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Three Important Generations in Biblical Prophecy

Written by Prof Johan Malan.

Many Christians are intensely interested in biblical prophecies, and they have every reason for doing so. The dramatic fulfilment of various signs of the times suggest that we are indeed in the end-time and should have a short-term expectation of the coming of the heavenly Bridegroom for His bride (John 14:2-3; 1 Thess. 4:16-18). Apart from a wide range of signs of the times we have even been given the assurance that there will be a terminal generation which will not pass away till all things are fulfilled (Luke 21:32; Matt. 24:34). How should we understand this important prophecy?

In the study of biblical prophecies there are two extreme forms of interpretation which should always be avoided. The one is the forced exegesis of prophecies which leads to date-setting, and the other is the unjustified spiritualising and allegorising of prophecies which deprive them of their basic content and render them virtually meaningless. We should follow the literal method of interpretation which is known as the grammatical-historical method. The ordinary meaning of a word should be considered within the historical, or cultural, context in which it is used.

The strongest proof of the literal interpretation is the way in which the New Testament makes use of the Old Testament. Good examples are the many prophecies about the birth, life, work and death of Jesus Christ that were all literally fulfilled in the New Testament. At Christ’s first coming most Jews, especially the hierarchy, ignored the many prophecies about Him, and consequently failed to recognise their Messiah. Israel paid dearly for their neglect of prophecy (Luke 19:43-44).

We should guard against making the same mistake. It is vitally important to heed the signs of the times (Matt. 16:2-3), particularly those that are related to Israel, Jerusalem and the end-time distress of the nations: “When these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near” (Luke 21:28). Biblical prophecies have and will all come true – literally!

A final generation

The Lord Jesus expects us to closely watch the unfolding events which indicate the imminence of His coming, and even mentions a “generation” that will not pass away till all things are fulfilled (Luke 21:32). In view of this assurance, we should acquaint ourselves with biblical references to the last generation which is closely associated with the fulfilment of prophecies on the rebirth of Israel as a nation, the liberation of Jerusalem from Gentile domination, the rapture of the church, the seven-year tribulation period with its extensive range of awesome apocalyptic events, and the second coming of Christ when every eye will see Him (Matt 24:15-51; Luke 21:25-36; Rev. 1:7; 19:11-16). The second coming of Christ when He will set foot on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, will be the concluding point of the final generation of this dispensation.

There are different definitions of the concept “generation”, depending on the context in which the Bible uses them. In the original languages the word “generation” often refers to a group of people – a kinship group, a tribe, or various other groups with specific characteristics, e.g. an “evil generation” (Luke 11:29). However, in most cases “generation” refers to an age group within a particular society, tribe or nation. In this application of the term there is a chronology of generations as younger ones succeed the older ones. It is in this context that Matthew 1:17 says: “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations…”

Within the same people, or nation, successive generations come and go during the course of time. These generations partially overlap since the old and upcoming generations in any society co-exist for a number of years. In the Bible, a clear distinction is made between the adult generation and the young generation, of which the latter comprises children or young people who have not yet come of age. In most cases, God addresses the adult generation as they are held accountable for the state of their religious life and morality.

A generation is not a fixed period of time as some generations are shorter or longer than others. Nevertheless, it is a reasonably well defined period which cannot be stretched beyond its extreme parameters. When the total span of a generation since its beginning, or birth, is considered an average of 70 years is implied, but it may even be extended up to 80: “The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years” (Ps. 90:10). An adult generation usually refers to a period of about 40 years, which is between the ages of 30 and 70. The Levitical priests could only assume office at the age of 30 (Num. 4:3), as well as the rabbis of later times. Hence Jesus, as a Jewish male, began His teaching ministry after reaching the age of 30 years (Luke 3:23). David’s adult years of accountability were between 30 and 70: “David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years” (2 Sam. 5:4). The priests and scribes serving on the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin) after the Babylonian Exile, could only be appointed after reaching the age of 30, thereby also attaching political significance to the age of 30.

With the passage of time there are successive generations which follow one another. During the church dispensation, there was a very significant first generation after the establishment of the church, and it is equally logical to assume that there will also be an important last generation leading up to its consummation. The Bible makes special mention of events related to these two critical generations.

