In the first post (Part 1) of this series, we examined the first few verses of Jesus’ famous Olivet Discourse, recorded in Matthew 24:1-3, Mark 13:1-4, and Luke 21:5-7. In the second post, we examined Jesus’ description of the signs which would take place before the temple’s destruction. We saw how those signs were fulfilled between the time of His ascension around 30 AD and the temple’s overthrow in 70 AD, about 40 years later. In the third post we examined Jesus’ warning to His followers about a soon-coming “abomination that causes desolation” (Matthew 24:15/Mark 13:14), or, as Luke puts it, “Jerusalem being surrounded by armies” (Luke 21:20). We also considered what Jesus said about a time of great tribulation which was soon to come.
In this fourth and final part of this series on the Olivet Discourse, we will take a look at Jesus’ prophecy of the heavenly bodies being shaken, a depiction given numerous times in the Old Testament. We will also see that Jesus predicted His own coming “in a cloud”/”on clouds,” another expression borrowed from the OT. We will consider what Jesus meant when He spoke of the fig tree. Then we will conclude by taking stock of Christ’s very foundational statement that all of the above-mentioned prophecies must take place within “this generation.”
|29“Immediately after the distress of those days “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. 31And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.||24 “But in those days, following that distress, “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.||25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.|
Matt. 24:29/Mark 13:24-25/Luke 21:25-26 (Sun, moon, and stars darkened)
In the accounts of both Matthew and Mark, Jesus asserts that “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” This was to happen, they said, after the time of distress and tribulation. According to Luke’s account, it would also follow the times of the Gentiles and the trampling of the city of Jerusalem. Luke doesn’t specifically mention the darkening of the heavenly bodies, but simply says that “there will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars.” He gives just as much attention to what would happen on the earth: “[N]ations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world.”
A look at several Old Testament passages indicates that it was already common for God to use this same type of language when announcing impending judgments upon various nations. Consider these examples:
 Regarding Babylon: “For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light” (Isaiah 13:10). Babylon was to fall at the hands of the Medes (verse 17), and we know that this prophecy was fulfilled in 539 BC (see Daniel 5).
 Regarding Edom: “All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree…her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever…” (Isaiah 34:4, 9-10). The capital of Edom was Petra. Assyria (under Sennacherib), Babylon (Jeremiah 27:3-6), and the Nabataeans attacked and plundered this region between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, as did Israel during the Maccabean period (in fulfillment of Ezekiel 25:14). It was made desolate as far as Teman (modern day Maan), as predicted in Ezekiel 25:13. Petra was conquered by Muslim nations, and then lost for more than 1000 years until it was rediscovered in 1812 (see Jeremiah 49:14-17). See this article for even more information.
 Regarding Egypt: “Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at His presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them… When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness on your land, declares the Lord God” (Isaiah 19:1; Ezekiel 32:7-8). Isaiah 20 makes it clear that Egypt’s defeat was to come at the hand of the Assyrians. Sargon, the king of Assyria, was even mentioned by name for his role in sending his chief commander (Tarton) to capture Ashdod (Isaiah 20:1). This took place in 711 BC. Assyria’s invasion of Egypt was also historically fulfilled during Sargon’s reign (722-705 BC) and, as prophesied, Cush (modern-day Ethiopia) was of no help to Egypt.
When judgment came to Babylon, Edom, and Egypt, there were no literal cosmic catastrophes affecting the entire planet, and the literal sun, moon, and stars continued to shine. This was symbolic, metaphorical language used commonly in the Old Testament, and now appearing in the New Testament as well. The OT even includes instances where God used this same language to speak of “putting out the lights,” so to speak, of Israel (e.g. Jeremiah 4:14, 28; Jeremiah 13:16; Joel 2:10, 31; Amos 8:9). In the case of Joel’s prophecy, this was to happen in Israel’s last days, which Peter acknowledged as having come to his own generation (Acts 2:16-21).
Furthermore, it’s quite possible that Jesus’ reference to the sun, moon, and stars would have reminded His Jewish listeners of Joseph’s dream in which “the sun, the moon, and eleven stars” bowed down to him (Genesis 37:9). Thus, in addition to speaking of the collapse of a political structure, the darkening of these heavenly bodies would have specifically pointed to the downfall of the nation of Israel.
