“And Jesus said unto them, Truly I say unto you, that you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).
There is much controversy as to the meaning of this important passage. What does it actually teach?
The context of this passage is set in the waning days of Jesus’ ministry — within the final six months. The Lord had left Galilee and was making his way toward Jerusalem and his appointment at Calvary. Along the way he gave some pretty “tough” teaching, e.g., the forthcoming kingdom requirements regarding divorce and remarriage (19:3-12). Christ had made demands upon the wealthy young ruler that bewildered the apostles (vv. 16-26). Peter boasted that they had left all to follow the Master, and he wished to know what reward would accompany such sacrifice (v. 27).
Christ responded in two ways. First, there would be a more immediate reward for the apostles personally (v. 28); then there would be the more comprehensive promise embracing “every one” who surrendered to his authority, i.e., sacrificed for his “name’s sake” (vv. 29-30).
Regarding Matthew 19:28, the text of our focus, three major views are entertained as to its meaning.
The Premillennial View
The Premillennial (from “pre,” before, and “millennium,” 1,000) sees this text as pertaining to an alleged return of Christ to set up an earthly kingdom over which he will reign from Jerusalem with his apostles as special authority agents (see Scofield, p. 1026). This regime is supposed to continue for a literal 1,000 years.
Louis Barbieri, a millennialist affiliated with the Dallas Theological Seminary, writes:
“Though the nation [of Israel] was then rejecting His offer of the kingdom, the kingdom would come, with its extensive remaking of things spiritual (Isa. 2:3; 4:2-4; 11:9b), political (Isa. 2:4; 11:1-5, 10-11; 32:16-18), and geographical and physical (Isa. 2:2; 4:5-6; 11:6-9; 35:1-2). Christ will then [emp. WJ] sit on His glorious throne (cf. Matt. 25:31; Rev. 22:1)” (p. 65).
There is not a solitary text in the quotation above that has to do with a post-Christian-age, literal reign of Christ upon the earth for a millennium. It really is incredible that a passage like Isaiah 11:1ff would be so applied, when an inspired apostle gives it a Christian-age application (cf. Romans 15:12). And the prophetic thrust of Isaiah 35:5-6 is adapted by Jesus to his earthly ministry (see Matthew 11:5), not to some earthly regime following his Second Coming.
Daniel 7:13-14 / Matthew 19:28
There is another point worthy of serious consideration in this connection. Many scholars have seen a parallel between the “Son of Man” imagery in the Matthew text, and that set forth in Daniel 7:13-14 (see, for example, Blomberg, p. 301). The parallelism suggests that the same event is under consideration in both texts. If that is the case, then the Matthew passage cannot refer to an event connected with the return of Christ, for the scene in Daniel’s document depicts the glory associated with Christ’s approach to heaven, hence, is an allusion to the reign of Jesus that commenced following his ascension back into heaven (cf. Acts 2:30-36). See also MacKnight (p. 334).
The entire premillennial scheme is without biblical substance, and that eliminates Matthew 19:28 from that scenario altogether (see our article elsewhere on this site, “Examining Premillennialism”).
The Heavenly Reward Concept
Some scholars see Matthew 19:28 as a promise, fortified with symbolism, of the special honor to be bestowed upon the apostles in the final, heavenly order of things. Not infrequently, the notion of a “renovated earth” is incorporated into this concept. Lenski, for instance, represents this viewpoint. He says that the “regeneration” finds its fulfillment “‘when the Son of man shall seat himself on his throne of glory,’ namely visibly before the whole world, which he will do on the great day of judgment. This ‘rebirth’ thus refers to the rebirth of the world.” (p. 759; see also Foster, pp. 1028-1029).
Though I do not incline to this viewpoint, I do not consider it to be of any particular danger, if one does not argue for a literal renovation of the material earth (which, unfortunately, many do), a position that is contrary to the clear testimony of Matthew 24:35, 2 Peter 3, and Revelation 21:1.
The Present Messianic Era
The third idea is that the “regeneration” of Matthew 19:28 refers to the Christian age that commenced on the day of Pentecost.
The word “regeneration” (palingenesia, from palin, “again,” and genesis, “a birth”) is found but twice in the New Testament (Matthew 19:28; Titus 3:5). In the latter text, the term is employed in a spiritual sense — of the conversion process (consummated at baptism) by which one becomes a “new creature” in Christ. Why it should be assumed that it takes on a material sense in Matthew’s account, without sufficient evidence for that conclusion, is somewhat puzzling. Generally, references from Philo and certain Greek secularists are used to buttress the idea that a renewal of the “cosmos” is the thrust of Matthew 19:28. But why should these writers carry more weight than the evidence of the New Testament itself? The fact is, the “eschatological” interpretation has been imported into the text due to certain theological presuppositions. In this regard, even some lexicographers have become commentators.
