Approximately six months before his crucifixion, and just a few days prior to his transfiguration, Christ prophesied regarding his impending kingdom. The prophecy is expressed in all three synoptic accounts.
Verily I say unto you, there are some of them that stand here, who shall in no wise taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom (Matthew 16:28).
Verily I say unto you, there are some here of them that stand by, who shall in no wise taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God come with power (Mark 9:1).
But I tell you of a truth, there are some of them that stand here, who shall in no wise taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God (Luke 9:27).
As the careful reader can observe, the language employed by the different authors varies slightly, yet the basic message remains consistent. In other words, though there is some supplementation, there is no conflict in content. As a matter of fact, the minute differences demonstrate the originality of the respective writers, rather than collusion.
This prophetic declaration has been called “one of the most puzzling statements in the Gospels.” Unfortunately, it is “puzzling” to many because they have preconceived concepts as to the New Testament use of the term “kingdom.” As one commentator confessed: “The verse is perfectly plain in itself, though it may be difficult to fit its teaching into our scheme of thought on the subject which it treats” (Clarke 1881, 125). Sadly, for many the exegetical format frequently is: “How do we make the Bible fit what we believe already?”
It is important to consider to whom this announcement was made. Initially, a multitude gathered, including the Lord’s disciples (Mark 8:34), but apparently the Savior separated the disciples from the crowd (perhaps a short distance away) and gave them special instruction (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:18).
Hiebert says the narrative “may well indicate a brief time break and [this prophecy] was probably uttered to the Twelve as a solemn conclusion to the preceding discussion after the multitude had dispersed” (1994, 241). This would seem to harmonize with the intensive training the Lord had been giving the disciples concerning “the kingdom of heaven” in the various parables he employed. See, for example, Matthew 13.
Several theories have been proposed as to the significance of “kingdom” in these respective texts.
- Some contend the coming of the kingdom was “fulfilled” in the transfiguration event a week later (Evans 1990, 149).
- Others allege that the terminal focus of the text was in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (Lenski 1964, 357).
- Millennialists insist that the passage finds its fulfillment in the second coming of Christ and the establishment of an earthly theocratic regime at the commencement of the “Millennium” (Carson 1984, 382).
- Others affirm the prophecy finds its most reasonable realization in the events of Pentecost with the establishment of Christ’s church and the commencement of his heavenly reign.
Let us reflect briefly upon each of these views.
There are several significant objections to the theory that proposes Christ’s prophecy was fulfilled by the transfiguration scene.
(1) There is nothing in the subsequent context that indicates the event on the mountain was a fulfillment of Jesus’ words of the previous week. On the mountain the Lord alluded to things yet to come, e.g., his impending death (Luke 9:31), but he did not refer to his prophecy regarding the coming kingdom.
(2) The disciples did not express their convictions (nor preach them) that the kingdom had arrived. In fact, they were still anticipating the kingdom at the time of the Savior’s ascension (Acts 1:6).
(3) The Lord’s language that “some shall not taste of death until they see the kingdom” strongly suggests a degree of chronological distance, not an event a mere six days hence.
(4) While the glory of Christ was manifest exceedingly in the transfiguration scene, there was no phenomenal demonstration of “power” on that occasion that resulted in a visual acknowledgement that the “kingdom” had arrived. Contrast this with the events of the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Moreover, the language of these passages is much “too far-reaching to suit an event that three persons and no others witnessed” just six days later (Clarke 1881, 125). Moreover, there was hardly a “coming” in any legitimate sense of that term.
(5) Finally, as McGarvey observed with reference to Matthew 16:28, at the time of the transfiguration Jesus was not yet “in” his kingdom, as this text specifies he would be when the prophecy was realized (1875, 149).
The Destruction of Jerusalem
The view that Christ’s prediction reached its terminus with the destruction of the Jewish nation by the Romans in A.D. 70 has a number of supporters. Its seeming strength lies in the fact that there is similar terminology in Jesus’ teaching elsewhere regarding the A.D. 70 event (see Matthew 24; Luke 21). Its lack of credibility is seen in the fact that: (a) it fails to recognize that similar phraseology can have varying meanings in different contexts; and (b) this view contradicts the testimony of both the book of Acts and the Epistles that have the kingdom in existence thirty years prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. Let us reflect upon these two points.
