This Generation

MATTHEW 24:34

As some uncertainty still appears to exist among us concerning the meaning of Matt. 24:34 an examination of it may be helpful.

The Greek word genea is rendered generation in the C.V. and in all but five of its forty-one occurrences in the A.V. of King James. The ordinary English usages of the word, as the time from the birth of a man till the birth of his son, and as the mass of humanity during such an interval of time, accord well with the usages of the word in Scripture. Of the thirteen occurrences in Matthew, the first twelve agree with one or other of these usages, and there is no apparent reason why the thirteenth should mean something else, as has recently been claimed.

This claim is that "a careful study of the Greek genea will bring the feeling that in some places it is used as a descriptive title to designate a segment or portion of the word of God" (The Word of Truth, Vol. 15, No.7, p. 141). In support 2 Peter 1:21 and Heb. 1:1 are adduced, though neither contains the word. Then we are told that this is the meaning in Eph. 3:5 and there is also a "feeling that this is also the meaning in Acts 8:33." Then we are warned that "it has this meaning only when indicated by the context," a question-begging assertion, because no attempt is made to prove that in any of its occurrences the correct meanings of the word are inconsistent with the context. It seems sufficient for this writer that his novel meaning sometimes makes sense; but "feeling" is a very unsafe guide. In Matt. 24:34, 35 there is more "feeling," for it is urged that the first occurrence of passing by must be interpreted by the third, so this generation must be interpreted by My words. But that leaves out the second occurrence of passing by. Moreover, the novel rendering ("this segment of the Word of God") implies that the "segment" will pass by when all these things have occurred, which is flatly contradicted by "My words may by no means be passing by" (v. 35).

Instead of indulging in such flights of fancy as this, it would be much more to the point to study the occurrences of "this generation" in Matthew's Gospel.

Let us take a look at the first of them. In Matthew 11 the Lord Jesus speaks about John the Baptist and the condition of the Kingdom of the heavens "from the days of John the Baptist till the present" (v. 12). Then He asks: "Now to what shall I be likening this generation?" (v. 16). It was all about the circumstances of the then immediate present. In Matthew 12 the Scribes and Pharisees demand a sign (v. 38) and He replies: "A wicked and adulterous generation is seeking for a sign. . . The men of Nineveh will be rising in the judgment of this generation." (vv. 38-41). As in the first, the actual present was exclusively in view. The expression Occurs again in v. 42. In v. 45 it is to "this wicked generation."

Yet when we come to Matt. 23:33-36, the situation is very different. The Lord Jesus has turned to Prophecy; but it is very plain from the context that what He has in view is still what was then present and immediately in the future. The prophecy was fulfilled to the letter in His sufferings and death and in the events that followed Pentecost.

So we arrive at Matt. 24:34. This comes in a lengthy discourse by the Lord Jesus in answer to the question by His disciples: "Tell us, when will these things be, and what is the sign of Thy presence and of the eon's conclusion?" "These things" clearly refer to the prophecy we have just seen; and, note, though they began in the then immediate future, "these things" cover events right through and several years beyond the era covered by Acts; so even on the first half alone of the question, the eon's conclusion had to be at least a full generation ahead. However, the opening of the Lord's reply leaves no room for doubt. Verses 4 to 7 speak of a great array of events, and in the midst of the recital appear the words: but not yet is the consummation." This assertion is followed (v. 8) by: "yet all these are the beginning of travails"; and not till then do we get yet another list of happenings before "the consummation shall be arriving." Another consideration that must have set the consummation far into the future in the minds of the Lord's hearers is the prophecy of the rousing of false christs and false prophets (v. 24). Lastly, there is the parable of the fig tree (v. 32).

In the face of this cumulative mass of things to come, how could any of the Lord's hearers have supposed that any of their own generation would have lived to see the consummation? It does not make sense. From v. 8 onwards nothing could possibly have been in any sense immediate. On the contrary, it is hard to imagine how the Lord Jesus could have made it plainer to His hearers, short of giving them a detailed time-table, that a long and weary road through the future lay before His earthly people Israel. So in Matt. 24:34, the one thing "this generation" certainly does not mean is the generation then living. Elsewhere in Matthew's Gospel, the context of "this generation" makes plain that it applied to those who were then hearing the Lord's words, or at any rate most of them; but here the context is at least as plain that it did not apply to them.

