We are looking at what the Gospel of Matthew has to tell us about the timing of the second coming of Christ. So far we have looked at Matthew 3:1-11, where John the baptizer comes on the scene preaching a soon to come judgement on the nation Israel. Then we looked at Matthew 10:23, where Jesus tells the twelve that He will come before they have fled to all the cities in Israel. We also looked at Matthew 16:27-28, where Jesus tells the disciples that He will come in power and glory before all of them had died.
Our next time-text is found in Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount of Olives", commonly known as the "Olivet Discourse". In this discourse, Jesus is answering the questions that the disciples asked Him on the mount of Olives. After pronouncing judgement upon the nation of Israel in the end of chapter 23, Jesus and His disciples leave the temple. As they are leaving the temple, Jesus tells the disciples that the temple shall be completely destroyed: "Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down." In response to this, the disciples ask, "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" The disciples viewed the destruction of the temple, the parousia of Christ, and the end of the age as synchronous events. The disciples' question was basically two fold: When will these things happen, and what signs will indicate that they are about to happen? In verses 4-51, Jesus answers their questions. Please keep this in mind as you read:
Matthew 24:34 (NKJV) "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.
To help us better understand this verse, let's back up a couple of verses:
Matthew 24:32-34 (NKJV) "Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 "So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near; at the doors! 34 "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.
If this language doesn't mean that the things He spoke of are near, it doesn't mean anything.
"Now learn this parable from the fig tree:" A popular interpretation of this passage considers the fig tree as a type, or illustration of Israel. According to this view, the fact that Israel became a nation on September 12, 1948 constitutes the budding of the fig tree, and may be taken as proof that the Lord's return is "near" in our day. We'll discuss this further a little later.
I think that the Lord is simply giving us a universal illustration here, which the parallel account in Luke makes clear:
Luke 21:29-30 (NKJV) Then He spoke to them a parable: "Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 "When they are already budding, you see and know for yourselves that summer is now near.
This is just a simple illustration. When you see the leaves on the tree begin to come out, you know that summer is near. You can understand that, can't you? Jesus said that, just like you know that summer is near when you see the leaves coming out on the trees, "so also" when you see the things come to pass that I have been talking about, (The gospel preached to all the world, the abomination of desolation, the great tribulation, and the Son of man come in the clouds of heaven), you know that the end is near. It is just like someone standing at the door about to enter.
James used this same illustration of "standing at the door" to speak of the nearness of the Lord's return:
James 5:7-9 (NKJV) Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. 8 You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9 Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!
Matthew 24:33 says, "So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near; at the doors!" There is question about what the "it" is that is near. This question is cleared up in the parallel passage in Luke:
Luke 21:31 (NKJV) "So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near.
Now, we know from other verses that the kingdom of God had come to them already:
Luke 11:20 (NKJV) "But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Luke 17:20-21 (NKJV) Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; 21 "nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!' For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you."
In our text in Matthew 24:33, He is referring to the full manifestation of the kingdom that would come in power and glory at A.D. 70. So Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God is near. Now look at the next verse:
Matthew 24:34 (NKJV) "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.
Three questions need to be answered to understand this verse: Who is Jesus talking to? Who is the "you"? What exactly does "generation" mean? What does the "all these things" refer to?
The first question we need to answer is "Who is the 'You' in this verse?" It is Jesus' first century disciples, He is answering their questions.
The next question we need to answer is, "What does the 'all these things' refer to?" It refers to everything He has been talking about since verse 4. Jesus told them a number of things that would happen before the end came; the gospel would be preached to all the world:
Matthew 24:14 (NKJV) "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.
He also told them that they would see the "abomination of desolation" that Daniel had spoken of (Luke tells us that this refers to the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem):
Matthew 24:15-16 (NKJV) "Therefore when you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place" (whoever reads, let him understand), 16 "then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.
He also told them there would come a time of great tribulation:
Matthew 24:21 (NKJV) "For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.
Then immediately after the tribulation, they would see the Son of man come in the clouds of heaven:
Matthew 24:29-30 (NKJV) "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 "Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, 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.
