Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Matthew 16:24-28 (NRSV)
Leading up to this passage, Jesus has been teaching his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer under the authorities there, be killed, and rise on the third day. When Peter protested that these things should never happen to Jesus, Jesus corrected him in very strong terms. This idea – that Jesus knows that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, die, and rise – provides us the necessary context for understanding Jesus’ follow-up comments, here.
Basically, Jesus says that anyone who would be his follower must walk that same path. They, too, must suffer under the religious and civil authorities of his day. They, too, will be killed. And they, too, will rise from the dead.
Matthew’s Gospel was written after Jesus’ crucifixion, but this event is portrayed as happening before the crucifixion, so the disciples in this story are hearing “take up their cross” without any reference to Jesus’ crucifixion. What would such a phrase mean to them?
Well, the cross was the instrument of the Roman Empire to execute criminals – specifically, criminals that the government wanted to make an example of. The cross was an instrument to show the people under Rome’s dominion that you don’t mess with the Empire. You don’t take their stuff. You don’t rebel. You don’t turn people against them. It was a weapon of intimidation and suppression. People are less inclined to rebel when a group of rebels is discovered and hung publicly on crosses for all to see.
And as people go by these crosses – these signs of Rome’s absolute power over the life and death of her subjects – you can see their loyalties. The people who want to “get in good” with their oppressors mock, scorn, and spit on the people on those crosses. Those crosses hold Rome’s enemies, and if you wanted to stay on Rome’s good side, they were your enemies, too.
This is the destiny Jesus holds out for his followers. He isn’t saying “my follower” in a general, spiritual, ethical sense; he means it in a very concrete fashion. The people traveling with and learning from Jesus are going to have to go with him to Jerusalem and face the wrath of the authorities who will destroy Jesus. This is probably a hard truth for Peter and the rest to hear – everyone who trusted that Jesus would be the salvation of Israel – that not only was their Messiah traveling to his own execution, but they would be executed along with him for their commitments to him.
This has come up in Matthew, before. It’s interesting to see this facet of Jesus in play. Jesus is basically thinning the herd of his followers, which is something we don’t normally associate with Jesus. He doesn’t turn away anyone, no matter how feeble their faith or other gifts, but he is very clear what will happen to anyone who signs up.
This, naturally, raises the question of why anyone would do this.
After all, what Jesus’ followers want is a new world, one in which Israel is back on top. Land is returned. Power shifts dramatically. Oppression ends. The Temple becomes righteous. The kingdom comes. This vision is risky and improbable to begin with, but it becomes even moreso if the very people who are supposed to bring it about are killed by the very powers they hope to overthrow. It’s hard to be committed to that vision when you are imagining yourself hanging on a cross, suffering and dying, while people walk past you mocking you for your hubris – the very thought that you could challenge the Empire.
But Jesus tells them that the people right now who are trying to preserve their lives and make themselves comfortable will lose their lives, and what good will their efforts do them on the day that their life is taken? But those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake will receive their lives, again.
Jesus is not describing something purely spiritual or metaphorical, here. He’s talking about people actually dying and people actually living. There is an imminent event where those in Israel who have allied themselves with Rome and built up wealth for themselves will lose their lives, and there will be those who have died for the sake of Jesus’ mission who will receive it, as well as those who were willing to give up their lives who will find themselves surviving the coming judgement to life in the next age.
Jesus describes this day as the day when the Son of Man (the figure who receives an everlasting kingdom from God in Daniel 7) will come with his angels in the glory of his Father to judge the world. He will repay everyone according to what they have done. In the narrative, here, Jesus foresees that he, too, will still accomplish his Father’s mission even if he is killed. He, too, hopes in resurrection.
And we know this day is soon to come, because Jesus says that some people who are present in the audience will not die before this event happens. Since he’s speaking to the disciples, it’s probably fair to say he doesn’t expect all of his followers to be executed, but they definitely need to be willing to meet that fate.
But what’s interesting is the time frame this imposes. Whatever this event is where the Son of Man comes repaying everyone for what they have done, it’s going to happen before all the disciples die. Elsewhere, Jesus will describe this as happening in “this generation.”
What are we to make of this claim?
Well, one option is that Jesus is just wrong about this. He expected these world-changing events to happen with him at the helm in a very short amount of time, and this didn’t work out. This is the option generally taken by people who aren’t Christians as well as Christians who may greatly revere Jesus but think his apocalypticism may have been a little overzealous. It’s not my option, but it has the benefit of being consistent with what Jesus is saying, here.
Another option is that Jesus meant this in some non-empirical sense. The events he describes are metaphors, perhaps for “spiritual realities*” such as a judgement that occurs in heaven or events that occurred in people’s hearts in response to the work of Jesus. The “spiritual realities” option is popular among some Christians who tend to see most of the apocalyptic language in the New Testament as descriptive of “spiritual realities,” and the latter is a common tack for people who respect the Bible and Jesus but find the more supernatural or apocalyptic claims untenable. In this way of thinking, what Jesus is proposing is actually not as radical as it sounds. This isn’t my option, either, but it does have the benefit of recognizing that apocalyptic language isn’t really meant to be taken very literally.
