Few doctrinal interpretations have done more damage to the trust Jehovah’s Witnesses have placed in the men heading up the Organization than that of Matthew 24:34. In my lifetime, it has undergone a reinterpretation on average once every ten years, usually about the middle of the decade. Its latest incarnation has required us to accept a completely new and unscriptural—not to mention nonsensical—definition of the term “generation”. Following the logic that this new definition makes possible, we can claim, for example, that British soldiers who in 1815 were fighting Napoleon Bonaparte at the battle of Waterloo (in present day Belgium) were part of the same generation of British soldiers who also fought in Belgium during the First World War in 1914. Of course we wouldn’t want to make that claim in front of any accredited historian; not if we wanted maintain some semblance of credibility.
Since we will not let go of 1914 as the start of Christ’s presence and since our interpretation of Matthew 24:34 is tied to that year, we have been forced to come up with this transparent attempt to shore up a failing doctrine. Based on conversations, comments, and emails, I have little doubt that this latest reinterpretation has been a tipping point for many faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses. Such ones know that it cannot be true and yet are trying to balance that against the belief that the Governing Body is serving as God’s appointed channel of communication. Cognitive dissonance 101!
The question remains, What did Jesus mean when he said that this generation would by no means pass away before all these things occurred?
If you have been following our forum, you will know that we have made several stabs at understanding this prophetic statement of our Lord. They all fell short of the mark in my opinion, but I couldn’t figure out why. I have recently come to realize that part of the problem was a lingering bias of mine that had crept into the equation. There is no doubt in my mind based on what Jesus says in the following verse (35) that this prophecy was intended as a reassurance to his disciples. My mistake was in assuming that he was reassuring them about the length of time certain events would take to transpire. This preconception is obviously a carryover from years of studying JW publications on the subject. Often, the trouble with a preconception is that one isn’t even aware that one is making it. Preconceptions often masquerade as fundamental truth. As such, they form the bedrock upon which great, often complex, intellectual constructs have been built. Then comes the day, as it always must, when one realizes that one’s tidy little belief structure is built on sand. It turns out to be a house of cards. (I’ve just mixed enough metaphors to make a cake. And there I go again.)
About a year ago, I came up with an alternate understanding of Matthew 24:34, but never published it because it didn’t fit within my preconceived framework of truth. I now realize that I was wrong to do so, and I would like to explore it with you. There is nothing new under the sun, and I know I’m not the first to come up with what I’m about to present. Many have walked this path before me. All that is of no consequence, but what is important is that we find an understanding that gets all the pieces of the puzzle to fit together harmoniously. You will please let us know at the end if you think we’ve succeeded.
Our Premise and Our Criteria
In short, our premise is to have no premise, no preconceptions, not starting assumptions. On the other hand, we do have criteria that must be met if we are to consider our understanding to be valid and acceptable. Therefore, our first criterion is that all the scriptural elements fit together without the need to conjecture up an assumption. I have grown very suspect of any explanation of Scripture that depends on what-ifs, suppositions, and assumptions. It is too easy for the human ego to creep in and vastly divert the ultimate conclusions that are reached.
Occam’s razor postulates that the simplest explanation is likely to be the true one. That’s a generalization of his rule, but essentially what he was saying was that the more assumptions one has to make to get a theory to work the less likely it will turn out to be true.
Our second criterion is that the final explanation must harmonize with all other relevant scriptures.
So let us take a new look at Matthew 24:34 without bias and preconception. Not an easy task, I’ll give you that. Nevertheless, if we proceed with humility and in faith, prayerfully asking for Jehovah’s spirit in keeping with 1 Corinthians 2:10[i], then we may trust that the truth will be revealed. If we do not have His spirit, our research will be futile, because then our own spirit will dominate and lead us to an understanding that will be both self-serving and misleading.
About “This” – Houtos
Let us begin with the term itself: “this generation”. Before looking at the meaning of the noun, let’s first try to define what “this” represents. “This” from a Greek word transliterated as houtos. It is a demonstrative pronoun and in meaning and usage is very similar to its English counterpart. It refers to something present or in front of the speaker whether physically or metaphorically. It is also used to refer to the subject of a discussion. The term “this generation” occurs 18 times in the Christian Scriptures. Here is the list of those occurrences so you can drop them into your Watchtower Library program search box to bring up the text: Matthew 11:16; 12:41, 42; 23:36; 24:34; Mark 8:12; 13:30; Luke 7:31; 11:29, 30, 31, 32, 50, 51; 17:25; 21:32.
Mark 13:30 and Luke 21:32 are parallel texts to Matthew 24:34. In all three, it is not immediately clear who comprise the generation being referred to, so we’ll put them aside for the moment and look at the other references.
Read the preceding verses of the other three references from Matthew. Note that in each case representative members of the group that comprised the generation Jesus was referring to were present. Therefore, it makes sense to use the demonstrative pronoun “this” rather than its counterpart “that”, which would be used to refer to a remote or distant group of people; people not present.