Jesus, here, very plainly and very clearly, tells His disciples that ALL of the things He had mentioned would come to pass in THEIR GENERATION. If you study the context, you will see that this includes the gospel being preached in all the world, the abomination of desolation, the great tribulation, and the Second Coming of Christ. This is so clear that it greatly troubles those who hold to a futuristic eschatology. In his essay “The World’s Last Night” C.S. Lewis talking about Matthew 24:34, quotes an objector as saying:
“The apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, 'This generation shall not pass till all these things be done.' And He was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else."
Then Lewis says, “This is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. Yet how teasing, also, that within fourteen words of it should come the statement ‘But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.’ The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side.” (Essay"The World's Last Night"(1960), found in The Essential C.S. Lewis, p. 385)
So Lewis says that what Jesus said about “this generation” is embarrassing, and calls it an “error”. Was Jesus wrong? I can't accept that, can you? Fortunately, Christ did keep His promise to come within the first-century generation. Christ's Second Coming occurred spiritually -- the way He intended it -- at the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem. This highly verified historical event signified that sin finally had been atoned forever and that all Christians, from generation to generation, could live eternally -- on earth and in heaven -- without separation from God.
Because of his physical view of the nature of the Second coming, he felt that it hadn't happened yet, and therefore, Jesus had been wrong. That would be, in fact, much more than embarrassing, it would be devastating to the credibility of Jesus. If Jesus was wrong, as Lewis says he was, what else might he have been wrong about? Will those who believe in Him truly have everlasting life? Jesus wasn't wrong, Lewis was the one who was wrong. We can count on the truthfulness of what Jesus tells us. Aren't you glad of that?
Others also had trouble with this verse. The New Jerome Commentary says, "This is a troublesome verse." (p. 667) W. Robertson Nicholl (1956), "What is said therein is so perplexing as to tempt a modern expositor to wish it had not been there, or to have recourse to critical expedients to eliminate it from the text." (The Expositor's Greek Testament, p. 294)
This verse doesn't fit into their eschatology, so they would like to eliminate it. This verse is devastating to a futuristic eschatology, so let's examine it carefully and make sure we understand exactly what Jesus is saying.
The last question that needs to be answered is "What exactly does 'generation' mean?" Generation, in our text, comes from the Greek word genea, which means: by implication "an age". In Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, we can see that "genea." means: "The whole multitude of men living at the same time." William F. Arndt and Wilber Gingrich, (A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature) define "genea" as: "basically, the sum total of those born at the same time, expanded to include all those living at a given time. Contemporaries."
If you look at the way Jesus used the word "generation," I think it will be abundantly clear that it always refers to His contemporaries, the Jewish people of His own period. Let's look at a few of the uses of "generation."
Matthew 23:35-36 (NKJV) "that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 "Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
Jesus is in the temple speaking to the Jews, He says that all the judgement that He had spoken about would come upon them. I don't know of any commentator who understands this as referring to any other than the existing generation.
Luke 17:24-25 (NKJV) "For as the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also the Son of Man will be in His day. 25 "But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
What generation did Christ suffer many things from, and what generation rejected Him? It is clear, He is speaking of His contemporaries.
Look at how some of the translations deal with Matthew 24:34:
New English Bible: "I tell you this: the present generation will live to see it all."
Today's English Version: "Remember this! All these things will happen before the people now living have all died."
Moffatt's Translation: "I tell you truly, the present generation will not pass away, till all this happens."
Weymouth's Translation: "I tell you in solemn truth that the present generation will certainly not pass away until all this has taken place."
These translations make it quite clear. The meaning of the word was that of the "present" generation in the time of Christ; not to a future generation thousands of years away. So, in etymology and usage, "generation" means those born at the same time, contemporaries.
How long is a generation? John Walvoord said, "A generation is normally from thirty to one hundred years." Now, he is the only one I know of who gives it that broad of a span. Most commentators see a generation as referring to a thirty to forty year time. More important then that, what does the Bible say about the time of a generation? Let's look and see:
Matthew 1:17 (NKJV) So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.
