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Kicking Against the Exegetical Pricks of ‘This Generation’ in Matthew 24

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symposiumAt the February 23, 2013 Symposium on Revelation, premillennialist Jim Hamilton (Hamilton) took issue with my argument that the phrase “this generation” refers to the generation to whom Jesus was speaking. During the critique session, Hamilton argued that “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 and elsewhere in the gospels means a “type of generation” rather than a particular generation. Of course, Jesus doesn’t say “this type of generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” He says “this generation.”

Other generations may be evil, adulterous, and perverse, but it’s that current generation that Jesus (Matt. 12:39, 41–42, 45), Peter (Acts 2:40), and Paul (Phil. 2:15) are referencing. Those who oppose the Philippians are their “worldly contemporaries and neighbors.” [1] Notice the audience reference: “among whom YOU appear as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15). Other generations may appear as lights in the world, but Paul identifies that particular generation as the generation that is shining (cf. Dan. 12:3).

Notice the audience reference when Jesus encounters unbelief, not a distant future unbelief, but unbelief that was staring Him in the face:

“And Jesus answered and said, ‘YOU unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with YOU? How long shall I put up with YOU? Bring him here to Me’” (Matt. 17:17).

Is there any doubt that Jesus was referring to that generation and that generation alone? “Jesus speaks of his contemporaries in very negative terms: they are not only faithless but also morally crooked or depraved (cf. 11:16; 12:39, 45; Deut. 32:5, 20).” [2]

There may be unbelief in the future among other generations, but Jesus clearly identifies the people of His day as being part of a present “perverted generation.” Why use “you” if Jesus didn’t mean them? If Jesus isn’t referring to their generation, then what word could have He used other than “you” if He did want to refer to them? It’s baffling to me how someone can make the clear so obscure. But people will do desperate things in order to salvage system that cannot stand on exegetical merits.

The Old Testament background for what Jesus said is found in the book of Deuteronomy:

  • “They have acted corruptly toward Him, they are not His children, because of their defect; but are a perverse and crooked generation” (32:5).
  • “Then He said, ‘I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be; for they are a perverse generation, sons in whom is no faithfulness’” (32:20).

Moses is describing the wilderness generation, a single generation in a particular period of time. Is there any indication in Matthew 17:17 that Jesus does not mean the generation that was before Him? R.T. France notes:

Jesus’ surprising outburst is addressed not a man . . . but to the whole “generation.” For similar characterizations of “this generation” as unbelieving and unresponsive cf. 11:16; 12:39, 41–42, 45; 16:4; it is a Matthean theme which will reach its culmination in the charge in 23:34–36 that “this generation” has reached the point of no return in its rejection of God’s messengers.” [3]

Following the biblical evidence, many Bible commentators have interpreted Jesus’ use of “this generation” in the Olivet Discourse as the generation of Jesus’ day. Here are some examples:

