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Go to Bible: Matthew 16
“And the Pharisees and Sadducees came.” This record is also in Mark 8:10-13.(top)
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“the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” In Matthew 16:12, the “leaven” of the Pharisees and Sadducees was false doctrine. In contrast, in Luke 12:1, which is a totally different context, Jesus states that the leaven of the Pharisees is hypocrisy. Both are related, because the Pharisees and Sadducees taught false doctrine, but did not even keep their own false doctrine (cp. Matt. 23:2-4; Luke 11:46).(top)
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“Elijah.” For information on why the people thought that Elijah would come, and why John the Baptist was called “Elijah,” see commentary on Matthew 17:10.(top)
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“I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my congregation.” We can see from the context and grammar that Jesus is addressing Peter here. Jesus said, “I also say to you [singular] that you [singular] are Peter and on this rock I will build my congregation.” There have been many different meanings suggested for what Jesus said. Some of these are that Peter is the rock on which Christ built the church and therefore is the first of a long line of Popes; that Peter is the rock but only in his role of leading the early church; that the confession of Christ as the Son of God was the rock; that Christ himself is the rock; and that the place where they were standing in Caesarea Philippi was the rocky cliff area where Christ would start to build his church.
To understand what Christ said, we must note that there are two words for “rock” in the verse, and the two words are different in Greek. The first is the word translated “Peter,” which is petros in Greek and is masculine and refers to a rock, a piece of stone (it could be large or small). The second word for rock is petra, and it is feminine and refers to a cliff or rocky shelf or rocky peak. It is sometimes argued that Jesus spoke Aramaic and in Aramaic there was no difference between the words, but William Hendriksen correctly argued: “…we do not know enough about Aramaic to make this assertion. We have the inspired Greek text and we must be guided by that.”a Lenski adds, “this appeal to the Aramaic substitutes something unknown and hypothetical for what is fully known and insured as true on the basis of the inspired Greek of the holy writers themselves.”b Hendriksen adds, “If Jesus had intended to convey the thought that he was going to build his church on Peter he would have said, ‘and on you I will build my church,’” and that point is made by other scholars as well. Also, for Jesus to address Peter as “you” twice in the sentence, but then as “this” argues against Peter being the rock Jesus would build on.
Besides the grammatical evidence in Matthew 16:18 itself, there is a lot of evidence that the “rock” on which Jesus would build his church is not Peter. We must remember that Jesus made this statement in front of all the apostles and perhaps some disciples as well (Matt. 16:13-20). Yet not too long after that time the apostles were arguing about who among them was the greatest (Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48). Then, later, the mother of James and John asked Jesus if her two sons could be the number one and two men in his kingdom, something that angered the other ten apostles (Matt. 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45). And even though Jesus tried to teach them how to be great in the Kingdom it was an important subject to them and so they argued about it again at the Last Supper (Luke 22:24). If Jesus had told Peter in front of everyone that he would build his congregation on Peter, there would have been no further argument about who was greatest, and the fact that the apostles argued about who was the greatest right up to the Last Supper shows that Jesus had not made any statement about it. Also, Ephesians 2:20 says the Church is built upon the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. Nothing is said about the Church being built on Peter.
Also, the argument that Peter was the “rock” Jesus spoke of, but only in his role as leader of the early church, falls apart when we see that in Peter’s lifetime his role of leader of the Church vanishes. By the Jerusalem council (Acts 15), it was Jesus’ brother James (not the Apostle James, who was executed by Herod; Acts 12:2) who had the final word, not Peter (Acts 15:13-21). Earlier, Paul had to confront Peter about his error (Gal. 2:11), and Peter had stated that his ministry would be to the Jews, not the Gentiles (Gal. 2:6-9). So, as Jesus expanded his Church to include many Gentiles, Peter declined to go in that direction and decided to focus on the Jews. But it was the Gentiles who, after Acts 15, added the most to the early Church. So to say that the early Church was built on Peter is simply not true. Given all that, the idea that Peter is the rock on which Jesus would build his church must be rejected.
