Christ's emphatic assertion that "this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" (Matt. 24:34) poses a problem. Not for Him, nor for His hearers—but for us to day. And the various interpretations of these words of Jesus demonstrate various misunderstandings of how prophecy works.
Some regard this statement as evidence that Jesus was fallible—He was wrong, He made a mistake. This in turn brings into question the reliability of the whole gospel proclamation. If such a clear prediction failed, then how much faith can we place in the rest of what He said?
Others regard this definite statement as a precise delimitation of the time of Jesus' return. They believe it was fulfilled—that Jesus did come again within 40 years or so of the time He spoke these words. This belief has, in turn, given rise to various theories, such as that Christ returned secretly in A.D. 70 at the destruction of Jerusalem; that the "coming" spoken of referred to the rise of the church; and that the prophesied return was a "spiritual" coming (of various sorts), not the physical return of Christ.
Those who regard this prophecy as clearly speaking of Christ's actual physical return have proposed a whole host of solutions to the "time question." They have suggested that the "all things" does not refer to the Second Coming; that the statement refers exclusively to the fall of Jerusalem; that the generation Christ spoke of is the final, end-time generation; and so on.
Some of the other hypotheses seek to solve the difficulty by expanding the meaning of "generation." They suggest that this term encompasses the whole human race, the continuing generation of evil, the church, the Jewish race, and so on. These hypotheses make "generation" mean a considerably extended time period—an age or an era. Others see a dual application linking conditions and signs of both the generation of Jesus and the generation of the end; or a "continuous generation" because the signs are applicable in every generation; or the final generation that alone sees and under stands the signs.
While some of these suggestions may hold some truth, it's clear that they have not arisen from any direct exegesis of the text. Rather, they have been pro pounded to explain the apparent non-fulfillment of prophecy.
Adventists face further difficulties. An interpretation of Matthew 24:34 popular in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Adventism said "the generation in which the signs appeared shall not pass till all the wonders of the Second Advent shall have been accomplished." 1
Some believed this view absolutely in controvertible: "Without doubt there will be some living when the Lord comes who saw the falling of the stars in 1833." 2 "The present generation  is the one which is destined to see the second coming of Christ. Just as surely as the great period of tribulation of the church came to pass, just as surely as this period was followed by the occurrence of the dark day in 1780, just as surely as this in turn was followed by the falling of the stars in 1833, just so surely will the coming of Christ take place in the present generation. This is the clear teaching of the Word of God, and the Scriptures cannot be broken." 3
Ellen White was more circumspect, but some statements that she made might be taken to support this "sign generation" approach: "He [Christ] says of those who see the signs, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.' These signs have appeared. Now we know of a surety that the Lord's coming is at hand." 4
Time passes—the problem of delay
With the passing of time, the sign generation interpretation becomes increasingly difficult to maintain at least in its original sense. The anonymous book The World's Crisis, written about the time of World War I, offers the following defense for the continuing validity of this interpretation: "The Saviour's assurance [Matt. 24:34] justifies us then in concluding that when the stars fell in 1833 the last generation was then on the stage. When He comes again in glory there will be some alive to see Him who were alive when the stars fell. Any such must now be well over 80 years of age, but it is not unheard-of for men and women to out live a century, so it may yet perhaps be a score of years or more before the coming of the Lord takes place."
Just that "score of years" or so later A. G. Daniells writes of the problem in a Ministry article, "Is Christ's Second Coming Being Delayed? If So, Why?" This article makes evident the crisis of delay the sign generation approach precipitates.
Daniells writes: "We are well aware of the strong faith and positive teaching of the pioneers in this message regarding the signs of His coming as given by our Lord and recorded in Matthew 24. We are also aware of their positive views and teaching regarding 'this generation' of verse 34. They sincerely, wholeheartedly believed that the signs recorded in that chapter were sure heralds of His coming. They believed and taught with great assurance that 'this generation,' which 'shall not pass away, till all these things shall be accomplished,' was the generation in which they were living, and that the Saviour would come in that generation.
