matthew-24-34-aDuring the round-table discussion phase of the Reno, Nevada, Symposium on the Book of Revelation, each of us was asked what there is about the two competing positions that we say is a positive feature. When premillennialist Jim Hamilton was asked about preterism, you could tell he had a hard time coming up with something positive. Preterism is the biggest threat to premillennialism. To say anything positive opens the door to legitimacy.

Even so, he could not have said anything more positive when he declared that preterists pay attention to “the text.” Amen!

Before any worthwhile discussion can take place about the Bible, the first question I always ask is, “What does the text say?” The tempter approached Eve with a question about the text: “Indeed has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?’” (Gen. 3:1).

The serpent intentionally misconstrues the command of God by formulating the question designed to get the woman to express the command in her own words.[1]

The devil does a similar thing in the wilderness temptation of Jesus (Matt. 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). Paul makes a necessary distinction between “seed” and “seeds” (Gal. 3:16). The particulars of the text matter. An interpreter can’t move on to what a text means until he nails down what the text says.

It matters that Jesus says “this generation” rather than “that generation,” just like it matters that He uses the second person plural “you” and not the third person plural “they” throughout the Olivet Discourse.

Let’s look at some examples of prophecy writers who don’t pay attention to the text, either by adding words that aren’t present or by dismissing words are actually used.

Tim Demy and Gary Stewart reject the obvious biblical meaning of “this generation” and argue that “Jesus must be speaking of a future generation. Jesus is stating that a future generation will experience the events described in Matthew 24:4–33—‘these things.’ These future people will not die until all the events are literally fulfilled.”[2] As we’ve seen, “this generation” never refers to a future generation. Moreover, Jesus does not say “a future generation.” Finally, we are told by Jesus what generation will see “these things”: “You [Jesus’ audience] too, when YOU see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door” (24:33).

Consider these comments on Matthew 24:34 from Henry M. Morris, a dispensationalist and 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,” but it is better designated as a “near demonstrative” adjective identifying what generation will see what Jesus describes in the Olivet Discourse. 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.[3] 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[4] — even at the doors! There are only a few people still living from that[5] 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.”[6]

Matthew 24:33 tells us what audience Jesus said would see “these things,” and it wasn’t the World War I generation: “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, “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, as we’ll see, James Hamilton have to massage the text to support a future tribulation period and obscure the meaning of the passage.[7]

James Hamilton declared in his critique of my preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse that it doesn’t matter if the demonstrative adjective “this” or the far demonstrative “that” is used in Matthew 24:34. I was shocked when I heard him say this. But it only demonstrates the lengths some interpreters will go to defend a position.

Greek grammars and lexicons seem to think it’s important to note whether “this” or “that” is being used, otherwise why bother having entries for these near and far demonstratives? For example:

Greek grammars and lexicons recognize two demonstratives: near and distant. The near demonstrative, as the name denotes, points 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).[8]

Consider these comments from one of the leading New Testament Greek grammars:

Sometimes it is desired to call attention with special emphasis to a designated object, whether in the physical vicinity or the speaker or the literary context of the writer. For this purpose the demonstrative construction is used. . . . For that which is relatively near in actuality or thought the immediate demonstrative [houtos] is used. . . . For that which is relatively distant in actuality or thought the remote demonstrative [ekeinos] is used.[9]

Or this from a leading New Testament lexicon: “[T]his, referring to something comparatively near at hand, just as ekeinos [that] refers to something comparatively farther away.”[10]

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 destruction of the temple that took place in A.D. 70. I suggest that James Hamilton consult a concordance and note how “this” and “that” are consistently used throughout the gospels.[11

Dispensational premillennialist Thomas Ice tries to discount the use of the near demonstrative “this” by appealing to Daniel B. Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Wallace notes that the near demonstrative “οὗτος regularly refers to the near object (‘this’), while ἐκεῖνος regularly refers to the far object (‘that’).” Note his use of “regularly.” Wallace goes on to state that “this” and “that” “can refer either to that which is near/far in the (1) context, (2) in the writer’s mind, or (3) in space or time of the writer’s audience.”[12] In a footnote, Wallace mentions Zerwick’s Biblical Greek and his comment that “the proximateness or remoteness may be not grammatical . . .  but psychological.”[13] The example that Zerwick and Wallace use for this principle is found in Acts 4:10–11:

[L]et it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health. This [οὗτός] is the STONE WHICH WAS REJECTED by you, THE BUILDERS, but WHICH BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone.

The use of “this” (οὗτός) in Acts 4:11 refers back to 4:10 where “Jesus Christ” is mentioned but is not physically present in the way “the name” and the healed man were at the time the events described by Luke took place. Wallace writes: “θεὸς is the nearest noun and οὗτός (referring to the healed man) is the nearest substantive. But since Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ is the ‘nearest psychologically, — was more vividly present to [the writer’s] mind than any other,’ it is the antecedent.”[14]

The problem for Ice in claiming that the above example applies to the way the near demonstrative “this” is used in Matthew 24:34 is that (1) “this generation” repeatedly means the generation contemporary with Jesus, (2) the use of the second person plural throughout the chapter identifies Jesus’ present audience, (3) Jesus’ statement in verse 33 that His present audience (“you”) would be the ones to see the signs (“when YOU see all these things”), and (4) “οὗτος regularly refers to the near object (‘this’).”

