Matthew 16:27-28 is a critical text in the study of eschatology. As vital as it is, it has been and continues to be the focus of a great deal of debate. Part of the controversy has to do with whether the verses deal with two different times and subjects. If they deal with one subject and one time then most traditional interpretations of these verses are seriously at fault.
Here is the dilemma. If these verses are indivisible then the premillennial doctrine is proven false since verse 28 unequivocally posits the presence of the kingdom in the lifetime of Jesus’ audience.
On the other hand, if the verses are a unit the amillennialist posit that verse 28 speaks of the establishment of the kingdom on Pentecost is called in question since verse 27 says the coming in view is the coming of Jesus to judge all men; this patently did not happen on Pentecost.
The Pulpit Commentary (in loc) lists several interpretations offered through the years. Some view the entire text as referent to the end of time and believe Jesus simply was mistaken. Others believe it is speaking of his resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit. Still others believe the Transfiguration is the subject. Finally, some believe that Jesus was referring to his coming in judgment at the destruction of Jerusalem. Among amillennialists the traditional view holds that verse 27 speaks of the end of time while verse 28 speaks of the establishment of the kingdom on Pentecost.
This article seeks to establish the unity of Matthew 16:27-28 and set forth an interpretation which maintains the integrity of inspiration, is in harmony with the rest of the New Testament, and satisfies the statements of the text as to subject and time.
Coming In Judgment
Matthew 16:27: Jesus said he would come in the glory of his father, with his angels, to judge every man. The normal response to this is that it "obviously" must be speaking of the end of time. "Jesus has not come and judged every man has he?" we are asked. To answer this we must see that Jesus did in fact predict not only the fact of judgment of all but he said it would happen in his generation.
In Matthew 23:29ff Jesus said that all the dead all the way back to creation would be judged in that generation. In Matthew 13 he spoke of the end of the age when the righteous would shine like the stars. The wicked would be condemned at that time also. Daniel 12:1-7, the prophecy upon which Jesus’ words are based, tells us it would be fulfilled "when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered."
Peter tells us that Jesus was "ready to judge the living and the dead" when he wrote 1 Peter 4:5; and Revelation 11 tells us that the time had come for the judgment of the living and the dead.
Finally, in Revelation 21:12 Jesus quoted the very words he had uttered some thirty years earlier: "Behold I come quickly, and my reward is with me to reward every man according to his work." Now unless Revelation is speaking of a different "judgment of all" from the "judgment of all" in Matthew we must believe the subject to be the same. Revelation, no less than five times tells us the events under view are imminent. Matthew 16:27-28 has a certain time-frame limit, i.e., "some standing here shall not die till they see the Son of Man coming…." Matthew speaks of the coming of Jesus to judge every man. Revelation does also. Matthew says Jesus would come in that generation. Revelation says he was coming quickly. Where is the delineation between the two?
What we see then is a pattern of consistency. From Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:27 until his words in Revelation there is the prediction of judgment of all. And this is always set in a time-frame of imminency.
In His Glory
Not only does our text say Jesus would come in judgment; it says he would come in the glory of his father. Luke 9:26-27 tells us this is also his glory.
In Matthew 20:21 Jesus was asked to grant two of his disciples to sit, one on the right hand, one on the left hand of Jesus "in thy kingdom." The parallel passage, Mark 10:37 says they asked to sit with him "in thy glory." The kingdom is the glory of Jesus! Thus, if Jesus came in his glory, he came in his kingdom.
Matthew 16:28 tells us that Jesus predicted his coming in his kingdom (please note it is not Jesus coming INTO his kingdom) in that generation. This coming in his kingdom cannot be Pentecost because it is set in the context of judgment.
Matthew 25:31 speaks of when Christ would come "in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory." This is patently the time of judgment and parallel to Matthew 16:27-28. So when would Christ come IN HIS GLORY, with the angels, and judge?
In Matthew 24:29-34 we are told "the sign of the Son of Man shall appear in heaven, and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory and he will send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet…." Here is the coming of Jesus with the angels, in power and great glory. When was this to happen? Read verse 34: "Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled."
