(English Standard Version)
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
THE PRETERIST VIEW OF
The verses quoted above are central to the Preterist view of Scriptural interpretation. I shall use some lengthy quotes in this article, because I believe these quotes represent that view and illustrate the importance that is placed on the Preterist understanding of these verses. In brief, that understanding is: Jesus predicted the prophecies of the Olivet Discourse would take place before the total passing away of the generation that He and His disciples were a part of, roughly within 40 years, and this prediction was verified by the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70.
As I include the quotes below, throughout this article (and this is generally my policy), italics and quotations, use of capitalization, etc. are all in the original works that are quoted. My remarks are in brackets.
I shall use three authors to represent this position. J. S. Russell (whom I have referred to extensively in previous articles) wrote in the 19th Century. He, as far as I can tell, does not start with this passage to determine his interpretative method. However, it does play a powerful role in his interpretation. R. C. Sproul is an influential writer of the 20th and 21st Centuries. His book, The Last Days According to Jesus, focuses a great deal of attention on the issues surrounding this Scripture passage. Hank Hanegraaff’s book, The Apocalypse Code, also focuses on this Scripture.
J. S. RUSSELL ON MATTHEW 24:32-35:
Here the prophecy and the parable [the prophecy is 24:31, the parable is 13:41-50] represent the self-same scene, the self-same period: they alike speak of the close of the aeon or age, not of the end of the world, or the material universe; and they alike speak of that great judicial epoch as at hand. How plainly does St. Luke, in his record of the prophecy on the Mount of Olives, represent the great catastrophe as falling within the lifetime of the disciples: [quotes Luke 21:28] Were not these words spoken to the disciples who listened to the discourse? Did they not apply to them? Is there anywhere even a suspicion that they were meant for another audience, thousands of years distant…?
But, as if to preclude even the possibility of misconception or mistake, our Lord in the next paragraph draws around his prophecy a line so plain and palpable, shutting it wholly within a limit so definite and distinct, that it ought to be decisive of the whole question. [then quotes Matthew 24:32-34 and parallels]
Words have no meaning if this language, uttered on so solemn an occasion, and so precise and express in its import, does not affirm the near approach of the great event which occupies the whole discourse of our Lord. First, the parable of the fig-tree intimates that as the buds on the tree betoken the near approach of summer, so the signs which He had just specified would betoken that the predicted consummation was at hand. They, the disciples to whom He was speaking, were to see them, and when they saw them to recognize that the end was “near, even at the doors.” Next, our Lord sums up with an affirmation calculated to remove every vestige of doubt or uncertainty,--[quotes 24:34].
One would reasonably suppose that after a note of time so clear and express there could not be room for controversy. Ninety-nine persons in every hundred would undoubtedly understand His words as meaning that the predicted catastrophe would fall within the limits of the lifetime of the existing generation. Not that all would probably live to witness it, but that most or many would…He gave them [the disciples] plainly to understand that His coming, the judgment of the Jewish nation, and the close of the age, would come to pass before the existing generation had wholly passed away, and within the limits of their own lifetime. (Russell, 82-84)
Russell hammers home the lesson that is so obvious to him, which I have already stated in bold before the quotation: What Jesus was speaking about would happen within the disciples’ lifetime. Since Russell contends throughout his book that the Parousia of Jesus is equivalent to the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, this paragraph from Scripture confirms his thesis. Or, it is just as probable, that Matthew 24:32-35 is the basis for his thesis. Though he does not overtly make this point, he has used this mention of a time-frame of one generation throughout the book. He does not always refer to the passage from Matthew 24. He also refers to Matthew 10:23 (Russell, 26ff) and 16:27-28 (Russell, 29ff), for example.
R. C. SPROUL ON MATTHEW 24:32-35:
The time-frame issues, which arise out of Matthew 24:32-35 and similar passages that are mentioned above, are very central to interpretation of prophetic Scripture for R. C. Sproul. He relates how he encountered liberal higher criticism in seminary and how the Scripture I have in focus in this article played an important role. He also highlights the criticism of an avowed atheist, Bertrand Russell, who pointed to these Scriptures to prove that Jesus was a false prophet (note that Sproul uses the Mark parallel passage):
The most critical portion of this text [Mark 13:1-30] is Jesus’ declaration that “this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place” (13:30). When [Bertrand] Russell pointed to this pronouncement, he made two important assumptions. The first is that “this generation” refers to a specific time-frame that would be roughly forty years. That is, the terminus for the fulfillment of this prophecy is forty years….The second assumption made by Russell (and others) is that the phrase “all these things” includes all of the subject matter of his future prediction, including his coming in clouds of power and glory.
