Saturday, February 29, 2020

Matthew 24:34 - This Generation Shall Not Pass Away...

Hello brother T---,

I'm finally writing a response to your now grey-haired question. Please forgive my slowness. A good answer needed time, and that was something I have not had thus far this semester, but as I'm now on Springbreak (praise the Lord!), I've come up for air, and hopefully the long wait won't disappoint, and you'll find here some helpful things to chew on.

Your question is an important one. Matthew 24:34 is a crossroads of interpretation (fancily called a crux interpretum), because how one understands these words of Jesus basically affects one's whole eschatology, and eschatology shapes one's understanding of the entire flow of Scripture. Many think eschatology is a relatively unimportant appendix to theology, but it actually is the capstone, and as such it is influenced by, and influences, everything else we believe about the broad story line of the Bible. And this verse does much by way of determining our eschatology.

Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 all contain this saying. Together these make up what's been called the Olivet Discourse, which is Jesus's instruction to his disciples while they were on the Mount of Olives one evening as they walked from Jerusalem to Bethany. It deals with the destruction of Herod's temple, the end of the age, and was prompted by some questions the disciples had for Jesus after He predicted the razing of the temple. This context is all crucial for understanding the "this generation" saying, as I hope to show.

You probably know this already, but it's helpful to state the common interpretations of the saying. These fall under the categories of Preterist (past) and Futurist (future).

"Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place."  (Matthew 24:34)

Preterist Interpretation: In the generation of Jesus, during that particular interval of time, all the things spoken of in the Olivet Discourse (the birth pangs, the persecutions, false prophets, abomination of desolation, and coming of Jesus on the clouds, etc.) took place. All was fulfilled in AD 70 when the temple was destroyed.

  • "This generation" = the time of Jesus's contemporaries.
  • "All these things" = everything spoken of in the Olivet Discourse.
  • Status: the prophecy is fulfilled.
  • Advantages: a plain interpretation of the words of Jesus. Everything in the verse is taken straightforwardly.
  • Disadvantages: it is not obvious how all things spoken of in the Olivet Discourse were fulfilled in the 1st century.

Futurist Interpretation 1: The "generation" spoken of by Jesus is not a reference to time, but to posterity or seed (like in Acts 8:33, or Matt. 23:33). The seed is usually taken as the Jewish people, and therefore Jesus is understood to be saying that the Jewish people will not pass away until all things spoken of in the Olivet Discourse are fulfilled.

  • "This generation" = the seed of the Jewish people.
  • "All these things" = everything spoken of in the Olivet Discourse.
  • Status: the prophecy is still in process (all things haven't happened yet, and the Jewish people haven't passed away).
  • Advantages: it accounts for the obvious fact that not everything in the Olivet Discourse has been fulfilled.
  • Disadvantages: this interpretation of generation is not very convincing, contextually nor semantically ("generation" almost always is a time reference, and there is nothing in the context that would indicate this is an exception).

Futurist Interpretation 2: The "generation" spoken of by Jesus is a time reference, but it refers not to the generation of Jesus's day, but to the generation at the end of the age, i.e., this generation, the one that will go through all the things detailed in the Olivet Discourse, will come and will certainly not pass until everything prophesied happens. Basically a statement of the certainty of the fulfillment of the discourse.

  • "This generation" = the last generation/time before the end
  • "All these things" =  everything spoken of in the Olivet Discourse.
  • Status: the prophecy is still in process  (all things haven't happened yet, but the last generation hasn't passed away).
  • Advantages: it accounts for the obvious fact that not everything in the Olivet Discourse has been fulfilled. It also retains the idea of time in "generation."
  • Disadvantages: it is not an obvious interpretation of "generation" (not a plain reading), and is not supported by the context.

Of course, there's also the infidel interpretation, which thinks that Jesus was simply wrong (because everything spoken of in the Olivet Discourse didn't happen during that generation; a variation of the Preterist view), but these are the main Christian interpretations, and needless to say, I like none of them. Desirably, our interpretation should be a plain reading of the text, but should also deal fairly with history and prophecy without tortuous gymnastics. The Preterist view satisfies the plain reading of Matt. 24:34 but fails badly attempting to fit history with the prophecy. The two Futurist views stumble at the plain reading of the text, but their strength is that the details of the Olivet Discourse have not yet been fulfilled. Most Futurists (and I am one of them) are certain that the Olivet Discourse hasn't been fulfilled yet, and so while they might not know what to do with Matthew 24:34, and might offer some weak explanation, they know it doesn't mean what the Preterists say it means!

Preterists must explain how the gospel has been preached to all nations, how the end has come, how the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel (and all the attendant prophecies recorded there), how the great tribulation, the shaking of the powers of heaven, the lightning-like coming of Christ, the mourning of the nations, and the angelic gathering of the elect, all took place in AD 70. To be sure, they attempt to, but I find them utterly unconvincing. And so do most Christians, as they should.