Having rejected Peter as the “rock,” there is no exact way to determine what the “rock” Jesus referred to was. Two very likely suggestions are that the “rock” Jesus referred to was Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16), and that the rock Jesus spoke of was he himself. In favor of the “rock” being the confession of Christ is the wording of Matthew 16:18, that it seems strange for Jesus to speak about a “rock” in the third person if he was referring to himself, and also the fact that people join the Church by believing in and confessing Christ (cp. Rom. 10:9). In favor of Jesus himself being the rock is that the Bible refers to him as the foundation of the Church (1 Cor. 3:11). Scholars are divided on the issue, and we should also consider that Jesus might have been purposely ambiguous because he spoke in such a way as to include both meanings. In the end, the fact that we cannot figure out with certainty exactly what Jesus meant does not affect how we think about the Church. Jesus Christ is clearly the foundation of the Church, and the Church is built person by person as people confess Christ as Lord, as Peter did.
“congregation.” This is the translation of the word commonly translated “Church,” ekklēsia (#1577 ἐκκλησία). Ekklēsia has a wide range of meanings, but none of them refer to a physical building. The word ekklēsia refers to an assembly of people, any assembly of people for any reason. It does not have to be a religious gathering. The gathering of people in Acts 19:32 was a mob coming together with no particular ethnic or religious affiliation, in fact, the Bible says, “most of them did not know why they had come together” (ESV). In Acts 7:38 the term is used of the Jewish throng, including some Gentiles (Exod. 12:38), who were led out of Egypt by Moses. Another example is Matthew 18:17, where the “congregation” could refer to a congregation of Jews or the Church. In that verse, “congregation” has a multidispensational application. So the term ekklēsia does not solely apply to the Christian Church.
In modern English the term “Church” refers to a Christian building of worship, however, this is not how the word ekklēsia is used in Scripture. Translating ekklēsia as “Church” causes some problems, primarily because almost everyone who reads “Church” thinks of the Christian Church. But, as we have seen, ekklēsia does not always refer to Christians.
We do need to recognize that the most common use of ekklēsia is referring to Christians, but as a congregation of people, not as a “church” building. This is made clear in Colossians 1:18: Christ is “the head of the body, the church,” which refers to the entire world congregation of Christians (Cp. also: Acts 5:11). The term ekklēsia can be used solely of a particular local assembly of believers (e.g., 3 John 1:10), or to specific groups, which by extension applies to the entire Church (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:2; Eph. 1:22). Lastly, ekklēsia is used in Revelation (2:1, etc.) in regard to the “congregation” after the Rapture. These are Jews and some God-fearing Gentiles, but not Christians who have been Raptured off the earth before the book of Revelation starts (see commentary on Revelation 2:1).
“gates of the grave.” This was a Semitic idiom for death. The word-picture being painted was that when a person died, he entered the world of death (Sheol = “gravedom,” the state of being dead) and the gates were shut behind him and he could not get back to the world of life. For the Hebrews who correctly believed that when a person died he was actually dead and not alive in any form, the “gates of the grave” were a picture of the permanence of death, and the only way to re-enter life was by resurrection. However, most cultures in the ancient world believed in some form of life after death, and in some of those cultures in the Middle East, dying was thought of as going through a gate or even a series of gates. The NIV Study Bible (1984 edition) text note on Job 17:16 says: “In Mesopotamian literature, all who entered the netherworld passed through a series of seven gates.”
Sheol was the Hebrew word for the state of being dead. It was not the act of dying or the grave, which was the physical place where dead bodies were, Sheol was the state of being dead. People who were dead were said to be “in Sheol,” in the state of death. The Old Testament refers to the gates of Sheol (Job 17:16; Isa. 38:10), and the “gates of death” (Job 38:17; Ps. 9:13; 107:18), and other literature of the time period does too, such as the Apocrypha. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus is speaking of building his “congregation,” which will consist of saved people from Israel and Gentiles, and he knows that some will be alive when he comes and some will be dead, so he makes the point of saying that the “gates of the grave will not prevail against it.” Jesus knew the reason that the gates of the grave would not overcome his congregation was that he would raise those who were dead back to life; the gates of the grave would open and the dead would come out. The Old Testament and Gospels have a number of clear verses about the dead being raised, including Job 19:25-26; Isaiah 26:19; Ezekiel 37:12-14; Daniel 12:2, 13; Hosea 13:14; and John 5:28, 29;
The righteous people who have died will be raised in one of the resurrections (while dead Christians will be raised in the Rapture (1 Thess. 4:13-17)). Dead people who are resurrected in the “first resurrection” (Rev. 20:5, 6), also called the “Resurrection of the Righteous” (Luke 14:14; Acts 24:15), and “the resurrection of life” (John 5:29), will be part of the Messianic Kingdom on earth and live forever with Jesus.
