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What did Jesus mean?


by Jared L. Olar

Just a few days before His death, Jesus delivered to His disciples a prophecy concerning the series of calamities that would befall Jerusalem and the world at the time when the Temple would be destroyed and this present world would end. This prophecy, known as the Olivet Discourse because Jesus delivered it to His disciples privately on the Mount of Olives to the east of Jerusalem, is recorded in Matt. 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21.

In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus answered two questions that His disciples had asked Him: 1) when would the Temple be destroyed, and 2) what sign should people expect in order to know that the world was ending and that Christ was returning. The disciples almost certainly expected the Temple's destruction to happen at around the same time as the Second Coming of Christ (cf. Acts 1:6-7; John 21:20-23), but as we look back from our vantage point, it's obvious that only some of Jesus' prophecy has been fulfilled. The Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., but this world is still here and Jesus is still in heaven. It would seem that the remaining prophecies of Jesus await fulfillment at some point in the indeterminate future.

But there is a serious difficulty with that explanation. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus apparently leads His disciples to believe that all of His end-time prophecies would be fulfilled at the time that the Temple was destroyed:

``Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.'' (Matt. 24:34)

``Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done.'' (Mark 13:30)

``Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled.'' (Luke 21:32)

Jesus spoke those words immediately after He delivered the parable of the fig tree and described His Second Coming on the clouds in power and great glory, so He clearly was not referring only to the calamities surrounding the Temple's destruction, but to everything that He had foretold- both the Temple's destruction and the end of the world.

Was that a false prophecy? How could it be that ``this generation'' has not yet passed away when the Temple was destroyed almost 2,000 years ago and yet Jesus still has not returned?

One explanation that is popular among conservative evangelical or fundamentalist Christians-it was formerly the explanation of the Worldwide Church of God as well-might be termed the Futurist interpretation. In this interpretation, Jesus is said to have been talking about the generation alive at the very time of the end, not the generation alive in the middle of the first century A.D. Thus, the generation that sees the beginning of the fulfillment of end-time prophecies would live to see the Second Coming as well.

However, as Gleason Archer has explained, ``This interpretation . . . suffers from the disadvantage of predicting what would normally be expected to happen anyway. Whether the Tribulation will last for seven years or for a mere three and a half years, it would not be unusual for most people to survive that long. Seven years is not a very long time to live through, even in the face of bloody persecution.'' [1]

Another explanation is called the Preterist (``past'') interpretation, which asserts that all, or almost all, of the Olivet prophecies were fulfilled in the first century A.D. This interpretation is more popular among mainline Protestant scholars, and is also championed by many Catholic scholars as well. In Preterism, Christ is held to have “returned'' invisibly in 70 A.D. in order to condemn the Jewish people and destroy the Temple, thereby confirming the inauguration of the Kingdom of God in His Church. In other words, appearances notwithstanding, Jesus didn't directly answer His disciples' question about the sign of His coming and the end of the world, but sidestepped their question by speaking of an invisible ``return'' and a metaphorical “end of the world.'' Preterists say, however, that this invisible “return'' can be interpreted spiritually as pointing ahead to the real Second Coming and real end of the world.

There are many problems with the Preterist interpretation, but for our purposes we need only note that it is not the obvious meaning of Jesus' words-He explicitly denied that His return would be secret or invisible (Matt. 24:26-27). Furthermore, it really doesn't explain the difficulty of ``this generation shall not pass away,'' as we see from the fact that the Preterists still come around eventually to admitting that, after all, ``all these things'' weren't really fulfilled before ``this generation'' passed away, at least not literally. However, the Preterist model at least laudably retains the ancient understanding that the events of 66-73 A.D. were a foreshadowing of the events to occur at the end of the world.

Since there are unsolvable difficulties with both the Futurist and Preterist approaches to this conundrum, we shall have to seek a solution in a third approach. What if when Jesus used the word ``generation'' (Greek genea), He didn't mean the same thing that we mean? What if He wasn't using ``generation'' to refer to a group of people all living at the same period of history?