In this genealogical table, we have data to estimate the length of a generation. It tells us that from the captivity in Babylon until Christ are fourteen generations. Now the date of the captivity, in the reign of Zedekiah, is said to be 586 BC. From 586 BC until the birth of Christ would be about 586 years, which, divided by fourteen, makes the average length of a generation about 41 years. This is confirmed in:
Hebrews 3:8-10 (NKJV) Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, In the day of trial in the wilderness, 9 Where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, And saw My works forty years. 10 Therefore I was angry with that generation, And said, 'They always go astray in their heart, And they have not known My ways.'
Numbers 32:13 (NKJV) "So the Lord's anger was aroused against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the LORD was gone.
Forty years is a significant number in the Bible, the children of Israel wondered in the wilderness for forty years before entering the promise land. The New Testament saints also were in a transition period for forty years before entering the New Jerusalem, which is above. David reigned for forty years. I believe that Christ's reign, from Pentecost to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, was also a forty year reign, which Revelation 20 refers to as the millennial reign of Christ.
Some have tried to twist the etymology of the word "generation" in Matthew 24:34 to make it mean "race,"and try to make Jesus say that all these things would happen before the "race" of Jews had passed away. By doing this, they think they can expand the time of the second coming by thousands of years. There is no biblical or linguistic justification for such a position. Generation does NOT mean race!
C.I. Scofield, in his Bible's reference to this verse (Matt. 24:34), recognized this, and actually SWITCHED the definition of the word from that of genea to that of genos,which is an entirely different word!
Scofield said, (p. 1034, old edition, Scofield Reference Bible):
Gr. genea, the primary definition of which is, 'race, kind, family, stock, breed.' (So all lexicons.) That the word is used in this sense here is sure because none of 'these things,' the world-wide preaching of the kingdom, the great tribulation, the return of the Lord in visible glory, and the regathering of the elect, occurred at the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, A.D. 70. The promise is, therefore, that the generation-- nation, or family of Israel-- will be preserved unto 'these things'; a promise wonderfully fulfilled to this day.
Scofield used the wrong Greek word with his definition. He did so because of his view of the nature of the second coming. Since he felt that these things hadn't happened yet, he had to change the meaning of the word genea. The definition he gives is for the Greek word, "genos." Genos is not the word used in Matthew 24:34. Peter uses the word "genos" in:
1 Peter 2:9 (NKJV) But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;
Here it is evident that "genos" means, kind, nation, offspring. But this is not the word used in Matthew 24:34.
The following quote by David Chilton is very informative:
Some have sought to get around the force of this text by saying that the word generation here really means race, and that Jesus was simply saying that the Jewish race would not die out until all these things took place. Is that true? I challenge you: Get out your concordance and look up every New Testament occurrence of the word generation (in Greek, genea) and see if it ever means 'race' in any other context. Here are all the references for the Gospels: Matthew 1:17; 11:16; 12:39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:36; 24:34; Mark 8:12, 38; 9:19; 13:30; Luke 1:48, 50; 7:31; 9:41; 11:29, 30, 31, 32, 50, 51;18:8; 17:25; 21:32. Not one of these references is speaking of the entire Jewish race over thousands of years; all use the word in its normal sense of the sum total of those living at the same time. It always refers to contemporaries. In fact, those who say it means "race" tend to acknowledge this fact, but explain that the word suddenly changes its meaning when Jesus uses it in Matthew 24!
What Jesus meant by all those things happening in that generation, including the parousia of Christ, was that they would all happen while some of those folks to whom He preached were still alive, just as he said they would be in Matthew 10:23 and 16:27-28.
Dispensationalists, George Meisiner tries to explain "this generation" this way:
Because Jesus speaks of Jews who see all the signs of the end times, it is best to understand 'generation' as those contemporaries living during the Tribulation. 'This' generation, then, is the Jewish contemporaries coexisting during Daniel's 70th Week; they see all eleven signs of Matthew 24:4-24. In other words, only those who see all the buds of the fig tree, or the signs, are the antecedent of 'this generation'.
