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Interpretive Gymnastics

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I’ve been reading through the book The Big Three: Major events that Changed History Forever written by Dr. Henry Morris III, the son of Henry Morris who co-authored The Genesis Flood with John C. Whitcomb in 1961. In The Big Three, Morris has a chapter with the title “Interpretive Gymnastics.” A good title. He writes:

“No one has the right to change the words of God to suit his idea of what it should mean. The most onerous “’interpretations’ is that which openly subverts the clear and precise words of God with the opinions and ideas of man. The Pharisees’ subversion is exactly what the Lord Jesus so angrily denounced (Matt. 23). They had nullified the words of God by their traditions. They had overridden the books of Moses with the writings of the scribes. They had twisted the law of God into the endless ridiculous rules of men” (187).

Good words. Now all he needs to do is apply them consistently to the realm of eschatology and how his late father interpreted “this generation” in Matthew 24:34.

Consider the following comments on Matthew 24:34 from Henry M. Morris, Sr., a dispensationalist and a founding father of the modern-day creationist movement. They are taken from his creationist themed Defender’s Study Bible which was first published in 1995: “The word ‘this’ is the demonstrative adjective and could better be translated ‘that generation.’ That is, the generation which sees all these signs (probably starting with World War I) shall not have completely passed away until all these things have taken place” (1045).

Morris describes the use of “this” as a “demonstrative adjective.” It is better designated as a “near demonstrative” adjective identifying what generation will see the signs. In Greek and English, the near demonstrative (this) is contrasted with the far demonstrative (that). Prior to his comments in his Defender’s Study Bible, Morris wrote the following extended comments on Matthew 24:34 in his Creation and the Second Coming:

In this striking prophecy, the words “this generation” has the emphasis of “that generation.” That is, that generation — the one that sees the specific signs of His coming — will not completely pass away until He has returned to reign as King. [1] Now if the first sign was, as we have surmised, the first World War, then followed by all His other signs, His coming must indeed by very near [2] — even at the doors! There are only a few people still living from that [3] generation. I myself was born just a month before the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. Those who were old enough really to know about that first World War — “the beginning of sorrows” — would be at least in their eighties now. Thus, we cannot be dogmatic, we could very well now be living in the very last days before the return of the Lord.” [4]

Matthew 24:33 tells us what audience Jesus had in view: “so, YOU too, when YOU see all THESE things, recognize that He is near, right at the door.” It is obvious, and without any need for debate, that the first “you” refers to those who asked the questions that led to Jesus’ extended remarks (Matt. 24:2–4). Jesus identifies those who will “see all these things” by once again using “you.” If Jesus had a future generation in mind, He could have eliminated all confusion by saying, “even so THEY too, when THEY see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, THAT generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Instead, Henry Morris and others have to massage the text to support a future tribulation period. [5]

The texts that govern the timing of the Olivet prophecy — Matthew 23:36 and Matthew 24:34 — make it clear that Jesus was speaking of the events leading up to and including the fall of Jerusalem that took place in A.D. 70. If we abandon these clear time statements, then these signs can be applied to any generation. As history attests, this is exactly what’s happened. There have always been wars, false prophets, famines, tribulation, lawlessness, and persecution. If people fail to recognize the timing of these events set by Scripture and the historical context of Jesus’ words, they will always be led astray by those who keep insisting that it’s our generation that will experience the end times.

One popular way of getting around the biblical meaning of “this generation” is to claim that Jesus was actually saying “this race,” that is, “this Jewish race will not pass away until all these things take place.” [6]

There are three obvious problems. First, it’s the wrong Greek word. If Jesus wanted to refer to the Jewish race, He would have used genos instead of genea. Genea is always translated as “generation” in the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 1:17; Luke 1:48, 50; 16:8; Acts 2:40).

Second, turning “generation” into “race” makes no logical sense. Jesus would have argued that when all the things He just outlined passed away, so would the Jewish race.

Third, try using “race” where “generation” appears (Matt. 1:17; 11:16; 12:39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 17:17; Mark 8:12, 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). “Race” does not fit.

Some claim that “this generation” actually means “the generation that sees the signs.” [7] In order to get this translation, “this” has to be replaced with “the” and four words have to be added. This is not the way to interpret the Bible. In addition, we are told in Matthew 24:33 who will see the signs: “even so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door.” The “you” is them not us.

