“Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means
pass away until all these things happen.” (Mt 24:34)
If you scan the “This Generation” category on this site, you’ll see various attempts by myself and Apollos to come to terms with the meaning of Matthew 24:34. These were sincere attempts to try to reconcile our understanding of the scope of this verse with the rest of Scripture and the facts of history. Looking back on my own attempts, I realize that I was still working under the influence of my life-long JW mindset. I was imposing a premise on the passage that was not found in Scripture and then reasoning from that basis. I confess that I was never really comfortable with those explanations, though at the time I couldn’t put my finger on why that was so. It is now clear to me that I wasn’t letting the Bible do the talking.
Does this Scripture offer Christians a means by which to calculate how close we are to the end? It might seem so at first glance. All that is needed is to understand the approximate length of a generation and then to fix a starting point. After that, it’s just simple math.
Over the years, many millions of Christians have been misled by their leaders to fixate on possible dates for Christ’s return, only to wind up disillusioned and discouraged. Many have even turned away from God and Christ due to such failed expectations. Truly, “expectation postponed is making the heart sick.” (Pr 13:12)
Rather than depend on others for an understanding of Jesus’ words, why not accept the help he promised us at John 16:7, 13? God’s spirit is powerful and can guide us into all the truth.
A word of warning, however. Holy spirit guides us; it does not force us. We must welcome it and create an environment where it can do its work. So pride and hubris must be eliminated. Likewise, personal agendas, bias, prejudice, and preconceptions. Humility, an open mind, and a heart willing to change are crucial to its operation. We must always remember that the Bible instructs us. We do not instruct it.
An Expository Approach
If we are going to have any chance of correctly understanding what Jesus meant by “all these things” and “this generation” will have to learn how to see things through his eyes. We will also have to try to understand the mindset of his disciples. We will need to put his words into their historical context. You will need to harmonize everything with the rest of Scripture.
Our first step should be to read from the beginning of the account. This will take us to Matthew chapter 21. There we read of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem seated on a colt just days before he was to die. Matthew relates:
“This actually took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet, who said: 5 “Tell the daughter of Zion: ‘Look! Your king is coming to you, mild-tempered and mounted on a donkey, yes, on a colt, the offspring of a beast of burden.’”” (Mt 21:4, 5)
From this and the way Jesus was subsequently treated by the crowds, it is evident that the people believed that their king, their liberator, had finally arrived. Jesus next enters the temple and throws out the money changers. Boys are running around crying, “Save us, Son of David.” The expectation of the people was that the Messiah was to be king and sit on David’s throne to rule Israel, freeing it from the rule of gentile nations. The religious leaders are indignant by the idea that the people hold Jesus to be this Messiah.
The next day, Jesus returns to the temple and is challenged by the chief priests and elders whom he both defeats and rebukes. He then gives them the parable of the landowner who rented out his land to cultivators who tried to steal it by killing his son. Terrible destruction comes upon them as a consequence. This parable is about to become a reality.
In Matthew 22 he gives a related parable about a marriage feast which the King puts on for son. Messenger are sent out with invitations, but evil men kill them. In retaliation, the King’s armies dispatch the murderers and destroy their city. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes know these parables are about them. Incensed, they plot to trap Jesus in word so as to gain a pretext to condemn him, but the Son of God again confounds them and defeats their pathetic attempts. All this happens while Jesus continues preaching in the temple.
In Matthew 23, still in the temple and knowing his time is short, Jesus lets loose a tirade of condemnation on these leaders, repeatedly calling them hypocrites and blind guides; likening them to whitewashed graves and snakes. After 32 verses of this, he concludes by saying:
“Serpents, offspring of vipers, how will you flee from the judgment of Ge·henʹna? 34 For this reason, I am sending to you prophets and wise men and public instructors. Some of them you will kill and execute on stakes, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, 35 so that there may come upon you all the righteous blood spilled on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zech·a·riʹah son of Bar·a·chiʹah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Mt 23:33-36 NWT)
For two days now, Jesus has been in the temple talking condemnation, death, and destruction upon the wicked generation that is about to kill him. But why also make them responsible for the death of all the righteous blood spilled since Abel? Abel was the first religious martyr. He worshiped God in an approved way and was killed for it by his jealous older brother who wanted to worship God in his own way. This is a familiar story; one these religious leaders are about to repeat, fulfilling an ancient prophecy.