In Mark 8:11, we find the Pharisees disputing with Jesus and seeking a sign. It follows therefore that he was referring to those present as well as the group they represented by his use of the demonstrative pronoun, houtos.
Two diverse groups of people are identified in the context of Luke 7:29-31: People who declared God as righteous and the Pharisees who “disregarded the counsel of God”. It was the second group—present before him—that Jesus referred to as “this generation”.
The remaining occurrences of “this generation” in the book of Luke also refer clearly to groups of individuals present at the time Jesus used the term.
What we see from the foregoing is that every other time Jesus used the term “this generation”, he used “this” to refer to individuals that were present before him. Even if he were referring to a larger group, some representatives of that group were present, so the use of “this” (houtos) was called for.
As already stated, we have had many different interpretations regarding Matthew 23:34 since the time of Rutherford down to our day, but one thing all of them have in common is a link to the year 1914. Given how Jesus consistently employed houtos, it is doubtful that he would have used the term to refer to a group of individuals almost two millennia in the future; none of them being present at the time of his writing.[ii] We must remember that Jesus’ words were always carefully chosen—they form part of the inspired word of God. ‘That generation’ would have been more appropriate to describe a group in the distant future, yet he did not use the term. He said “this”.
We must therefore conclude that the most likely and consistent reason Jesus used the demonstrative pronoun houtos at Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30 and Luke 21:32 was because he was referring to the only group present, this disciples, soon to become anointed Christians.
About “Generation” – Genea
The problem that immediately comes to mind with the aforementioned conclusion is that the disciples present with him did not see “all these things”. For example, the events described in Matthew 24:29-31 have not yet occurred. The problem gets even more confusing when we factor in the events described at Matthew 24:15-22 which clearly describe the destruction of Jerusalem from 66 to 70 C.E. How can “this generation” witness “all these things” when the time span involved measures close to 2,000 years?
Some have tried to answer this by concluding that Jesus meant genos or race, referring to anointed Christians as a chosen race. (1 Peter 2:9) The trouble with this is that Jesus didn’t get his words wrong. He said generation, not race. To try to explain a single generation spanning two millennia by changing the wording of the Lord is to tamper with the things written. Not an acceptable option.
The Organization has tried to get around this time-span discrepancy by assuming a dual fulfillment. We say that the events described in Matthew 24:15-22 are a minor fulfillment of the great tribulation, with the major fulfillment yet to occur. Therefore, “this generation” that saw 1914 will also see the major fulfillment, the great tribulation yet to come. The trouble with this is that it is pure speculation and worse, speculation that raises more questions than it answers.
Jesus clearly describes the first century great tribulation upon the city of Jerusalem and states that “this generation” would see this as one of “all these things” before it passes away. So to make our interpretation fit, we have to go beyond the assumption of a dual fulfillment, and assume that only the latter fulfillment, the major one, is involved in fulfillment of Matthew 24:34; not the first century great tribulation. So even though Jesus said that this generation before him would see all these things including the specifically prophesied destruction of Jerusalem, we have to say, NO! that’s not included. However our problems don’t end there. To make matters worse, the dual fulfillment doesn’t fit with the events of history. We can’t just cherry pick one element of his prophecy and say there was a dual fulfillment for that alone. So we conclude that the wars and reports of wars, earthquakes, famines and pestilences all occurred within a 30-year period from Christ’s death until the attack upon Jerusalem in 66 CE. This ignores the facts of history that show the early Christian congregation benefited from a time of unusual piece called the Pax Romana. The facts of history indicate that the number of wars during that 30-year period actually declined, notably. But our dual fulfillment headaches are not over yet. It has to be recognized that there was no fulfillment whatsoever of the events described in verses 29-31. Certainly the sign of the Son of Man did not make its appearance in the heavens either before or after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. So our dual fulfillment theory is a bust.
Let us remember the principle of Occam’s razor and see if there is another solution that doesn’t require us to make speculative assumptions that are not supported by Scripture nor the events of history.
The English word “generation” is derived from a Greek root, genea. It has several definitions, as is the case with most words. What we are looking for is a definition that allows all the pieces to fit easily.
We find it in the first definition listed in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:
I. That which is generated.
1. The offspring of the same parent or parents regarded as a single step or stage in descent; such a step or stage.
b. Offspring, progeny; descendants.
Does this definition coincide with the word’s use in the Christian Scriptures? At Matthew 23:33 the Pharisees are called “offspring of vipers”. The word used is gennemata which means “generated ones”. At verse 36 of the same chapter, he calls them “this generation”. This indicates the relationship between offspring and generation. Along similar lines, Ps 112:2 says, “Mighty in the earth his offspring will become. As for the generation of the upright ones, it will be blessed.” The offspring of Jehovah is the generation of Jehovah; i.e. the ones Jehovah generates or gives birth to. Psalm 102:18 refers to “the future generation” and “the people that is to be created”. The entire created people comprise a single generation. Ps 22:30,31 speaks of “a seed [that] will serve him”. This is to “be declared concerning Jehovah to the generation…To the people that is to be born.”
