If you are an inflexible eschatological dispensationalist, you may want to take a pass on reading this article.
Did Christ come soon as He predicted in Matthew 24:34? Jack Kettler
In this study, biblical texts will be consulted that have Jesus saying in the first century that He is coming soon or quickly. How are these texts to be understood? The passages surveyed in this study are a small sampling of Scriptures of this nature. As in previous studies, lexical, and commentary, evidence will be consulted.
The Words of the Lord Jesus Christ:
“But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.” (Matthew 10:23)
Strong’s Greek 2064:
erchomai: to come, go
Original Word: ἔρχομαι
Part of Speech: Verb
Phonetic Spelling: (er’-khom-ahee)
Definition: to come, go
Usage: I come, go.
“Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” (Matthew 24:34; and Mark 13:30)
This passage from Matthew, which is repeated by Mark, is of particular importance in this study. Did Jesus make a mistake in this passage regarding the time of “all these things being fulfilled, which included His coming? See Mathew 10:23 and 24:1-33. If the word “generation” is taken at face value, one can wonder how the fulfillment predicted by Jesus happened.
For example, C.S. Lewis’ comments on Matthew 24:34 may come as a shock:
“Say what you like,” we shall be told [by some critics]; “the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘This generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.” It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. Yet how teasing, also, that within fourteen words of it should come the statement ‘But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.’ The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side.” (1)
Shockingly, Lewis believed Christ was “wrong” and Matthew 24:34 according to Lewis, “It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” Is it possible to preserve the literal integrity of the passage and see its first-century fulfillment? How so?
The meaning of “generation” is crucial to have a proper understanding of the passage. If “generation” is understood in the normal way of approximately 40 years, then the fulfillment of Christ’s prediction is imminent and not thousands of years in the future. Lewis, while a brilliant scholar, nevertheless, was inexcusably ignorant with the many commentators through history who saw the fulfillment of the Matthew prophecy in the first century, not in some distant time in the future. Matthew 24:34 is fulfilled in the coming of Christ in judgment upon apostate Judaism in the first century with the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem by the Romans. Christ was not talking about the second coming at the end of history in Matthew 24:34. In Matthew chapter 24 and the similar passages from Mark and Luke, deals with the genera of biblical literature, namely, “apocalyptic.” In portions of the book of Daniel, and Revelation we see the same genera. Apocalyptic literature is distinct from didactic, historical narrative or poetical. The rules for interpretation are different.
One approach to reconcile this apparent contradiction that Lewis perceived has been to argue that the word “generation” could be understood to mean race, referring to the Jewish people and that their race would endure until the fulfillment of the prophecy in the distant future. As we survey the lexical material, it will be seen that this a strained interpretation of the word “generation.” There are many passages in the gospels if using this interpretation of “generation” would be completely absurd. See commentary evidence below.
The word generation is crucial to a proper understanding of the passage. An extended overview is in order:
STRONGS NT 1074: γενεά
The original word for “this generation” is genea.
Strong’s concordance for this shows:
1) Fathered, birth, nativity
2) That which has been begotten, men of the same stock, a family
a) The several ranks of natural descent, the successive members of a genealogy
b) metaph. a group of men very like each other in endowments, pursuits, character
1) esp. in a bad sense, a perverse nation
3) The whole multitude of men living at the same time
4) An age (i.e. the time ordinarily occupied be each successive generation), a space of 30 – 33 years
Generation from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
jen-er-a’-shun (Latin generatio, from genero, “beget”):
(1) The translation (a) of dor, “circle,” “generation,” hence, “age,” “period,” “cycle”: “many generations” (De 32:7); (b) the people of any particular period or those born about the same time: “Righteous before me in this generation” (Ge 7:1); “four generations” (Job 42:16); (c) the people of a particular class or sort, with some implied reference to hereditary quality; the wicked (De 32:5; Pr 30:11); the righteous (Ps 14:5; 112:2).
