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Prof. J.S. Malan, University of the North, South Africa
Christians are expected to seriously consider the signs of the times which indicate the nearness of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (Mt. 16:2-3). Although we are admonished to refrain from the extreme practice of date-setting, we should nevertheless acquaint ourselves with biblical references to the last generation as a time-frame for the fulfilment of prophecies about to the restoration of Jerusalem, the rapture, the seven-year tribulation period with its extensive range of apocalyptic events, and the Second Coming of Christ (Mt. 24:34; Lk. 21:32).
There are different interpretations of the concept “generation,” depending on the context in which the Bible uses it. 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” (Lk. 11:29). In other cases, however, “generation” refers to an age group in a particular society, tribe or nation. In this application of the term there is a chronology of generations as younger ones succeed the older generations. 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, there are various generations that come and go during the course of time, depending on how old the group is. These generations overlap partially since the old and young 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 who have not yet come of age. God often addresses only the adult generation, as they are held accountable to Him for their decisions and actions.
When the total life span of a generation since its birth is considered, a period of about 70 years is suggested (Ps. 90:10). An adult generation, however, represents a period of about 40 years 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 rabbi’s in later times. For the same reason, Jesus, as a Jewish man, could only start with His teaching ministry after reaching the age of 30 years (Lk. 3:23). David’s years of accountability as king 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) during post-exilic times could only be appointed after reaching the age of 30, thereby also assigning political significance to the age of 30.
Within the chronology of time there are various generations that succeed one another. In the church dispensation there is, obviously, also a first and a last generation – to both of which special reference is made in the Bible. In the long history of Israel, there are three generations that are singled out as very important. They are the generation associated with their exodus from Egypt to take possession of the Promised Land, the generation during which they rejected the Messiah and were consequently dispersed over the earth, and the generation associated with their end-time restoration to the land of their fathers as a prelude to their spiritual restoration as the Chosen People of God. The last two of these three generations coincide with the first and last generations of the Church age. The three generations in Israel’s history are the following:
The members of the adult generation of Jews that were called out of Egypt to take possession 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 actions of spiritual rebellion, 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).
Many of the members of this generation died of unnatural causes in the wilderness because of their spiritual waywardness. Two members of the same 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, 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 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 two of the faithful members of that generation survived to the end.
The events leading up to Israel’s international Diaspora during the first century AD were fulfilled within the time span of an adult generation of 40 years, as they were accountable for their rejection of the Messiah. Through their final act of rebellion against God this particular generation, the contemporaries of Jesus, would fill the cup of their fathers’ guilt to the brim and pay the price for the accumulated iniquities of the nation (Mt. 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” (Mt. 23:36-38).
The desolation of Jerusalem and the international dispersion of Israel are directly related to the rejection of Jesus as Messiah. He clearly conveyed this message to 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” (Lk. 19:43-44). He further said about the inhabitants of Jerusalem: “And 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” (Lk. 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 fulfilling of these prophecies during the 40 years of their adulthood between 32 and 72 AD. Jesus effectively told them that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Diaspora of Israel would occur within their adult 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, exactly 40 years after Jesus had foretold the disasters that were imminent for that generation, every word was fulfilled to the letter. The total life span of that generation was 70 years, counting from its birth in AD 2 and leading up to its adulthood in 32 AD, the year of the final rejection and crucifixion of the Messiah, and ending in 72 AD when many of the Jewish survivors of the Roman war were already in exile.
The adult generation between 32 and 72 AD was also the first generation of the Christian dispensation, and therefore a transitional one 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 would be gradually phased in among the nations by way of various missionary endeavours.
The end-time generation can also be considered within its total life span of 70 years, or within the 40 years of the adult generation. The birth of the last generation coincided with the birth of the modern state of Israel in May 1948, and will come to an end 70 years later in 2018. This generation reached adulthood at the age of 30 in 1978, thus commencing the 40 years of the last generation’s adult phase from 1978 to 2018. This fact was demonstrated by the constitutional maturity of Israel in 1980 (30 years or more after its birth as a nation), when Jerusalem was declared to be the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel by prime minister Menachem Begin, who, during that year, moved his office from Tel Aviv (the former capital) to Jerusalem. The City of the Great King (the future capital of the Messiah – Jer. 3:17; Is. 2:3) was restored as the capital of independent Israel in 1980, after having been trampled by the Gentiles for almost two millennia (Lk. 21:24).