The tribulational generation 'will by no means pass away,' emphasizing its existence throughout the seven year period; events do not annihilate them. Jesus does not mean that each and every Jew survives. Over half of them do not, yet that generation, as a whole, goes through the entire seven years 'till all these things are fulfilled.' (The Parable of the Fig Tree (Matthew 24:32-36) by George E. Meisinger")
So, he is saying that it does not mean Jesus' contemporaries, but the generation that is alive when the tribulation starts, which he sees as some time in our future. Hal Lindsey calls this the "terminal generation."
Along the same line, some say that the "generation" Jesus mentioned would be the generation following the event of Israel becoming a nation in 1948. Then, taking a generation as forty years, they said that the second coming would happen in September of 1988. Do you remember the book, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Happen in 1988?
Hal Lindsey said:
When the Jewish people, after nearly 2,000 years of exile, under relentless persecution, became a nation again on 14 May 1948; the 'fig tree' put forth its first leaves.
Jesus said that this would indicate that He was 'at the door,' ready to return. Then He said, 'Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Matthew 24:34 NASB).
What generation? Obviously, in context, the generation that would see the signs -- chief among them the rebirth of Israel. A generation in the Bible is something like forty years. If this is a correct deduction, then within forty years or so of 1948, all these things could take place. Many scholars who studied Bible prophecy all their lives believe that this is so. (The Late Great Planet Earth, pp. 53-54).
Hal says that the chief sign would be the rebirth of Israel. Where in Matthew 24 do you see anything remotely close to speaking about a rebirth of Israel? It is speaking about Israel's destruction, not its rebirth! He also says that within forty years of 1948, all these things could take place. Well, it has been over fifty years and the temple has not even been rebuilt, so it will be a good while before it can be destroyed. It looks like Hal was way off.
Another Dispensationalists, Robert Deffinbaugh, deals with it this way:
In verse 34, Jesus said that 'this generation' would not pass away until all of 'these things' had come to pass. The difficulty with these words should be obvious. How can Jesus say that 'this generation' would not pass away until all these things come to pass when 'all these things' occur over what we can now see to be nearly 2,000 years? The events described in these verses encompass many generations, so that no one generation will see all of them fulfilled in their lifetime.
The difficulties with this verse have led some to attempt to redefine the term 'generation,' so that it may be taken more broadly, to mean either 'mankind' or 'Israel.' I do not think that the context of Luke (or the term 'generation' itself) will allow this broadening. I believe that generation was specifically in view. That generation had a particular privilege and a particular responsibility, both related to being those who witnessed the coming of the Christ. That generation also had a particular judgment, due to its rejection of Messiah.
I understand, therefore, that when Jesus said 'that generation' would not pass away until 'all these things' had come to pass, He was referring to that generation of Israelites. How, then, do we square this with the fact that 'all these things' must come to pass, when we know that some will fall upon generations to come? My best answer is that 'all these things' really happen twice, not once. They will happen once, to that generation. And, they will happen a second time, in the last days, related to Christ's return. Thus, Jerusalem was sacked in A.D.70, in fulfillment of our Lord's words. And so, too, Jerusalem will be trodden under the feet of the Gentiles again, during the tribulation (Revelation 11:2-3). There is also a sense in which much of what our Lord predicted would happen (e.g. persecution, betrayal by family, etc.) is something which saints have experienced throughout the intervening centuries.
Our Lord's words, then, have relevance to those who heard Him speak these words. They also have had relevance to the saints over the centuries. And they will be relevant to the saints of the last days as well. No one dares to take these words idly, as though they will relate to a future people at a future time. Jesus does not allow this mentality to prevail." (Luke: The Gospel of the Gentiles by Robert Deffinbaugh)
Now let me ask you, does Jesus say, "All these things will come upon this and that generation"? He said that "all these things" would be fulfilled in His generation. So is the gospel preached to all the world twice? Are there two abomination of desolations? Are there two tribulations? Is the Son of man to return in clouds twice? Where is one verse of Scripture to indicate this double fulfillment? There is absolutely nothing in Matthew 24 to indicate a double fulfillment, nothing!
