Preterism views the label “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 as one of the most important factors in determining one’s eschatological viewpoint. Does “this generation” refer to the disciples to whom Jesus is talking, or a future generation?
Matthew 24:34 and the mention of “this generation” occurs in the midst of the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24-25). The Olivet Discourse was prompted by the disciples’ question about when the destruction of Jerusalem would be, and what sign would signify Christ’s return (Matt 24:3).
In answer to the disciples, Jesus gives the following signs of the impending destruction:
- There will be many false Christs, wars, and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines (vv. 4-8)
- There will be persecution and a mass apostasy, but the gospel will be preached to the whole world (vv. 9-14)
- The abomination of desolation in fulfillment of Daniel 9:27 will take place and mark the need to flee from Jerusalem (vv. 15-22)
- False Christs and prophets will arise and use false signs to mislead many, but the true sign of Christ’s coming will be as unmistakable as lightning (vv. 23-28).
- There will be cosmic events, such as the darkening of the sun and moon, and the falling of stars from the sky (v. 29)
- The Son of Man will come, the earth will mourn, and he will gather His elect (vv. 30-31).
Christ then gives a parable about a fig tree (Matt 24:32-33), the main point of which is clear: just as one recognizes the seasons by the fig tree branches, so one will recognize the end.
At this point in the discourse, Jesus states, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (v. 34). There are three main views for understanding the phrase, “this generation.”
- This generation refers to the generation to whom Jesus is speaking.
- This generation refers to the Jewish people as a whole.
- This generation refers to the last eschatological generation of Matthew 24:33 that sees the signs.
Interpreters that hold to view #1 say that all of the signs and events prophesied by Jesus in verses 4-31 happened in 70 A.D. when the Romans came and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. The major contention with this viewpoint is that interpreters are hard-pressed to explain the fulfillment of many of the signs (e.g., abomination of desolation, cosmic darkening of the sun and moon, stars falling from the sky, etc.). If those signs have not taken place, then either Jesus was wrong, or we have misunderstood what “this generation” refers to.
“This Generation” as an Ethnic Term Referring to the Jewish People
Because of the difficulties of view #1, many interpreters have interpreted “this generation” as a reference to the Jewish people. This view has been held by many interpreters through the years. In fact, while researching something else I came across a quote from Nathaniel Homes (1653) who held to this view. Although it seems to be a valid use of the word in some contexts, the major problem is that it doesn’t seem Matthew uses the term this way throughout his gospel.
“This Generation” as the Eschatological Generation
This is the best view in my mind. There are a variety of reasons for this. First, the word “this” (in “this generation”) is called a demonstrative pronoun, and in Greek (like English) it can refer to a physical referent or a logical referent. In other words, it can refer to something that physically exists near the speaker, or something that the speaker is talking about.
John 4:15 is a good example of a logical referent. The woman at the well tells Jesus, “Sir, give me this water.” The irony of the situation is that Jesus and the woman are standing by a well of real water (a potential physical referent). Yet, Jesus had told the woman that He had living water which was not in the well (v. 10). The woman uses the near demonstrative “this water” to refer to the topic of conversation. Thus, “this water” is a logical referent to the living water rather than the real water which right in front of them.
In a similar way, it is possible that in Matthew 24:34 Jesus uses “this generation” to describe the generation that will recognize the end when they see the signs. This is the future generation of Matt 24:32-33 (the immediate context).
In support for this view, Mike Vlach helpfully gives four contextual considerations for understanding Matthew 24:34. (Vlach is the best on these kinds of issues).
- The actual fulfillment of these events (Matt 24:4-31) in history.
- Jesus’ statement that He does not know the timing of these events (Matt 24:36).
- Jesus’ use of the “trans-generational you” for Israel in the immediate context (see Vlach’s post on this important concept).
- Matthew 23:37-39 strongly suggests that a future believing generation of Israel will follow the current unbelieving generation. This implies some gap of time for this scenario to play out.
A Final Word about the Cosmic and Final Nature of the Signs
A major issue in interpreting “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 is how one expects prophecy to be fulfilled. In order to say that the signs given in versus 4-31 were fulfilled in 70 A.D., the cosmic nature of the signs must downplayed. Furthermore, the coming of the Son of Man must be made symbolic rather than an actual event.
Jesus states that there will be earthquakes and famines (among other things) before He returns. There have been bad earthquakes throughout history. In 760 B.C. there was a horrible earthquake during the time of Uzziah. Thus, Jesus is saying these future earthquakes won’t be the average earthquake (which we have experienced throughout history). These earthquakes will be of such magnitude that it will be clear that the end is at the doorstep (cf. Rev 6:12-14).
Additionally, the cosmic disturbances of the sun and moon being darkened and stars falling are events to which there is no mention or record in 70 A.D. Such cosmic events would surely have been noticed. Rather, these await a future time (cf. Rev 6:12-14).
Lastly, by saying all of these things were fulfilled in 70 A.D., that takes away from the finality of Christ’s return. The disciples ask about Christ’s coming and the end of the age (Matt 24:3). If the response of Jesus is limited to 70 A.D., then the finality of his coming and the gathering His elect becomes a symbolic interpretation rather than literal.
Hence, it seems best to see Matthew 24:34 and the reference to “this generation” as looking ahead to a future time when Jerusalem will be destroyed and Jesus will come back.