In Matthew 16:27-28, Matthew 25:31 and Matthew 24:30-31 we have Jesus promising to return in glory, with his angels, and judge every man. In chapter 16 we have an emphatic time statement, "some standing here shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom"; in chapter 24 we have an emphatic time statement, "this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." Matthew 25 is but a continuation of the discourse in Matthew 24, therefore the same time statement applies there as well!
We not only have a time factor involved with our text then, we have the correlation of Jesus coming in his glory and coming in his kingdom. THE COMING OF JESUS IN HIS GLORY WAS THE COMING OF JESUS IN HIS KINGDOM! It is not possible therefore to delineate between the coming of Jesus in his glory in Matthew 16:27 and his coming in his kingdom in Matthew 16:28. These verses are indivisible!
"Verily I Say Unto You"
Some might suggest that in verse 28 Jesus breaks the subject by the formula "Verily I say unto you." In other words he speaks about the end of time in verse 27 but changes the subject with an idiomatic formula well known to his listeners but lost on a modern audience. Research of the saying "Verily I say unto you" will deny this however.
An examination of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance reveals that the word "verily" is used some 95 times in the New Testament. Unless "verily" is used as introductory and not for emphasis in Matthew 16:28/Mark 9:1 there are only three places in all of the New Testament where the word is used to introduce a new subject. In all other occurrences, that is 92 out of 95 instances, THE WORD IS ALWAYS USED TO EMPHASIZE A STATEMENT ABOUT A SUBJECT THAT IS ALREADY UNDER CONSIDERATION! (The exceptions are John 10:l; 13:21; and Hebrews 9:11. Now when you have a word that is used in such a consistent manner, with so few exceptions, unless you have some overwhelming contextual reason for doing so you must go with the normal definition and usage. Where is the contextual evidence to demand that "verily" introduces a new subject in Matthew 16:28/Mark 9:1?
Based on the overwhelming evidence of the normal usage of "verily" as a word used to emphasize what has already been introduced, we conclude that in Matthew 16:28/Mark 9:1 Jesus is simply emphasizing his earlier statements. In this case he has just stated in verse 27 that he would come in the glory of his father, with his angels and judge every man. EMPHASIZING THAT STATEMENT he
then says "Verily I say unto you there be some standing here that shall not taste death till they see the son of man coming in his kingdom". Matthew 16:27 stands then as a prophecy by Jesus to return in the lifetime of his disciples.
If one admits that Matthew 16:27-28 is a singular unit, verse 28 emphasizing and limiting verse 27, it therefore follows that: 1. Matthew 16:27 which promised Jesus’ return with the angels to judge every man cannot be: a. The time of his resurrection–He most certainly did not judge every man then: b. The time of the Transfiguration–He did not judge then, and the kingdom had not been established as yet; c. It cannot be a yet future day of judgment since Jesus emphatically declared some alive then would not die until they saw him coming. (It should be obvious from Revelation 22:12, where Jesus repeats his promise of Matthew 16:27, and which is post resurrection, post Transfiguration, yet was said to be "at hand", that a-c must be true.)
2. Matthew 16:28 which promised the coming of Jesus in the kingdom, in the lifetime of some standing there, since it is a statement emphasizing Jesus’ previous promise to come in judgment and reward every man; CANNOT BE REFERENT TO PENTECOST SINCE JESUS DID NOT COME IN JUDGMENT ON PENTECOST!
It is our contention, based on the foregoing, that the only construct that properly deals with Matthew 16:27-28 is that it is indeed a singular discourse. Verse 28 simply emphasizes what had been said in verse 27 and places an emphatic time constraint on the text. Since the rest of the New Testament concurs in predicting judgment to fall in that generation, (Matthew 23; I Pet.4:5,17 etc.) and since Jesus emphatically placed his coming in judgment in the kingdom at the fall of the Jewish Theocracy in 70 A.D., (see Luke 21), we conclude that Matthew 16:27-28 is a prediction by Jesus to return in judgment, in his kingdom glory, in the lifetime of his disciples. This means of course that Matthew 16:27-28 and parallels cannot be used as predictions of the end of time, a future establishment of the kingdom, nor of the establishment of the kingdom on Pentecost. What is in view is the coming of Messiah, in that generation, in the full exercise of his Messianic kingdom authority to judge the living and the dead. This is the only interpretation of this text which honors inspiration, satisfies the demands of the text; and is in harmony with the rest of scripture.