I received an email from an AV supporter that was sent to him by his sister-in-law. Since her criticisms are very stereotypical, they provide a good opportunity to address the most common misunderstandings. I will quote her throughout, followed by my responses. She begins:
I read that book you gave me this morning. . . . He bases the whole book on the verse in Matthew that says ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things are fulfilled.’ He claims that was the generation when Jesus was alive.
Your sister-in-law is wrong on several counts. I do not base Is Jesus Coming Soon? solely on Matthew 24:34. Keep in mind that it is a shortened version of a much comprehensive study of Matthew 24 found in my book Last Days Madness. Even so, understanding how “this generation” is used by Jesus is important and cannot be avoided. I notice that your sister-in-law does not do a comparative study of the phrase. Each and every time “this generation” is used in the gospels it always refers to the generation to whom Jesus is speaking (Matt. 11:16; 12:41–42; 23:36; Mark 8:12; Luke 7:31; 11:30–32, 50–51; 17:25).
The use of “this” (a near demonstrative) refers to what is near. “The demonstrative[s] . . . are of two kinds: near and distant. The near demonstratives, as the name denotes, point to someone or something ‘near,’ in close proximity. They appear as the singular word ‘this’ and its plural ‘these.’ The distant demonstratives, as their name suggests, appear as ‘that’ (singular), or ‘those’ (plural).”1 If Jesus had a future generation in view, He would have used the far demonstrative, “that.” There is no getting around the meaning of “this generation.” By comparing Scripture with Scripture, “this generation” means the generation of Jesus’ day.
If you back up a few verses Jesus says, ‘Now learn this lesson from the fig tree.… As soon as its twigs are tender and its leaves come out, know that summer is near. Even so when you see these things, you know the time is near.’
Jesus uses an audience reference in Matthew 24:33: “when YOU see all these things, recognize that He is near, at the door.” It’s the “this generation” of Jesus day that would see “all THESE [plural near demonstrative] things.” The use of the second person plural (“you”) can be traced back to the beginning of the chapter (Matt. 24:2, 4, 9, etc.) and followed through to verse 33. The audience does not change. If Jesus had a future generation in view, He would have said “when THEY see all these things.”
The fig tree has always been representative of the nation of Israel.
The fig tree has NOT always been representative of the nation of Israel. I noticed that your sister-in-law did not offer any biblical support for her claim. If there is a tree that represents Israel, it’s the olive tree (Rom. 11:17, 24). It seems rather odd that Paul would choose the olive tree when, as your sister-in-law claims, “the fig tree has always been representative of the nation of Israel.” Notice that in the parallel account in Luke’s version of the Olivet Discourse, Jesus says, “Behold the fig tree and ALL THE TREES; as soon as THEY put forth leaves, you see it and know for yourselves that summer is now near” (Luke 21:29–30).
If the fig tree represents Israel, then there is the problem of what Jesus says about the fig tree earlier in Matthew’s gospel: “Now in the morning, when He was returning to the city, He became hungry. Seeing a lone fig tree [Israel] by the road, He came to it [Israel] and found nothing on it [Israel] except leaves only; and He said to it [Israel], “NO LONGER SHALL THERE EVER BE ANY FRUIT FROM YOU [ISRAEL].’” (Matt. 21:18–22). Notice that Matthew 24:32 does not say anything about fruit; it only mentions leaves. It was a “leaves-only” tree, the same type of tree that Jesus said would never bear fruit. So, if the fig tree represents Israel, then there is a contradiction. She can’t have it both ways (not Israel in Matthew 21 and Israel in Matthew 24).
Dispensationalists have been making the “fig tree=Israel” claim for some time (see the Scofield Reference Bible). This is beginning to change because dispensationalists see a number of exegetical, historical, and logical problems. Dispensational prophecy author John F. Walvoord wrote the following about the fig tree being Israel: “Actually, while the fig tree could be an apt illustration of Israel IT IS NOT SO USED IN THE BIBLE. In Jeremiah 24:1–8, good and bad figs [not trees] illustrate Israel in the captivity, and there is also mention of figs in 29:17. The reference to the fig tree in Judges 9:10–11 is obviously not Israel. Neither the reference in Matthew 21:18–20 nor that in Mark 11:12–14 with its interpretation in 11:20–26, gives any indication that it is referring to Israel, any more than the mountain referred to in the passage. Accordingly, while this interpretation is held by many, there is no clear scriptural warrant. A better interpretation is that Christ was using a natural illustration. Because the fig tree brings forth new leaves late in the spring, the budding of the leaves is evidence that summer is near.”2
Mark Hitchcock, pastor of Faith Bible Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, is the author of 2012: The Bible and the End of the World. Hitchcock, like Walvoord, takes issue with the often used argument that the fig tree in Matthew 24:32 describes the reinstitution of the nation of Israel,3 a point he also made in his book The Complete Book of Bible Prophecy.4
The verses talk about when Israel becomes a new nation (twigs, tender leaves). Israel was already a nation when Jesus was alive. It was then destroyed in 70 AD and taken over by the Romans. The new nation of Israel happened in 1948 . . . so when Jesus said this generation, He was talking about the restored nation of Israel. A generation to the Jewish people is 70 years. We think of it as 100. If this generation of Israel will see the last days’ events, then they should happen sometime within 1948 and 2018 . . . that is 70 years.
