This entry is part 42 of 102 in the series: Tough texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:11f – ‘I do not allow woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
“I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
Taking our Lord’s words at face value, it is possible to suppose that he is teaching that the parousia would take place within the lifetime of his hearers (‘this generation’). If that is what he meant, then he would appear to have been mistaken.
Various explanations have been offered.
1. One of the more sceptical views is that Jesus did not utter this teaching at all. Early Christians teachers, such as Mark (see Mk 13), re-told the story of Jesus in highly apocalyptic terms, and it was this which came to predominate over the more here-and-now ethical teaching of Jesus himself. This, in outline, is the view of scholars such as Bultmann, Funk and Crossan.
2. Others agree that Jesus did give this teaching, and that it does refer to the end of the age coming within a single generation (see also Mt 16:28), but that he was mistaken. This was the opinion of Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, and remains the opinion of Bart Ehrman and Dale Allison.
A traditional, and more conservative, view is that Jesus is referring to future events using ‘prophetic foreshortening’. But this is to ignore the very phrase (‘this generation’) which is the focus of so much debate.
Ian Paul says that variations on this view go back at least to Jerome, who thought that Jesus’ teaching here was primarily about the end of the world, but with some predictions of the destruction of the temple mixed in. Over the past century, some scholars have thought that a Jewish apocalypse has been rather clumsily incorporated into the text. This would then mean that Jesus was saying, “I tell you the solemn truth, this generation will not pass away until some of the things I have just mentioned have occurred.” But this is unsatisfactory, since it implies that the Evangelists, nor their sources, nor their readers, actually understood what Jesus what saying.
3. A third view is that Jesus did indeed utter this teaching about the imminent coming of the Son of Man, and that this occurred within a generation. He is predicting, in highly symbolic terms, the ‘earth-shattering’ events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and his own vindication. This ‘preterist’ interpretation is the view of Tom Wright (in Jesus and the Victory of God; Mark for Everyone).
Wright notes that ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds’ is a direct reference to Dan 7:13 (LXX), where the ‘coming’ is not from, but to, the Ancient of Days.
Ian Paul summarises Wright at this point: ‘The language of sun, moon and stars in Mark 13.24 comes from Isaiah 13 and 34, and refers to the fall and judgement of great empires and political powers (in this case, Assyria and Edom). It is also used in Joel 2, and strikingly is cited by Peter in Acts 2.17f. Peter appears to think that these ‘apocalyptic events’ are happening in his day.’
Jesus has been answering the disciples question about the destruction of the temple and associated events, Mk 13:1-4. He is saying that the temple would be destroyed within the present generation. And this was fulfilled in August AD70, when the temple was destroyed by the Romans.
A ‘generation’, in Jewish thought, was reckoned to be a period of 40 years. And that was pretty much the interval between the time Jesus spoke these words and the time of the destruction of Jerusalem.
‘Jesus meant that some of the people of his generation, and more particularly some of his disciples, would not die until the things of vv. 5–23 had happened, including the very significant destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. To a limited extent v. 30 answers the first question in v. 4.’ (Brooks)
Ian Paul notes the contract between ‘these things’ and ‘that day’ (v36 onwards). He concludes that Jesus’ teaching in this chapter is in two parts, relating to the two parts of the disciples’ question: ‘When will all this happen, and when will be your coming and the end of the age?’ The first part of his answer concerns those things which will take place during his hearers’ lifetime, and the second part concerns the parousia, which will take place at a time unknown even to him, the Son of Man.
‘This poetic language appropriately refers to the great changes which were about to take place in the world, when Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed. It speaks of the Son of Man entering into his kingship, and his angels gathering in his new people from all the earth. The fall of the temple is thus presented, in highly allusive language, as the end of the old order, to be replaced by the new régime of Jesus, the Son of Man, and the international growth of his church, the new people of God.’ (NBC)
4. A more usual evangelical reading is to affirm that Jesus’ predictions do pertain to the end of the age, and that ‘this generation’ refers to ‘this race of people’ (i.e. the Jewish race) or similar. This is reflected in an NIV footnote. Such scholars find support for this view by pointing to the parables of the virgins, the talents, and the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, and insisting that these must refer to the final judgement. Leon Morris, D.A. Carson are among those who take this view.
Chrysostom recognised that in Psa 24:6 and other places ‘generation’ referred to a kind of people. ‘What does he refer to when he says “this generation”? He is speaking not of the generation then living but of the age of believers. For he is prone to distinguish a generation not by times only but also by the mode of their religious service and practice, as when he says, “Such is the generation of those that seek him.” He said “all these things will take place,” and yet “the gospel will be preached.” These two are not inconsistent. The generation of the faithful shall remain through all things that will surely come to pass. The faithful will not be cut off by any of the things that have been mentioned. For both Jerusalem shall be destroyed and a large part of the Jews shall be decimated, but over this generation—the faithful—shall nothing prevail, not famine, not pestilence, not earthquake, not the tumults of wars, not false Christs, not false prophets, not deceivers, not traitors, not those that cause to offend, not the false brothers, nor any other such temptation whatever.’ (ACCS)
The opinion of Ryle, Hendriksen (tentatively) and some others is that ‘the generation’ refers to the Jewish people, and that our Lord is therefore guaranteeing the continued separate existence of that nation until his return.
5. Some think that Jesus is referring to the generation which would be alive at the time of which he was speaking. In other words, he was indicating that the events associated with the parousia would take place within the span of one generation. But we can be pretty certain the the phrase, ‘this generation’ refers to the generation alive at the time that Jesus was speaking (so Brooks, Strauss, and many others). Moreover, on his lips, the phrase usually has negative connotations (Mk 8:38; Lk 11:29,32; cf. Deut 1:35; 32:5).
