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Did Jesus Say He Would Return Before the Disciples Died?

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Christians are united in their belief that Jesus will return, but have developed different views about how they think it will unfold. Various views have emerged because there are a number of passages about Jesus’s return that need to be interpreted and integrated with each other. Some of these passages include Jesus’s own words about his return, which we find in the Olivet Discourse, which appears (Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21). There he also discusses the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (which happened in 70 AD), presenting the challenge of determining what refers to the time he said it or the time of his return. I’ve touched on various details and elements of this sermon in a previous post and a recent sermon, but want to now address what is probably the most difficult statement in it: “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32). 

Does Jesus Promise His Return Within the Lifetime of the Disciples?
Some have read these words to mean that Jesus promised that he will return within the lifetime of the apostles, as it would be within a generation (30-40 years). If this is what Jesus meant, then he was wrong because we are discussing these words two thousand years later. And if Jesus was wrong about this, then there is no reason to believe the following statement he makes about the importance of his word: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33). In fact, many have pointed to this statement as the reason for their rejection of the Christian faith and the truthfulness of the Bible. 

But is that the only or best way to read these words? A critical weakness with this understanding is that Jesus would be making a statement about the timing of his return just a few statements before telling the disciples that “concerning that day or hour no one knows—neither the angels in heaven nor the Son —but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:32). How can Jesus promise that he will return within the lifetime of the disciples in one statement and then say he does not know the time of his return? Some argue that in this second statement Jesus simply notes that he doesn’t know the exact time of his return, but that he still could have an awareness that it will happen within the lifetime of the disciples. I don’t find that explanation compelling, especially since Jesus talks throughout this discourse that he could come soon or there could be a delay. This counterpoint is a helpful reminder, though, that we need to make sure to do a close and careful reading to ensure we are not misunderstanding or overinterpreting details. When you go back to the words of this difficult statement, you will find some other potential meanings in the words, and thus different possibilities for what Jesus is saying here. 

What Are “All These Things?”
Jesus does not say that this generation will not pass away before he returns but that it will pass away “until all these things take place.” What are the things that Jesus describes? We should remember that what prompts the Olivet Discourse is not the question of when Jesus will return, but rather when the temple will be destroyed (see Matthew 24:1-3; Mark 13:1-4; Luke 21:5-7). The various signs that Jesus notes (Matthew 24:5-28; Mark 13:5-23; Luke 21:8-24) and tells them to pay attention to (Matthew 24:32-33; Mark 13:28-29; Luke 21:29-30) are things that happen before the fall of the temple in 70 AD – which was within the lifetime of the disciples! Since Jesus then speaks about his return after the fall of the temple, he states that it could be within their lifetime, but not that it must be. 

A weakness with this view, though, is that Jesus talks about his return before this statement, making it likely that it is one of “these things” (Matthew 24:29-31; Mark 13:24-27; Luke 21:25-28). Some posit that Jesus could be referring to his judgment upon Israel in the destruction of the temple rather than his arrival at the end of time, as the description about sun being darkened and stars falling (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24; Luke 21:25-36) might be metaphorical sorts of language to describe catastrophic sorts of events. In this view, Jesus keeps his word as “all these things” occur within the next 40 years. However, the description of the arrival of the Son of Man on clouds (Matthew 24:30-31; Mark 13:26-27; Luke 21:27) seems to be a visible and obvious event, with the gathering of his people (Matthew 24:31; Mark 13:27) connecting the passage to other descriptions of Jesus’s return (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17; Revelation 14:14).  

Who Is “This Generation”?
There are possible meanings for the phrase “this generation” other than within the lifespan of those to whom Jesus is speaking.

It could be a future generation that sees the various events unfolding before Jesus’s return. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus describes the fall of the temple but also his return indicating there could be similar things happening at the end of time as what happened at the time of the temple’s destruction. Jesus’s point would then be that the end will come quickly after these events start happening. A weakness in this view, though, would be that it points to some signs that still need to happen – which stands in the face of his overarching thrust to be ready. In addition, it seems odd for Jesus to tell his disciples that this future generation – 2,000 years from the time he spoke these words – will see the end come quickly once these things take place.  

The word “generation” does not just have to refer to people who share origin in a particular point in time, as there are places where it is rendered “race.” Thus, some would say that “this generation” is not a reference to the people of that time or of the future but rather of either Israel or the church, saying that “this generation” will not perish before Jesus returns. This meaning would be a message of hope and promise in the face of persecution and false teaching; heaven and earth will pass away, but God’s people formed through His Word never will. However, this is not a common use of this term so it does not seem likely to me.

A more common use of “generation” in the Bible, including Jesus himself, is in negative descriptions of “this generation.” In Mark 8:38, Jesus refers to the need not to be ashamed of him in “this adulterous and sinful generation” and in Mark 9:19 Jesus speaks of “this faithless generation” (Matthew 17:17 and Luke 9:41 say “faithless and perverse”). Jesus also rebukes “this generation” for seeking a sign and says that he will not give one (Mark 8:11-12; Matthew calls them an evil and adulterous generation in Matthew 12:39; 16:4, and Luke calls them an evil generation in Luke 11:29). This negative connotation is found in a number of other places in the Gospels (Matthew 11:16; 12:41-42; Luke 7:31; 11:31-32), but also in other parts of the Bible (see Genesis 7:1; Deuteronomy 1:35; 32:5; Psalm 12:7; 78:88; 95:10; Jeremiah 7:29; Acts 2:40; Philippians 2:14-15). Jesus thus would be saying that there will be unbelieving people opposing his people until his return, but that his Word and ways will be stronger. Such a view fits a key theme of the Olivet Discourse, which is that they will face persecution and see false teachers arise in the time leading up to the end.

What Do I Think?
I don’t think Jesus was telling his disciples that he would return in their lifetime, as that would be false. I believe the best explanation for this statement is the view that “this generation” refers to the opposition that will continue until his return as it fits the context and the use of the term. A recent peer-reviewed article by Adam Winn (“This Generation”: Reconsidering Mark 13:30 in Light of Eschatological Expectations in Second Temple Judaism” Bulletin for Biblical Research 30 [2020]: 540-560) further solidified my thoughts on this verse by showing me some of the problems with the other views noted above as well as new reasons to adopt this view. Regardless of whether or not you think this is the best explanation of this debated verse, may we not be like this generation that seeks signs in order to believe (Mark 8:11-12), but rather take Jesus at his word because he has already offered the sign of his death and resurrection. 

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