The Generation that will not pass away

Mark 13:30 has provoked plenty of debate. What does Jesus mean when he says that “This generation will not pass away?”  It appears at first sight that he has been asked about when the world will end and he’s answered that “this generation”, those standing in front of him will be alive to see the end times. 

Does this suggest that Jesus has made a mistake?  Does it mean that he expected there to be a brief period of time between him speaking in the Temple courts and the day of resurrection and judgement? Perhaps he assumed that his death, which he clearly expected to happen soon would usher in the end time events.  Such a view of course depends upon a finite, error prone Jesus who did not really know and understand God’s plan himself.

So, assuming that Jesus was not mistaken, how do we best understand what he was saying here? There are 4 options for who “This Generation” refers to

  1. The Jews as a race. So, the Jewish people will not be wiped out. [1]
  2. That generation -a reference to those around to see v29 – the Parousia. [2]
  3. The church -so that Jesus sees the disciples as the founders of a new generation.
  4. Jesus disciples -but with Jesus referring to the destruction of the Temple in AD70, not to his second coming. [3]

Most of the big hitter contemporary commentaries seem to assume option 4.  RT France comments

“this commentary …takes Jesus’ words at their face value as a prediction of the destruction of the temple within that generation.”[4]

Now, for France, this is a straight-forward conclusion because he believes that the whole chapter is in fact about the destruction of the temple in AD70.  He recognises this himself, commenting:

“If it were not for the embarrassment which it causes to those who think Jesus is talking about the Parousia (and so get it wrong), this verse would have posed no great problems. It’s language is clear and definite, not now in symbols but in a straightforward statement of a time limit.”[5]

Others may not find it so straight forward because it does seem that significant parts of the passage are referring to later, global events beyond what was seen in AD70.  Even still, there is general agreement that it would be most natural for Jesus to be talking about his immediate audience (although I do quite like .

My understanding is that the general gist of the passage goes something like this:

  1. The disciples ask Jesus when the temple will be destroyed.  
  2. Jesus gives a specific answer to that question in verse 30.
  3. However, Jesus is aware that there is another question behind their question. So, he gives attention to that.

When Jesus told the disciples that the temple would be destroyed, the idea was deeply shocking to them. Remember, if you were around, what it was like on the day when the World Trade Centre in New York was destroyed by the 9-11 hijackers.  It seemed like our world was falling in on itself. Imagine someone telling you that the White House would be destroyed and the United States would cease to exist as a nation.  Consider what it must have been like for people living in the old USSR to see their nation disintegrate and their leaders fall as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Those examples will give you a sense of how things sounded to the disciples. It seemed that Jesus had just told them that their world, that the world was about to end.

So, Jesus does answer the question about when the temple will fall. He says “It’s going to come sooner than you think.” However, before he does this, he does the ground work to make sure that they don’t get confused.  In effect, he says

“Yes, this all sounds world ending and yes in one sense this will bring an end to the world as you know it.  However, I want you to know that this sign, as significant as it is, does not mark the end of everything. There will be more “world ending events to come” before the final end of everything and beginning of the new creation.”

In other words, The Temple’s destruction represented the end of the world as the Jews of Jesus’ day knew it.  Other wars, natural disasters and political dramas throughout history would feel like the end of the world for the people in those contexts.  However, they would not be the actual end. Instead, they would act as warnings and reminders that the day was coming when God would bring an end to all things and Christ would return.   

This helps us to apply the passage to our time now.  I write in one of the most intense periods of upheaval that many of us have known for some time.  Some readers will feel like Brexit brought an end to a world that they knew, others have had to flee persecution in their own country.  The pandemic brought an end to the old normal and we all continue to keep an eye on the horrific events in Ukraine. 

Not only that but at times, it will seem that specific events in our own lives are world shattering or world ending. The loss of a loved one, the breakup of a relationship, an unwelcome diagnosis or a terrible exam result may all feel like too much to cope with.

We can draw two conclusions from such things that are both challenging and comforting. First, that those events in our own lives and the world around us act as markers which remind us that there is a greater day to come when this world as we know it will end.  Secondly, we know that God is able to keep us through these “mini-world endings” they are not too much to cope with. Why? Well because we know that the whole of history, when things started, how it will end and everything in between remain completely in God’s hands.

[1] RT France, Mark, 539.

[2] RT France, Mark, 539.

[3] RT France, Mark, 539.

[4] RT France, Mark, 539. See also Edwards,405. Lane, 480. 

[5] RT France, Mark, 538.

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