Thursday, May 7, 2009

This Generation Will Not Pass Away (Matthew 24:34)

Question: In Matt 24:34, Jesus says "I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." But we are still awaiting his return. I know in this text, the word 'generation' also means race, or as I heard before, 'people of the Promise'. How do you explain this passage?

Matthew 24:34 has troubled interpreters throughout Christian history! So although there are several proposed answers, none of them is entirely satisfactory. You mentioned the idea that the Greek word genea can be translated as race rather than generation. However, there are no other passages in the NT where race is the best way to translate genea. The NIV, NASB, and NLT never translate genea as race. So the best way to read the verse is as it is translated, implying that Jesus' prophecies would be fulfilled within one generation, about 40 years after his words.

The best solution is found in the context. In Jesus' sermon so far, he has listed a number of signs. These signs have to do with when the Temple will be destroyed (24:2). In fact, all of the events described in vv. 5-25 actually happened in the 40 years after Jesus gave this sermon, and the Temple was destroyed in AD 70. There was persecution, there were false Christs in the wilderness, there was an "abomination of desolation" (the presence of Gentiles in the holy place), and there were wars and earthquakes. And although we know that the Gospel had not yet been literally preached to all nations (Matt 24:12), Paul was quite willing to say that the Gospel had been "proclaimed to all creation under heaven" (Col 1:23) by the 50s.

Jesus makes it quite clear that these signs are not signs of the end (Matt 24:8), but signs of the end of the Temple. Jesus only clearly speaks of his return in 24:29-31. He says that "after the tribulation of those days," the Son of Man will return. In other words, the signs that will occur within a generation are the signs of the destruction of the Temple, but the return of Christ will be at some point after the destruction of the Temple. That time is unknown to everyone, even the Son (24:36, 42-44). The "these things" of v. 34 refers to the "these things" of v. 33 and v. 8 - which are all signs of the destruction of the Temple.

So the destruction of the Temple will happen within a known period of time (one generation, 40 years), but the return of Christ will happen at an unknown time. The "immediate" language is related to what the rest of the chapter teaches: we must always be ready for the immediate return of Christ. Since the fall of Jerusalem, every generation of Christians has had to be ready for Christ to return.

This is admittedly not a perfect explanation! But here are the other options: 1) Jesus predicted his return within 40 years, but he was wrong; 2) Jesus did return within 40 years, but in some metaphorical fashion rather than literally; 3) "this generation" refers not to Jesus' generation, but the future generation right before Christ returns. None of these explanations really fit the evidence of the passage very well.

How does this matter to Christians today? Jesus gives the relevance in the following parables (24:45-25:30): Jesus' followers must be busy doing his work, since he could come back for "inspection" at any moment. In the first parable, the slave wrongly thought that his master would be late; in the second parable, the bridesmaids wrongly thought that the bridegroom would come early. The point of the parables is not to panic about the imminent return of Christ, but rather to keep busy doing the work of a disciple of Jesus.

The picture: The crowning of Aragorn from Return of the King. Tolkien's portrayal of the prophesied king is influenced by the Bible's portrait of Jesus as returning King. Tolkien's publisher picked the title Return of the King for the third volume of Lord of the Rings; Tolkien was reportedly quite irate that the title "gave away the whole story."


  1. Like you I am waiting for the return of Jesus . Verse 34 is only confusing if you get the timing wrong. The words "this generation" in the verse could easily be translated THAT GENERATION or THE GENERATION (with a little help from bible greek word HO - nominative singular neuter
    ho ho: the definite article; the (sometimes to be supplied, at others omitted, in English idiom) -- the, this, that, one, he, she, it, etc.

  2. Thanks, Bruce. However, "this generation" is the correct translation for he genea haute. You are correct that the article (he) can occasionally be translated as "this" or "that", but the word haute (lexical form houtos) means "this." the proper way to say "that generation" is he genea ekeine.