"More than fourscore years have come and gone since those earnest, God fearing leaders reached these conclusions. The Saviour has not yet come. Those pioneers are now in their graves." 6
Adventists can no longer follow the sign generation interpretation without some redefinition. In fact what seems to be happening is a further reinterpretation of the word generation. Now both the generation that heard Christ's words and the "sign generation" are interpreted other than literally. The following note from the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary clearly exemplifies this redefinition: "Christ declared that the 'generation' that sees the last of the signs shall not pass before 'all these things [Christ's coming and the end of the world] be fulfilled.'" 7 That the editors of the commentary have placed the word generation in quotes is significant.
The unfortunate assertions about the "sign generation" (which are clearly in error!) and the uncomfortable position in which we find ourselves force us back to an investigation of the words of Jesus and their meaning. The clarity of His statement and the emphatic "Verily I say unto you" that precedes it leave one wondering how Christ could have made His meaning any plainer. It's hard to believe that any one of us who heard His words would have taken them to mean more than the obvious.
Let's take this "face value" approach that avoids some of the philosophical and philological wranglings that inevitably occur in trying to "explain" Christ's assertion. I believe that the problem is not so much the statement itself but our position in time and the outlooks and attitudes that differ so drastically from those who first heard Him speak.
Within a literal generation of Christ's words a number of the events that He spoke of did occur: the persecution of Christians, the flight from Jerusalem (not in winter nor on the Sabbath), the Roman invasion, and the destruction of Jerusalem. But as our Bible commentary rightly points out, Matthew 24:34 comes in the part of the prophecy that appears to deal exclusively with end-time events.
What prophecy means
There is another concept with which we are acquainted, but which, strangely, we have neglected in this connection. This concept is a true understanding of the meaning of prophecy, which has been much applied to the Old Testament prophecies but not to those of the New.
The Old Testament provides a clear view of prophecy. Even a superficial reading makes clear that we cannot take prophecy as a static phenomenon—it adapts and reacts to the specifics of a given situation. The people of Israel were given a whole host of prophecies predicting their future greatness as a nation, their prosperity, their role as evangelists to the world, etc. Yet God also prophesies in no uncertain terms calamity and destruction on His chosen people—prophecies that would appear to be in direct contradiction of the prophecies of blessing.
Frequently both types of prophecy—blessing and cursing—were combined. For example, the first 14 verses of Deuteronomy 28 speak of potential benefits and the remaining verses tell of potential disaster. We have no choice but to assume that the principle of contingency runs throughout such passages. Israel's choices would largely determine which aspect of the prophecy was eventually fulfilled.
The book of Jonah depicts the classic case of unfulfilled prophecy. Because of the Ninevites' repentance the highly specific prediction "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown" (Jonah 3:4) was not fulfilled. Does this invalidate prophecy? Did prophecy fail? Jonah seemed to think so. But even this prophecy, which contained no mention of "conditionality," could be suspended (Nineveh was destroyed at a later date).
The history of Tyre provides an example of an apparently "rigid" fulfillment of prophecy. People appeal to Ezekiel's prophecy against Tyre (chapter 26) as hard proof of the validity of prophecy and of the Bible as a whole. Here prophecy as prediction seems to be fully vindicated in a deterministic sense. God spoke against Tyre and it was destroyed.
However, the actual case is not so simple. Alexander destroyed Tyre, scraping bare the rocks of the old city to make a causeway through the sea so as to capture the island fortress—thus fulfilling verses 4 and 5. But the people who first heard Ezekiel's prophecy (his generation!) might well have thought the prophecy had failed. Ezekiel had specifically mentioned Nebuchadnezzar as the destroyer of Tyre (verse 7), and though Nebuchadnezzar did take Tyre during Ezekiel's life time, the prophecy remained unfulfilled in a number of specifics. For those living in that time it must have seemed that Ezekiel had gotten it wrong. However, in the end, God's purpose was fulfilled—in this case (but certainly not always) with a dramatic fulfillment of specifics.
An ongoing relationship
From all this we conclude that God's prophecies describe His intentions to ward mankind. Though changing circumstances may necessitate their modification, the fulfillment of His ultimate purpose is never in doubt.