To whom, then, did it apply? We need not look very far. We learn from v. 30 that in that time "the sign of the Son of Mankind shall be appearing in heaven, and then all the tribes of the land shall be grieving, and they shall be viewing the Son of Mankind coming in the clouds of heaven with power and much glory." Later (v. 37 onwards) the conditions of that coming time are described. One thing is absolutely certain: nothing in this fits the circumstances of the generation that saw the Lord Jesus on earth. Here, "this generation" is to be one in the then far future, and, more than 1900 years after, still in the future.

So far, even with every possible concession made, it is impossible to force "this generation" to mean "the generation then living." On the contrary, it obviously meant "the generation I am talking about." In short, we must treat the word this with ordinary common sense. Where the context allows it to mean "this generation now living," that is what it means. Where the context is concerned with events well in the future, it must mean "the generation that sees their commencement. "

To check this finding, let us take a look at vv. 32, 33. Twice in them comes the word hotan, when-ever . It occurs also in v. 15 and Matt. 25:31. The first and last of these four definitely refer to something then in the future and, even from the standpoint of the listening disciples, probably in the distant future. So, really, do vv. 32, 33. Is it not, then, plain that "the generation, this one" as the Greek puts it, refers to the emphatic "thus you" at the start of v. 33 ?

Anyhow, as a matter of fact, one must ask: were the prophecies of vv. 29-33 fulfilled during the lifetime of the generation living when the Lord spoke? Why, they have not been fulfilled at all even yet! There was no reason at the time to suppose that the actual disciples then living would see the fulfilment of the prophecies of vv. 14-42; and certainly not the Twelve. But Matt. 24:3 did not say "the Twelve" but "the disciples"; and those who will, some day, see the fulfilment will be His disciples. It is stretching the words too far to make them mean the actual disciples then present.

All these difficulties proceed from failure to understand the real nature of Scripture Prophecy.

Anyone who has the opportunity to peruse a wide selection of books, pamphlets and magazines dealing with Prophecy will sooner or later come across sarcastic references to "the Gap Theory." This term is meant as a description of the fact that many prophecies are in two parts, the former already fulfilled, the latter still awaiting fulfilment in the distant future. This fact is extremely inconvenient for the exponents of certain theories, hence the contemptuous "smear" which is almost a badge of their tribe; but fact it is, in spite of them.

This matter was referred to on p. 230 of Vol. 21 (October, 1959). The key passage is Luke 4:16-21. Here is described how the Lord Jesus read from Isa. 61:1,2 and closed the book (more accurately, furled the scroll), omitting the concluding words: "the day of vengeance of our God." If He had not stopped at that point, He could not have truthfully uttered His concluding words: "To-day this Scripture has got fulfilled in your ears." Why? Simply because that day had not yet come, and has not yet come. The gap left here has yet to be bridged in history, for the day lay still many centuries ahead.

The vast majority of so-called theologians are completely ignorant about this matter. Many years ago, I came across a book of "sermon outlines" ; and these were its two "outline" comments on the passage: "He closed it that—He might open it again." Such rubbish as that was the best that the author of this "helpful" book could discover in this passage. Wisely, he confined himself to his "outlines." We shall never know what these two ridiculous "outlines" meant, for it is obvious that he did not know himself.

I wrote, above, "the gap left here"; for by ordinary reckoning there is a gap; but we should leave it at that and refuse the term "the gap theory" because the words themselves and the implications usually tied to them are wholly unscriptural. King James' translators used the word "gap" only twice (Ezec. 13:5; 22:30); neither they nor the C.V. find any occasion to use it in the Greek Scriptures at all. No gaps exist in God's plans, and it is not only unnecessary but extremely irreverent to talk as if they did. That is the worst failing in the writings of most "dispensationalists." So deep in their minds is the odd idea that in His dealings with the world God proceeds in the manner of a grasshopper, that they seem unable to stand aside and view their findings impartially. If they did, they would find that they have never proved their case.

