I tell you in all truth, there are some of you standing here who will not taste death until they see the son of man coming in his kingdom. - Matthew 16:28
There are parallel statements in Mark and Luke, and there is little doubt that the very first generation of Christians lived with the expectation that they would see the end of the age. When that did not happen, there had to be a lot of rethinking, and some, especially the more literal-minded, were probably not able to make the adjustment. One historian says that the ones who were able to do so were the ones who had already started to ¡°spiritualize¡± Jesus¡¯ message.
I¡¯m not sure this accurately represents the situation, primarily because I am pretty sure there was a very ¡°spiritual¡± side to Jesus¡¯ message from the very beginning of his ministry. The message he started preaching in Galilee was that the kingdom of heaven was near--not the restoration of the kingdom of Israel, not an earthly kingdom at all. If there is one thing that the Gospels tell us consistently, it is that he was not a twentieth-century materialist, not a literalist at all. In John¡¯s account of the discourse at the Last Supper, we find the disciples still bewildered. Finally, they think they understand, and say that now he is speaking plainly, and not in parables. In other words, even at the end of his life, they had trouble deciding when he was talking literally and when he was using images.
In the centuries since then, we have fallen in love with literal truth to an extent that would have baffled the disciples. We have a kind of confidence that we can figure things out: they had a kind of certainty that life was a mystery. In the pagan world, when the gods spoke, they spoke in riddles, and the person who took them literally was sure to misunderstand their message. If we look at all the statements about fulfilment of prophecy in Matthew¡¯s Gospel and look at those same prophecies in their Old Testament contexts, we find that none of them was really fulfilled literally. The wording is changed a little, or the meaning is given an unexpected twist.
This was no liability for Matthew. Everyone knew that oracles were cryptic; and if an event happened that gave an unexpected meaning to a familiar prophecy, that made perfect and persuasive sense. It was one more example of the fact that prophecy was not like ordinary communication. There could always be some hidden meaning in it.
So it is likely that some of the earliest Christians never were sure that the prophecies about Jesus¡¯ speedy return were to be taken literally, and there were many who were able to abandon a literal interpretation without great difficulty. In effect, they were able to believe that it was their understanding of the prophecy and not the prophecy itself that had been wrong.
In the meantime, though, the prophecy had served a good purpose. Because they believed that the time was short, the early followers were willing to take radical risks. Jesus had advised his disciples not to be anxious about tomorrow, and the belief that tomorrow might not come made that a good deal easier. They were willing to give up their claims to private property and share with those in need. They were willing to proclaim their faith fearlessly, to alienate people who did not share their faith, and to trust those who did utterly.
In short, all the cautions of what we might call worldly prudence could be cast aside for the simple reason that the time was short. They could live their beliefs wholeheartedly.
When they did, something unexpected happened. They discovered that this way of life was not so impractical as it seemed. True, some of them were martyred, and many of them faced daunting challenges. But the fact is that most of them survived, right here in this materialistic world. Most of them survived, and their lives were sufficiently rewarding that the movement actually grew.
I see a kind of parallel between what happened as the first generation died and what happened after the crucifixion. After the crucifixion, the first people to discover that Jesus was alive were the women who came to serve him even though they thought he was dead. He could no longer do anything for them, but they could not stop caring. As it became clear that the immediate return was not going to happen, I suspect that what preserved the faith of many was simply that this way of living had become too dear and too beautiful to give up. Whatever those prophecies meant, whether they were right or wrong, Jesus had been very, very right in his understanding of what made life worth living.
Because of this, I don¡¯t believe that the promises of a speedy return were calculated to manipulate his followers into giving their all to their faith, nor do I believe that they were intended literally, that Jesus actually expected the end of the world. I believe rather that he was making his usual use of images, and that he was describing just what did in fact happen.