Another vivid illustration of the Bible’s use of this type of language to denote political events can be found in Psalm 18, written by David “on the day when the Lord rescued him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.” David writes of being entangled by “the cords of Sheol” (verse 5); the earth reeling and rocking and the mountains trembling (verse 7); devouring fire coming from God’s mouth (verse 8); God bowing the heavens, thick darkness, God riding on a cherub and coming to him (verses 9-10); hailstones and coals of fire coming to the earth through the clouds (verses 12-13); God sending arrows and lightning (verse 14); and the sea being divided and “the foundations of the world” being laid bare (verse 15). There is no record, Biblical or otherwise, of any such events literally taking place during David’s lifetime. Again, this is apocalyptic and metaphorical language, common throughout the Bible.
Matt. 24:30/Mark 13:26/Luke 21:27 (Jesus coming on the clouds of heaven)
All three gospel accounts then speak of the Son of Man coming with power and great glory. Matthew says He would come “on the clouds of heaven,” Mark says “in clouds,” and Luke says “in a cloud.” His coming was to be visible. Matthew alone precedes His description of Christ’s coming by saying that a sign would appear in heaven, and he alone remarks that the tribes of the earth would mourn when they saw His coming. Does that mean He was to physically appear? We will take up this question shortly. First, let us consider again the timing of His promised coming.
As we saw in part 1 of this series, prior to the Olivet Discourse Jesus had already told His disciples that His coming would take place  before they would be able to go through all the towns of Israel (Matthew 10:23) and  while some of them were still alive (Matthew 16:27-28). Furthermore, He said He would come [a] in His kingdom [b] with His angels [c] in the glory of His Father and [d] to repay each person for what they had done, i.e. in judgment. None of His disciples lived beyond the first century AD. Therefore, if He was telling the truth, His promised coming already took place. This is confirmed yet again at the end of the Olivet Discourse, as we will see later in this post.
The imminence of His coming, and of the end of the age, in the first century can be seen repeatedly elsewhere in the New Testament. Consider these examples by Paul, the author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and John:
Paul: “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:11-12). “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none…and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away” (I Corinthians 7:29-31). “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (I Cor. 10:11). “The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:5).
Hebrews (author unknown): “…encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). “Yet a little while, and the coming One will come and will not delay…” (Heb. 10:37).
James: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you… You have laid up treasure in the last days” (James 5:1-3). “Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand… behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:8-9).
Peter: “The end of all things is at hand” (I Peter 4:7).
John: “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour” (I John 2:18).
So, with the timing of Christ’s coming established, what was to be the nature of it? We already saw that the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars was metaphorical language used to describe past judgments in history. What about His promise to come on clouds of glory? Surely this indicates a physical appearing, right? Although this idea is most popular today, we did already see two clearly fulfilled passages where God came with clouds to bring judgment as He saw fit:
 “He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under His feet. He rode on a cherub and flew; He came swiftly on the wings of the wind. He made darkness His covering, His canopy around Him, thick clouds dark with water. Out of the brightness before Him hailstones and coals of fire broke through His clouds” (Psalm 18:9-12; fulfilled on the day when God rescued David from the hand of Saul and his other enemies).
 “Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt…” (Isaiah 19:1; fulfilled around 700 BC).
Kenneth Gentry, in his book “Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation” (1998), notes how often this type of language is used in Scripture without referring to any type of history-ending events (p. 123):
“The Old Testament frequently uses clouds as indicators of divine judgment. God is said to be surrounded with thick, foreboding clouds as emblems of His unapproachable holiness and righteousness (Gen. 15:17; Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19-20; 19:9, 16-19; Deut. 4:11; Job 22:14; Psa. 18:8ff; 97:2; 104:3; Isa. 19:1; Eze. 32:7-8). He is poetically portrayed as coming in clouds in historical judgments upon men (Psa. 18:7-15; 104:3; Isa. 19:1; Joel 2:1, 2; Nah. 1:2ff; Zeph. 1:14, 15). Thus, the New Testament speaks of Christ’s coming in clouds of judgment in history at Matthew 24:30 and 26:64…”
When Jesus said in the Olivet Discourse that He would come on the clouds of heaven, anyone in His audience who was familiar with the Old Testament knew that He was claiming to be one with His Father. Only God could ride on the clouds of heaven (e.g. Deuteronomy 33:26, Psalm 68:4, Psalm 104:3, Ezekiel 30:3, Nahum 1:3). That’s why the high priest accused Jesus of blasphemy when He made this same claim just before His crucifixion, and the crowd declared Him worthy of death (Matthew 26:63-66).