“And I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring. He will crush your head, and you will strike him in the heel.”” (Ge 3:15)
By killing Jesus, the religious rulers that form the governing body over the Jewish system of things will become the seed of Satan that strikes the seed of the woman in the heel. (John 8:44) Because of this, they will be held accountable for all the religious persecution of righteous men from the beginning. What is more, these men will not stop with Jesus, but will continue to persecute those the resurrected Lord sends to them.
Jesus foretells not only their destruction but that of the entire city. This is not the first time this has happened, but this tribulation will be far worse. This time the entire nation of Israel will be abandoned; rejected as God’s chosen people.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the killer of the prophets and stoner of those sent to her—how often I wanted to gather your children together the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings! But you did not want it. 38 Look! Your house is abandoned to you.” (Mt 23:37, 38)
Thus, the age of the Jewish nation will end. Its particular system of things as God’s chosen people will have reached its conclusion and will be no more.
A Quick Review
In Matthew 23:36, Jesus speaks of “all these things” which will come upon “this generation.” Going no further, looking only at the context, what generation would you suggest he is speaking of? The answer would seem obvious. It must be the generation upon which all these things, this destruction, is about to come.
Leaving the Temple
Since arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus’ message has changed. He is no longer speaking of peace and reconciliation with God. His words are full of denunciation and retribution, death and destruction. For a people who are very proud of their ancient city with its magnificent temple, who feel their form of worship is the only one approved by God, such words must be very disturbing. Perhaps in reaction to all this talk, upon leaving the temple, Christ’s disciples start talking up the beauty of the temple. This talk causes our Lord to say the following:
“As he was going out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him: “Teacher, see! what wonderful stones and buildings!” 2 However, Jesus said to him: “Do you see these great buildings? By no means will a stone be left here upon a stone and not be thrown down.”” (Mr 13:1, 2)
“Later, when some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with fine stones and dedicated things, 6 he said: “As for these things that you now see, the days will come when not a stone will be left upon a stone and not be thrown down.”” (Lu 21:5, 6)
“Now as Jesus was departing from the temple, his disciples approached to show him the buildings of the temple. 2 In response he said to them: “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, by no means will a stone be left here upon a stone and not be thrown down.”” (Mt 24:1, 2)
“These great buildings”, “these things”, “all these things.” These words originate with Jesus, not his disciples!
If we ignore the context and restrict ourselves only to Matthew 24:34, we might be led to believe that the phrase “all these things” refers to the signs and occurrences Jesus spoke of at Matthew 24:4 thru 31. Some of those things occurred shortly after Jesus died, while others have yet to occur, so drawing such a conclusion would force us to explain how a single generation could encompass a 2,000-year-long span of time.[i] When something doesn’t harmonize with the rest of Scripture nor the facts of history, we should see it as a big a red flag to alert us we may be falling prey to eisegesis: imposing our view on Scripture, rather than letting Scripture instruct us.
So let us look again at the context. The first time Jesus uses these two phrases together – “all these things” and “this generation” – is in Matthew 23:36. Then, shortly thereafter, he again uses the phrase “all these things” (tauta panta) to refer to the temple. The two phrases are closely connected by Jesus. Further, this and these are words used to denote objects, things or conditions that are present before all onlookers. “This generation” must therefore refer to a generation then present, not one 2,000 years in the future. “All these things” would likewise refer to things he’s just spoken of, things present before them, things pertaining to “this generation.”
What about the things mentioned at Matthew 24:3-31? Are they also included?
Before we answer that, we have to again look at the historical context and what gave rise to Christ’s prophetic words.
The Multipart Question
After departing the temple, Jesus and his disciples made their way to the Mount of Olives from which they could view all of Jerusalem including its magnificent temple. Undoubtedly, the disciples must have been disturbed by Jesus’ words that all the things they could see from the Mount of Olives were soon to be destroyed. How would you feel if the place of worship you had revered all your life as God’s own house was going to be utterly obliterated? At the very least, you would want to know when it was all going to happen.
