“I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Mat. 24:34 NET Bible)
At that time Jesus said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and intellectual and have revealed them to babes. (Mat. 11:25 NWT)
It seems that with each passing decade, a new interpretation of Matthew 24:34 is published in The Watchtower. We will be studying the latest iteration this coming weekend. The necessity for all these “adjustments” flows from our focus on using this verse as a means to calculate how close the end is. Sadly, these prophetic failures have undermined the value of this important assurance given us by Christ. What he said, he said for a reason. Our Organization, in its craving to provoke a state of extreme urgency among the rank and file, has sequestered the value of Christ’s words to its own ends—specifically, to inspire greater loyalty to our leaders.
The correct application of Christ’s assurance—his guarantee if you will—has puzzled Bible readers and scholars for centuries. I myself took a stab at it back in December with an article in which I believed I had found a way, with the help of others, of making all the pieces fit. The result was a tight and factually consistent (from this writer’s point of view at least) understanding that was intellectually very satisfying to me—at least at first. However, as the weeks went by, I found that it was not emotionally satisfying. I kept thinking about Jesus’ words at Matthew 11:25 (see above). He knew his disciples. These were the babes of the world; the little children. The spirit would reveal truth to them what the wise and intellectual could not see.
I began to look for a simpler explanation.
As I stated in my December article, if even one premise on which any argument is based is wrong, what seems to be as solid as a brick building becomes nothing more than a house of cards. One of the key premises for my understanding was that “all these things” referred to in Mat. 24:34 included everything prophesied by Jesus in verses 4 thru 31. (Incidentally, that is also the official understanding of our Organization.) I now see reason to doubt that, and that changes everything.
I will explain.
What the Disciples Asked
“Tell us, when shall these be? and what is the sign of thy presence, and of the full end of the age?” (Mat. 24:3 Young’s Literal Translation)
They were asking when the temple would be destroyed; something Jesus had just prophesied would happen. They were also asking for signs; signs to denote his arrival in kingly power (his presence, Greek: parousia); and signs to signal the end of the world.
It is very likely that the disciples imagined these events to be either concurrent or that they would all fall within a short space of time.
Jesus’ Response—A Warning
Jesus could not disabuse them of this notion without letting the cat out of the bag and revealing things there were not meant to know. Like his Father, Jesus knew the heart of man. He could see the danger presented by a misplaced zeal for knowing the times and the seasons of God; the damage to faith that prophetic disconfirmation could cause. So instead of directly answering their question, he first addressed this human weakness by issuing a series of warnings.
Vs. 4 “Watch out that no one misleads you.”
They had just asked when the end of the world would come, and the first words out of his mouth are “watch out that no one misleads you”? That says a lot. His concern was for their welfare. He knew that the issue of his return and the end of the world would be the means by which many could be misled—would be misled. In fact, that’s precisely what he says next.
Vs. 5 “For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will mislead many.”
We do well to bear in mind that “Christ” means “anointed one”. So many would claim to be the anointed one of Jesus and would use this self-appointment to mislead many. However, if a self-proclaimed anointed one is to mislead, he must have a message. This puts the next verses into context.
Vs. 6-8 “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Make sure that you are not alarmed, for this must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 For nation will rise up in arms against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these things are the beginning of birth pains.
Jesus is specifically warning his disciples not to be misled into thinking he is at the door when they see wars, earthquakes and the like, especially if some self-appointed anointed one (Christ, Greek: Christos) is telling them these events have special prophetic significance.
From the time of Christ Jesus, there have been many times when Christians have been led to believe the end of the world had arrived due to the impact of natural and manmade catastrophes. For example, it was a common belief in Europe following the 100-years war and during the Black Plague that the end of the world had arrived. To see just how often Christians have failed to heed Jesus’ warning and just how many false Christs (anointed ones) have surfaced over the centuries, check out this Wikipedia topic.
Since wars, earthquakes, famines and pestilences have been going on for centuries, these do not constitute a sign of Christ’s imminent arrival.
Next Jesus warns his disciples of the trials that will befall them.
Vs. 9, 10 “Then they will hand you over to be persecuted and will kill you. You will be hated by all the nations because of my name. 10 Then many will be led into sin, and they will betray one another and hate one another.”
All these things would befall his disciples and history shows that from his death, down to our day, true Christians have been persecuted and betrayed and hated.
Since the persecution of Christians has been going on for centuries, this does not constitute a sign of Christ’s return.
Vs. 11-14 “And many false prophets will appear and deceive many, 12 and because lawlessness will increase so much, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the person who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole inhabited earth as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.
Not claiming to be anointed ones (false Christs) these prophets nevertheless make false predictions causing many to be misled. The prevalence of lawlessness into the Christian congregation causes many to lose their love. (2 Thess. 2:6-10) We need look no farther than the atrocious war record of Christendom to see these words of our Lord were, and are, fulfilled. With all these dire prediction, Jesus now gives words of encouragement by saying that endurance is the key to salvation.
Finally, he predicts that the good news will be preached in all the nations before the end comes.
The presence of false prophets, the loveless and lawless state of the Christian congregation, and the preaching of the good news has been occurring from the time of Christ down to our day. Therefore, these words do not constitute a sign of his impending presence.