God's dealings move in one steady and majestic sweep. It is man's unbelief that sees them otherwise, a series of wild leaps as it were, imagining that every now and then His plans go wrong and have to be corrected in hasty improvisations. The fact that the unbeliever never knows what is coming next, and even the believer only so far as God has chosen to reveal it in the Scriptures, does not affect this. The former may see history only as a series of jumps and crises; the latter has for past history the light of the records in God's Word and for future history such glimpses of light as God has decided he will need. That is enough; and it is the believer's own fault if he fails to perceive the immutable plan running through the Word and fails to believe that, though he can see, only glimpses of the path ahead, they indicate that the path is planned in every important detail. Immense harm has been done by the notion that at times during the period covered by the Gospels and Acts God had to postpone the fulfilment of certain of His promises. That, with the lack of faith that afflicts us all to some extent, events seem to us to involve such postponement should mean no more than that we ought to pray all the more fervently for faith.

Every failure on our part weakens us next time a test comes. Disbelieve something that God has said, and very soon comes stronger temptation to disbelieve something else. And so it goes on, cumulatively like the beginning of an avalanche. Prayer for faith is not simply a matter of words addressed to God. It is at least as much a sustained effort to listen to His voice and to believe what He says. The truest prayer is not so much what we say as what we listen to. We cannot expect to hear a still small voice if we shout it down; and such shouting down is most effectually accomplished when we clamour with our own doctrines and theories and ideas about what we think God ought to have done.

If we look at these matters in a sensible way, we are bound to see that no postponements can exist where God has indicated His plans beforehand. If anyone had a plausible cause for impatience, it was the Jewish Christian who, as an Israelite, had believed at Pentecost on the Lord Jesus Christ; and then come to discover that Paul's Evangel had come into force, and that his own personal standing in circumcision had ceased to be valid, and would plainly remain invalid for a long time to come. To help all such Israelites, and no doubt others in succeeding times, the Apostle Peter wrote his two epistles; for they are, in a sense, ambivalent. They were to help the Israelite of his time to face the facts and to listen to the Apostle Paul; they were, and continue to be, to help the Israelite who is not called upon to do this, so that he may wait, and suffer, and wait, in all patience, in the certain assurance that God's promises to Israel will eventually be carried out in full. That the latter purpose is largely, perhaps entirely, in abeyance now, does not mean that it has fallen to the ground, for certainly it will be very pertinent after we have been snatched away. This aim of Peter's is the burden of his opening words, which conclude with one of the clearest statements in all Scripture that a period of long duration could intervene between the fulfilment of the first part of a prophecy and of a later part. In this instance, it was between "the sufferings pertaining to Christ and the glories after these" (1 Peter 1:10, 11). The remark that follows in v. 12 is cryptic, because only in the light of what was unveiled to the Apostle Paul can its point be understood: "To whom it was unveiled that, not to themselves, yet to you they dispensed them; which just now was reported to you through those evangelizing you in holy spirit despatched from heaven; into which angels are yearning to peer."

We ourselves come into this because all Scripture is for ourlearning; but we are bound to misunderstand it if we presume to suppose that this particular passage is primarily for anyone else but Israel according to flesh. So when we read in v. 3 the exhortation to "expect maturely the grace carrying to you in Jesus Christ's unveiling," Our minds should leap at once to the accounts in the Four Gospels and the Apostle Peter's ministry in Acts. In his two epistles, Peter is carrying on his ministry to his own people Israel and, once again, we must remember that he does not say anything whatever about covenant and circumcision. These matters are relevant during this present period only as a foil to the ruling fact that God's Evangel operates now in un circumcision only, and this aspect is certainly not Peter's concern.

No question of postponement comes into this at all, because there never Was anything to postpone. The events in the Gospels had been integral to God's plans from the very start, so the consequences of these events had been, as well. This is plain enough from Scripture. Why not, then, believe it; why pretend that they caught God unawares and necessitated a drastic rearrangement of all His plans?

