Our third and final example of words of our Lord that the higher critics use to “prove” that He mistakenly believed that His second coming would take place in the lifetime of those He spoke to regards His statement that “this generation will not pass” until the things He spoke of regarding the tribulation and the second coming took place. The statement is again made in all three synoptic gospels, and appears as follows.
Matthew 24:32-35. Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near–at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.
Mark 13:28-31. “Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender, and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see these things happening, know that it is near–at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.
Luke 21:29-33. Then He spoke to them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. When they are already budding, you see and know for yourselves that summer is now near. So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near. Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.
Here, the higher critics would believe that they have infallible proof that the Lord mistakenly believed His kingdom would come in the lifetime of His disciples. After all, He clearly says, “This generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” That generation did pass, and the things He spoke of did not take place. What can this be other than a mistake, a contradiction with reality? Again, those who hold with the infallibility of Scripture seem hard-pressed to answer this difficulty.
One explanation that is popularly used is that the words, “this generation,” refer to the generation when these things begin to take place. In other words, they make out that Christ is speaking of this far-future generation, and saying that when these things begin to take place, the generation that then exists on the earth will not pass from the earth until all these things are fulfilled. Yet this interpretation is more wishful thinking than anything. There is no evidence that the phrase, “this generation,” is ever used of a generation other than the one then present. Christ used it commonly, yet He never used it of a far-removed generation. Moreover, the verse does not say, “The generation that sees these things begin to come to pass will not pass.” It merely says, “This generation will not pass.” To make out that Christ said, “This generation,” but meant a generation in the far future, is to interpret a passage contrary to the evidence, and to the way this phrase is used elsewhere in Scripture.
Some have suggested that the word here translated “generation” could also mean “people” or “race.” Thus, they suggest that these verses mean that the Lord will not allow Israel as a people or race to disappear from the earth before the things He has spoken take place. Now it is true that the people and family of Israel will never pass away until God fulfills all that He has planned for them. We can see His promise regarding this in other passages, such as Jeremiah 31:35-37.
35. Thus says the LORD,
Who gives the sun for a light by day,
The ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night,
Who disturbs the sea,
And its waves roar
(The LORD of hosts is His name):
36. “If those ordinances depart
From before Me, says the LORD,
Then the seed of Israel shall also cease
From being a nation before Me forever.”
37. Thus says the LORD:
“If heaven above can be measured,
And the foundations of the earth searched out beneath,
I will also cast off all the seed of Israel
For all that they have done, says the LORD.
Could any statement be clearer? God will never allow Israel to be destroyed. He will fulfill His promises to them. Yet even though this is true, that does not mean that that is really what the passages we are considering are talking about. The truth is that translating the Greek word “genea” by anything but “generation” is not honest translation. In fact, this is more a translation out of desperation than anything else. The expositors could not decide what to do with this verse as it stands, so they decided to try to make it to say that Israel will not pass away until God’s promises towards them are fulfilled. Yet this argument does not stand up under the light of Scriptural facts. “Genea” does not mean “people” or “race,” as can be discovered by examining its other uses. It means “generation.” This is the correct translation, and none other. Trying to change the translation to explain the passage simply will not work.
Others simply make dispensationalism the culprit here. If the program that had been revealed to the prophets had taken place, they say, the seven year tribulation period would have come in the lifetime of these men, and all these things would have been fulfilled. However, the prophetic program was interrupted by the dispensation of grace. As such, though Christ’s words would have been true had there been no dispensation of grace, since the dispensation of grace came in and the events the Lord describes have been relegated to the far future, in the same way the fulfillment of Christ’s words has been postponed. Thus, they say Christ was merely speaking consistently with the dispensation in which He lived, in which the intervening dispensation of grace was not known, and so it was thought that the kingdom was about to come and could come at any time. Once it was revealed that the dispensation of grace was going to come instead, it could be determined that what Christ said here was not going to take place.
Yet when we think about it, this explanation really doesn’t save anything at all. If Christ was mistaken, does it really matter if His mistake was caused by an unexpected dispensational change, or just by pure ignorance? No matter why, if Christ was mistaken, then He was mistaken, and His words cannot be trusted as infallible. The dispensational change is no excuse for God to be wrong. Yet what if He was not wrong? What if He knew the dispensation of grace was coming in, and yet He spoke as if it was not just to keep it a secret and not reveal it before the time came to do so? The answer is that if this was so, then Christ was a liar. It does not matter what His reason was, He still deliberately said something that was not true. If His disciples had exercised faith in His words and believed with all their hearts that these events would be fulfilled in that generation, they would have been mistaken, and would have been shown to be fools for doing so, since they believed a lie. There was nothing forcing Christ to say these words here. If He knew that the dispensation of grace was coming in and yet didn’t want to say so, He could have just not mentioned a time element at all. Yet He did deliberately bring this up, and mentioned a time element as a challenge to our faith.
