Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. – Matthew 24:34
One of the most frequently used proof-texts by the Full-Preterist is the literal reading of the words of the Olivet Discourse to force the entire text to apply only to events in 70 AD. Full Preterists believe all prophecies were fulfilled with the 70 AD destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, including the Second Coming of Christ and General Resurrection. This is primarily because they take a literal interpretation to certain critical passages known as “times statements”. Time statements are phrases like “this generation”, “not taste death until,” “quickly, “shortly.”. And upon reading these phrases literally, the Preterists have concluded that the 70 AD destruction of the temple was the key moment in which that “generation” within 40 years of Jesus’s death saw Jesus return and establish the “Kingdom of God in Heaven” only after 70 AD before many of them did not “taste death”. Therefore, they accept the phrase “pass away” to mean that before the people of that generation were to die, all of the things spoken by Christ in the Olivet Discourse would have been fulfilled.
Then there is the other end of the prophetic interpretation spectrum – the futurist – who look to future fulfillment of all of the passages of the Olivet Discourse. The Dispensationalist authors like Hal Lindsey, with his infamous book titled “The Late Great Planet Earth,” also took a literal interpretation to Matthew 24:23, where they believe that Jesus was referring to “that specific generation” in the future that would see the destruction of the Jerusalem after a rebuilt temple, and the world just prior to the second coming of Christ. They use this in conjunction with the so-called “gap theory” of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks, by adding roughly “2000 years” between the 69th and 70th week of Daniel. Many of the Dispensationalists expected the return of Christ 40 years after 1948 AD when the modern nation of Israel was founded. They then awaited eagerly for the Rapture to happen in the year 1988. When this Rapture became a non-event in 1988, new dates were proposed and new books were written. Blood moons were promoted. The repeated cycle of hope continues as the goalposts are moved further and further.
Is it possible Jesus was referring to something else in this controversial passage? Perhaps so. Generation can apply to a certain classification of people, not just a time period in history constrained to 36 or 40 years. The expression “pass away” can have a different meaning all together, which also means “disappear.” Is it possible Jesus was referring to a particular group of people in this passage? Yes, we can understand the context by going back to the previous chapter 23, after the chastisement of the scribes and pharisees in the temple when he says in verse 36: “Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” So which generation is this. We are told elsewhere in scrpture that it is the “faithless and perverse generation” (Matthew 17:17). How can we interpret this passage.
Well, many earlier commentators considered this generation to be taken collectively as a nation and people who would never pass away or disappear from the pages of history speaks to their resiliency. This is not a novel idea, it was promoted well before most of the later 19th and 20th century Preterist writings by both Protestant writers of the West and Orthodox writers in the East. Let’s take a look at a few commentaries:
Apostolos Makrakis – 1890
“By generation Christ means the unbelieving race of the Jews. The unbelieving race of the Jews will exist upon the earth until all of the prophecies are fulfilled form the days of Christ until His second appearance and coming to the earth when even the unbelieving race of the Jews will say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Heaven and earth shall pass away because they shall be renewed and we shall see new heavens and a new earth, but the words of Christ shall not pass away before they are fulfilled. ” Interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew
John Prentiss Kewley Henshaw
John Prentiss Kewley Henshaw (1792 – 1852) was the first Protestant Episcopal bishop of Rhoad Island. He held premillenial historicist views, and described the two apostacies of Revelation similar to other Historicists identified as the Papacy and Islam. He also predicted the return of the Jews to Palestine coinciding with the fall of the Turkish empire (i.e. the “sixth vial” of Rev. 16 with the “drying of the great river Euphrates and return of the kings of the East”). Well well, we know what happened after WWI in 1917 right? The return of the Jews to Palestine, as he predicted!
Henshaw published his work on biblical prophecy in 1842 titled: “An Inquiry Into the Meaning of the Prophecies Relating to the Second Advent of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” (a copy can be viewed here)
Christ’s statement that “this generation shall not pass” means, according to Henshaw, that the Jewish nation, or the generation (genea) would not pass away, or cease to exist, before all these things are fulfilled. This seems to be the common theme of the time. According to Henshaw, it was Bishop Samuel Horsley of the Church of England who also promoted this same view, as well as other commentators.