As noted earlier, Jesus promised to come “in the glory of His Father” (Matt. 16:27). As Don Preston well points out, this can be understood to mean that just as the Father had come in the past, Jesus would also come in the same manner. Don gives as an example Isaiah 64:1-3, where the writer declares that God had “come down” numerous times in the past:
“Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at Your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood, and the fire causes water to boil – to make Your name known to Your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at Your presence! When You did awesome things that we did not look for, You came down, the mountains quaked at Your presence.”
Consider also this prophecy by Micah, which was fulfilled in 586 BC when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian armies:
‘For behold, the LORD comes forth from His place, and will come down, and tread upon the high places of the earth. And the mountains shall be melted under Him, and the valleys shall be cleft, as wax before the fire, and as the waters that are poured down a steep place. For the transgression of Jacob is all this, and for the sins of the house of Israel … What are the high places of Judah? Are they not Jerusalem?’ (Micah 1:3-5).
Just as the Father’s comings in times past had not been bodily or physical in nature, there is also no promise here in the Olivet Discourse that Christ’s coming would be of this nature. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all used the same apocalyptic language that is typical in the Old Testament to speak of the final judgment which was about to come once again upon Jerusalem. Secular and church history tells us that it did come, from 67-70 AD. It was through this judgment, both predicted and fulfilled by Jesus, that “the tribes of the earth” saw Him coming with clouds.
This prophecy in the Olivet Discourse is parallel to John’s words in Revelation 1:7, which many scholars believe is the theme verse of the book of Revelation: “Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him. Even so. Amen.” Indeed, Matthew 24:30 also says that “all the tribes of the earth will mourn” when they see Jesus coming on the clouds of heaven. Kenneth Gentry comments, “His Cloud-Coming is a Judgment-Coming that brings mourning. But upon whom? And when? And how? Fortunately…time cues exist within the theme text, and can be found in the other New Testament allusions to this same passage.”
Gentry then makes the case that, although the Romans had a part in crucifying and piercing Jesus (and in the broadest sense, all of mankind did), the responsibility for these deeds belonged to the Jews of that generation who instigated and demanded that they be done (See Acts 2:22-23, 36; 3:13-15a; Acts 5:30; 7:52; I Thessalonians 2:14-15). He quotes from Adam Clarke who, in his 1823 commentary on Revelation 1:7, remarked, “By this the Jewish people are most evidently intended, and therefore the whole verse may be understood as predicting the destruction of the Jews; and is a presumptive proof that the Apocalypse [the book of Revelation] was written before the final overthrow of the Jewish state [in 70 AD].”
Seeing that both Matthew 24:30 and Revelation 1:7 use the phrase “all tribes of the earth” to indicate who would wail upon seeing Christ coming with the clouds, Gentry notes that the Greek word for “tribe” refers to the Jewish tribes when used elsewhere in Scripture, almost without exception. With his conclusion, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament and the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia agrees (see also Revelation 5:5, 7:4, and 21:12). The strongest indication of this association, though, can be seen in the fact that Revelation 1:7 is clearly a reference to Zechariah 12:10, a passage leaving no doubt that Israel and Jerusalem are in view: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on Me, on Him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over Him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”
Furthermore, the phrase “the earth” used in both Matthew 24:30 and Revelation 1:7, can just as well be translated “the land,” i.e. the Promised Land of Israel. The same expression is used in Luke 21:23, an obvious reference to Jerusalem and Israel. Aside from the ESV, most Bible translations choose to speak of “the land” rather than “the earth” in Luke’s gospel, but in Matthew’s gospel they tend to speak of “the earth,” which many today take to be an indication of a world-wide, history-ending event. From the context of Zechariah 12:10, however, we can know that this is not the case.
