Matt. 16:28, Mark 9:1, and Luke 9:27 say that some standing there with Jesus would not experience death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. How can that be true, when the Second Coming has not happened in the past two thousand years (and counting)? The answer will surprise you because it goes beyond the “standard” one.
Let’s clear up the confusion.
I focus on Matt. 16:27-28, instead of Mark 9:1 and Luke 9:27. All three Gospels say the same thing, boiled down, so Matthew’s version will stand in for the other two, just for clarity and conciseness.
All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted. You are encouraged to see other translations at biblegateway.com.
This post is adapted from my larger translation and commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, which is part of my larger translation and commentary on the NT, free and easily accessible online to everyone, particularly to people all around the globe who cannot afford or do not have access to Study Bibles or commentary sets.
27 For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then at that time ‘he shall reward each person in accordance with his conduct.’ 28 I tell you the truth that some are standing here who shall not experience death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matt. 16:27-28)
First, let’s not make any mistake. Everyone on the planet will be judged by their conduct–even believers (v. 27). This verse refers to his grand Second Coming, when he will come as King and Judge.
So the problem we have to solve is this:
How do we transition from v. 27, which teaches the Second Coming, and v. 28, which teaches an interim coming (of sorts). Further, why would Jesus talk about the disciples’ not experiencing death, if he was referring to the transfiguration, just six days away (17:1-13)? Not one of them was close to dying when he said those words.
First, let’s consult the commentaries.
But it is likely that Matthew (and Mark and Luke) saw in this vision [in Matt. 17:1-13] at least a proleptic fulfillment of Jesus’s solemn words in v. 28, even though the truth of Jesus’ kingship was to be more concretely embodied in later events following his resurrection. (p. 641).
In other words, v. 28 is a proleptic look at the transfiguration, which is a fuller anticipation of v. 27, the Second Coming in judgment and glory. What does “proleptic” mean? It is defined, below.
Osborne, after discussing various optional interpretations, concludes, wisely:
The transfiguration, however, must be added as a proleptic anticipation of these kingdom events [in v. 27] that then exhibit the power and glory of the coming of the Son of Man and themselves are a foretaste of the second coming. It cannot be the sole thrust, because “not experience death” would make little sense if used of the next event [transfiguration]. Nevertheless, it does inaugurate the series (and is even more explicit in Mark 9:1). (p. 639).
So it seems that Osborne agrees with France. Verse 28 introduces the transfiguration in 17:1-13, and the transfiguration anticipates the Second Coming.
When Jesus again takes some disciples aside for private instruction, … his transfiguration among them provides a foretaste of his glory when he will return to judge the earth (16:28). Once could offer various suggestions for the background of Jesus’ proleptic “glorification” here … [then Keener offers various parallels in ancient texts]. (p. 437).
So we see the word proleptic again. There is agreement with the previous two commentators.
The glory of Jesus’ second coming will soon be foreshadowed in his transfiguration (itself a foretaste of his resurrection). Verse 28 remains cryptic but is best taken as just such a reference to Jesus’ transfiguration—the very next event described. Second Peter 1:16–18 reinforces this equation of the transfiguration with Christ’s coming in glory, while the parallelism between vv. 27a and 28b, each speaking of the “Son of Man coming” further supports this interpretation.
He agrees with France, Osborne, and Keener. “Foreshadow” and “foretaste” are similar to “prolepsis.”
Carson, after thoroughly exploring the various optional interpretations, lands on this one:
It seems best to take v. 28 as having a more generic reference—namely, not referring simply to the resurrection or Pentecost or the like, but to the manifestation of Christ’s kingly reign exhibited after the resurrection in a host of ways, not the least of them being the rapid multiplication of the disciples and the mission to the Gentiles. Some of those standing there would live to see Jesus’ gospel proclaimed throughout the Roman Empire and a rich “harvest” (cf. 9:37-38) of converts reaped for Jesus Messiah. This best suits the flexibility of the “kingdom” concept in the Synoptic Gospels. (p. 434)
He expands on the kingdom of God and does not highlight the prolepsis of v. 28 to the transfiguration. He deviates a little from the previous scholars.
As noted, “prolepsis” means a “foretaste” or “anticipation.” Webster’s dictionary says prolepsis means: “The representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished.” To apply this definition, the transfiguration in 17:1-13 represents the future act of the Second Coming (v. 27). But the transfiguration is an incomplete foretaste or anticipation or prolepsis of the Second Coming.
To conclude, I would like to combine the scholars’ interpretation that emphasized prolepsis with Carson’s interpretation of the kingdom. The “kingdom” concept in v. 28 must be taken broadly, to include the advance of the kingdom and the proclamation of the gospel and the growth of the church throughout the Roman Empire, according to the complete description of the kingdom in the synoptic Gospels. The kingdom is not static, but advances, because the resurrected Lord is reigning over it. And the transfiguration is a brief foretaste of his reign over the kingdom.
And v. 27 lays out where all of the advance of the kingdom is heading.
So theologically, it works out like this (the arrows mean “connects to”):
Some shall see coming kingdom → Transfiguration → Prolepsis of advancing kingdom of God → Actual advancing kingdom → Second Coming and judgment
The last two elements (Second Coming and judgment) have not yet taken place (v. 27), but the previous elements were activated when Jesus arrived as a baby and increased exponentially during his ministry. So the two verses (27 and 28) refer both to the transfiguration and the other elements in the chain.
I could add a final element after Second Coming and judgment: → Fulfillment or completion of the kingdom.
At the very final element, everything will have been completed and made right, but this element takes us too far afield for this post.
How does this post help me grow in my knowledge of God?
Jesus’s words in v. 28 indeed refers to the transfiguration, and the transfiguration is a prolepsis of the things coming after it in the chain, particularly the Second Coming in v. 27.
Here is Peter’s eyewitness account of the transfiguration in his epistle:
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. (2 Pet. 1:16-18, NIV)
Amazing. Peter really was there and saw and heard the transfiguration. This is Scripture confirming Scripture, always a wise approach to reading the Bible.
And the reality is that Peter really did see and hear the vision and the voice. It will be good to see him face to face, when he comes back again.
Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew: The New American Commentary. Vol. 22 (Broadman, 1992).
Carson, D. A. Matthew: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. Ed. by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Vol. 9. (Zondervan, 2010).
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Eerdmans 2007).
Keener, Craig. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. (Eerdmans 1999).
Osborne, Grant R. Matthew: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Zondervan, 2010).