Here is the excerpt from his book on the topic of “This Generation” – pages 35 to 38:
“The prophecies contained in this chapter are precisely the same, and expressed in nearly the same language, with those recorded by St. Matthew and St. Mark. The discourse of which they form a part is that memorable one in which our Lord foretold the destruction of Jerusalem; an event which, according to the general belief of Christians, was a type, foreshadowing the greater terrors of the last day. Some have inferred from the words, “this generation shall not pass away till all these things be fulfilled,” that it is exclusively applicable to that long past historical event.
But Bishop Horsley and others have shown, conclusively, that the phrase is not to be thus limited. The word translated “generation,” in some connexions means “an age,” in others, a nation and then again it means a class of men of a particular character. Thus the wicked are called “a generation of evil doers,” and “the righteous are counted to the Lord for a generation.” Our Saviour called the Jews “a wicked and adulterous generation” because they sought after unpromised signs, and would not believe his doctrine and Messiahship. And it is no perversion of his words, or evasion of his meaning, to understand him as saying, that the wicked, unbelieving, Jewish nation would not cease to exist, or should “not pass away,” till all the things of which he then spake should be fulfilled.***
*** NOTE: The Greek word “GENEA“, translated “generation,” according to the best lexicographers and critics, ought generally to be translated “race,” — or a people of one common origin. Instances of this are common in our translation of the Scriptures as compared with the Septuagint, and with the Greek Testament. The quotations in the text will serve as specimens from the Old Testament, in Philippians ii.15, the word is translated nation; so might it have been here.
There must be an excessive strain and perversion put upon our Lord’s words if we confine the whole prophecy to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army. To that event the words immediately preceding the text do unquestionably relate.
“When ye shall see Jerusalem encompassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judea flee to the mountains ; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto. For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. But wo unto them that are with child, and to them which give suck, in those days, for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations; and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.”
These words refer to the overthrow of Jerusalem, and were awn fully accomplished in the sacking and desolation of the holy city, and in the slaughter and dispersion of the chosen people. But then the discourse takes a wider range, and the Divine speaker, no longer confining himself to the case of the Jews and their beautiful city, speak s of events interesting to all the nations of the earth, and which were not to take place till after Jerusalem had been “trodden down of the Gentiles” and the chosen people who escaped the edge of the sword had been “scattered among all nations, and the times of the Gentiles” or the period of their power to oppress the Jews,—should “be fulfilled.”
The destruction of Jerusalem was but “the beginning of sorrows.” The disciples would hear of wars and rumours of wars, but “the time is not yet.” False prophets and false Christs were to arise, who should ” deceive, if it were possible, the very elect.”* Our Lord forewarned his disciples that they should be persecuted and killed, and “hated of all men for his name’s sake.” He spake of judgments which were to fall upon the nations, and trials with which the Church was to be visited, while Jerusalem was trodden down by the Gentiles, — as it still is,— and until “the times of the Gentiles” for exercising oppression upon the despised Jews, — which still lasts, — “ shall be fulfilled.” During the same period of time, the work of propagating Christianity was to go forward till “the Gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world, for a witness unto all nations; and then shall THE END come“ (Matt. 24.15)“
Joseph D’Arcy Sirr
Another author who interprets this passage in the Olivet Discourse to mean the “Jewish Race not to pass till fulfillment.“
Joseph D’Arcy Sirr (1794-1868) was an Irish biographer and a graduate of Trinity Colage, , Dublin, receiving an B.A. in 1812, an M.A. in 1823 and B.D. and D.D. degrees in 1843. He was a rector of Ringwood, Morestead and Kilcolman, Ireland. He is the author of several religous works, including his three books on prophecy:
- “The Deluge a Type of the Conflagration” (1832)
- “The First Resurrection Considered” (1833)
- “Westport Darbyism Exposed” (1843)
In an appendix of his book “The First Resurrection Considered” (Philadelphia, 1841 ed. pages 160-161), while answering a query concerning the statement, “This generation shall not pass,” in the Olivet Discourse prophecy, Sir Joseph attempts to show from a number of similar uses of the original Greek term (genea) that it indicates the “Jewish Race,” which would not pass till the full accomplishment — and pointing to their remarkable continuance as a race for nearly eighteen centuries. They would be preserved through all the long desolations, and not cease from being a distinct race while being trodden down by the Gentile powers, even under the Inquisition and would so continue till the day of the appearance of the Son of man.
