Studies On Christ’s Olivet Discourse -- Part 7

Studies On Christ’s Olivet Discourse
(Part 7)

Frederick A. Tatford

Dr. Frederick A. Tatford of East Sussex, England, is President of the Prophetic Witness Movement International, well-known lecturer and conference speaker, and the author of over sixty books. This is the seventh study of his extended series on Christ’s Olivet Discourse.

The Generation And The Hour

Following the sign of the fig tree, our Lord declared that “this generation shall not pass away until all these things have been fulfilled” (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32). In other words, all the events which He had described — the troubled condition of the world, the universal threat of military conflict, famines, plagues, earthquakes, false messiahs, false prophets, the desolating idolatry, the great tribulation and even the Second Advent — would all take place during the existence of a “generation.” There has not unnaturally been considerable controversy over the interpretation of Christ’s words. In particular, to what generation did He refer?

The Meaning Of “Generation”

It has been cogently argued by a number of expositors, on the basis of Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 2:7, 14 (see also Psa. 95:10 and Heb. 3:9), that the length of a generation must be deemed to be 38 or 40 years (that latter figure being presumably a “rounding up” of the former) and that the implication of our Lord’s statement was that the whole of the events He mentioned would take place within the limited period of under four decades. This period has accordingly been applied to various dates in history and attempts made to calculate the probable date of the Second Advent, e.g. 40 years from the establishment of the Jewish state in Israel in 1948, 40 years from the liberation of Jerusalem in 1967, etc., but calculations of this kind only tend to bring discredit upon the prophetic Word.

Some commentators have assumed — not very logically — that the Lord meant the reference to apply to the actual people whom He was addressing and that consequently they would personally see all the events He had described. F. W. Farrar, for example, writes, “That very generation would not have passed when, 40 years later, the Jewish nation was crushed and the Mosaic dispensation rendered impossible.” This interpretation hardly satisfies the context but, at the same time, he suggested that there was not only an immediate meaning but also an ultimate one to be attached to the Master’s words. He further pointed out that the word genea also means race and that the Lord may have intended to convey that the Jewish race would continue until the end of all things.

J. F. Walvoord considers that the reference was to an actual generation (using the word in its usual sense), although “not the generation to whom Christ is speaking, but the generation to whom the signs, i.e. the great tribulation, will also see the fulfilment of the Second Coming of Christ.” This interpretation, of course, excludes all relation between the words “this generation” and the immediate context. The Lord clearly referred, inter alia, to conditions which would be applicable prior to the great tribulation and not merely to the latter event.

The primary meaning of the word genea is those descended from a common ancestor, i.e. a clan, race or nation (Phil. 2:15). A. C. Gaebelein says, “The word genea means not necessarily the same persons living, but it has also the meaning of race. The English word ‘generation’ has this meaning of a ‘family or a race of a certain class of people’. And so has the Greek. It is used in that sense in Luke 16:8. ‘This generation’ is the race sprung from Abraham, God’s chosen earthly people … God has kept this race and is keeping them for the fulfilment of His own great revealed purpose.” Yet he also takes the same line as Farrar, viz. that the verse also means “that the people living, when the era of the Jewish age sets in, will behold its termination; it will all be accomplished in a small space of time.”

It must be admitted that the verse is susceptible to more than one interpretation and that it would be equally logical to interpret our Lord’s words as applying to the generation living at the same time of the end (as Walvoord does) or to the Jewish race generally. But the details given in the discourse cover the whole of the age from the date of their utterance and, even if the centuries of the Christian era be excluded as a parenthetical period, there could conceivably be a much longer period than 40 years involved. The popular impression that the return of Christ to earth must be dated only seven years after the rapture of the Church is not necessarily well founded and takes no account, e.g., of the time required for the rise of the great dictator over the ten countries of “the Beast,” or of the time needed for the negotiation of the treaty of Daniel 9:27 (from the date of which the seven years will run) and other incidental events. The most logical conclusion is that the word translated generation meant the race or nation of Israel.

Each of the three Synoptics records that, in concluding this section of His discourse, our Lord confirmed the complete reliability of His predictions: heaven and earth would pass away but His words would not pass away (Matt. 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33). His assertion has frequently been applied to all His teaching and it is, of course, justifiable to claim the reliability and veracity of all His statements, but the primary reference was to the discourse He had already given. Even the apparently permanent features of nature might be dissolved, but His words were eternal and conclusive.

