[This article was contributed by Apollos]
Could “this generation” of Matt 24:34 be referring to the Jewish people?
In response to some comments exchanged on Meleti’s thought provoking article “This Generation”—Getting All the Pieces to Fit I promised to explore this idea further.
First of all when determining what Jesus meant by “this generation” it is helpful to consider the general Biblical usage of the word γενεά (Gr. genea). Rather than turn this into a long article by including extensive dictionary and concordance references I will simply point out that the word is connected with begetting or birth, and very much allows for the idea of it referring to a race of people. The readers may check Strong’s, Vine’s etc, to easily verify this. (Actually, one thing that wasn’t clear to me from Meleti’s article was that the idea of “race” was rejected, and yet the definitions on which the arguments of “spiritual birth” were built were to do with descendents from the same parent or ancestor. To me at least, that is what the idea of “race” is built upon.)
Next we can consider how Jesus himself used the term. Besides these instances in Matt 24:34 and the parallel verses in Mark and Luke, there are at least 20 occurrences of Jesus using the term “this generation” or a close variant. In every case, without exception, Jesus was referring to the Jewish people. Whether a temporal aspect was involved in any of those references is not made explicit, so there seems to be no overriding reason to limit Jesus’ words to only the contemporaries of his time. Meleti drew attention to this fact in his article by stating “Genea does not carry with it the idea of a time period, only the idea of the generation of progeny.”
With this information alone it seems that we ought to establish good reason to conclude that Jesus was referring to something other than the Jewish people in Matt 24:34, since it would be the single exception to a considerable list in which we know for a certainty that this is what Jesus meant.
In other words if we start with a clean slate rather than introduce preconceptions, the burden of proof ought to be on the one who claims a different meaning, when the meaning is otherwise so consistent.
So why is it our natural inclination to look for a different meaning? I suggest that it is because we cannot immediately see any reason why Jesus would say such a thing about the Jewish nation in this context. However, an inability to find the reason surely would not give us just cause to throw out what would otherwise be the most natural explanation does it?
Look at where that has taken us through the years. Hanging onto the idea that the generation (defined as contemporaries living during a particular age) that saw 1914 would not pass away before Armageddon was very appealing to many – myself included. It seemed to fit the context. And yet it aptly demonstrates that seeming to fit the context is not necessarily any measure of the veracity of a particular interpretation.
Why not then return to the usage that Jesus employed in every other case, and see if there might be a reason to use it in this context after all?
Let us remember that when Jesus was saying these words to his disciples there was as yet no such thing as Christianity. All of the parts of the prophecy that we see as affecting true Christians, and Christianity itself as the replacement form of worship for the Jewish system, would not have been perceived in that way by the disciples at that time. As being heard through their ears Jesus was talking about the destruction of Jerusalem pure and simple. The questions to Jesus in v3 came about in response to his saying that “by no means will a stone [of the temple] be left here upon a stone and not be thrown down”. Is it not probable then that one of the follow-on questions that would be in the mind of the disciples as Jesus talked about these matters, was what the future would be for the Jewish nation? Pronouncements made by Jehovah against other nations in the past had led to their complete annihilation as races of peoples with separate identities. Would this be true of the Jews too? What of the Abrahamic covenant? (More on that later)
Perhaps this would be one explanation of why Jesus would state, that despite the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, the Jews as a people would continue right up to the fulfilment of all things at the coming of the Son of Man in his glory. Or perhaps not. There may be other explanations for why Jesus would have said it, but as previously stated, the meaning of “this generation” cannot hinge simply on a good explanation of why Jesus said it, otherwise the answer would probably have been clear to us long ago.
Nevertheless, having ventured down this road, it may be possible to build more scriptural and historical support for such an explanation. After all, if the Jewish nation had been wiped out as a distinct entity any time since Jesus said these words then we would be able to discount this explanation, and forced to look for an alternative. The fact that they were not, is not an unremarkable thing. If this is indeed what Jesus meant then it would be an example of prophecy being fulfilled against the odds. We might just be missing its full significance.
I am not qualified to write a detailed history of the Jews between 33 C.E. and the present day. However, I think most people would acknowledge that the survival of the Jewish nation was not a foregone conclusion. In a way it parallels the survival of the Bible itself, considering the number of active attempts to wipe it out.
That is the historical picture, but how does all this relate to scripture? Can we dismiss the whole idea by simply saying that the Jews no longer had a role in God’s purpose and therefore Jesus could not have been talking of them? Clearly to dismiss the idea on that basis would presuppose that whosoever Jesus was meaning when he said “this generation” had such an explicit purpose, but the passage doesn’t say that. It simply says that they will still be around at the conclusion of the system of things. Just because the new way of true worship would shortly become Christianity, it doesn’t preclude Jesus making reference to the future of the Jewish nation as an aside to that.
