We need only to use the Gospel according to Matthew in order to show exactly how Jesus and his contemporaries understood the word generation. Nevertheless, there seems to be a great deal of confusion in Christian circles, today, over the understanding of this word, as it pertains to knowing the time of Jesus’ Second Coming. Because some of our modern scholars want to place this generation far into the future from when the Gospel had just begun in the first century AD, most believers have come to accept and believe that the return of Christ was prophesied to occur in our day or, perhaps, even more than 2000 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Nevertheless, if we truly believe that it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18; Romans 3:4; Titus 1:2), then we need to pause and reconsider what believe about the timing of Jesus’ Second Coming.
At the beginning of his public ministry Jesus had been preaching and performing many miracles. People were beginning to believe he was the Messiah, the Son of David (Matthew 12:23), but when the Pharisees heard about what the people were beginning to say about Jesus, they slandered him, saying he was a servant of Satan and used demonic power to perform his mighty deeds (Matthew 12:24). When Jesus defended himself, the scribes and Pharisees asked him for a sign. Now, Jesus had been performing many signs and wonders, so they weren’t simply asking for another miracle. Rather, they wanted Jesus to do their bidding, a sign they chose and whenever they chose. Jesus’ reply was:
“ An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas” (Matthew 12:39 KJV).
Jesus was addressing the folks who slandered him. It was the generation in which Jesus, himself, lived, and he characterized that generation as evil and adulterous. It was this same generation that rejected him.
On another occasion the Pharisees and Sadducees came tempting Jesus by seeking a sign (Matthew 16:1). However, Jesus called them hypocrites because they could predict the weather by observing the signs of nature, but they were unable to understand the signs of the times. In other words, they were unable to predict the danger they were in by rejecting their Messiah, because they were “a wicked and adulterous generation” (Matthew 16:2-4). Once again, Jesus was speaking of the group of people who lived in the first century AD.
Now, consider this. If the times that Jesus spoke of was 2000 years away, why would he criticize the Pharisees and Sadducees for being unable to discern the signs of those times? Why would they need to know such a thing in the first place? Certainly, Daniel didn’t need to know about the time of the end (Daniel 12:1-4, 13). He was told to seal up his prophecy, because the ‘time’ of its fulfillment was afar off. Actually, Peter claimed his prophecies were for the days of the first century AD (1Peter 1:10-12). Nevertheless, Daniel lived only a few hundred years before Christ. If Daniel wasn’t criticized for being ignorant of the time of the end, why would Jesus criticize the ignorance of the Pharisees and Sadducees, if the signs of the times were for 2000 years hence (and counting)?
During the final days of his public ministry Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of being the sons of those who killed the prophets (Matthew 23:29-31). He told them to fill up the iniquity of their fathers by killing the prophets, scribes and wise men he would send to them (Matthew 23:32-34). In doing so, they would incur the judgment of God for the blood shed during the whole age from Able to the time of Jesus (Matthew 23:35). All this would come upon this generation (Matthew 23:36), i.e. the generation living in the first century AD.
It was in this context that the Olivet prophecy was given to Jesus’ disciples. Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple (Matthew 23:37-39), which Jesus’ disciples understood to be the end of the age, so they asked for a sign of his coming (Matthew 24:1-3). Jesus then delivered his prophecy and promised all the things he predicted would occur within that same generation in which he lived – i.e. this generation (Matthew 24:34), the wicked and adulterous generation that rejected him.
If we believe it is impossible for God to lie, then we need to make a choice. Do we believe what we are able to clearly see what Jesus said or do we believe the men who tell us what Jesus said (cf. Joshua 24:15).