According to Archer, sometimes genea (``generation'') was used as a synonym of genos (``race,'' ``stock,'' ``nation,'' ``people''). Archer writes, ``Although this meaning for genea is not common, it is found as early as Homer and Herodotus and as late as Plutarch (cf. H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed., [Oxford: Clarendon, 1940], p.342).'' [1]

Thus, Jesus' words might be rendered, ``This people shall not pass away until all these things are fulfilled.'' In that rendering, He could have been referring to the Jewish people (which is the most likely given the context) or to the Church-for both Israel and the Church are given divine promises that they would remain in existence until the end of time (Jer. 31:35-37; Matt. 16:18). [2]

Continuing further, Archer writes, ``Perhaps it should be added that if the Olivet Discourse was originally delivered in Aramaic (as it probably was), then we cannot be certain that the meaning of this prediction hinged entirely on the Greek word used to translate it. Genea and genos are, after all, closely related words from the same root. The Aramaic term that Jesus Himself probably used (the Syriac Peshitta uses sharbeta here, which can mean either ``generation'' or ``race'') is susceptible to either interpretation . . . .''[1]

As a matter of fact, upon a close reading of the Gospels, in almost every instance where Jesus uses the term ``generation,'' it appears that the alternate meaning indicated by the Aramaic, ``people'' or ``nation,'' works just as well. See, for example, Matt. 12:39 or 23:36.

With both the Futurist and Preterist interpretations, the prima facie meaning of Jesus' words, ``This generation shall not pass away . . .,'' is lost. But if He was talking about the people of Israel, and used a term that is capable of two possible definitions, then things seem to fit perfectly. As Jesus was speaking of the destruction of the Temple and the terrible calamities that would befall the Jews from 66 to 73 A.D., it would be understandable for His listeners to wonder if Israel would be exterminated. But Jesus assured His disciples that the end of the Temple and the scattering of the Jews would not spell the end of the Jewish people.

At the same time He indicated that, contrary to His disciples' expectations, His Second Coming wouldn't necessarily happen at the time that the Temple was destroyed---for the words, ``This people shall not pass away until all is fulfilled,'' can be taken as a clue that there could be a time delay between the destruction of the Temple and the end of the world. But the ambiguity in the meaning of sharbeta or genea could have enabled them to wonder if Jesus didn't mean their present generation would live to see His return.

In this interpretation, then, we have a satisfactory solution to this problem, and we can be confident that Jesus did not utter a false prophecy.


[1] Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Gleason L. Archer, Zondervan, 1982, pp.338-339.


[2] In commenting on these words of Jesus, the Venerable Bede wrote, ``By generation He either means the whole race of mankind, or specially the Jews.'' However, the authors of the footnotes in the New American Bible (Catholic Edition), baldly assert without proof or argument that, ``The difficulty raised by this verse [Matt. 24:34] cannot be satisfactorily removed by the supposition that this generation means the Jewish people throughout the course of their history, much less the entire human race. Perhaps for Matthew it means the generation to which he and his community belonged.'' It is true that the interpretation of ``generation'' as the whole human race is extremely unlikely to be the right one, but Bede's other suggestion, that it means the Jews, is a perfect fit. Theophylact, however, suggested that Jesus was talking about the Church, not the Jews: ``Or else, `This generation shall not pass away,' that is, the generation of Christians, `until all things be fulfilled,' which were spoken concerning Jerusalem and the coming of Antichrist; for He does not mean the generation of the Apostles, for the greater part of the Apostles did not live up to the destruction of Jerusalem. But He says this of the generation of Christians, wishing to console His disciples, lest they should believe that the faith should fail at that time; for the immovable elements shall first fail, before the words of Christ fail; wherefore it is added, `Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.' ''

Issue 16



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