Another consideration regarding the language of Matthew 24:30 (and the parallel passages in Mark, Luke, and Revelation 1:7) is that it is reminiscent of Daniel 7:13-14: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a Son of Man, and He came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him.” We can see that the vision shown to Daniel was actually of Christ ascending to the Father, not descending to the earth.
Jesus’ ascension took place about 40 years prior to 70 AD, of course. Yet the picture of His ascension is tied to the judgment which came nearly a generation later. This judgment, then, would verify or point to the reality of Christ’s ascension with power and great glory. Kevin Daly of Messianic Good News (South Africa) writes regarding these things:
The appearance of a sign (verse 30) would not be necessary if the Son of Man would come visibly at this time. The sign is necessary because his coming in the clouds of heaven, in power and vindication glory, alludes once more to Daniel, who spoke of ‘one like the son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven,’ to receive from the Ancient of Days ‘authority, glory and sovereign power’ so that ‘all peoples, nations and men of every language’ might worship him. The fall of Jerusalem was itself the sign (evidence) that Jesus was enthroned at the right hand of the Father in heaven, bringing judgment on the city.
Adam Clarke [1762-1832] likewise comments on verse 30: “The plain meaning of this is, that the destruction of Jerusalem will be such a remarkable instance of Divine vengeance, such a signal manifestation of Christ’s power and glory, that all the Jewish tribes shall mourn, and many will, in consequence of this manifestation of God, be led to acknowledge Christ and his religion.”
Matt. 24:31/Mark 13:27/Luke 21:28 (Gathering of the elect/redemption near)
This portion of the Olivet Discourse is, to me, perhaps the most difficult to interpret. Here is how the next verse reads in each of the three accounts:
|“And He will send out His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”||“And then He will send out His angels and gather His elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”||“Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”|
Luke’s choice of language here is noticeably different from what we see in the accounts of Matthew and Mark, but I believe we’re correct in seeing his words as being parallel. In all three accounts, these statements are nestled between Jesus’ declaration that He would come in clouds with power and great glory, and His analogy of the fig tree (the next portion we will examine).
In this portion we can observe the following:  God’s elect are gathered.  They are gathered by His angels.  The gathering is global.  Luke equates this gathering with redemption.
We know from the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) that God’s angels would be used at the end of the age to first “gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers” (13:33, 41-42) and then gather the righteous in His kingdom that they might shine like the sun (13:30, 43; cf. Daniel 12:3). In the Olivet Discourse Jesus is telling the disciples what would happen at the end of their own age (Matt. 24:3). We also know from Matthew 16:27-28 that Jesus’ coming within the lifetime of some of His disciples was to be “with His angels.” So the parallels are here:  angels  a gathering  the end of the age  Christ’s coming.
With these things in mind, I’m aware of three somewhat different interpretations for this gathering of the elect from the four winds of the earth. I’m not so sure that one of these options is the correct interpretation, and the other two are wrong. All three explanations may very well be viable. They are as follows:
[A] This refers to a great spiritual harvest of people from all ethnic backgrounds coming to Christ across the globe from that time forward.
Kevin Daly, quoted above, gives this opinion: “The trumpet call that called back the exiles in Isaiah 27:13 would now call in the elect from the four corners of the earth. This harvest of souls to whom the gospel was sown, from far and wide for Messiah’s glory, is contrasted with the tribes of the land (Greek – της γης), who would mourn for the one they had pierced, in accordance with Zechariah 12:10.” The Judaizing movement was the greatest hindrance to the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles, as we can see in these words from Paul:
“For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as [the Judean believers] did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved… But God’s wrath has come upon them at last!” (I Thessalonians 2:14-16)
The destruction and removal of the temple, the very life and center of Judaism, would be one of the catalysts for the greater spread of the gospel to all peoples.
[B] This refers to the translation of God’s people out of the Old Covenant (age) into the New Covenant/eternal kingdom age.