There is a strange timelessness about Peter's Epistles. Although they shed light on other scriptures, they are in themselves quite irrelevant to the Apostle Paul's ministry. His Evangel is entirely complete without them. The reason for this is simple. They cover a period of time during which God's prophetic reckoning of time has ceased to flow.

Early in this paper it was shown that the events forecast before the conclusion of the eon were such that a long and weary road through time had to be traversed before God's promises for Israel could be fulfilled. This in no way conflicts with what has just been said. God's prophetic reckoning of time has ceased to flow, but time itself has not; and all relevant to this that Matthew 24 discloses is that a considerable space of time lay ahead for Israel before the consummation. Israel according to flesh still goes on from generation to generation, in unbelief, insensitive in part, making no progress whatever towards the splendid destiny awaiting God's People on earth when, once more, God begins to recognize on earth people of His whose calling is not among the celestials as ours is, but, under covenant again, to glory in flesh and in spirit. Israel's calling is inoperative during the present period, because that calling is inseparable from covenant, and the operation of covenant is impossible while grace reigns. Hence, for them as the Covenant People, history has ceased to run; yet in God's plans there is no gap. All is in order.

There are eighteen passages which show the same property that we have found in 1. Peter 1:12. The following, twelve in number, are in the Hebrew Scriptures: Psalm 118:22 ; Isa. 9:6; 53:10, 11; 61:1, 2; Lam. 4:21, 22; Hos. 2:13, 14; Amos 9:10, 11; Hab. 2:13, 14 ; Zeph. 3:7, 8; Zech.8:2, 3; 9:9, 10. The following seven in number, are in the Greek Scriptures: Matt. 10:23; 12:20; Luke 1:31, 32; 21:24; 24:26; Rom. 15:8, 9; 1 Peter 1:12. This list is taken from "Things to Come," Vol. 10, p. 214, in a paper by the Rev. Sholto D. C. Douglas. His list also includes Rev. 12:5, 6, but his interpretation here seems very questionable.

If these are insufficient to make it clear that in prophecies concerning Israel God does not reckon time for them when they are lo-ammi, not His People, it is hard to see what would, short of an explicit pronouncement of the kind which He does not make in the Scriptures. In them, there are no "canons of interpretation" set out for us to follow. We have got to discover them for ourselves—and a pretty mess Christians as a whole have made of it! All this is in accord with the fact that we live in an era of gross darkness. The light is there for us to receive and has never been extinguished; but mortal men love darkness unless God calls them to His light. Darkness is what most men seek, so it is what they get.

In all our researches we are required to employ one of the least ordinary of all virtues; ordinary common-sense. Combined with true faith and patient study, it will suffice to disclose to us all that God has revealed for our learning in His Word. With its aid, we can gain an insight into the significance of these nineteen passages and of the event narrated in Luke 4:16-21. Armed with that we have no need to feel troubled over such assertions as in Rev. 1:3: "for the season is near," repeated in Rev. 22:10. The context of the latter indicates that the season or era will be a very long one. It should be noted that the word kairos, season, occurs too in 1 Peter 1:11. In these matters, the present period during which Paul's Evangel is in force is ignored, left out of account. For more than nineteen centuries now God's plans for His People Israel have necessarily been inoperative, but they have not been postponed. Other plans, incompatible with their active advancement, made long before, set out in and connected with Paul's Evangel, have taken complete possession of the stage on earth. Israel according to flesh goes on existing still, but is not even a hair's breadth nearer the fulfilment of God's foretold purposes. Centuries have passed, but Israel's hopes stand just where they were and no progress in them has been made.

It is easy to be "literal" and to say; "If it was near at that time and yet, centuries after, has not arrived; either the season must have occurred without our being aware of it, or the prophecy has failed." Such "easiness" raises insuperable difficulties. The point is, quite simply: for them, for Israel the nation, the intervening centuries have been as nothing, in spite of the sufferings of individual Jews; for us, members of the body of Christ, the season never has been near; for the sufficient reason that, as such, we are not concerned in it.

R.B.W.