The question before us is whether the phrase “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 (“this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”) refers to a race or to a time frame. Does “this generation” mean “this race” will not pass away, or does it mean “this present generation” relative to those who were alive when Jesus was speaking – some of that generation would “not pass away until all these things take place”?
This is more than an academic question because the implications determine whether Jesus Christ will return at some future time relative to us living today or whether He returned in the first century relative to the generation living at the time of Jesus and His disciples. Hence, what one believes would certainly impact how we might live today and what plans we might make in respect to the Kingdom of God and why.
Moreover, it deeply affects whether we believe anything of Kingdom consequence can be done in our time and if there be any urgency at all to do anything since nothing can be done to actually manifest the Kingdom as God originally intended. Are we waiting for Jesus to come back and clean up our mess or is He waiting for us?
Genea and Genos
Let’s begin with the possible meanings of genea and also compare this Greek word with its root, genos. Genea is translated “generation” in Matthew 24:34. Genos may be translated elsewhere as race or kind, for example. Both words are derived from a more basic root, gen which “means birth … decent… descendants, family, race….”1 Thus, both genea and genos carry the element of genealogy related to racial birth or descent.
Genos, it appears, is the most direct meaning of race, as in
- “the Syrophoenician race” (Mark 7:26);
- the “high-priestly descent” of Annas, Caiaphas and John of Alexandria (Acts 4:6);
- “Joseph’s family” (Acts7:13);
- “ancestral stock” (Acts 4:6; 13:26);
- “a relatively small group with common ancestry” (Acts 7:13); and
- “a relatively large people group” (Acts 7:19; I Peter 2:6).
Again, the idea of race or kind is emphasized as more of the primary meaning of genos.
Genea, on the other hand, while retaining the basic sense of familial connections and ancestry can refer to:
… the sum total of those born at the same time, expanded to include all those living at a given time and freq. defined in terms of specific characteristics, generation, contemporaries.2
As I conclude in my book, The Biblical Story of Prophecy, “So, genea can refer to a specific or undefined period of time of a particular race or ancestral origin.”3
In Matthew 24:34, the translators chose “generation” and not “race” to convey the Greek word genea.4
“This generation” will not pass away, not “this race” will not pass away (whether referring to the Israelite race or a few might have concluded the Edomite racial sub-type).
But that does not necessarily conclude the matter. How then shall we find out whether “generation” refers to those living at a given time as contemporaries or whether it refers to race?
The Context of Matthew 24
The first place I would look is the context of Matthew 24. Does this context help us determine whether “generation” refers to a time frame or a race? In my book, The Biblical Story of Prophecy, I reviewed the context of events leading up to Matthew 24 beginning with chapter 21 and moving forward through chapter 23. Unless one understands that the scene and subject is Jerusalem and the Temple, and Jesus’ prophetic declarations about them, the relevance of the question is lost in regard to whether “this generation” (Matthew 24:34) is local and temporal relative to Jesus and His disciples’ generation, or whether the entire Matthew 24 prophecy is still future relative to us today.
What initiated Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 24 about “these things” that would take place in respect to “this generation” was the disciples’ admiration of the temple. Jesus told them it was going to be demolished. That immediately prompted their questions: “When will these things be…?” They asked what signs would precede this coming judgment. These are time frame and local, temporal-related questions.
“These things” or signs which Jesus referred to were simply all the things that would have to take place before the destruction of the temple and “this generation” would pass away. What things? The “gospel of the Kingdom” would “be preached in the whole world… to all the nations” (verse 14), the “abomination of desolation” would be seen (verses 14-15), and the “great tribulation” would happen (verse 21) all as preludes to the coming of Jesus Christ (verse 27). Until all these things took place, “this generation will not pass away.”
Does the context of Matthew 24 suggest race or those living of a particular race in a given time frame? Was Jesus referring to the contemporary “generation” of Israelites living at that time? Go back and re-read Matthew 21-25 and ask who is speaking, who is being spoken to, who are the recipients, what did the speaker intend the recipients to understand and how would the recipients most reasonably have understood the speaker’s message. For example, did Jesus intend to teach and warn His disciples about things to come because they would see them come to pass in their lifetime? Or did Jesus give this warning to His disciples regarding “these things” for some distant future audience?
Let me include here a definite time statement in respect to the coming of Jesus Christ which He gave in Matthew 16:27-28:
“For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”
Although genea is not used, it should be clear that this was a description of the generation living at that time – the generation of His disciples in respect to the time frame of the coming of Jesus Christ.
Genea in Matthew
We also might ask: How does the author of the Matthew account use genea in the other places in his gospel account? I refer you to Appendix A in my book which discusses this evidence. I conclude in each context where genea is used that the word refers to that contemporary “generation.” So, I won’t repeat it all here. I just want to point out, for example, that genea is used in its plural form in Matthew 1:17:
“Therefore all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the time of Christ fourteen generations.”
Would it make sense to translate genea as “races,” as in “all the races from Abraham…,” or “fourteen races”? No, this is about the ancestral genealogical timeline of Jesus Christ referring to “generations” living in specific time periods of that family line.
My Conclusion about “This Generation”
My conclusion is that Jesus was referring to the generation of Israelites living at that specific time. That generation would witness the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple at the coming of Jesus in judgment,5 which would result in the end of that age – the Old Covenant age. If we follow the rules of interpretation, the intended meaning will be disclosed. And if we do find it to be the case that “this generation” refers to those living at that time, then we will have to adjust our understanding and perception about what the Bible says and our present obligations and responsibilities about how we are to seek first His Kingdom.
There is a divine plan to manifest His Kingdom now.
Lawrence Blanchard, ND, MDiv
1 Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. II, p. 35
2 Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 191
3 Blanchard, The Biblical Story of Prophecy, p. 177
4 There is no English translation that I know of that translates genea any other way than “generation.”
5 The parallel account in Luke 21:20-22 states this clearly.