Q – Hey Jim,
I was reading Matthew and I hit 24:34 and I was having trouble with that verse. In context it seems that Christ is telling the disciples that he would return before the end of this generation. Or is he speaking of something different being fulfilled. I know eschatology is your specialty so I was hoping you could shed some light on this verse.
Jim – I don’t know if I would say that eschatology is my specialty, but it has certainly been an area of interest for some time. Nonetheless, I get nervous anytime anyone claims some level of “expertise” in the Bible. We’re all learning as we go.
Over the years, Matthew 24:34 has been hotly debated by critics of the Bible, as well as interpreters and students of Scripture. But, I think the wrinkles can be ironed out with a bit of etymological investigation and word study.
The debate revolves around Jesus saying, “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” (KJV) Or, as the NASB renders it, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” To the critic, this verse is a prime example of Biblical error, since many aspects of what Jesus described failed to occur in the lifetimes of those to whom He was speaking. The critic argues that the generation alive as Jesus spoke did not witness His return or the signs in the Heavens, therefore Jesus was wrong. And, if Jesus was wrong, then all of Christianity is suspect because it is prone to error. But, as I mentioned, a bit of word study will demonstrate that the problem stems from a misunderstanding of the term “generation.”
But first let me address a common, plausible explanation to Matthew 24:34. Some defenders of Scripture argue that “this generation” refers back to the people being addressed in the previous verse — “so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door.” (Mat. 24:33) And that’s grammatically possible. In that case, Jesus would be saying that the generation that saw the signs beginning would see the whole thing come to its fruition; it’s tied to His comment, “For the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.” (Mat. 24:22)
But, the critic will respond that such an interpretation leads to a nonsensical conclusion. Jesus would simply be saying that the generation alive at that time would be alive at that time. So, what’s the big deal? And, I see their point. In Matthew 24:34, Jesus appears to be speaking of the endurance or continuation of “this generation,” not merely some future generation yet to come.
So, that brings us back to examining the words themselves, along with their context, in order to really understand what Jesus was saying. And, as we’ll see, the resolution of the matter has to do with how we treat the word “generation.”
One difficulty we have as 21st Century Americans is that our language is a mishmash of various languages. English is an amalgam of Greek, Latin, Celtic, French, German, and various other languages and dialects as diverse as the people who immigrated to these shores and brought their terminology with them. As words are added to our lexicon, their definitions are determined by their usage. Our dictionaries are constantly updating and adding words according to their most common understanding. So our understanding of words changes over time. For instance, back in 1611, when the King James Version was being translated, the word “let” meant “to restrain.” We still hear that meaning of the word during tennis matches when the ball hits the net. It’s called a “let ball.” But, the most common understanding of “let” today is “allow.” If you “let” your children have lunch, you allow them to eat, you don’t restrain them. So, it’s confusing to the modern reader when they encounter a verse such as this —
“For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.” (2Thes. 2:7 KJV)
The common understanding of the word “let” would lead the reader to the exact opposite conclusion of Paul’s original meaning. It was the proper word choice in 1611, but it’s a confusing choice today. The meaning of words changes over time, according to common usage and common understanding.
So, when doing Biblical exegesis, we need to concentrate on what the original Greek words meant, how they were used, and how the translators understood the English words they used to represent the original Greek words. And we must always remember that some English words that used to have diverse meanings have become singular-focus words through repetition of that primary meaning. Such is the case with the word “generation.” In years past, it had a much wider scope of meaning than is assumed today.
For instance, the venerable church father, Jerome argued that in Matthew 24:34, Jesus was referring to future offspring. He wrote:
“By ‘generation’ here He means the whole human race, and the Jews in particular. And He adds, ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away,’ to confirm their faith in what has gone before; as though He had said, it is easier to destroy things solid and immovable, than that aught should fail of my words.”
In saying that, Jerome was employing a common, then-well-known translation of the Greek word “genea.” He understood it to mean “future offspring of a common ancestor.” And that makes sense when you consider the etymology of the Greek word. “Genea” is this same word that lies at the root of the word “genealogy.” According to Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, the base word “gen” denotes “produce,” resulting in words like “genesis,” “genre,” “generation” and “genus.” The root word points to types, such as types of people, or commonality in production. So, “generation” originally denoted “people of common ancestry.”