(2) toledhoth, “births,’ hence (a) an account of a man and his descendants: “The book of the generations of Adam” (Ge 5:1); (b) successive families: “The families of the sons of Noah, after their generations” (Ge 10:32); (c) genealogical divisions: “The children of Reuben …. their generations, by their families” (Nu 1:20); (d) figurative, of the origin and early history of created things: “The generations of the heavens and of the earth” (Ge 2:4).
(3) genea, “a begetting,” “birth,” “nativity,” therefore (a) the successive members of a genealogy: “All the generations from Abraham unto David” (Mt 1:17); (b) a race, or class, distinguished by common characteristics, always (in the New Testament) bad: “Faithless and perverse generation” (Mt 17:17); (c) the people of a period: “This generation shall not pass away” (Lu 21:32); (d) an age (the average lifetime, 33 years): “Hid for (Greek “from the”) ages and (from the) generations” (Col 1:26). The term is also by a figurative transference of thought applied to duration in eternity: “Unto all generations for ever and ever” (Eph. 3:21) (Greek “all the generations of the age of the ages”).
(4) genesis, “source,” “origin”: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ” (Mt 1:1; the American Revised Version, margin “The genealogy of Jesus Christ”).
(5) gennema, “offspring,” “progeny”; figurative: “O generation of vipers” (Lu 3:7 the King James Version).
(6) genos, “stock,” “race,” in this case spiritual: “But ye are a chosen generation” (1Pe 2:9; the American Standard Revised Version “an elect race”). Philip Wendell Crannell (2)
Getting back to C.S. Lewis. Is there a solution to what Lewis saw as a mistake on the part of the Lord Jesus Christ? There is, but not by equating “generation” with race. This translation of “generation” is an uncommon and forced exegesis of the passage in Matthew 24:34. The solution is in the plain everyday literal usage of “generation.” Taking the word “generation” literally is not a problem for Bible interpreters.
Consider the next several commentary entries:
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers on Matthew 24:34:
“(34) This generation shall not pass. . . .—The natural meaning of the words is, beyond question. That which takes “generation” in the ordinary sense (as in Matthew 1:17, Acts 13:36, and elsewhere) for those who are living at any given period. So it was on “this generation” (Matthew 23:36) that the accumulated judgments were to fall. The desire to bring the words into more apparent harmony with history has led some interpreters to take “generation” in the sense of “race” or “people,” and so to see in the words a prophecy of the perpetuity of the existence of the Jews as a distinct people till the end of the world. But for this meaning there is not the shadow of authority; nor does it remove the difficulty which it was invented to explain. The words of Matthew 16:28 state the same fact in language, which does not admit of any such explanation.
Till all these things be fulfilled.—Better, till all these things come to pass.” (3)
“Some have sought to get around the force of this text by saying that the word generation here really means race, and that Jesus was simply saying that the Jewish race would not die out until all these things took place. Is that true? I challenge you: Get out your concordance and look up every New Testament occurrence of the word generation (in Greek, genea) and see if it ever means ‘race’ in any other context. Here are all the references for the Gospels: Matthew 1:17; 11:16; 12:39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:36; 24:34; Mark 8:12, 38; 9:19; 13:30; Luke 1:48, 50; 7:31; 9:41; 11:29, 30, 31, 32, 50, 51; 18:8; 17:25; 21:32.Not one of these references is speaking of the entire Jewish race over thousands of years; all use the word in its normal sense of the sum total of those living at the same time. It always refers to contemporaries. (In fact, those who say it means “race” tend to acknowledge this fact, but explain that the word suddenly changes its meaning when Jesus uses it in Matthew 24! We can smile at such a transparent error, but we should also remember that this is very serious. We are dealing with the Word of the living God.).” (4)
“First, “this generation” always means the generation to whom Jesus is speaking. It is the contemporary generation, the generation alive at the hearing of Jesus’ words… Those who deny that ‘this generation’ refers to the generation to whom Jesus was speaking in the Matthew 24 context must maintain that “this generation” means something different from the way it is used in other places in Matthew and the rest of the New Testament!” (5)
“The most critical portion of this text is Jesus’ declaration that ‘this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” (6)
