This Generation in the Discourse

SYNOPSIS:  Biblical usage of “this generation” consistently applies the phrase to the generation that was alive at the time it was uttered - Matthew 24:33-34

Jerusalem and Temple Destroyed by a Roman army
The declaration of Jesus that “this generation will not pass until all these things are fulfilled” has become a difficult passage for many interpreters. According to one interpretation, Jesus claimed that all the things he had predicted in his ‘Olivet Discourse’ would be fulfilled by the end of his generation.

His predictions of tumultuous times, the destruction of the Temple, deceivers, earthquakes, famines, conflicts, the tribulation, the “abomination of desolation,” cosmic upheaval, the gathering of the elect, and the coming of the Son of Man would all occur before the termination of the generation that was contemporary with him.

(Matthew 24:33-34) - “So also when you see all these things, you know that it is near, at the very gates. When you see all these things know that it is near, at the doors. Verily I am saying to you, this generation will not pass until all these things are fulfilled.”

Whether read in Greek or English, it is most natural to understand “this generation” as a reference to the generation that was contemporary with Jesus.  Some of the predicted events were fulfilled in the first century. For example, the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem (A.D. 70).  However, Jesus did not arrive in glory to gather his elect from the four corners of the world.

Some commentators conclude that Jesus was in error; he promised to return within one “generation” but, for whatever reason, did not do so. 

A problem with that conclusion is that, while the gospel of Mark was likely written before the destruction of the Temple, the gospels of Matthew and Luke were produced after that event in A.D. 70, and they had ample opportunity to “correct” Christ’s “error” or to omit the “embarrassing” reference to “this generation,” yet neither gospel account did so.

The gospel of Luke included additional material that reflects his understanding that the destruction of the Temple by a Roman army was the fulfillment of a prediction of Jesus. Nevertheless, in his telling of the Olivet Discourse, Jesus also predicted his future arrival in glory and the “embarrassing” statement about “this generation” not passing away (Luke 19:41-4421:20-2221:27-32).

Proposed Solutions

One proposed solution argues that all the prophecies from the Olivet Discourse were fulfilled in the events leading up to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, including the coming of the Son of Man in glory. This is often called the ‘Preterist’ interpretation.  Because known events can be linked to each of the predictions, this solution eliminates most of the problems caused by the clause, “this generation.”
However, there is one glaring exception: The coming of the Son when he gathers his elect accompanied by cosmic upheaval.
In this interpretation, it is necessary to spiritualize or allegorize the return of Jesus into something other than a visible arrival from heaven and actual cosmic upheaval; a “spiritual” coming that cannot be verified on any objective basis.

A problem is that many of the events predicted by Jesus were localized in and around Judea and Jerusalem.  Yet the arrival of Christ is portrayed as a universal event characterized by cosmic signs; an event that affects all humanity and disrupts the created order (“He sends his angels to gather this elect from the four corners of the earth”).

In contrast, the so-called ‘Futurist’ interpretation claims the predictions are largely waiting for fulfillment at some future point. Therefore, either the generation referred to has not yet been born or, perhaps, is identical with the present generation. The predicted destruction of the Temple is presumed to refer to a temple that has yet to be built. Placing “this generation” in a remote future appears to solve the problem; Jesus was not mistaken because he was speaking of a generation in a remote future.

One popular version claims the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree symbolizes national Israel restored to the land of Palestine, an event that occurred in 1948. The re-founding of national Israel marks the start of History’s “last generation” and Jesus will come within “one generation” of that event.

But the Futurist view must ignore the clear prediction of the demise of the Temple that was standing on the day when Jesus departed from it for the last time. Grammatically, that prediction can only apply to the temple complex that existed at that time (Matthew 24:1-2, “Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them: ‘Do you see all these? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down’”).

Alternatively, some proponents of this view argue there are two fulfillments of this prophecy, one in the past, and a second yet to come.

However, while Jesus did predict the destruction of the Temple, he did not claim that it would be rebuilt. Whether other biblical prophecies predict such an event, Jesus did not (Matthew 23:34-3924:1-3Mark 11:12-2313:1-4Luke 19:41-4421:20-22).

Additionally, the Futurist view does not take the reference to “this generation” at face value; a reference to the generation that was contemporary with Jesus.
A third view is that the Greek word for “generation” (genea) does not mean “generation” at all; instead, it refers to “race.” Supposedly, Jesus referred to the Jewish race, which would survive until the Son of Man arrived.  This eliminates the problem of the Son of Man not returning within his “generation,” but it reads a meaning into the Greek term that deviates from its normal usage.

A “Generation”

The Greek word for “generation” is genea, which means “generation, progeny.” The more appropriate noun to use if “race” is meant is genos (seeGalatians 1:14Philippians 3:5). Both words are from the same Greek stem, gen-; nonetheless, they are separate and distinct words.  Genos or “race” is never used in the Olivet Discourse.

