The Great Apostasy: Future or Fulfilled? #3
The Great Apostasy and “This Generation”
Without question the entire premillennial construction of the Olivet Discourse stands or falls on the definition of “this generation”! If by “this generation” Jesus meant his contemporary generation then the posit of a future Abomination of Desolation, Great Tribulation, Great Apostasy, Rapture, etc. falls to the ground! A study of the word is therefore proper.
A. J. Mattill lists several definitions by commentators in an effort to escape the dilemma posed by Jesus’ seemingly clear-cut time statement. Some define it as “Jewish race”; “human race”; “this type of faithless generation”; “the generation that sees these things whenever that might be”.
While the Greek word translated as generation (genea) does have “race” as root meaning, Mattill notes that Bauer’s Arndt and Gingrich Lexicon gives not a single instance where genea actually means “race.” Balz-Schneider hold that genea referred to the “Jewish people in the time of Jesus” in a special eschatological context. In other words, “this generation” in Mark 13:30 “affirms, along with Matthew 24:34 and Luke 21:32, that this generation (Jesus’ generation, DKP) must experience the horrors of the end time.” Kittel’s says genea, “mostly denotes ‘generation’ in the sense of contemporaries.” They give no Biblical examples of genea meaning race, people, mankind, etc.
Many commentators have chosen to change the normal “temporal” significance of “this generation” because of theological bias. The problem as some see it may be summarized in the words of Mounce,
“The problem is obvious, the generation alive at that time has long since passed away, but the eschatological events described in the passage have not taken place”. This “a priori” mindset of how things must be fulfilled is at the very least suspect. We agree with Demars “If Jesus said that all the events prior to Matthew 24:34 would occur before the contemporary generation (within forty years) passed away, then we must take him at his word.”
The word generation is used 38 times outside of Matthew 24:34 (and parallels). Jesus personally used the term “this generation”, apart from parallels, 10 times. An examination of these passages should convince any objective student of the meaning of the term. Now, if it can be established that “this generation” was referent to Jesus’ contemporary time, the, without doubt, the great apostasy was in the first century. Let us examine the usage of “this generation” in the Synoptics.
The Great Apostasy and a Look at “This Generation”
1. Matthew 11:16 — “to what shall I like this generation?” Jesus was clearly speaking of his contemporaries who would not accept him. (parallel Lk. 7:31)
2. Matthew 12:41 — “The men of Nineveh will rise up in judgment with this generation.” Jesus is contrasting an earlier generation with his own. (Lk. 11:32)
3. Matthew 12:42 — “the queen of the south will rise up in judgment with this generation and condemn it”. Same as verse 41. (Lk. 11:31)
4. Matthew 12:45 — “So shall it also be with this wicked generation”. Jesus was predicting the exceeding wickedness of his contemporaries. This corresponds exactly with his warning that his generation would “fill up the measure of your fathers” Matthew 23:32, by persecuting the saints.
5. Matthew 23:36 — “All these things will come upon this generation.” Interestingly, few millennialists deny that this occurrence of “this generation” is a specific referent to Jesus’ contemporaries and the awful events of 70 AD.
6. Matthew 24:34 — We agree with Bahnsen and Gentry “Contextually the ‘this generation’ of Matthew 24:34 MUST speak of the same idea as that of Matthew 23:36.”
1. Mark 8:12 — “Why does this generation seek a sign? Assuredly, I say unto you, no sign shall be given to this generation.” Is there any dispute as to whether it was Jesus’ contemporaries seeking a sign?
2. Mark 8:38 — “whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulteress and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes”. It was Jesus’ contemporaries who were ashamed of him and knew him not, John 1:11; Luke 13:25-30.
1. Luke 11:30-“As Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of Man be to this generation”. Jesus was raised, as a sign, in that generation was he not?
2. Luke 17:25 — “But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation”. Jesus said he must suffer at the hands of “this generation” — indisputably his contemporaries.
While we have not examined each occurrence of the word “generation”, confining ourselves to those instances where Jesus personally used the term “this generation”, a wider study would confirm the words of Gould: “The word is always used by Jesus to denote the men living at that time”. Our examination of the term “this generation” as used by Jesus has found that “In every case it does not seem doubtful that the meaning is the CONTEMPORARIES OF JESUS”. (emphasis his) He continues “If dogmatic considerations were not at stake, that conclusion would not be questioned, but Biblical exegesis must control Biblical theology and not vice versa”. We agree and must reject the millennial redefinition of “this generation” and agree with Terry that to change the meaning of the term to “Jewish Nation”; “race of Christian Believers”, etc, or any other unattested definition is to do so as “a reading whatever suits our purpose into the words of Scripture”. Strangely, the premillennialists is the student that is always insisting on the literal interpretation of scripture. But when confronted with the consistent, textual, and literal definition of generation in Matthew 24:34 that insistence becomes somewhat less than rigid.
Consider for a moment what it would mean to define “generation” as “Jewish race”. This would have Jesus saying the Jewish nation would not perish until his return. Conversely, this would indicate the Jewish nation would perish at Christ’s return. But the millennial posit is that at the parousia the Jews are converted and reign for a thousand years with Christ.
The problem is compounded when one considers the “fig tree” illustration, Matt. 24:32f. Millennialists contend the fig tree represents Israel; the budding represents Israel’s re-establishment in May of 1948. The application is then made that the generation seeing this would not pass until the coming occurred. But Luke says consider the fig tree “and all the trees” (21:29). Jesus said when the fig tree, and all the trees, bring forth leaves this indicates summer is nigh; meaning when they saw the signs they could know his coming was at hand. He then stated “this generation will not pass”.
Now what does “all the trees” mean? If the fig tree is Israel, then all the trees must represent all nations. Did Jesus say there would be a restoration of “all the nations” just before the parousia? The millennial definition of the “fig tree” demands this but it is not valid. Jesus was simply giving an illustration. Some millennialists now reject the fig tree application to Israel because of these difficulties.
The point is, the fig tree illustration and Jesus’ use of “this generation” constitutes strong proof indeed that Jesus was speaking to and about contemporaries. And this would mean that the great apostasy did indeed take place in the first century.
If it is ever granted that “this generation” actually refers to Jesus’ generation then the Great Apostasy, an apostasy so vast that “most people’s love will grow cold” did indeed happen in the first century. At this one admission the entire millennial view of Matthew 24 would tumble.
Many amillennialist would agree with this view; all the while having what might be called a “blind spot” in his own theology about the Apostasy. For you see, while many amillennialists believe an apostasy did occur prior to Jerusalem’s demise, at least they would argue this to combat millennialism, they then turn around and argue that in II Thessalonians and other epistles predict another Great Apostasy that has not yet come to full fruition.
The primary passage offered as proof for a second apostasy is 2 Thessalonians 2. However, a comparison with the Olivet Discourse will prove beyond doubt that these are parallel passages and that the great apostasy occurred in the first century.
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