After predicting a large falling away from the faith and great distress for His followers, Jesus announced that cosmic events would take place with such dramatic effect that "the heavenly bodies will be shaken" (Matt. 24:29; Mark 13:24; Luke 21:25, 26).* Only then will appear "the sign of the Son of Man" in the sky: "They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory" (Matt. 24:30). Jesus wanted His followers to look for that "sign of the Son of Man"!
Then Christ gave a parable: "Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things, you know that it [or "he"] is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened" (Matt. 24:32-34).
Theologians with a strong liberal bent have concluded that in these words Christ announced that He would return during the lifetime of His contemporary generation and that the parousia should indeed have taken place shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. History has shown, they say, that Jesus was simply mistaken. But is that so?
To understand Jesus' statement adequately, we must consider two crucial terms: "this generation" and "all these things." Jesus clearly identified "this generation" not with the fulfillment of some or many signs but with the fulfillment of "all these things," that is, all these signs. This has not always been recognized, so that some have named the "last generation" prematurely. What, then, is meant by "all these things"?
What are "all" of the cosmic events?
When twigs are getting tender and leaves begin to sprout, this does not indicate that the summer has arrived but that it is near. Likewise, when "all these things" are experienced, including the cosmic events in the sky and on earth, then and only then is the parousia near or imminent. Luke confirms this understanding. He mentions "signs in the sun, moon and stars," seismic waves in the sea, and then summarizes: "for the heavenly bodies will be shaken" (21:25,26). After mentioning the fig tree parable, Luke repeats the same idea: "Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near" (21:31). It is clear that "these things" do not include the parousia itself. It is obviously pointless to say, "When you see the Son of Man coming in glory, you know that He is near." Matthew's version also points out that all cosmic events must be realized, before we can say that the parousia is near and the last generation has arrived: "Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened" (Matt. 24:33, 34).
Matthew mentions the "shaking" of heavenly bodies or cosmic upheavals as the last sign before the coming of Christ (Matt. 24:29). Only when all these cosmic signs have occurred, not just the meteor shower of 1833, can we know that the last generation has come. Arthur S. Maxwell concluded in the 1952 Seventh-day Adventist Bible Conference that if the cosmic phenomena of the year 1833 were intended as a sign of the approach of the final consummation, "how absurd to suggest that hundreds of years may elapse before the Lord shall appear! Prolonged delay would make them meaningless." 1
William H. Branson, president of the General Conference, declared at the same Bible Conference: "Nowhere do we find a statement of Jesus that some of those who witnessed the falling of the stars [of Nov. 13,1833] would live until He appears. He says of those who are to constitute the last generation, 'When we shall see all these things,' and I want to ask which generation it is that saw all these things come to pass? That really is the crux of the question."2
The question is answered when we relate Jesus' statement of "this generation" to the last sign of the "shaking of the heavenly bodies" and relate the latter to the cosmic events that will occur during the seven last plagues. In fact, a general consensus exists to suggest that the signs in the sun, moon, and stars are summarized in the phrase: "and the heavenly bodies will be shaken" (Matt. 24:29). This concept is taught by present Adventist New Testament scholars.3
Ki K. Kim, investigating the cosmic signs in the light of Old Testament prophecies about the "Day of Yahweh," says: "Matthew's main concern is not to explain the identity of the signs or to provide a timetable, but to paint the coming of the Son of Man in bright colors and to move his audience into the glory of the Parousia. Determining the timetable is not Matthew's intention."4
"This generation" in typological perspective
What did Jesus mean by the term "this generation" (Matt. 24:34)? Most commentators assume that Jesus referred to His contemporary generation. They point to Jesus' similar statement in Matthew 23:36, "I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation." But this comparison does not prove a total identification, because the contexts differ. In chapter 23 Jesus speaks about the imminent doom of Jerusalem. In chapter 24 Jesus speaks about His second coming in glory. The contexts thus make the difference in the application of the phrase "this generation."
How long the period of His contemporary generation would last, Jesus did not indicate. He made the presence of the Roman armies near Jerusalem the climactic sign for His own generation, a sign that the apostles could see for themselves. Then they could flee safely to the mountains. To the existing generation of unbelieving Jews, Jesus made the startling announcement: "You will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord'" (Matt. 23:39). The Jewish people, both the living and the dead, will thus be arraigned before His future presence as the Judge (see Matt. 25:31-46). Jesus announced the same truth to the high priest Caiaphas: "From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matt. 26:64, NRSV; NASB margin; cf. Luke 22:69; Mark 14:62). Such a prediction requires the resurrection of Caiaphas at the second advent of Christ! The book of Revelation speaks of this: "Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen" (Rev. 1:7).
Jesus' statement that "this generation shall not pass away" (Matt. 24:34; 26:64) is applied to all major opponents of Christ in every generation. They will all be resurrected at His second advent and face Him as their Judge. Jesus' point is not the chronological life span of "this generation" but His sure coming in judgment for His contemporary generation and for all who have "pierced Him" with their rejection.
Jesus did not declare that He would return within the time of the existing generation. Of His parousia He said: "No one knows that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come!" (Mark 13:32, 33). This answers the second question of Jesus' disciples concerning the timing of His second coming (Matt. 24:3).
Regarding the coming destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, Jesus answered that it would take place during His contemporary generation (Matt. 23:36). They were to experience the "time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written" (Luke 21:22). This judgment serves at the same time as a prophetic type of the last judgment, when "all the nations of the earth will mourn" because of Christ (Matt. 24:30; Rev. 1:7). Jesus' own generation thus functions as a type of the last generation that will reject the Messiahship of Jesus.