…Since, again according to Russell, the parousia did not take place within this time frame, both Christ and the Bible are wrong. (Sproul, 16)
This challenge from a philosopher from the outside was matched by higher critics on the inside. Albert Schweitzer is known as a humanitarian hero, but he also was a Biblical scholar who shook the liberals of his day. He made the case that Jesus was not merely an ethical teacher but was an apocalyptic prophet who expected the coming of the Kingdom in power and who died in failure. Schweitzer’s book brought about 20th century efforts by higher critics to deal with Jesus’ prophetic teachings. This led to a series of solutions—“realized eschatology,” “already and not yet,” and the “D-Day analogy.” (Sproul, 20-23)
For Sproul, the moderate and liberal critics are unsatisfying. Instead, he believes that the best answer to the seeming “failure” of Jesus’ prophecies is the Preterist position, which posits the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple as the fulfillment of those prophecies.
The central thesis of [J. S.] Russell and indeed of all preterists is that the New Testament’s time-frame references with respect to the parousia point to a fulfillment within the lifetime of at least some of Jesus’ disciples. Some hold to a primary fulfillment in A.D. 70, with a secondary and final fulfillment in the yet-unknown future. Whatever else may be said of Preterism, it has achieved at least two things: (1) It has focused attention on the time-frame references of New Testament eschatology, and (2) it has highlighted the significance of Jerusalem’s destruction in redemptive history. (Sproul, 25)
In the following, he lays out what he believes are the main alternatives in interpretation of the Olivet Discourse and the direction taken by the Preterists:
This problem of literal fulfillment leaves us with three basic solutions to interpreting the Olivet Discourse:
1. We can interpret the entire discourse literally. In this case we must conclude that some elements of Jesus’ prophecy failed to come to pass, as advocates of “consistent eschatology” maintain.
2. We can interpret the events surrounding the predicted parousia literally and interpret the time-frame references figuratively. This method is employed chiefly by those who do not restrict the phrase “this generation will not pass away…” to the life span of Jesus’ contemporaries.
3. We can interpret the time-frame references literally and the events surrounding the parousia figuratively. In this view, all of Jesus’ prophecies in the Olivet Discourse were fulfilled during the period between the discourse itself and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.The third option is followed by preterists. The strength of the preterist position is found precisely in this hermeneutical method. (Sproul, 66)
Although Sproul takes comfort in Russell’s interpretation and the Preterist position, he recognizes it presents problems. The following is his assessment:
[A problem] posed by Preterism, and by far the most crucial, is whether there remains a future hope for the church. Is the “blessed hope” for a future, consummate parousia of Christ, and article of faith for historic Christianity, a false hope? Is the eschatology that includes the parousia to be reduced to an utterly “realized eschatology”?
These questions require that we distinguish between moderate preterism and radical preterism. Moderate preterism, though it sees the coming of Christ predicted in the Olivet Discourse as having been already fulfilled, still believes in a future consummation of Christ and his kingdom, based on other New Testament texts…. Radical preterism, on the other hand, sees virtually the entire New Testament eschatology as having been realized already. (Sproul, 68)
HANK HANEGRAAFF ON MATTHEW 24:32-35:
Hank Hanegraaff is the “Bible Answer Man” on the radio. He strenuously attacks Dispensationalists (as well as teachers of the “prosperity gospel” and others that he sees to be dangers to the church). His book, The Apocalypse Code, is quite polemical, especially in discussing Tim LaHaye. The following is at the beginning of his chapter in which he attacks what he believes to be failure to interpret according to ordinary use of grammar and vocabulary:
Asked under oath to verify his lawyer’s declaration, “There is absolutely no sex of any kind” between the president of the United States of America and White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, William Jefferson Clinton responded, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” (Hanegraaff, 70)
The following is his direct application of the principle that he is espousing:
When it comes to interpreting Scripture, we should not suppose that the rules of grammar mysteriously change. When Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, this [sic] generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened,” “this” means “this.”
