In discussing the topic of my faith with people on a few occasions and in my own life, i have come upon the topic of Christ’s second coming not happening in the lifetime of the disciples being used as a reason for unbelief for non-Christians that I have spoken to and a concern in my mind. There are a few scripture references which particularly seem to suggest that Christ would return in that time one that seems to be of particular difficulty is Matthew 24 leading up to verse 34. I find this verse to be troubling.
Many have explained it to mean the generation as Israel or generation in regards to the generation who saw the signs previously stated. I also have heard it taught that he did return in the sense of his resurrection so it was fulfilled and he will be coming again as described.
None of these explanations seem to be particularly satisfying to me in the sense that they all seem more of a stretch than the main and plain of it being that he was saying that this all would happen before the generation he was talking to died. This is additionally supported by the fact that the disciples did not start writing their gospels down until late in their lives (as they thought this would be unnecessary) and the way in which many of them wrote of the second coming in the epistles.
The reference you mention is Matt 24 32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
Let’s do a two part answer:
1. The Correct Translation of “generation” is “Tribe”
If you look in a Greek dictionary, the word there (Genea) is said to mean “Race”, OR “Generation”. Yes it’s the word which we get “generation” from, but we get “genitals” from the same word and we don’t think it should mean that.
It actually has the force of “to Generate”. It means the people who are Generated by an ancestor.
In our 21st century mindset, it was our parents ‘generation’ who ‘generated’ our ‘generation’. We have used the Greek “genea” to mean the people alive at the same time as us. It’s because we grew up with our friends and we only think of ourselves and nobody else – why should we bother about all those who went before us?
THAT WASN’T THE WAY THE HEBREWS THOUGHT!
They thought of Racial groups, stretching unbroken, in lines back to the past, and on into the future. They thought in race groups, in family lines. The best way for us to understand that is to say they thought TRIBALLY.
Thinking Tribally is so alien to our modern western culture that we have forgotten that it is a normal way of thinking for the human race.
And it was especially true of Israel. Who else were they but the TRIBES of Israel? Your allegiance was to your Family, then to your Tribe. And what is a Tribe, but a collection of people, stretching back to the same ancestor, stretching forward into the future?
So when you talk about the “plain meaning” you have to realise that for a Hebrew, thinking about “genea” as only ONE set of people existing all at the same time all across the world, is actually “plain wrong”!
So, what is the problem? The problem is the Bible translation which you are using! Sorry to be picky, but sometimes Bible translators get so bound up with minutiae that they can’t see the wood for the trees.
One of the problems which we face, as we evaluate different versions, is a convention which most Bible translation groups use. It says this: “If there are two possible readings, or meanings for a word, we must put the MOST UNLIKELY one in the text, because any misunderstandings or copying errors would probably have resulted in a MORE LIKELY meaning.”
This results in “generation” being in the text of the NIV, and “race” being in the footnote. Actually, for the Hebrew, the correct translation is “TRIBE”.
So although it sounds complicated to give all the reasons, the simple answer is that “Genea” means “Tribe” and should be read as such.
So, what is Jesus saying here?
Matt 24 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 I tell you the truth, this tribe will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
NOW see what light that sheds? Which Tribe is the most remarkable in the world? Which Tribe, above all others is renowned for maintaining its genetic line? Which is the ONLY tribe in the world to have resurrected its dead language and its dead currency? Which is the only Tribe in the world to have returned to its own land after such a long exile?
The Tribe of Judah.
Has this Tribe passed away?
So, far from it being used as an excuse NOT to believe, this is one of the most powerful passages to encourage belief. Somebody rightly said, “You want proof God exists? Look at Israel!”
So, in your discussions with your unbelieving friends, just tell them that the word THEY see as generation was actually TRIBE when Jesus said it.
2. Now, about whether the disciples should have thought the End Times were imminent:
Let’s make some points:
A. Jesus spoke about the end times more than anybody else.
B. He, in his life on earth actually DIDN’T know the day and hour.
[Why not? Because he had laid aside the use of his omniscience (all-knowingness) as God.
This meant that he knew ONLY a. What the Father chose to reveal to him, and b. What was in scripture. The day and hour are not revealed in Scripture.]
C. We ARE meant to live as if the End Times could happen at any time. There are all sorts of good repercussions on our spiritual lives which come from End Times teachings.
D. If we are meant to live like that, then so were his disciples. You can’t have Jesus going round saying, “Oh it’ll be a couple of thousand years yet, and THEN people will have to watch out because they won’t know exactly when I’m coming. Don’t bother living like it could be any time – relax for a few centuries.”
This caused an interesting effect, which God is careful to use up some of his “Scripture Allowance” to teach us about. He got Paul, in his letters to the Thessalonians, to deal with the problem you mention.
In Thessalonica, people were so hot on Jesus coming back any second that they had given up work and were just sitting round waiting to go! They achieved two things; they got a. poor, and b. hungry! Paul teaches on some of the events which will PRECEDE the End Times in 2 Thess 2, showing them, and us, some of the things we need to watch out for.
In addition, they got upset when one of them died, because they thought he had missed the boat and wouldn’t get to be with Jesus. Paul tells them in 1 Thess 4 13-18 that they needn’t worry, their dead friends will get their Resurrection bodies FIRST, the ones who are still alive will have to wait in line!