Did Jesus get it wrong in Matthew 24:34 when he said: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Did he wrongly predict that his coming would take place in that generation? What does “this generation” mean? Do “all these things” include his coming again? The unitarian New Testament scholar James Dunn believes that Jesus wrongly prophesied that he would return before the end of that generation: “Putting it bluntly, Jesus was proved wrong by the course of events. . . . Nor is this a conclusion I would wish to resist on my part. I do not think the conclusion can be easily escaped that Jesus expected the kingdom to come with final outcomes which have not appeared” (Jesus Remembered, 479).
Many possible explanations for Jesus’ words have been brought forward. One of these interpretations is that “this generation” only refers to the generation before the second coming and not the current one in the first century. This interpretation seems incredibly unlikely since Matthew 23:36 uses the same phrase to refer to that current generation when the temple would be destroyed in 70 AD: “Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” This interpretation also makes the prophecy unfalsifiable since of course Jesus will return during the last generation before his coming. By definition, this prophecy never could fail and so would not be a prophecy at all. Anyone could say that the future and last generation before the age to come will include all these things.
Another poor interpretation of this verse is that all of Matthew 24 is about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and has nothing to do with the second coming. Preterists interpret Matthew 24:30-31 to be a description of the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome rather than a depiction of the second coming. They argue that Jesus could not have been wrong because the entire chapter concerns the events of that time instead of the second coming. While I don’t have the time or patience to list all of the problems with this interpretation, a quick study of the parallels that exist between Matthew 24:30-31 and other passages demonstrate that this is indeed a description of the second coming (Zech 14:5; Matt 13:41; 16:27; 25:31-32; Mark 8:38; 1 Thess 4:17; Jude 14; Rev 14:14-16).
So what did Jesus mean when he said, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”? When he says, “all these things” he is referring to the necessary preconditions that must take place before the second coming can occur, not the second coming itself. The disciples know that once Jerusalem falls and the tribulations that Christ has spoken of come to pass, all the necessary preconditions Jesus has listed before he can return in this passage have been fulfilled. It does not mean that the return of Christ will happen immediately after Jerusalem is destroyed; only that it is now possible for Christ to return just as the bearing of fig leaves does not immediately bring summer. Paul gives another necessary precondition before Christ can return in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 as well.
George C. Fuller is exactly right in his article on this passage:
“The point of his lesson was this: when his disciples see “all these things”, they are to know that he (his parousia, his kingdom) is near, ‘even at the doors’. Now obviously ‘all these things’ cannot include his parousia, for they are signs of that event and precede it. The meaning of Jesus is that when his disciples see the destruction of Jerusalem (and the events related to it), they are to know that the next significant event will be his parousia and that he is about to come forth at any time. We find here the key to Matthew 24:34: ‘This generation shall not pass away, till all these things be accomplished’. What things? The most logical answer to that question is found in verse 33, the immediate context, where ‘all these things’ cannot include the parousia. ‘These things’ again refers to those events that surrounded the destruction of Jerusalem” (“The Olivet Discourse: An Apocalyptic Timetable,” Westminster Theological Journal 28:2 [May 1966]: 162-63).
As Robert L. Reymond explains:
“The phrase ‘all these things,’ here and in the next verse, refers to the worldwide preaching of the gospel and the surrounding of Jerusalem by the Roman army. It would be an absurdity to understand Jesus as saying: ‘When you see the abomination that brings desolation, the worldwide tribulation, the sun darkened, the moon not giving light, the stars falling, the powers of heaven shaken, the Son of man coming in the clouds, all the tribes of the earth mourning, and finally, the ingathering of the elect, know that the kingdom is near,’ for his Second Coming will have already come and the kingdom of power will have already arrived” (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 1004-05).