Periodical Review: “‘This Generation’ in the Trilogy of Matthew 24:34-35”

One of the more contentious passages in the Gospels is the following statement by Jesus:

Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Critics of the Bible have often pointed to this passage as a failed prophecy of Jesus. The underlying understanding being that the term “generation” is meant to be understood as a referring to the generation of people who were alive at the time Jesus spoke these words.

But in his recently published article, titled “‘This Generation’ in the Trilogy of Matthew 24:34-35,”[1] writer Kenneth E. Guenter offers an alternative interpretation. To summarize from the abstract, Jesus’ disciples would have understood His words to echo sentiments from Moses and the Prophets, leading to the understanding “that ‘this generation’ was their nation, ‘heaven and earth’ were the witnesses to their covenant with Yahweh, and though these witnesses will pass away, Jesus’s promise ‘will never pass away.'”

Guenter’s main critique of modern day commentators on this passage is that the majority of interpreters fail to compare the words of Jesus with the Old Testament.[2] In his mind this is an important tactic that must be taken because there needs to be more awareness of “scriptures available to the disciples.” [3] In order to accomplish this, Guenter highlights several portions of the Old Testament under two major headings in his article.

The first major Old Testament passage observed is Moses’s “Song of Witness” from Deuteronomy 32. God commanded Moses to write this song down as a testament (or “witness”) against the nation of Israel when they fell back to worshiping idols. Guenter highlights the use of the term “this generation” and sees it as being used to describe all of Israel throughout her generations. Guenter gives three arguments for understanding this term this way: 1. Various possessive terms used of Israel (such as “His portion,” “his people,” and “his servants”) are true for all of temporal Israel, and not just the generation alive when Moses wrote the song. 2. The “paradox” of the song that describes Israel as a “warped crooked and perverse generation” makes little sense if one views it as applying only to the generation that could potentially be described as the most faithful generation of Israel’s history (i.e. the generation that Joshua lead into the promised land). 3. The song was continually echoed and referenced throughout Israel’s history, by both the prophets and the apostles. In light of these reasons, Guenter believes that Jesus’ disciples would have had this passage in mind when He used the language of “this generation.”

The next major heading compares Deuteronomy 32 with Psalm 78, Jeremiah 2, and Jeremiah 7. In Jeremiah 2 specifically, Guenter shows that “generation” is used in a way that is inclusive of all Israel by identifying eleven different parallels or “echoes” with the “Song of Witness” from Deut. 32. What all this leads Guenter to conclude, is that “the echoes and parallels more reasonably suggest… that the cumulative rejection of the prophets and Jesus himself was leading to the nation’s destruction.”[4]

A good portion of the article is spent arguing for Guenter’s interpretation of “generation” being a reference to all of Israel, past, present, and future, rather than just being limited to the generation that was alive when Jesus spoke the words. Once that is established however, Guenter’s interpretation of the rest of the passage flows quickly and simply.

The three clauses of Matthew 24.34-35, under the proposed interpretation of “this generation,” become a trilogy hearkening back to God’s Old Testament promises, rather than three different prophecies made by Jesus. As for “this generation will not pass,” Jesus is reminding His listeners that despite the hardship and tribulation that would come upon them in the future, God would carry a remnant through and not allow the nation to end.

“Heaven and Earth will pass away” is a callback to God’s use of heaven and earth as “witnesses” to the promises He made to the people of Israel. Guenter asks the question, “if heaven and earth were to pass away, what then would become of Yahweh’s promises?”[4] He then cites Isaiah 51.6 as saying that at some point the earth and the heavens would eventually fade away, but this is no concern for the Israelite because God would remain faithful to His people and promises.

The final portion of the trilogy, “But my words will never pass away,” is considered by Guenter to be something that the disciples would have understood as a reference or summary of the two preceding statements.

Guenter readily admits this interpretation of the Matthean passage finds itself in an extreme minority among commentators. It is hard to say if this interpretation should be regarded as the correct one, but it is most certainly thought provoking. I would also say that Guenter’s basis for this view, grounding the statements of Jesus in teachings from the Old Testament, seems like a pretty solid way of approaching this passage. He certainly argues it effectively at least, and considering the lack of work in this area as it specifically relates to this passage, I hope to see more commentators explore this approach more in the future.

 


[1] Guenter, Kenneth E. “‘This Generation’ in the Trilogy of Matthew 24.34-35” Bibliotheca Sacra 175 (April-June 2018): 174-94.

[2] To help illustrate how widespread this shortfall in interpretation is, Guenter includes in the footnotes a survey of sources that fail to refer to Israel’s Scriptures. The footnotes are long enough to take up two to three pages by themselves. Just for the amusement factor, I pulled three commentaries off my own shelf to see if they referenced any Old Testament Scripture. None of them did. They are: “The New American Commentary: Matthew” by Craig L. Blomberg; “Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Volume V: Matthew to John.” By Matthew Henry; “The Bible Knowledge Commentary” edited by Walvoord and Zuck, with the Matthew Commentary being written by Louis A. Barbieri Jr.

[3] Guenter. 189-90.

[4] ibid. 188

[5] ibid. 192. It is also good to note here that up to this point in the article, Guenter has given many examples of earth and the heavens being called as witnesses to events in the Old Testament.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s