By Rev. Bill Lee-Warner
“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Matthew 24:34
The above passage is found in what is referred to as the Olivet Discourse of Jesus given a few days before Christ’s crucifixion. The context for Matthew 24:34 is Jesus’ response to the questions of the disciples regarding His return and the end of the age. There are those in the church of Jesus Christ who understand “this generation” to refer to the generation to whom Jesus was speaking the day He gave the discourse.
The apostle Paul recognized this error and warned Timothy of it when he wrote,
“But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and…spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and thus they upset the faith of some.” (2 Tim. 2:16-18)
Today, there is a resurgence of this teaching known as preterism. The term preterism comes from the Latin word praeterism and means “past” or already gone by. The basic teaching of preterism is that the great tribulation has already occured in the distant past, principally at AD 70. Those who hold to this teaching are known specifically as full preterists. There is another subgroup of preterists known as partial or moderate preterists. This latter group sees parts of the Olivet Discourse, or Jesus’ teaching on end times, as partially fulfilled in AD 70 but other parts as yet to be fulfilled at the second parousia of Christ. Several efforts have been made to establish preterism as historically sound and biblical but the clear warning of Paul reminds us that it is an heretical and false teaching. The following reasons are offered to the student of Scripture and prophecy for consideration. Be a Berean (Acts 17:11) and examine the Word to “see if these things are so.”
1) If the Rapture “has already taken place”, then the resurrection has already taken place. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15 writes of the day when the final “trumpet” for believers will be blown and mortality will put on immortality. In this passage, he links the Rapture with the resurrection of believers. In other words, when the Rapture takes place, the resurrection occurs.
Those who insist that the events of Matthew 24 are history and say that the “generation that sees these things” was the generation concurrent with Jesus nearly 2,000 years ago, must of necessity show that the resurrection has also taken place. The only way that is possible is to spiritualize the text by saying that the resurrection was a spiritual one and not a physical one.
Moderate (or partial) preterist, R.C. Sproul recognizes this when he says,
To maintain that these events [the Olivet teaching] were indeed fulfilled in the first century, one must interpret the relevant passages in a way that makes early fulfillment possible. The most severe obstacle [to that] is the absence of any historical record that the rapture of the living and the resurrection of the dead occurred. (R.C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, Baker Books, 1998, pg 161)
There are two serious problems with understanding the resurrection as a “spiritual” event. R.C. Sproul says,
The first difficulty is that it [Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15] involves propositions and assertions that can be neither verified nor falsified empirically. … if one announces or predicts things that will take place in the arena of real history involving physical reality, then empirical verification becomes relevant and crucial…It is unfortunate that the apostle failed to alert the Corinthians-and us, by extension-that he was speaking of a secret, hidden, spiritual resurrection. His language certainly suggests something else, particularly as Paul so clearly conjoins the resurrection of our bodies with the resurrection of Christ’s body. The resurrected Christ is the firstfruits of all who will be raised. (R.C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, Baker Books, 1998, pg 162)
And what was the resurrected body of Jesus like? First, the tomb was empty. In other words, there was a physical body in it but on the day of His resurrection, it became empty. A body had departed from it. Second, he had a glorified body. It was different from His previous mortal body, but it was the same body. Third, Jesus was visible to the disciples until the time He ascended and was touched by them and ate with them. Christ’s resurrected body was a physical body, not a spiritualized one.
A theological problem with a spiritualized understanding of the resurrection is likewise addressed by R.C. Sproul –
If a spiritual body cannot be seen, touched, or handled, is it a body at all? It is one thing to say that our resurrected bodies will be spiritiual bodies, but quite another to imply that our resurrected bodies will be merely spirits. The Bible speaks of spiritual bodies. (R.C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, Baker Books, 1998, pg 164)
A common problem among interpreters of the Bible is that of “shifting gears”. If a person approaches his interpretation of the Bible with, for example, a face value hermeneutic, then it is critical that he remain consistent with his approach. However, many often “flip flop” in their interpretation approach to maintain a preconceived understanding of a text. An example of this is the above. Preterists interpret “this generation” in the simple sense as meaning the generation concurrent with Christ and then suddenly “shift gears” and apply a figurative approach to arrive at a spiritualized understanding of the Rapture and the resurrection. That is an inconsistent hermeneutic and leads to error.