Jesus Answers the First Question
Vs. 15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation– spoken about by Daniel the prophet – standing in the holy place (let the reader understand)…”
This is the answer to the first part of their question. That’s it! One verse! What follows doesn’t tell them when these things will be, but rather what to do when they occur; something they never asked about, but something they needed to know. Again, Jesus is loving his disciples and providing for them.
After giving them instructions on how to escape from the wrath coming upon Jerusalem, together with a reassurance that a window of opportunity for escape will open up (vs. 22), Jesus then goes on to again talk about false Christs and false prophets. However, this time he links the misleading nature of their teachings to his presence.
A New Warning
Vs. 23-28 “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe him. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 Remember, I have told you ahead of time. 26 So then, if someone says to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe him. 27 For just like the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
Is Jesus finally coming round to answering the second and third part of his disciples’ question? Not yet. Apparently, the danger of being misled is so great that he again warns them of it. However, this time those who would mislead are not using catastrophic events like wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes. No! Now these false prophets and false anointed ones are performing what they call great signs and wonders and claiming to know where Christ is. They proclaim he is already present, already ruling, but in a hidden way. The rest of the world will not know this, but the faithful who will follow these ones will be let in on the secret. “He is out in the wilderness,” they say, or “hidden in some secret inner chamber.” Jesus tell us to give them no hearing ear. He tells us that we not will need some self-proclaimed messiah to tell us when his presence has arrived. He compares it to sky lightening. You don’t even have to be looking directly at the sky to know that this type of lightening has flashed. To drive home that point, he uses yet another analogy that would be well within the experience of all his listeners. Anyone can see birds of carrion circling from a great distance. No one has to interpret that sign for us to know there is a dead body below. One needs no special knowledge, not membership in some exclusive club, to recognize a flash of lightening or a group of circling birds. Likewise, his presence will be self-evident to the world, not just his disciples.
Jesus Answers Parts 2 and 3
Vs. 29-31 “Immediately after the suffering of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. 30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man arriving on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet blast, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Now Jesus gets to answering the second and third parts of the question. The sign of his presence and of the end of the age will include the darkening of the sun and moon and the falling of the stars. (Since stars cannot literally fall from heaven, we will have to wait and see how this is fulfilled just as the first century Christians had to wait to see who the disgusting thing really was.) It will include the sign of the Son of Man in the heavens, and then finally, the visible manifestation of Jesus arriving in the clouds.
(It is noteworthy aside that Jesus gives his disciples no direction for their salvation as he did for the time of Jerusalem’s destruction. Perhaps this is because that part is already taken care of by the angelic-directed ‘gathering of the chosen’. – Mat. 24:31)
Vs. 32-35 “Learn this parable from the fig tree: Whenever its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also you, when you see all these things, know that he is near, right at the door. 34 I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
No self-proclaimed anointed one, nor self-appointed prophet is needed for anyone to know that summer is near. This is what Jesus is saying in vs. 32. Anyone can read the seasonal signs. He then says that you, not your leaders, or some guru, or some Pope, or some Judge, or some Governing Body, but you can see for yourself by the signs that he is near, “right at the door”.
The signs indicating Jesus is right at the door, his kingly presence imminent, are listed in verses 29 thru 31. They are not the events that he warns us about misreading; the events he lists in verses 4 thru 14. Those events have been ongoing since the days of the apostles, so they couldn’t constitute a sign of his presence. The events of verses 29 thru 31 have yet to occur and will only occur once. They are the sign.
Therefore, when he adds in verse 34 that a single generation will witness “all these things”, he is referring to the things spoken of in verses 29 to 31 only.
This leads one to the inevitable conclusion that the occurrence of these signs will occur over a span of time. Thus the need for a reassurance. The tribulation that came upon Jerusalem in the first century lasted for years. It is hard to believe that the destruction of the entire global system of things will be an overnight affair.
Hence the need for Jesus reassuring words.
If I say that I’m part of the hippie generation, you will not conclude that I was born in the late 60’s, nor will you believe that I was a 40-year old when the Beatles released their Sgt. Pepper’s album. You will understand that I was of a particular age at a particular time in history. That generation is gone, even though those who made it up are still alive. When the average person speaks of a generation, he isn’t speaking of a span of time measured by a collective lifetime. The figure of 70 or 80 years doesn’t come to mind. If you say Napolean’s generation or Kennedy’s generation, you know that you are referring to events that identify a relatively brief period of history. This is the common meaning and it takes no doctrinal degree nor scholarly research to define it. It is the understanding that the “little children” get instinctively.
Jesus has hidden the meaning of his words from the wise and intellectual ones. His warning words have all come true and many have been misled into believing the false prophecies of self-appointed, self-anointed ones. However, when the time comes to apply the words of Matthew 24:34—when we will really need a divine reassurance that if we just hold on that our salvation will arrive, and will not be late—the little ones, the infants, the babes, will get it.
Matthew 24:34 is not there to give us a means to calculate how close the end is. It is not there to provide us with a way to get around the injunction at Acts 1:7. It is there to give us a guarantee, one with divine backing, that once we start to see the signs, the end will come within that generation—a relatively brief period of time that we can endure.