Jesus’ Use of “This Generation” in the Olivet Discourse Is No Different Than Anywhere Else


There is plenty of disagreement on what Jesus meant when He said, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, Luke 21:32). He was making a reference, of course, to all that He had said prior to this statement. This included prophecies about war, earthquakes, famine, false prophets, persecution in the synagogues, the spreading of the gospel to all nations, the surrounding of Jerusalem and Judea by a foreign army, a time of unparalleled distress, His coming in the clouds with great power and glory, the arrival of His kingdom, and redemption for His people.

The careful reader will take note that Jesus was prompted to make these predictions in response to His disciples’ question about when the temple would be destroyed, and what signs would point forward to that event (Matthew 24:1-3, Mark 13:1-4, Luke 21:5-7). It was this question that led to His discourse, known as the Olivet Discourse.

Mark and Luke, in their accounts, only show the disciples asking this one question about the temple. Matthew shows them asking a three-part question or, some would say, three separate questions: [1] When will the temple fall? [2] What will be the sign of Your coming? [3] What will be the sign of the end of the age? Those who believe in fulfilled eschatology maintain that these events are synonymous, while those who regard this discourse as unfulfilled often say that the last two belong to our future.

When it comes, then, to the timing of this prophecy’s fulfillment, there is debate at both ends of the Olivet Discourse:

[1] Did Jesus set out to answer just one question? Or did He set out to answer three questions, and therefore He may have prophesied about two different time periods?

[2] When Jesus said “this generation,” did He mean His own generation? Or did He have in mind, as some are fond of saying, a future generation that would begin to see those signs take place all at once? Did He even perhaps imply a dual fulfillment, a partial fulfillment in His own generation, and an ultimate fulfillment in the far distant future?

We will set aside the first question for the rest of this article, and focus on the second question, for Jesus is shown to say precisely the same thing in all three accounts: “…this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

At the very beginning of the New Testament, we get a good idea of how Matthew defined the word “generation.” Consider his genealogy listing 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).

We learn from Matthew that 14 generations passed from the Babylonian captivity until the time of Jesus. We also know that Babylon took Judah captive in 586 BC. Putting these two pieces together, we can calculate that each of these 14 generations was about 42 years in length (586 divided by 14). [For more details on this, see my study on Matthew 24:29-34 / Mark 13:24-30 / Luke 21:25-32.]

This being the case, let us ask if the temple was destroyed, as Jesus predicted, within one generation of that prediction, i.e. within approximately 42 years. It was! Jesus was crucified in or around 30 AD, and the temple was destroyed by the Roman armies in 70 AD, that is, 40 years later.

The Olivet Discourse was not the first time that Jesus had used the expression, “this generation.” In all His other uses of this phrase, it’s more than evident that He meant His own generation. Consider the following examples:

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the pipe for you,and you did not dance; we sang a dirge,and you did not mourn.’” (Matthew 11:16-17)

“The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.” (Matthew 12:41-42; see also Luke 11:29-32)

“Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.” (Matthew 12:45)

You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” (Matthew 17:17)

And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.” (Matthew 23:35-36)

He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” (Mark 8:12)

Jesus went on to say, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like?” (Luke 7:31)

“But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.” (Luke 17:25)

Time and space limitations will not allow us to examine all the signs that Jesus predicted would take place before “this generation” would pass away, although I believe that [1] a study comparing Scripture with Scripture and [2] a study of 1st century history will show that they did take place before Jesus’ own generation passed away. As an example of the first point, Luke says that Jews “from every nation under heaven” heard the mighty works of God proclaimed in their own languages (Acts 2:5-11), and the apostle Paul was emphatic that the gospel was preached all over the (known) world in his lifetime (Romans 1:8, Romans 16:25-26, Colossians 1:5-6, and Colossians 1:23).

However, as helpful as these confirmations may be, they are not even necessary for our understanding of Jesus’ words, “…this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” The generation that would pass away had to see, not some, but all of those things take place. There’s only one generation that witnessed the fall of the temple, and that was Jesus’ own generation. This will never happen again, and this point alone indicates that “all these things” could not possibly take place in our own generation or in the future. Remember also that the earthquakes, wars, the invasion of Judea and Jerusalem, the great distress, and all the other signs were to take place, not after the temple fell, but before the temple would fall (Matthew 24:1-3, Mark 13:1-4, Luke 21:5-7).