“While he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples approached him privately, saying: “Tell us, (A) when will these things be, and (B) what will be the sign of your presence and (C) of the conclusion of the system of things?” (Mt 24:3)
“Tell us, (A) when will these things be, and (C) what will be the sign when all these things are to come to a conclusion?” (Mr 13:4)
“Then they questioned him, saying: “Teacher, (A) when will these things actually be, and (C) what will be the sign when these things are to occur?” (Lu 21:7)
Notice that only Matthew breaks the question into three parts. The other two writers do not. Did they feel the question about Christ’s presence (B) wasn’t important? Not likely. Then why not mention it? Also worthy of note is the fact that all three gospel accounts were written before the fulfillment of Matthew 24:15-22, i.e., before Jerusalem was destroyed. Those writers did not yet know that all three parts of the question were not to have a concurrent fulfillment. As we consider the rest of the account, it is critical that we remember that point; that we see things through their eyes and understand where they were coming from.
“When will these things be?”
All three accounts include these words. Obviously, they are referring to the “things” Jesus had just spoken of: The death of the blood guilty wicked generation, the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple. To this point, nothing else had been mentioned by Jesus, so there is no reason to assume they were thinking of anything else when they asked their question.
“What will be the sign…of the conclusion of the system of things?”
This rendering of the third part of the question comes from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. Most Bible translations render this literally as “the end of the age.” The end of what age? Were the disciples asking about the end of the world of mankind? Again, rather than speculate, let us allow the Bible to speak to us:
“…when all these things are to come to a conclusion?”” (Mr 13:4)
“…what will be the sign when these things are to occur?” (Lu 21:7)
Both accounts refer again to “these things”. Jesus had only referred to the destruction of the generation, the city, the temple, and the final abandonment of the nation by God. Therefore, the only age on the mind of his disciples would have been the age or era of the Jewish system of things. That age began with the formation of the nation in 1513 B.C.E. when Jehovah made a covenant with them through his prophet, Moses. That covenant ended in 36 C.E. (Da 9:27) However, like a badly timed car engine that keeps running on after it has been shut down, the nation continued until Jehovah’s appointed time to use the Roman armies to destroy the city and obliterate the nation, fulfilling the words of his Son. (2Co 3:14; He 8:13)
So when Jesus answers the question, we can rightly expect him to tell his disciples when or by what signs the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, and the leadership – “all these things” – would come.
“This generation”, the wicked generation then present, would experience “all these things.”
“This Generation” Identified
Before we muddy the waters by trying to factor in doctrinal interpretations concerning the prophecies of Matthew chapter 24, let us agree on this: It was Jesus, not the disciples, who first introduced the notion of a generation experiencing “all these things”. He spoke of death, punishment, and destruction and then said at Matthew 23:36, “Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.”
Later the same day, he again talked about destruction, this time specifically regarding the temple, when he said at Matthew 24:2, “Do you not see all these things. Truly I say to you, by no means will a stone be left here upon a stone and not be thrown down.”
Both declarations are prefaced by the phrase, “Truly I say to you…” He is both emphasizing his words and offering his disciples a reassurance. If Jesus says that “truly” something is going to happen, then you can take that to the bank.
So at Matthew 24:34 when he again says, “Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things happen,” he’s giving his Jewish disciples yet another reassurance that the unthinkable is really going to happen. Their nation is going to be abandoned by God, their precious temple with its holy of holies where the very presence of God is said to exist, will be obliterated. To further bolster the faith that these words will come true, he adds, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.” (Mt. 24:35)
Why would anyone look at all this contextual evidence and conclude, “Aha! He’s talking about our day! He was telling his disciples that a generation that wouldn’t make its appearance for two whole millennia is the one that will see ‘all these things’”
And yet, it really shouldn’t surprise us that this is exactly what has happened. Why not? Because as part of this prophecy in Matthew 24 Jesus foretold this eventuality.
In part, this is a result of a misunderstanding the first century disciples had. However, we cannot put the blame on them. Jesus gave us all we needed to avoid the confusion; to keep us from running off on self-indulgent interpretational tangents.
To Be Continued
To this point we’ve established which generation Jesus was referring to at Matthew 24:34. His words were fulfilled in the first century. They did not fail.
Is there room for a secondary fulfillment, one that takes place during the last days of the global system of things which concludes with the return of Christ as the Messianic King?
Explaining how the prophecies of Matthew chapter 24 harmonize with all the foregoing is the subject of the next article: “This Generation – A Modern Day Fulfillment?”
[i] Some preterists hold that everything described from Matthew 24:4 thru 31 took place during the first century. Such a view attempts to explain the appearance of Jesus in the clouds metaphorically, while explaining the gathering of the chosen ones by the Angels as a progress of evangelization by the Christian congregation. For more information on preterist thinking see this comment by Vox Ratio.