Questions From Readers
The word “generation” does appear in the rendering of both passages in certain translations. According to the King James Version, the apostle Peter wrote: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” And Jesus foretold: “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.”—1 Peter 2:9; Matthew 24:34.
In the former passage, the apostle Peter used the Greek word geʹnos, whereas in the text of Jesus’ statement, we find ge·ne·aʹ. These two Greek words may appear to be similar, and they are linked to a common root; yet, they are different words, and they have different meanings. The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures—With References says in a footnote to 1 Peter 2:9: “‘Race.’ Gr., geʹnos; different from ge·ne·aʹ, ‘generation,’ as in Mt 24:34.” A corresponding footnote is found to Matthew 24:34.
As those footnotes indicate, geʹnos is appropriately translated by the English word “race,” as commonly found in English versions. At 1 Peter 2:9, Peter applied the prophecy found at Isaiah 61:6 to anointed Christians with the heavenly hope. These are drawn from many nations and tribes, but natural backgrounds are put behind them as they become part of the nation of spiritual Israel. (Romans 10:12; Galatians 3:28, 29; 6:16; Revelation 5:9, 10) Peter identified them as becoming, in a spiritual sense, a distinct group—“a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for special possession.”
But in the Greek text of Jesus’ words found at Matthew 24:34, we find the word ge·ne·aʹ. It is widely recognized that Jesus was referring, not to any “race” of people, but to the people living at a certain period of time.
Almost a hundred years ago, Charles T. Russell, first president of the Watch Tower Society, made this clear, writing: “Although the words ‘generation’ and ‘race’ may be said to come from a common root or starting point, yet they are not the same; and in Scriptural usage the two words are quite distinct. . . . In the three different records of this prophecy our Lord is credited with using a wholly different Greek word (genea) which does not mean race, but has the same significance as our English word generation. Other uses of this Greek word (genea) prove that it is not used with the significance of race, but in reference to people living contemporaneously.”—The Day of Vengeance, pages 602-3.
More recently, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew (1988), designed for Bible translators, said: “[The New International Version] translates this generation literally but follows with a footnote, ‘Or race.’ And one New Testament scholar believes that ‘Matthew means not just the first generation after Jesus but all the generations of Judaism that reject him.’ However, there is no linguistic evidence to substantiate either of these conclusions, and they must be brushed aside as attempts to avoid the obvious meaning. In its original setting the reference was solely to Jesus’ own contemporaries.”
As discussed on pages 10 to 15, Jesus condemned the generation of Jews of his time, his contemporaries who rejected him. (Luke 9:41; 11:32; 17:25) He often used qualifiers such as “wicked and adulterous,” “faithless and twisted,” and “adulterous and sinful” in describing that generation. (Matthew 12:39; 17:17; Mark 8:38) When Jesus used “generation” for the last time, he was on the Mount of Olives with four apostles. (Mark 13:3) Those men, who were not yet anointed with spirit nor part of a Christian congregation, certainly did not constitute either a “generation” or a race of people. They were, though, very familiar with Jesus’ use of the term “generation” in referring to his contemporaries. So they logically would understand what he had in mind when he mentioned “this generation” for the last time.* The apostle Peter, who was present, thereafter urged Jews: “Get saved from this crooked generation.”—Acts 2:40.
We have often published evidence that many things Jesus foretold in this same discourse (such as wars, earthquakes, and famines) were fulfilled between his uttering the prophecy and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Many, but not all. There is no evidence, for example, that after the Romans attacked Jerusalem (66-70 C.E.) “the sign of the Son of man” appeared, causing “all the tribes of the earth” to beat themselves. (Matthew 24:30) Hence, that fulfillment between 33 C.E. and 70 C.E. must have been merely an initial one, not the full or large-scale fulfillment to which Jesus was also pointing.
In the introduction to his translation of Josephus’ work The Jewish War, G. A. Williamson writes: “The disciples, Matthew tells us, had asked [Jesus] a double question—about the destruction of the Temple and about His own final coming—and He gave them a double answer, the first part of which most vividly foretold the occurrences destined to be so fully described by Josephus.”
Yes, in the initial fulfillment, “this generation” evidently meant the same as it did at other times—the contemporaneous generation of unbelieving Jews. That “generation” would not pass away without experiencing what Jesus foretold. As Williamson commented, this proved true in the decades leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction, as an eyewitness historian, Josephus, described.
In the second or larger fulfillment, “this generation” would logically also be the contemporaneous people. As the article beginning on page 16 establishes, we need not conclude that Jesus was referring to a set number of years making up a “generation.”
On the contrary, two key things can be said about any time implied by “generation.” (1) A generation of people cannot be viewed as a period having a fixed number of years, as is the case with time designations meaning a set number of years (decade or century). (2) The people of a generation live for a relatively brief period, not one of great length.
Consequently, when the apostles heard Jesus refer to “this generation,” what would they think? While we, with the benefit of hindsight, know that Jerusalem’s destruction in the “great tribulation” came 37 years later, the apostles hearing Jesus could not know that. Rather, his mention of “generation” would have conveyed to them, not the idea of a period of great length, but the people living over a relatively limited period of time. The same is true in our case. How fitting, then, are Jesus’ follow-up words: “Concerning that day and hour nobody knows, neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son, but only the Father. . . . On this account you too prove yourselves ready, because at an hour that you do not think to be it, the Son of man is coming.”—Matthew 24:36, 44.
In the expression “this generation,” a form of the demonstrative pronoun houʹtos well corresponds to the English word “this.” It can refer to something present or before the speaker. But it can also have other meanings. The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (1991) notes: “The word [houʹtos] designates an immediate fact. Thus the [aion houʹtos] is the ‘presently existing world’ . . . and the [geneaʹ haute] is the ‘generation now living’ (e.g., Matt 12:41f., 45; 24:34).” Dr. George B. Winer writes: “The pronoun [houʹtos] sometimes refers, not to the noun locally nearest, but to one more remote, which, as the principal subject, was mentally the nearest, the most present to the writer’s thoughts.”—A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament, 7th edition, 1897.