This view is expressed by Duncan McKenzie, for example, in his book “The Antichrist and the Second Coming: A Preterist Examination – Volume 1” (pp. 227-228). After quoting Matthew 24:30-34, he writes:
“This ingathering of God’s people was not a physical rapture to heaven but a spiritual gathering of believers into the fullness of the new covenant. Jesus ‘would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad’ (John 11:49-52; cf. Matt 3:5-12). This gathering happened at the fulfillment of the Feast of Ingathering in AD 70 (cf. Rev. 14:14-20). According to the prophecy of Daniel this blessed time was to be fulfilled forty-five days (Dan. 12:12) after the shattering of the power of Daniel’s people (Dan. 12:7). This was the end of the great tribulation and the beginning of the resurrection (Dan. 12:1-3; cf. Rev. 20:4-6). This was the time when God’s people fully possessed the kingdom (Dan. 7:17-27; cf. Rev. 11:15-18)…
Jesus had said that much of physical Israel would be cast out at this time of the messianic banquet: ‘And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out…’ (Matt. 8:11-12; cf. Matt. 3:4-12; 22:1-10; Gal. 4:21-31). Those believers who die in the post-AD 70 kingdom age (which includes believers today) are those of whom it is written, “‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them’” (Rev. 14:13). Notice that the next two verses after this declaration of blessedness show the ingathering of the harvest (symbolizing Jesus’ gathering together his own at his Second Coming; Rev. 14:14-16).” [See the third comment under this post for this excerpt in its greater context.]
As Dr. Cindye Coates points out, when Jesus mourned over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37, He said, “Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together…but you were not willing.” Jerusalem and Israel, with the exception of a remnant, was not willing to embrace Jesus and His heavenly kingdom, but God’s plan was not derailed. He found and gathered a people from all over the world who would receive that kingdom and bear its fruit (Matthew 21:43).
[C] This refers to the general resurrection of Old Testament saints and those who had died in Christ prior to 70 AD (followed by the individual and immediate resurrection of all who would die in Christ from that time forward).
This view was expressed, for example, by Daniel Lamont, D.D., Professor Emeritus of Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh. Writing in 1945, and holding to the viewpoint that the Olivet Discourse was fulfilled in the 1st century, he expressed these thoughts on Matthew 24:31 –
“[This was] the inauguration of the new age in which the sting of death is removed for the people of God and they pass at once when they die into the nearer Presence (Parousia) of their Lord… ‘The dead in Christ shall rise first,’ (1 Thess. 4:16) said Paul, writing before, but in expectation of, our Lord’s Parousia. Here in these verses (1 Thess. 4:13-18) he uses apocalyptic language, but there is good reason to believe that he means exactly the same as John in his Gospel (14:1-3). Christ will come for His own people as they pass one by one from the earthly scene, but this He cannot do till the age of His Parousia begins. The fullness of His Presence will be available for His people from that time onwards.”
Matt. 24:32-33/Mark 13:28-29/Luke 21:29-31 (Leaves sprouting on the fig tree)
Jesus then uses the fig tree to illustrate how His listeners would know that His coming was near. A tender branch and the sprouting of leaves on a fig tree mean that summer is near. In the same way, when all the preceding signs would take place, they could know for certain that He was near. Those signs did take place within that same generation, as we saw in Part 2 and Part 3. Luke says, “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Matthew and Mark use the expression, “you know that He is near, at the very gates,” once again showing that His coming and the arrival of His kingdom were to be synonymous. Do we see anything like this elsewhere in the New Testament? Yes! One of the clearest and most emphatic statements of this sort is made by James, the brother of Jesus: “Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand… behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:8-9).
As is well known, many futurists (especially Dispensationalists) are fond of saying that the fig tree represents Israel. Therefore, they continue, when Israel became a nation in 1948, God’s prophetic time clock to the end (of world history) began to tick again, and the terminal generation has been revealed. There are numerous problems with this interpretation, among which are these:
 When Paul speaks of Israel in Romans (11:17, 24), he uses the illustration of an olive tree, not a fig tree.
