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An Exposition of “This Generation” (Matthew 24:34) Part 1

By Michael J. Sullivan

Introduction

In Matthew 24:34 the disciples are told that the signs, the coming of Jesus and the end of the age that the disciples previously asked about (“all these things”), would be fulfilled within their “this generation.” I will begin our study of Matthew 24:34 by quoting various translations that have correctly understood its meaning and from there we will examine accurate definitions from various Bible dictionaries and the lexical evidence. While examining if there is any warrant to interpreting genea in any other way than the contemporaries of Jesus, we will also be examining false interpretations of genea which allegedly teach: 1) that Jesus meant that the entire Jewish race would not pass away until all things were fulfilled. 2) Our contemporary generation which saw Israel become a nation in 1948 is the end time generation. 3) Jesus’ uses the phrase “this generation” to be referring to a future generation that is alive to witnesses these signs whenever they begin to be fulfilled. 4) Jesus is simply describing an evil generation of people that is descriptive of the last days generation – whoever that may be. We will also be looking at key texts in the NT to see how the word “generation” (Gk. genea) is used to give us an even clearer and more definitive interpretation of Matthew 24:34. And lastly, we will examine Matthew 24:34 as the anti-type or the projected terminal “last days” generation of Deuteronomy 32:5, 20. I will argue that Jesus’ use of “this generation” along with Paul’s and Peter’s (Philippians 2:15; Acts 2:40), needs to be seen in the overall context of the new exodus motif in which the Jews expected their Messiah to recapitulate another 40 year New Covenant redemption for Israel and in-gathering of the Gentiles.

Relevant Translations

“Remember that all these things will happen before the people now living have all died.” (Mt. 24:34 GNT)

“Don’t take this lightly. I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for all of you. This age continues until all these things take place.” (Mt. 24:34 The Message)

“I tell you the truth, all these things will happen while the people of this time are still living.” (Mt. 24:34 NCV)

“Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” (Mt. 24:34 KJV)

The Lexical Evidence

The Thayer Greek-English Lexicon and Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words defines genea here in Matthew 24:34 (and in the other relevant passages), as Jesus addressing His Jewish contemporary generation (AD 30-70) and therefore is the subject of the prophetic pronouncement,

the whole multitude of men living at the same time: Mt.xxiv. 34; Mk. xiii. 30; Lk. i. 48; xxi. 32; Phil. ii. 15; used esp. of the Jewish race living at one and the same period: Mt. xi. 16; xii. 39, 41 sq. 45; xvi. 4; xxiii.36; Mk. Viii. 12, 38; Lk. Xi. 29 sq. 32, 50 sq.; xvii. 36; Heb. iii. 10…” “…who can describe the wickedness of the present generation, Acts viii. 33 (fr. Is. Liii. 8 Sept.).”1

“…of the whole multitude of men living at the same time, Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 1:48; 21:32; Phil. 2:15, and especially of those of the Jewish people to the time in which they lived, the world came to mean age, i.e., a period ordinarily occupied by each successive generation, say, of thirty or forty years, Acts 14:16; 15:21; Eph. 3:5; Col. 1:26; see also, e.g., Gen. 15:16.”2

Although somewhat inconsistent, the most impressive Greek work and interpretation I have come across thus far comes from Collin Brown,

“In Matt. it has the sense of this generation, and according to the first evangelist, Jesus expected the end of this age (Time, art. aion) to occur in connection with the judgment on Jerusalem at the end of that first generation (see Mk. 9:1 and Matt. 16:28).”3

And again,

“But if these events were expected within the first generation of Christians (and “generation” is the most probable translation of genea), either Jesus or the evangelists were mistaken…” or “…there is an alternative interpretation of the passage which points out that insufficient attention has been paid to the prophetic language of the passage as a whole.

The imagery of cosmic phenomena is used in the OT to describe this-worldly events and, in particular, historical acts of judgment. The following passages are significant, not least because of their affinities with the present context: Isa. 13:10 (predicting doom on Babylon); Isa. 34:4 (referring to “all the nations”, but especially to Edom); Ezek. 32:7 (concerning Egypt); Amos 8:9 (the Northern Kingdom of Israel); Joel 2:10 (Judah). The cosmic imagery draws attention to the divine dimension of the event in which the judgment of God is enacted. The use of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:15-21 provides an instance of the way in which such prophetic cosmic imagery is applied to historical events in the present (cf. also Lk. 10:18; Jn. 12:31; 1 Thess. 4:16; 2 Pet. 3:10ff.; Rev. 6:12-17; 18:1). Other OT passages relevant to the interpretation of the present context are Isa. 19:1; 27:13; Dn. 7:13; Deut. 30:4; Zech. 2:6; 12:10-14; Mal. 3:1. In view of this, Mk. 13:24-30 may be interpreted as a Son of man will be vindicated. Such prophecy of judgment on Israel in which a judgment took place with the destruction of Jerusalem, the desecration of the  Temple and the scattering of Israel – all of which happened within the  lifetime of “this generation.” “…Such an interpretation fits the preceding discourse and the introductory remarks of the disciples (Mk. 13:1ff. par.).” (Brown, Ibid., 38-39).

Brown is at least attempting to allow the Bible to interpret itself.  And if I’m not mistaken, he seems to be consenting that the “rapture” or resurrection passage of 1 Thessalonians 4:16 can been seen as fulfilled by the “historical event” of AD 70 just as the language of Matthew 24 can or should be interpreted.  Unfortunately, he was inconsistent in interpreting 1 Thessalonians 4 and some of these other texts elsewhere with a Full Preterist hermeneutic.

1. Joseph Henry Thayer, D.D., A GREEK-ENGLISH LEXICON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), 112 (bold emphasis added).

2. W.E. Vine (edited by F.F. Bruce), VINE’S Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, 1981), 42 (emphasis added).

3. Colin Brown, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 2, (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), 37-38 (bold emphasis added).

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