In the long history of Israel, there are three generations that are singled out as being very important. These are: (1) the generation of people who were liberated from Egypt and subsequently journeyed through the wilderness for 40 years; (2) the generation that rejected Israel’s true Messiah, leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and the long Diaspora of Israel; and (3) the generation during which Israel would be restored to the land of their fathers in the end-time as a prelude to their spiritual restoration as the Chosen People. The last two of these three generations coincide with the first and last generations of the church age. The three important generations in Israel’s history are the following:

The first generation: Journey to the Promised Land

Members of the adult generation of Jews that were called out of Egypt to take possession of the Promised Land were 20 years of age or older. At that time, adulthood was attained at the age of 20 when young men were eligible for military service (Num. 26:2,4). It should be clearly understood that only the adult generation of Israelites (those who were 20 years or older) were held accountable by God for their rebellion against Him, and consequently died in the wilderness: “Surely none of the men who came up from Egypt, from twenty years old and above, shall see the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because they have not wholly followed Me, except Caleb… and Joshua… for they have wholly followed the Lord. So the Lord’s anger was aroused against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was gone” (Num. 32:11-13).

Because of their rebelliousness, virtually all the members of this generation died of unnatural causes in the wilderness. Two members of the adult generation, Caleb and Joshua, were counted worthy by the Lord to survive the wilderness wanderings and take possession of the Promised Land seven years after crossing the River Jordan. Joshua said that he was 40 years old when Moses sent him out as a spy from Kadesh Barnea (Jos. 14:7,10), which means that he was 38 during the exodus from Egypt. When he was 85, after the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and the subsequent seven years of the wars of conquest in Canaan, Joshua divided the Promised Land among the tribes of Israel. In total, 67 years had elapsed since the birth in Egypt of the generation that was led out of bondage until the final allocation of the land to them, despite the fact that only the two faithful members of the adult generation who did not rebel against God survived to the end of that period.

The second generation: International dispersion (Diaspora)

Turning now to New Testament times, the events leading up to the international dispersion of the Jews took place during the life span of the generation of people who were held accountable to God for their rejection of the Messiah – referring to an adult generation of about 40 years. By their final act of rebellion against God, this particular generation, of which the members were contemporaries of Jesus, filled up to the brim the cup of their fathers’ guilt and paid the price for the accumulated iniquities of the nation (Matt. 23:31-35). Jesus said to them: “Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together… but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate” (Matt. 23:36-38).

The destruction of Jerusalem and the international dispersion of Israel are directly related to the rejection of Jesus as Messiah. He solemnly warned the inhabitants of Jerusalem: “For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:43-44). He further prophesied concerning the people of the land of Israel that “they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24).

The adult generation to whom Jesus addressed these words in 32 AD were born in the year 2 AD or before, and would experience the fulfilment of these prophecies during the 40 years of their adulthood between 32 and 72 AD. In effect, Jesus was warning them that the destruction of Jerusalem and the international dispersion of the Jews would occur within their lifetime. Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD and during the subsequent two years thousands of Jewish captives of war were taken to Rome while many were sold as slaves in Egypt and other countries. By 72 AD, 40 years after Jesus had foretold the disasters that would befall that generation, every word was literally fulfilled. The total life span of that generation was about 70 years, including the 30 years of growing up to adulthood before the time of the crucifixion.

The adult generation between 32 and 72 AD was also the first generation of the Christian dispensation, and therefore a transitional period between Israel and the church. During this generation, Israel would be phased out by way of the destruction of Jerusalem and the nation’s international dispersion because of rejecting the Messiah, while the church dispensation among all nations would be gradually phased in by way of various missionary endeavours. All the Epistles to the New Testament church were written between 40 and 69 AD, before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the beginning of the Diaspora. Paul was the pioneering apostle to the Gentiles and he died as a martyr in Rome shortly before the end of the first generation. Only the aged apostle John, who was also a contemporary of Jesus, produced writings after 70 AD that were also included in the New Testament.

