05 Oct Did Jesus Promise to Return Already?
“Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Matthew 16:28
Salvation costs you nothing, but discipleship will cost you everything. Salvation occurs in a moment. Discipleship takes a lifetime. Salvation is something that God does for you. Discipleship is something you do with God. Sadly, many only preach a life of decision, not a life of discipleship. The result is that when people hit hard times and life doesn’t seem to be working they become disillusioned with Jesus rather than devoted to Jesus.
Jesus is not a salesman. He’s not trying to market anyone, sell anyone, or con anyone. He’s absolutely, brutally honest with us about what it means to truly be his disciple. A disciple is one who believes in Jesus, worships Jesus, serves Jesus, follows Jesus, obeys Jesus, and is even willing to suffer for Jesus.
In Matthew 16:24, Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Jesus told his disciples then, and Jesus told his disciples today, that if we follow him, we must be willing to follow in his footsteps and deny ourselves with the prospect of even suffering.
We live in a world filled with quitters. People often quit on God, quit on their responsibilities, quit on their marriages, and quit on their children. Some people continually look for the path of least resistance. But if you follow Jesus, you must be a disciple who perseveres, not quit when the going gets tough. And following Jesus will be difficult at times and will even cost many their very own lives.
In Matthew 16:28, Jesus encourages his disciples in their self-denying pursuit of Jesus by reminding them that he will one day return “with his angels in the glory of his Father” (Matthew 16:27). This leads us to our passage of study today, Matthew 16:28.
Context of the Verse
Matthew 16:28 falls within the context of Matthew 16:21–28. In verses 21–23, Jesus informs his disciples that he must suffer go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed, and rise from death three days later (16:21). At this point Peter, who apparently had a different opinion of what Jesus should do, pulled Jesus aside and scolded him for making such a claim (16:22). Jesus in turn rebuked Satan and reprimanded Peter (16:23). This scenario sets up Jesus’ discourse on discipleship in Matthew 16:24–28.
Jesus’ teaching on discipleship in Matthew 16:24–28 is defined by denying ourselves, picking-up our cross, and following him (16:24). In the words of David Turner, to be a disciple is to embrace “cross before crown, suffering before glory, service before reign.” Not only will Jesus carry a cross, so too will those of us who choose to follow him.
Jesus then explains the essence of discipleship in three ways. In verse 27, Jesus explains that when he returns with his angels, there will be a final judgment and everyone will be held accountable for what they have done. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are encouraged to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Jesus since he will return without any notice. The idea of the Son of Man “coming” with his angels in the glory of his Father leads to 16:28, where Jesus says that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” What exactly is Jesus referring to here? There are a few different views for us to take into consideration.
View #1: The Second Coming
Some believe that Jesus’ words refer to his second coming when he establishes his kingdom. In light of verse 27, verse 28 makes good sense of the idea of the “Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
The big problem for this view is that Jesus says “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see” this happen (16:28). The phrase “taste death” is an idiom that means to experience death (cf. John 8:52; Hebrews 2:9). Unless Jesus already came and everyone missed it, it’s safe to say that the disciples who heard Jesus say this did, in fact, taste death before Jesus’ second coming and the consummation of his kingdom.
At this point, some have said that Jesus got it wrong. They contend that Jesus thought he would return and consummate his kingdom within a few years, but he didn’t. As D. A. Carson notes, if Matthew thought this is what Jesus meant, then we would expect to see this idea throughout the Gospel, but instead, “The disciples’ mission is to continue to the end of the age (28:20).” Of course, more obviously, this view also assumes that Jesus could be wrong about something like this or that Matthew, as the author, would portray Jesus this way. This view is unacceptable, because it would require us to believe that Jesus could be wrong about his return and Matthew doesn’t portray Jesus this way in other places.
Some, however, don’t think Jesus was wrong, but that he still referred to his second coming. For example, the phrase “some who are standing here” could refer to the final generation, who are foreseen in a prophetic sense, not to those physically present with him. While this is technically possible, this kind of language feels a little clumsy and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Even though the first read of this passage may incline our initial thoughts to Jesus’ final coming, most commentators believe Jesus is referring to “an alternate manifestation of the kingdom that did occur within the lifetime of those first disciples.”
View #2: Resurrection and/or Pentecost
Others believe that Jesus is referring to his resurrection and/or Pentecost. This view has as an advantage in the fact that some of those standing there did witness the resurrection and Pentecost. Further, Jesus’ kingdom certainly did come in the victory and exaltation of his resurrection and in the pouring out of the Spirit. Though his kingdom was not consummated, its presence came with power in an “already-not yet” sense.
One significant problem with this view is that it doesn’t fit well with verse 27. Jesus says he will “come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” In light of that, verse 28 seems to point to something beyond a fulfillment to an event that would happen in the near future.
View #3: Transfiguration
Another option that many commentators have gravitated toward is that Jesus is referring to his Transfiguration in Matthew 17:1-8. In the Transfiguration, Jesus is revealed in his full glory to Peter, James, and John, in which “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (17:2). This view best accounts for the phrase “some standing here” (16:28), which naturally refers to the three disciples. It also has a great advantage in that the Transfiguration story begins in the next verse (17:1). Moreover, this view has an ancient pedigree, being held by many church fathers.
Not only does the immediate and greater context support this position in Matthew, so too does Peter’s words in 2 Peter 1:16–18, which appear to be a reflection upon Jesus’ transfiguration.
Although this position has much strength, there are a few minor problems. While this view can explain the phrase “some who are standing here,” it seems to be complicated grammatically and Matthew uses a lot of words to explain something that seems simple. Besides, this seems to be an intense way for Jesus to refer to the three disciples standing in front of him. Another problem is that, even though Jesus is shown in great glory in Matthew 17, this view doesn’t seem to fully represent the meaning in the idea of Jesus “coming in his kingdom.” This is especially true in light of the verses coming before this phrase and other places in Matthew that portray his “coming” differently.
Since no view best captures the meaning of this verse, I think the best solution may be a combination of these views. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that the Transfiguration comes so closely on the heels of this verse. The “some standing here” naturally refers to the three disciples, Peter, James, and John. But, as already mentioned, it does not seem to do full justice to Jesus’ coming, especially in light of 16:27. What we probably have is something that is not at all uncommon in biblical prophecy, which is multiple fulfillments leading up to the final day. The Transfiguration could be seen as a preliminary fulfillment of the second coming of Jesus to consummate his kingdom. A kingdom that was inaugurated with the resurrection of Jesus, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, and the preaching of the gospel to the nations through his people.