6. According to Chris Hays and others, Jesus did indeed predict that the end of the age would take place within a single generation. Nevertheless, suggest these scholars, it does not pose a problem that Jesus should frame his teaching in the form of such a prediction. As with the prophets of old, Jesus’ purpose was not so much to predict the future, as to issue a warning, and a call to (present) action. In this regard, our Lord stands in the tradition of Jeremiah 18:5-11, and is of the nature of a conditional prophecy (not, “This is what will happen in the future”, but, “This is what will happen if you respond in a certain way”). Another example is that of Jonah: destruction is predicted, but is averted by repentance.
‘Understood this way,’ (Andrew Wilson explains) ‘Jesus predicted his return within a generation, but this prediction was intended to bring about repentance, and ethical living, within God’s people. If these did not follow, the parousia would be delayed.’
Wilson continues his summary of the views of Hays et al: ‘There are partial fulfilments signalled clearly by the gospel writers (the resurrection and ascension in Matt 26:64, Pentecost in Acts 2:14-21, perhaps the transfiguration in Mark 9:1-8, and so on). But the full inheritance of the promise, the bodily return of Jesus to the earth to inaugurate the kingdom in all its fulness, is conditional upon obedient, ethical living among God’s people. Might this be the best way of making sense of Jesus’ prediction?’
Such flexibility, or conditionality, it is argued, is found also in 2 Peter 3:1-13. The day of the Lord is deferred because God does not want any to perish, but all to repent. In the mean time, the prospect motivates and energises his people to live holy and godly lives here and now. Indeed, they not only ‘wait’ for that day, but even ‘hasten’ its arrival. So (notes Wilson), ‘if Peter could write in those terms, such that the parousia could be accelerated or delayed on the basis of human action, then it is not unreasonable to suggest that Jesus, following the approach of Jeremiah and others, could have done the same thing.’
7. Still others think that the prediction admits of two or more fulfilments. If ‘these things’ means the parousia, then Christ’s words, as recorded by Matthew, would appear to be untrue. France suggests that Jesus is still dealing with the first part of the disciples’ question in v3a – “When will these things (the destruction of the temple) be?” and has not yet addressed the second part of that question, which asks about the “sign of your parousia and of the close of the age.”
France, then, thinks that from v32 onwards Jesus is talking about his parousia. The phrase peri de (‘now concerning’) indicates a change of subject.
It is thought that Mark wrote his Gospel in about AD 65. He could not have known that there would be a substantial lapse of time between God’s judgment on Jerusalem and the final judgment. Accordingly, he makes not attempt to separate them in his account. Matthew, however, writing soon after the fall of Jerusalem, could see the separation between the two judgments and reflects this in his account.
Carson, along with others, is confident that this refers to the generation alive at that time. However, the expression has a qualitative, and not merely a temporal character: ‘this generation’ is a sinful generation, one ripe for judgment (cf. Mt 11:16; 12:41–42, 45; 23:36). According to Morris, ‘this generation’ then takes on the meaning of ‘this kind of person’ (as in a number of OT passages – Psa 12:7; 14:5; 24:6). This understanding prompts us to adopt a double (or multiple) fulfillment: A ‘wicked generation’ resisted and opposed Jesus during his earthly ministry, and such a generation will exist until the time of his return.
In commenting on the parallel passage in Mk 13:30, the Apologetics Study Bible suggests: ‘“These things” that will happen in “this generation” are the events surrounding the destruction of the temple, about which the disciples asked. The temple was destroyed 40 years after the prophecy of Jesus, well within the lifetime of many of those present. Jesus, however, also talked about events surrounding His second coming. The two events are spoken of together because the terror of the first-century Roman invasion of Palestine was viewed as representing the terror of the days leading to the coming of the Son of Man.’
Mounce, after reviewing various suggested interpretations, favours the view that this saying admits of multiple fulfillment: ‘In the immediate context, the “abomination of desolation” (v. 15) builds on the defilement of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes, is repeated when the sacred temple in Jerusalem is destroyed by the Roman army in A.D. 70, and has yet a more complete fulfillment when the eschatological Antichrist exalts himself by taking his seat in the “temple of God” proclaiming himself to be God (2 Thess. 2:3–4). In a similar way, the events of the immediate period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem portend a greater and more universal catastrophe when Christ returns in judgment at the end of time.’
Ian Paul, who favours the last-mentioned view, concludes:
This passage, with its bridging from one part of Jesus’ teaching at the end of Mark 13 to the final element, has important things to teach us. The material in Mark 13.24–31 takes us into the horrors of the First Jewish War and the cataclysmic destruction of the Temple; as Ben Witherington comments, it wasn’t the end of the world, but it was the end of a world, and led to the Jews being once more a people in exile for nearly 2,000 years, which accounts for the use of cosmic language. In that kind of context—and in the practicalities of the personal and nation disasters we face—we too need to ‘read the signs’, and ‘look up’ as we seek to trust God despite the chaos around us.
But once we reach Mark 13.32 and its orientation away from whatever chaos there is in our present world, and towards the promised sudden presence of Jesus with us at the end of time (the parousia), then the guidance is completely different. There will be no warning signs; you will not be able to predict the arrival of Jesus, just as you cannot predict where lightning will strike (Matt 24.27). There is only one way to be ready for his return—to watch and pray, living each day as faithful disciples. That is the lesson of these closing verses, just as it is the lesson of the sequence of parables in Matt 24 and 25 that develop this idea, which we have been reading in the last few weeks.
It is a clarion call, not to endless speculation about the imminent future, but to faithful witness in the immediate present.