That last verse is particularly interesting in light of Jesus words at John 3:3 where he says that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born again. The word “born” comes from a verb which is derived from genea. He is saying that our salvation depends on us being regenerated. God now becomes our father and we are born or generated by him, to become his progeny.
The most fundamental meaning of the word in both Greek and Hebrew relates to the offspring of a father. We think of generation in the sense of time because we live such short lives. One father produces a generation of children and then 20 to 30 years later, they in turn produce another generation of children. It’s hard not to think of the word outside the context of time periods. However, that is a meaning we have imposed culturally on the word. Genea does not carry with it the idea of a time period, only the idea of the generation of progeny.
Jehovah produces a seed, a generation, all children from a single father. “This generation” was present when Jesus spoke the words of the prophecy concerning the sign of his presence and of the conclusion of the system of things. “This generation” saw the events he foretold would occur during the first century and it will also see all the other elemental features of that prophecy. So the reassurance given to us at Matthew 24:35 was not an assurance regarding the duration of the events foretold to occur in Matthew 24:4-31, but rather the assurance that the generation of the anointed would not cease before all these things occurred.
To recap, this generation refers to the generation of anointed ones that are born again. These ones have Jehovah as their father, and being sons of a single father they comprise a single generation. As a generation they witness all the events foretold to occur by Jesus at Matthew 24:4-31. This understanding allows us to take the most common usage of the word “this”, houtos, and the basic meaning of the word “generation”, genea, without making any assumptions. While the concept of a 2,000-year-long generation may seem foreign to us, let us remember the adage: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains however improbable must be the truth.” It is merely a cultural bias that might cause us to disregard this explanation in favor of one involving the limited duration of generations involving human fathers and children.
Looking for Scriptural Harmony
It is not enough that we have found an explanation free of speculative assumptions. It must also harmonize with the rest of Scripture. Is this the case? To accept this new understanding, we must have complete harmony with relevant scriptural passages. Otherwise, we will have to keep looking.
Our former and current official interpretations have not and do not fully harmonize with Scripture and the historical record. For instance, using “this generation” as a means of measuring time conflicts with Jesus’ words at Acts 1:7. There we are told that we “are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has sent by his own authority.” (NET Bible) Isn’t that what we have always tried to do, much to our embarrassment? It may appear that Jehovah is slow respecting the fulfillment of his promise, but in fact he is patient because he does not want any to be destroyed. (2 Pet. 3:9) Knowing this, we have reasoned that if we can determine the maximum time duration for a generation, and if we can also determine the start point (1914, for instance) then we can have a pretty good idea when the end is coming because, let’s face it, Jehovah will likely give people the most time possible to repent. So we publish in our magazines our time estimates, blithely ignoring the fact that doing so violates Acts 1:7.[iii]
Our new understanding, on the other hand, eliminates the time span calculation entirely and therefore does not conflict with the injunction against us knowing the times and the seasons that fall within God’s jurisdiction.
There is also scriptural harmony with the idea of us needing a reassurance as provided by Jesus at Matthew 24:35. Consider these words:
(Revelation 6:10, 11) . . .“Until when, Sovereign Lord holy and true, are you refraining from judging and avenging our blood upon those who dwell on the earth?” 11 And a white robe was given to each of them; and they were told to rest a little while longer, until the number was filled also of their fellow slaves and their brothers who were about to be killed as they also had been.
Jehovah is waiting, holding off the four winds of destruction, until such time as the full number of the seed, his offspring, “this generation” is filled. (Rev. 7:3)
(Matthew 28:20) . . .look! I am with YOU all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.”
When Jesus spoke those words, there were his 11 faithful apostles present. He would not be with the 11 all the days until the conclusion of the system of things. But as the generation of the righteous ones, the children of God, he would indeed be present with them all the days.
The identifying and gathering of the seed is arguably the central theme of the Bible. From Genesis 3:15 to the closing pages of Revelation, everything ties into that. So it would be natural that when that number is reached, when the final ones are gathered, the end can come. Given the importance of the final sealing, it is completely consistent that Jesus should reassure us that the seed, the generation of God, will continue to exist right to the very end.
Since we’re looking to harmonize all things, we cannot overlook Matthew 24:33 which reads: “Likewise also YOU, when YOU see all these things, know that he is near at the doors.” Does this not to imply a time element? Not at all. While the generation itself endures for hundreds of years, representatives of this generation will be alive at the time when the remaining elements or features of the sign of Jesus’ imminent arrival and presence take place. As the progressive features detailed from Matthew 24:29 onward occur, those privileged to witness them will know that he is near the doors.
A Final Word
I have struggled with the incongruities of our official interpretation of Matthew 23:34 all my Christian life. Now, for the first time, I feel at peace regarding the meaning of Jesus’ words. Everything fits; credulity is not stretched in the least; contrivances and speculation have been set aside; and finally, we are free of the artificial urgency and guilt imposed by believing in manmade time calculations.