Matthew 24:34 “Truly I tell you, that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things happen. The heaven and the earth will pass away, but my words may by no means pass away.” [Free translation from the Interlinear Greek Text.]
This sentence, found in all three Synoptic Gospels, has been a most troublesome saying of our Lord, and has given expositors a great deal of perplexing thought. Several interpretations have been voiced, some of which are born of a desire to salvage the Lord’s character! Let us investigate the sentence to see what it contains.
Taken as it stands, the Lord was giving His disciples the impression that His return would be within a “generation”, which has variously been set as 30, 40, 0r even 50 years. But there was no fulfilment at AD 60, 70, or 80, and in fact there has been no fulfilment up to the present day. Did the Lord’s word fail? Did He say something that was outside His prophetic knowledge, based on His word that “no man knows the day or the hour”? Or did He mean that once the signs begin, then everything else would be fulfilled within a generation? Many have clung to this latter interpretation, knowing that the first century expectation was not fulfilled. Of recent years, since Israel became a nation in 1948, some have supposed this to be the trigger to set off the prophetic clock, but once again the time has passed with no fulfilment. There was a movement of expectation in 1988, just 40 years later, but all those who were sold out to it lost everything. Now we are over 12 years beyond that, and still there is no sign of fulfilment, even though many things are happening to suggest that we are well into the “end days.”
The critical words in the sentence are “pass away,” and they occur three times. The generation would not pass away; Christ’s words would not pass away, but heaven and earth would pass away. How do we interpret the expression “pass away”? Is it not common parlance for someone dying? Do we not say, “Oh, did you know that Jim’s mother passed away last week?” It could be that the expression has derived from this very passage in the Gospels. Many common idioms are derived from the Scriptures.
In a study of this passage in our fellowship recently we were concerned to know exactly what the Lord meant. One asked, “What is the Greek word for pass away?” so we looked it up and found it was PARERCHOMAI, and the Lexicon said that its basic meaning was “to pass on, to pass by”. “Where else is the word used?” asked another. “Luke 18:37 – Jesus of Nazareth passes by.” We laughed at the thought of “Jesus of Nazareth passes away.” We saw that something else was intended than the usual interpretation.
It was obvious that the Lord was not saying that heaven and earth would “pass away”, “die”, or “disappear”. He was saying that heaven and earth “pass on”, in just the same way that time “passes on.” One gets the impression of a “flow” in the word PARERCHOMAI. Heaven and earth would just continue as normal, exactly as God declared to Noah in Genesis 8:22 “Henceforth, all the days of the earth, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease.” But it would not be the case for “this generation”, likewise for the Lord’s words directed at that generation. Instead there was a clear indication that the flow had stopped. It was as if, in the context of today’s life, someone had put the “video” on hold while a pot of coffee was being made.
By this time we began to see that most commentators were barking up the wrong tree. They had been focussing on words like “this generation”, instead of examining the verb “pass away.” So what was the Lord saying? He was declaring that “this generation” had ground to a halt. It could make no further progress until a number of other events and conditions had transpired. It will now be profitable to investigate the expression “this generation” more fully.
Jesus spoke of the generation of His day as “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matt.12:39), “a wicked generation” (Matt.12:45), “a faithless and perverse generation” (Matt.17:17), but perhaps the most dire of all His statements is found in Luke 11:50-51, “The blood of all the prophets from the foundation of the world will be required from this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zachariah who perished between the altar and the temple, truly I tell you, it will be required from this generation.” The Jewish people of that day cried out, “His blood be upon us, and upon our children.” (Matt.27:25) They had called down the judgment of God from heaven, and their words have echoed round the world ever since.
Here then is the basic meaning of Jesus’ words, – “This generation will not pass on, it will not flow as time flows, but be fixed. Earth and heaven will roll on by, but this generation will be set in concrete, unable to move, and my words of judgment to it will likewise remain fixed, and will not pass on to some other generation, until all these other events of which I have spoken come to pass.” And so for some 2000 years the generation that crucified the Lord has been in a time-lock, imprisoned in spirit, unable to make any progress.
The Lord spoke about “the days of Noah” being similar to His day, and He mentioned a number of very ordinary events like eating and drinking, which everyone does every day, but which in a sudden emergency have to be laid on one side, like those, for example, who see the signs of a local volcano about to explode. But there was another parallel which may now be seen in a stronger light. After Jesus died, “He went in the spirit and preached to the spirits in prison, who were disobedient when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the Ark was being prepared.” What was His message? Was He gloating over them in His victory? Far from it. He was saying in effect, “Due to your disobedience, you have been imprisoned in a time-lock, unable to move, unable to make progress, but I am now declaring that your prison door is open, and you will be able to “pass on” like others.” They had been waiting for that message of hope for over 2000 years. Could it be that a similar message of hope is now awaiting that other wicked generation? The Lord said it would happen after all the signs had occurred. Maybe that day is very near. Even the “angels who sinned” received the earlier message of hope. We now pray that the message will be sent to Jesus’ generation, to release them from their time-lock, and enable them to “pass on”.
A further detail of interest is found in Rev.1:7, “Behold He comes with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, and also those who pierced Him, and all the kindreds of the earth will wail over Him. Even so, Amen.” Notice here the universality of the expression, but the generation that was responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion is especially mentioned. How great is God’s grace, that even in the first century a prophecy was given to show that their imprisonment would not last for ever. One is reminded of a similar event just after the resurrection, when the angels said to the women at the tomb, “Go and tell His disciples and Peter that He goes before you into Galilee.” Poor sorrowing Peter was not to be left out.
In declaring this explanation, we realise that we are no longer trying to unravel a knot that was never tied in the first place. We are no longer trying desperately to determine the starting point of some fictitious generation which will tell us when the Lord will return. We leave our readers to consider any further implications that might present themselves as a result of the study.