  • Henry Hammond (1653): “I now assure you, that in the age of some that are now alive, shall all that has been said in this chapter [Matt. 24] be certainly fulfilled.” [4]
  • John Lightfoot (1658): “Hence it appears plain enough, that the foregoing verses [Matt. 24:1–34] are not to be understood of the last judgment, but, as we said, of the destruction of Jerusalem. There were some among the disciples (particularly John), who lived to see these things come to pass. With Matt. xvi. 28, compare John xxi. 22. And there were some Rabbins alive at the time when Christ spoke these things, that lived until the city was destroyed.” [5]
  • Philip Doddridge (1750): “And verily I say unto you; and urge you to observe it, as absolutely necessary in order to understand what I have been saying, That this generation of men now living shall not pass away until all these things be fulfilled, for what I have foretold concerning the destruction of the Jewish state is so near at hand, that some of you shall live to see it all accomplished with a dreadful exactness.” [6]
  • Thomas Newton (1755): “It is to me a wonder how any man can refer part of the foregoing discourse to the destruction of Jerusalem, and part to the end of the world, or any other distant event, when it is said so positively here in the conclusion, All these things shall be fulfilled in this generation.” [7]
  • John Gill (1766): “This is a full and clear proof, that not any thing that is said before [v. 34], relates to the second coming of Christ, the day of judgment, and the end of the world; but that all belongs to the coming of the son of man in the destruction of Jerusalem, and to the end of the Jewish state.” [8]
  • Thomas Scott (1817): “This absolutely restricts our primary interpretation of the prophecy to the destruction of Jerusalem, which took place within forty years.” [9]
  • Henry Cowles (1881) : “Some interpreters have construed the words—‘this generation’—to mean this sort of people, i.e., the Jews, or the wicked, etc., seeking to set aside its only legitimate sense, viz., the men then living. Such wresting of Christ’s words cannot be reprobated too severely.” [10]
  • Milton Terry (1898): “Is it not strange that any careful student of our Lord’s teaching should fail to understand his answer to this very question? The disciples asked, definitely, WHEN shall it be [Matt. 24:3]? And Jesus proceeded to foretell a variety of things which they would live to see — all preliminary to the end. He foretold the horrors of the siege of Jerusalem, and an intelligible sign by which they might know the imminence of the final catastrophe of Judaism. And having told them of all these things, and of his own coming in the clouds and its glorious significance, he added: ‘When ye see these things coming to pass, know that it is nigh, at the door. Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass away until all these things be accomplished.’ The ruin of the temple was, accordingly, the crisis which marked the end of the pre-Messianic age.” [11]
  • John Broadas (1886): “Verily, I say unto you (see on 5:18), calling attention to something of special importance. This generation, as in 23:36, also 11:16 12:41f.; and compare Luke 17:25 with 21:32. The word cannot have any other meaning here than the obvious one. The attempts to establish for it the sense of race or nation have failed. There are some examples in which it might have such a meaning, but none in which it must, for in every case the recognized meaning will answer, and so another sense is not admissible. (Comp. on 3:6) Some of the Fathers took it to mean the generation of believers, i. e., the Christians, etc., after the loose manner of interpreting into which many of them so often fell. We now commonly make the rough estimate of three generations to a century. The year in which our Lord said this was most probably A.D. 30, and if so, it was forty years to the destruction of Jerusalem. The thought is thus the same as in 16:28; and comp. John 21:22f. Till all these things be fulfilled, or, more exactly, take place, ‘come to pass,’ see on 5:18. The emphasis is on ‘all.’ All the things predicted in v. 4–31 would occur before or in immediate connection with the destruction of Jerusalem.” [12]
  • G. R. Beasley-Murray (1957): “Despite all the attempts to establish the contrary, there seems to be no escape from the admission that here [in Mark 13:30] ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη is to be taken in its natural sense of the generation contemporary with Jesus.” [13]
  • Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida (1961): “[T]he obvious meaning of the words ‘this generation’ is the people contemporary with Jesus. Nothing can be gained by trying to take the word in any sense other than its normal one: in Mark (elsewhere in 8:12, 9:19) the word always has this meaning.” [14]
  • William L. Lane (1974): “The significance of the temporal reference has been debated, but in Mark ‘this generation’ clearly designates the contemporaries of Jesus (see on Chs. 8:12, 38; 9:19) and there is no consideration from the context which lends support to any other proposal. Jesus solemnly affirms that the generation contemporary with his disciples will witness the fulfillment of his prophetic word, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the dismantling of the Temple.” [15]