A third option is to keep the events described reasonably literal, but the timeline becomes metaphorical. Through the use of things like the intermediate state and questionable variations of Greek articles, Jesus is talking about an indeterminate timeline that could potentially stretch into the distant future. This is all explained through the use of a simple diagram:
So, hopefully, that clears things up.
But a fourth option, and probably the most popular option with Christians, is to figure out what seeing “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” is actually talking about.
One very popular view is that Jesus is referring to the Mount of Transfiguration, which is described in the very next passage, which takes place six days later. The Transfiguration, it is said, is a preview of the glorified Son of Man, and therefore qualifies as “seeing the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” and fits within the timeline. In fact, since it happens only six days later, all of the disciples are alive to see it, so Jesus’ prediction works out even better than he let on. Some objections to this view are that the Transfiguration is not Jesus coming in his kingdom, it leaves out elements such as coming with angels to repay people what they have done, and that it would be silly to announce “some standing here will not taste death” when describing an event that happens in less than a week.
Another view is that Jesus is talking about Pentecost. I think this does a lot better in the consistency department. True, there is no judgement that happens on nonbelievers, although it could be argued that it does happen for the faithful gathered who receive the Spirit. And, technically, Jesus just said some wouldn’t taste death until they saw “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” which doesn’t necessarily mean the judgement part has to happen then. Also, this does justice to the facet of the kingdom that is spiritual. Also, at least one of the disciples who was with Jesus in Matthew has died (Judas), so Jesus’ prediction that some would not taste death technically works out.
I’m ok with all that, but I think Matthew’s Gospel is most likely referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
This post has already gone on very long so I won’t make a detailed argument for this, but certainly this event has been the referent for a lot of apocalyptic imagery in Matthew as well as language of a coming judgement. It’s a natural fit for that language to apply here, as well, and it fits the time frame. By the time 70 A.D. rolls around, some of the disciples are dead and some are not. It also fits other timelines given in Matthew like, “You will not pass through all the towns in Israel before the Son of Man comes” and “this generation will not pass away until.”
One might object that, in the destruction of Jerusalem, we do not literally see Jesus and his angels. Well, on the one hand, I would say the other views have similar problems. No angels show up in the Transfiguration, and nobody sees Jesus or angels at Pentecost. We all have to recognize that apocalyptic language is both cosmological and nebulous. The Old Testament fulfillments of apocalyptic prophecies were much more mundane than the dramatic imagery suggested.
On the other hand, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, we might have:
Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. Thus also before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus, and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time; which lasted for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskillful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes, as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it. At the same festival also, a heifer, as she was led by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple. Moreover, the eastern gate of the inner [court of the] temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night… Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one and twentieth day of the month Artemisius a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the temple] as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, ‘Let us remove hence’.
Josephus, The Wars of the Jews
It’s interesting that the historian Tacitus also comments on these signs, and he interprets them as signs portending Vespasian’s victory – which is what happened.
I realize that these are tricky issues, and two or three paragraphs isn’t going to be enough to sway someone from one view on them to another. I don’t expect that.
But whether you agree with me or not, I want to underscore how tied to concrete history the gospels are. The events in them could not be dropped into any point in history. Jesus had to come then to those people in their world living through their circumstances. The people of God were in trouble, and Jesus intended to save them. That had a certain form and a certain look because of what was actually going on at the time, just as God’s acts of salvation always had throughout the Old Testament.
This doesn’t mean these Scriptures have nothing to say to us, but if we want these Scriptures to be our Scriptures in a meaningful sense, we have to engage with what it meant for them to be someone else’s Scriptures two thousand years ago, look for how we have been drawn into that story, and listen to what the Spirit has to say to us as we continue that story from age to age.
* I put the phrase “spiritual realities” in quotes because I find it problematic. It’s unfortunate, because I do think there are passages in the New Testament that describe what we might call “spiritual realities,” and I don’t have a problem with that per se. But the phrase is commonly used to divorce the New Testament from concrete history, and rather than let such passages challenge our theological narrative, we can just chalk them up to “spiritual realities” and keep our narrative intact. In this way, the New Testament becomes both transhistorical and transempirical. And honestly, a doctrinal scheme that has no visible impact in concrete history probably suits a lot of churches just fine, but I don’t care for it.
- The martyrdom that Jesus asked his followers to accept is a reality for Christians in many places in the world. Some international ministries even ask new converts if they are prepared to die prior to baptizing them. For people who live in countries where this isn’t really a risk, have you considered this? I mean, truly considered this? Have you truly considered what it might be like to be tortured or killed because of your commitments? What things would carry you through those moments?
- What are the commitments that Christians have that would provoke the wrath of the powers in the world? What are the risks of allying with those powers or trying to earn their good graces?