The third generation: End-time restoration

The last generation prior to Christ’s second coming may be considered within its total span of 70 years or slightly more, and also within the 40 years or so of the adult generation. The birth of the modern state of Israel in May 1948 marked the beginning of the last generation. Thirty years later, this terminal generation before the coming of the Messiah and the institution of His reign of peace on earth, reached the stage of adulthood. This fact was demonstrated by the constitutional maturity of Israel in 1980, slightly more than 30 years after the birth of modern Israel. After more than two millennia of Gentile domination, Jerusalem was declared to be the eternal and indivisible capital of an independent Israel. Prime Minister Menachem Begin moved his office from Tel Aviv, the former administrative capital of Israel, to Jerusalem.

The City of the Great King (Ps. 48:1-2), the future capital of the Messiah’s reign of peace (Jer. 3:17; Isa. 2:3), was restored as the capital of the sovereign state of Israel in 1980, after having been trampled by the Gentiles since Israel’s Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, the trampling of the city entered a new and more absolute phase which lasted until the mid-20th century (Luke 21:24). The recapturing of Jerusalem during the Six Day War of June 1967 was only a prelude to the epoch-making event of the city’s political restoration in 1980.

A study of Luke 21 reveals that both the complete generation as well as the shorter adult generation are alluded to in this chapter, thereby availing us with a clear window for the interpretation of end-time prophecies. The rebirth of Israel in the end times was foretold when Jesus used the following illustration: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they are already budding, you see and know for yourselves that summer is now near” (Luke 21:29-30). The fig tree is a symbol of Israel, dating back to Old Testament times (Hos. 9:10; Jer. 24:5). The budding of the fig tree refers to the early beginning of Israel’s restoration as an independent, sovereign nation in May 1948, and hence to the birth of the last generation.

After a little more than 30 years of independence, the last generation reached the phase of adulthood and set the stage for the political restoration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city and the hub of their religious and cultural life. When Israel became independent in 1948, they controlled only the new, western part of Jerusalem. At that time, biblical Jerusalem (the Old City, or the City of David, including the Temple Mount) was still under Jordanian control. In June 1967 the entire city was recaptured and in August 1980 officially restored to its former status as Israel’s capital. The prophecy that “Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24), was physically fulfilled in 1967 and paved the way for the city’s political restoration in 1980.

However, the city’s present restoration represents only a preliminary fulfilment of biblical promises. The final political and religious restoration of Jerusalem will only occur when the Messiah comes at the end of this generation to restore the throne of David (Acts 15:16-17) and to spiritually revive all the inhabitants of Jerusalem (Zech. 12:10; 13:1). The surviving Jews will unanimously hail the Messiah with the words: “Blessed in He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” (Matt. 23:39). From that time onwards Israel and the nations will worship the Lord Jesus as the only true Messiah.

After prophesying the dramatic signs which will follow the end of the long period of Gentile trampling of Jerusalem, Christ used the following time-frame for the fulfilment of end-time events: “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all things are fulfilled” (Luke 21:32). The “all things” which will be fulfilled include the rapture of the church (v. 36), the time of the nations’ distress, which is the tribulation period (v. 25-26), and the second coming of Jesus Christ (v. 27). We are given no indication of the specific day, hour or even year of the coming of Jesus Christ – we are only informed about the terminal generation prior to His coming and the institution of His millennial rule. How close to the end of this generation Christ will come, and exactly how long this generation will be, are unknown. All that we do know is that this generation will not pass away until all the things prophesied by Christ in His Olivet Discourse have been fulfilled. You can count on that!

Don’t be surprised if the last generation is extended to a point beyond its average span to allow opportunity for more people to be saved (2 Pet. 3:9). The duration of this period of time is not rigidly fixed; a certain degree of flexibility is allowed for its extreme parameter to be reached.

It is evident that just as the first generation of the Christian dispensation coincided with the temporary phasing out of Israel in God’s purposes, the church, after having fulfilled its mission to evangelise the word, should prepare itself to be phased out in the last generation by way of the rapture. Paul says that after the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, all Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:25-26). Israel is progressively restored during the last generation in preparation for its future role as God’s special witnesses on earth (Rom. 11:12; Isa. 27:6).

The fact that the Lord Jesus spoke to us so clearly about the last generation before His second coming, confronts us with the obligation to at least consider the prophecies and time scale of this decisive generation. Before the end of this generation, at an hour when we do not expect it (Matt. 24:44), He will come as the heavenly Bridegroom to snatch away His waiting bride and take her to her heavenly mansion in His Father’s house (John 14:2-3).
Andrew Murray 32