“some of those who are standing here who will absolutely not taste of death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Jesus taught the same thing in Mark 9:1 and Luke 9:27. “Taste of death” is an idiom that means “die,” and Matthew 16:28, Mark 9:1, and Luke 9:27 are some of the very clearest scriptures that show us that Jesus taught that the end of this age and his Millennial Kingdom were going to come very soon. The “kingdom” that Jesus taught was going to come before some of the people he was speaking to would die is his Millennial Kingdom on earth, which was the “kingdom” that was the primary subject of his teaching ministry, and it would be established when he came back to earth in power and glory with his angels, as Matthew 16:27 says.
The reason that Matthew 16:27 is problematic is that in spite of what Jesus said about some of his disciples not dying before they saw the Kingdom come in power, all of them are now dead and the Son of Man has still not come in his kingdom. Theologians who do not believe that Christ can be mistaken in what he said have given various possible explanations for what Christ said, and these will be handled further on in this commentary entry.
What Jesus said is very clear if we understand that he taught that his Second Coming would occur shortly after his death, which is certainly implied in the Old Testament. For example, Isaiah 61:1-2 ties “the year of the Lord’s favor” to “the Day of vengeance of our God,” and there are other scriptures that do that too (cp. Isa. 9:6-7; 11:1-9; 61:1-3; Micah 5:2; Zech. 9:9-10; Mal. 3:1-3; 4:1-3). The New Testament also has many verses that show that people thought the Second Coming was going to be soon, even in the lifetimes of those people who saw Jesus when he was alive on earth (cp. Matt. 3:2; 10:23; 16:28 [Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27]; Matt. 23:35-36 [Luke 11:49]; Matt. 24:34 [Mark 12:20; Luke 21:32]; Matt. 26:64; Mark 1:15; John 4:24; John 5:25; 12:31; 21:22; Rom. 13:12; 16:20; 1 Cor. 7:29; Phil. 4:5; Heb. 10:37; James 5:8-9; 1 Pet. 4:7; Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:6, 20).
Jesus taught that “the year of the Lord’s favor” was already happening during his ministry, because he quoted these verses in Isaiah and said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Jesus knew the acceptable year of the Lord had started, and so he taught that his Second Coming and the “day of vengeance” would be shortly after his death. In fact, the apostles expected him to establish his kingdom soon after his resurrection (Acts 1:6).
We know what Jesus meant by his “kingdom,” because the context is clear: it is the Second Coming, complete with angels and glory, the Judgment, and repaying people for what they had done on earth. This has not ever happened, not back then, and not yet, but it will happen when Jesus returns to earth and sets up his Kingdom.
Many theologians do not believe Jesus could have been inaccurate in what he said about the timing of the coming of his kingdom in spite of the fact that prophets had written the Old Testament books centuries earlier and had been inaccurate about it, something that is clear in the Old Testament scriptures themselves. Therefore, some theologians say that the “Kingdom” that Christ was referring to in Matthew 16:28 came at the Transfiguration, but there are a number of reasons why this cannot be the case. The first and foremost is that what Jesus said would happen in Matthew 16:27-28 did not happen at the Transfiguration and still has not happened. Jesus said he was going to come with his angels, and that did not happen at the Transfiguration. He also said that when the kingdom came he would, “reward each person according to what he has done,” and that has not happened yet either. The Transfiguration simply does not fulfill the words of Christ.
People knew then, as they should now, that when the Kingdom comes, it will stay. No one thought of the kingdom that figured so prominently in prophecy as being temporary, or just “coming” as a vision but not in fact. In fact, if the disciples standing there with Jesus thought he was actually saying, “some who are standing here will not die before God gives a secret vision of the future Kingdom to three men,” no one would have been particularly excited. God had given visions of the Kingdom to prophets who lived before Jesus, such as Ezekiel (chapters 37-48), and also to people who lived after Jesus, such as Paul (2 Cor. 12:1-7). Jesus’ words were exciting to the disciples specifically because they understood perfectly what he was saying: Jesus’ Kingdom on earth would come very soon.
Jesus had been teaching that the Kingdom was near since he started his ministry (Matt. 4:17), and there is no theologian who says that Christ’s message, “the Kingdom is near,” is actually saying, “the Transfiguration is near.” Most scholars agree that the Kingdom was the central theme of Christ’s teaching ministry, so we must stress that the one and only time when Jesus taught about the Kingdom that some scholars assert he was speaking about the Transfiguration is the event recorded in Matthew 16:28, Mark 9:1, and Luke 9:27, that their only reason for saying so is that what Jesus said about some disciples not dying did not come to pass. To say that only in that one single teaching of Jesus, “the Kingdom” refers to the Transfiguration is just sophistry to make what Jesus said in that one place become historically correct.
The Transfiguration was a vision of Christ in his glorified body. It was not “the Kingdom of Heaven come in power,” and in fact it was not even a vision of “the Kingdom of Heaven” at all, it was a vision of the glorified Christ. This is confirmed by Peter, who wrote: “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty,” which referred at least in part to Peter seeing the glorified Christ at the Transfiguration. Peter saw the glorified Christ, but never claimed the kingdom came in any way. Matthew 17:9 clearly calls the experience a “vision” (ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB), although the NIV and some other English translations do not clearly make that point.
Many of the prophets of old, and certainly the apostles Paul and John, had visions of the future Kingdom, but it would be wrong to say that because Isaiah, Zechariah, Paul or John got a vision of the future Kingdom, then the Kingdom had actually come in some way. Similarly, it is wrong to say that the Transfiguration was what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of his Kingdom and the judgments associated with it.
