At the conclusion of speaking to his disciples about what is required to be a follower of Jesus, Jesus explains the time of the coming of the kingdom of God. Verse 27 records this concluding statement.
But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:27 ESV)
What is Jesus referring to? What event is going to happen that he could say that there were some standing there in the first century who would see the kingdom of God come before they died? There have been numerous interpretations for this statement. In lesson we will examine the possibilities and then explore the importance of Jesus’ words.
Seeing the Kingdom of God
The full, glorious kingdom at the second coming.
Some take the position that Jesus is speaking about the arrival of the full, glorious kingdom and that Jesus was wrong about the nearness of this kingdom. There are a number of reasons to reject this position. Most notable is the fact that any position which suggests Jesus was wrong cannot be accepted. If Jesus was wrong, then Jesus is not God. Therefore he is a liar and we are dead in our sins. Further, Jesus says that only some would standing there would see the kingdom of God. When Christ returns at his second coming and all things are fully restored and subjected under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:20-26), every eye will see him and everyone will bow the knee before Christ (Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:10).
The destruction of Jerusalem.
Christ described himself as coming in the clouds against the Jewish nation, which was fulfilled in 70 AD (cf. Matthew 24:30; 26:64). However, Luke never makes any connection to the coming of the kingdom to the destruction of Jerusalem event.
The most popular view taken by writers and scholars is the transfiguration as the event Jesus is referring to. The ESV Study Bible reads, “Some standing here refers to Peter, John, and James, who will witness the transfiguration.” The HCSB Study Bible reads, “This cryptic statement refers to the next event in the book—the transfiguration of Jesus (vv. 28-35). Some standing here indicates Peter, James, and John, who were with Jesus at His transfiguration (v. 28). See the kingdom of God apparently means that the glorious appearance of Jesus (vv. 29,32) was a preview of the coming kingdom.” The MacArthur Study Bible states, “In all three of the synoptic Gospels, this promise is made immediately prior to the transfiguration (Mark 9:1-8; Luke 9:27-36). Furthermore the word for “kingdom” can be translated ‘royal splendor.’ Therefore, it seems most natural to interpret this promise as a reference to the transfiguration, which “some” of the disciples—Peter, James, and John— would witness only six days later.” This is a small sampling from the many books I own that say that Jesus is referring to the transfiguration.
I am amazed that so many take this position. The gospel writers do not make a connection between seeing the kingdom of God and the transfiguration event. Worse, the writers who accept this position fail to see the absurdity in Jesus’ words if their interpretation is correct. Jesus makes this announcement: There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God. One week later the transfiguration event occurs (Luke 9:28; cf. Matthew 17:1, Mark 9:2). What a ridiculous statement! I can make a statement of a similar nature. “There are some standing here today who will not taste death until my sermon next week.” It is a statement of the obvious. There is nothing prophetic about it. If Jesus is referring to the transfiguration, then Jesus had no reason to say that “some would not taste death.” Some commentators at least are willing to admit this as a deficiency in their view.
“Why Jesus said they would not taste death before participating in an event only days away is perplexing. But he may have chosen those words because most people despaired of seeing the glory of the kingdom in their lifetime.” (Walter L. Liefeld, Luke from Expositor’s Bible Commentary)
At least he admits that it would be perplexing for Jesus to speak like this about the transfiguration. However, the rest of his explanation falls flat. According to this interpretation, only three people would see the kingdom of God—Peter, James, and John. No one else saw the transfiguration event. So this would not help the people who are despairing that they would miss seeing the glory of the kingdom. If the transfiguration was that glory, then only three people saw it. So what event is Jesus referring to when he makes this declaration? The time frame of Jesus’ words helps us determine what he is talking about. It cannot be too soon because then the declaration about not seeing death is meaningless. However, it cannot be more than a few decades otherwise Jesus’ words would be found untrue. What great event happened in the first century that could be described as the arrival of the kingdom of God? Mark adds one more detail to this event.
And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” (Mark 9:1 ESV)
Notice that Mark adds the kingdom of God will come with power. It is an event that some would see and it would be an event full of power. At the beginning of Luke’s sequel, the book of Acts, the apostles ask if now was the time for the restoration of the kingdom. The apostles are looking for the arrival of the kingdom. Jesus has been preaching to the apostles for 40 days about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). Jesus answers the apostles’ question that it was not for the apostles to know the exact day or time that the kingdom was going to arrive with power (Acts 1:7). However, Jesus does tell them what to look for to prove the arrival of the kingdom.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:8 ESV)
This is Jesus’ answer to the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. This would be the event when the kingdom of God would arrive with power. When the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles giving them power, then we would know that the kingdom of God has arrived. In Acts 2 we read about the apostles receiving the Holy Spirit, therefore proving that the kingdom had arrived.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1–4 ESV)
Peter goes on to quote the prophet Joel to prove that these signs were to show the arrival of the kingdom. Follow Peter’s argument from Acts 2:29-35. As you read this section you will notice that Peter is pointing out that these signs prove the arrival of the promised kingdom. In verse 30 Peter notes that God had sworn with an oath that he would place a descendant of David on the throne. To be set on a throne means you have a kingdom and means you are ruling. God set a descendant of David on the throne, implying the arrival of the kingdom. Peter states in verse 31 that it is the resurrection of Christ that was in view. God raised up Jesus and exalted him to the right hand (vs. 32). Therefore, Christ is ruling on the throne of David. David did not ascend and sit on the throne, but Jesus did (vs. 34-35). God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ. Christ is on the throne and he is ruling. As the apostle Paul taught, Christ began his rule at the resurrection and continues his rule until all the enemies are put under his feet, the last enemy being death (1 Corinthians 15:20-26).
Return to Luke 9:27. Jesus declares that some standing there would not see death until seeing the kingdom of God arrive. The Acts 2 event is still a year or two away. Perhaps some of the crowds would die in the next year or two before the kingdom arrived. We do know of one apostle who died and did not see the arrival of the kingdom—Judas Iscariot. Some of the apostles would see the arrival of the kingdom but not all. Jesus is not speaking about the transfiguration, which would happen a week later. Jesus is speaking about the arrival of the kingdom described in Acts 1:6-8 and Acts 2.
We need to consider one final question: Why does Jesus mention this in connection with the foretelling of his death and the need for his followers to take up the cross? I believe the message is that the kingdom is still going to come in spite of his rejection. The Jewish teaching of the day expected the Messiah to take the throne, establish his rule, and overthrow the heathen and Gentile nations and powers. One can read the War Scroll and other scrolls from the Qumran community to see this expectation. Jesus is wrapping up a point that he began in verses 18-22. The Messiah is going to rule, but not like you think. The Messiah is going to establish his kingdom, but not like you think. Jesus is going to suffer, be rejected, killed, and be raised three days later. Despite this rejection, the kingdom of God is coming in their lifetime. There were people standing there who would not die until they saw the kingdom of God arrive with power. The kingdom of God is coming in spite of his rejection. Do not think that the plan has been foiled when Jesus is rejected and killed. This IS the plan! This is the way that Jesus will establish his kingdom and bringing salvation to the world.