We will now move on to the second set of verses we will look at that are popular verses that the higher critics use to “prove” that the Lord’s teaching was contradictory to what actually happened. These verses regard His statement that some who stood there with Him would not taste death until the Kingdom came. This teaching is contained in all three synoptic gospels, and the passages in question are given below.
Matthew 16:28. “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”
Mark 9:1. And He said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.”
Luke 9:27. “But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God.”
The higher critic would point to these verses as proving that Christ expected the kingdom to soon arrive, and that His second coming would follow soon after His first. Then, they smugly proclaim that His expectation contradicts reality, for it seems clear that the kingdom did not come, and Christ did not return. What, then, can those of us who believe in the absolute truth of Scripture say to respond to this?
The explanations of this passage by those who hold with the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures are numerous. Some, as I said above, are quick to make this out to be a “spiritual kingdom,” and that Christ was predicting the beginning of the “church,” which they see in the ekklesia of the Acts period, as well as in Christendom of today. I have already dealt with this idea in the previous message. The church of today can in no way be defined as God’s government.
Others, generally amillenialists, believe that the Lord’s prediction came true at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. It is amazing to me that anyone would have so muddled a picture of the kingdom of God that he could imagine that the destruction of the city of Jerusalem fulfilled the coming of the Kingdom! This is contrary to everything we learn of the Kingdom from the Scriptures. The kingdom of God, as I have said, is nothing more nor less than the government of God upon the earth. The destruction of the city of Jerusalem cannot even compare to the reality of God’s kingdom.
Others, including many in the dispensational camp, point out the presence of a little Greek word, the word “an,” in this verse. It is clear, to all who correctly identify the kingdom as God’s government ruling on the earth, that the Lord was speaking of that government coming in the lifetime of the disciples to whom He was speaking. Yet, those who note the presence of this word “an” believe they have a solution for this puzzle. The word “an” is basically untranslatable. It is a Greek particle, and it indicates that what is being said is conditional, and only if this condition is met would the statement be true. It is similar to the word “if” in English, which really has no meaning nor translation, but indicates the presence of a condition in order for the statement to be true. So, those who believe this word is the key claim that it should change these statements to read, using Matthew as an example, “there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they may have seen the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” For example, the Companion Bible suggests this reading on page 1347. This word “an” means a condition, and they are ready to tell us what the condition was. It was that Israel had to accept the Lord Jesus as their Messiah in order for this to take place. Since this did not happen, the condition Christ referred to by the word “an” was not met, and so what He said here did not take place.
This is an interesting idea, and seems at first glance to have a lot of merit. At first, I myself accepted this idea, since it seemed to make sense, it explained a difficult passage, it fit in well with dispensationalism, and it was taught by some of my favorite Bible teachers. However, I found in the writings of Otis Q. Sellers, who was one man who set this idea forth, that he later changed his mind and stated that his studies had led him to conclude that the word “an” could not be used in this way. Now, since I was getting conflicting information, I determined that the only way that I was going to settle my mind on this issue once and for all was to examine the word “an” for myself. Thus, I went through a Greek-English interlinear, noting each time the word “an” occurred, to see what I could learn regarding it. My conclusion from my study was that Mr. Sellers was correct to change his mind, and that the word “an” can indeed not indicate this sort of a condition.
It is difficult to demonstrate this without quoting every passage in which the word “an” occurs, but I will try to do it the best I can. In order for this claim about the word “an” to be true and for it to make Christ’s statement about them seeing the Kingdom dependent on Israel accepting him, the word “an” would have to be able to refer to a condition that is not stated in the sentence in which the word “an” appears. The truth is that this word cannot do this. The word “an” does indicate the existence of a condition before the sentence will be true, but the condition is always stated in the sentence. It is never something pulled from the “wider context,” as those who try to say the word “an” is used this way claim.
The best way to demonstrate this is to compare this word “an” to our English word “if.” I cannot say to my friend, “If, then I will pay you a thousand dollars.” My friend might be interested in the thousand dollars, but he would say to me, “What do you mean, ‘If, then I will pay you a thousand dollars.’ If WHAT?” And he would be right to ask this, for the word “if” cannot be used without the condition to which it refers being stated.
Now, regarding the “wider context” idea. Suppose I relented, and said to my friend, “Okay, what I meant was, if you go to the grocery store with me, I will give you a thousand dollars.” My friend is all for that, so he does go to the grocery store with me. When we get back, he asks me for his thousand dollars. I reply, with a laugh, “No, no, I’m not giving you that. You didn’t fulfill the condition!”
“Yes, I did,” he indignantly would insist, “I went to the grocery store with you!”
But then I would reply, “Yes, but you were supposed buy me a carton of chocolate ice cream. Since you didn’t do that, I am not giving you the thousand dollars.”
“You never said I had to do that!” he would complain with disgust. “All you said was that I had to go to the store with you!”
“Yes,” I tell him, “But didn’t you notice that I used the word ‘if’ in that sentence? The word ‘if’ meant you had to look at the wider context. And the context was that just yesterday, we were talking about how good some chocolate ice cream would taste. You didn’t realize it, but I made that conversation my wider context, and used the word ‘if’’ so that you would think of that and realize you had to get me some chocolate ice cream to get the thousand dollars.”