When spiritualization is introduced into one’s interpretation, Pandora’s box is opened and various meanings can be understood. The only way the integrity of the Author/author’s wording and meaning can be preserved is by taking Scripture at face value. Taking Scripture at face value means that the student of Scripture recognizes the difference between what can be called the “simple sense” of a passage and what is understood as a literal understanding. A literal understanding includes the examination of the historical/cultural and lexical/syntactical considerations. It also recognizes symbols and figures of speech and realizes there is a referent for them. For further information on hermeneutical principles, see the “links” section of this website for an explanation.
2) If the Rapture took place in AD 70, then certainly that generation witnessed the fulfillment of “all the things” Jesus addressed in the discourse.
In Matthew 24:33, Jesus says, “even so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, thisgeneration will not pass away until all these things take place.” An important key to understanding the intent of which generation Jesus was making reference to is the repeated phrase “all these things”. What “things” is Jesus referring to? Clearly He’s referring to what He has just elucidated from verse four through verse 31. In other words, the generation that sees all the things (not some, not most, but ALL) Jesus has just talked about would be the generation that would see the “coming” (parousia) of Christ. The all-important question is, have all the events spoken of by Jesus taken place as they were taught by Him? A clue to understanding this is a detail such as is found in vs. 9 – “you will be hated by all nations on account of my name”. Some would see the events spoken of by Jesus as being completed by AD 70. However, does the alledged fulfillment fit the prediction? In other words, in AD 70, were “all nations” on the earth at that time hating believers in Christ? To say that the nations surrounding Israel at that time (and perhaps including Rome) are the nations in view, is inadequate. Some would offer this as the perspective of those listening to Jesus that day because that was their “worldview”. Consider also that it is the Holy Spirit who is the Author of Scripture. Surely He knew the bigger picture of what He meant by the word “world”! Other factors that need to be considered are: vs. 12 and “most people’s love will grow cold”. The context of this verse is Christ talking about believers. Was this happening to a marked degree in AD 70? There’s no biblical or extra biblical support for such a conclusion. Then, in vs. 14, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world…” Had the entire world heard the message of the gospel by AD 70? The preterist sites Romans 1:8 as support that the gospel had indeed reached the entire world. Is that what Paul was making reference to? Paul himself clearly said that he desired not to preach Christ where another man had already laid a foundation. What then did he mean by desiring to go to Spain if indeed the gospel had already been preached in the whole world (cf. Romans 15:19-25)? Clearly, the answer is that the whole world had not yet heard the gospel! It is misleading to suggest that the word “world” is to be restricted to the limited understanding of those listening to Jesus that day. Additionally, one must ask what Jesus meant when He said, “When you see…” (Gk. paunta tauta). The special focus of paunta tauta in Matthew 24:33 is the abomination of desolation (24:15), the beginning of the great tribulation. “This generation” cannot refer to the contemporaries of Christ since there is no evidence that “all these things” (24:3-28), and in particular, the abomination of desolation as depicted in Daniel’s prophecy, have taken place at all, let alone by AD 70.
3) Does the word “genea” (Greek – generation) etymologically or philologically always mean people concurrent or living at “that time”? Can the word not also have a broader, more general sense? Those who want to say that the events given in the Olivet Discourse were completed in AD 70 endeavor to support their interpretation by saying that the word “generation”, as Jesus used it, means the generation of mankind living contemporaneously with Jesus.
In William F. Arndt and Wilbur Gingrich’s lexicon, a Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 1974, the first meaning of genea is “those descended from a common anscestor, a clan, then race, kind,” etc. Thayer, in his lexicon, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, says the meaning of genea is “men of the same stock, a family”. The Louw and Nida computerized lexicon says that the word “genea” can be understood as “people of the same kind; successive following generations…descendants”. The understanding of these lexical references is that the word “genea” can also have a broader, more extended meaning than the limiting view of simply the current generation living at the time concurrent with the speaker. The context must decide which understanding the author has in mind.