Matthew 24 Commentary That Generation Shall Not Pass, a Summary and Highlights:
“In Matthew 24:34, Jesus declares, “[T]his generation shall not pass” until a series of events transpire–including the second coming. Did Jesus mean “this generation will not pass away” or “that generation shall not pass away,” was Matthew 24 fulfilled in the first century? Two first century Roman historians record a supernatural event that was seen in the sky at the start of the Jewish War with Rome, in A.D. 66, that appears to fulfill Biblical prophecy concerning the second coming. Almost immediately thereafter, the Roman Historian Cassius Dio records a mass vision of a multitude of spiritual bodies coming out of the earth at the sound of a trumpet in what appears to be a literal resurrection of the dead that same year in fulfillment of Matthew 24:31. These two events marked the start of the worst war Israel ever faced. As a result of this war, the Roman army worshipped the beast and his image on the ensigns within the Temple and then destroyed it in A.D. 70 such that “not one stone [was] left on another” in fulfillment of Matthew 24:2 and Matthew 24:15. Around this time, the saints, including the disciples, were martyred in Jerusalem and Rome; the sun and moon were darkened; many false messiahs and false prophets appeared; and there were earthquakes, famines, wars and rumors of wars. Jesus was right. “This [first century] generation [did] not pass until all” the predictions in this chapter literally occurred! For a detailed explanation of the historical events that fulfill seemingly every detail of every prediction in this chapter see the following commentary on Matthew 24.” (7)
* For the full commentary, see link below.
From the New Bible Commentary on related passages from Mark and Luke:
(On Mark 13 and Luke 21)
“These verses are often understood as referring to the parousia, and thus as moving to the second part of the disciples’ question. But immediately after does not leave room for a long delay, nor does the explicit time-scale given in v 34. The word parousia does not occur in this section but is prominently reintroduced in the new paragraph which begins at v 36, where its unknown time is contrasted with the clear statement that the events of this paragraph will take place within this generation. This section is therefore in direct continuity with what has gone before, the account of the siege of Jerusalem. Here we reach its climax.
The words of vs 29–31 are almost entirely woven together from OT prophetic texts. V 29 is drawn from Is. 13:10 and 34:4, where the language of cosmic upheaval symbolized the political fall of pagan nations. The language about the Son of Man coming on the clouds is drawn from Dn. 7:13–14, which, as we have already seen (on 10:23; 16:28; 19:28) points to the vindication and enthronement of Jesus (rather than to his parousia). V 31 is based on passages, which refer to the promised return of Israelites from exile.
In this context, therefore, this poetic language appropriately refers to the great changes which were about to take place in the world, when Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed. It speaks of the Son of Man entering into his kingship, and his angels gathering in his new people from all the earth. The fall of the temple is thus presented, in highly allusive language, as the end of the old order, to be replaced by the new régime of Jesus, the Son of Man, and the international growth of his church, the new people of God.
All this would happen very soon, once the preliminary signs of vs 15–21 have occurred, just as summer inevitably follows quickly once the leaves appear on the fig-tree. Within this generation it would all be over; we have Jesus’ word for it! (8)
From the above commentary entries, we see that Jesus was speaking to His first-century listeners (this generation) about the soon coming events, which included the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70AD. The answer to C.S. Lewis is that there is not a problem with a false or unfulfilled prophecy at all. Christ’s predictions came true in the first century.
This approach to Matthew 24 is what is called realized eschatology or preterism and has been held by many commentators throughout church history. This approach utilizes a literal interpretation of the word “generation.” Preterism is the view that says the many of the events spoken about in Matthew 24 and the Book of Revelation have been partially or completely fulfilled in the events leading up to and surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. We do not have to be embarrassed like Lewis. We can rejoice and praise God for fulfilled prophesy. We do not have to resort to a forced an unusual meaning on the way “generation” would have been understood by the first-century Israelite.