There are some commentators who historically have made “death” figurative for the powers of death or evil that cause death and so the way the phrase “gates of hell” is generally used in Christendom is that it means that demons and the powers of the Devil (“hell”) will not overcome the Church. However, although it is true that demons will not overcome the Church, that is not what the verse is saying. Jesus was not making the point that the Devil would not be able to overcome the Church, he was making the point that death could not defeat his Church.
[For more on Sheol, see commentary on Rev. 20:13. For more on dead people being dead, lifeless in every way, see Appendix 4, “The Dead are Dead.” For more on the Rapture and the resurrections, see commentary on Acts 24:15.]
“I will give to you the keys.” The “you” is singular; Jesus is speaking most directly to Peter, but the other apostles are included, as we see from John 20:23.
“whatever you forbid on earth must be already forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth must be already permitted in heaven.” On the flyleaf of the paper cover to The New Testament: A Private Translation in the Language of the People, by Charles B. Williams (1953), the Greek grammarian Mantey,a introduced the translation by saying that Williams did a better job of translating the Greek verb into English than any other New Testament he had studied. One of the examples he gave was Matthew 16:19 and 18:18. These are almost always translated as: (NIV) “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
However, the phrase, “will be bound in heaven” is not a good translation of the Greek verb. The “to be” verb is not a simple future, but rather a future passive periphrastic (and thus is most accurately translated “shall have been”), while the verb “bind” is a perfect passive participle. Williams translates the verse as:
Matt. 16:19: “I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you forbid on earth must be what is already forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth must be what is already permitted in heaven.”
The 1995 revision of the New American Standard Bible follows that translation quite closely: Matt. 16:19: “I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Matt. 18:18: “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
Williams’ translation not only fits the Greek, but is how ministry actually works. God’s ministers do not make commands that God must then follow. Rather, God’s ministers work hard to be aware of what God is doing and then follow His lead. God’s ministers follow God’s guidance, so what we bind or loose on earth must be inside the will of God, or what He has first done in heaven. Jesus himself worked that way, even as he said over and over: “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise’” (John 5:19 ESV). “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge…” (John 5:30). “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38 ESV). “…I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me” (John 8:28 ESV). “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10 ESV).
It is clear that even Jesus did not bind and loose on his own, without knowing the Father’s will. Similarly, we also must know what God has already bound or loosed in heaven before we try to act on earth. It is appropriate that when Jesus was giving Peter the keys to the kingdom, he also told Peter that he walk in the will of God and not try to bind or loose on his own. The ministry does not belong to people, it belongs to God and Jesus, and the minister of the Lord follows the leading of the Lord.
Robertson provides a wonderful explanation of this difficult verse, based on his extensive knowledge of Greek and understanding of the use of the language at the time by the Rabbis. He writes:
Robertson correctly states (above) that the Greek is a future perfect indicative, and could literally be translated “will have been bound…will have been loosed.” As he points out, this construction indicates a state of completion. Williams understands this when he translates the verse such that what we allow or forbid must be inside the will of God, or already allowed or forbidden in heaven. If God had wanted the verse to say that what we bind on earth will then be bound in heaven, the Greek would have been worded quite differently than it is.
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“From that time Jesus began to show to his disciples.” Once the disciples realized that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus began to tell them that he must suffer, die, and be raised from the dead. Jesus taught about his suffering, death, and resurrection many times. He taught about it right after the disciples recognized him as the Christ (Matt. 16:21; Mark 8:31, 32; Luke 9:22). Then he taught about it again immediately after the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:9-12; Mark 9:9-13); then again when he was in Galilee shortly after the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:22, 23; Mark 9:31, 32; Luke 9:43-45), then again at the Feast of Tabernacles (John 8:21, 28); then again while he was going up to Jerusalem for the Passover, at which time he would be killed (Matt. 20:17-19; Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34); and then again when he was in Jerusalem for the Passover (Matt. 26:2; cp. John 12:7). In spite of his clear teaching about it, however, they did not understand what he meant.
