Jesus was most likely in his early thirties at the time of his crucifixion. The majority of his followers were most likely his age or younger. Meanwhile, the ruling authorities so threatened by Jesus were most likely at least one generation, perhaps two generations, older.
So the conflict between Jesus and the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees and even the Roman government was, among other things, a generational conflict. When Jesus said, “You have heard it said of old…but I say to you…” (Matt 5) what some people heard was, “What these old people are saying is wrong; I know how to do it better.”
As the millennial generation comes of age, a growing divide between generations is becoming increasingly apparent. There seems to be a larger gap between millennials and older generations than anyone expected. For example, a new Pew study suggests that the cultural gap between millennials and Gen Xers is much larger than the gap between Gen Xers and Boomers or between Boomers and the Greatest Generation.
With the generational dynamics of the New Testament in mind, let me offer a few suggestions to both older and younger generations.
Three Words for Older Generations
1. You have immense power and influence. Use it wisely. The first time Jesus preached a sermon in his home church, the congregation was so impressed that they tried to throw him off a cliff. Jesus said that he was the fulfillment of scripture and the older generation who had seen him grow up wasn’t ready to accept that God had given him wisdom and authority worth listening to (Luke 4). When you fail to accept the voices of people younger than you, it sometimes feels to them as if you’re trying to throw them off a cliff.
2. Don’t look down on young leaders. Be generous. Give them more respect than they’re due. Paul told Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because he was young (1 Tim 4:12). Some of us still read scripture today and adopt a patronizing attitude toward the wet-behind-the-ears Timothy, thinking, “Isn’t it nice of Paul to mentor him. I bet he eventually turned into a fine minister.” Admit it. Sometimes you think that way. Stop it.
3. Remember that the church made great advances before you got here and will continue to advance after you are gone. Our partnership with God is not an equal partnership. We are not the star players on the team. Just as surely as God found a way to use you, God will find a way to use younger generations for the fulfillment of the kingdom. Make sure you’re an encourager and not a stumbling block to those following behind you (Matt 18:7, Rom 14:13).
Three Words for Younger Generations
1. Even Jesus had trouble breaking into his profession. The first time Jesus preached a sermon in his home church, the congregation was so impressed that they tried to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4). Nobody ever promised you immediate recognition or success. Put in the hours. Do the hard work. Take your fair share of hard knocks. Your voice is valuable and it will be heard. Be persistent. Remember that prophetic voices of change must be coupled with the Biblical values of perseverance and self-control (2 Peter 1:6).
2. Paul told Timothy to “set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim 4:12). When Paul told Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because he was young, he also gave Timothy specific instructions about how to gain the respect of his elders. Paul’s advice holds true today.
3. Remember that the church made great advances before you got here and will continue to advance after you are gone. Our partnership with God is not an equal partnership. We are not the star players on the team. Just as surely as God found a way to use you, God will continue to find ways to use older generations for the fulfillment of the kingdom. Make sure you’re an encourager and not a stumbling block to those you’re serving with (Matt 18:7, Rom 14:13).
And I guess we all ought to remember that when Jesus got to Jerusalem, there was a cross waiting for him. Generational conflict can lead to extraordinarily poor decision making. During lent it’s tempting to say that sometimes following Jesus means ending up with our own crosses on our own hills with our own ultimate rejections.
But that would be wrong. That’s not where Jesus leads at all. Jesus leads to resurrection.