The Matthew 19:28 / Acts 3:21 Connection
Scholars frequently point out that palingenesia belongs “to the same conceptual field” as such expressions as “new person,” “new creation,” and “restoration” — in Acts 3:21 (Balz & Schneider, p. 8). This is an important point. Many scholars specifically identify Matthew 19:28 and Acts 3:21 as pertaining to the same time/event.
In Acts 3:21 Peter says that God is going to “send the Christ who has been appointed for you, even Jesus: whom the heaven must receive [retain; cf. NIV] until the times of restoration of all things, whereof God spoke by the mouth of his prophets that have been of old”. It is generally conceded that the “regeneration” of Matthew 19:28, and the “restoration” of Acts 3:21, represent the same thing.
Concerning this text, I am taking the liberty of quoting from my commentary on Acts (Jackson, p. 40).
“Verse 20 indicates that Christ was a divine ‘appointment’ in the plan of God, and though the Lord is now in heaven, the Father will ‘send’ Jesus back again (an allusion to the second coming). For the present, however, the heaven ‘must hold’ (McCord) the Lord until ‘the times of restoration of all things.’ Or, as another version has it: ‘He must remain in heaven until the time comes. . . ’ (NIV). What is the ’restoration of all things’? It is not a universal salvation (cf. Mt. 7:13-14), nor the restoration of national Israel ‘to its destined status’ in a millennial, earthly reign of Christ (as asserted by Vine, 662). Rather, it is the fulfillment of God’s purpose in attempting to reclaim fallen humanity, as now being implemented in the gospel age, the consummation of which will occur when Christ comes again. Here are two crucial points from the context itself. (1) In the chronology of the passage, the second coming of Christ occurs after the ‘restoration,’ not before it (as per premillennialism). (2) The apostle specifically parallels the ‘times of the restoration of all things’ (21), with ‘these days,’ i.e., the Christian age (24). Note the phraseology:
The prophets spoke of the restoration of all things (21) The prophets spoke of these days (24)
The parallelism is too obvious to miss. Even the millennialists concede that the ‘these days’ of verse 24 is ‘the Messianic Age’ (Toussaint, 362)."
Concerning this “restoration,” J.A. Alexander wrote:
“Till this great cycle has achieved its revolution, and this great remedial process has accomplished its design, the glorified body of the risen and ascended Christ not only may but must, as an appointed means of that accomplishment, be resident in heaven, and not on earth” (p. 118).
The Throne of Glory
The motive for associating the period of “regeneration” in Matthew 19:28 with the Second Coming, as many do, appears to be on account of the connection between “regeneration” and the “throne of his glory,” which, later on in Matthew 25:31, is identified with the Lord’s return. But as every serious Bible student knows, words can be employed in different senses in various contexts. For instance, numerous times in Matthew’s Gospel the word “kingdom” is used of the church (cf. 16:18-19), yet in 25:34, “kingdom” refers to that regal realm that is to be “inherited” at the time of the Savior’s return.
The fact is, Christ’s entrance into his “glory,” and being seated upon his “throne,” are used synonymously with the commencement of his reign on Pentecost (see: Luke 24:26; cf. Matthew 20:21; Mark 10:37; see also: Acts 2:30ff; Philippians 3:21; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 1:3; 2:7; 1 Peter 1:21).
J.W. McGarvey observed:
“[Christ] sat down on that throne when he ascended up to heaven, and he will still be seated on it in the day of judgment. . . ‘The regeneration’ then, is contemporaneous with this period, and therefore it must be that process of regenerating men which commenced on the Pentecost after the ascension. . . " (p. 170).
F.F. Bruce stated that the “regeneration” was “inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection” and that it was the same as the “church” of Matthew 16:18, “in which,” he says, “the apostles would exercise the authority promised in 16:19; 18:18” (p. 71).
Thrones of Authority
The reference to the apostles sitting on “thrones” judging the tribes of “Israel” would be a reference to the authority of these men, as bequeathed by Christ, and implemented by their subsequent teaching in the church (the new Israel of God — Galatians 6:16) and as manifest in the sacred writings that remain authoritative today. As Coffman pointed out:
“This was not a reference to literal thrones but to spiritual thrones of eminence and authority in Christ’s kingdom, from which they should exercise influence, not over fleshly Israel but over the spiritual Israel which is the church (Rom. 9:6; Gal. 3:29)” (pp. 298-299).
We believe that this final concept is a very legitimate interpretation of Matthew 19:28, though one that appears to have been overlooked, or disregarded, by most modern commentators.