Matthew 16:27-28 “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
What I scribbled in the margin: “What does Jesus have in mind? Is He thinking of the transfiguration [which follows immediately in chapter 17] or of some later date?”
The easy route is to connect these verses to the transfiguration. This seems to allow for the statement “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” But there are problems with this approach. For one thing, Jesus speaks of coming with his angels, and of a judgment. None of that relates to the Transfiguration. To arrive at a useful answer to these questions I think we need to look at the larger context, the verses that come just before and that are found in the same paragraph in the original Greek text (emphasis mine).
I emphasize this last thought because some Bible translators have been so desperate to connect these verses to the transfiguration they have actually changed the paragraphing in opposition to the Greek text. The New King James Version, for instance, places a heading above v. 28 that reads “Jesus Transfigured on the Mount,” thus connecting the last verse in chapter 16 to the topic covered in the next chapter. This is not reflected in the Greek text, which extends the paragraph beginning with v.24 to the end of the chapter. It is clear to me, at least that this is an attempt by the NKJV translators to lead the reader to a particular conclusion: that this passage has nothing to do with Jesus’ second coming. Even with such trickery the effort fails. The transfiguration does reveal Christ in his true glory, but in no way does it show him “coming in his kingdom.”
And since v.28 actually belongs to the paragraph that begins in verse 24 we are forced, I think, to conclude that Jesus is talking about his second coming. In verses 25 and 26 Jesus has just uttered his famous declaration, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” These words hint at the kind of judgment that can only be construed as final judgment, that moment when a soul stands before God with eternity hanging in the balance.
Jesus’ next statement, that “the Son of Man is going to come in His Father’s glory” to “reward each person according to what he has done,” flows logically from his previous utterance and must inescapably refer to something comparable to those Old Testament passages (the natural context for Jesus’ disciples) that speak of final judgment under the title “The Day of the Lord.” I’m thinking of such passages as Joel 2:28-32, but also Isaiah 2:12ff, 13:6ff, and multiple passages in Ezekiel, Amos, Zephaniah and Zechariah.
When connected with Jesus’ next words, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” the entire passage leads to the idea that some of his disciples would live until his second coming. If that is what Jesus is teaching then we have to conclude that his frequent prophecies regarding his “coming” must refer primarily, if not exclusively, to 70 a.d., the time when all old covenant symbols were definitively destroyed (including the temple) and the New Covenant alone prevailed. Anything later than that (for example, the still-future second coming that most Christians expect) would have been too late for any of his disciples to still be living.
Why this matters
First, it matters because Jesus’ credibility as a prophet is at stake here. You see, this passage is only one in a list of prophecies Jesus made about his coming. If he is wrong about the timing of his second coming then nothing he says can be trusted. For another example, see Matt. 10:23 where Jesus says, “You will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” That seems to indicate a relatively short interval between his ascension and his return. Unfortunately, this verse fits so poorly with today’s prevailing ideas about prophecy that some otherwise good and great men, including Earl Radmacher, former president of Western Seminary and one of the leading theologians of our time, has raised the possibility that Jesus might have made a mistake. If it was a mistake, it is certainly one Jesus made again and again, not just in Matthew 10 and 16, but also in Matt. 24, the chapter in which Jesus’ describes the destruction of Jerusalem and his second coming as a single event. There he includes these words: “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Such passages almost demand that the Bible reader see their fulfilment in the 70 a.d. destruction of Jerusalem. Nothing before or after that date fits Jesus’ words, and anything that happened after, say 95 a.d., would have proven Jesus a false prophet because by that point all the apostles, including the apostle John, would have “tasted death.”
Correctly interpreting Matthew 16:27-28 matters for a second reason; if we misinterpret and misapply Jesus’ words then it is we who risk becoming false prophets and bad theologians. If we say, for instance, that Matthew 16 and Matthew 24 are primarily about a future that is still to come then we risk being wrong about the second coming over and over again. And, of course, this is exactly what has happened. The “futurist” approach, adopted by Tim LaHaye and his Left Behind novels, not to mention Hal Lindsey, John MacArthur and a host of other authors and television evangelists, has led to a series of failed prophecies going all the way back to William Miller in the 1830s.
As you can see from the names mentioned above, not all the exponents of Christ’s future return are shysters. Some are serious and sincere theologians. Nevertheless, the futurist approach they adopt regarding Jesus’ words have lead them to make serious mistakes. Hal Lindsey was adamant that the rapture would take place by 1988, but he was just as wrong as Miller, who said it would happen in 1843. Even John Walvoord, formerly the president of Dallas Theological Seminary, and a great scholar by everyone’s estimation, was led to a false prophecy when Saddam Hussein first invaded Kuwait back in 1990.
At that point Walvoord rushed a revised version of his book Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis into print, claiming, “All these [previously listed] facts lead to a spiritual challenge. If the Rapture of the church is imminent before the Middle East ruler emerges, it is not only possible but probable that the Rapture will take place soon” (italics added). That was 23 years ago, and nothing has happened except the fall of the Soviet Union and the total defeat of Saddam Hussein. Only someone who thinks that when Jesus said “near, right at the door” (Matt. 24:33, or “soon” (Rev. 22:20) he actually meant 2,000 years or more would pass, could also continue to claim that his prophecy of the soon-coming rapture from 23 years ago is still somehow not false.
Finally, those who misinterpret and misapply Matt. 16:27-28 risk becoming bad theologians. By relegating this passage, and related passages such as Matthew 24, to the still distant future they are forced to imagine a rebuilt temple with all the sacrifices reinstituted. This is extremely problematic, and not just because the Muslims currently control the surface of the Temple Mount. No, the problem is this, to rebuild the temple goes against everything taught in Scripture. For one thing, the temple was destroyed to make it clear to all that it was no longer the way to God, that redemption was to be found in Jesus Christ alone, who “went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not manmade, that is to say, not a part of this creation” (Heb. 9:11). And in Hebrews 10 the writer states without equivocation that God “sets aside the first [physical temple] in order “to establish the second [spiritual temple].”
Paul makes clear in Ephesians 2:11-22 that the people who worshipped at the earthly temple are joined with New Testament Christians in the one body of Christ, the church. There is only one body and one building, and both are spiritual and mystical, with Christ the head of the first and the cornerstone of the latter. It breaks my heart to think that anyone who knows God through Jesus Christ would ever imagine for a moment that the Jews would be forced, even symbolically, to go back to those “weak and miserable principles” (Gal. 4:9) that “can never take away sins” (Heb. 10:4).