A Biblical “Generation”
In Learning Activities 31, 31A and 34 we have seen that the Scriptures make use of the word “generation” in describing the interval of time during which certain significant prophetic events were to be fulfilled. There have always been those in the church, and outside of it, who have tried to explain away the plain meaning of this word which appears in the text as “genea” and translated as “generation.” In this Learning Activity we are going to do an in depth study of the use and meaning of this word in the Scriptures so that you will be prepared to reject these false understandings of the word when you come across them in your Christian walk.
To begin our study, let us look at what a few of the Koine Greek lexicons say about the word “genea” or “generation.”
“The sum total of those born at the same time, contemporaries, those living at the same time.” A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, Arndt and Gingrich.
“The interval of time between father and son, thirty to forty years, those living in any time period.” Greek and English Lexicon of the New Testament, Robinson.
“The whole multitude of men living at the same time.” Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, Thayer.
With definitions such as those above, you would not think there would be any dispute as to what the word “generation” means in the Scriptures. Yet there are some who believe that the “generation” that Jesus spoke of in the Learning Activities noted at the beginning of this document refers to some generation that would not come into existence until thousands of years into the future after Jesus had used that word. Still others say that the word “generation” as used by Jesus refers to the entire Jewish “race,” therefore the things that Jesus prophesied did not have to take place as long as the Jewish “race” was still present. Let us look at some passages in the Bible that use the word “genea” before we elaborate on these alternate beliefs on what a biblical generation consists of.
With regard to the time interval of a “generation.”
1. Numbers 32:13
2. How many years did it take to “consume” or for that generation of evil doers to “die off?”
3. Psalms 95:10
4. How many years does the Bible seem to assign to the length of a generation?
5. Hebrews 3:9, 10
6. What length of time do the two verses in Hebrews above seem to imply is the length of a generation?
7. Acts 13:36
In the verse above we are to understand that David “…served his own generation…” and then he died. If we can find out how long David served his “generation” perhaps some insight will be given on the length of a biblical generation.
8. 1 Kings 2:11
9. How long does the verse above indicate that David served his generation?
Additionally, in Matthew 1:17 we find the words “…and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.” If we can agree with most scholars we can fix the time of the captivity of the Jews during the reign of Zedekiah as being about 586 BC. Assuming that Christ was born [“…unto Christ…”] in “0,” we can divide 586 by 14 generations to arrive at an average length of time for a generation to be 41.86 years.
It would seem reasonable and prudent to accept an interval of approximately forty years as the biblical length of “one generation.”
Now let us look at the context and usage of the word “generation” in just a few places where it appears in the Scriptures.
10. Matthew 17:17
11. Who was the group of people that Jesus was describing as a “…faithless and perverse generation…” in the verse above?
12. Matthew 23:36
13. Who is Jesus referring to in the verse above when He uses the word “generation?
NOTE: An interesting translation error appears in the passage above in the KJV. In verse 33 the KJV group of translators use the word “generation” when it should properly be translated “offspring.” The Greek word used here is “gennema” and not “genea” as in the topic of this Learning Activity. The use of “generation” in verse 36 however, is correct!
14. Mark 8:38
15. What group of people do you think Jesus was referring to when He used the word “generation” in the verse above?
Read Luke 11:29–32, 50, 51 and note the number of times the word “generation” appears.
16. How many times do you find the word “generation” in the passage of Luke above?
17. To whom do you think Jesus was referring when He used the word “generation” in the passage above?
We could continue along these lines of investigation, but I choose to end the search for the meaning of this word with a quotation from the Works of Josephus where he uses the word “generation.”
“I shall therefore speak my mind here at once briefly:– That neither did any other city [making reference to Jerusalem] ever suffered such miseries [referring to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans] nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this [generation] was, from the beginning of the world.”
The Wars of the Jews, Book 5, Chapter 10, Paragraph 51, Line 442.
Again, the meaning given to the word “generation” by Josephus is identical to those we have looked at in the Scriptures. The word, used in the contexts we have looked at, ALWAYS refers to the generation that is contemporary to the event. They are the people living at the time of the event being described.
Given the above, what can we say about the pivotal use of “generation” in Matthew 24:34 when Jesus states that everything that He has prophesied in the entirety of Chapter 24 would take place in “this generation?” It seems to me to be foolish to assign any other meaning to the word than that which we have already discussed in this Learning Activity. Jesus meant to communicate that all that He prophesied would come to fulfillment during the generation [lifetime] of those to whom He was speaking! It certainly would be the understanding that the disciples would have had after thinking about the words that Jesus had used. It certainly would have made no sense at all to the disciples if Jesus was referring to some generation that was 2,000 or more years into the future!
From this understanding we can see that the early church lived with the expectation that Jesus would return “in the clouds” before the generation in which they lived had totally died off. The materials on this web site provide helpful insights into when and how all of this fulfillment of prophecy took place.
For those reading this material who have also spent time studying the Koine Greek language, which is the predominant language of the New Testament, there is an interesting point to be made about the Matthew 24:34 scripture. The Greek, similar to the English language, has what is known as a near demonstrative for describing something that is close in thought, space or time. In this situation the Greek word “houtos” would be used. The Greek also has a far demonstrative word that would be used for describing something that is far distant in thought, space or time. That word would be “ekeinos.” In the Matthew 24:34 scripture the near demonstrative word “houtos” is used. If Jesus had meant to communicate a generation that was 2,000 or more years away, it seems logical that He would have used the far demonstrative word “ekeinos,” but HE DID NOT!
There are those who perpetuate the errors of a few of the early church fathers by giving the word “genea” a different meaning in an attempt to explain away what is clearly meant by this word. Such alternative views seem to center on the following:
Generation means “The Race of Christian Believers,” Chrysostom.
Generation means “The Human Race,” Jerome.
Generation means “The Jewish Race,” Dorner.
All of these “alternative theories” to my thinking fall into the category of what is called in Christianity as “twisting the Scriptures,” that is creating far out fairy tales of the meaning of a scripture to mesh with your theology. The cartoon below illustrates this game of twisting the Scriptures!
“There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do to other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16b, Revised Standard Version).
It is impossible for the author of this web site to understand the word generation to mean anything but the people existing at the time Jesus made the statement. There is no textual or contextual reason to understand the word generation in Matthew 24:34 any different than the way in which we understand its meaning in the other cases we have examined in this Learning Activity. If “race” had been meant there is another Greek word “genos” that would have been used in the text. We therefore conclude that the expression, “this generation” used by Jesus refers solely and exclusively to the contemporaries of Jesus who were living in the time period that Jesus spoke these words!
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