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Emphatic Elements in the Greek: Matthew 24 (part 6)

The following is section six from a series on emphatic elements in the Greek New Testament, written by biblical language expert Justin Alfred. Previous blog entries in this series:


Section VI – Matthew 24:32-35

“Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; 33 even so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. 34 ‘Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away (οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃou mē parelthē ) until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away (οὐ μὴ παρέλθωσινou mē parelthōsin)'” (Matthew 24:32-35).

This is the subjunctive of emphatic negation

We are now at the core of this whole passage with regard to the subjunctive of emphatic negation.  Jesus is saying emphatically that neither “this generation” will in NO WAY WHATSOEVER “pass away until all these things take place,” and even though “heaven and earth will pass away,” His “words shall in NO WAY AT ANY TIME EVER “pass away.”

What does the word “generation” mean?

In the Greek, the word is γενεά (genea), and it is precisely the debate over the meaning of this word that has caused so much confusion and misdirection in eschatological teaching and belief for almost 2000 years.  But one thing that time does do is help to sort out what is true and what is not.  Therefore, what we will do now is look at the four, primary meanings and application of this word, and our source will be William F. Arndt and F. Wilber Gingrich’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.  As we do, I believe we will get a proper perspective on just exactly what Jesus was referring to with reference to γενεά (genea):

Clan, race, or kind

1)      γενεά (genea) – the first meaning is “those who are descended from a common ancestor, a clan, race, and kind generation . . . such as the children of this age are more prudent in relation to their own clan (i.e., people of their own kind) than are the children of light, Luke 16:8.  The meaning nation is advocated by some in Mt 24:34; Mk 13:30; Lk 21:32; . . .”[1]  As we look at this meaning, it is interesting to note that here in Matthew 24:34, the very passage we are looking at, that many other scholars interpret γενεά (genea) here as referring to the “nation” of Israel.  And does that make any sense at all?  It would seem to make great sense, especially as we see the Jews now having reestablished their nationhood, but more importantly, the “race” itself is still with us, surviving numerous attempts to destroy it over the past 2000 years (e.g., the Holocaust with Nazi Germany).

On the other hand, there are those scholars who believe the idea of “clan” or “kind” could also be referring to believers in Jesus Christ – i.e., the Church of Jesus Christ, not the Mormons, but the true and living body of born again believers in Jesus Christ “will not pass away IN ANY MANNER (emphasis of subjunctive of emphatic negation – my note)” until all of the things Jesus has talked about will occur.  This, therefore, is not giving IN ANY WAY a time frame by which we can figure out when the rapture will occur because of current events, but rather Jesus is telling us that we need to be ready because His rapture and return are imminent and have been for 2000 years – “But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (II Peter 3:8), thus, according to God’s timetable, it has been 2 days since Jesus spoke these words.

Those born around the same time

2)      γενεά (genea) – the second meaning is “the sum total of those born at the same time, expanded to include all those living at a given time generation, contemporaries . . .; Jesus looks upon the whole contemporary generation of Jews as a uniform mass confronting him . . . Mt 11:16; 12:41f; 23:36; 24:34; Mk 13:30; Lk 7:31; 11:29-32, 50f; 17:25; 21:32.”[2]  Thus, this use of the word is clearly emphasizing a contemporaneous, group of people who are living at the same general time.  In addition, you will note that Matthew 24:34 is also included in this meaning, as some scholars do see Jesus as referring to the very people He was talking with at that time, versus a “race” as the first meaning indicates.  This interpretive meaning would fit with the Full Preterist View that maintains that all of the prophecies foretold by Jesus were fulfilled in 79 AD, which for those holding this view would mean that there was a “spiritual,” or perhaps a metaphorical fulfillment of many of the things Jesus said were going to happen.

Age or time

3)      γενεά (genea) – the third meaning is “age, the time of a generation . . . .  Here the original sense gradually disappears, and the meaning, ‘a period of time’ remains.”[3]  This too would certainly fit in with Matthew 24:34 in that Jesus is talking in much larger terms than our human capacity is able to initially conceive of – that is, as II Peter 3:8 indicates, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” and thus, Jesus could very well be referring to the ‘Church Age’, or if you will, the time from His life, death, resurrection and the beginning of His Church, empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit (John 14:15-24), until His return, which would include the rapture and the Great Tribulation period.  What is most interesting to note with this interpretive meaning is that “age” has no time limits placed upon it – in other words, it is open ended.

Family or origin

4)      γενεά (genea) – the fourth meaning is “that of a family or origin (of a group or perhaps a race or kind – my note) as in Acts 8:33 (“In humiliation His judgment was taken away; Who shall relate His generation? For His life is removed from the earth” – my quote).”[4]  This interpretive meaning may indeed be the broadest of the four, incorporating all three – i.e., a family, race, or kind, as well as contemporary group of people, and then finally, and age that has no definite time limits placed upon it.

As we have looked at the above definitions of the Greek word for “generation” –  γενεά (genea) – we are now in a much better position to make far more clear and better biblical decision as to not only what Jesus is asserting here with regard to γενεά (genea), but also what our attitude should be concerning His return and just how we should emphasize it.  However, before we come to a conclusion on these matters, we need to look at one final section we are going to analyze in Matthew 24.

Stay tuned next week.

[1] William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 153.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Ibid.