What Is the Meaning of “This Generation” in Matthew 23:36? -- By: Susan M. Rieske

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 165:658 (Apr 2008)
Article: What Is the Meaning of “This Generation” in Matthew 23:36?
Author: Susan M. Rieske

What Is the Meaning of “This Generation” in Matthew 23:36?

Susan M. Rieske

Susan M. Rieske is Adjunct Professor of Biblical Greek, Michigan Theological Seminary, Plymouth, Michigan.

No major theological doctrine rests on the meaning of a single phrase. However, a phrase, properly interpreted, often serves as an important signpost on the journey toward a correct theology. This is precisely the case for the phrase “this generation” (ἡ γενεὰ αὔτη) in the sayings of Jesus. This phrase continues to engender debate because of its pivotal role in texts such as the Olivet Discourse.

This article examines the usage of this phrase in Jesus’ judgment against the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:36, when He said, “All these things shall come upon this generation.”1 This article argues that the Old Testament holds an important key for unlocking the meaning of this phrase in Jesus’ discourse.

Proposed Meanings of “This Generation”

Commentators have presented two major proposals for the meaning of this phrase in Matthew 23:36.2 The most prevalent view is

that ἡ γενεὰ αὔτη refers to Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries. This view asserts that the term γενεά carries a temporal or chronological sense, meaning a group of people living at a specific time period. This would fit with the present-day English usage for “generation.” Most writers who hold this view assert that the judgment issued by Jesus in this verse was at least partially fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple during the lifetime of His contemporaries.3

A less common proposal is that Jesus was referring to an evil group of people who have existed throughout time. This view asserts a qualitative rather than a temporal sense of γενεά, in which the word means a group of people with shared characteristics. In this view the judgment is not the destruction of the temple, but a judgment that will occur in the last days, either in the Tribulation, or eternal condemnation, or both.4 The crux of the issue is the specific meaning of γενεά (whether temporal or qualitative) and the nature and timing of the judgment.

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