A plain reading of Matthew 16:27–28 gives the distinct impression that what is being described by Jesus was going to take place within the time frame of that generation, their generation. (See Part One: “What Did Jesus Mean about His Coming in Matthew 16?”) Some would still be alive but most would have died before Jesus came in judgment against Jerusalem, an event that took place in AD 70 and prophesied by Jesus in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. We find the following in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that fits with Jesus' statement:
After that [Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.
First Corinthians was written around the mid-50s AD, around 15 years before Jerusalem fell at the hands of the Romans. By then, more people would have died but some would still be alive, thus, fitting well with what Jesus said in Matthew 16:27–28.
William Edward Biederwolf, after assessing eight different interpretations, concluded that Matthew 16:27–28 refers to “the Destruction of Jerusalem” in AD 70 and “[i}t has against it none of the objections enumerated….”
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Biederwolf takes a similar position on Matthew 10:23: “This expression here is most certainly a direct reference to the destruction of Jerusalem which historically put an end to the old dispensation…. Indeed every other view is either entirely gratuitous and farfetched or if it has any due regard at all for the accepted meaning of the phraseology it becomes the subject of insurmountable difficulty.” In essence, he is saying the literal reading is the best reading.
Henry Hammond (1605–1660) offers a helpful harmony of Matthew 16:27–28, John 21:18–23 (a passage we considered in Part One), and Matthew 24 and their relationship to Jesus’ judgment on Jerusalem:
The nearness of this to the story of Christ’s Transfiguration, makes it probable to many, that this coming of Christ is that Transfiguration of his, but that cannot be, because the 27th verse of the son of man’s coming in his glory with his Angels to reward… (to which this verse clearly connects) cannot be applied to that. And there is another place, John 21:23 (which may help to the understanding of this) which speaks of a real coming, and one principal person (agreeable to what is here said of some standing here) that should tarry, or not die, till that coming of his. And that surely was fulfilled in John’s seeing the … famous destruction of the Jews, which was to fall in that generation, Matthew 24, that is, in the lifetime of some there present, and is called the Kingdom of God, and the Coming of Christ, and by consequence here most probably the son of man’s coming in his kingdom, … that is, his coming in the exercise of his Kingly office, to work vengeance on his enemies, and discriminate the faithful believers from them.
Hammond’s view is not unusual. Many evangelical commentators applied these passages to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Henry Alford states that this passage refers “to the destruction of Jerusalem, and the full manifestation of the Kingdom of Christ by the annihilation of the Jewish polity….” The Dutch commentator S. Greijdanus offers a helpful summary of Matthew 16:27–28 in his comments on the parallel passage in Luke 9:27:
Then this coming of God’s dominion cannot refer to our Lord’s resurrection, nor to the gift of the Holy Spirit which were to be realized within the year…. Nor can it refer to our Lord’s coming in judgment which is yet even now in abeyance…. Nor can the powerful spread of the gospel be meant, for this already came about within comparatively few years….. We shall have to think of the destruction of Jerusalem…. In it God revealed his kingly dominion in his judgment, a precursor of his judgment on the last day.
Oswald T. Allis offers a similar interpretation:
After Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus distinctly affirmed, that He, the Christ, must be rejected and suffer and rise again. In all three Synoptics, He concluded this announcement with a statement that there were some then present who should not taste death till they should “see” the “Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Mt. xvi, 28, cf. Mk. ix. 1, Lk. ix. 27). Both Matthew and Mark use the word “come.” All three declare that “some” men then living and present shall “see” Him come. Here there is no room for doubt as to the meaning of the expression which describes those who are to witness the coming. It concerns some of those alive and present when the words were uttered. They are to witness the coming. Consequently, we may say with positiveness, that this coming must have taken place during the lifetime of the apostle John. The claim that these words of Jesus referred to the transfiguration is plainly inadequate. That event was too near at hand (about a week distant) to make the fact that some of Jesus’ immediate followers would live to see it a sufficiently important matter to mention. The coming referred to seems most likely to be the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, at which time there was so far as we know no visible appearance of Christ.
Allis makes an important point that is missed by many who claim the Transfiguration is the fulfillment: “That event was too near at hand (about a week distant) to make the fact that some of Jesus’ immediate followers would live to see it a sufficiently important matter to mention.”
