“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, N.K.J.V.)
These historic times in which find ourselves are causing many of us to ask, “Is Jesus about to return?” My answer is that I don’t know when He will return and neither does anyone else. With that understood, though, I’d like to use this post to address a certain interpretative issue that arises from biblical prophecy. That issue centers around Christ’s use of the term “this generation.”
Matthew chapters 24 and 25 give us Christ’s lengthiest teaching on the topic of prophecy. The teaching is known as “The Olivet Discourse” because Jesus gave it to His chosen 12 apostles while the group was resting atop the Mount of Olives that is located just outside Jerusalem. As part of that teaching, after describing some of the events of the coming tribulation period, Jesus said:
“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. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matthew 24:30-31, N.K.J.V.)
That, ladies and gentlemen, is an indisputable reference to Christ’s Second Coming to walk the earth again and establish His kingdom upon it. Next, following those words, Jesus immediately launches into the words of our text passage as He chooses the example of a budding fig tree to illustrate His point. And what is that point? It is, “This generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” (Mark’s account of the statement is found in Mark 13:30, and Luke’s account is found in Luke 21:32.) Obviously, then, the correct identification of “this generation” is incalculably important.
One interpretation of “this generation” comes from those who hold to a preterist view of prophecy. Preterists believe that prophetic passages such as The Olivet Discourse and the entirety of the book of The Revelation have already been fulfilled by way of the Romans destroying Jerusalem, burning the Jewish temple, and killing millions of Jews in 70 A.D. In keeping with this line of interpretation, the preterists contend that “this generation” is a reference to Christ’s apostles (the men who were sitting in front of Him at the moment He used the term) as well as their contemporaries.
Of course, the great flaw in this interpretation is that it requires us to either thoroughly downplay or thoroughly spiritualize the literalness of: the sun being darkened (v.29), the moon not giving its light (v.29), the stars falling from heaven (v.29), the powers of the heavens being shaken (v.29), the sign of the Son of Man appearing in heaven (v.30), all the tribes of the earth seeing Jesus coming on the clouds of heaven (v.30), and Jesus sending out His angels to gather His elect from all corners of the earth (v.31). After all, none of these things literally happened in 70 A.D.
Furthermore, the preterist interpretation turns the kingdom that Jesus established at His supposed Second Coming in 70 A.D. into a mystical, spiritualized one in which He currently rules over the earth in an invisible way through His church. Needless to say, all this is just way too much downplaying and spiritualizing for most of us to consider legitimate, and so we must reject the preterist interpretation. Summing things up bluntly, “this generation” definitely does not refer to Christ’s apostles and their contemporaries.
A second interpretation was made popular by Hal Lindsey in his wildly popular book The Late Great Planet Earth, which was published in 1970 and became an international best- seller the New York Times newspaper crowned as the best-selling non-fiction book of the entire decade. In his book, Lindsey asserted that the key to understanding future prophetic events was the rebirth of Israel as a nation on May 14, 1948, in the aftermath of Hitler’s World War II Jewish Holocaust. According to Lindsey, Joel 1:7 proved that the budding fig tree in Christ’s illustration symbolized Israel, and that symbolism meant that the time period that Jesus described in The Olivet Discourse actually began in 1948. Thus, the generation that was alive in 1948 was the generation to which Jesus referred.
Continuing on with this interpretation, Lindsey stated that the Bible defined a generation as being “something like forty years,” which led him to conclude that there was a strong possibility that Jesus would return to establish His earthly kingdom sometime in 1988. Lindsey also taught that all Christians would be transported to heaven by way of yet another prophetic event, The Rapture (1 Corinthians 15:50-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), just prior to the beginning of the seven-year tribulation period. Therefore, since his math for Christ’s Second Coming added up to 1988, his math for The Rapture had to add up to 1981. As you can guess, a whole bunch of Christians were disappointed when 1981 came and went without any Rapture and 1988 came and went without any Second Coming.
