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29 August 2019

"This Generation" in the Olivet Discourse

Roman Armies attack Jerusalem
(Matthew 24:33-34) - “So also when you see all these things, you know that it is near, at the very gates. When you see all these things know that it is near, at the doors. Verily I am saying to you, this generation will not pass until all these things are fulfilled.”
The declaration of Jesus that “this generation will not pass until all these things are fulfilled” has become a difficult passage for many interpreters. Apparently, Jesus claimed that all the things he predicted in the Olivet Discourse would be fulfilled by the end of his generation; prophecies of tumultuous times in Judea, the destruction of the Temple, coming deceivers, earthquakes, famines, international conflicts, the tribulation, the “abomination of desolation,” cosmic upheaval, the gathering of the elect, and the coming of the Son of Man in glory.
Whether read in Greek or English, it is most natural to understand “this generation” as a reference to the generation contemporary with Jesus.  Some of the predicted events were fulfilled in the first century; for example, the destruction of the Temple (70 A.D.).  However, Jesus has not arrived in glory to gather his elect from the four corners of the world.
Some commentators simply conclude that Jesus was in error; he promised to return within one “generation” but, clearly, did not. 
A problem with that conclusion is that, while the gospel of Mark was likely written before the destruction of the Temple, the gospels of Matthew and Luke were produced several years after 70 A.D. Matthew and Luke had ample opportunity to “correct” Christ’s “error” or to omit the “embarrassing” reference to “this generation,” yet neither did so. 
Luke included additional material that demonstrates his understanding that the destruction of the Temple by a Roman army was the fulfillment of the predictions of Jesus or, at least, of some of them (Luke 19:41-44, 21:20-22). But he, also, included Christ’s description of his arrival in glory and the “embarrassing” statement about “this generation” not passing away (Luke 21:27-32).
Proposed Solutions
One common proposal argues that all the prophecies from the Olivet Discourse were fulfilled in the events leading up to the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., including the coming of the Son of Man in glory; the so-called ‘Preterist’ interpretation.  Because known events can be linked to each of Christ’s predictions, this solution eliminates most of the problems caused by the “this generation” clause but with one glaring exceptionthe coming of the Son in glory when he gathers his elect.
It becomes necessary in this view to spiritualize or allegorize the return of Jesus to turn it into something other than a visible arrival from heaven accompanied by cosmic upheaval; a “spiritual” coming that cannot be objectively verified.
The problem is that many of the events predicted by Jesus are localized in and around Judea and Jerusalem.  Yet the arrival of Christ is portrayed in the Olivet Discourse as a universal event characterized cosmic signs; an event that affects all mankind and the entire created order (e.g., “he sends his angels to gather this elect from the four corners of the earth”).
The ‘Futurist’ interpretation claims that Christ’s predictions are largely or even entirely still in the future. Therefore, either the generation referred to has not yet been born or, quite frequently, it is identified with the present generation. The predicted destruction of the Temple is presumed to be one that has yet to be built. Placing “this generation” in a remote future appears to solve the problem; Jesus was not mistaken; he was speaking of a generation in a distant future.
One popular version claims the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree symbolizes national Israel restored to the land of Palestine, an event that occurred in 1948. The re-founding of national Israel marks the start of History’s “last generation” and Jesus will come in glory within “one generation” of that event.
But the Futurist view must ignore Christ’s clear prediction of the demise of the Temple that was standing in his day (Matthew 24:1-2, “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: ‘Do you see all these? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down’”). Alternatively, some Futurists argue there are two fulfillments of this prophecy, one in the past and a second yet to come.
But, while Jesus did predict the destruction of the Temple, he did not claim that it would be rebuilt. Whether other biblical prophecies predict such an event, Jesus did not (Matthew 23:34-39, 24:1-3, Mark 11:12-23, 13:1-4, Luke 19:41-44, 21:20-22).
Additionally, the Futurist view does not take Christ’s reference to “this generation” at face value; a reference to the generation that was contemporary with him.
A third view is that the Greek word for “generation” (genea) does not mean “generation”; instead, it means “race.” Supposedly, Jesus was referring to the Jewish race that would survive until the Son of Man arrived.  This eliminates the problem of the Son of Man not returning within his “generation,” but it reads a meaning into “generation” that deviates from its normal usage.
A “Generation”
The Greek word for “generation” is genea, which means “generation, progeny.” The more appropriate noun to use if “race” is meant is genos (e.g., Galatians 1:14, Philippians 3:5). Both words are from the same Greek stem (gen-); nonetheless, they are separate and distinct words.  Genos or “race” is never used in the Olivet Discourse.
In the New Testament, genea means “generation” and consistently so. For example, Matthew 1:17 reads, “so all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.”  Mary proclaimed of God that “his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50). The disciples pleaded with a crowd in Jerusalem to save themselves “from this crooked generation!” (Acts 2:40).