The experience of the last generation
Christ looked forward to the generation that will live at "the end" of time. The phrase "the end" is similar to the one in Daniel and is used repeatedly for the end of the church age (Matt. 10:22; 13:39; 24:3, 13,14; 28:20).
The last wicked generation in the church age will experience God's final "wrath" in the seven plagues that culminate in the shaking of heaven and earth (Rev. 16:10,17-21). The effect of these terrifying events on the world is described in the sixth seal: "I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?'(Rev. 6:12-17).
Evidently, the sixth seal portrays the last generation on earth and its experience of the shaking of heaven and earth. That generation alone will see the "all things" that Christ predicted. It will be the generation that lives when the seven last plagues fall on the Babylonian world, at the moment when it decides to destroy the followers of Christ (see Rev. 17:14; 19:11-21).
The theological connotation of "this generation"
Some propose that Jesus' phrase "this generation" refers to all who belong at any time to "this adulterous and sinful generation" or "unbelieving generation," because of their unbelief in the gospel message. C. Mervyn Maxwell prefers this interpretation, because the temporal understanding of "generation" as the "last" generation since 1833 does not fit anymore with the Adventist tradition: "Even more difficult is locating anybody still alive who observed the astronomical second-coming signs that occurred during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries."5
Christ indeed equates the phrase "this generation" regularly with an unbelieving generation (see Mark 9:19; Matt. 12:39; 17:17). Jesus connected the faithless attitude of His own generation directly with the final judgment scene, when He stated: "The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation, and condemn it" (Matt. 12:41). "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels" (Mark 8:38).
Thus Jesus used the phrase "this generation" to designate a generation that has been confronted with His truth and has, in its majority, rejected His Lordship. Jesus' subsequent words of assurance point to the certainty of His return as Judge: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Mark 13:31; Matt. 24:35; Luke 21:33).
The end-time fulfillment of "this generation"
Are there any indications that Jesus specifically had the final generation in mind when He said "This generation will not pass away"? Some references in Jesus' Olivet discourse clearly point to the final generation:
(1) Jesus' phrase, "there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now" (Matt. 24:21; see Mark 13:19 for a variation) has a specific end-time ring. This phrase is similar to the one in Daniel 12:1, that describes the last generation of saints. Equally compelling is Jesus' prediction: Immediately after the distress of those days [of Dan. 12:1] "the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken" (Matt.24:29).
This chronological pinpointing of "all these things" in the sky "immediately after the distress,"6 can find its complete fulfillment only in the generation that experiences the endtime distress or "time of Jacob's trouble" (Jer. 30:5-7; Gen. 32:23-26) of Daniel 12:1. This will take place during the seven last plagues that cause the cosmic upheavals and directly usher in the second advent (Rev. 16:10, 17-21).7
(2) Luke's Gospel presents the cosmic signs as an unbreakable unit and process that introduces the return of Christ for the last generation: "There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near" (Luke 21:25-28).
The generation that witnesses all these things is the one that will live during the seven last plagues (see Rev. 16:10,17-21) and will certainly not pass away before it sees the advent of Christ as the Judge and Deliverer.
(3) Looking at the larger textual unit of Matthew 23-25, one can discern a broad chiastic structure (23:1-24:14 paralleling 24:15-25:46), with the phrase "this generation" occurring twice (23:36 and 24:34). Discussing this literary composition, S. J. Kidder states: "The first 'generation' was to witness the signs on earth, the second was to witness the signs in heaven."8 This means that just as the unbelieving generation of Jesus' time saw the sign of Jerusalem's destruction (23:36), so will the unbelieving generation of the end time see the sign of Christ's coming in the clouds of heaven (24:34).
Christ bestowed on all His followers the duty to watch for the fulfillment of the signs of the times, especially of the supreme sign of all: the coming of the Son of Man on a cloud of glory. They should never think that His return is far away, because no one knows the exact timing of His coming. He will arrive unexpectedly and suddenly (Mark 13:32; Matt. 24:36).
In every generation the disciples of Christ must cultivate an expectant attitude toward the future: "What I say to you, I say to everyone: Watch!" (Mark 13:37). The first-century Christians saw some of the signs of the age fulfilled before their eyes. Therefore they anticipated the end with intensified hope. Many believers during the Middle Ages experienced the predicted signs of apostasy, great distress, and horrible persecution. During the Advent awakening in the nineteenth century, many saw the natural upheavals on earth and in the sky of their time as forerunners of the Second Coming. How much the more do we need to be alert today and seek a better understanding of the prophecies of Jesus' coming! We may be the generation that will see all the signs fulfilled.
* Except as otherwise stated, all
Scripture passages in this article are from
the New International Version.
1 Our Firm Foundation (Hagerstown,
Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
2 Ibid., 2:701.
3 See Harold E. Fagal, in The Advent
Hope in Scripture and History, V. N. Olsen,
ed. (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald
Pub. Assn., 1987), 52.
4 K. K. Kirn, The Signs of the Parousia
(Korean Sahmyook Univ. Mon. Doct.
Diss. Series, vol. 3, Seoul, Korea, 1994),
5 C. Mervyn Maxwell, God Cares
(Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn.,
6 For a discussion of "those days" in
Matt. 24:29, see LaRondelle, "The
Application of Cosmic Signs in the
Adventist Tradition," Ministry, Sept. 1998,
25-27. Also his How to Understand the
End-Time Prophecies (Sarasota, Fla.: First
Impressions, 1997), ch. 6.
7 See the interpretation of Daniel
12:1 by E. G. White in The Great Controversy
(Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub.
Assn., 1911), ch. 39, "The Time of
8 S. J. Skidder, "'This Generation' in
Matthew 24:34," Andrews University
Seminary Studies 21, no. 3 (1983): 205.