 In Luke’s account, Jesus speaks of not only the fig tree, but “all the trees.”
 Jesus does speak of a fig tree elsewhere, but observe closely what He says about it: “In the morning, as He was returning to the city, He became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, He went to it and found nothing on it but leaves. And He said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’” (Matthew 21:18-19). If you agree with the Dispensationalist viewpoint regarding the fig tree in the Olivet Discourse, are you really sure you want the fig tree to represent Israel?
 This interpretation has led many to falsely name dates, change their own dates, and falsely predict the imminence of “end-times” events. As Gary DeMar writes,
[In] LaHaye’s 1991 revised edition of The Beginning of the End (1972), he wrote: “Carefully putting all this together, we now recognize this strategic generation. It is the generation that ‘sees’ the events of 1948…”
The 1948–1988 connection was all the rage in the early 1970s, especially with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth (1970): “The most important sign in Matthew has to be the restoration of the Jews to the land in the rebirth of Israel. Even the figure of speech ‘fig tree’ has been a historic symbol [note that Lindsey does not offer any biblical support] of national Israel. When the Jewish people, after nearly 2,000 years of exile, under relentless persecution, became a nation again on 14 May 1948 the ‘fig tree’ put forth its first leaves. Jesus said that this would indicate that He was ‘at the door,’ ready to return. Then He said, ‘Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place’ (Matthew 24:34, NASB). What generation? Obviously, in context, the generation that would see the signs—chief among them the rebirth of Israel. A generation in the Bible is something like forty years…”
Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Chapel and founder of the worldwide Calvary Chapel system of churches, went a step further than Lindsey: “That generation that was living in May 1948 shall not pass away until the second coming of Jesus Christ takes place and the kingdom of God established upon the earth. How long is a generation? Forty years on average in the Bible. . . . Where does that put us? It puts us right out at the end. We’re coming down to the wire.” He wrote this in 1976.
 For a lengthier explanation of why neither the Olivet Discourse, nor Isaiah 66:5-10, speaks of the establishment of Israel in 1948 (and how Isaiah 54:1 and Galatians 4:21-31 deal a death blow to this idea), see the first comment under this post here.
Matt. 24:34/Mark 13:30/Luke 21:32 (This generation will not pass away)
We now come to a very pivotal verse, with which we will conclude this study. In this verse Jesus once again sets a tight parameter and establishes the timeline within which everything He has said up to this point much take place: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” As the title of this series suggests, one’s interpretation of the Olivet Discourse often rises and falls on an understanding of Jesus’ phrase, “this generation.”
We must ask ourselves how Jesus’ original audience would have understood these words. In their minds, did He really mean “this” (i.e. their) generation, or did He mean “that” (i.e. a future) generation? Not only have we seen that every one of His predictions did take place in the first century, but we will also do well to remember that this entire discourse was in answer to His disciples’ question, “When will these things [the destruction of the temple; see Matt. 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-6] be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” History tells us that the temple fell, as Jesus predicted, in 70 AD. Accordingly, everything Jesus predicted here was to take place by that time.
Although the plain reading of this statement would then indicate that Jesus was speaking of His own generation, there are many who believe He was speaking of a future generation far beyond His own (i.e. our own generation). This usually works itself out in a couple of different ways:
 There are those who agree that the generation which begins to see these things take place is the one which would see them all take place, but they are adamant that only in our own day have we begun to see these signs. This crowd holds to a more literal definition of generation, that is, 40 years or sometimes 70 years.
 Others hold to a theory of dual fulfillment. That is, they will admit that some or most of these things took place in the first century AD (especially Luke 21:20-24a), but they say they must take place again, and/or they will point to a perceived delay in Christ’s predicted coming to show that all has not yet taken place. This being the case, they must then stretch the definition of “generation” to somehow mean a period of around 2000 years, since some of these signs already took place and others allegedly have yet to take place.
The reader may be surprised to know that the famous author, C.S. Lewis, held to a bizarre combination of some of these views, leading him to teach that Jesus meant for His own first century audience to believe that all these things would take place in their own time, but that He both deceived them and didn’t know what He was talking about:
“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. This is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” (Essay: “The World’s Last Night” (1960), found in The Essential C.S. Lewis, p. 385.)