Likewise, in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, genea is used for “generation.” For example, Genesis 6:9 states, “these are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.”  God told Noah that the rainbow was “the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations” (Genesis 9:12). The psalmist boasted, “I shall not be moved; throughout all generations I shall not meet adversity” (Psalm 10:6).
The Septuagint habitually translates the Hebrew word for “generation” (dōr) with the Greek noun genea (e.g., Deuteronomy 1:35, “Not one of the men of this evil generation shall see the good land which I swore to give to your fathers”).
Genea is used consistently for “generation” in the New Testament, especially in the gospel of Matthew. One is hard-pressed to find instances where it means “race.” Moreover, “generation” is the basic definition of genea, its essential meaning. There is a separate Greek word for “race,” genos.
To argue that genea means “race” in Matthew 24:34 (and parallels) makes it the exception to how it is used elsewhere in the Greek scriptures.  Nothing in the context justifies doing so; Jesus gave no reason for understanding genea to mean anything other than “generation.”
The Use of Generation by Jesus
Jesus used the clause, “this generation,” on more than one occasion.  In Matthew 11:16, he responded to contemporary critics of his ministry by stating, “but to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, who call out to the others.” Here, “this generation” consists of the noun genea and the demonstrative pronoun houtos, just as in Matthew 24:34 (cp. Luke 7:31).
Jesus responded to a group of Pharisees and Scribes who asked for a sign, stating, “an evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet” (Matthew 12:39, Mark 8:12).  Jesus clearly was referring to the generation contemporary with him.
In Matthew 12:41-45, Christ elaborated further, “the men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South shall rise up with this generation at the judgment and shall condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here… Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. So shall it be also with this evil generation.”
In the preceding cases, Jesus used the Greek word genea four times and thrice with the demonstrative pronoun houtos or “this generation.”  In each case, he was referring to his own generation, the one that largely rejected him.
On another occasion (Matthew 16:4), Jesus responded to sign seekers when he proclaimed, “an evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah. And he left them and went away” (cp. Luke 11:29-32). When his disciples were unable to cast out a demon, Jesus groaned in frustration, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him here to me” (Matthew 17:17, Mark 9:19, Luke 9:41).
Of most relevance is Matthew 23:36 (cp. Luke 11:50-51).  Matthew Chapter 23 is a long critique of the Scribes and Pharisees that includes the pronouncement of seven “woes” on both groups.  The chapter concludes with Jesus’ judicial pronouncement against the Temple and the nation:
Serpents! Broods of vipers! How should you flee from the judgment of Gehenna?  For this cause, behold, I am sending to you prophets and wise men and scribes; some from among them you will slay and crucify, and some from among them you will scourge in your synagogues and pursue from city to city:  that there may come upon you all righteous blood poured out upon the earth from the blood of Abel the righteous to the blood of Zachariah, son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar.  Verily, I say unto you, all these things will come upon this generation!…Behold, your desolate house is abandoned to you.”
This declaration was against the “generation” of Israel that had rejected its Messiah. This leads directly to the prediction of the destruction of the Temple in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:1-3).
In each of the preceding, “this generation” refers to the one contemporary with Jesus, and almost always negatively. Based on how Jesus used “this generation,” the most straightforward way to read “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 is as a reference to the generation that was contemporary with Jesus.
The Old Testament Background
In the synoptic gospels, “this generation” is a cipher for Israel in rebellion against God. The term is derived from Old Testament language and imagery, especially from the wilderness generation that rebelled against Yahweh.  Note the following passages:
(Numbers 32:13) - “Yahweh’s anger burned against Israel and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until the entire generation of those who had done evil in the sight of the LORD was destroyed.”
(Deuteronomy 2:14) - “Now the time that it took for us to come from Kadesh-barnea until we crossed over the brook Zered, was thirty-eight years; until all the generation of the men of war perished from within the camp, as Yahweh had sworn to them.”
(Deuteronomy 32:5) - “They have acted corruptly toward Him, they are not His children, because of their defect; a perverse and crooked generation.”
(Deuteronomy 32:20) - “Then He said, I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end, for they are a perverse generation, sons in whom is no faithfulness.”
(Psalm 95:10) - “For forty years I loathed that generation, and said they are a people who err in their heart, and they do not know my ways.”
Jesus consistently used “this generation” in his critiques of Jewish opponents of his ministry, especially of the Pharisees, Scribes, and the Temple authorities.  In each case, those addressed were his contemporaries. This language is from the wilderness story of Israel, an earlier generation that also rebelled against Yahweh.  On the lips of Jesus, “this generation,” for all intents and purposes, it becomes a stock phrase for the Jewish nation in rebellion against God.
Whatever real or apparent problems this understanding of “this generation” creates for interpreters of the Olivet Discourse, that is the lay of the land.

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