Now, of course this example is ludicrous, but the point I am trying to make is that this is not at all how the word “if” is really used. There is no “wider context” to the word “if.” The condition that “if” implies is always stated in the sentence in which the word “if” occurs. In my statement to my friend, the condition that “if” implied was that he go to the store with me. Then, if he did that, I would give him the thousand dollars. If he failed to fulfill that condition, I would not give him the thousand dollars. The word “if” cannot be carried beyond that sentence. My argument about “wider context” would obviously be ridiculous. And the same is true of the word “an.” It does indicate a condition, but always one that is contained in the sentence in which it occurs. In the case of Matthew 16:28, the condition is clearly stated. It is contained in the word “some.” If they were part of the “some,” then they would not taste death until they saw the Son of Man coming in His kingdom. If, however, they were not part of the “some,” then they would taste death and would not see Him coming in His kingdom. This is the condition that the word “an” points to, and this is the only condition it points to. To argue for a “wider context,” or to bring the actions of Israel in here, is just as ridiculous as my argument for the word “if” meaning my friend had to buy chocolate ice cream in my example above. The word “an” simply does not work this way.
So we are left with this verse, and no way to wiggle out of it. Either some of those standing with Christ did not taste death until they saw the Son of Man coming in His kingdom, or else the words of Christ failed, and He is proved to be mistaken. Now some, in attempting to make this to have actually occurred, point to the transfiguration six days later. They claim that by seeing the transfiguration, some of His disciples standing there, namely, Peter, James, and John, saw Him coming in His kingdom through the transfiguration. Thus, Christ was preparing them here for what was soon to happen, and it did happen immediately afterwards in the transfiguration.
Now this, too, sounds like a good idea, until we examine it more closely. First of all, this leaves the Lord predicting to a crowd of His disciples that some of that group would not die in the next six days! Even if we limit the disciples present to the twelve, it would make Him a poor prophet indeed, to have made such an obvious prediction. I could also make such a prediction to a group of twelve men, and the chances would be very large that I would be correct. And if all the disciples, not just the twelve, were present here…well, I could make a prediction to a crowd of that size, and the chances would surely be greater than a million to one that I would be correct. It would be somewhat more risky to say that none in a crowd of that size would die in the next six days, but even that would be more likely to come true than not. Why would the Lord make such a useless and obvious prediction?
Secondly, consider that the condition the Lord gives for them seeing this is that they be one of the “some” that does not taste death. Yet in the transfiguration, none of the disciples had yet tasted death, and yet nine of them never saw the transfiguration. Do not the Lord’s words suggest that if they were alive at the time, they would see this? Why then were only Peter, James, and John allowed to follow the Lord to the mountain for His transfiguration? Wouldn’t Christ have been said, then, “there are some standing here who shall be chosen by Me who shall see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom”? This would have been a far better thing than talking about their dying or living, as if any of them was going to die in the next six days!
Finally, this idea breaks down when we consider, not just the Matthew passage, but also the parallel Mark and Luke passages. Mark declares that they would not taste death, “till they see the kingdom of God present with power.” Luke, even more impossible to associate with the transfiguration, says they would not taste death, “till they see the kingdom of God.” Seeing Christ transfigured in His glory might fit with seeing Him, “in His kingdom,” but this cannot possibly correspond with seeing His kingdom itself! The transfiguration cannot be the fulfillment of this. This has to refer to the actual coming of His kingdom.
So what do I believe the meaning of these passages is? First of all, I have tipped off part of my answer above. That is, that the “coming” referred to in Matthew is not the second coming, but instead is simply the coming of the kingdom itself. The idea of the “Son of Man coming in His kingdom” is that they would see Him coming into His governmental power. It does not mean that they would see the second coming before dying.
Yet, did the kingdom come in the lifetime of some of those disciples? I believe that it did. And here is where dispensationalism is crucial. It is clear that the government of God does not exist on the earth now. Each of my readers is under a human government. These governments regulate and control our lives. If we defy these governments, they will have something to say about it. Yet if we defy God, it becomes evident that we are not under His government, for nothing happens because of it. We can defy all we want. If I were to defy the United States government right now, I would soon be reminded that I am under the control of that government, for it would be there to deal with me. Yet no such reminder is evident when anyone defies God. To claim that we are currently under God’s government is just silly. Those who talk about “spreading the kingdom” simply do not know what they are talking about.
Yet just because we are not under the government of God now does not mean that the Son of Man didn’t at least start to come into His governmental power in the lifetime of many of these disciples, or that some of them did not see that government coming with power, or see the government itself at work. That it was working can clearly be seen in many ways in the book of Acts. One notable example is the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. These two defied God’s government by lying to the Holy Spirit. Since they were under God’s government, that government dealt with them powerfully, bringing death to each. This is the government of God at work, and many of His disciples saw it.
I believe that that government did start to come in, and the time it started was at the feast of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. This was some time after His transfiguration. Some of those disciples He was talking to had no doubt passed into the state of death since He had made that statement. One example we can give is Judas, who followed up his betrayal of the Lord by hanging himself, and so never saw the events of Acts 2. Yet eleven of the twelve did live to see it, and no doubt most of the rest of His group of followers did as well. And so, they saw the Son of Man coming into His governmental power. They never saw Him fully come into it, though. The reason is that the full power of the kingdom never did come in. Instead, the complete presence of the kingdom of God was postponed for a later time, and the current work of God in grace came in in its place. That is the truth of the mystery, and God’s present work in the dispensation of grace.
I will further explain my beliefs regarding the beginning of the Kingdom and the Acts period in my upcoming study of the book of Acts. Until then, I will not go into great detail on my beliefs on this subject. Instead, let me reiterate that this passage is not a mistake of Christ’s. The Lord knew exactly what He was saying. He was not talking about the second coming, for none of those standing there lived without tasting death to see that. Rather, He was talking about His Own coming into His Kingdom authority, something that began to happen at Pentecost, but was never completed. Thus, the Lord’s words were not a mistake. He was not suffering under an illusion when He claimed that these men would see Him coming into His Kingdom power in their lifetimes. They did see Him receiving that authority, although later He gave it up again to bring in instead the dispensation of grace. His receiving that authority during the Acts period is what the Lord was referring to in this passage, and it came true to the letter of what He said at that time.