Contrary to what many have been taught, Matthew 24:34 is not dealing the physical second coming at the end of history, but rather a spiritual coming of God in judgment against Jerusalem and the people of Israel for their rejection of the Messiah. Even though it is a spiritual coming in judgment, this does not take away from the reality of the events that occurred in the first century. Spiritual events are real. In Mark 14:62. Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” The “coming” of the Son of Man is a reference to Daniel 7:13-14, which speak of His literal resurrection and His seating at the Father’s right hand. Christ was vindicated over Israel that had rejected him.
Also, a number of passages in the book of Revelation confirm the imminent coming of Christ in the first century.
Additional Scriptures from the book of Revelation on the imminent coming of Christ:
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.” (Revelation 1:1)
Strong’s Greek 5034:
Original Word: τάχος, ους, τό
Part of Speech: Noun, Neuter
Phonetic Spelling: (takh’-os)
Usage: quickness, speed, hastily, immediately.
“Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.” (Revelation 1:3)
Strong’s Greek 1451:
eggus: near (in place or time)
Original Word: ἐγγύς
Part of Speech: Adverb
Phonetic Spelling: (eng-goos’)
Definition: near (in place or time)
“Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.” (Revelation 3:11)
Strong’s Greek 5035 – tachu
“And he said unto me, these sayings are faithful and true: and the Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly be done.” (Revelation 22:6)
Strong’s Greek 5034 – tachos
“Behold, I come quickly: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book.” (Revelation 22:7)
Strong’s Greek 5035 – tachu
“And he saith unto me, Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand.” (Revelation 22:10; See Daniel 8:26)
Strong’s Greek 1451 – eggus
“And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.” (Revelation 22:12)
Strong’s Greek 5035 – tachu
“He which testifieth these things saith, surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” (Revelation 22:20) (Underlining emphasis mine)
Strong’s Greek 5035 – tachu
If taken at face value, the passages in Revelation are speaking of something that was to take place soon, not the distant future. The imminent return of Christ that we see in the Revelation passages are events that were to happen quickly. The words soon and quickly do not make sense if not taken literally. Consult any thesaurus for synonyms of these words. If quickly, shortly do not mean what they say in their everyday usage, what do they mean? These texts if taken literally prove that the book of Revelation must be historically fulfilled prophesy, except for the final two chapters, which pictures the new heaven and new earth. See Revelation 1:1, 3 and Revelation 22:6, 10. These imminent passages are either true or false. Do not be embarrassed like Lewis.
Additionally, consider how the apostle John in 22:10 is told: “…seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand.” Compare Revelation 22:10 with Daniel 12:4. Daniel is told to “shut up the words, and seal the book.” Daniel’s prophesy deals with the coming of the Messiah. See Daniel 9:24-27. The fulfillment of Daniel’s prophesy would happen in approximately 500 years. Daniel is told to “seal the book” and John is told, “seal not…the prophecy” of this book. These two commands are exact opposites, proving that John’s Revelation was to be fulfilled shortly in the first century. The biblical conclusion is that the texts of Revelation show quite literally, “The time is at hand” 1:3, and “…which must shortly be done,” and “Behold, I come quickly” 22:6.
One argument against the soon return of the Lord Jesus Christ in judgment upon apostate Israel in the first century is that in God’s sight, times are different for Him and us. For example, people may cite, “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2Peter 3:8-9ESV). In verse 8, Peter is referring to Psalm 90:4 and is encouraging the disciples to have patience in the face of persecution. Does Peter contradict himself in verse 8 and 9? Verse 9 is not arguing for thousands of years before the promises are to be fulfilled. What does “the Lord is not slow,” mean?
is not slow [to fulfill ]
Verb – Present Indicative Active – 3rd Person Singular
Strong’s Greek 1019:
bradunó: to retard, to be slow
Original Word: βραδύνω
Part of Speech: Verb
Phonetic Spelling: (brad-oo’-no)
Definition: to retard, to be slow
Usage: I am slow, I delay, tarry.
Using this passage from 2Peter as an attempt to answer the problem that C.S. Lewis saw in Matthew 24 is just speculation and special pleading for an unnatural use of language. Moreover, by saying that “the Lord is not slow,” Peter may have had the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in view. It is commonly believed that 2Peter was written around 68AD. Peter was in Rome around that time and may have had first-hand knowledge of Roman’s plans for Israel’s destruction.