Despite the Preterist's real advantage of reading the verse plainly, Futurists have the stronger position, since their big picture makes more sense, and all they have to do is explain the verse in a reasonable and plain manner. I don't think the two Futurist interpretations above succeed in explaining the verse, but there's another Futurist option, though it is not common. Let's call it,

Futurist Interpretation 3: In the generation of Jesus, during that particular interval of time, the temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed. The phrase "all these things" is limited to Christ's prophecy concerning the destruction of the temple and the judgment on Israel spoken of in Matthew 23:34-39 and Matthew 24:1-2. It does not refer to all things spoken of in the Olivet Discourse.

  • "This generation" = the time of Jesus's contemporaries.
  • "All these things" = the destruction of the temple and judgment on Israel.
  • Status: the prophecy is fulfilled.
  • Advantages: with the Preterists it reads "this generation" plainly as being a reference to Jesus's time,  and with the Futurists, it accounts for the obvious fact that not everything in the Olivet Discourse has been fulfilled.
  • Disadvantages: it isn't immediately obvious that Jesus limits the meaning of "all these things."

This view possesses the strengths of both sides, and while it has its own unique disadvantage, this disadvantage is by no means fatal. It just requires us to think a bit harder about the verse in context. I am convinced that once you understand the verse in context, it becomes more obvious that Jesus limits the meaning of "all these things."

First, we need to notice that Matt. 24:34 is not the first time Jesus makes this prophecy! He actually first makes it in Matthew 23. After excoriating the scribes and the Pharisees for their corruption and hardness of heart, Jesus pronounces a series of woes upon them and prophesies their judgment: "Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation" (Matt. 23:34-36).

In the verses immediately following, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and predicts the destruction of the temple:

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’" (Matt. 23:37-39).

And again in the very next verses that start chapter 24:

"Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down" (Matt. 24:1-2).

Matthew 23 and 24 are one narrative, not to be disconnected. When Jesus pronounced the woes and judgment against Israel, He was referring to the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple, and this in fact happened in that generation, during the time of Jesus's contemporaries! In AD 70 the Romans destroyed the city and the sanctuary, and Israel was sent into exile. It came to pass during that generation, the very same generation that Jesus predicted it would. Jesus uttered this prophecy before He uttered the Olivet Discourse! He even used the same phrase, "all these things" in Matt. 23:36! If, in Matthew 24:34, Jesus is simply repeating this prophecy (as I think he is), then the content of "all these things" has already been fixed before the Olivet Discourse had been given.

Second, note that the Olivet Discourse was a response by Jesus to some questions asked by the disciples. After hearing Jesus predict the destruction of the temple (Matt. 24:2), they came to Him when they were on the Mount of Olives and asked, "Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age" (Matt. 24:3)? I believe there are two questions here. And I think these two questions can be discerned not only by the disciples' words, but also by the answers that Jesus proceeds to give. Question one is: "When will these things be?" That is, "When will the destruction of the temple, and judgment on Israel, be?" It must mean this in context. And notice the plural, "these things," which I think corresponds to "all these things" in Matt. 23:36 and Matt. 24:34. The Olivet Discourse has not yet been spoken, and the disciples are asking about when (a time question) these things (plural: referring to the destruction of the temple and judgment on Israel which Jesus predicted in Matt. 23:34-24:2) will be. Thus, in Jesus's answer we should expect a timing answer to this question.

Their second question is: "And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" I take this as one question. This is clear from the Greek, where Granville Sharp's rule applies (two nouns being subordinated under one article), and it is also clear from the disciple's theology, because they would have understood Christ's coming as the end of the age. The disciples want to know what they are to look for in order to discern the end of the age. To understand the Olivet Discourse, the reader has to keep in mind that the disciples have asked two questions: The first is a time question: "When will these things (the destruction of the temple, and judgment on Israel) be?" And the second is a sign question: "What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" These are two very different questions, and Jesus will give two very different answers. The entire discourse is an answer to their questions ("And Jesus answered them..." Matt. 24:4). The reader now needs to detect where in the text Jesus answers them.

As we begin to read the Olivet Discourse, the careful reader will notice that Jesus proceeds to answer the second question first, and that He takes a long time answering it. Here, I think, is His entire answer to the second question. Notice the connections with the second question concerning the sign of Christ's coming and of the end of the age:

Mat 24:4  And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray.
Mat 24:5  For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.
Mat 24:6  And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.
Mat 24:7  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.
Mat 24:8  All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
Mat 24:9  “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake.
Mat 24:10  And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another.
Mat 24:11  And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.
Mat 24:12  And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.
Mat 24:13  But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Mat 24:14  And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Mat 24:15  “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand),
Mat 24:16  then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.
Mat 24:17  Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house,
Mat 24:18  and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak.
Mat 24:19  And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days!
Mat 24:20  Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.
Mat 24:21  For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.
Mat 24:22  And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.
Mat 24:23  Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 
Mat 24:24  For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.
Mat 24:25  See, I have told you beforehand.
Mat 24:26  So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 
Mat 24:27  For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 
Mat 24:28  Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
Mat 24:29  “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Mat 24:30  Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
Mat 24:31  And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Mat 24:32  “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near.
Mat 24:33  So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

In this lengthy passage, Jesus is clearly instructing them on what signs to look for (and not to look for) regarding His coming and the end of the age. This is a direct answer to their second question. He says: "Don't be deceived by false signs pointing to false Christ's and to false ends. Wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, and even persecutions, are not the signs of the end (it is fascinating that Jesus says this, because it is precisely these things that tend to stir up expectation of the end, and false prophets are always pointing to them). Rather, the disciples are to watch for: 1) the gospel being preached to all nations, which ushers in 2) the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel, which ushers in 3) the great tribulation, and immediately following that 4) the glorious, unmistakable coming of Christ. Jesus then illustrates his point with the lesson of the fig tree. When you see "all these things" (just mentioned above), then you know the end is about to happen.

