“This Generation Will Not Pass Away”: How Shall We Understand Matthew 24:32-35?
THE LORD is mid-way through his Olivet Discourse. He has just revealed to his disciples the various signs that must occur prior to his providential coming in AD 70, and also his supernatural Coming at the end of the age. In a moment he will complete the discourse by speaking of the Judgment (Matt. 25:31–46). However, before doing so he desires to draw out some practical applications of the truths he has spoken so far.
He begins by admonishing his disciples—all of them—to watch for the signs of his Coming. To this end he bids them learn a lesson from the fig tree: When they see it put forth its leaves, they know that summer is near. Likewise, when they see “all these things”—all the signs he has just spoken of—they can know that his eschatological Coming (vv. 29-31) and the end of the present evil age are at hand (vv. 32–33).
But how do we know that his eschatological Coming is in view, and not his providential coming? We know it because “all these things” (i.e., all these signs) include events that did not occur prior to 70 AD: the global proclamation of the gospel (v. 14), the universal hatred of Christians (v. 9), the appearing of the eschatological Abomination that Causes Desolation (i.e., the Antichrist; v.15), unprecedented and unparalleled tribulation (v. 21), false messiahs and prophets who work deceptive signs and wonders (v. 24), and dreadful portents in the sky and sea (v. 29; Luke 21:25-26). All the saints must watch for all these things; and when they see them happen they must lift up their heads, for in those days the Parousia, the Consummation, and the fullness of their redemption will be near, even at the door (v. 33; Luke 21:28)!
Having thus outlined the remaining years of Salvation History, the Lord now solemnly pledges: “I tell you the truth: This generation will by no means pass away till all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matt. 24:34-35). These verses are quite difficult, and have therefore generated a host of interpretations, some of which I will touch on before briefly sharing my present view.
Note first his preface: “I tell you the truth.” This strong affirmation fits hand in glove with verse 35, where he states that heaven and earth will pass away, but his words never will. The meaning? “My words—my predictions, warnings, and promises—come straight from the divine Creator and King of heaven and earth. They are eternal, true, and trustworthy. In the face of all events, temptations, and persecutions you can take them to the bank.”
In much the same spirit, Jesus then says, “This generation will by no means pass away till all these things have taken place.” What did he mean by “this generation”? We cannot answer with confidence until we know what he meant by “all these things?” Now in light of verse 33, it is possible that he meant the various signs previously mentioned, but not the Parousia itself. Here, however, the expression seems to be all-inclusive. His solemn “I tell you the truth,” plus his reference to the passing of the (present) heavens and the earth (v. 35), both suggest that in addition to the signs of his Coming, he also had in mind his Parousia, the Consummation, and the advent of the new cosmos itself.
What, then, did he mean by “this generation”? The Greek is genea. Undeniably, the Lord customarily used this word to refer to his contemporaries: the Jewish men and women of his own generation (Matt. 11:16; 12:30, 38-42; 16:4; 17:17, etc.). Insisting that he was doing so here, theological liberals, rejecting a divine Christ and an inerrant Bible, assert that he was simply wrong. We dare not follow them.
Others—our preterist brethren—agree that Jesus was referring to his own generation, but assert that in speaking of the signs of his Coming (vv. 3-28), and of his Coming itself (vv. 29-31), he was largely using figurative, apocalyptic language to describe the events of AD 33-70, events that would culminate in Titus’s destruction of Jerusalem. But this “mystical” interpretation cannot possibly be correct, since it is obvious that throughout his discourse the Lord was making straightforward historical predictions about his providential coming on the one hand, and his supernatural and cosmological Coming on the other. The former has come to pass; the latter—and many of the events that must precede it—has not. And so we watch.
Still other interpreters, noting that genea can sometimes mean race, believe that the Lord was referring to the Jews (cf. Matt. 13:15; 15:8, Luke 21:23), whether as an obdurate people who will remain under God’s wrath until the Judgment (Hoekema), or as a beloved people from whom God, in love and mercy, will continually save a remnant down to the very end (Hendriksen). Seeing, however, that the thrust of the discourse is to prepare the whole Church—both Jew and Gentile—for her age-long pilgrimage into the World to Come, this ethnic interpretation seems far too narrow, and is therefore unlikely.
Given, then, the vast historical scope of the discourse, my view is that Jesus was using the word genea in its widest possible sense: as referring to the entire guilty, sinful, judgeable, but also beloved and eminently redeemable generation of Adam and Eve; as referring to Jews and Gentiles, saints and sinners, of all times and all places; as referring to the people of his own generation, the people of the last generation, and the people of all the generations in between.
Admittedly, such usage is rare; however, the disciples’ two-fold question, the historical reach of the Lord’s reply, and the very words he used in this short pericope, all seem to demand it. Moreover, such usage is not unprecedented. Earlier, Jesus had said, “In their dealings with their own generation, the sons of this age are wiser than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8; cf. 29:34-35). Similarly, the apostle Paul would soon refer to God’s saints as those who shine like lights amidst a crooked and perverse generation (Phil. 2:15). In both texts the word genea is used to describe huge blocs of certain kinds of people who, since the fall of man, have always been with us, and always will.
So again, may it not be that in speaking to us as he did, the Lord was assuring all of his disciples that “this generation”—this fallen but beloved seed of Adam and Eve (and perhaps also “this present evil age” in which multitudes of them will be redeemed)—will not pass away until he himself—the divine Creator, Judge, and Redeemer of heaven and earth—fulfills all of the words he has so solemnly, graciously, and comfortingly spoken to the world in his great Olivet Discourse?