Matthew 24:34 – this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened
Here’s a question I received recently about a topic of considerable interest to many Christians:
Hi Craig! I was hoping you could help me with something I struggling with in the Bible. You’ve been a great help in the past! Matthew 24:34 (and the same passages in Mark and Luke) are what’s puzzling me:
32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it[e] is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
I’ve done a lot of research on this in the past few weeks, and the more I look into it, the more confused I get. I know CS Lewis said the verse is embarrassing and that Jesus didn’t know what he was talking about, and that bothers me because I don’t agree.
Some people say (like Hank Hanegraaff) that it was all fulfilled in A.D. 70. My pastor says none of the events have even started yet, but when they do, the generation at the time will not pass away until all of it’s done.
Some people say generation really means the Jewish race and not a 40 year typical generation period. Other people say that race and generation are translated from 2 distinct different greek words, so there is no way Jesus really meant race.
What do you think?
Well, genea (translated above as “generation”) can mean “race” in some instances, but I don’t think that’s likely in this passage. “Generation” is the far more likely concept intended here, so I wouldn’t be in favor of translating this passage differently. It might alleviate the interpretive difficulty, but I don’t think it would be faithful to the original intent.
I think the key to understanding this passage is really to be found in the term ginomai and its particular form, which is translated here “as “take place” or “have happened”. I think many translators are treating this verb as describing an event which is completely finished at a certain point in time (i.e. before the generation has passed). They do this because it’s in a particular Greek tense (aorist) which is often used to express completed actions from the past. However, the aorist tense doesn’t really mean completed or historically past so much as it means an event that is puncticular; that is, in contrast to events that are not confined to a particular point in time. In other words, this isn’t necessarily a description of a series of events that will be over and done with by a certain point but rather a series of events which were not happening yet when Jesus said this, but events which would begin at a discreet starting point in the future.
Now, I don’t actually think that “take place” or “have happened” is the best translation here. Ginomai more literally means something like “be” or “become”. If Matthew had meant to say that these things would have been entirely finished within the lifetime of that particular generation, I would have expected him to use the word teleo which was often used to mean “finished” or “complete” (cf. Mat 7:28). Consequently, I think the best literal translation here is “…until all these things have become”. Incidentally, ginomai is used in precisely this same form (subjunctive middle aorist for those interested in such things) in Mat. 23:15 and there it is usually translated “becomes”. But obviously it’s odd English to say “until all these things shall have become” so a smoother translation would be “until all these things shall have begun“.
In other words, I think Jesus was saying that the whole period of the “last days”, characterized by those events described, would begin within the lifetime of his hearers (i.e. before the generation had passed), which is exactly what happened. Note that in Acts 2:17 we see that Peter identified Pentecost as an indication that the last days had begun with the Resurrection. Heb. 1:2 says a similar thing. So, the point seems to be that the “last days” began with the Resurrection. Jesus was saying then, that this “last days” phase of history which he had been describing would begin within the lifetime of his immediate hearers. But he was not saying that all these things would be completely fulfilled. He said only that “all of these things shall have begun” before that generation was gone. I think it’s very important to note that Mat. 24:32 specifically uses the analogy of the fig tree to say that certain observable facts would signal the beginning of a season (summer), not the completion of one. Given that, it seems fairly clear to me that Jesus is telling his audience about a season or age that was about to begin and he was saying that the season would begin in their lifetime.
I do happen to think that Jesus was predicting the events of AD 70 here, but only in part. I do not think that the events of AD 70 were all that he was predicting. Some of what he predicted there hasn’t yet been fulfilled, but some of it has. In other words, I think his predictions encompassed all of the “last days” which began with his Resurrection and will continue until His return. We tend to think of the “last days” as the period right before His return, but this isn’t really biblical. The Bible does seem to predict a short period at the end of this era of history when things are particularly bad – called the Tribulation – and during which many of Jesus’ predictions will be fulfilled, but it’s a mistake to think of the Tribulation period exclusively as the “last days”…though many, many Christians make this mistake.
So, in short, some of Jesus predictions have already been fulfilled in AD70 and some of them are entirely future for us still. But all of these things will take place in the “last days” which extends from the Resurrection to the Second Coming and this “last days” phase of history, as Jesus predicted, began in the lifetime of his original hearers.
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