You cannot study prophecy without hearing some version of the idea that Israel being reestablished in 1948 or reclaiming land in 1967 began a “one generation” countdown to Jesus’ return. I fell for it back in 2010 when it worked with the generation of 40 years established in the Bible: 1967 + 40 = 2007. But despite being way past its original expiration date, this theory stays alive thanks to imaginative redefinitions of a generation. For example, one popular Internet teacher who once taught a 40-year generation now teaches a generation of 48.33 years and Jesus’ return Fall, 2015 (June, 1967 + 48.33). If that does not sound very subjective or contrived to you, then try coming up with the same number from the verse she bases it on: Mt 1:17.
Others wonder if 70 years (Ps 90:10) and 120 years (Gen 6:3) are the correct magic numbers for a generation. They hold out hope that this parable holds the key to the timing of Jesus’ coming. But there is no need to withhold judgment until 2018 or 2068 to see if these are right. There are several serious problems with this theory now; enough to debunk it. In fact, if I had noticed these problems from the start, I never would have fallen for the theory.
- The proper time for a biblical generation is solidly established by two examples in the Bible, one of them from the actual fulfillment of this very prophecy. First, the Israelites wandered 40 years in the desert until the “unfaithful generation” died out (Nu 32:13; Ps 95:10). Later, Jesus pronounced certain things would come upon his “wicked generation” (Mt 12:34,39; 23:36) and “this” generation would not pass until the temple destroyed (Mt 24:34, Mk 13:30, Lk 21:32). He spoke those words in 30 AD and, sure enough, 40 years later, in the year 70, the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. In fulfillment of Mt 24:2, not one stone was left on another and the judgment on the people he predicted came.
Which brings us to another problem, Jesus said “this generation” speaking to those present in the First Century. If he intended his words towards a later generation, he did not leave an opening for that.
In Luke’s version, Jesus compares the signs he told you to watch to how the “fig tree and all the trees” sprout before summer. Apparently Matthew and Mark abbreviated Jesus’ words when they mention only the fig tree. If Jesus was using the fig to indicate Israel, why mention all the trees sprouting? Are multiple nations to be reborn or created as the start of the “final generation”? Fair question.
Now suppose Israel’s rebirth iswhat is intended and the standard of 40 is somehow not the definition of a generation here. If the generation would not pass, that means the last person who saw Israel reborn will not die before Jesus comes. Regarding the suggestion of 70, it is only an average life expectancy and it falls short of telling you how many years before that last person would die by. The number 120 would indeed be accurate as the maximum life span (if that is what the unclear passage of Gen 6:3 is trying to tell us). So if we use that number from 1948 and remember that Jesus said no man knows the day or hour, then the 120 years for a life span generation gives us from 0 to 120 years or 1948 – 2068 as the possible “this 120 year generation shall not pass” time frame of Jesus’ return. If that is what he is telling us, I do not know how useful that is.
Jesus said no man knows the day or hour of his coming. Yet this theory tries to set the year of Jesus’ coming off of things he said 2000 years ago when he said nobody knew.
But the biggest problem of all with turning this parable into a prophecy is that it ignores the plain sense meaning of the parable. When you read what he said carefully, you will see that parable had one point to it. The point was just as you can tell summer is nigh by noticing all the trees sprout leaves by the same token you can watch for “all these things” he spoke of to know when his coming was nigh. We are told to carefully watch those events mentioned from Mt 24:1-31, not to watch “Israel the Fig Tree” to know when he is coming.
Taking parables out of their context and overworking the metaphor is a common problem in Christian exegesis. It has lead to many false doctrines and theories. Of course, Jesus said he spoke in parables to hide the meaning of his teachings from the masses, and so we see he has been successful.