One of the more perplexing verses in the New Testament is found in Matthew 24:34 (and also the direct equivalents in Mark 13:30 and Luke 21:32). After describing a period of terrible tribulation (Matthew 24:1-28) and the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:29-31), Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
Since Jesus just talked about His return before this verse, it would seem that He is saying that the current generation would live to see His coming. Clearly this has not yet occurred and could not have happened in His disciple’s lifetime. Jesus still has not returned almost two thousand years later. What is Jesus saying here? How do we understand it?
What does Jesus mean by “all these things?”
Our understanding of this verse hinges on one question. What does Jesus mean by the phrase “all these things?” We have two options. We can guess, or we can study the surrounding context for clues. Since we want to know what scripture says—and not just what we think—let’s look at the context.
Fortunately, right before this perplexing passage in verse 33, Jesus specifies what “all these things” includes—and just as important—what it does not include.
32 “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. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. (Matthew 24:32-33 NIV)
As Jesus says, when “all these things” occur, “it is near.” Some anticipated event will be close at hand, “right at the door.” What this event exactly could be is unclear in Matthew. Some translations read “he is near,” instead of “it is near.” This is an attempt to clarify a passage which I think should be left intentionally ambiguous, to reflect the ambiguity in the Greek grammar.
Jesus could be referring perhaps to His imminent return, the kingdom of heaven (as Luke says), or even the destruction of the temple. The reason why it could mean multiple things is because His disciples themselves asked about multiple events. (24:1-3)
Regardless, “all these things” are signs that we know precede Jesus’ coming (however close in time). “All these things” does not include Jesus’ return itself, which Jesus discusses in Matthew 24:29-31.
Consequently, in verse 34, when Jesus says “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” He is not saying that the disciples will be alive at His coming. He only is indicating that they will be around for the events described in verses 4-28, which include the various tribulations, persecutions, and other events.
Did that generation live through the signs Jesus describes?
Now that we understand the meaning of “all these things,” the question shifts. Could this generation Jesus is referring to—the same generation as the disciples—still be alive when these terrible signs come upon the earth?
They absolutely could be.
Jesus warned of false Christs, wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution of His followers, and so on. All of this happened prior to Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD. According to Josephus, there were deceitful men during this time who gathered large followings around them before their insurrections were put down by the Romans. (War of Jews, Book XX, Chapter VIII, Section 6) We know from Acts and Paul’s letters that Judea went through a severe famine. (Acts 11:28) Violent persecution of Christians was initiated by the Jews in Jerusalem and by the Romans under Nero’s leadership. The city of Laodicea, mentioned by John in Revelations, was destroyed by a large earthquake in 60 AD (and was quickly rebuilt thanks to their great wealth). Even the abomination of desolation, which we often only think of as a future event, is associated by Luke with the Roman armies that would desecrate and destroy the temple. (Luke 21:20)
So yes, all these signs Jesus describes—”all these things”—happened in the lifetime of that generation.
It is no surprise that Jesus would be referring specifically to the destruction of Jerusalem. After all, He purposefully brought up the subject with His disciples as they were leaving the temple. (Matthew 24:1-2) And as they sat on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the temple compound, the disciples remembered this prophecy and asked Him when this would occur. (24:3) Recognizing that Jesus was speaking about this same event later in verse 34 is not twisting the text to fit our own ideas. It is being a faithful reader of scripture.
Additional Supporting Evidence
And that’s not all folks! Just prior in chapter 23 of Matthew, after rebuking the scribes and Pharisees for killing the prophets, Jesus says that they will be punished for their sins. The way Jesus phrases this warning almost exactly parallels His own statement in Matthew 24:34 that we’ve been discussing.
34 “Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, 35 so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 38 Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! (Matthew 23:34-38)
The context for this parallel verse is clear. Jerusalem will experience severe punishment for rejecting God’s messengers and for rejecting Jesus Christ himself. The blood of these holy men would come upon the Jewish religious leaders during their lifetime, a clear reference to the 70 AD destruction. Jerusalem will be left “desolate.” (23:38)
In this parallel passage, “all these things” can only be understood as Jerusalem’s destruction and “this generation” as the generation alive during Jesus’ ministry. This example just reinforces what we’ve already found in our previous analysis.
Summary and Concluding Thoughts
Let’s read the passage in question one last time.
32 “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. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Matthew 24:32-34 NIV)
The proper interpretation is straightforward. Jesus is simply informing His disciples that those currently living would not die until all the signs that lead up to (and that also perhaps include) the destruction of Jerusalem would occur. He is not saying that the disciples will live to see His heavenly return. After all, Jesus goes on to specify that regarding His coming, “of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24:36)
Please note, many of these signs described in Matthew 24 may have multiple fulfillments. Although they clearly deal with events leading up to 70 AD, they may also apply to “the birth pains” prior to His return. However, despite whatever alternate prophetic applications may exist, this does not nullify the clear short-term fulfillment we can historically observe. That generation went through the signs Jesus described, even if those events many have future significance as well.
This is a difficult passage, one many disagree on. I hope this brief explanation has shed some light on what Jesus meant here. There is depth in these verses that is impossible to touch on in one post, so feel free to comment below or send an email if you have further questions.