When Jesus said that "all these things" would occur before that generation was over, He was talking about everything that He had been discussing from verse 4 through verse 33. This included the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in power and glory. The disciples' question had been when will your parousia be, and in verse 34, He tells them it will happen in their generation.
There is one other verse in Matthew that gives us a time reference to the second coming:
Matthew 26:63-64 (NKJV) But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, "I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!" 64 Jesus said to him, "It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven."
Notice verse 64, three times Jesus uses the personal pronoun "you". Who is He talking to? Verse 63 tells us that it is the high priest, who at the time was Caiaphas. Caiaphas asked Jesus if He is the Son of God, the Messiah. Jesus answered Caiaphas by saying that he will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven. If Caiaphas saw this, as Jesus said, then it must have happened in his lifetime.
Notice the similarities between Jesus' answer to Caiaphas and what he said in:
Matthew 24:30 (NKJV) "Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, 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.
Jesus told Caiaphas, "You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power." He said to His disciples, "They would see the sign that the son of man was in heaven." He told Caiaphas, "You will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven." He told His disciples, "They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." It is obviously the same event in both passages. Notice Caiaphas' response to Jesus' statement:
Matthew 26:65 (NKJV) Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, "He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy!
What did Jesus say that was blasphemy? Caiaphas understood that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah. In order to understand what Jesus is saying, we need to understand the idea that is behind "coming in the clouds."
God's "coming on the clouds of heaven" is a symbolic way of speaking of His presence, judgement and salvation. All through the Old Testament God was coming "on clouds," in salvation of His people and judgement of His enemies.
Exodus 34:5 (NKJV) Now the LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.
Salvation: In Psalm 18, David speaks of his deliverance from Saul using apocalyptic language.
Psalms 18:9-12 (NKJV) He bowed the heavens also, and came down With darkness under His feet. 10 And He rode upon a cherub, and flew; He flew upon the wings of the wind. 11 He made darkness His secret place; His canopy around Him was dark waters And thick clouds of the skies. 12 From the brightness before Him, His thick clouds passed with hailstones and coals of fire.
Judgement: The idea of God's coming in the clouds is also associated with His judgement of his enemies:
Isaiah 19:1 (NKJV) The burden against Egypt. Behold, the LORD rides on a swift cloud, And will come into Egypt; The idols of Egypt will totter at His presence, And the heart of Egypt will melt in its midst.
We know from Isaiah 20 that God used the Assyrians as instruments of His wrath on Egypt, yet it says, "The LORD rides on a swift cloud..., Egypt will totter at His presence." God came to Egypt in judgement. His presence was made known in judgement. But it was the Assyrians who were literally present.
Similar language is used of Nineveh's fall:
Nahum 1:3 (NKJV) The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, And will not at all acquit the wicked. The LORD has His way In the whirlwind and in the storm, And the clouds are the dust of His feet.
Nahum 1:5-6 (NKJV) The mountains quake before Him, The hills melt, And the earth heaves at His presence, Yes, the world and all who dwell in it. 6 Who can stand before His indignation? And who can endure the fierceness of His anger? His fury is poured out like fire, And the rocks are thrown down by Him.
We know that Nineveh was destroyed, not by a literal coming of God out of heaven on the clouds, but by the invading armies of the Chaldeans and Medes in 612 B.C..
When Jesus said He would come on the clouds, He was using the apocalyptic language of the prophets to identify himself as the Messiah, the Judge. Caiaphas reacted the way he did because he knew that only God came on clouds, that was a claim to deity. He knew that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah of Daniel 7.
If the Lord's teaching on His second coming doesn't agree with our concept of it, what should we do? We need to change our concepts to line up with His teaching, not twist His words to make them fit our views. This is the Word of God, let's not twist it and distort it, let's simply submit to it. All prophecy was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened in the life time of the generation to which Jesus spoke. Let's not twist and distort Jesus' words to make them fit our views, let's change our views to line up with His words.
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