There are three assertions regarding the meaning of Jesus words in Mt. 24:34,35 which we will endeavor to support both logically and Scripturally in this post. They are:
- As used at Mt. 24:34, ‘generation’ is to be understood by its conventional definition.
- This prophecy is given to sustain those who will live through the Great Tribulation.
- “All these things” includes all the events listed in Mt. 24:4-31.
A Remarkable Rendering
Before we start our analysis, let us review the Scriptural texts in question.
(Matthew 24:34, 35) . . .Truly I say to YOU that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.
(Mark 13:30, 31) . . .Truly I say to YOU that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things happen. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
(Luke 21:32, 33) . . .Truly I say to YOU, This generation will by no means pass away until all things occur. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.
There is something noteworthy here; one might even say, remarkable. If you take the time to examine the accounts of Jesus’ prophecy of the sign of his presence and the conclusion of the system of things, you will immediately notice how different each one is from the other two. Even the question that prompted the prophecy is rendered quite differently in each account.
(Matthew 24:3) . . .“Tell us, When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your presence and of the conclusion of the system of things?”
(Mark 13:4) . . .“Tell us, When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are destined to come to a conclusion?”
(Luke 21:7) . . .“Teacher, when will these things actually be, and what will be the sign when these things are destined to occur?”
By contrast, Jesus’ reassurance about the generation is rendered almost verbatim in all three accounts. By giving us three accounts with virtually identical wording, Jesus’ words seem to take on the character of a sacred contract, one sealed with the highest of divine guarantees—the word of God spoken through his Son. It follows then that it is merely up to us to understand the concise meaning of the terms of the contract. It is not for us to redefine them.
A contract is essentially a legal promise. Jesus’ words at Matthew 24:34, 35 are a divine promise. But why did he make that promise? It was not to give us a means to determine the approximate length of the Last Days. In fact, we have stated this very truth many times in our publications as well as from the convention platform; though regrettably, we have often ignored our own counsel in the very next paragraph or breath. Still, one can’t use the term ‘generation’ without introducing some element of time. Therefore, the question is: What is being measured? And again, why?
As to the Why, it appears the key lies in verse 35 where Jesus adds: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.” I don’t know about you, but that sure sounds like a guarantee to me. If he wanted to reassure us about the faithfulness of his promise, could he have worded it any more strongly?
Why would a reassurance of this magnitude—‘heaven and earth will cease to exist before my words fail you’—be needed? There are many other prophecies given to us that are not accompanied by such a guarantee. It would appear that undergoing the events covered by the words “all these things” would be such a test of endurance that some reassurance that the end was in sight would be needed so as to hold on to our faith and hope.
Since Jesus’ words cannot fail to come true, he could not have meant to reassure the generation of 1914 that they would see the end. Therefore, the specific events of 1914 could not be part of “all these things”. There is no getting around that. We have tried to by making up a new definition for the word ‘generation’, but we don’t get to redefine Scriptural terms. (See This Generation” – 2010 Interpretation Examined)
“All These Things”
Very well. We’ve established that Jesus’ words are intended as a much needed reassurance to his disciples. We’ve also established that a generation involves, by its very nature, some time frame. What is that time frame?
In the April 15, 2010 Watchtower (p. 10, par. 14) we define the term ‘generation’ like this: “It usually refers to people of varying ages whose lives overlap during a particular time period; it is not excessively long; and it has an end.” This definition has the virtue of agreeing with both Scriptural and secular sources.
What is the particular “time period” in question. Undoubtedly, that covered by the events included in the words “all these things”. Our official position on this is that everything Jesus spoke of from Mt. 24:4 through to verse 31 is included in “all these things”. Besides being our official take on this, it also just makes sense given the context of Matthew chapter 24. Therefore—and I don’t like pointing out a mistake in the publications any more than the next fellow, but there is no avoiding it if we are to continue honestly—the application we give immediately following the above quote is wrong. We go on to say, “How, then, are we to understand Jesus’ words about “this generation”? He evidently meant that the lives of the anointed who were on hand when the sign began to become evident in 1914 would overlap with the lives of other anointed ones who would see the start of the Great Tribulation.” (italics added)
Do you see the problem? The Great Tribulation is described in Mt. 24:15-22. It is part of “all these things”. It doesn’t come after “all these things”. Therefore the generation doesn’t end when the Great Tribulation starts. The Great Tribulation is one of the things that defines or identifies the generation.