The very next thing Jesus says is, "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place" (Matt. 24:34). I believe that Jesus finished answering question two at Matt. 24:33, and then, having finished, proceeded to answer the first question in Matt. 24:34, by simply repeating (with slight variation) what He had already said in Matt. 23:36. Yup. It is abrupt, and I understand why people get tripped up and think v. 34 belongs to the section that goes beforehand. After all, v. 33 has the phrase "all these things," and so does v. 34. However, as sympathetic as I am of this, I am convinced it's an inattentive and hasty interpretation. We are not without precedence for this kind of abrupt shifting of the foci of conversation, in which Jesus, without warning, suddenly picks up from an earlier point, and says something that is not directly connected to the verse immediately prior (e.g., Mark 3:28-30, John 6:47, and John 13:20). Even when the same word or phrase appears in verses near each other, we are warranted to understand them differently if we have good contextual reasons for doing so, and here, I'm convinced, we do. I have already mentioned the greater context of Matthew 23. Consider now the following.

The verse following Matt. 24:34 is: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Matt. 24:35). This sounds like a concluding statement. It sounds, in essence, like Jesus is saying: "I have answered your questions and have made known to you hidden things about the future. My words are true and will certainly not fail." It signals that Jesus has finished answering their questions.

The remaining part of the chapter, Matt. 24:36-51, adds interesting light on our investigation. Jesus returns to discuss the sign of His coming and the end of the age, i.e., the second question. Only this time He isn't talking about what the signs are that they should watch for (since He already answered that in vs. 4-33). Rather, here He emphasizes that no one knows the day or the hour of His coming (not even the Son knows when the time will be!), and therefore exhorts His disciples to be alert and watch at all times (for the signs He has given). This is a development within the discourse, but it's not answering either of their questions, since He has already answered them. He's simply adding: "Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming" (Matt. 24:42).

This raises two problems. First, if the phrase "all these things" in the saying "this generation will not pass away until all these things take place"  (Matthew 24:34) applies to Jesus's second answer (i.e., the sign of Christ's coming and the end of age), then it appears to contradict the idea that no one knows when the coming of Christ will be. Jesus would be simultaneously saying: "My coming will be in this generation. Actually, no one knows when the coming of Christ will be, not even me." Jesus both knows and does not know when He will return? This, I think, is a problem.

The other problem with taking the saying, "this generation will not pass away until all these things take place," and including it in Jesus's second answer is that, in that case, nowhere in the Olivet Discourse does Jesus answer the first question! In that case, the entire Olivet Discourse, from v. 4 to v. 51, is devoted entirely to the second question, and the first question is ignored. This is a problem, since Matthew distinguishes two questions. Where does Jesus answer each question? If Matt. 24:34 is not the answer to the first question, there is no answer anywhere.

Therefore, Matt. 24:34 must be the answer to the disciples' first question because:

  1. If it is not, Jesus gives no answer to it in the Olivet Discourse.
  2. It is the only verse that could be the answer.
  3. It matches the statement Jesus made in Matthew 23:36 concerning the timing of the destruction of the temple.
  4. It takes the language of "this generation" in its plain sense, and avoids saying that everything in the Olivet Discourse was fulfilled in the 1st century.
  5. It avoids the contradiction of saying that Jesus both knows and does know when He will return.

I think this interpretation of Matt. 24:34 makes good sense of the entire context and flow of thought, and while admittedly not immediately obvious, neither is it forced. It's the fruit of careful attention to the function of the verse in context, and when due attention is given, I think it is actually quite natural. It is clear that Jesus answers the second question first, wrapping it up in v. 33. Verse 35 is a concluding statement, underscoring the authority and truthfulness of Jesus's answers, and vs. 36-51 is a final, supplementary exhortation about how no one knows when the end will be. What is v. 34 doing, then? It is repeating Matt. 23:36 and answering the first question. It is not the focus of the discourse. Jesus is clearly more interested in their second question than their first.

The beauty of this interpretation is that it maintains the advantages of both the Preterist and the Futurist views, avoids their disadvantages, and is able to overcome its own immediate disadvantage. It alone makes best sense of all the data (the plain sense, history and prophecy, and literary context).

There's lots more to say. For example, I only dealt with Matthew, and didn't discuss Mark and Luke. But this is a good start. Read the passage over several times, with my structure in mind, and see if it makes sense to you. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

May the Lord bless you, brother.
-Eli