  • D. A. Carson (1984): “[This generation] can only with the greatest difficulty be made to mean anything other than the generation living when Jesus spoke.” [16]
  • William Sanford LaSor (1987): “If ‘this generation’ is taken literally, all of the predictions were to take place within the life-span of those living at that time.” [17]
  • Jack P. Lewis (1976): “The meaning of generation (genea) is crucial to the interpretation of the entire chapter. While Scofield, following Jerome, contended that it meant the Jewish race, there is only one possible case in the New Testament (Luke 16:8) where the lexicon suggests that genea means race. [18] There is a distinction between genos (race) and genea (generation). Others have argued that genea means the final generation; that is, once the signs have started, all these happenings would transpire in one generation (cf. 23:36). But elsewhere in Matthew genea means the people alive at one time and usually at the time of Jesus (1:17; 11:16; 12:39,41,45; 23:36; Mark 8:38; Luke 11:50f.; 17:25), and it doubtlessly means the same here.” [19]
  • “Christ’s use of the words ‘immediately after’ [in Matthew 24:30] does not leave room for a long delay (2,000 years or more before his literal second coming occurs), neither does the explicit time-scale given in Matthew 24:34. The word ‘parousia’ does not occur in this section but is prominently reintroduced in the new paragraph which begins at Matthew 24:36, where its unknown time is contrasted with the clear statement that the events of this paragraph will take place within ‘this generation” (Matthew 24:36). This section is therefore in direct continuity with what has gone before, the account of the siege of Jerusalem. Here we reach its climax.” (P. 936) “The language … is drawn from Daniel 7:13–14, which points to the vindication and enthronement of Jesus (rather than his second coming [‘parousia’]). … In this context, therefore, this poetic language appropriately refers to the great changes which were about to take place in the world, when Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed. It speaks of the ‘Son of Man’ entering into his kingship, and ‘his angels’ gathering in his new people from all the earth. The fall of the temple is thus presented, in highly allusive language, as the end of the old order, to be replaced by the new regime of Jesus, the Son of Man, and the international growth of his church, the new people of God. . . . The NIV margin offers ‘race’ as an alternative to ‘generation.’ This suggestion is prompted more by embarrassment on the part of those who think Matthew 24:30 refers to the ‘parousia’ (second coming) rather than by any natural sense of the word ‘genea’!” [20]
  • F. F. Bruce (1983): “The phrase ‘this generation’ is found too often on Jesus’ lips in this literal sense for us to suppose that it suddenly takes on a different meaning in the saying we are now examining. Moreover, if the generation of the end-time had been intended, ‘that generation’ would have been a more natural way of referring to it than ‘this generation. [21]
  • John Nolland (2005): “Matthew uses genea here for the tenth time. Though his use of the term has a range of emphases, it consistently refers to (the time span of) a single human generation. All the alternative senses proposed here [in 24:34] (the Jewish people; humanity; the generation of the end-time signs; wicked people) are artificial and based on the need to protect Jesus from error. ‘This generation’ is the generation of Jesus’ contemporaries.” [22]
  • R. T. France (2007): “‘This generation’ has been used frequently in this gospel for Jesus’ contemporaries, especially in a context of God’s impending judgment; see 11:16; 12:39, 41–42, 45; 16:4; 17:17, and especially 23:36, where God’s judgment on ‘this generation’ leads up to Jesus’ first prediction of the devastation of the temple in 23:38. It may safely be concluded that if it had not been for the embarrassment caused by supposing that Jesus was here talking about his parousia, no one would have thought of suggesting any other meaning for ‘this generation,’ such as ‘the Jewish race’ or ‘human beings in general’ or ‘all the generations of Judaism that reject him’ or even ‘this kind’ (meaning scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees). Such broad senses, even if they were lexically possible, would offer no help in response to the disciples’ question ‘When?’” [23]
  • Paul Copan (2008): “In these passages, the ‘coming’ (the Greek verb is erchomai = “[I] come”) is expected within Jesus’ own ‘adulterous and sinful generation.’ Something dramatic will apparently take place in the near future.” [24]
  • Grant R. Osborne (2010): “‘[T]his generation’ (ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη) in the gospels always means the people of Jesus’ own time (11:16; 12:41–42; 23:36) not, as some have proposed, the generation of the last days in history, the Jewish people, the human race in general, or the sinful people.” [25]

