Did Jesus Think He Was Coming Back While His Disciples Were Still Alive?

QUESTION: Mathew 16:28 seems to say that some of the people around Jesus would not die until he comes again. Can you explain this to me?

ANSWER: Thanks, this is an oft asked question, and it is also asked about another time that Jesus seems to say to his hearers that they will live to see his second coming – in his Olivet Discourse, in Matt 24:34-35 when he says that “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place.”

In both places it’s fairly easy to reconcile these statements with what actually happened, rather than assume that Jesus made a terrible error in promising his second coming within the lifetime of his disciples, when that clearly did not happen.

Let’s start with Matt 16:28: “I assure you: There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” This does seem to indicate his second coming on first pass, and all the more so because the preceding verse directly references his second coming.

But in the parallel passage in Mark 9:1, we get an additional detail that gives us reason to believe Jesus is not referring to his second coming when he says:  ‘I assure you: There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in power.’

Note here it’s phrased, Kingdom of God coming, in Power.  So the event is here in Mark described as a more general revealing of kingdom power, and less specifically the coming of Jesus at the end of time.  But Matthew did refer to the coming of the Son of Man, so this powerful revealing must be about Jesus in some way, even if it’s not THE coming, at the end of time.

We can find a way to fuse the two accounts when we consider the context.  Remember, in both gospels what precedes this promise is Peter’s stubborn refusal to accept Jesus prediction of his demotion and execution (Mark 8:32).  This doesn’t jive with Peter’s view of an exalted and conquering Messiah.  How can Jesus be the true Messiah of Jewish prophesy, if he surrenders to humiliation and death?

So, Jesus is giving assurance that Peter, while wrong about the immediate fate of Messiah, is in fact right about him as exalted and powerful Son of Man (as expected in Daniel’s vision).  To reassure him, he says, “make no mistake, I am that exalted and powerful Messiah of Prophesy and in fact I will reveal that power to some in this circle before they die.”  You won’t have to wait for some ethereal heaven to see me clothed in power, Jesus says, you’ll see it in this life.

Seen this way, it is not a promise relating to his second coming, but simply a promise to see the power of his Kingly, Divine nature, coming to them before they die.  In fact, one might say he is expressly promising to “come in power” BEFORE his second coming.  You won’t have to wait till the end or till after death, he’s saying, you’ll see it soon.

Transfiguration of Christ
Transfiguration of Christ

The fulfillment of that promise then, comes immediately within a week of hearing it, for Jesus takes “some” of them up on a mountain and he is transfigured before them (Mark 9:2 & Matt 17:2) in power and light.  If they wondered if the humble Jesus, who predicted he was going to die a criminal’s death, could still be the long awaited, powerful and worshiped “Son of Man” of Daniel’s vision, the experience on the mount would have cleared it up!  The Son of Man did indeed come ‘in power’ and they saw it – not his second coming, but a coming in power all the same.  Jesus was who they expected after all, but also so much more.

Regarding Matt 24:34-35 when he says that “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place”, we realize his promise is for his current hearers when we realize that “all these things” doesn’t refer solely or even primarily to the end times and his 2ndcoming but rather to the Temple destruction.

We know this because the entire discourse was started with the disciples admiring the beautiful 2nd Temple.  Jesus responded by saying it would be destroyed and they immediately want to know when that would happen.  They further ask about the sign of the end and his 2nd coming. They tied the two together not doubt assuming that an apocalyptic event such as the Temple’s destruction must presage the very end and Messiah’s restoration.

So the discussion covers the Temple’s destruction and ranges into the signs of the end, but it BEGINS as an answer to that first question, “when will the destruction of the Temple happen?”  If that is true, then the statement in vs 34 about “this generation” is not only accurate but powerfully prophetic!  In fact, the Temple was destroyed before “that generation had passed away” for it happened in 70 AD, within the lifetimes of eye witnesses to Jesus.

As for Jesus including “ALL these things,” the two events (Temple destruction and 2nd Coming) are likely conflated in the minds of the disciples and Jesus doesn’t counter this association.  Why not if the events are separated by 2000 years and counting?  Well, the terrors leading up to the coming of the Son of Man were in some sense inaugurated by the destruction of the Temple.  That event marked the beginning of the “last days”.  One might assume Jesus was saying, “This generation will still be alive when all these signs begin to come to pass.”

There is however another way to explain this passage and the NIVR translation resolves the conflict by rendering the Greek as follows:  “What I’m about to tell you is true. The people living at that time will certainly not pass away until all those things have happened. (Matthew 24:34 NIRV)

So the resolution may simply be that “this generation” does not refer to the people listening to Jesus speak at all, but rather to the generation living “at that time” when these terrible events take place.

Either way, I think there’s no reason to think Jesus was thinking only about his actual 2nd coming in either case.