To the people of Jesus’ time, we who live in the 21st century would be regarded as “that generation.” To those of us living in the 21st century, the people of Jesus’ time would also be regarded as “that generation.” Jesus didn’t use that phrase, however. The people of Jesus’ time would have understood their own generation as “this generation,” just as they did when He uttered this phrase in Matthew 11:16-17; Matt. 12:41-42; Matt. 12:45; Matt. 17:17; Matt. 23:35-36; Mark 8:12; Luke 7:31; Luke 11:29-32; and Luke 17:25.

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All of our studies on the Olivet Discourse can be seen here, including a verse-by-verse parallel study of Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21.

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14 thoughts on “Jesus’ Use of “This Generation” in the Olivet Discourse Is No Different Than Anywhere Else

  1. Hey Adam. I’m glad to see you are posting again. I think this is such an interesting topic and I’ve wanted to ask some questions. My first one is a pretty basic one. I’ve never studied the Olivet discourse in detail so I need a little clarification on the phrase “all of these things.” You address this phrase in Mt 24:34, but the phrase also occurs in v. 33 (Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.) My question is what is “all things” referring to in v, 33 and what is the “it” that will be at the door?

    Also, if you have a chance, would you look at my question about 2 Peter and Galatians here: http://kloposmasm.com/2009/08/13/brief-explanation-of-partial-preterism/

    Thanks for your time.

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    • Hey John,

      Thanks. It’s good to interact with you again as well. In Matthew 24:33, I believe “all these things” is a reference to everything Jesus has predicted up until that point. This includes the throwing down of the temple (verses 1-2), and all the things that Jesus said would be the sign(s) of His coming and the end of the age (verses 3-32). In the parallel accounts of the Olivet Discourse, the disciples simply ask Jesus to tell them what signs would take place prior to the downfall of the temple (Mark 13:4, Luke 21:7).

      In verse 33, “it is near” is translated as “He is near” in other Bible versions. James must have seen those things taking place, because he declared, “behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:9).

      Yes, I do need to respond to you on that other thread soon. I got those notifications a long time ago, but they got buried in my email inbox. I put them aside partly because that thread is so long and is quite a mess to look at, and before I knew it months had passed. I apologize, brother. I won’t get to it tonight, because I need to get up for work in another five hours, but hopefully tomorrow I can.

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      • Thanks for the quick response. No worries about the 2 Peter/Galatians question. I certainly understand that life gets busy and email boxes get full : ) If we translate it “he is near” would that be referring to the Son of Man?

        Thanks.

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    • Yes, I believe that “He” would be referring to the Son of Man:

      [1] as already mentioned in verse 30: “And then all the tribes of the land will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.”

      [2] and as mentioned again in verse 37: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.”

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      • Hey Adam,

        If that is the case, then I’m unclear on the timeline. Perhaps I’m misreading vv. 30-31. If “all things” in v. 32 refers to the fall of the temple and the coming of the Son of Man, why does Matthew say when “all these things happen” then the Son of Man will be at the door. Hasn’t the Son of Man already come through the door in vv. 30-31?

        I guess my question is why is Matthew saying something is at the door when it has already happened?

        Thanks again.

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    • John, I see what you’re saying. I’ll rephrase what I said earlier then: “All these things” of verse 33 are those things that would precede the coming of the Son of Man. It appears that the message of verse 33 reflects what we also see in verse 29, i.e. that there is no time lapse (or gap) between the days of distress and the coming of the Son of Man.

      The “distress of those days” is immediately followed by the darkening of the sun, no light from the moon, stars falling from the sky, the sign of the Son of Man in heaven…

      The language about the sun, moon, and stars appears elsewhere in Scripture; see Isaiah 13:10 and 34:4 for a couple of examples.

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      • Hey Adam. I’m still thinking through this, but I suppose the next obvious question would be what makes the “all things” in v. 33 different from the “all things” in v. 34? What indicator tells us the first “all things” only refers to vv.1-29, but the next “all things” refers to vv. 1-31?

        Thanks.

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      • Or maybe it would be easier to state it this way. Rather than saying “all things” suddenly switches meaning, wouldn’t it seem more natural to see this passage as 3 parallel statements further explaining each other?

        vv 1-29 all of temple/distress——————–>vv. 30-31 followed by coming of Son of Man
        vv 33a when all these things happen———>vv. 33b Coming of Son of Man at the door
        vv. 34-35 all these things happen—————-> vv. 36-51 But coming of Son of Man unknown time
        in this generation

        Just a thought.

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  2. THE VERSES YOU QUOTED ARE STILL IN FUTURE… THE PUZZLE FITS TOGETHER FROM SPURGEON BELOW.