[For more on Jesus’ teaching about his suffering and death, see commentary on Luke 18:34.]
“be raised from the dead.” The words “from the dead” are added for clarity. Jesus would be killed and rise after three days, “rise,” which would have to mean rise from the dead. This teaching of Jesus was very important, and is repeated in Matthew 16:21, Mark 8:31, and Luke 9:22.(top)
“And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” The record of Peter rebuking Jesus is only in Matthew and Mark.
“never, ever.” The Greek double negative ou me is usually translated “by no means” in the REV. However, in this case, the reader may think that Peter is saying that Jesus could not be killed by any means known to man. The “never, ever” makes the point clear and preserves the double use of “no.”
The disciples did not expect Jesus to be killed and then raised from the dead. That is simply not what most first-century Jews believed about the Messiah, so they did not understand what Jesus was speaking of when he spoke of being raised from the dead (see commentary on Luke 18:34).(top)
“Get behind me, Adversary.” The Greek is hupago opiso satanas, “Go behind me, Adversary.” This is a very strong rebuke. Jesus is calling Peter an “Adversary,” and is likely comparing him by the figure hypocatastasis to the Devil.
[For more on the figure of speech hypocatastasis, see commentary on Rev. 20:2.]
The Greek is similar to what Jesus said to the Adversary in Matthew 4:10, hupago Satanas “Go, Adversary.” It is most likely that what Jesus said to Peter was just a rebuke meaning “Get away from me”;a “Get out of my sight.”b However, the addition of opiso (“behind, after”), which can in certain contexts be translated “follow,” (“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men”; Matt. 4:19, ESV) has led some people to conclude that Jesus is saying in essence, “Get following me,” meaning, “become a disciple again.” Although that is a lexical possibility, there are a couple of reasons that militate against it. For one thing, if Jesus was telling Peter to be a follower again, it seems that he would not have added “Adversary.” After all, “Follow me again, Adversary,” does not seem very likely. Secondly, early scribes ascribed the same phrase to the Adversary himself in Luke 4:8. Although modern textual research shows that the phrase was added later, many Greek texts in the Western family have the same phrase in Luke 4:8 when Jesus was speaking to the Adversary (which is why “Get thee behind me, Satan” appears in the KJV). Thus it is clear that the early scribes did not think it was a request to return to being a proper follower, or disciple. Given the evidence, it seems that Jesus was strongly rebuking Peter, saying in essence, “Go away from me, Adversary,” a harsh rebuke that would have gotten Peter’s attention immediately, and caused him to think about the seriousness of the situation.
“Adversary.” The Greek word for Adversary is Satanas (#4567 Σατανᾶς), which has been transliterated into “Satan” in most versions. This causes the important meaning of the word “Satan” to be lost. For more information on it, see commentary on Mark 1:13.
[For information on the names of the Devil, see Appendix 14: “Names of the Devil”.]
“Then Jesus said to his disciples.” This record is in Matthew 16:24-28; Mark 8:34-9:1; and Luke 9:23-27. Matthew says Jesus is speaking with his disciples, which was the major intent of what he was saying, however, Mark and Luke point out that the multitude was there also and was listening to this part of what he was teaching. What Jesus taught about him being the Messiah and suffering and dying was only taught to the disciples, which is why for this teaching he had to call the multitude to him.
“he must.” Jesus’ statement contains three imperative verbs: “deny,” “take up” [lift up], and “follow.” In some cases, the imperative verb has the sense of an invitation, hence the traditional translation, “let him.” In this context, however, the sense of the verse is not an invitation, but a command, and a number of versions pick up on that fact (cp. HCSB; NAB; NET; NIV; and The Source New Testament). However, in this case, the first two imperatives are aorist while the last is present tense, which makes a difference (see commentary on Mark 8:34).