The burden of proof, therefore, is on Ice to show that “the grammatical use of ‘this’ allows Jesus to speak in the first century but prophetically look ahead to a distant time.” What Ice has to prove is that Jesus actually is using “this generation” to refer “to a distant time” and not that “this” can be used this way.

To support his claim that Jesus is referring to a distant time, Ice writes, “The phrase ‘all these things’ governs the meaning of ‘this generation.’” If this is true, then the debate is over since Jesus tells His then present audience that they will be the ones to see “all these things” (24:33). Ice is so committed to this position that he has to maintain that “the evidence demonstrates that none of those things were fulfilled in the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem.”[15]

Ice says that “none of these things were fulfilled” prior to A.D. 70. All we have to do is find one example of the signs Jesus mentioned as being fulfilled, and his argument is refuted. We know from the Bible and secular histories of the period that wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes (Matt. 27:4; 28:2; Acts 16:26), famines (Acts 11:28), false prophets (1 John 4:1; 2 Peter 2:1), tribulation (Rev. 1:9), and the gospel preached throughout all the world (Rom. 1:8; 16:27–28; Col. 1:6, 23; 1 Tim 3:16) did take place before the Romans sacked the city of Jerusalem and tore down the temple stone by stone, just like Jesus predicted would happen (Matt. 24:2).

One more 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.”[16] There are three obvious problems with this once standard interpretation made popular by the notes found in The Scofield Reference Bible. 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, the Jewish race would then pass away. 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.”[17] 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.[18] This is the view proposed by James Hamilton and others like Neil D. Nelson, Jr. Nelson argues that “this generation” (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.[19]

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. Even so, Jesus is referring to that first-century generation, not some undesignated future generation that might be evil or adulterous (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” or a “type of generation” in mind rather than the generation of His day.

In fact, the first time Jesus uses “this generation,” the adjectives “evil” and “adulterous” are not used:

“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places, who call out to the other children, and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matt. 11:16).

It’s obvious that Jesus was referring to that present generation because He mentions John the Baptist and Himself. “By this phrase,” John Nolland writes, “Jesus means his own contemporaries as the generation in whom the eschatological events, beginning with the ministry of John the Baptist, are being played out.”[20] Grant Osborne is even more emphatic that “generation” refers to Jesus’ present audience:

Whenever Jesus uses “generation” (γενεά), it is always describing his contemporaries (the nation, not just the leaders) in a context of wickedness, unbelief, and rejection (cf. 12:39–41–42, 45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:36; 24:34).[21]

Ardent dispensationalist Arno C. Gaebelein agrees. “The words which follow [Matt. 11:16] are a true description of the generation which was privileged to see the King, Jehovah, manifested in the earth. ‘But to whom shall I liken this generation? . . .’”[22] The same is true of D.A. Carson, Louis A. Barbieri, Jr., and Robert H. Gundry.

Words do matter when it comes to the biblical text. It matters whether Jesus said “you” and not “they”; “this generation” and not “that generation.”

[1]John H. Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 204.

[2]“Tim Demy and Gary Stewart, 101 Most Puzzling Bible Verses: Insight into Frequently Misunderstood Scriptures (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2006), 106.

[3]There is nothing in Matthew 24 that says Jesus is going to return to earth to reign as king.

[4]Why does “near” mean “even at the doors” for Morris in the twentieth century, but it did not mean “near” in the first century?

[5]Notice how Morris uses the far demonstrative “that” to refer to a generation in the past. How would Morris have described the generation in which he was living? Obviously with the near demonstrative “this” to distinguish it from “that” past generation.

[6]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.

[7]Demy and Stewart 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 in verse 33: “when YOU see all these things.”

[8]Cullen I. K. Story and J. Lyle Story, Greek To Me: Learning New Testament Greek Through Memory Visualization (New York: Harper, 1979), 74.

[9]H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament [New York; Macmillan, 1957], 127–128, sec. 136.

[10]William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 4th ed. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1952), 600.

[11]David Alan Black, Learn to Read New Testament Greek, 3rd ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2009), 80.

[12]Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 325.

[13]Maximilian Zerwick, Biblical Greek Illustrated by Examples (Rome, Italy: Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1963), 68. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 325, note 26. Wallace uses “proximity” for Zerwick’s “proximateness.”

[14]Wallace, Greek Grammar, 326.

[15]Thomas Ice, “This Generation,” The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy, eds. Tim LaHaye and Ed Hindson (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2004), 117.

[16]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.

[17]John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), 64.

[18]Richard C. H. Lenski, Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, [1943] 1961), 952.

[19]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.

[20]Nolland The Gospel of Matthew, 461.

[21]Osborne, Matthew, 426.

[22]Arno C. Gaebelein, The Gospel of Matthew: An Exposition (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1961), 226