Some of the text from the appendix (pages 160 to 165):
“Jerome, although not the author of the Latin version, called the Vulgate, must be considered a competent expositor of the meaning of the Latin word ‘generatio,’ so far at least as to prove that the word was deemed in his day to admit of either sense he gives it.
Piscator translates the word “genea” in the verses under consideration, atas, Beza translates the word (genea) sometimes “gens” and sometimes “natio.” Montanus, Fabricius, and Tremellius translate it “generatio” in these places. Erasmus translates it “aetas” in Matth. and Luke, and “generatio” in Mark. The word gens has a broader import than “natio.” For example we may say ‘gens Germanorum’ and ‘natio Saxonum’, but the word “generatio” is less restricted in its use than either. We may say for example ‘generatio avium’ as well as ‘generatio hominum.’ Cicero uses the word in the sense of “ortus,” “procreatio,” and the word “genea” may be used in the same broad sense. (…)
Assuming then for a moment that our Lord (in Luke 21: 32 for example) intended to declare that the Jewish race, should be preserved through the awful and long continued desolations which should come upon them during the treading down of Jerusalem by the Gentile powers, and during their captivity and dispersion among all nations, even until the period allotted to the existence of the nations should elapse, and until the day of the appearance of the Son of Man in a cloud with power and great glory—assuming this, how apposite was the choice of the word “genea”? Obviously the word “ethnos” would not serve that purpose, for Jerusalem was to be utterly destroyed within a few years from that time, and the Romans, as the High Priest feared, were to come and take away their (“ethnos”) nation, and their existence as a community or body politic was to cease. But their (“genea”) race was to remain distinct and distinguishable during a long tract of time, as the event has proved, and that too under circumstances which demonstrate the unceasing watchfulness of God over them as a race of men.
But even if the meaning of the word were doubtful—the text in which it stands, alone being considered—events have made the meaning clear. The Lord Jesus Christ foresaw the event, and when speaking of what he foresaw, he must be supposed to have used the word in a sense commensurate with his sense of the subject of which he spoke. When he said,Jerusalem shall be trodden down of nations, till their times (i. e. the appointed times of their continuance or existence as communities, Acts 17: 26; Dan. 2nd Chapt.) should elapse, he foresaw all that has since occurred, and spoke of all that has occurred or shall occur until the time of the end, and the event has given a fulness of meaning to the expression which the Christians of the early ages of the church did not perceive. (…) Although the Jewish people have been the object of contempt and hatred to other nations during so long a time, they still subsist. In fact they have survived all sorts of oppressions and calamities, which must have annihilated them, or swallowed them up as a deluge, or consumed them as a conflagration, and effaced every thing appertaining to them from the earth, had not an invisible and an omnipotent hand sustained and preserved them contrary to the ordinary course of human things. (…)
Other nations may become confounded together and be dissolved one in another — they may lose their name, their political state, and all traces of their origin, as in fact has happened to all the ancient nations, — the Egyptians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Gauls, Anglo-Saxons and others. Perhaps few, very few of the families which formerly composed those nations, have continued to propagate themselves unmixed to our times,—certainly there is not one family, nor even an individual among us, who can ascend, by a well authenticated pedigree, back to the times of those national bodies, politic, of which his ancestors were members —that is to say, through a descent of eighteen or twenty centuries.
