Which Generation Shall Not Pass Until All Be Fulfilled?

Mr. Kelly,
I have a question that I think goes along with this discussion. I have had the opportunity to talk back and forth with a leader in Preterism, as much to learn about as anything. A lot of the debate over the future of the events verses them being past relates to the passage that makes reference to “this generation.” I asked how can it be past considering the state of Israel as a nation continuing in unbelief. To which he admits difficulty and has to spiritualize a lot of things but clings to how can it not be past? Jesus and the Apostles would be wrong and liars bc it must be, they must be the “this generation.” My question is, from my understanding of Acts 1:6-8 that the Apostles related the return of Christ and the restoration of the physical Kingdom to the Jews as happening at the same event. Jesus never reproves them, and they have been talking for 40 days about the Kingdom so I perceive they have some knowledge of it before they ask. Now, to me how can one claim that these events are past? The amount of things that have to be spiritualized as being something found in the Church seem far to great?

I’ve written something on this already. I probably should write much more on it and hope to soon, but I will send that earlier email on this topic, and it can at least serve as a start (see below). We’ll talk about this when you’re here, but you’ve tapped into one of the thorniest problems in all the study of prophecy. And while I believe your friend has made the mistake of supposing that the alternatives that he’s so far considered are the only ones that exist, I can also sympathize and appreciate why he feels he has to interpret the tribulation as past, lest Jesus be represented as mistaken or in error, which would be disastrous, of course. This problem has been greatly exploited by atheists and liberal theologians to argue that Jesus, in His ‘humanity’, expected to return soon in connection with Jerusalem’s imminent destruction, but the “passing away” of that generation proved Him wrong in His expectation. On the part of those that have a semblance of evangelical reverence for the Lord’s authority as a prophet, and for the authority of scripture, solutions have been proposed in at least four directions, and I’ll try to cover those alternative views during your visit.

In joyful anticipation of your imminent parousia,

Here’s a copy of that earlier email where part of your question is partly covered:

Hi Mark, Yes, I did not go into the ‘generation’ question in my article. I guess you could say, that from their perspective, that’s ‘our’ Achilles’ heel. Still, my thesis stands; if one is willing to spiritualize the post-tribulational coming of Jesus in the Olivet prophecy, then to be consistent, the resurrection in Daniel 12:1-2 must be spiritualized by the same rule, because both events follow the unequaled tribulation.  But then where does such a process of spiritualization stop?

In my “Achilles heel’ article I tried to show that when you put the tribulation in the past so that “all these things” can be fulfilled within the lifetime of the disciples (‘this generation’), the preterist is forced to posit a mystical return of Christ. This alleged coming is understood in terms of an invisible return in judgment via the Roman siege of Jerusalem. But I pointed out that if the tribulation is interpreted as past, then one is forced to subject the resurrection of Dan 12:2 to the same spiritualization, since it, no less than the coming of Mt 24:29-31, comes after the tribulation (compare Dan 12:1-2 with Mt 24:21, 29). Not only this, but a host of OT passages show that the time of unequaled distress concludes with nothing less than the ‘day of the Lord’, which is the transition point that realizes all the goals of the covenants of promise. All of this is dissolved if the tribulation is past, so it is no wonder that a vast volume of prophetic material must be sweepingly re-interpreted and spiritualized on such an assumption.

Such a process has no clear stopping point, as it requires not only the spiritualization, but the separation and re-allocation of many associated events, as for example the resurrection, the second coming,  the day of the Lord, and the “end”. I think the only reason that Sproul embraced preterism is because it seemed to him the only alternative to making Christ a false prophet. He said as much in the intro to his book on Christ’s return. He believes that Christ’s statement that “this generation shall not pass away till all these things are fulfilled” is incapable of being understood in any other way than the lifetime of the Lord’s contemporaries. This is the power of preterism among many otherwise orthodox evangelicals. The choice between past fulfillment or failed prediction has been a powerful inducement for many to turn to preterism. No neo-orthodox theologian would be guilty of such strained spiritualizing, but then liberal scholars have no trouble concluding that Jesus simply erred in His expectation that He would return within the lifetime of His disciples.

Here’s what happens: A conservative evangelical believer such as Sproul becomes aware of the use that liberal and neo-orthodox critics have made of this passage and other seemingly related passages (such as “some standing here shall not taste death” etc.) in the synoptic gospels. They see the use to which these passages have been put by atheists to argue for the failure of prophecy. They see also what they regard as inadequate attempts at explanation by futurists such as Hal Lindsey, Walvoord etc. This makes them prime candidates for the appeal of preterism, which provides for a tribulation that is past by understanding Christ’s post-tribulational coming as a mystical return in the form of an age ending judgment on Jerusalem, described poetically in the same kind of ‘apocalyptic imagery’ that the OT uses to describe other historical judgments on nations, or so it is argued. They then turn to Josephus as a first century historian recording many of the general phenomena (wars, earthquakes etc.) associated with the ‘end’ as described in the Olivet prophecy, and understood as the ‘end’ of Jersualem and the ‘Jewish age’. This is how they build their case, but their motive can be noble. They are apologists for the faith, and do not want to concede any ground to unbelief. Therefore, they are naturally attracted to preterism. They fall prey to what some have called “the black and white fallacy,” which assumes that the alternatives so far considered are the only ones that exist. This creates the danger of a false choice.

There may also be motives that are not so noble, as in the case of those that resent God’s royal prerogative to elect unconditionally, and this can take its toll on the attitude of some towards Israel in particular, making it all too convenient to conceive of a conclusion to the age that omits any special purpose of God towards Israel as a nation of destiny. Unless his position has changed, Sproul does look for the re-engraftment of a great number of natural Israel at the end of the age, disclaiming knowledge of the particulars of how or when (I wish I had his ear).