Suppose we try, then, to give up our twentieth-century literalism for a few minutes, and use our Gospel resources to think in a more first-century style. Jesus said that some of those with him would see him coming in his kingdom before they died. If this was more an image than a literal prediction, what was he telling them? It may help to look at the ways in which he used these same images at other times.
In a way, we¡¯ve already started with the idea of the kingdom. There are many parables about the kingdom, and they divide into two groups. One group clearly refers to some kind of judgement after death--letting the wheat and the tares grow together until the harvest, for example, or sorting the fish and discarding the bad ones. But the other group does not lend itself to this kind of interpretation. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, or like an immensely valuable pearl. Here the clear implication is that the kindgdom is something hidden in the here and now, something we can and might discover.
This leads directly to another of the elements in the prophecy of Jesus¡¯ return, namely our ¡°seeing.¡± There may be no other term that Jesus uses so often in a metaphorical sense. Yes, he did literally heal people who were physically blind, but time after time he spoke of a different kind of sight. The Pharisees were blind leaders of the blind. The disciples themselves had eyes but could not see when they took Jesus too literally (Mark 8:18). He spoke in parables so that people would see but not understand.
To put it simply, he was clearly concerned to open people¡¯s minds, not just their eyes. He was concerned with their mental sight--in that sense, with their ability to see the kingdom that was at hand. The literalist, the legalist, could look right at it and not see it--which leads us to the third element in the prophecy, Jesus himself, the son of man whom the disciples would see.
It is abundantly clear from the Gospel records that when different people looked at Jesus, they saw different things. The Book of Acts suggests that the apostles were not unanimous in all their concepts, and there is compelling evidence that the Book of Acts understates the differences. There were some who saw him primarily as a second Moses, come to purify the law and to found the Judaism that had been intended from the beginning. There were some who saw him as the Messiah, the son of David--as primarily a king. There were some who saw him as a divine figure, as a visitation from on high. There were some not long after his death who even believed that his physical body was just an illusion, that he was and had always been pure spirit. It was out of such varied opinions that the early church fathers forged the theology which has been the basis of the Christian church ever since.
In the Gospels themselves, though, we do not find this kind of theological speculation. Without going all around Robin Hood¡¯s barn to get there, I would suggest that what Jesus most wanted his disciples to see when they looked at him was nothing abstract or theoretical at all. It was the quality of person he was. It was that rare wedding of mind and heart, of insight and compassion. It was the ability to perceive what was troubling people, and to speak or act effectively to bring healing. That insight was profoundly threatening to people who wanted their own motives to remain hidden--those who loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. It promised blessing to those who wanted to understand, to those who loved the light.
So we have three images that are very closely related--the kingdom, seeing, and the son of man. They come together into one message if we assume something that seems entirely probable to me at least, namely that the kingdom of heaven is present wherever there is that wedding of mind and heart, of insight and compassion, that was so perfectly embodied in the person of Jesus.
Jesus had told the disciples that he had many things to tell them that they were not yet able to understand. He knew, as his last hours approached, that the light had not really dawned for them. Probably it could not really dawn as long as he was physically present. But he knew that some of them would remain faithful. Some of them would discover that the kingdom of heaven was not some new and ingenious political system, not some form of ecclesiastical rule, but a quality of love for God and the neighbor that could operate under even the most hostile systems on earth.
Jesus¡¯ promise is repeated at the very end of Scripture. ¡°The one who bears witness to these things says, ¡®In truth, I am coming quickly.¡¯¡± The next words are, ¡°Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus.¡± The implication is clear, that the kingdom of heaven is still at hand. We can still see the son of man coming, and do so whenever we are transfixed by the realization of what truly matters in this life, what that pearl of great price is for which we would sell everything else.
I find only one answer that makes sense--that it is the quality of life which Jesus led. It requires of us that we, so to speak, deify that union of compassion and insight which he embodied, make it our goal, let it rule our lives. I belive we will discover that all of a sudden, the literal prophecy about Jesus¡¯ return will not matter to us any more, because we will know that in the way that matters most, he is present with us.