[Note: What I have outlined above is not dependent on what follows. If you wish to comment on Matt 24:34, which is the primary issue here, then it would be better to stick to the points above. The following thoughts on Revelation 12 and Romans 11 may add weight to the idea, but even if they are wrong, to my mind it wouldn’t negate the arguments already presented to understand “this generation” as the Jewish people.]
For the moment try to put aside preconceptions about Revelation chapter 12. It has been my personal belief, even before this topic came up for discussion, that a simple reading of Rev 12 provides a very different understanding from the one proposed in Rutherford’s 1925 article “Birth of the Nation”, the basic framework of which is still accepted by JW’s today.
I don’t want to turn this into a comprehensive commentary on Revelation 12, but will point out some relevant highlights. Things would fall into place if the “woman” of Rev 12 means the Jewish nation that gave birth to the male child (Jesus) who is to “shepherd the nations with an iron rod” (Ps 2:9; 110:2). Then after Jesus is “snatched away to God and his throne” (at his ascension), the dragon seeks to “persecute the woman” (Rev 12:13). What is described here well fits the constant attacks on the Jewish people. And yet although the serpent tries to drown the woman, the earth comes to her help (v15,16). This has proved true throughout history with cycles of particular nations expelling and/or persecuting the Jews, only to find other nations taking them in. Note that when the dragon is unsuccessful in his bid to wipe her out, he turns his attention to the “remaining ones of her offspring, who observe the commandments of God and have the work of bearing witness concerning Jesus” (v17). This latter group is clearly referring to Christians, and can be understood to be a distinct group from “the woman” although part of her “seed”.
If this interpretation is valid then in part it contains the same prophecy as the above explanation of Matt 24:34 – that the Jewish people would endure, and in this case we also learn that this would be despite a concerted effort to wipe them out.
The questions arise – if the Jewish nation no longer has a role to play in God’s purpose, why would Satan have any interest in these ongoing attacks, and why would they be divinely protected?
Here we do well to stand back and look at the bigger picture, which I think Rev 12 in its entirety is inviting us to do. Jesus Christ instituted the New Covenant with those who would become Christians. This New Covenant was a replacement for the old Mosaic Law Covenant (Jer 31:31-34). The Law covenant was a bilateral agreement, the terms of which were broken by the Jewish nation. The New Covenant therefore “made the former one obsolete” (Heb 8:13).
None of this however should be confused with the Abrahamic covenant, which was a unilateral promise made to Abraham by God. This covenant involved Abraham’s literal offspring and would be everlasting. Jehovah said “And I will keep my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” (Gen 17:7)
That brings us to Romans chapter 11 as also mentioned in our discussion on Meleti’s article. It is certainly possible to find a meaning to v26 – “in this manner all Israel will be saved” – by deftly shifting from natural Israel as referred to in the surrounding verses, and then claim a fulfillment of these select words only in “spiritual Israel”. However, I don’t accept that the overall context warrants this understanding. In any event Paul undeniably states that the natural Jews are still “beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (v28). If this and the surrounding verses are not a confirmation of the ongoing validity of the Abrahamic covenant then I really don’t get the point. If the entire passage only leads us to the conclusion that the Jews have been cast off, but that individual Jews might still qualify for a place in “spiritual Israel” then I don’t see why this would be a “sacred secret” (v25) that Paul would conclude with the words “how unsearchable his judgments are and past tracing out his ways are” (v33). Why might it cause the reader to question Jehovah’s way of handling matters as implied in these closing verses? Yet all of this makes complete sense if Paul is drawing attention to a future special consideration to the Jews because of God’s covenant with Abraham, despite their disobedience and the temporary dulling of their sensibilities (v25).
In summary then, some arguments in favor of reading Jesus’ use of the term “this generation” in Matt 24:34 as referring to the Jewish people include:
1) It would be consistent with every other instance in which Jesus used the same term.
2) There would be a valid reason for Jesus to state the outcome for the Jewish people in this context, since he was prophesying that Jerusalem itself was to be destroyed.
3) It would fit with other Bible passages that would appear to confirm that the Jewish people would endure through history despite overt attempts to wipe them out.
4) Point #3 has proved true, despite the odds. Therefore there is evidence that God is maintaining his unilateral covenant with Abraham despite the broken Mosaic Law covenant. It would not be out of place therefore, for Jesus’ words in Matt 24:34 to be confirmation that the Jewish people would not be wiped out despite all these things that were destined to occur.