The meaning of the pronoun you in the context of Christ’s Olivet Discourse is just as clear. When Jesus says, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars…Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death...” it should be obvious that he is referencing a first-century, not a twenty-first-century generation. (Hanegraaff, 72)
Hanegraaff discusses the challenge of skeptics who use Matthew 24:34 for ammunition. Among others, he cites Jewish critics, as in the following:
[Gerald] Sigal sums up this sentiment, saying, “No amount of Christian theological acrobatics will ever solve the problems engendered by the historical reality that a promised imminent fulfillment made two thousand years ago did not occur as expected by the New Testament. Simply stated, Jesus is never coming back, not then, not now, not ever.” (Hanegraaff, 76-77)
Hanegraaff follows this by pointing to what he believes is a lame defense of the Scripture by a Dispensationalist, as follows:
Although quite clever, Tim LaHaye’s rebuttal, “We believe ‘this generation’ refers to those alive in 1948” is about as believable to a discerning skeptic as Clinton’s quip, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” In fact, the moment dispensationalists such as LaHaye utter such statements, our baloney detectors must surely flash, “Warning! Grammatical gyrations ahead!!!” As the skeptic Gerald Sigal has well said, “This generation” appears fourteen times in the Gospels and always applies to Jesus’ contemporaries. (Hanegraaf, 77)
Hanegraaff (as do others, such as Russell) cites other instances in which Jesus used “this generation” as evidence for the Preterist interpretation of Matthew 24:34, as follows:
Just as it is grammatically implausible for Jesus to have meant anything other than the generation to whom he was speaking in this context [Matthew 12:38-45], so too it is grammatically impossible for him to have been referencing anything other than the generation present during his delivery of the Olivet Discourse—as “this” means “this” here [in 12:38-45], so “this” means “this” and not “that” there [Matthew 24:34]. (Hanegraaff, 79)
Hanegraaff discusses another suggestion that has been made to try to deal with the problem of Matthew 24:34. That solution is to translate the Greek word genea to mean “race” rather than “generation” (which is a possible meaning of the word). This same possibility is discussed by the Dispensationalists that I quote below. The following is from Hanegraaff:
Legendary dispensationalist Dr. C. I. Scofield suggested that generation did not mean “generation”—it meant “race.” Thus, in answer to the question, “When will this happen?” Jesus really meant to say, “I tell you the truth, this race will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened….”
Scofield went so far as to say that, as “all lexicons” reflect, the Jewish “race…will be preserved…a promise wonderfully fulfilled to this day.” [Hanegraaff then demonstrates that this is not supported by the lexicons.]
DeMar goes on to explain that “the Greek word genos rather than geneais best translated ‘race’…” This reality is reflected in modern translations such as the New King James Version, New American Standard Version…. Scofield’s superstar status, however, has ensured that his equivocation on the word generation persists in the present as a pragmatic method of saving Jesus from the charge of making false prophecies.
This ploy, however, is seldom satisfying to those who doubt the credibility of the Gospels. Common sense dictates that [Jesus did not say “this race of people will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”] Rather, our Lord is delineating the very signs that would precede the judgment of Jerusalem and the end of the age of sacrifice. (Hanegraaff, 79-81)
Notice that Hanegraaff emphasizes the role of the destruction of the Temple to “end the age of sacrifice.” This is a major theme that Russell emphasizes also.
Hanegraaff parallels much of the material in Sproul’s book. Sproul is more open about the role that various theological positions play in approaches to interpretation than Hanegraaff. Hanegraaff, quite frankly, is quite pugnacious in places—perhaps having had some personal encounters with certain persons that he singles out for attack. He also attempts to exalt what he claims is his approach to Scripture (which he describes using the acronym “LIGHTS”). He is writing for a somewhat different audience that the more irenic Sproul.
DISPENSATIONALIST VIEWS OF
Pentecost does not give a detailed exegesis of the passage. The quotation below is the extent of his commentary. His explanation of the passage, in which he concurs with Chafer, is that its main message is that, as the events predicted in the passage take place, those experiencing them may be certain of the climax, which is the second coming of Christ. He discusses the issue of the word “genea” by giving three theories:
· It refers to the generation of Jesus and His disciples.
· It refers to the generation at the time of the Tribulation.
· It refers to the race or nation of Israel.
He does not delve into reasons to accept or reject these theories. Moreover, he does not seem to have any appreciation for the gravity of the issue. I think it is possible that Preterist thinking was not as prevalent among evangelicals at the time his book was written (1958). The following is from his book (Incidentally, he gives the span of the passage through verse 36, but uses that verse to start the next section, so the “36” was doubtless in error.):
The chronology of the events of the end of the age is briefly interrupted in order to give practical exhortation to those who will be witnessing these events. These instructions are given in verses 32-51. The parable of the fig tree (vs. 32-36) is spoken to show the certainty of the coming. Chafer writes:
It is doubtless true that the fig tree represents in other Scriptures the nation of Israel (cf. Matt. 21:18-20), but there is no occasion for this meaning to be sought in the present use of that symbol. When the things of which Christ had just spoken, including even the beginnings of travail, begin to come to pass, it may be accepted as certain that He is nigh, even at the doors.
