I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. – Matthew 24:34
When we look at the apocalyptic passages of Matthew (chapter twenty-four), Mark (chapter thirteen) and Luke (chapter twenty-one), we can note that though Matthew and Mark are nearly identical from their report of words concerning the gathering of the elect, to the mention of the fig tree, and on to the Son of Man being near and at the door, with Luke diverging slightly from that Matthean and Markan renderings, the three synoptic evangelists all go on to agree, word for word, with what Jesus has to say next. Matthew reports: “I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (24:34). This type of congruence, considering the regularity of differences that we encounter in the presentations, especially when comparing Matthew and Mark to Luke, should arrest our attention. Clearly, for the Gospel composers, reflecting the position of the early church community, much rested on these words.
What are we to make of these words? How would they have been heard? How should they be heard? Well, honestly, this is rather uncomplicated. We are called to reach back to what has premised all that Jesus is saying throughout this lengthy discourse which was set in motion by His triumphal entry, subsequent actions in the Temple, and all that took place in the Temple prior to His explicit leaving of the Temple. Doing so, we hear Matthew reporting that “as Jesus was going out of the Temple courts and walking away, His disciples came to show Him the Temple buildings” (24:1). Jesus says “Do you see all these things? I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down!” (24:2) This is what prompted the disciples to say “Tell us, when will these things happen?” (24:3b)
Now, having progressed through His answer and speaking of all manner of calamity that will mark the lead-up to and culminate with the fall of the Temple, Jesus finally informs them that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” This is quite the specific statement. Jesus has said “the Temple will be torn down.” The disciples have asked “when?” Jesus effectively says, “Pretty soon. In fact, this generation will see it.” If we are willing to blind ourselves to pre-conceptions, make ourselves deaf to so many fanciful interpretations that have attempted to hold sway through the years, and inhabit the narrative as first century hearers shaped by the expectations that were the hallmark of Judaism rather than paganism, in order to hear Jesus speak, we find that this is about as straightforward of an answer as Jesus ever gives when a question has been on offer to Him. Frankly, there’s very little mystery here. In addition to that, our eyes and ears are drawn to the “these things” of the first and third verses of the twenty-fourth chapter, and the “these things” of the thirty-fourth verse of the chapter. The author’s presentation of this repetition, considering the fact that this dramatic story of the life of Jesus was most likely designed to be performed orally for a listening audience rather than designed to be consumed by a solitary reader, should clue us to in an explicit connection between the verses as part of this revealing and informative answer.
We can also consider Mark’s account of the disciples’ question, as he reports their asking “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that all these things are about to take place?” (13:4) In Luke, the disciples pose a similar question which differed from Matthew’s report, as there they instead went on to ask “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age” (24:3c). Whereas Matthew has the disciples asking about the end of the age, neither Mark nor Luke render their question with such an appendage. Regardless, we do not allow ourselves to think of “end of the age” as end of the world, as this had no place in the Jewish mindset. The Jewish worldview expected a restoration of the creation by its Creator. They looked for an end of the present age, marked by the continual disfigurement of the once good creation, to be replaced by the age of God’s just rule, with this effected through His covenant people Israel.
Furthermore, this question was not making reference to Jesus’ return to earth, as He was there with them, had gone nowhere, and if He was truly the Messiah (and He was making Himself out to be), His disciples, as demonstrated by how they are presented in the story, certainly were not expecting Him to die. Rightfully then, we bear in mind that their question was ensconced in a worldview shaped by the presentation of Daniel seven, as the Son of Man comes to the Ancient of Days to receive His kingdom, thus ending the present age and ushering in the age in which God exercises dominion through the Son of Man. The “coming” to which they refer is the earth to heaven movement of the Son of Man.
With all these thoughts on the table and shaping our perception, how then should this statement by Jesus be heard? The answer is “as plainly as possible.” When Jesus says that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” making reference to the fall of the Temple, as this is the question that He has been asked (putting out of our minds any erroneous thoughts concerning the end of the age as the end of the world, and the coming of the Son of Man as a return to earth, neither of which has any place here), what He means is that this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Jesus is informing His hearers that the Temple will fall during the lifetimes of many of those that were listening to Him speak at that moment. Seeing as how the Temple actually did fall in the year seventy, with not one stone left upon another, and with this taking place roughly forty years beyond the time of His speech, it seems that He was right. As we contemplate that, let us also remember that Jesus was very clear in His insistence that the fall of the Temple would coincide with “the Son of Man arriving on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (24:30b).