The major fulfillment of Mt. 24:15-22 occurs when Babylon the Great is destroyed. We believe that there will then be “an interval of unspecified length”. (w99 5/1 p. 12, par. 16) According to Mt. 24:29, after the Great Tribulation is over there will be signs in the heavens, not least of which is the sign of the Son of man. All of this occurs before Armageddon which is not even mentioned in Mt. 24:3-31 save for the reference to the end in vs. 14.
A Critical Point
Herein lies a critical point. The preaching work has been going on for decades. Wars have been going on for decades. In fact, every one of the things specified from vs. 4 to 14 (the only verses we focus on in our publications when discussing “all these things” and “this generation”) has been going on for decades. We focus on 11 verses, but ignore the remaining 17, which are also included in “all these things”. What is important in nailing down the generation Jesus was speaking of is to find a single event—a one-time occurrence—that identifies it unquestionably. That will be our ‘stake in the ground’.
The Great Tribulation is that ‘stake’. It only happens once. It doesn’t last long. It is part of “all these things”. Those that see it are part of the generation that Jesus referred to.
What about 1914 and World War I?
But wasn’t 1914 the start of the Last Days? Didn’t the sign begin with the start of World War I? It is hard for us to leave that out of the picture, isn’t it?
The post, Was 1914 the Start of Christ’s Presence, addresses this question in greater detail. However, rather than getting into that here, let’s come at the topic from a different direction.
This is a chart of the number of wars fought from 1801 to 2010—210 years of war. (See the end of the post for reference material.)
The chart counts wars based on the year they started, but does not take into consideration how long they lasted nor how severe they were, i.e., how many people died. We have to keep in mind that Jesus only spoke of wars and reports of wars as part of the sign. He could have spoken of an increase in the deadliness or scope of wars, but he did not. He only indicated that numerous wars would comprise one of the features of the sign’s fulfillment.
The period from 1911-1920 does show the highest bar (53), but only by a couple of wars. Both the decades of 1801-1810 and 1861-1870 had 51 wars each. 1991-2000 also shows 51 wars on record. We are using a decade as an arbitrary division for the chart. However, if we group by periods of 50 years, another very interesting picture emerges.
Could the generation Jesus is referring to have been born after 1914 and still be in a position to say it witnesses everything he spoke of without passing away?
Jesus made no mention of the sign beginning in a specific year. He made no mention of the times of the Gentiles ending when the last days began. He made no mention of Daniel’s prophecy of the banded tree as being significant to the fulfillment of this Last Days prophecy. What he did say is that we’d see wars, pestilences, famines and earthquakes as initial pangs of distress. Then without these diminishing in any way, we’d see an increasing of lawlessness and the love of the greater number cooling off as a consequence. We’d see the worldwide preaching of the good news and we’d see the Great Tribulation, followed by signs in the heavens. “All these things” flag the generation that would live through Armageddon.
There were more wars in the first 50 years of the 19th century than there were during the first half of the 20th. There were also earthquakes and food shortages and pestilences. Brother Russell looked at events before and during his day and concluded that the signs of Matthew 24 had been and were being fulfilled. He believed the invisible presence of Christ had begun in April of 1878. He believed the generation began then and would end in 1914. (See References at end of post.) Jehovah’s people believed all these things with the data they had on hand though they had to interpret loosely to make things fit. (For example, with only 6,000 Bible Students in existence in 1914, the Good News had not been preached in all the inhabited earth.) Still, they stuck to their interpretation until the overwhelming weight of evidence forced them to re-evaluate.
Have we fallen into the same mindset? It would appear so from the facts of recent history.