“take up his cross.” To “take up one’s cross” is to be willing to do what is right for the sake of Christ even if you do not want to (like Christ in Gethsemane who did not want to be crucified), and also to suffer for Christ if doing the will of God means suffering (1 Pet. 3:17; 4:9. Cp. Phil. 1:29). Carrying one’s own cross is mentioned several times in the Gospels (Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; 14:27).
The phrase “take up one’s cross” comes from the Roman custom of crucifixion and the fact that it often occurred that the person about to be crucified had to carry his own cross or a piece of it, just as Jesus and then Simon had to carry the cross-piece of Jesus’ cross (John 19:16-17; Matt. 27:31-32). Although the custom of crucifixion was Roman, the dominance of Rome at the time of Christ was such that the whole Mediterranean world and the Middle East were familiar with it, and thus understood what Jesus said when he said that anyone who followed him must take up their cross.
Sadly, the term “taking up one’s cross” or “bearing one’s cross” has been misunderstood and misused in Christendom. It does not refer to “suffering” in general. The wicked suffer for many reasons, but they do not suffer for the cross. Furthermore, much of the suffering righteous people endure is not related to following Jesus.
Jesus was not speaking of the fact that everyone suffers, he was specifically referring to the fact that godly people who openly follow him will suffer (cp. 2 Tim. 3:12). Jesus knew that the Devil has so orchestrated life that people who live godly lives will suffer, and it is not right or godly for a disciple of Christ to act like the people of the world act and thus try to avoid the suffering that comes with being a follower of Christ. Jesus said, “he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The true disciple “must” be willing to suffer for Christ, as difficult as that suffering can be.
It should be noted that in Luke 9:23 Jesus says that one must take up their cross “daily.” The difficulties of life and the ongoing war between Good and Evil is such that there can be daily struggles, and the believer must be mentally prepared to take up their cross and struggle against evil day after day.
[For more on the transfer of the cross from Jesus to Simon, see commentary on John 19:17. For more on the chronology of the events of the last week of Jesus’ life, see commentary on John 18:13.](top)
“life” (2x). The Greek word is psuchē (#5590 ψυχή; pronounced psoo-'kay), often translated “soul.” The Greek word has a large number of meanings, including the physical life of a person or animal; an individual person; or attitudes, emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Here it refers to the physical life of the body, which is why most versions translate it “life,” which is accurate in this context. However, although the interpretation of “lose his life” is to die, what Christ said has a wider application, because often for the work of Christ the believer “loses their life” in the sense of giving up things that they desire or want to do. The believer must be willing to die for Christ if that is what is called for, but they also must be willing to give up things they want for the cause of Christ.
[For a more complete explanation of psuchē, “soul,” see Appendix 7: “Usages of ‘Soul.’”](top)
“life” (2x). The Greek word is psuchē, as in Matt. 16:25. It is used twice in verse 25 of the life of the body, and it is expanded in this verse to be life in general, both here and the hereafter, which is why many versions translate it “life” in verse 25 but “soul” in verse 26 (ESV, KJV, NASB, NIV). We felt it was better to translate the word the same way in these two verses and point out that “life” can be just our physical life or our physical and everlasting life
[For a more complete explanation of psuchē, “soul,” see Appendix 7: “Usages of ‘Soul.’”](top)
“about to come”a Jesus spoke of his Second Coming and the events that surround it quite often, although at the time the disciples did not realize that he was speaking about a Second Coming. They thought that Jesus’ conquering the earth was going to happen later on in his ministry; they did not yet know, and never really understood until after his resurrection, that he was going to die. Yet now, with 20-20 hindsight, we can see some things he taught are about his second coming (Matthew 16:27 (cp. Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26); Matt. 24:30-44 (Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27); Matt. 25:31-46; 26:64 (Mark 14:62); Mark 8:38; Luke 12:40; 17:24-30; John 14:3, 18; 21:22). The Old Testament also is worded such that it seemed the Messiah was only going to come one time. Nevertheless, we today can look at the Old Testament and see that some of them are speaking of Jesus’ Second Coming even if the people of the time did not know it (cp. Isa. 63:1-6, Dan. 2:34-35, 44; and Zech. 14:3-6, and there are many more that speak of Christ ruling the earth, which we today know he will do after his Second Coming.