A Problem Text

He appended a further statement which has created problems for the expositor, for He went on to say that of that day and hour no man knows, not even the angels of heaven, but only the Father. The Marcan record is even more specific and says, “neither the Son, but the Father” (Mark 13:32). Some MSS. of Matthew also include these words, although there is some doubt about the authenticity of the addition. It may be pertinent that the term “the Son” occurs only here and that our Lord never elsewhere referred to Himself in that way. (The term “Son of Man” was, of course, frequently employed in His discourses.)

The following verses make it clear that “the day and hour” to which He referred were those of the coming of the Son of Man. Yet He had already stated explicitly that the sign of His coming would be seen immediately after the great tribulation and that the latter period would commence with the appearance of the desolating idolatry mentioned by Daniel. Those who read Daniel 9:27, to which He clearly alluded, would undoubtedly conclude that the great tribulation would last 3 ½ years from that event, so that the coming of Christ could be expected 3 ½ years after the appearance of the Man of Sin in the temple.

Some have assumed that the period of 3 ½ years will be reduced, because of the statement in Matthew 24:22 that, for the elect’s sake, the time of the tribulation would be shortened. If this is taken literally, there will obviously be a vagueness regarding the actual length of time between the appearance of the abomination of desolation and the Second Advent of Christ, and no one will be able to predict the exact date of the latter event.

Some commentators have disposed of this problem by identifying the coming referred to with the Lord’s descent to the air to rapture the Church (1 Thess. 4:15-17), but this does violence to the context, which is concerned with the events following the great tribulation. It can only be concluded that, although the Second Advent is to follow the great tribulation, the knowledge of the precise moment of its occurence is reserved to God.

The major difficulty, however, is the statement that the date is not known even to the Son. In the Olivet discourse our Lord revealed more than fifty future events, thereby indicating the wide extent of His knowledge and this is the only occasion on which He implied His nescience. The uniqueness of the expression “the Son” in Mark 13:32 has been used to throw doubt upon the accuracy of the verse, but there seems little reasonable doubt about its correctness.

During His earthly life our Lord repeatedly demonstrated His omniscience, yet it is also recorded that He “increased in wisdom” {Luke 2:52). It is constantly evident from the Gospel narratives that, although He knew some things without receiving any external intimation of them, there were others which He ascertained by the usual methods of acquiring information. C. N. Bartlett in The Triune God suggests that at His conception, His divine consciousness fled from Him, but that it slowly returned until, at the moment of His baptism, He regained full possession of it. But the statement in Mark 13:32 was made long after His baptism. “We might describe the entrance of Christ upon His incarnate career,” writes Bartlett, “as a sort of amnesia, divinely appointed by the Father and voluntarily entered into by the Son, from which there was to be a slow but sure return of consciousness of His unique and eternal Sonship to God.” This, however, hardly explains the clear perception of the will of God at the age of twelve, which even Mary and Joseph did not understand (Luke 2:49:50).

It has been maintained by some that the Words ei me, translated but in the last clause of Mark 13:32 could equally well be rendered if not, thereby converting our Lord’s statement into an assertion of His equality and identity with the Father. The Lord certainly claimed unity with the Father (John 10:30) and stated that the one who had seen Him had seen the Father (John 14:9), but He never confused the issue by affirming that He was the Father, and this explanation of Mark 13:32 does not really seem tenable.

Since our Lord was divine, it must be accepted that this matter, like every other, was potentially within the range of His knowledge. He possessed a human nature as well as His divine nature, however, and the same Person was both God and man. It seems that He deliberately excluded the knowledge of this particular matter from His mind, although well aware that it was known to God the Father. His life as a man was lived under the guidance of God and in complete submission to His Father. Consequently, He knew only what the Father willed Him to know. He was aware that no man or angel knew the date of the Second Advent, but that the Father did know. He was patently capable of controlling His mental processes and, if He so determined, of refusing admission of certain facts to the mind. The deprivation of cognisance of this one fact must have been a dispossession by His own deliberate volition and choice. The one Person of Christ had (and has) two spheres of existence, and of Him as one Person may be predicated the attributes of both God and man. As God, He must have known the date, but He did not draw upon His essential omniscience as God to communicate something which was not intended to be the subject of divine revelation.

R. C. H. Lenski’s comment is worth quoting. He says, “In their essential oneness the Three Persons know all things, but in His state of Humiliation the Second Person did not use His divine attributes save as He needed them in His mediatorial work. So His divine onmiscience was used by Jesus in only this restricted way. That is why here on Mount Olivet He does not know the date of the end. How the incarnate Son could thus restrict the use of His divine attributes is one of the mysteries of His Person: the fact is beyond dispute.”1

1 The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, P. 955.