Every book of the Bible has difficult passages to interpret. Matthew is no exception. From the Sermon on the Mount, to the parables in chapter 13, to divorce in Chapter 19 (and 5), to eschatology in chapters 23-25 Matthew is demanding exegetically and pastorally. I am finishing up my study of Matthew 19 and getting ready for the home stretch. Of course, eschatology comes the forefront in chapters 23-25, though it has been there from the beginning of Matthew. So this brings me to my study of the word generation in Matthew 24:34, which has been used by dispensational scholars to claim that Matthew 24 is not about the fall of Jerusalem, but is about Christ’s second coming. Here is the fruit of my study of that word.
Generation in Matthew 24:34
Is it possible for the word “generation” in Matthew 24:34 to mean anything other than the generation that was living at the time of Christ? Many pastors and New Testament scholars read Matthew 24 as a reference to the end of the world. All the references in Matthew 24:4-34 are assumed to refer to Christ’s second coming. However, verse 34 puts a wrench in this particular timeline. Does the Bible give us the freedom to interpret the passage this way?
To answer this question I have put down every passage in Matthew that uses the word generation. Does Matthew ever use the word generation to mean anything other than the current generation? Here are the uses of generation in Matthew:
(Mat 1:17) So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.
(Mat 11:16) “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,
(Mat 12:39) But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
(Mat 12:41) The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generationand condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
(Mat 12:42) The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generationand condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
(Mat 12:45) Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”
(Mat 16:4) An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.
(Mat 17:17) And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.”
(Mat 23:36) Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
(Mat 24:34) Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.
Here are four reasons why generation in Matthew 24:34 means the people standing in front of Jesus and not the Jewish race as a whole or some future generation thousands of years away.
First, every time generation is used in Matthew (expect 1:17) it is in the context of judgment. Christ is clear that this generation will be judged. They will be judged for asking for a sign. They will be judged for refusing Jesus and John. They will be judged for being faithless. If 24:34 is a promise that Israel will never pass away it is at odds with almost every other use of generation in Matthew.
Second, Matthew 16:4 gives a specific time frame for this generation. They will get a sign; the resurrection. At least in 16:4, it is not referring to some future generation thousands of years away. It is referring to the generation who will see the resurrection.
Third, generation always refers to a particular group of people at a particular time. Even in 1:17 it is talking about generations of men. It never refers to the Jewish race as a whole. The idea that generation in Matthew 24:34 means the Jewish race is without biblical and linguistic support.
Fourth, Matthew 23 is a clear condemnation of the current generation that rejected Christ and his teaching. Matthew 23:36 is a reference to the people standing right in front of Jesus. The unfaithful Jews of that day will be judged. They are whitewashed tombs. The reference to Jerusalem in 23:37 makes this even clearer. It is hard to see how in 24:36 in the exact same context Jesus uses the exact same phrase, yet now it means the Jewish race will never perish.