On top of this, the Lord emphasized what He said by using the emphatic double negative. For the “by no means” in “will by no means pass” is actually two Greek words, “ou me” or “not no.” This is a double negative, using the two Greek words for “no.” These are the subjective and the objective “no,” and are usually used separately. Yet, unlike in English, it is proper for a Greek speaker to use these words together to form a double negative. When he does so, the Greek speaker is using the strongest possible “no” he could use. When he uses this double negative, he is saying something could never possibly happen in the strongest way he can. In fact, I have heard it said that when anyone in Scripture but the Lord Jesus Christ used this double negative, they were never able to live up to it. To try to translate it into English, most would suggest that the best way to express the meaning is to us the English phrase, “by no means,” as it is in the New King James. This is the phrase Christ uses here. Thus, if He was not speaking the truth here, then He was solemnly, deliberately, and emphatically lying to His disciples! I cannot believe that our Lord would ever do this, no matter the reason.
The only way that those who teach this can try to save Christ’s integrity is to pull out once again the argument regarding the Greek word “an.” For again in these passages, that little Greek word “an” occurs. Those who have no other explanation for Christ speaking untruth here use this word to explain these passages away by suggesting that this alters the passage to mean, “This generation shall by no means pass until all these things may have taken place.” Yet, as I discussed in the previous section on “some standing here shall not taste of death,” this word does not call the whole sentence into question based on some criterion in the “remote context.” Rather, it just indicates the presence of a condition in the sentence. In this case, the condition is “till all these things take place.” Once this condition is met, then “this generation” may pass, but not until then. The word “an” simply doesn’t work like those who use this explanation make it to work.
So, if these explanations are not correct, then what is the correct explanation of this passage? Was Christ wrong? Did He erroneously believe that the generation He lived in would see the entire tribulation and beyond? Do we at last have to admit an error or an untruth in Scripture? I do not believe so. For I believe that there are several keys we can use to unlock this puzzle.
First of all, it is necessary to consider the meaning of the word, “generation.” The Greek word “genea” is properly translated “generation,” there is no doubt about that. Yet what does the word “generation” mean? Most people immediately assume that it means what we commonly use it to mean: all the people of a similar age living on the earth at a particular time. Yet what if we examine this word more thoroughly?
A quick inspection of the word “generation” will reveal that it is a word that comes from a family of words based on the infinitive verb, “to generate.” A “generation” is the result of something being generated. The thing that was generated is the “generation.” People are generated, and they then become a generation. The word has taken on this as its primary meaning, and this is the way we almost always use it. Yet there are other things that can be generated as well. Power is generated in power plants in many different places in our country. This power, then, is a generation. Excitement can be generated in a room full of people who are expectantly waiting for something. This excitement likewise could properly be called a “generation.” In fact, anything that is generated could be rightfully called a “generation.” It is not required for it to refer to any people at any point in time.
That the Bible sometimes uses “generation” to mean something other than all the people of a certain age living on the earth at one time is clear from its usage. For example, in Matthew 16:1, we read, “Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven.” The Lord’s response to this request concluded with, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matthew 16:4) It is clear that Christ did not mean the entire generation of people living on the earth at that time when He spoke of the “wicked and adulterous generation.” He used this phrase to refer to the “Pharisees and Sadducees” of verse one. How were these men a generation? The truth is that they had been generated. They had been made into the leaders of the people of Israel. They had been generated by the leaders who came before them, and they had been generated into the wicked and adulterous generation they were by the traditions they had inherited that removed them far from the will of God. Thus, they were a wicked and adulterous generation. This had nothing to do with their age. Rather, they had been generated as religious leaders, but they had not been generated with the means of being righteous leaders. Instead, they were an adulterous and wicked generation.
So what does “generation” mean in the passages in question? What has been generated that Christ is talking about? I believe we can discover this if we remember a figure of speech we have discussed before, which is called “Pleonasm” or Redundancy. Appendix 6, page 12 of The Companion Bible explains what this figure is all about. “Where what is said is, immediately after, put in another or opposite way to make it impossible for the sense to be missed. The figure may affect words…or sentences.” So the Lord often makes Himself plain by repeating Himself in a slightly different way. The repeat is often much easier to understand, but it doesn’t reveal quite the depth of truth that the first statement does. Together, they express what God meant exactly.