That meaning of the Greek word is also represented in Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, which provides the following definitions:
1) A begetting, birth, nativity
2) That which has been begotten, men of the same stock, a family
2a) The several ranks of natural descent, the successive members of a genealogy
2b) metaph. a race of men very like each other in endowments, pursuits, character
2b1) esp. in a bad sense, a perverse nation (Mt 17:17, Mk 9:19, Lk 9:41, 16:8, Ac 2:40)
3) The whole multitude of men living at the same time; used especially of the Jewish race living at one and the same period (Mt 11:16, 12:39, 41, sq. 45; 16:4, 23:36; Mk 8:12, 38; Lk 11:29 sq. 32, 50 sq.; 17:25; acts 13:36; He 3:10; Lk 7:31; Lk 11:31; Acts 8:33)
4) An age (i.e. the time ordinarily occupied by each successive generation), a space of 30-33 years
Likewise, Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament reads:
1074 – a generation; by impl. an age (the period of the persons): – age, generation, nation, time.
Notice that one of the primary definitions of “genea” has to do with a group of people of common descent. It also denotes “a nation.” And that is the meaning that Jesus appears to have had in mind when He employed that word.
Now let’s look at word usage for a moment.
In the KJV, “genea” is translated “generation” 37 times, “time” twice, “age” twice, and “nation” only once. But, when the KJV was translated, “a people of common descent” was one of the listed meanings of the English word “generation.” Even though the modern Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary does not list this as a possible meaning, the 1908 Webster’s Dictionary provides this definition:
6. Race; kind; family; breed; stock.
And the Random House College Dictionary (1968) includes:
6. The offspring of a certain parent or couple, considered as a step in natural descent.
Despite the fact that most modern folk read the word “generation” and think only of an immediate group of people, those living at any one time, the meaning of common ancestry or a nation of people was well-known and consistently employed during the time when the KJV was being translated. For instance, when William Shakespeare penned these words from his play, “The Life of Timon of Athens” (Act 1/Scene 1) he used the term “generation” to exhibit common ancestry –
“Thy mother’s of my generation: what’s she, if I be a dog?”
Shakespeare was not saying, “Your mother and I are of the same generation of people born around a particular time.” That would have said nothing of her character or personality. Rather, what he meant was, “Your mother and I are related. We have a common ancestry. So, if I’m a dog, what does that say about her?”
Now, here’s the rub (a bit of Shakespearean humor, there), most of our modern translations of the Bible have also rendered “genea” as “generation” without helping us understand the distinction between its various meanings. Nevertheless, Kenneth Wuest, in his Expanded Translation of the New Testament renders Matthew 24:34 –
Assuredly, I am saying to you, This nation shall by no means pass away until all these things take place.
Likewise, The New Testament in the Language of Today (1964) by William F. Beck reads –
“I tell you the truth, These people will not pass away till all this happens.”
So, when we read the New Testament it’s best to keep in mind that the word “generation” has not always meant what we assume it to mean today. In fact, “offspring,” “nation,” or “people of a common descent” are perfectly acceptable translations of “genea.” And sometimes, that meaning is obvious from the context of certain Biblical passages. For instance, Luke 16:8 says –
“And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” (KJV)
Was Jesus saying that the children of this world were only wise in that particular place and time? Or, was He saying that they are wiser in their dealings with each other? Given the parable that He was presenting, it’s much more likely that Jesus was talking about the interaction of worldly people among themselves, as compared to how the “children of light” conduct themselves. And that’s how the NASB understands Jesus’ words —
“And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind (genea) than the sons of light.”
In this instance, the word “genea” is expressing “people of a common descent,” not “people living in a particular time period.” Or, consider Mark 8:12 –
“And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and saith, Why doth this generation seek after a sign? Verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation.”
Was Jesus accusing only the people living at that moment of seeking a sign? Isn’t that indictment just as true of people today who insist that they want evidence of Christ or God before they will believe? The solution is to understand that Jesus was speaking of Israel; the people of common descent among whom He’d spent His ministry. Those people demanded a sign from Him. And He would provide a sign — the sign of Jonah. But, that sign – His death, burial, and resurrection — DID occur during the time that the immediate “generation of people” to whom He was speaking were indeed alive. And He provided that sign for the world, not just to Israel — whom He identified as “this generation.”
And that brings us full circle. The most biblically and historically consistent understanding of Matthew 24:34 is that Jesus was declaring the ongoing existence of Israel until all the things He had prophesied came to their completion. And, no surprise, He’s right! To this very day, as we await the fulfillment of His words, the nation of Israel remains and the people of Jewish descent — the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — are both present and identifiable on the Earth.
In other words, far from being an example of Biblical error, when it’s rightly understood, Matthew 24:34 is a shining example of God’s faithfulness to His own word. Despite the fearsome things Christ described in His discourse, He comforted His Jewish disciples by assuring them that they would remain, they would endure, and just as all of the Old Testament prophets said of Israel, God will continue to protect them until the day of their gathering and restoration. Jesus was simply saying what the Word of God had said up until that time.
Thanks to Rusty Entrekin at www.thingstocome.org for his work on this subject.