(1) It is true that the destruction of Jerusalem was seen as a figurative “coming” of Christ (Matthew 10:23; 24:30, 33; Luke 21:27; see What Is The Meaning of Matthew 10:23?), i.e., a visitation of judgment upon the Hebrew nation. Such providential punitive “comings” were referenced commonly in the writings of the prophets (Isaiah 26:21; Micah 1:3; cf. Revelation 2:5, 16). This is an example of the figure of speech known as metonymy—one form of which is when a cause is put for its effect. In other words, God (the Cause) orchestrates the judgment, though seemingly by natural means—in this case the providential exercise of kingly authority (the effect). However, these indirect “visits” by the Lord are distinguished emphatically from the terminal event known as the “second” coming (cf. Hebrews 9:28).
On the other hand, Christ cautioned that should any false teacher attempt to proclaim his visible “coming” in connection with Jerusalem’s fall, the bogus prophet was to be ignored. This was because the second coming would be a universally visible event (Matthew 24:23-27), whereas the destruction of Jerusalem was but a local situation. Jerusalem’s fall would reflect only a “sign” of Christ’s providential “coming” in judgment upon the holy city (24:3, 29-31), not the actual personal coming.
In Luke 21:31, the coming “kingdom of God” clearly refers to the Lord’s exercise of regal judgment. The Greek word, basaleia (kingdom) “can be used abstractly to refer to royal power” (Mounce 2006, 380). That clearly is the significance of the expression in this passage. This is obvious since the “kingdom of God,” i.e., the regime consisting of the born-anew subjects of Christ, had been operative since Pentecost.
(2) As just noted, the book of Acts and the Epistles bear clear testimony to the fact that the kingdom of God existed before A.D. 70. Jesus, in anticipation of his coming reign, taught about the “born again” process by which one enters the kingdom (John 3:3-5). A conglomerate of evidence indicates that this sacred pattern of obedience was accessed by thousands; and through it men and woman entered the kingdom of God in the New Testament era (cf. Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5; 1 Corinthians 4:15; 1 Peter 1:22-23). This was decades before the destruction of Jerusalem.
Early Christian preachers proclaimed the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31). By the proclamation of the gospel, men and women were called to the kingdom (1 Thessalonians 2:12; 2 Thessalonians 2:14), and through obedience to the gospel they were translated into the sacred regime (Colossians 1:13). These devout Christians never dreamed the “kingdom” would not arrive until A.D. 70.
The Second Coming
But what should be said of the popular view that the Lord’s promise of the kingdom was to find its fulfillment at the time of his second coming? Of the various views discussed thus far, this one stretches the biblical language even more egregiously beyond reason.
(1) In his testimony six days before his transfiguration, Christ clearly stated that some of those who stood there would not die until the kingdom came. If that “coming” was the return of Christ at the end of time, the irresistible conclusion would be that some of those folks are living yet today. Skeptics, like Bertrand Russell, assumed that Jesus was referring to his second coming and so contended that the Lord was a false prophet! Millennialists, likewise drawing an erroneous conclusion regarding the coming of the kingdom, unintentionally thrust the Son of God into the same mold. Some advocates of millennialism feel the force of this difficulty and, like Carson (1984, 382), squirm mightily in attempting to deal with it.
(2) The “millennial” theory does not fit the Acts/Epistles data any more than the A.D. 70 concept does. In this inspired body of information the kingdom is an entity of regal citizens who live upon the earth now, but whose “citizenship” is heavenly in nature (Philippians 3:20). We are in the pre-second coming era. Christ is reigning now. He will not receive his kingdom at the time of his return; he will deliver it back to the Father on that occasion (1 Corinthians 15:24-25).
(3) When the Lord stated that some would not die until the kingdom arrived, he gave a measured determinative that at least marked out a limitation as to when the time of that event would be. If, however, he was speaking of his second coming, such was wholly at variance with his later affirmation that he did not know when the time of his return would be. “But of that day and hour knows no one, not even the angels of heaven, neither the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36).
The circumstances of the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) perfectly fit the details of Jesus’ prophecy concerning the coming kingdom. This is clear not only on the merits of the case, but by the process of elimination as well (as seen above). Consider the following facts.
