Matthew 16:28 – Christ’s Physical Return?

Jesus said, “some standing here shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming” – Is this Christ’s Physical Return?

Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 16:

27 For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. 28 Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”

This seems to say that some of the people listening to His words will live to see Christ’s physical return.  But those people are all long dead.  The purpose of this article is to address this conundrum.

The Context is Judgment

The saying in verse 28 is found in the immediate context of judgment (verse 27), but judgment is also the context of the entire paragraph:

After Peter confessed that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v16), Jesus began to teach His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed, and on the third day, be raised (16:21). Peter then rebuked Jesus for saying this, but Jesus showed him that this is the only way (vv. 22–23).  Jesus then told his disciples that they must take up their cross and follow Him because it is foolish to gain the world and lose one’s soul (vv. 24–26), and concluded with verses 27–28, as quoted above.

The message of the entire paragraph is therefore that one must take up your cross and follow Him, “for the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then He will repay each person according to what he has done”.  The point is that it is not possible to separate the “Son of Man coming in His kingdom” from the judgment.

The Same Phrase

In the NASB the exact same phrase “Son of Man coming” is found in the Little Apocalypse, which is recorded in three of the gospels, and which is analyzed in a separate article.  In all three gospels His coming will be preceded by “signs in sun and moon and stars”.  Then He will come on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory, to gather His elect from the people of the world.  To quote one of the gospels:

And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” (Mat 24:30, 31; compare Mark 13:24-27 and Luke 21:25-28)

Similar Phrases

Variations of the phrase “Son of Man coming” are found in the gospels.  These also point to Christ’s physical return in glory, with His angels, to judge the peoples of the world:

But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.“ (Mt. 25:31-33)

The Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds” (Mt. 16:27).

For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26).

In all the previous verses His return is the day of judgment, but it is phrased differently:

  • Gather together His elect from the four winds (Little Apocalypse)
  • Separate the nations from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Mt. 25:31-33)
  • Repay every man according to his deeds (Mt. 16:27)
  • Be ashamed of him (Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26)

In the following instances it refers to His movement from elsewhere to the earth.

When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).

 “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3).

The concept of the judgment is also reflected in the words “find faith” and “receive you to Myself”.

In the following verse, which is discussed in a separate article (Matthew 10:23), it is not explicitly stated to be Christ’s physical return, but due to the similarity of the phrase and other reasons, it was concluded that this verse also refers to Christ’s physical return.

whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23).

This verse, like Matthew 16:28, also emphasizes the soon return of the Lord.

For these reasons it is concluded that the claim in Matthew 16:28, that the Son of Man will come before all His hearers have died, refers to Christ’s physical return in glory, with His angels, to judge the world.

The Kingdom of God

It is sometimes argued that Matthew 16:27-28 should be understood as the coming of “the kingdom of God”, as opposed to His physical return to this world.  This view is justified by pointing to the parallel passages in Mark and in Luke, where the wording is different. Mark and Luke both speak about seeing the “kingdom of God”, rather than seeing “the Son of Man coming see coming in His kingdom”:

Mark 9:1. And He was saying to them, “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”

Luke 9:27 “But I say to you truthfully, there are some of those standing here who shall not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” 

It is therefore suggested by some that the “coming of the Son of Man” is simply another way of saying “the coming of the kingdom of God”, which is not Christ’s physical return, but rather His return from death, or the coming of His kingdom when the Holy Spirit was poured out, or His coming to the Father, as predicted by Daniel 7, when He ascended to the Father’s throne.

This is discussed more fully in a separate article (See What is the “Kingdom of God”?).  In that article it was concluded that the “kingdom of God” is similar to an earthly kingdom, in that it has a King, laws and citizens.  Its King is God.  Its laws are given in the Bible.  Its citizens are the saved.  It always exists, but is visible only to believers.  For these reasons, when Jesus said, “the kingdom of God comes”, we should always allow the context to determine the meaning, and the context of 16:27-28 is Christ’s physical return in glory, with His angels, in judgment; to repay every man according to his deeds. And Mark 9:1 describes this coming as “with power”; it is not simply an invisible coming of the “kingdom of God”.

The Transfiguration

Christ's TransfigurationMatthew 17:1 Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain … 2 And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. 3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. … 5 … a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified.

Some argue that the statement that “some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom”, was fulfilled by His transfiguration, justified as follows:

  • In all three synoptic gospels this statement is followed immediately by the description of the transfiguration of Jesus (Mt 17:1–8; Mk 9:2–8; Lk 9:28–36).
  • The transfiguration was only six days after He made this statement.
  • At the transfiguration “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light”.
  • This was witnessed by Peter, James, and

However, in the following passage Peter refers to being eyewitness of His transfiguration, and describes the transfiguration as a foretaste and confirmation of the reliability of His promise of Christ’s physical return, when all believers will see Him come in power and great glory (cf. Acts 1:11; Rev. 1:7):

2 Peter 1:16we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. 17 For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”— 18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.

Furthermore, an event that was to happen in only six days is hardly compatible with the statement that some would live to see it.  One does not normally use such language to refer to something that is to take place in a week’s time. 

The transfiguration also cannot be the coming of the Son of Man “in the glory of His Father with His angels”, and it was not “the day of judgment”, as required by the verses quoted above.

The Proposed Solution

Many other solutions have been proposed by Bible students.  The proposals discussed above are intended to address the Matthew 16:28 conundrum specifically, but actually do not adequately solve the questions raised by that verse.  In the article The Lord is coming soon it is shown that there are many other statements throughout the New Testament promising that Christ’s physical return will be soon.  Other proposals, that attempt to address all these statements as a collective, as well as the solution proposed by this website, are discussed in the article Why did He Not Return in the First Century as promised?

TO: Table of Contents of the articles on the Second Coming

TO: General Table of Contents

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