The purpose of the Transfiguration was to help prepare Jesus for his suffering and death, and in the vision at the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus and spoke with him about his death, his “departure” from life (Luke 9:30-31). Mankind could not be redeemed if Jesus “broke” while being tortured or while he was on the cross, so God, via a vision, prepared him for his suffering. It bears repeating that this was not a vision of the coming kingdom and was not the kingdom actually coming in some way.
It is important that we understand what Peter wrote about the vision, because the fact that the Transfiguration is mentioned in 2 Peter 1:16-17 is a major reason people say Jesus was speaking of his Transfiguration. In those verses, Peter spoke being an eyewitness of the majesty of Christ, and he was, but in a prophetic sense. Peter did not see the reality of Christ as the exalted Messianic King, he saw a prophetic image of it. The vision that Peter, James, and John saw does not mean that the “kingdom” came at the Transfiguration any more than the kingdom came when Daniel, Ezekiel, Paul, or John had a vision of it.
One of the themes of 2 Peter is to convince his readers of the divine origin of the Scripture and that it is trustworthy. So he said the power and glory of the coming of Christ was not a “cleverly invented” story, but will really happen (cp. 1:11; 2:9; 3:7-14). As evidence of that fact, he speaks of being an eyewitness of the majesty of Christ in a prophetic sense. The whole context of the mention of the Transfiguration in 2 Peter is prophecy. In fact, the Transfiguration made “the word of the prophets more certain” (2 Pet. 1:19). To say that the Transfiguration is the fulfillment of what Jesus spoke of in Matthew 16 is to misunderstand both Jesus and Peter.
Theologians who make the Transfiguration the fulfillment of Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:28 create a couple of insurmountable problems. One of those problems is that Jesus’ words in Matthew 16 were not fulfilled at the Transfiguration: angels did not come and people were not repaid for their works. Worse, however, is that fact that if the Transfiguration was the fulfillment of what Jesus said in Matthew 16:28—that “some” of the disciples would not die until they saw Jesus coming in his kingdom—then that certainly did not come to pass. The Transfiguration was only about 8 days after Jesus spoke in Matthew 16:28, and it is certain that not just “some” of Jesus’ disciples were still alive, but likely that all of them were still alive 8 days later.
The short 8 day period puts the people who say that Jesus could not be wrong about the timing of his coming kingdom into a vice. If Jesus was not wrong about the timing of the coming of his kingdom and it actually was the Transfiguration, then he was wrong about only “some” of the believers still being alive 8 days after he taught. If he was not wrong about only “some” his audience being alive when the kingdom came, then he was inaccurate when it came to the time of his kingdom because they are all dead. Since the evidence is that the Transfiguration was not the coming of his kingdom, and since Jesus himself made it clear that he did not actually know when the kingdom would come (Matt. 24:36; Mark 13:32), the evidence is that it was God who delayed the coming kingdom of Christ, but Jesus did not know that was going to happen. We learn from reading the prophecies about the end times in the Old Testament that God had delayed it before, so delaying it again was not out of character for God, who in His great mercy keeps giving humankind more and more time to be saved.
The renown scholar, F. F. Bruce saw the problem with the 8 days, and did not believe the Transfiguration was what Jesus was speaking about in Matthew 16:28. He wrote: “It cannot be said that the transfiguration was the event which Jesus said would come within the lifetime of some of his hearers: one does not normally use such language to refer to something that is to take place in a week’s time” (F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, InterVarsity Press, 1983. p. 155). F. F. Bruce believed that the Kingdom came on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), but that date does not fulfill the words of Christ either. For one thing, even if Jesus’ ministry was over three years, it would still have been probable that almost all of the disciples Jesus addressed in Matthew 16 were still alive. Besides that, on the Day of Pentecost no angels came and no one was judged and rewarded or punished. Pentecost and the Age of Grace are not the Kingdom and are not a fulfillment of what Christ said in Matthew 16:27-28. Jesus was speaking to his disciples about a kingdom, glory. angels, judgment, rewards, and repayment, all of which they understood, and none of which has occurred yet, but they will occur at the Second Coming of Christ.
Jesus said that only “some” of his followers would be alive when he came and set up his kingdom on earth, and that is because the Great Tribulation spoken about in the Old Testament, and which Jesus himself taught about, was to come between his teaching in Matthew 16:28 and his Second Coming. Daniel 12:1 speaks of that time of tribulation, and so do many of the other prophets. Jesus taught about it in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. The book of Revelation describes this tribulation in graphic detail. The majority of the people on earth will not survive the tribulation, but Jesus prophesied that some of his disciples would live through it and see him come into his kingdom, and we can assume that his prophecy would have come true if God had not delayed his Second Coming.
In summary, it needs to be restated that the one and only reason that anyone says that the Transfiguration, resurrection, Day of Pentecost, or other event that occurred in apostolic times is what Christ was talking about in Matthew 16:28 is that the people he was speaking to are dead, which makes Christ’s statement not historically accurate. But prophets and apostles such as Ezekiel, Isaiah, Joel, Zechariah, Peter, Paul, and John also wrote that the Day of the Lord was close at hand, and what they said has turned out to be inaccurate too. What we see is that God is a God of mercy, and for His own purposes He delays the timing of the End without announcing that He will do so, most likely in hopes that more people will get saved and join Him in Eternity. For his part, Jesus, like the prophets of old, could not go beyond what God revealed to him, and, in the case of the time of the Second Coming, God had indicated it was coming soon.
[For more about the wrath in the Great Tribulation and that most of the people on earth will die, see commentary on Dan. 12:1. For more on the coming kingdom of Christ on earth, the Millennial Kingdom, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth”].