So in coming to the passage that says “Truly I say to you, this generation shall not pass away till ‘all these things’ shall be fulfilled,” I must preface what I think to be at work here by reminding us of the New Testament concept of God’s use of mystery as a two edged sword affecting both salvation and judgment. If we trace not only the word ‘mystery’ but the related terms and concepts throughout the NT, it will appear that God’s secrets are reserved to His sovereign initiative, and are divinely calculated to stumble pride and also to wage a war of strategy against the principalities and powers. He is a God that hides Himself (Isa 45:15). God’s mystery is shut up among His own (Isa 8:14-17), but to those without, it is hidden for the purpose of judgment (Mk 4:11-12).

Can we conceive that God would use deliberate measures to protect His secret from pride? Where this characteristic of God’s use of mystery is unacknowledged, the solution that I will propose will seem as foul play. But I believe that God fully designs to speak and act in ways that are sure to confound the pride of carnal confidence. I see this as characterizing the whole ministry of Christ, particularly His puzzling commands to silence. There could have been no mystery at all if the divine intention had been so unmistakeably spelled out in prophecy as some suggest; but it wasn’t (1Pet 1:11), not because God was unable to reveal everything in advance, but because it was not His intention to reveal ‘the mystery of His will’ before the time. In the same way, it was not His intention that Christ simply explain the mystery contained in the prophetic writings concerning His two advents. He knew the secret, but was not at liberty to reveal it before the time (“tell no man till …”). Why? One reason was for the sake of judgement on the wisdom of this age (see 1Cor 1:21 with 2:8).

So God is out to stumble pride as its own self-inflicted judgment. The means and measures by which this is accomplished is another conversation, but one thing is clear, God’s selective mode of revelation will always raise problems for natural reason that will defy solution by mere brain power regardless of exegetical skills. It is the humility of repentance that clears the way for the entrance of light (but then again repentance is also the result of revelation as seen in the case of Paul and the future remnant of Israel; Zech 12:10). I make this point because it explains what I think underlies the larger purpose of the Father in Jesus’ use of the term “generation”. I am suggesting that Jesus well knew the versatility of the language and that it would be a potential source of perplexity.

Jesus well knew the versatility of this term, as evident from his unique and profound use of it in His rebuke of the Pharisees in the preceding chapter. The confrontation with the Pharisees in chapt 23 sets the stage and context for what follows on the same day in the Olivet prophecy. In Mt 23:29-36 Jesus describes a phenomenon that is far too little considered in biblical theology. It is what some have called ‘corporate solidarity.’ Jesus cites the self-assured boast of the Pharisees, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets,” as proof that His contemporaries are in the same generational line of those that slew the prophets. It is THIS GENERATION that remains in an unbroken continuum “until YOU shall say blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord'” (Mt 23:39). The day of national repentance ends the age enduring opposition of ‘this generation’.

More than an issue of mere bloodline, the concept of generation represents a particular spiritual disposition or nature.  So long as this perversity of spirit and God rejection persists in the Jewish nation, so does the exile continue, and so does “this generation” remain; it only ends when ‘all these things’ shall be fulfilled. This is consistent with the use of the term in Moses and the prophets (Deut 32:5, 20 et al), in John Baptist, and it was Stephen’s use of the same essential indictment, if not the precise term, that cost him his life (Acts 7:51-52; cf. also 1Thes 2:16).

Notice the Lord’s unique use of ‘you’ in His indictment. It is the same in Stephen’s apologetic. It is the  generic ‘you’ of corporate solidarity, hence an abiding generation. It is a generation that does not escape judgment, regardless of its particular location in chronological time, ‘UNTIL’ …. This is why Jesus could speak of a future day of public acknowledgment of His messianic dignity, and describes it in terms of the generational ‘until YOU will say.’ It is why He could indict His own contemporaries as present in the killing of the prophets in the very persons of their fathers (“whom you slew”). And it is why Zechariah can speak particularly of the last generation of Jewish survivors of the last tribulation as ‘looking on Him whom THEY have pierced,’ as though they were the actual historical murderers of the Messiah. And they were; because they performed it in the persons of their Jewish forebears. Thus, the surviving remnant of Jacob’s trouble will see themselves as part of an ongoing generation, the generation that has always resisted the Spirit and slain the prophets. This, of course, assumes a powerful revelation, but we believe that such revelation will be amply communicated through the witness of the tribulation church. This witness, though very powerful, will not at first prevail to turn the larger part of the remnant to faith, but it will be the effectual seed that the Lord will quicken at the moment of His appearing, “when the Deliverer comes out of Zion to turn ungodliness from Jacob.” Only then will they ‘look on Me whom they pierced.

Finally, and here I go back to the amazing way that God hides His mysteries. It has always been striking to me that immediately after Jesus says “this generation shall not PASS AWAY till all these things be fulfilled,” He then most significantly adds: “Heaven and earth shall PASS AWAY, but My Word shall never PASS AWAY.” I believe that Jesus well knew and even anticipated how that ‘that’ generation would appear to pass without the fulfillment of “all these things.” I believe it is precisely because He knew that His words would be pointed to by the gainsayer as evidence of the failure of prophecy that He adds the revelatory caveat that sooner would heaven and earth PASS AWAY than one jot or tittle of His word to fail or fall to the ground. Impossible! So by divine design, we are left with a choice of faith, but this need not require a choice between the false alternatives of a spiritualizing preterism or unbelief concerning the Lord’s prophetic accuracy.

Yours in the Beloved,
Reggie Kelly

Filed under
Opposing Views, Preterism, The Last Days
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