Neil D. Nelson Jr., a doctor of philosophy candidate at Dallas Theological Seminary, in examining Matthew’s use of “this generation” in the first gospel, says,
A study of the use of he” genea haute” [“this generation”] (ll:16; 12:41, 42, 45; 23:36; 24:34) and genea with other descriptive adjectives (12:39, 45; 16:4; 17:17) used in the same sense 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. (Neil D. Nelson, Jr. “”This Generation” In Matt. 24:34; A Literary Critical Perspective”, JETS 38:3 September 1995 376)
John Young, in his book, Jesus Did Not Return in A.D. 70, published by Vantage Press, 1999, page 50, concludes, “Considering the uncomplimentary things Jesus said in Matthew 23 about the Jewish leaders, Matthew 24:34 could have been translated: ‘Truly I say to you, this KIND [instead of generation] will not pass away until all these things take place.’ For the same KIND of people will continue to contradict and oppose Christ’s authority until Christ shall have taken the reins of human government.” (Emphasis added.)
Clearly, the meaning of “this generation” is not limited in understanding to the generation concurrent with Jesus, nor is it to be understood as referring to disciples of that contemporaneous generation who will see the parousia of Christ.
4) If by the word “generation” Jesus was referring to those who heard Him the day He gave the teaching, He would have in effect been saying that His coming (i.e. His 2nd parousia) would be before the last man of the generation who heard Him that day, died. But, by Jesus’ own admission, He did not know “the day or the hour” of His return (Matt. 24:36). A study of the use of the term “hour” reveals that the New Testament writers used it in two distinct ways: (1) in a specific sense, where such words as “the”, “one”, “third”, “very”, “dinner”, “every”, “half an” precede the use of the word. In each case, a definite hour is intended, and (2) in a general sense, where the word “hour” may be understood to be equal to our use of the word “time”. A few examples of this usage are: Luke 1:10; 12:40, 12:46; John 2:4; I Cor. 4:11. The phrase, “day or…hour”, in the context of the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:36), is one that speaks of a general time perspective (following the midpoint of the 70th Week which begins with the abomination of desolation -Matthew 24:15) and is not referring to a specific hour of a 24-hour day nor is the term “day” to be understood as a specific day of the week within the same 70th Week perspective.
It is obvious from His teaching in Matthew 24:45-51, that Jesus was expecting a rather long delay before His return. The “master’s” remanstrance with the “evil slave” (24:48) indicates that the delay was of such duration that slothfulness and indolence has set into the fabric of the church. That indication is repeated in the parable of the ten virgins. The delay of the bridegroom’s coming was such that the virgins fell asleep (25:5). It hardly seems probable that such a slothfulness had invaded the church to such a marked degree before AD 70. The original apostolic band (except Judas) was still living and ministering. The apostle Paul, actively ministering in the Mediterranean world, including Israel, is supposed to have been martyred somewhere around AD 65, only a few years before the fall of Jerusalem. With such stalwarts of the faith and their immediate disciples still living and ministering, had the church fallen into such dire straits by AD 70 and to such a degree that it was to be characterized as Jesus indicates in the parable? The epistles certainly demonstrate that the church had its growing pains and needs, but had she become delinquint in her service unto the Lord and become unguarded, dull, sluggish and unwary? There is no historical data that would support such a broad scale notion. When the apostle John saw the “great multitude” in Revelation seven, he wondered who they could be. In his short time on earth as a disciple of Jesus, perhaps only 60 years, the gospel had not yet reached “every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues”. That would only come after several centuries of the gospel spreading all over the world.
When Jesus said He did not know the “day and hour”, He certainly understood that His second coming would be delayed and that the kinds of behavior he described in the parables following His direct teaching in Matthew 24:3-31 would invade the church in general. Although Christ did not know the “hour” (when in history, not the general timeframe within the 70th Week) of His return, as He said (Matt. 24:36), it is clear that He didn’t expect to come within the next 40 years (by AD 70) or even within the generation that heard Him that day.
