What Did Jesus Mean When He Said, “This Generation Will Not Pass” In Matthew 24:34?
The various portents preceding the climax of the end of the age, Jesus said, were like spring leaves heralding the coming of summer. Early leaves indicate that summer is near, and similarly, all the various portents Jesus described are preliminary indications of the nearness of his coming. Dispensationalists have often attempted to be even more specific by arguing that the fig tree is a symbol of the reconstitution of the modern nation of Israel in the late 1940s. Hal Lindsey popularized this interpretation and asserted that on May 14, 1948, when Israel officially was declared a sovereign state, the fig tree began to bloom. Within a single generation of those who witnessed the rebirth of Israel in 1948, the second coming of Christ would occur. It then fell to the dispensationalists to define the length of a single generation, but after well over half a century since 1948, this interpretation is becoming increasingly untenable even for dispensationalists. This whole scheme is simply bad exegesis. The fig tree was simply not the widely-recognized symbol of the nation Israel as dispensationalists assumed. Further, Luke’s version, in which he describes not merely the fig tree but “all the trees,” suggests that there was no intent to offer some sort of national symbol in the first place (cf. Lk. 21:29).
How, then, should one define “nearness?” If it is defined as “impending,” then in the larger sense all generations of Christians have been “near” the coming of Christ. This seems to have been the stance of John in the Revelation, when he uses the language of “soon” (Rv. 2:16; 3:11; 22:7, 12, 20). While he offers no unambiguous time-markers, every reader of the book should take the idea of “soon” in a personal way, since the time of Christ’s return is unknown. This way of looking at it accords well with Jesus’ later admonition to “watch” (24:42) and “be ready” (24:44).
More sticky, however, is Jesus’ statement about “this generation.” In fact, defining “this generation” within the confines of Jesus’ own contemporaries is probably the strongest point of the preterist interpretation (i.e., that the whole discourse is about the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70) and the weakest in the others. Is “this generation” locked within the 1st century? (Some, like Bertrand Russell, the atheist philosopher, have so argued and rejected Christ altogether as a false prophet, since the Second Advent did not occur. Others, like Albert Schweitzer, while not rejecting Christianity outright, certainly rejected many central teachings of Christianity, because they believe the prophecy of Christ’s return within one generation failed.) Preterists, with their interpretation that the “coming” of the Son of Man refers to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, strongly argue that “this generation” must be confined to Jesus’ contemporaries.
More generally, those who view the “coming” of the Son of Man to refer to his second advent at the end of history have offered other alternatives. Some have suggested the survival of the Jewish race as “this generation.” Others have contended that it refers to the generation of believers who are alive when the various eschatological events start. Still others say that “this generation” refers to human beings in general. Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is surely correct when he says that “only with the greatest difficulty [can ‘this generation’] be made to mean anything other than the generation living when Jesus spoke.” If that is so, then to what do “all these things” refer? Probably the best answer is that “all these things” should be confined to the fall of Jerusalem and the temple, which happened within 40 years of the time Jesus was speaking. “All these things,” however, do not include the second advent of Christ himself, for as he immediately concedes, no one knows when that event will happen—not even the angels or Christ himself (24:36)!
Pastor Dan LewisMarch 1, 2014