Back to the understanding of the word “generation.” Also, the words “soon,” “shortly,” “quickly,” and “the time is at hand.” Do God’s Words have a different meaning for Him and us? If so, we cannot know anything. If God’s Words mean one thing for Him and another for us, this opens the door to absolute skepticism. Moreover, it is indeed no answer for liberal critics of the Bible.
We must not abandon literal biblical revelation:
“When Paul in human Greek says that God justifies believers, did he speak the literal truth or some other, unknowable kind of truth that is not truth at all? A phrase similar to “human language” occurs frequently in other authors. They contrast “human logic” with “divine logic.” But do they dare make explicit what this phrase means? Human logic says, if all men are mortal, and if Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal. But if divine logic is different, then all men can be mortal and Socrates can be a man, yet Socrates will not be mortal. Or, again, if human mathematics says that two plus two is four, and if divine truth differs from ours, then for God two and two are five or ten or anything but four. The point here is that human logic and divine logic are identical. Human logic is a part of the divine image in man. It is God’s trademark stamped upon us. Only by rejecting the Biblical doctrine of God’s image can one contrast human language with divine language and divine logic with human. Finally, if human language cannot be literally true, any assertion “language is not literal” cannot be literally true. The position is self-refuting, and one can have little hope of explaining how “language formed on mythical patterns” can convey God’s truth.” (9)
As in the case of “generation” in Matthew 24:34, the Revelation texts as seen, also speak of the imminent return of Christ. The words are literal and do not have to be contorted into non-literal mumbo jumbo. The book of Revelation chronicles the unfolding judgment of God upon apostate Judaism of the first century. Next is a different look at events in the book of Revelation.
“And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.” (Revelation 11:8)
Revelation 11:8 is speaking of Jerusalem. Jerusalem in Revelation is spiritually called Sodom, Egypt, and even Babylon. John uses Babylon, Sodom, and Egypt as functional equivalents.
1. Babylon is identified as a “great city” in Revelation 17:18. Jerusalem is identified as a “great city” in Revelation 11:8:
“And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the “great city,” which “spiritually” is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.” (Revelation 11:8)
2. Babylon the Great is a “harlot” (Revelation 17:5). Jerusalem has been referred to as a “harlot” in the Old Testament.
For example, “But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. How is the faithful city become a harlot! It was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers” (Isaiah 1:20-21).
3. “And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw ‘her,’ I wondered with great admiration.” “And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that ‘great city’ Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all.” “And in ‘her’ was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth” (Revelation 17:6, 18:21, 24).
The “great city” referred to, as “her” is guilty of the crimes, which Jesus previously attributed to Jerusalem in Matthew:
“That upon you (Jerusalem) may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, all these things shall come upon ‘this generation.’ O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under ‘her’ wings, and ye would not!” (Matthew 23:35-37)
The “Great Tribulation” happened in 70AD. Thus, Christ’s prediction that judgment would come to the “generation” that heard the prophecy is vindicated and Lewis was wrong.
1. C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night (1960), found in The Essential C.S. Lewis, p. 385.
2. Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor, Entry for Generation, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1986), p. 1199.
3. Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, Matthew, Vol.1, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 150.
4. David Chilton, The Great Tribulation, (Ft. Worth, Texas, Dominion Press), p. 3.
5. Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness, (Powder Springs, Georgia, American Vision), p. 56.
6. R.C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker), p.16.
7. Dr. Daniel Morais, Matthew 24 Commentary: THAT Generation Shall Not Pass, (Fort Worth, TX, revelationrevolution.org)
8. D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer & G. J. Wenham, Ed., New Bible Commentary 21st century edition, (Downers Grove, Illinois, Inter-Varsity Press, 4th ed.), p. 936-937.
9. Gordon Clark, God’s Hammer: The Bible and Its Critics, (Jefferson, Maryland, The Trinity Foundation), p. 161-162.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
Recommended Christian Eschatology Studies:
Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
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Oswald T. Allis
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Last Days Madness
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R. C. Sproul
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