”There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28). It is not uncommon to hear atheists use this verse to charge that Jesus was obviously a failed prophet. One atheist, for instance, wrote, “Clearly, this did not happen, so either Jesus lied or he never made that promise.”
Perhaps more reflection on the meaning of Christ’s “coming” will be of both apologetic and spiritual value during this Christmas season. What does it mean for God’s kingdom to come? Have Jesus’ predictions of his coming failed?
As a general rule, when someone sets up an either/or scenario, observers should be wary. The limitation of options offered in the atheist’s quote above, especially when considering apocalyptic expressions in the Old and New Testaments, is arbitrary. Immediately following Matthew 16:28 is the story of the Transfiguration (17:1-8), an incredible vision in which Peter, James, and John did, in fact, see Christ in his divine form and thus partook in a vision of God’s kingdom in this world.
Still, it is worthwhile to meditate on the question: how does God’s kingdom come? Technically, God doesn’t come or go anywhere (Ps. 139:7-10). God is the creator and sustainer of all time and space—nothing escapes his presence since, if it did, it would not exist. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Indeed, by the very fact that he gives being to the things that fill every place, he himself fills every place” (Summa Theologicae I.8.2).
So, if God doesn’t come or go anywhere, why does the Bible speak so frequently of his kingdom “coming”?
The Bible tells us about God and his actions in ways that we can understand. References to God’s eyes and ears, for instance, affirm that nothing is outside his awareness (e.g., Prov. 15:3, Ps. 116:2). But God doesn’t know things because light or sound waves enter physical organs. God “hears” and “sees” in a way that is appropriate to his infinite, spiritual mode of being. Since we can’t fully understand that, God speaks to us about himself in terms that we can understand.
God’s coming means, first of all, that his presence becomes noticeably manifest. God may come to his people, for instance, through a prophet, a special event, a miracle, or other means. The language of his coming, along with the dramatic and even shocking imagery that we often associate with John’s Apocalypse (Revelation, the final book of Scripture), is typical in the writings of the Hebrew prophets.
Jesus, continuing and deepening the Old Testament descriptions, spoke of the coming of God’s kingdom in various ways. Matthew sees Jesus’ birth in Micah’s prophetic words about a ruler who will come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). John the Baptist anticipated Jesus’ ministry: “he who is coming after me is mightier than I,” using striking apocalyptic language to speak of his purifying ministry: “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 2:6, 3:11-12).
Shortly before his betrayal and passion, Jesus consoled his disciples with the words, “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you” (John 14:18). Although for “a little while, the world will not see” Jesus, his disciples will see him. These words point to Christ’s resurrection as a coming that will reveal his abiding presence with them. This coming also points to another major topic of Jesus’ final discourse with his disciples: the coming of the Holy Spirit (e.g., John 14:26). In more than one place, the apostle Paul is drawn to speak of our transformation into God’s children through Christ as a response to God sending “the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” (Gal. 4:5-6, Rom. 8:1-11).
Before his Ascension, Jesus was asked if the time had arrived for the kingdom to be restored to Israel, a widespread Jewish hope in the first century. Jesus consistently directed attention away from speculation about the time when particular aspects of God’s plan would unfold. “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father has fixed with his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Instead, he directed attention to the imminent coming of the Holy Spirit that would lead to the gospel’s advance throughout the world (Acts 1:8).
Perhaps all of this is not dramatic enough for our critics. What would a dramatic “coming” of God’s kingdom look like, anyway? It may seem foolish to those who are looking for flashing lights and great heavenly fireworks, but God seems to prefer to show the greatest demonstrations of his power within the realm of the human spirit. Appearing as a fragile baby in a manger, choosing uneducated fishermen as disciples, riding a donkey into Jerusalem, and even suffering on a cross are all, from a certain point of view, anti-climactic. Yet in another very important sense, they touch a deep place in our hearts. They reveal the striking truth that the God of the universe cares about us to the point that little things become displays of divine power and glory. A baby in a manger causes the heavenly host to burst into praise. Don’t these humble manifestations of divine power resemble Jesus’ choice of images when he speaks of God’s kingdom (e.g., mustard seed, measures of meal in dough, a lost sheep)?
So, what are we to make of the charge that Jesus’ promise “failed”—that his kingdom did not arrive on schedule, before that first generation of witnesses had passed? It is unpersuasive, since it fails to see Jesus’ words in their immediate context as well as in the larger context of the biblical teachings regarding the manifold ways in which God’s kingdom comes to us now and in the future. We certainly anticipate the future Second Advent of Christ in all his glory but, like many in the first century, skeptics continue to miss the message of the Transfiguration: the kingdom of God is first and foremost embodied in Jesus. “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed . . . behold the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21).
God grant us the eyes and ears to recognize Christ’s coming to us this Christmas season.