One possible explanation for Hal Lindsey’s wrong prediction is that Jesus did not have Israel in mind at all when He used His fig tree illustration. Rather than symbolically using the fig tree in reference to Israel, Jesus could have been using the imagery in a general way to teach that it is possible to study current events and come to at least a fairly clear understanding of future events. If this was indeed the case, Lindsay’s whole idea of Israel’s rebirth in 1948 being the hinge event upon which everything else hangs sinks like a stone thrown into deep water.
Also, even if we assume for the sake of argument that Jesus really was talking about Israel’s 1948 rebirth when He made reference to the fig tree beginning to bloom, that still doesn’t mean that Lindsey’s biblical definition of a generation was correct. Yes, it’s true that God gave the land of Canaan to Israel’s younger generation by killing off the entire older generation as the nation wandered in the wilderness for 40 years (Numbers 14:1-38, specifically verse 33). However, there are other passages that define the length of a generation as being something other than 40 years. Consider the following examples:
- In Genesis 15:13-16, God tells Abraham that Abraham’s descendants will be afflicted in a strange land (Egypt) for 400 years, but then He also tells him that they will leave Egypt and return to Canaan in the fourth generation. Dividing four generations by 400 years, that might mean that a biblical generation can be defined as 100 years.
- In Psalm 90:10, the Bible says the days of our lives are seventy years, with some people being strong enough to live eighty years. This might be taken to mean that a biblical generation can be defined as 70 years. Bolstering this definition is the fact that 70 is the average between 40 and 100.
- In Matthew 1:17, the Bible says there were 14 generations from Abraham to David, another 14 from David until Israel’s exile in Babylon, and another 14 from the Babylonian exile until the time of Christ. What’s significant about all this is that those these three eras in Israel’s history were not equal in length. This, then, might mean that there is no precise biblical definition assigned to a generation.
Just for fun, let’s apply the possible definitions of 70 years and 100 years to Hal Lindsey’s interpretation of 1948 as the linchpin year of future prophetic events. By doing so we find that 70 years still doesn’t fit because Jesus didn’t return to walk the Earth again in 2018 and the Rapture didn’t occur seven years prior in 2011. Admittedly, if we define a generation as 100 years, that does leave the year 2048 as a possible date for Christ’s Second Coming and the year 2041 as a possible date for the Rapture. But do we really want to put any confidence in either of these two predictions? I certainly don’t. If they do turn out to be correct, that’s fine with me. I’m just saying that I’m not going to bet the farm on them.
As for me, I agree with all the preachers, teachers, and commentators who favor a third interpretation of “this generation.” Under this interpretation, “this generation” will simply be the generation of people who are alive during the days — whenever those days are — when the events of the tribulation period begin. (Note that the beginning of the tribulation period has nothing to do with Israel’s rebirth as a nation in 1948.) Putting it another way, I and many others believe that Jesus’ use of the term “this generation” was merely His way of emphasizing that the entire tribulation period will play out in a time period short enough so that the generation of people who are alive on earth when the period begins will live to see Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the period. This interpretation, by the way, walks hand in hand perfectly with the book of Daniel’s teaching that the tribulation period will only last for seven years.
You ask, “But couldn’t we be that generation?” Yes, we could. Then again, that generation might not even be in their mothers’ wombs yet. You see, the truth is that Christians have been thinking they were living in the time in which Jesus would return for some 2,000 years now. Read the writings of the apostle Paul and you’ll find that even he believed that he was living in that time. And yet here we are in the year 2020 still waiting.
We should also keep in mind that even Jesus Himself, in that same Olivet Discourse, said of His return, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only” (Matthew 24:36, N.K.J.V.). So, while we might watch the nightly news and think, “How much worse can things get?” we should never attempt to set a date for either The Rapture or Christ’s Second Coming. Instead, we should live each day as if we might literally see Jesus, by way of The Rapture or by way of our own death, before that day ends. This holds true during times of pandemics, businesses being shut down, race marches, police investigations, monuments being torn down, political nastiness, and other times of upheaval and unrest, and it also holds true during all other times. That’s the way it’s been since the dawn of the church age and that’s how it will remain until God’s timing officially arrives.