more reasonable to expect that Jesus would answer a direct question with a plain answer?
Furthermore, when Jesus’s disciples point out to him the details of the Temple in their day, Jesus responds by saying that “all THESE THINGS” will happen. Thus, it cannot be applied to some rebuilt temple hundreds and hundreds of years later. His words were specifically aimed at the Temple in their day. Also, it is notable that the Temple is in fact destroyed within 40 years of Jesus’s prophecy in 70 AD.
Throughout this whole passage, Jesus is speaking in line with the tradition of the OT prophets. Centuries earlier, the prophet Jeremiah had likewise predicted the destruction of the First Temple because of the Jews’ disobedience to the covenant (see Jer. 7:1-14) and pronounced its sure destruction: “But if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation.” (Jer. 22:5) He then records its actual destruction by the armies of the pagan King Nebuchadnezzar in 52:12-13 – similar to what happened to the Second Temple Jesus prophecies against. John Nolland notes that, “After the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, Jewish reflection on the significance of this event frequently involved linking it with the earlier Babylonian destruction.” (NIGTC: Matthew, 958)
As David Chilton notes,
“It was this generation which Jesus called “wicked and perverse” (Matt. 12:39, 45; 16:4;17:17); it was this “terminal generation” which crucified the Lord; and it was this generation, Jesus said, upon which would come the punishment for “all the righteous blood shed on the earth” (Matt. 23:35).” (Chilton, Paradise Restored, p.84-85)
Thus, regardless of what our previous notions were about this text, it is clear that what Jesus meant to communicate was that everything he had said in Matthew 24:1-33 was to take place within 40 years (a generation) of his day. For many, this poses a big stumbling block. However, I’d encourage you to challenge your own traditions about this text you may have inherited and read on with an open mind to consider a different (and I think, more biblical) viewpoint. I hope that as we continue in this series you will see that actually, this is an amazing truth that further proves the authenticity of our Lord and the reliability of His Word. Also, I believe that a proper understanding of eschatology will inevitably have major implications on how you live our your faith today.
I hope you’ll join me as we continue on this journey. Click the links below to jump to the rest of the articles in this series.
Articles in this series:
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | Which Generation Would See the End?
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The End of the Age (Matt. 24:3)
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | Signs: Wars, Famine, Persecution (Matt. 24:3-14)
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The Abomination of Desolation (Matt. 24:15-28)
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The Coming of the Son of Man (Matt 24:29-35)
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The Rapture – Left Behind? (Matt. 24:36-44)