Clearly, C.S. Lewis, while understanding that Jesus spoke of His own generation, held the view that Jesus’ Second Coming was to be physical and bodily in nature, and because history doesn’t record any such coming, he was willing to impugn Jesus’ credibility. This is dangerous, of course, because if Jesus was wrong and lied about this, as Lewis said, what else might He have been wrong about? Salvation and eternal life through His work on the cross? Thank God we can know that Jesus wasn’t wrong about any of the above.
Furthermore, why would Jesus have meant anything different by the phrase “this generation” here than He did in Matthew 11:16; 12:41-42, 45; 17:17; 23:35-36; Mark 8:12; Luke 7:31; 11:29-32; 17:25 (all clearly referring to His immediate audience)? We also get a very good idea of how Matthew defined “generation” when we consider his account of the genealogy from Abraham to Jesus: “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations” (Matthew 1:17). Matthew tells us that 14 generations passed from the Babylonian captivity until Christ. Babylon captured Israel in 586 BC, meaning that each generation was about 42 years (586/14 = 41.86).
Some contend that “generation” actually means “race.” However, as my friend, Jerry Bowers, points out, one would be hard-pressed to say that there were 42 races of people from Abraham to Christ. Saying that Jesus meant that “this [race] will not pass away until all these things take place” would imply that the Jewish race would cease to exist once the temple fell, famine and wars came, etc. This is an idea Dispensationalists would probably not want to own.
The idea that “this generation” meant a future generation beyond Jesus’ own time is not common in church history. The following is just a small sample of quotes from the 2nd century onward tying this expression to Jesus’ own day:
Clement (150-220 AD): “And in like manner He spoke in plain words the things that were straightway to happen, which we can now see with our eyes, in order that the accomplishment might be among those to whom the word was spoken.”
Eusebius (263-339 AD): “And when those that believed in Christ had come thither [out] from Jerusalem [in obedience to Matthew 24:15-16], then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men (Proof of the Gospel, Book III, Ch. 5)… [When] the lamentation and wailing that was predicted for the Jews, and the burning of the Temple and its utter desolation, can also be seen even now to have occurred according to the prediction, surely we must also agree that the King who was prophesied, the Christ of God, has come, since the signs of His coming have been shewn in each instance I have treated to have been clearly fulfilled” (Proof of the Gospel, Book VIII).
John Calvin (1509-1564): “This prophecy does not relate to evils that are distant, and which posterity will see after the lapse of many centuries, but which are now hanging over you, and ready to fall in one mass, so that there is no part of it which the present generation [in Jesus’ time] will not experience.”
John Wesley (1754): “The expression implies that great part of that generation would be passed away, but not the whole. Just so it was; for the city and temple were destroyed thirty-nine or forty years after.”
Adam Clarke (1837): “It is literally true in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem. John probably lived to see these things come to pass; compare Matthew 16:28, with John 21:22; and there were some rabbins alive at the time when Christ spoke these words who lived till the city was destroyed, viz. Rabban Simeon, who perished with the city; R. Jochanan ben Zaccai, who outlived it; R. Zadoch, R. Ismael, and others.”
Charles Spurgeon (1868): “The King left his followers in no doubt as to when these things should happen: ‘Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled.’ It was just about the ordinary limit of a generation when the Roman armies compassed Jerusalem, whose measure of iniquity was then full, and overflowed in misery, agony, distress, and bloodshed such as the world never saw before or since. Jesus was a true Prophet; everything that he foretold was literally fulfilled.”
Quotes To Note
1. Kevin Daly, of Messianic Good News (South Africa), states, “In much the same way as a person might unwittingly wait for a bus that has already departed, our ignorance of the history of the interval between Jesus’ ascension and the Roman siege of AD70 has contributed much to our expectation that events mentioned in Matthew 24 must still come to pass.”
2. St. Chrysostom [John Chrysostom of Antioch] (347 – 407 AD): “Remembering, therefore, this command of the Savior, and all that came to pass for our sake, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second, glorious coming…” (St. Chrysostom’s Liturgy)