In light of this past week’s Learning Community class I taught called, “Eschatology in August,” I thought it would be a great opportunity to address a misunderstood verse that has a lot to do with the study of “end times.” Here is our verse in question:
Truly, I say to you, this generation (genea) will not pass away until all these things take place. (Matthew 24:34)
This verse has historically been interpreted to mean “the generation to whom Jesus was speaking to.” Up until 200 years ago and the arrival of the pretribulational rapture, (a doctrine invented by John Nelson Darby), many have challenged the verse’s meaning. For example, many in the Dispensational camp believe that Jesus is saying “This generation of Jews,” or “This ethnic race of Jews will not pass away until all these things take place.” They need to change the definition in order for their entire end-times theology to work. They claim all of these “signs” of “wars and rumors of wars” are future even for us. But is this the clear teaching of the Bible?
As always, context is key. Jesus has just talked about the beginning of birth pains, the signs that the end of the age (aion) is coming soon (see Matthew 24:8; also, if your Bible says, “end of the world,” you have a faulty translation–even the ESV gets this wrong in my opinion–and because of it, you might suffer from anachronistic etymology. The word means “age,” not “world [kosmos]. It’s not the end of the space-time continuum, but the end of the old covenant age).
Before this Jesus made a bold prophetic judgment on the temple, stating “Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Make no mistake, Jesus is the High Priest who has examined the house/temple, found it to be leprous, and sees the only solution to be tearing it down in judgment (take a look at Leviticus 14:33-57 for the context of all of this. The High Priest would assess a diseased house, and if it was unclean, it was to be torn down, “it’s stones and timber and all the plaster of the house”[Lev. 14:45]).
The question is, why would the Temple have to be destroyed? Because Jesus was to be rejected as a prophet, just like the prophets of old, whose murderous opponents filled up their own judgment and condemnation to the brim (Matt. 23:32). Look at Matthew 23. The heading in your Bible probably says something like, “Seven Woes to the Scribes and Pharisees.” Go ahead and read that chapter and note the name-calling that Jesus does towards his opponents. They are “blind hypocrites,” and “vipers.” Jesus’ harsh words are no different than the prophets of old who prosecuted Israel for their wayward sins. And yet the blood of all the righteous has come to them (23:35). To whom? “Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” (Matt. 23:36). The context of Matthew 24 and the Olivet Discourse is clear: Jesus has come to inspect the Temple, has found it wanting, and pronounces its desolation (23:38). The disciples have questions about it (24:2) and Jesus gives them the outline. There are things that will characterize this time period of 40 years (and, of course, Jesus is right, 40 years from his death the Temple was laid to ruin by the Romans); but that’s not all. Other things are going to happen as well. But take note, Jesus says, Jesus’ “coming” in judgment (cf. Isaiah 19:1; Psalm 104:3) will be like lightning (24:27).
The sign of the son of Man being in heaven receiving His kingdom (Matthew 26:64; cf. Mark 16:19 & Daniel 7:13-14) will be the desolation of the Temple by the armies that surround her (Luke 21:20). And wow was it a tumultuous time. Josephus, the first-hand eyewitness to the events, records much of the desolation, including the bloodshed, skirmishes with the Idumeans, and the woman who killed, cooked, and ate her own child (Wars of the Jews, Book 6, Chapter 3, Section 4. Cf. Jer. 19:9; Lam. 2:20; 4:10; Ezek. 5:10).
The word “generation” (Greek, γενεά, genea) means “the generation of people to whom Jesus was speaking to and addressing.” It always means this. In fact, the word is used 37 times in the New Testament (Matthew 1:17; 11:16; 12:39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:36; 24:34; Mark 8:38; 9:19; 13:30; Luke 1:48, 50; 7:31; 9:41; 11:29, 30, 31, 32, 50, 51; 16:8; 17:25; 21:32; Acts 2:40; 8:33; 13:36; 14:16; 15:21; Ephesians 3:5, 21; Philippians 2:15; Colossians 1:26; and Hebrews 3:10). Look up any concordance and search the word yourself. It does not mean “race.” This is an error if eisegesis. The time text here is a clue to the passages’ interpretation, and if we’re honestly going to hold to the doctrine that scripture interprets scripture, we have to let not only the context speak, but the words themselves, too.
It makes no sense for anyone today to leave their flat roofs (we don’t have any) and “not go down to take out things that are in his house” (Matt. 24:17). There is no need for anyone today to “flee to the mountains,” because not all of us live in Judea (24:16). The context of the passage is simple: Jesus is speaking about events that were near to his listeners, and not events that are still future for us today in the twenty-first century. Jesus could have easily said, “Those people who see those signs…” but alas, he did not say this. To force the contextual clues to mean anything other than what they mean is to be intellectually dishonest. Either one will hold to their presuppositions, or one will read the text for what it says.
If you would like to read more of this type of stuff to help you read the Bible both in its contextual/literary context, as well as its historical context, I highly recommend these two books: Paradise Restored by David Chilton (free PDF download), and Last Days Madness by Gary DeMar. DeMar interacts with dozens of authors in each chapter and does a very nice job of helping us think critically.