In the New Testament, genea means “generation” and consistently so. For example, Matthew 1:17 reads, “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.”  Mary proclaimed of God that “his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50). The disciples pleaded with a crowd in Jerusalem to save themselves “from this crooked generation!” (Acts 2:40).

Likewise, in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, genea is used for “generation.” For example:

(Genesis 6:9) - “These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.
(Genesis 9:12) - “The sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations.”
(Deuteronomy 1:35) - Not one of the men of this evil generation shall see the good land which I swore to give to your fathers.”
(Psalm 10:6) - “I shall not be moved; throughout all generations, I shall not meet adversity.”

And the Septuagint version of the Old Testament routinely translates the Hebrew word for “generation” or dōr with the Greek noun genea (e.g., Deuteronomy 1:35, see above).
Likewise, genea is used consistently for “generation” in the New Testament, especially in the gospel of Matthew. One is hard-pressed to find instances where it means “race.” Moreover, “generation” is the basic definition of genea, its essential meaning. There is a separate Greek word for “race,” genos. 

To argue that genea means “race” in Matthew 24:34 (and parallels) makes it the exception to how it is used elsewhere in the Greek scriptures.  Nothing in the context justifies doing so; Jesus gave no reason for understanding genea to mean anything other than “generation.”

The Use of “Generation” by Jesus

Jesus referred to “this generation” on more than one occasion.  In Matthew 11:16, he responded to contemporary critics of his ministry by stating, “but to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, who call out to the others.” Here, “this generation” consists of the noun genea and the demonstrative pronoun houtos, just as in Matthew 24:34.

Jesus responded to a group of Pharisees and Scribes who asked for a sign, stating, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet.” Jesus clearly was referring to the generation contemporary with him (Matthew 12:39Mark 8:12). 

In Matthew 12:41-45, Christ elaborated further:

The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South shall rise up with this generation at the judgment and shall condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here… Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. So shall it be also with this evil generation.”

In the preceding cases, Jesus used the Greek word genea four times and thrice with the demonstrative pronoun houtos or “this generation.”  In each case, he was referring to his own generation, the one contemporary with him that rejected him.

On another occasion, Jesus responded to sign seekers when he proclaimed, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah. And he left them and went away” (Matthew 16:4).

When his disciples were unable to cast out a demon, Jesus groaned in frustration, “faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him here to me” (Matthew 17:17Mark 9:19Luke 9:41).

Of most relevance is Matthew 23:36. Matthew Chapter 23 is a long critique of the Scribes and Pharisees that includes the pronouncement of seven “woes” on both groups.  The chapter concludes with a judicial pronouncement against the Temple and the nation:

Serpents! Broods of vipers! How should you flee from the judgment of Gehenna?  For this cause, behold, I am sending to you prophets and wise men and scribes; some from among them you will slay and crucify, and some from among them you will scourge in your synagogues and pursue from city to city:  that there may come upon you all righteous blood poured out upon the earth from the blood of Abel the righteous to the blood of Zachariah, son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar.  Verily, I say unto you, all these things will come upon this generation!…Behold, your desolate house is abandoned to you.”

This declaration was against the “generation” of Israel that rejected its Messiah. This leads directly to the prediction of the destruction of the Temple in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:1-3).

In each of the preceding, “this generation” refers to the one contemporary with Jesus and, almost always, quite negatively. Based on how Jesus used “this generation,” the most straightforward way to read “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 is as a reference to the generation that was contemporary with Christ.

The Old Testament Background

In the synoptic gospels, “this generation” is a cipher for Israel in rebellion against God. The term is derived from Old Testament language and imagery, especially from the wilderness generation that rebelled against Yahweh.  Note the following passages:

(Numbers 32:13) - “Yahweh’s anger burned against Israel and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until the entire generation of those who had done evil in the sight of the LORD was destroyed.”
(Deuteronomy 2:14) - “Now the time that it took for us to come from Kadesh-barnea until we crossed over the brook Zered, was thirty-eight years; until all the generation of the men of war perished from within the camp, as Yahweh had sworn to them.”
(Deuteronomy 32:5) - “They have acted corruptly toward Him, they are not His children, because of their defect; a perverse and crooked generation.”
(Deuteronomy 32:20) - “Then He said, I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end, for they are a perverse generation, sons in whom is no faithfulness.”
(Psalm 95:10) - “For forty years I loathed that generation, and said they are a people who err in their heart, and they do not know my ways.”

Jesus consistently used “this generation” in his critiques of Jewish opponents of his ministry, especially of the Pharisees, Scribes, and the Temple authorities.  In each case, those addressed were his contemporaries. The language is from the wilderness story of Israel, an earlier generation that also rebelled against Yahweh.  On the lips of Jesus, “this generation,” for all intents and purposes, is a stock phrase for the Jewish nation in rebellion against God.

Whatever real or apparent problems this understanding of “this generation” creates for interpreters of the Olivet Discourse, that is the lay of the land.

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