5) In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus gave an illustration of the “sign of [His] coming and the end of the age.” In verses 27, in answer to the disciples’ questions, Jesus, having sequenced the events that lead up to His return, concluded with,
“For just as the lightning comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be.”
The purpose of this illustration is to demonstrate what the sign of His coming will be like. In other words, when Jesus returns and the events elucidated in the Olivet Discourse are fulfilled, the arrival of Christ will be like “lightning” – seen by all! No one will miss it! THE WHOLE WORLD WILL KNOW OF IT.
The question has to be asked, “When did that happen?” Those insisting that “this generation” means the generation living when Christ was physically upon the earth are saying that Christ has already returned, fulfilling the events spoken by Him in the Olivet Discourse. If this is the case, when in history did the entire world witness this event as described by Jesus in the discourse?
R.C. Sproul addresses the same concern when he writes,
Paul’s language in 1 Thessalonians 4 [consistent with what we find in the Olivet Discourse regarding the parousia if Christ] is clearly of a different sort. Here the genre of the text makes it highly unlikely that Paul was describing an event hidden from earthly view. He said the Lord would descend with a shout…[with] the voice of the archangel…[with] the trumpet of God…. (R.C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, Baker Books, 1998, pg. 168)
Those declaring that the Rapture and the resurrection took place in AD 70, believe that the shout of the Lord was silent, the voice of the archangel was silent and the trumpet of God was silent, contrary to the force of what Paul was teaching the beleagured believers in Thessalonica.
To ascribe the events of the dismanteling of Judaism and Israel in AD 70 with the invasion of Jerusalem by the Roman general, Titus, as the complete fulfillment of these events, is to both spiritualize the teaching of Jesus and deliberately avoid the obvious, clear and literal understanding of what Jesus said. There are aspects of the fulfillment of Jesus’ teaching regarding His parousia that, again, clearly, have not taken place. Events such as: the sudden extinguishing of the cosmic luminaries, the powers of the heavens being shaken, a massive earthquake where “every mountain and island were moved out of their places”, the fearful hiding and running into caves of “the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man” saying to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”(Revelation 6:12-14), the “sign of the Son of Man … appear[ing] in the [darkened] sky” (from the extinguishing of the cosmic lights), the subsequent Day of the Lord’s wrath upon the whole earth which includes such judgments as hail and fire “mixed with blood” (Rev. 8:7) being cast down to earth (from heaven), torments on mankind for “five months” (Rev. 9:5, 10) and many other events listed for us in Revelation 8-16. When one compares Scripture with Scripture, it is evident that the events of AD 70 did not completely fulfill the predictions Jesus gave in the Olivet Discourse, without making the language highly figurative.
6) A sixth reason to reject the notion that “this generation” exclusively means those living at the time of Christ, is the nature of the information given in the statement:
“…even so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Matt. 24:33-34)
After sequencing the events leading up to the Rapture, as requested by the disciples in verse 3, Jesus told the parable of the fig tree (verse 32). The parable emphasizes the indications of the fulfillment of the events He has just listed. The context for “this generation” is still a part of the response Jesus is giving to the disciples’ question about the indication of when He would return. In verses 37-39, Jesus says that His coming will be just like it was in the days of Noah. Jesus used this Old Testament illustration to emphasize His point. The flood generation (Gen. 7:1 KJV) is used by the Lord as a type of “this generation”, the one that will witness the end-time signs, just as the flood itself typifies the judgment what will occur at His second parousia. What was the generation that experienced the flood like? Essentially, the people were resistant to the message of repentance, ridiculed God’s messanger, and refused God’s means of salvation.