It's the modifications that trouble us. They are more than merely a matter of "conditional prophecy." Rather, they result from the application of God's promises to an ongoing relationship. The separation of prophecy into "conditional" and "unconditional" obscures the real principle in operation—that while God's basic aims and purposes remain unaltered (salvation, restoring man in the divine image, healing the damage done by sin, etc.) as does the means by which they are achieved (Jesus Christ and His revelation of God), the actual formulation of the message and the situation in which all of this happens may vary. "The plan itself never changes because God never changes. But the manner in which it is carried out may change because man may change." 8
Much of this human impact affects matters of time. Nineveh was to be destroyed in 40 days, but because of human repentance the predicted destruction was long delayed. God warned Hezekiah to prepare to die, but because of his prayer granted him another 15 years. Because those involved did not respond properly, God could not fulfill to exiled Israel His promises of the gathering and of the Messiah's leadership out of exile. The Messiah came only after another four and a half centuries had elapsed.
What of "this generation"?
What then shall we make of "this generation"? The terrible events that accompanied the destruction of Jerusalem fulfilled part of the prophecy. But the second advent of the Son of man remains unfulfilled—because of conditions and human response. Does this mean that the primary purpose of God will never be accomplished? No. In "the fulness of the time . . . God sent forth his Son" (Gal. 4:4). So, too, "the fulness of time" will see the Second Advent.
Could the Second Advent have occurred within the disciples' generation? Had mankind responded in the right way, God could have ushered in the end.9 Human failure, however, necessitated more time.
So why then, if God knew that that generation would not see the Second Advent, did Jesus say what He did?
Only one valid answer emerges from all the above discussion of the meaning of prophecy. Jesus' statement includes both a possibility and a certainty, both the desire and the will of God. The Father wanted His Son to return as soon as possible. But the response of human beings has affected that—not the will of God, but its specific fulfillment. Prophecy is embedded in the concept of relationship to God—which is either good or bad. The great controversy model of the uni verse reveals God to be demonstrating His true character in response to the charges of the devil. Prophecy is an essential part of this open divine-human relationship; it clearly spells out the con sequences of our decisions.
Prophecy is dynamic. It is contingent on the God-human relationship not in the sense that human actions annul prophecies, but in that they do affect the way in which God's will is eventually carried out.
So "generation" may well have a broader meaning than a literal human generation but not because we need a way of getting out of an embarrassing problem. The word may indeed apply to those who see and respond to the signs of the times. "Generation" may even apply to the time of the church and the work of taking the gospel of the end to the world. But this is not a re interpretation of the word generation; this interpretation arises from an understanding of the nature of prophecy.
Even the Adventist understanding of the sign generation has validity and meaning within the framework of an understanding that prophecy is dynamic and reflects the relationship between us and God. As we relate to God in the right way, as we demonstrate His trustworthiness, we confirm God's intentions as ex pressed in the prophecy of blessing. Alternatively . . . !
This understanding of the nature of prophecy, then, does not call us to deter mine the date and time of Christ's coming nor to identify the timespan of a "generation." Rather, it calls us to enter into a relationship based on love and trust with a God who says to each of us, "I am coming soon."
In the end we do well to remember that it is God who has all the answers, not we; and that His final realization of His purpose does not depend on our feeble and erring response. Prophecy is God's will vindicated—not in all its situational specifics, but in the all-encompassing victory of God Himself.
1 E. J. Waggoner, Prophetic Lights (Oakland:
Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1888), p. 127.
2 C. B. Haynes, The Return of Jesus (Washing
ton, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1926),
3 ______, Our Lord's Return (Nashville:
Southern Pub. Assn., 1st copyright 1918), p. 56.
4 E. G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p.
5 The World's Crisis (Watford: International
Tract Society, n.d.), p. 49.
6 A. G. Daniells, "Is the Second Coming of
Christ Being Delayed? If So, Why?" Ministry,
November 1930, pp. 5ff.
7 The SDA Bible Commentary (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1956), vol.
5, p. 503.
8 Ibid., vol. 4, p. 34.
9 Ibid., vol. 7, p. 729.