One simple example of a “Redundancy” is in Isaiah’s statement to Hezekiah in Isaiah 38:1, “Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live.” Here, the original word “die” is repeated in the words “not live.” This is a redundancy, but it makes it perfectly clear what Isaiah meant. By “die” he meant “not live.” The two say the same thing in slightly different ways, so that Hezekiah could have no doubts about what was to be his fate.
Now here in these passages we are considering, I believe we have an example of the figure redundancy. Consider the words that follow these difficult statements in all three cases. For example, in Matthew 24:35, we read, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” These words proclaim the fact that Christ’s words would not pass away. I believe that this verse is a redundancy of verse 34. The words “this generation” in verse 34 are explained by the redundant statement about “My words” in verse 35.
Christ had been speaking a message about future events to His disciples, the message we read in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. Remember that these words were being spoken by the Lord Jesus, not written down. This message was not any too long. If we were to read one version of it aloud, even if we took our time I do not imagine it would take us much more than fifteen minutes. Yet even right then when Christ finished speaking, I doubt that any of His disciples could have repeated word-for-word what He just had said. In fact, it would be surprising if they could have remembered even half of what He had just said exactly. Remember, there were no tape recorders in those days taking down God’s words. There was not even a scribe present to quickly jot down what He was saying. His words were not recorded in any reliable way known to man, and so it would have seemed likely, to anyone who thought about it, that the message that He had just spoken would have been lost to all who came after, as so many of the words Christ must have spoken while on earth have been lost long since. If the disciples had thought about it, they probably would have concluded that His words would never be remembered except in the inaccurate things they could extract out of their memories when trying to recall what He had said. These important words could have passed away, and been forgotten long before they were ever fulfilled.
Yet here, the Lord assures His disciples that this fate will not happen to the very important words He has just spoken to them. These words will not pass away, not until all of them are fulfilled. That is what He means by generation: His words! He had just generated this speech containing this body of truth. This message He had spoken to them was a generation. It was a generation of words that Christ had spoken giving a very important message about His plans for the future. It was these words that would not pass. This is the meaning in both cases. “This generation will by no means pass” is defined by the following statement, “My words will by no means pass.” The similarities between these statements are obvious. The reason they are so similar is that they are saying the same thing, by the figure of speech “Redundancy.” The difficult first statement is defined by the second. The generation He was speaking of was the generation of words He had just generated. It had nothing to do with the men living on earth at that time. They could die, and be dead for thousands of years. Yet His words would not pass away, and would continue until they all were fulfilled. That is the message of this important passage. And, of course, His words did come true, for by the Spirit’s inspiration these words were written down exactly in the gospels for us to read, even now thousands of years later. These words have remained for all this time, and they will continue to remain until they all are fulfilled. That is Christ’s promise on the matter.
So we see once again that a supposed “contradiction” is caused by not paying enough attention to the text. The Lord never said that that generation of people would not pass from the earth until all the things He had spoken of took place. Rather, He meant that His words would never pass away until these things took place. They would stand forever as a testament to the Lord’s promise, and its sure fulfillment. Thus, there is no contradiction here. Christ did not make a mistake, and He never said nor imagined that the generation of people standing before Him would not pass away until all these things were fulfilled. Instead, what He said was the truth, and we can clearly see it is the truth by looking at the Bible before us, and realizing that these very words He had just generated and then spoken of still exist in the written Word, and will stay there until, as the Lord said, they are all fulfilled. Praise God for His great future plans and work!
So, we see that Christ made no mistake, nor did He speak any lie. He did not imagine that all the things He predicted about the Kingdom were going to take place in that generation two thousand years ago. He did not mean the kingdom was going to manifest itself right then when He said it was “at hand.” And He didn’t speak in error when He told the disciples that some of them standing there would not see death until they saw the kingdom of God. He knew what He was saying in all these instances, and in all these instances, His words came true. Thank the Lord that His words are reliable! The higher critics may think what they like, but for those of us who have faith, there can never be any doubt but that the Lord knew what He was talking about, even if we don’t. Praise the Lord for the ability to read and study His Word, and to come into an understanding of what the Lord meant by the words He used. Let us ever strive to move closer to the truth!