Yet 1914 does make such a perfect candidate for the start of the Last Days, doesn’t it? We have our interpretation and application of the 2,520 days of years. That fits so nicely with the occurrence of World War I; a war unlike any other before it. A war that changed history. Then we have the worldwide Spanish influenza pandemic. Also there were famines and earthquakes. All of that is true. But it was also true that the French revolution and the war of 1812 changed history. In fact, some historians point to the war of 1812 as the first world war. Sure, we didn’t kill as many back then but that is a question of population and technology, not Bible prophecy. Jesus didn’t speak of number of dead, but of number of wars and the fact is that the biggest increase in number of wars has occurred over the last 50 years.
Besides—and this is the real point—it isn’t number of wars, pestilences, famines and earthquakes that mark the last days, but rather that these things occur concurrent with the other aspects of the sign. That didn’t happen in 1914 nor in the decades to follow.
There has been a 150% increase in number of wars in the period from 1961 to 2010 over the period of 1911 to 1960. (135 vs. 203) The Watchtower web site lists 13 new infectious diseases plaguing mankind since 1976. We hear of famines all the time, and the earthquakes of late seem to be among the worst on record. The 2004 Boxing Day earthquake-generated tsunami was the most deadly in human history, with 275,000 killed.
Concurrent with all that is the love of the greater number cooling off due to an increase in lawlessness. This didn’t happen in the first half of the twentieth century. Only in recent years do we see it. Jesus was referring to the love of God, particularly among those claiming to be Christian, cooling off due to increased lawlessness such as we’ve seen perpetrated by the clergy. Also, the preaching work is approaching the fulfillment of Matthew 24:14, though we haven’t got there yet. Jehovah determines when that date is reached.
So, if the ‘stake in the ground’ event—the attack on false religion—where to occur this year, we could then safely say that the generation has been identified. We are seeing the fulfillment of “all these things”. Jesus words will not have failed to come true.
Why the Guarantee?
We cannot imagine what the worldwide destruction of religion will be like. All we can say is that there has never been a test or tribulation like it in all of human history. It will be a trial for us like nothing before it. So bad will it be that unless it were cut short, not flesh would be saved. (Mt. 24:22) Going through something like that will surely put us all through a test like we cannot imagine and the assurance that it will end soon—that we will see its end before we pass away—will be critical to maintaining both our faith and hope alive.
So Jesus’ reassuring promise found at Mt. 24:34 isn’t there to help us figure out how long the Last Days will be. It is there to get us through the Great Tribulation.
Click here for the source for the list of wars. The list of pestilences is thin and if anyone reading this has more information, please forward it to email@example.com. The list of earthquakes comes from Wikipedia, as does the list of famines. Again, if you have a better source, please pass it along. It is of interest that the Watchtower web site lists 13 new infectious diseases plaguing mankind since 1976.
Brother Russell’s View of the Fulfillment of the Sign of the Last Days
A “generation” might be reckoned as equivalent to a century (practically the present limit) or one hundred and twenty years, Moses’ lifetime and the Scripture limit. (Gen. 6:3.) Reckoning a hundred years from 1780, the date of the first sign, the limit would reach to 1880; and to our understanding every item predicted had begun to be fulfilled at that date; the harvest of gathering time beginning October 1874; the organization of the Kingdom and the taking by our Lord of his great power as the King in April 1878, and the time of trouble or “day of wrath” which began October 1874, and will cease about 1915; and the sprouting of the fig tree. Those who choose might without inconsistency say that the century or generation might as properly reckon from the last sign, the falling of the stars, as from the first, the darkening of the sun and moon: and a century beginning 1833 would be still far from run out. Many are living who witnessed the star-falling sign. Those who are walking with us in the light of present truth are not looking for things to come which are already here, but are waiting for the consummation of matters already in progress. Or, since the Master said, “When ye shall see all these things,” and since “the sign of the Son of Man in heaven,” and the budding fig tree, and the gathering of “the elect” are counted among the signs, it would not be inconsistent to reckon the “generation” from 1878 to 1914–36 1/2 years– about the average of human life today.—Studies in the Scriptures IV