Neil Nelson, writing on the juxtaposition of Jesus’ teaching on end-time events and the Noahic flood illustration concludes:
“This generation” in [Matthew] 24:34 represents a long line of unbelieving, unresponsive people from the time of Noah to the end of the age. The disciples of Christ endure the persectution and deception of “this generation.” (Neil D. Nelson Jr., “”This Generation” In Matt. 24:34: A Literary Critical Perspective” JETS 38:3 September 1995, 384)
If Jesus was talking about the generation living when He walked upon the earth, then one has to inquire as to when the judgment of God fell upon wicked mankind (i.e., worldwide and not just Jerusalem) and when God took His righteous ones to be with Himself as Jesus said in the subsequent comment,
“Then, there shall be two men in the field; one will be taken (paralambano – a warm receiving to one’s self) and one will be left [in context – for judgment]”. (Matt. 24:40)
Some try to spiritualize that event. In other words, they would say that the judgment that fell was what took place in AD 70 on Jerusalem. They would insist that the being “taken” means being changed in heart before the Lord and becoming united with Him spiritually. But, is that what Jesus said? Is that the clear teaching of Jesus? Did He speak of a judgment on Israel or was He speaking of a greater judgment for mankind? The illustration of Noah speaks of a universal judgment.
7) Jesus clearly indicated in His teaching in the Olivet Discourse that His return would be indicated by a sign and that it would be visible. Six times in Matthew 24, Jesus warned His disciples of being deceived: “See to it that no one misleads you.” (Matt. 24:4). He went on to warn them that some would say, in a future day, that His coming had already taken place. In warning His disciples about the future deception of a previous coming, Jesus pinpoints two crucial factors to be noted.
First, He instructs His disciples regarding the “sign” they are to look for when He returns . They are not to be deceived into believing He has already come if the “sign” has not yet been given. That was the question the disciples asked about in the first place. The “sign”, disciples are to look for, is, “But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then…they [the tribes of the earth] will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY WITH POWER AND GREAT GLORY. And He will send forth His angels…and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect…FROM THE FOUR WINDS…” (Matthew 24:29-31). When Jesus returns, according to His own teaching, the heavens will clearly indicate it: the cosmic luminaries will be extinguished and in that moment of darkness, the visible coming of the Son of Man will take place. Jesus is speaking here of an actual space-time event. When in history did the event take place?
The second factor Jesus teaches His disciples regarding His return as indicated specifically in 24:26 is that His return will be visible, not invisible. That’s what Jesus was making reference to when He said they would say before His actual return, “Behold, He is in the wilderness [i.e.. He has already come],” and “Behold, He is in the inner rooms.” (Matt. 24:26). If Jesus is “in the wilderness” or “in the inner rooms”, is He there in spirit or in body? Is He there visibly or invisibly? There would be no temptation to believe the deception Jesus warned them about if He was not present in bodily form in the wilderness or inner rooms at His return.
In addition to this, the angel at the ascension of Jesus said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). The emphasis of the angel in this passage is that Jesus departed and went back to heaven visibly. That’s the import of “He was lifted up while they were looking on….” The disciples were visibly watching Jesus being lifted up from their presence. The preterist insists that the point of the passage in Acts 1 is that Jesus went back to heaven IN THE CLOUDS. With that interpretation, he then says that the return of Christ will be with the clouds and not visible to mankind on earth. From that deduction, he then says that it fits nicely to understand that Jesus did return in AD 70 – in the clouds, invisible, in a spiritual sense. Does the scripture say that Jesus will return with the clouds? Absolutely. Note Revelation 1:7, “BEHOLD, HE IS COMING WITH THE CLOUDS…” However, we must read the rest of the verse, which says, “…and EVERY EYE WILL SEE HIM, EVEN THOSE WHO PIERCED HIM; AND ALL THE TRIBES OF THE EARTH….” So, when Jesus returns, He will come with “the clouds” and at that same time, “every eye will see Him“. That’s a visible return!
To say that Jesus returned in AD 70 in a spiritual sense, and not, as Jesus spoke of it, in a visible sense and indicated by a world-wide sign, is to manipulate the text and make it say what was not intended. The generation that lived concurrent with Jesus cannot be the generation that witnessed the return of Christ because the sign has not been given and He has not returned visibly.
The phrase “this generation”, as used by Jesus in Matthew 24:34, clearly is not the generation of people living when He first gave the Olivet teaching. It is important, when studying Scripture, especially the apocalytic literature of the Bible, that one employs all the hermeneutical tools necessary to understand the historical setting of a passage, the meanings of words and, their relationship to each other, especially in the original languages, if a clear and correct interpretation is to be gained.