The Jews on the contrary, though they have been so long dispersed among the nations, subsist without commingling with them. They can ascend by an incontestable pedigree to the parent stock. The registers of their tribes may have perished, but the Israelites, scattered through all places of the earth, know well that they have all descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and none can with reason dispute their claim, “Fear thou not, Jacob my servant, saith the Lord, for I am with thee; for I will make a full end of all the nations whither I have driven thee; but I will not make a full end of thee, but correct thee in measure; yet will I not leave thee wholly unpunished.” Jer. 46:28.
But to return to the passage in question: The expression, “This generation shall not pass away,” &c. is a prophecy. As if our Lord had said — The enemies of the Jews shall encompass this city and destroy it, and tread it down, during the whole period of their existence as nations, although the Jews themselves shall fall by the edge of the sword and be carried away captives, not into one nation only, as formerly they were to Babylon, but into all nations,—although evils and calamities shall come upon them which would exterminate any other nation, and which, according to the common course of human things, would exterminate the race of the Jews, yet shall they be preserved through them all,—this race shall not pass away—until the Son of Man shall come again in a cloud with power and great glory. (…)
The Church of Rome has always regarded the Jews as heretics, and canons of different councils forbade Christians to eat with them, or have any dealings with them on pain of excommunication.* The Inquisition expelled 800,000 Jews from Spain during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, and those persecuted people despairing of finding an asylum in Catholic Europe, took refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Emanuel, King of Portugal, required that Jewish children under 14 years of age, should be separated from their parents and forced to adopt the Roman Catholic Religion. Our Lord, when he uttered the prophesy in question, foresaw all these things, yet he declared that the race should be preserved until this vast fabric of political and ecclesiastical tyranny should be destroyed by the brightness of his coming.”
Full Preterists take the time statement – “this generation” – from scripture and base a whole doctrine and belief system of “all things fulfilled” only with the 70 AD temple destruction, and thus fail to see the greater human drama of man and his salvation through the biblical prophecies. And part of that great drama is the mystery of the Jewish Nation that rejected their Messiah yet remain as a people today. This generation is a critical phrase in the Olivet Discourse which represents the Jews of the Diaspora. That is, the wandering generation without a homeland which was born after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and was prophesied and guaranteed in the Olivet Discourse to not pass away, disappear or absorb completely within the worldly nations. This scattered nation is synonymous to the Seven Times Generation of the scattered tribes and Kingdoms of Judah and Israel who were to be punished seven times more for their sins. This generation of Jews who returned from Babylon rejected Christ were scattered once again, extending their punishment. The events of 70 AD guaranteed the scattering until the “times of the gentile” are fulfilled as the Apostle Luke says in his Gospel:
Luke 21:24 – “They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive into all the nations. And Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, UNTIL the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
It was this generation that somehow miraculously survived all odds through the many exiles, mass migrations, pogroms, persecutions and holocausts and did not “pass away” or “disappear to exist no more” among the Gentile nations during their Diaspora and extended Babylonian captivity of 2520 years. This generation somehow maintained all of their religious customs and language against all odds. Scattered to the wilderness of all nations, until the day they will be fully grafted back to the olive tree as the natural branches, as St. Paul teaches us in Romans 11. The day they come to accept Christ as their Messiah the Prince and finally say: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Therefore, the Mystery of the Jews will be completed when they proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. Heaven and earth shall pass away, empires will rise and fall, the Church would be persecuted and divided. But only after these things are witnessed, the end of the “scattering and the “dispersion would be completed,. Daniel 12:7 provides an exact time-frame when this will come to pass: “In a time, times and a half of a time, when the dispersion hath been ended, they shall know all of these things”. And the words of the prophet Daniel and Christ Himself in the Olivet Discourse shall not pass away before these things are all fulfilled.
© 2019 by Jonathan Photius
About the Author: Jonathan Photius is a lifelong Eastern Orthodox Christian who has studied biblical and non-biblical apocalyptic prophecy for over 30 years. Jonathan is a Historicist interpreter of the prophecies, which advocates a continuous fulfillment of prophecies throughout history. He is the author of “Seven Times Unto The Consummation” and “The Encyclopedia of Christianity In The Book of Revelation“, both which present neo-historicist views on prophetic interpretation.