John Sweigart seems to indicate that only the apostles are in view, and only having John alive after the destruction of Jerusalem does not explain the use of “some of those standing here.” There were more present than the apostles. In Mark 9:1, we find the following: “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.’” The “them” is the same “them” in 8:34, referring to the apostles and the multitude.
Mark’s gospel adds more to the context. “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation,” Jesus declares, “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). A distant generation is not in view; it’s those of that generation who will experience His wrath (1 Thess. 2:14–16) and His deliverance (1 Thess. 1:10) And how does Jesus define the audience, time, and place context?: “this adulterous and sinful generation” (not a future generation), “them” (disciples and multitude), and “those who are standing here” (not a worldwide event).
But how can we maintain that Jesus came “in the glory of His Father with His angels” in AD 70? As we’ve seen, the time indicator in the passage disqualifies either an immediate fulfillment (transfiguration, resurrection, Pentecost) or a distant fulfillment (a yet unfulfilled coming of Christ). The language of Matthew 16:27–28 is similar to the way Jehovah came to “the sons of Israel” under the Old Covenant:
“The LORD came from Sinai,
and dawned on them from Seir;
He shown forth from Mount Paran,
and He came from the midst of ten thousand holy ones.
At His right hand there was flashing lightning for them” (Deut. 33:1–2).
Jude presents a similar picture in the New Testament. But his is a description of God’s coming in judgment: “Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all of the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him” (Jude 14–15). The language is almost identical with that of Matthew 16:27. In both cases God is “seen” in His actions, not His physical presence similar to what we see in the Old Testament (cf. Isa. 19:1; Micah 1:1–5).
Sweigart makes an interesting comment about Jude 14–15. See if you can spot the problem:
Lastly, Demars [sic] uses Jude 14–15 in the New Testament to support his idea that when Christ comes, it is to punish the city of Jerusalem. The verse is interesting since Jude quotes it from non-canonical literature, the Book of Enoch. Jude 14–15 tells the reader that, “Behold, the Lord came with many thousand His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done against Him.” Contextually, however, the letter is talking about the judgment of false teachers who have entered the assemblies of believers and turned the message of grace into licentiousness. This verse cannot support the idea of the conquest of Jerusalem by the Roman armies.
Sweigart is applying a preterist interpretation to the passage, that is, those “false teachers who have entered the assemblies of believers and turned the message of grace into licentiousness” (Jude 12–13). Paul warned about “savage wolves who will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:19). If what we read in Jude can be applied to the false teachers in his day, then why can’t similar language used by Jesus in Matthew 16:27–28 apply to the events of that generation as well? These “false teachers” were most likely Jews who either abandoned the faith or were critical of the gospel, possibly John’s “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9; 3:9).
The majority of the persecution the New Testament church faced came from the Jewish community. Even most of the Roman persecution was an effort to appease the Jewish authorities. This is true of Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus (John 19:1–16) and Paul’s imprisonment by the Roman governors Felix (Acts 24:27) and Festus (Acts 25:16). This pattern held true throughout the Roman world in the first century. As long as Christians were considered a sect of Judaism, they were exempt from the required observance of certain aspects of Roman state religion. However, as Christians were expelled from synagogues and denounced by the Jewish leadership, Rome began to see Christianity as a new religion that did not have these same exemptions. Therefore, Christians outside the protective umbrella of the synagogue were open to Roman persecution.
They would be caught up in the conflagration of the destruction of Jerusalem because they rejected Jesus’ warning (Matt. 24; 2 Peter 3:3–4).
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The Millennium Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House  1964), 322.
The Millennium Bible, 314.
Henry Hammond, A Paraphrase, and Notations Upon all the Books of the New Testament, 7th ed. (London: John Nicholson,  1702), 74–75. For similar comments on John 21:18–21, see John Lightfoot (1602–1675), A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica: Matthew—1 Corinthians, 4 vols. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers,  1989), 3:451–54 and John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, 9 vols. (London: Mathews and Leigh, 1809), 8:135.
Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers (Chicago, IL: Moody Press,  n.d.), 122.
S. Greijdanus, Het heilig Evangelie naar de beschrijving van Lukas (1940), 1:424, 425. Quoted in Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, trans. H. de Jongste (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1975), 504.
Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Phillipsburg: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1947), 177.