A popular attempt at an interpretive solution is to claim that Jesus was referring to a certain type or kind of generation. [8] Consider the following argument by Neil D. Nelson, Jr., that claims that “this generation” used by Matthew (11:16; 12:41, 42, 45; 23:36; 24:34) “reveals that the kind of people referred to are characterized as those who reject Jesus and his messengers and the salvific message they preach, who remain unbelieving and unrepentant, who actively oppose Jesus and his messengers through testing and persecution, and who will face eschatological judgment. The pejorative adjectives given to ‘this generation’ (evil, adulterous, faithless, perverse; cf. 12:39, 45; 16:4; 17:17) throughout the gospel are qualities that distinguish those who are subjects of the kingdom from those who are not. . . .The opponents of Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 24–25 share similar traits with ‘this generation’ as characterized in these . . . chapters.” [9]

Of course, Jesus doesn’t use the phrase “this kind of generation” or this “this type of people” in Matthew 24:34. Jesus does use the phrases “evil and adulterous generation” (Matt. 12:39; 16:4), “evil generation” (12:45), and “unbelieving and perverted generation” (Matt. 17:17), but “evil,” “adulterous,” “unbelieving,” and “perverted” are in the texts. He is referring to that first-century generation, not some undesignated future generation (Matt. 12:38–45). Matthew 23:39 and Matthew 24:34 do not include any of the above adjectives; therefore, the burden of proof rests with those who claim that Jesus has a “kind of people in view” rather than a particular generation.

Let’s take a look at Matthew 12:38–45. The Pharisees say to Jesus, “We want to see a sign” (v. 38). Jesus answers, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign” (12:39). That makes their generation an evil and adulterous generation since they are the ones asking for a sign. Even so, Jesus gives them a sign, “the sign of Jonah the prophet” (12:39). And when was the sign of Jonah the prophet fulfilled? In their day, and only their day: “for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (12:40). The use of “this generation” (12:41–42) is used by Jesus to point out how their generation will be judged by the people of Nineveh and the Queen of the South because someone greater than Jonah and Solomon “is here.” The “here” was in Jesus’ day since only those people living in Jesus’ day could actually see the sign of the resurrection – the physical resurrected Jesus!

To repeat, Jesus does not say in Matthew 24:34 that “this kind of generation will not pass away.” He says “this generation,” the same phrase that is used in Matthew 23:36, a verse that Thomas Ice says “is an undisputed reference to A.D.70.” [10]

When all is said and done, let’s suppose those who claim that Jesus was not referring to His first-century audience, then what could Jesus have said to mean His first-century audience if “this generation” doesn’t mean the generation to whom Jesus was speaking and “you” does not refer to Jesus’ present audience? The Olivet Discourse is fulfilled prophecy.

Morris begins the chapter on “Interpretive Gymnastics” be retelling the infamous Clinton “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is,’ ‘is.’” It seems that some Young Earth Creations have a similar definitional problem with what the words “this” and “generation” mean.

  1. There is nothing in Matthew 24 that says Jesus is going to return to earth to reign as king.[]
  2. Why does “near” mean “even at the doors” for Morris in the twentieth century, but it did not mean “near” in the first century?[]
  3. Notice how Morris uses the far demonstrative “that” to refer to a generation in the past. How would he have described the generation in which he was living? Obviously with the near demonstrative “this” to distinguish it from “that” past generation.[]
  4. Henry Morris, Creation and the Second Coming (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1991), 183. Morris died on February 25, 2006 at the age of 87.[]
  5. The latest example is found in Tim Demy and Gary Stewart, 101 Most Puzzling Bible Verses: Insight into Frequently Misunderstood Scriptures (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2007), 105–106. They argue that there is no mention of an audience reference in Matthew 24:33, just that “The phrases ‘this generation’ and ‘these things’ are linked together by context and grammar in such a way that Jesus must be speaking of a future generation.” This is the height of obfuscation. Jesus clearly identifies the audience: “when YOU see all these things.”[]
  6. William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), 868–869. Hendriksen does not make a single comparison with how “this generation” is used in Matthew’s gospel. Instead he appeals to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.[]
  7. John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), 64.[]
  8. Richard C. H. Lenski, Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, [1943]  1961), 952.[]
  9. Neil D. Nelson, Jr. “‘This Generation’ in Matt. 24:34; A Literary Critical Perspective,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 38:3 (September 1995), 376.[]
  10. Thomas Ice and Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Great Tribulation Past or Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1999), 103–104.[]

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