‘Amen I tell you, there is NO WAY this generation will pass away until all these things have come to pass.’ (my translation)
There are several ways to make sense of this verse:
1. Jesus meant what he said, but the things he describes in the preceding verses did not come to pass, and Jesus was a deluded apocalyptic prophet whose mission failed, but was revived by the Church who invented stories about his resurrection in order to rehabilitate his teaching. This has been a fairly widespread view amongst critical scholarship, and was expounded most powerfully by Albert Schweitzer.
2. The phrase ‘this generation’ (Gk he genea aute) can be translated ‘this people’, in other words, it refers to the Jews, not to this particular generation. Unfortunately, this does not stack up for several reasons. First, genea consistently refers to a ‘generation’ meaning a people alive at a particular time in the other 42 occurrences in the New Testament. (One possible exception to this is in Luke 16.8, ‘The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation…). But the second, and compelling set of reasons why this cannot be read in this way is Jesus’ emphasis on timing in these verses. The phrase ‘will not pass away’ is a common term for ‘to die’ (and we use the same euphemism in English); Jesus has just talked about reading the signs of the times with the analogy of the fig tree coming into fruit (Matt 24.32), and he draws the conclusion that the ‘time is near’ for all these events; he then goes on to contrast the immediacy of ‘these things’ (v 34) with ‘those things’ in Matt 24.36, whose timing no-one knows.
3. A common ‘escape route’ is to argue that when Jesus says ‘all these things’ he actually means ‘some of these things.’ I was taught that prophecy is like looking at a mountain range from a distance, or looking through a telescope. It is hard to see the distance between things which are relatively near and things which are quite far off, as they all look at though they are next to one another. The problem with this view is that it assumes we know better than both Jesus and Matthew what Jesus meant in the preceding verses, and that both of them were confused in what they said and recorded.
4. One rather extraordinary approach (which I was offered this week) is that ‘this generation’ refers to the generation who are reading it now. To believe this, you have to think that the meaning of language changes almost at random depending on who is reading it, and that in fact the statement was meaningless for Jesus’ hearers and for Matthew and his readers.
This really only leaves one convincing option: Jesus meant what he said.
There is in fact good evidence for believing this. When Matthew records this piece of teaching, he makes some significant changes from Mark’s earlier account. In Mark, the disciples ask Jesus a single, compound question:
Tell us, when will these things happen and what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled? (Mark 13.3)
(Some English translations unhelpfully split this into two, but it is one sentence in Greek.) But in Matthew, this has become two questions about two different events:
Tell us, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?
In Matthew, the disciples’ question now has a supplementary, about the ‘sign of your coming’ [Gk parousia] and the end of the age, separate from the timing of ‘this’ i.e. the fall of the temple. And Matthew then goes on to structure what follows accordingly: verses 1 to 35 answer the first question, about the all of the temple and the destruction and trauma associated with it, which will happen before ‘this generation pass away’; then verses 36 to 51 address the second question about Jesus’ parousia and the end of the age, a subject which receives a summary treatment only in Mark 13.32–37. This makes perfect sense if Mark was written in the 60s prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, and Matthew written after it in the 70s or 80s; Mark is focussed on this as a looming disaster on the horizon, whereas for Matthew, the destruction of the temple has happened and is confirmation of Jesus’ words, and the focus now shifts to the second question, the end of the age. To make this point even clearer, he then goes on to record a whole series of parables, about the end and Jesus’ coming, in the following chapters.
This has some massive implications for our understanding of eschatology and what we are and are not looking for in Jesus’ parousia.
First, we are not looking for ‘sign of the times.’ Jesus explicitly contrasts what the disciples’s attitude should be to the two events. For the first, they are to look for the signs of the times, as they look on a fig tree for fruit when the time is right. But for the second, ‘no-one knows the day or hour.’ Jesus will come at an hour that we do not expect (Matt 24.44), as a ‘thief in the night’ for those who do not know him, but as a friend in the day for those who are his followers.
Second, the things Jesus mentions in Matt 24.29–31 have already happened. Peter is quite clear about this in his Acts 2 speech. He declares that the events the people are witnessing are precisely those foretold by Joel 2, including:
‘The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Acts 2.20–21, compare Joel 2.32 and also Romans 10.13).
And this means that the Son of Man has come on the clouds (to the Power = Ancient of Days), the trumpet has sounded (announcing a royal proclamation of good news) and the elect are being gathered.
The Son of Man (Jesus) ‘coming on the clouds’ uses a different Greek word erchomenos for ‘coming’ than is used in Matt 24.3 and Matt 24.37, where we find parousia, Jesus’ royal return as king after his period of absence. In Greek texts, this phrase is actually put in italics, meaning that it is a quotation, in this case from Daniel 7.13. The consistent position of all the New Testament texts is that this has been fulfilled in Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, and that in fulfilment of Dan 7, Jesus is now seated at the right hand of the Father. Jesus himself predicts this in Mark 14.62; he is clear that the High Priests will see it in their lifetime. Peter confirms it in his speech in Acts 2, which concludes not with the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection, but with the exaltation of Jesus to God’s right hand, as fulfilment of the Scriptures (Acts 2.32–36). This is what Stephen sees at the end of his speech in Acts 7, and (as with the High Priests at Jesus’ trial) is what provokes his listeners’ wrath and leads them to stone him:
But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7.55–56)
And of course Paul heard this—and realising the truth of this is what leads him to incorporate Jesus into his Jewish profession of the one God, the Shema of Deut 6.4, in 1 Cor 8.4–6. This is a perfect reflection of the ambiguities in Dan 7; it becomes unclear whether the worship of the nations and the power of the everlasting kingdom belong to the Ancient of Days or the Son of Man, or both. (Within Daniel, the Son of Man is a corporate representation of the people of God, but in the NT, as Jesus takes up the destiny of Israel, it comes to refer again to an individual.)
The sounding of the trumpet in Matt 24.31 is therefore something quite different from Paul’s trumpet in 1 Thess 4.16; it is a metaphor for the proclamation of the good news of Jesus and the kingdom spilling out from Israel into the whole known world, as recorded by Luke in Acts. And the ‘gathering of the elect’ does not refer to an ‘end times’ return of Jews to the geographical land of Israel; as Revelation 7 makes clear, the numbered members of the tribe of Israel (Rev 7.4) are in fact an unnumbered multitude from ‘every tribe, language, people and nation’ (Rev 7.9), just as Dan 7.14 had predicted.
All this suggests that we should not be trying to discern the time of Jesus’ coming from events in world history, and it confirms the truth reinforced over and over in the NT: that all God’s promises to his people are fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus’ second coming is not about an ‘end times’ timetable of events like the rapture (which cannot be found in the NT) or tribulation, which is in fact the lot of all who follow Jesus, as Paul makes clear in Acts 14.22, John is clear about in Rev 1.9, and Jesus himself teaches in the parable of the sheep and the goats.
When Jesus returns, he will bring to completion the work begun through his perfect offering of himself, his resurrection and his ascension. That’s what we have to look forward to.
(This is the summary of part of a seminar given at New Wine 1 in July 2014)
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