(1) Both the Old and New Testaments teach that Christ was to receive his kingdom after he ascended to the Father (Acts 1:9-11). Daniel foretold that “one like unto a son of man” would come “even to the Ancient of Days” [God] and there he would be given “dominion, glory, and a kingdom” (Daniel 7:13-14). Similarly, Christ himself, in the parable of the pounds, spoke of a certain “nobleman” who journeyed “into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return” (Luke 19:11ff). The “nobleman” was Christ, the “far country” was heaven, and the nobleman’s “return” represented the second coming. The “kingdom” was received by the Lord in heaven—before the second coming, not on earth afterward.
(2) The collection of kingdom prophecies in the Gospel accounts all point to a regime that was not realized during the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. And, as emphasized earlier, the information in Acts and the Epistles (as well as Revelation – 1:6, 9) show the kingdom to have been a present reality from Pentecost onward (with the exception of a few passages that represent “heaven” as the final dimension of the “kingdom”; cf. 2 Timothy 4:18; 2 Peter 1:11).
(3) Just prior to the prophecy of the coming kingdom, as reflected in the testimony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there was the exchange between Jesus and his disciples; then more specifically between Christ and Peter. The Lord made it clear that the “church” he was to build is the equivalent of the “kingdom.” In a symbolic sense, Peter used the “keys of the kingdom” (i.e., the authority resident in the gospel message) to admit sinners into the church by means of their obedience (Acts 2; 10).
(4) The Savior announced that the kingdom would arrive with “power” (Mark 9:1). The most natural interpretation of that phrase centers on the events of Pentecost. Just before his ascension back into heaven, the apostles questioned the Lord as to when the “kingdom” would be restored (likely reflecting a misconception on their part as to the nature of the regime); Jesus provided a general answer. The “when” of the coming kingdom would be when the power of the Holy Spirit descended upon these men “not many days hence” (Acts 1:5, 8). It is beyond doubt that this was fulfilled ten days later on Pentecost (Acts 2:1ff). “The coming ‘with power’ (Mark 9:1) and ‘seeing the kingdom’ (Luke 9:27) must focus on Pentecost” (Lewis 1976, 43). McGarvey wrote:
They saw the kingdom “come with power,” because such was the power of the Holy Spirit’s demonstrations through the apostles, that three thousand men were that day turned to the Lord. And they saw the Son of man coming in his kingdom, not literally, but by manifesting his invisible presence to the eye of faith. What they saw with their eyes and heard with their ears attested his presence in his kingdom (1875, 315).
As noted by McGarvey, there is no problem in Matthew’s statement that the disciples would “see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” In his Gospel record John had quoted the Lord as indicating that by the sending of the Holy Spirit he, indirectly, would be coming (John 14:18). Thus, by “seeing” and “hearing” the effects of the Spirit’s empowerment on Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:33), the apostles were assured of the Lord’s presence. The term “see” frequently is employed of spiritual perception, rather than physical vision (cf. Matthew 24:30; John 3:3; 16:16, 19; especially see Thayer 1958, 451).
(5) As Jesus and his disciples were concluding the Passover supper, the Savior said: “I say unto you, I shall not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until the day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29). The “drinking,” of course, was not to be a literal drinking of the fruit of the vine, but a spiritual communion with Christians in the kingdom as they partake of the Lord’s supper. The language implies that Christ was not “in the kingdom” at that time. On the other hand, the disciples began partaking of “the breaking of bread” (i.e., the communion supper) on Pentecost (Acts 2:42), and continued thereafter (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 10:16). Without a doubt, the kingdom had arrived!
(6) Some dispensational premillennialists contend that “because the Jews refused [Christ’s] person and work he postponed the establishment of his kingdom until the time of his return.” The church, supposedly unknown in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, was set up as a sort of “interim measure” (Kevan 1960, 352). If the “kingdom” was postponed, it logically would follow that Christ’s “kingship” was postponed. Contrariwise, however, there is ample evidence of his coronation following the ascension, and of his current reign (Acts 2:30-36; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Ephesians 1:20-23; Hebrews 1:3; 1 Peter 3:22; Revelation 3:21).
All the evidence, therefore, indisputably points to the fact that the Lord’s prophecy regarding the coming kingdom, as set forth in Matthew 16:28, Mark 9:1, and Luke 9:27, came to fruition on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after the death of Christ.