The fulfillment of the signs that were given in the preceding verses would herald the coming of the Messiah as certainly as the new shoots on the fig tree heralded the approach of summer.
There is a difference of opinion over the interpretation of “generation” in Matthew 24:34. Some have held that it applied to the present generation to which Christ spoke, so all this prophecy would have been fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Others hold that the word has reference to the future, so that Christ is saying that those who witness the signs stated earlier in the chapter will see the coming of the Son of man within that generation. It hardly seems necessary to state this fact, inasmuch as it was known that only seven years would intervene between the beginning of this period and the coming of the Messiah, or three and a half years from the appearance of the Desolator to Messiah’s advent. However, such may be the interpretation. Still others hold that the word generation is to be taken in its basic usage of “race, kindred, family, stock, breed,” so that the Lord is here promising that the nation Israel shall be preserved until the consummation of her program at the second advent in spite of the work of the Desolator to destroy her. This seems to be the best explanation. (Pentecost, 280-281)
Walvoord discusses the issue of the fig tree. It is often interpreted to refer to Israel, so many believe that Jesus was referring to the reconstituting of modern Israel in 1948. So, they say, within a generation of 1948, the Tribulation and, following it, the coming of Christ, would be completed. Walvoord rejects that notion and gives his reasons in the following:
A common interpretation has been to interpret the fig tree as a type of Israel and the revival of Israel as the budding of the tree. The fig tree could very well be a type of Israel, but it does not seem to be so used in Scripture. Good and bad figs are mentioned in Jeremiah 24:1-8; the good figs are those carried off into captivity, and the bad figs are those who remain in the land of Israel….In Judges 9:1-11 fig trees are mentioned but not in relation to Israel….There is no indication in the interpretation of Matthew 21:18-22 and Mark 11:12-14, 20-26 that relates the fig tree to Israel. Accordingly, though many have followed this interpretation, there is no Scriptural basis.
A better explanation is the simple explanation that the fig tree is used as a natural explanation….When the events described in the preceding verses occur, it will be a clear indication of the second coming of Christ being near. The sign in the passage is not the revival of Israel, which is not the subject of Matthew 24, but rather the details of the great tribulation, which occurs in the three and a half years preceding the second coming. Accordingly, “all these things” (v. 33) refers not to the revival of Israel but to the events of the great tribulation. (Walvoord, page not available*)
Walvoord also discussed the meaning of genea. In the following quotation, he indicates his interpretation that the reference in 24:34 is to the generation living at the time of the Tribulation:
Jesus made a further comment on the situation in saying, “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened….” The normal use of the word generation is in reference to the time span between one’s birth and the time when one becomes a parent. Obviously, the generation that lived in Christ’s day did not see all the things described in the preceding context. Some have inferred from this that the term generation is a reference to Israel and have asserted that Israel will not pass away until all these things are fulfilled. However, Israel will never pass away. Still other scholars take generation as an indefinite period of time.
The most natural meaning, however, is to take it as normally used as a reference to a period of twenty-five to forty years. But instead of referring this to the time in which Christ lived, it refers back to the preceding period that is described as the great tribulation. As the great tribulation is only three and a half years long, obviously, those who see the great tribulation will also see the coming of the Lord. Regardless of how it is interpreted, Christ affirmed, in support of the fulfillment of the prophecy, that His words will never pass away even though our present earth and heaven will ultimately be destroyed. (Walvoord, page not available*)
*Because of my version of Kindle, I am not able to determine page numbers in Walvoord’s book.
COMMENTARY ON ISSUES AND
This passage is the crux of the Preterist argument. As Sproul stated, Preterism “has focused attention on the time-frame references of New Testament eschatology.” It is this passage, and especially verse 34, that has been used to put the time-frame question in focus. I have dedicated much space in previous articles doing my best to demonstrate that Preterism is not a viable theory. I believe much of what I have said is valid criticism of that theory. However, when one comes to verse 34, one must recognize the gravity of the challenge.
Although I do not always agree with the Dispensational approach, I do have much sympathy for that method of interpretation. Yet, I was disappointed in the glib manner that was used in dealing with this passage and the Preterist challenge. I do not disagree with the outcome of Dispensational interpretation of the passage as much as I am concerned that the passage is not taken seriously.