The above material makes this particular argument moot, since, as I’ve shown, the fig tree of Matthew 24:32 is not a reference to Israel becoming a nation again. I find it odd that all the weight of an argument rests on an analogy when the rest of the chapter is so particular (wars, famines, false Christs, etc.). The NT does not say anything about Israel becoming a nation again. You won’t even find it in Romans 11.
When Tim LaHaye attempted to calculate the timing of “this generation,” he began with 1917. In the first edition of The Beginning of the End, which was published in 1972, Tim LaHaye wrote, “Carefully putting all this together, we now recognize this strategic generation. It is the generation that ‘sees’ the four-part sign of verse 7 [in Matt. 24], or the people who saw the First World War. We must be careful here not to become dogmatic, but it would seem that these people are witnesses to the events, not necessarily participants in them. That would suggest they were at least old enough to understand the events of 1914–1918, not necessarily old enough to go to war.”5
A number of things changed in LaHaye’s 1991 revised edition of The Beginning of the End. The “strategic generation” has been modified significantly. It’s no longer “the people who saw the First World War”: “Carefully putting all this together, we now recognize this strategic generation. It is the generation that ‘sees’ the events of 1948. We must be careful here not to become dogmatic, but it would seem that these people are witnesses to the events, not necessarily participants in them.” The change from 1917 to 1948 gave LaHaye another fifty years before this new generation passes away.6
The 1948–1988 connection was all the rage in the early 1970s, especially with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth (1970): “The most important sign in Matthew has to be the restoration of the Jews to the land in the rebirth of Israel. Even the figure of speech ‘fig tree’ has been a historic symbol [note that Lindsey does not offer any biblical support] of national Israel. 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 have studied Bible prophecy all their lives believe that this is so.”7
Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Chapel and founder of the worldwide Calvary Chapel system of churches, went a step further than Lindsey: “That generation that was living in May 1948 shall not pass away until the second coming of Jesus Christ takes place and the kingdom of God established upon the earth. How long is a generation? Forty years on average in the Bible. . . . Where does that put us? It puts us right out at the end. We’re coming down to the wire.”8 He wrote this in 1976.
Your sister-in-law sees the problem, so she chose 70 years. When 2018 comes with no “rapture,” she will either switch to a 100-year generation or change the starting point to 1967 which was the year of Israel’s Six-Day War.
- Cullen I K Story and J. Lyle Story, Greek To Me: Learning New Testament Greek Through Memory Visualization [New York: Harper, 1979], 74). [↩]
- John F. Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come (Chicago, IL: Moody,  1980), 191B192. [↩]
- Tim LaHaye and many popular prophecy writers see Matthew 24:32 as the key NT prophetic passage: “when a fig tree is used symbolically in Scripture, it usually refers to the nation Israel. If that is a valid assumption (and we believe it is), then when Israel officially became a nation in 1948, that was the ‘sign’ of Matthew 24:1-8, the beginning ‘birth pangs’—it meant that the ‘end of the age’ is ‘near.’” (Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Are We Living in the End Times? Current Events Foretold in Scripture . . . And What They Mean [Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999], 57). The editors of LaHaye’s own Prophecy Study Bible (2000) disagree: “the fig tree is not symbolic of the nation of Israel” (1040). [↩]
- Mark Hitchcock, The Complete Book of Bible Prophecy (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999), 158. [↩]
- Tim LaHaye, The Beginning of the End (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1972), 165, 168. Emphasis added. [↩]
- Tim LaHaye, The Beginning of the End, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1991), 1993. Emphasis added. [↩]
- Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan,  1971), 53–54. [↩]
- Chuck Smith, Snatched Away (Costa Mesa, CA: Maranatha Evangelical Association of Calvary Chapel, 1976), 21. [↩]