The “Second Coming” is not “the Rapture,” which is a totally different event that is best described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18. In the Rapture, Jesus does not land on earth, but Christians are taken up into the air to be with Christ. There is a debate among Christians who believe in the Rapture (some do not believe there will be one) as to exactly when it will occur and whether it is before all the tribulation described in Revelation, during it, or after it, but all agree that the Rapture and the “Second Coming” when Christ physically comes to earth and conquers it, are different events.
“with his angels in the glory of his Father.” In the future, there will be a time of great tribulation; a time of terrible destruction and death. The Old Testament prophets spoke of it often (see commentary on Dan. 12:1), Jesus Christ taught about it (Matt. 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) and it is described in some detail in the Book of Revelation which says there will be seal judgments, trumpet judgments, thunder judgments, and bowl judgments. That time of great tribulation will end when Jesus Christ comes down to earth and fights the Battle of Armageddon and conquers the earth (Rev. 19:11-21). Then Jesus will set up his 1,000-year kingdom on earth. There will be the resurrection of the righteous (the first resurrection; Rev. 20:1-5) and the Sheep and Goat Judgment (Matt. 25:31-46), and Jesus will reward those people for what they had done for him. Other scriptures also speak of Jesus coming with his angels when he comes to earth (Matt. 13:41; 16:27; 24:31; 25:31; Mark 8:38; 13:27; Luke 9:26).
[For more on the Sheep and Goat Judgment, see commentary on Matt. 25:32 and 25:33. For more about Jesus’ future kingdom on earth, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.”]
“repay.” The Greek is apodidōmi (#591 ἀποδίδωμι), and it means to give or give out; to pay, repay, or fulfill a contractual obligation, to reward or give a recompense. It is used in both a positive sense (Matt. 6:4) and a negative, or bad sense (Matt. 12:36). In this verse, the word “repay” can refer to a good repayment, if the person has obeyed God, or a bad repayment if the person has disobeyed God. Those people who have completely ignored God and not even gotten saved will be “repaid” by being thrown into the Lake of Fire and burned up (see commentary on Rev. 20:10). Those people who have gotten saved will be “repaid” with everlasting life, and also rewarded in the future Millennial Kingdom, for what they have done for Christ (see commentary on 2 Cor. 5:10, “good or evil”). The teaching that on Judgment Day people will get what they deserve, good or bad, based on what they have done in their life is taught many times in Scripture (cp. Job. 34:11; Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Jer. 17:10; 32:19; Ezek. 33:20; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; 1 Cor. 3:8). See commentary on Psalm 62:12.
“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 16:28 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 13:30; 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).
Here in Matthew 16:28, we know what Jesus meant by his “kingdom,” because the context is clear: it is the Second Coming, complete with angels, the glory of God, 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 (Mark 1:15), 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 say 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 of 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. 2 Pet. 1:11; 1:16; 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 the 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 (Matt. 17:1; Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28), 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 eight-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” of 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 renowned 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.”a 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 events 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.
Although some people teach that the Kingdom of God is here now, or it was here on earth when Jesus was here, that is not reflected in what Jesus prayed or taught. In the Lord’s prayer he prayed “your kingdom come,” and in verses like Matthew 16:28, Mark 9:1, and Luke 9:27 he taught the Kingdom was not here yet. All the evidence indicates that the message Christ was preaching was straightforward and were the words he received from God: that the Kingdom was near (cp. John 7:16; 12:49; 14:10; 14:24). The same thing can be said for the prophets of old. Jesus and the prophets had proclaimed the Kingdom was near because God told them to say that, but then for reasons known only to Him, God delayed what He said would come soon. Many people have a hard time with this because they say that it made what Jesus said historically inaccurate, but the same thing had happened to many prophets before Jesus, and the fact is that God controls the timing of the Second Coming and if God saw fit to delay it then we should accept what God did and not think less of Jesus, John the Baptist, or the prophets because of an action God took for His own reasons.
[There are more verses in which Jesus made statements that his coming was near (cp. Matt. 10:23; 23:35; 24:34; 26:64; Mark 1:15; Luke 11:50, 51; John 4:23; 5:25; 12:31). For more on the Kingdom of God being “near,” see commentary on Mark 1:15. 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.”]