The following are my conclusions concerning Matthew 24:32-35:
1. I believe that attempting to use another translation for genea is not warranted. In the context, it is difficult to force the word “race” or “nation” into the sentence. The lesson of the fig tree has just been given. That lesson is that a short period of time will occur between two sets of events. A comment about the disappearance of a race is not appropriate to that lesson.
2. Thus, the question comes down to this: What generation is Christ referring to? Is it the generation of Himself and His disciples—in first century? Or, is it a generation at some future time?
3. The next question is: Can the answer come simply from the sentence that gives rise to it? Does the word “this” give sufficient information to answer the question? Hanegraaff’s sarcastic use of the Bill Clinton example would imply “Yes, anyone can infer that ‘this’ means only one thing in this context.”
4. Notice that the preceding two verses set up a time frame: when the fig leaves come on, summer is near. In the same way, “when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.”** So, there is a set of events that precede the consummate event. As we progressed through verse 4 through 26, we noted the various developments and events that Christ predicted would lead to His Parousia.
· Events in the world, such as wars and earthquakes
· Developments within the church, such as persecution, dissension, coldness
· The world-wide preaching of the gospel
· The Abomination of Desolation
· The Great Tribulation
· Included within that Tribulation would be various kinds of deception, including rumors of a hidden Christ
I have argued that these predictions were not fulfilled within the first century. Jesus says
that, when these events have been fulfilled, then the consummate event is about to take
place. Having set that time frame, He then goes on to say “this generation” will not pass
away until all has taken place. I believe it is possible, within the paragraph at hand, to
understand “this generation” to refer to a future generation when the events that Jesus
predicted will be fulfilled. **The pronoun subject in the clause “___is near, at the
gates…” is not explicit. Some translations give “he” and others “it.”
5. There is a second line of reasoning to come to the same conclusion. I have argued that the Preterist interpretations of Matthew 24:4-31 are not valid. I especially have focused on the attempt by Preterists to assert that all the predictions of Christ in verses 21-31 are fulfilled by the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The fallacy of that interpretation is that they posit one event to fulfill many predictions. Whereas it is a natural reading of these verses to infer that several different events take place, they can only name one fulfillment. The Great Tribulation of verses 21-26 is a different event from the celestial signs of verse 29, and those signs are different from the coming of Christ in verse 30 along with associated gathering of the elect in verse 31. To try to posit the destruction of Jerusalem as fulfilling all these predictions is not faithful to the text. In addition, as I stated above, I believe Preterist interpretation of the material in the preceding verses (4-20) also do not fit well with events of the first century. Thus, if the Preterist interpretation is invalid for the preceding material, then trying to fit the message of verses 32-35 into the first century is also invalid. The Preterists have tried to use verses 32-35 (especially verse 34) to validate their interpretation of verses 4-31. In other words, they have made one verse govern the interpretation of the entire two chapters. It seems a more valid method of interpretation to use the context of the entire Discourse to interpret the one verse. Since a reasonable interpretation of the Discourse is that it is predicting the future Second Coming of Christ, then “this generation” would refer to the future generation at the time of that Coming.
1. Although I have not, to this point, considered other prophetic Scriptures, one does eventually have to deal with those Scriptures. In some of those passages, the events that are predicted are unambiguously in the future. That would apply, for example, to I Corinthians 15 (the great chapter on the Resurrection). However, some Preterists, because they are caught in what I have called the “Matthew 24:34 trap,” insist that even the Resurrection of the saints must somehow be interpreted as a first century event (Sproul, 160-167). This would be an example of reduction to absurdity which the holders of the position have created for themselves. Instead, when one considers other New Testament Scriptures (for example in I and II Thessalonians, I Corinthians 15, Acts 1:11, and the book of Revelation), the overwhelming evidence is that the Parousia of Christ is in fact a future Second Coming. The fact that the Parousia is the climax of the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:30) leads one to understand that Jesus is predicting events that will take place in our future and not in the first century. This leads us to interpret verse 34 from that perspective and to consider that “this generation” refers to the generation that will live as the events of the Discourse are being fulfilled or completing their fulfillment.
NEXT: “STAY AWAKE”—MATTHEW 24:36-51
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 235498-235507). Good
News Publishers. Kindle edition.
Hanegraaff, Hank. The Apocalypse Code. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publish. House, 1958.
Russell, J. S. The Parousia, A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our
Lord’s Second Coming. (Google Internet Book) London: Daldy, Isbister
& Co., 1878.
Sproul, R. C. The Last Days According to Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.
Walvoord, John F. Every Prophecy of the Bible: Clear Explanations for Uncertain Times.
Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook. Kindle Edition, 2011.
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