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A Difficult Verse: Luke 21:32

Bearing in mind my conviction that “Thou must not be overly dogmatic” when it comes to eschatological interpretations, I dare now to venture some ideas about how to interpret one of the most difficult verses in Jesus’s Olivet Discourse: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Luke 21:32; see also Matthew 24:34 & Mark 13:30, where the language is almost identical). Darrell Bock calls this “a remark that has not lacked controversy.” Well said!

I believe that Jesus has two horizons in view as he speaks this discourse. On the near horizon, he sees the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple three and a half decades in advance of its demise, which took place under the Roman siege led by Titus, the son of the Emperor Vespasian, in A.D. 70. That horrific slaughter was a judgment from God on the city that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Luke 13:34), because they “did not know the time of [their] visitation” (Luke 19:44). Appallingly, when God sent his beloved son, they said, “‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him” (Luke 20:15).

As we read Luke 21, we see Jesus foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem with specific clarity in verses 20-24. This is the first horizon in his prophetic view.

But beginning in verse 25, I believe Jesus is looking out at a more distant horizon—at his second coming when he will judge those who reject God’s salvation in Christ, and bring final redemption for those who have endured through faith in his name. When Jesus says in verse 27 , “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory,” I believe he is foretelling his return at the end of all the ages. Likewise, in verse 34, “the day” that will come upon people “suddenly like a trap,” is the day of judgment that will commence at Christ’s second coming—“For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth,” when everyone will be summoned “to stand before the Son of Man” (vv. 35-36).

So those of us who hold that two horizons are in view here face a challenge interpreting verse 32. What does Jesus mean when he says “this generation will not pass away until all has taken place”?

My aim is not to give you “the perfect interpretation” of this verse. Nor will I attempt to list all possible interpretations. Rather, I want to help you see that there are a number of plausible interpretations of this verse that fit with a “two-horizons” view of Luke 21—and you can decide which (if any) of these makes most sense of the immediate and wider biblical context.

1. Some see “generation” as referring to a particular race of people—such as the Jewish race. Other variations on this theme might argue that “generation” refers to the human race, or to the “race of disciples,” or to “this type of generation,” like “the faithless generation” of 11:29-32. This is a plausible interpretation, but in my mind, it is probably not the best. Darrell Bock points out the weakness of this interpretation by observing that in most passages, the word translated “generation” (genea in Greek) “carries the sense of those living at a given time, the current time.” So if the word is being used here to refer to a particular race or class of people, “this rare sense . . . is most unusual.”

2. Others would argue that the generation who sees “all this” is not the generation who is alive when Jesus is speaking these words, but rather the generation who is alive when the final period of great tribulation at the end of history begins. Darrell Bock, who favors this position, puts it like this: “What Jesus is saying is that the generation that sees the beginning of the end, also sees its end. When the signs come, they will proceed quickly; they will not drag on for many generations. It will happen within a generation.”

3. There are several other possible interpretations, but here is the one I find most compelling. It is an “already—not yet” approach to the end times which argues that the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 is inseparably linked to the coming of Jesus in judgment at the end of the ages. The destruction of Jerusalem is such a definitive event in the history of redemption, it marks “the beginning of the end.” So Jesus is using “generation” in the most natural sense of the word—he is saying to his disciples who are alive at the moment that they will experience in their lifetimes an event that signifies the beginning of the end of history. To experience the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 “is as good as experiencing the end, because one event pictures, guarantees, and reflects the other” (Bock).

What are “these things” in Luke 21:32? It cannot be referring to the actual return of Christ in verse 27, for it would make no sense to say that Christ’s return demonstrates that the end is near—indeed, his return proves that the end has come! “These things” are simply those events which will show that the end is near—as when the fig tree comes out in leaf, you see that summer is near, so also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near (vv. 30-31).

So when Jesus refers to “these things” in Luke 21, he is referring back to the original question of his disciples in verse 7: “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” “These things” happened in A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed and there was not one stone upon another in the temple that was not cast down to the ground.

Craig Blomberg, who argues for this interpretation, states its practical significance as follows: “In other words, nothing any longer stands in the way of Christ's return. But neither does Jesus give any ‘sign’ by which we might be able to predict the time of his coming.” So let us be watchful witnesses who stay awake at all times, straightening up and raising our heads, “because our redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Pastor David Sunday

*If you would like to study this further, some resources I would recommend are Darrell Bock’s two-volume commentary on Luke, where he details various interpretations to this verse in vol. 2, pp. 1688-1692; Craig Blomberg’s Jesus and the Gospels; and a sermon by Alistair Begg on Luke 21:32 entitled, “What Does ‘This Generation’ Mean?”, which can be found here.