    I copied an pasted this: http://alindsey4.blogspot.com/2005/12/spurgeon-on-matthew-1628_19.html

    At the glorious appearing of Christ there are some who will taste death, but will they be the righteous? Surely, my dear friends, when Christ comes, the righteous will not die; they will be caught up with the Lord in the air. His coming will be the signal for the resurrection of all his saints.
    ->But mark you, at the time of his coming, the men who have been without God, and without Christ, will begin for the first time to “taste of death.” They passed the first stage of dissolution when the soul quitted the body, but they have never known the “taste of death.” Till then, they will not have known its tremendous bitterness and its awful horror. They will never drink of the wormwood and the gall, so as really to “taste of death,” till the Lord shall come. This tasting of death here may he explained, and I believe it is to be explained, by a reference to the second death, which men will not taste of till the Lord comes.
    ->And what a dreadful sentence that was, when the Savior said—perhaps singling out Judas as he spoke—“Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, who shall never know what that dreadful word ‘death’ means, till the Lord shall come. You think that if you save your lives, you escape from death. Ah! you do not know what death means. The demise of the body is but a prelude to the perdition of the soul. The grave is but the porch of death; you will never understand the meaning of that terrible word till the Lord comes.”
    ->This can have no reference to the saints, because in the eighth chapter of John, and the fifty﷓first verse, you find this passage—

    “Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death. Then said the Jews unto him, Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death.” (John 8:51-52)

    No righteous man, therefore, can ever “taste of death.” He will fall into that deep oblivious sleep in which the body sees corruption; but that is another and a very different thing from the bitter cup referred to as tasting of death. When the Holy Ghost wanted an expression to set forth that which was the equivalent for the divine wrath, what expression was used?—“Christ, by the grace of God, tasted death for every man” (cf. Hebrews 2:9).
    ->The expression “to taste of death,” means the reception of that true and essential death, which kills both the body and the soul in hell for ever. The Savior said then, as he might say, I fear, if he stood in this pulpit to-night—

    “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28)

    If this be the meaning, and I hold that it is in keeping with the context, it explains the verse, sets forth the reason why Christ bespoke breathless attention with the word “verily,” answers both the grammar and the rhetoric, and is not by any argument that I have ever heard of to be moved—if this be so, what thrilling denunciations are contained in my text. O, may the Holy Spirit deeply affect our hearts, and cause our souls to thrill with its solemnity!
    ->What thoughts it stirs up! Compared with the doom which will be inflicted upon the ungodly at the coming of Christ, the death of nature ‘is nothing. We go farther: compared with the doom of the wicked at the coming of Christ, even the torments of souls in a separate state are scarcely anything. The startling question then comes up. Are there any sitting or standing here who will have to taste of death when the Lord comes?

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  3. Hi Indira,

    Did you mean to leave your comment under this post, or under a different one? I don’t see where anyone has quoted from Matthew 16 in this post, or even in the comment section. Ironically, in the article you copied and pasted from, Spurgeon affirms that Matthew 24:34 (the subject of this post) was indeed about the 1st century destruction of Jerusalem.

    I have a lot of respect for Spurgeon, but I don’t agree with his interpretation of Matthew 16:27-28. For one thing (and there are others), Daniel 2:44 makes it plain that the establishment of God’s kingdom would take place within the days of the four kings (or kingdoms): shown to be Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. The Roman empire came to an end in 476 AD. It’s not possible, according to Daniel, that Jesus has not yet set up His kingdom, as Spurgeon taught in his sermon.

    I do believe that Jesus came in His kingdom, in judgment (compare with Revelation 22:12), with His holy angels (note the presence of angels in each judgment in the book of Revelation), and in the glory of His Father (as His Father had come numerous times in the Old Testament; e.g. Micah 1:1-5) while some of His disciples were still alive. As pertains to this post, He accomplished these things before His own generation passed away.

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  4. I never thought to add up the dates of Matthew 1 to come up with 43, this was an excellent idea. Reformed circles have pretty much always accepted 40 years. M. Kik’s great work Eschatology of Victory also goes into detail showing that generation is consistently used in Matthew. Very impressed by this website.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Patrick, and I’m glad to have you here. Hebrews 3 is also revealing when it comes to defining a generation:

      “Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me, proved Me, and saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation…” (Hebrews 3:8-10; also verse 17)

      I’m not familiar with that work by M. Kik. Is it available only in book form, or is that work (or excerpts from it) available online anywhere?

      Like

  5. ESCHATOLOGY OF VICTORY, BY M. KIK –PRESBYTERIAN AND REFORMED PUBLISHING COMPANY. POST-MILL EXEGESIS OF MATTHEW 24 AND REVELATION 20. (REV. 20 SECTION IS WEAKER.)

    Liked by 1 person

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