When we began these studies of Matthew 16, we said that, although this is one of the richest and most important chapters in the Gospel, it is also one that seems to be a source of countless problems. Almost every sentence seems to have produced diverse interpretations among commentators. How is Peter the rock? What are the gates of Hell? What is the meaning of the keys? We do not escape problems even with the chapter’s last verse, for no one seems entirely sure what Jesus meant when He said, “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” (v.28). Because all the Twelve have long been dead and Jesus still has not returned, many people have stumbled over this text. It should be obvious He was not saying that some of them would not physically die before His actual second coming. I offer four suggestions.
There are those that suggest the disciples will see the kingdom come with power either at the resurrection of Christ or at Pentecost. William Hendriksen writes, “The reference is in all probability to: a. His glorious resurrection, b. His return in the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and in close connection with that event, c. His reign from His position at the Father’s right hand.” So also H. N. Ridderbos. “The beginnings of Christ’s coming in His kingdom would indeed be seen by some of those who were listening to Him. They would see these beginnings in His resurrection, in His ascension, and in the kingly manifestations of the exalted Lord that followed.”
A second possibility is that Jesus was referring to the fall of Jerusalem. This is the view of John Broadus: “The most reasonable explanation, especially when we compare [this verse with] chapter 24, is to understand a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, forty years afterwards.”
Third suggestion, Jesus was referring to the transfiguration. Howard Vos says, “The prediction that some present would not die before they saw Him coming in His kingdom is most naturally interpreted to refer to the three members of the inner circle. Shortly they were to witness the glorified Christ at the transfiguration, which was a foretaste of the coming of Christ in His kingdom.”
A final view says Jesus expected the end of the world within a few years but was wrong to think so. This has been a popular liberal view, but it is obviously unacceptable to those holding to the inerrancy of Christ and Scripture.
There is not much that seems to hinge on one’s interpretation of this verse and any of the first three views is acceptable. Only the fourth is not. Nevertheless, I think Jesus was referring to the transfiguration: (1) because the account of the transfiguration follows so closely, here as well as in Mark and Luke, and (2) because v.27 is so closely linked to v.26, where the emphasis is on Jesus coming in His “glory,” as opposed to His humiliation. It is the glory that was revealed to the disciples on the mountain.
To understand correctly what Jesus meant, it is helpful to know that basileia (kingdom) was often used as a metonym to mean “royal majesty” or “regal splendor” – in much the same way that scepter has long been used figuratively to represent royal power and authority. Used in that way, basileia would refer to a manifestation of Jesus’ kingliness rather than to His literal earthly reign. His promise could therefore be translated, “until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingly splendor.”
It was not uncommon for Old Testament prophecies to combine a prediction of a far distant event with a prediction of one in the near future, with the earlier event prefiguring the latter. Such prophecies would thereby have near as well as distant fulfillments. The fulfillment of the near prophecy served to verify the reliability of the distant one. It seems reasonable, therefore, to assume that Jesus verified the reliability of His second coming prophecy by giving a glimpse of His second coming glory to some of the disciples before they would taste death.
In light of that interpretation-and because in all three Gospel accounts the promise of seeing His glory is given immediately preceding the account of the transfiguration (take a look at Mark 9.1-8; Luke 9.27-36) and, as mentioned above, basileia can be translated “royal splendor” – it seems that Jesus must here have been referring specifically to His unique and awesome transfiguration before Peter, James, and John only six days later. Those three disciples were the some among the Twelve who would not die until, in a most miraculous preview, they would see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.
We live in a day when a substantial part of the evangelical world wants a domesticated Jesus who “blesses, satisfies, fills, thrills, and strengthens His followers” but does not insist on a cross. What we need is the genuine Jesus who demands that His followers die to self and actually follow Him.
There was a time when Peter and the others did not understand this, though they did eventually. They proved it by the quality of their lives and by their faithfulness to Christ and the Gospel unto death. We understand it now. We know what Jesus demands of us, or we would not be Christians. We know that we need to take up the cross and follow Jesus, but have we taken it up and are we bearing it daily? We know the value of the soul, but do we live as if we believed it? We have heard of Christ’s return, but do we look forward to it joyfully? Those who are blessed by God will answer, “Yes, yes, yes,” to those questions.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org