Even with all this evidence, there are still those who try their best to make “this generation” into any generation but the generation of Jesus’ day. They are “kicking against the exegetical pricks.”

  1. William Hendriksen, Exposition of Philippians: New Testament Commentary (Grand rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1962), 124[]
  2. David L. Turner, Matthew: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 424.[]
  3. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 660.[]
  4. Henry Hammond, A Paraphrase, and Annotations Upon all the Books of the New Testament, Briefly Explaining all the Difficult Places Thereof (London: Printed for John Nicholson, at the King’s-Arms in Little Britain, 1702), 102.[]
  5. John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, 4 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1658–1674] 1859), 2:320.[]
  6. Philip Doddridge, The Family Expositor; or, A Paraphrase and Version of the New Testament; with Critical Notes, and a Practical Improvement of each Section, 6 vols. (Charlestown, MA.: Ethridge and Company, 1807), 1:377.[]
  7. Newton, Dissertations on the Prophecies, Which Have Remarkably Been Fulfilled, 377.[]
  8. John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament, 3 vols. (London: Mathews and Leigh, 1809), 1:296.[]
  9. Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments, According to the Authorised Version; with Explanatory Notes, Practical Observations, and Copious Marginal References, 3 vols. (New York: Collins and Hannay, 1832), 3:111.[]
  10. Henry Cowles, Matthew and Mark, with Notes: Critical, Explanatory, and Practical, Designed for Both Pastors and People (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1881), 219.[]
  11. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics: A Study of the Most Notable Revelations of God and of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1898), 249. Also see the following: “The significations which, apparently under the pressure of an assumed exegetical necessity, have been put upon the words ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη, this generation, may well seem absurd to the unbiased critic. To put upon them such meanings as ‘the human race’ (Jerome), or ‘the Jewish race’ (Clarke, Dorner, Auberlan), or ‘the race of Christian believers’ (Chrysostom, Lange), may reasonably be condemned as a reading whatever suits our purpose into the words of Scripture. The evident meaning of the word is seen in such texts as Matt. i, 17; xvii, 17; Acts xiv, 16; xv, 21 (by-gone generations of old), and nothing in New Testament exegesis is capable of more convincing proof than that γενεὰ is the Greek equivalent of our word generation; i.e., the mass or great body of people living at one period—the period of average lifetime. Even if it be allowed that in such passages as Matt. xi, 16; or Luke xvi, 8, the thought of a particular race or class of people is implied, it is beyond doubt that in those same passages the persons referred to are conceived as contemporaries.” (Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1883), 443, note 1.[]
  12. John A. Broadus, “Matthew,” An American Commentary of the New Testament, ed. Alvah Hovey (Philadelphia: The American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), 491–492.[]
  13. G.R. Beasley-Murray, A Commentary on Mark Thirteen (London: Macnillan & Co. Ltd., 1957), 100. Also see Beasley-Murray’s comments in Jesus and the Last Days: The Interpretation of the Olivet Discourse (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 444.[]
  14. Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator’s Handbook of the Gospel of Mark (New York: United Bible Societies, 1961), 419.[]
  15. William L. Lane, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 480.[]
  16. Carson, “Matthew,” 8:507.[]
  17. William Sanford LaSor, The Truth About Armageddon: What the Bible Says About the End Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), 122.[]
  18. The New American Standard translates genea in Luke 16:8 as “kind,” but “generation” is equally valid.[]
  19. Jack P. Lewis, The Gospel According to Matthew, Part 2; Living Word Commentary: Sweet Publishing, 1976), 128.[]
  20. New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, eds. Gordon. J. Wenham, J. A. Motyer, D. A. Carson, R. T. France (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 936, 937.[]
  21. F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 227[]
  22. John Nolland The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 988–989.[]
  23. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 930.[]
  24. Paul Copan, When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 163. See the full contents of chapters 15 and 16.[]
  25. Grant R. Osborne, Matthew: Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 899–900.[]
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