I don’t think another word in Scripture has caused as much confusion as “generation” in the below verses:
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.Matthew 24:32-34; see also Mark 13:28-31; Luke 21:29-33
The most famous misunderstanding might be Edgar C. Whisenant’s book 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. 4.5 million copies were sold and another 300,000 were mailed free of charge to church leaders across the nation. Although Whisenant had 88 reasons for his conclusion, the strongest came from the word “generation.” The logic is:
- Israel is the fig tree.
- The words, “When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near” refer to Israel becoming a nation in 1948.
- A generation is 40 years.
- Jesus said the generation that sees Israel become a nation will not pass away.
Therefore, Jesus must return by 1988.
The problem is the Rapture didn’t occur in 1988 or on any of the other dates Whisenhant predicted (1989, 1993, 1994) before his death in 2001. Some pastors still quote this verse saying, “The generation that sees Israel become a nation will not pass away!” They conclude a generation isn’t 40 years. So the generation of people that saw Israel become a nation will not pass away before Jesus’ return.
What does the verse mean?
Jesus said, “when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors!” What things? Everything Jesus discussed in the previous verses:
- Mark 13:1-2 & Matthew 24:1-2 & Luke 21:5-6 – The destruction of the temple
- Mark 13:3-13 & Matthew 24:3-14 & Luke 21:7-19 – The signs of the times and the end of the age
- Luke 21:20-24 – The destruction of Jerusalem
- Mark 13:14-23 & Matthew 24:15-28 – The Great Tribulation
- Mark 13:24-27 & Matthew 24:29-31 & Luke 21:25-28 – Jesus’ Second Coming
What is “it” when Jesus says “it is near”? In the parallel account in Luke 21:31 Jesus said, “So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near.” “It” is the Kingdom of God that Jesus will establish when He returns. In other words, when you see the things Jesus described, the Second Coming is close.
The generation Jesus was addressing?
A few years ago at a pastor’s conference I stayed up late talking with two pastors who were convinced Jesus’ Second Coming took place spiritually (as opposed to physically) in 70AD when Rome conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. One of the main reasons they (as well as others) hold this view (known as Preterism) is based on the word “generation.”
Preterists believe the generation is the people Jesus was speaking to that day. They “[would] by no means pass away till all these things take place.” 70AD was approximately 40 years later, so Preterists believe Jesus’ words were fulfilled when Rome conquered Jerusalem in 70AD.
There are numerous reasons this view is wrong, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s only discuss one: in 70AD Jesus didn’t return like He described He would:
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”Matthew 24:30
So what generation?
If Jesus isn’t talking about the “generation” of people living at the time, what “generation” is in view?
The generation of people who see the signs – the trials: final, hard labor pains – described in the previous verses that we know as the Tribulation. That “generation will by no means pass away till all [the things Jesus just discussed] take place.” Everything Jesus prophesied of in the chapter will occur within one generation.
This video from Dr. Michael Kruger answers a similar question: “Did Jesus say He would return in the 1st century A.D.?”