A careful study of Luke 21 reveals that both the total generation of 70 years and the adult generation of 40 years are alluded to in this chapter, thereby availing us of a 70/40 window for the interpretation of end-time prophecies. The following is said about the birth of Israel: “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” (Lk. 21:29-30). The fig tree is a symbol of Israel (Hos. 9:10; Jer. 24:5). The budding of the fig tree refers to the early beginning of Israel’s restoration in May 1948 as an independent nation, and hence to the birth of the last generation.
After just more than 30 years of independence the last generation attained adulthood and set the stage for the constitutional restoration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city and the hub of their religious and cultural life. When Israel became independent in 1948, they only controlled the western parts of Jerusalem. By 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 capital. The prophecy that “Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Lk. 21:24) was physically fulfilled in 1967, and politically fulfilled in 1980, but from a religious point of view the Temple Mount is still trampled by Gentiles and will only be purified and restored to full Jewish control when the Messiah comes at the end of this generation.
After discussing the signs of the times that will occur after the end of Jerusalem’s trampling by Gentiles, Christ said: “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all things are fulfilled” (Lk. 21:32). The “all things” that will be fulfilled include the rapture (Lk. 21:36), the time of the distress of nations, which is the tribulation period (Lk. 21:25-26), and the Second Coming (Lk. 21:27). We are given no indication of the day, hour or even year of the coming of Jesus Christ – only of the terminal generation. As indicated, this generation will come to an end in 2018. How long before the end of this generation Christ will come, we do not know. All that we do know is that this generation will not pass away until all things are fulfilled. It could even be a bit shorter as we have a promise of difficult days of tribulation that will be shortened (Mt. 24:22).
Given the fact that the tribulation period will last for seven years (Dan. 9:27), the promise of the rapture within this generation cannot be fulfilled later than 2011. However, there is one further indication that we have of the possible time for the tribulation period as it may coincide with Israel’s restored cycle of year-weeks – periods of seven years in which the seventh year is a sabbatical year. The tribulation is often associated with a year-week of 7 years, which is divided into two halves of 3½ years, 42 months or 1260 days each (Dan. 9:27; Rev. 11:3; 13:5). During this week of seven years the Antichrist will conclude a covenant with Israel and many other nations (Dan. 9:27).
Israel’s present year-week started in September 2001 and will end with the Rosh Hashanah in 2008, which means that the next one will elapse between 2008 and 2015. That will be the last full year-week that can be fitted into the generation of 70 years that started in 1948 and the adult generation of 40 years from 1978. For this reason, much interest is shown in the beginning of the next year-week in 2008. If it is fulfilled, it will mean that 67 years will have passed between the birth of modern Israel and the coming of Messiah in 2015(?), taking up 37 years of the adult generation of 40 years.
However, these dates only remain possibilities as we know only in part as far as the fulfilment of biblical prophecies are concerned. What we definitely know is that we have already progressed deep into the last generation, and that Jesus Himself promised that this generation will not pass away unfulfilled. We are assured of this fact and would certainly not be left in the dark as to the interpretation of the last generation! Israel is indeed the ‘watch’ of God. If we do not “look at the fig tree” (Lk. 21:29) we will not know where we stand on the timetable of God.
It is also obvious that this generation constitutes a transition between the church and Israel. Israel is gradually being phased in since 1948 in anticipation of its final spiritual restoration as foremost nation during the coming millennium (Jer. 31:7; Is. 60:11-14), while the church should prepare itself to be phased out before the end of this generation by way of the rapture. The glorified church will, of course, also feature in the millennial reign of Christ as co-rulers (Rev. 2:25-27; 5:9-10; 2 Tim. 2:12). The fact that the Lord Jesus clearly spoke to us about the last generation before His Second Coming, confronts us with the responsibility to at least consider the framework and progress of this decisive generation, even though we do not know how long before the end of this generation He will come as the heavenly Bridegroom in an unknown hour to snatch away His waiting bride to her heavenly mansion (Jn. 14:2-3).
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