C. S. Lewis remains near the top of my list of favorite thinkers and writers. However, while reading through chapter 16 of Matthew’s Gospel, I remembered something Lewis said in his essay, “The World’s Last Night,” with which I am in stark disagreement. While discussing the return of Christ, Lewis concedes to the skeptics among modern Biblical scholars that the statement in Matthew 24:34 (“this generation will not pass until all these things have taken place”), “is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” After all, Jesus was obviously wrong. The earth is still here, and things go on as they always have.
As noted, it was actually a passage in chapter 16 that brought Lewis’s statement to my mind, because it is very similar…and similarly problematic from the perspective Lewis concedes. Verse 28 claims, “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the son of man coming in his kingdom.”
There are a variety of interpretive methods by which traditional and fundamentalist believers contend with such claims of modern critics, ranging from the simplistic to the fantastic, as well as countless skeptical rejoinders. Yet where we all fall short–faithful and faithless alike–is at the same rock of offence upon which Peter tripped. We “are not setting [our] minds on the things of God but on the things of man” (Matt. 16:23).
Matthew’s Gospel is built upon two interweaving themes: the Messiah and the Kingdom of God. The very first verse tells us that this is the book of the lineage of the Messiah; this lineage is followed by the narration of the birth of the Messiah, replete with messianic prophecies from the scriptures that are being fulfilled in this event. Even the naming of Jesus alludes to messianic prophecies. Joseph is told by the angel that his name is to be Jesus (Greek version of Yeshua or Joshua), and he will “save his people from their sins” (vs. 21). This alludes to Zechariah chapter 3 in which Joshua, a high priest, will “rule my house and have charge over my courts” (vs. 7), and in the same passage God promises, “I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day” (vs. 9).
Of course the promised arrival of the Messiah can mean only one thing, “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” as John the Baptist tells us (3:2). Matthew’s account of Jesus’s ministry begins right after the arrest of John by stating “from that time on” Jesus preached, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (4:17). What follows is a litany of stories in which Jesus goes about “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing” (4:23). The sermon on the mount lays out for us the teachings of the kingdom…the reversal of our self-centered lives. In chapter 10 Jesus sends out his disciples with a mission to proclaim (vs 7) and show (vs 8) the kingdom at hand. The proclamation and the action belong together; a point made evident by Jesus response to the disciples of John the Baptist who asked “are you the one” (11:3). Jesus responds, “Go and tell John what you hear and see…blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (11:4,6). This Kingdom teaching and Kingdom doing of the Messiah who was promised fills Matthew’s story and builds to the pivotal point of the book in chapter 16.
After rebuking the scribes and pharisees for not recognizing the signs of the Messiah and his Kingdom happening right in front of their eyes (vs. 1-4), Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answers rightly. “You are the Messiah” (vs. 15-16). Then came the stumbling block, “From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer…and be killed” (vs. 21-22). Furthermore, he tells them that to be his disciples they (and we) must follow the same path…the path of the cross (vs 24). It is after the call to take up our cross and follow that Jesus says, “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (vs. 28).
If we expect that the “coming in his Kingdom” is the final return of Christ to set all things right at the end, then we have the problem with which we began. Jesus in Matthew’s gospel continues to prophecy his death, tell parables about small beginnings and the murder of a king’s son, and proclaim and show the kingdom. The opposition grows. He’s crucified, dies, rises again, and ascends to heaven leaving the disciples with a mission to preach and baptize. No cataclysmic return. No setting things right. No “restoring the kingdom.”
And here we are 2000 years later, and from a human perspective not much is changed. But to conclude that Jesus was wrong is to miss the point. What Jesus is telling us and what Matthew is showing us throughout his gospel is that Jesus coming into his kingdom happens on the cross. It is there that he officially receives his title “King of the Jews.” It is through the cross that He enters his kingdom. (In fact Luke tells us that the one brigand on the cross asks Jesus to remember him when he becomes king. It happens “this very day.”– 25:42-43)
This is not intended to downplay the ultimate restoration of all things or the revelation of the sons of God for which all creation groans. It is not to deny the “parousia” of the last day. However, it is essential that we understand that Jesus comes into his kingdom on and through the cross. As N T Wright has put it in his book, How God Became King:
The Messiah is to come into his Kingdom through a horrible death; and those who not only follow him, but are called to implement his work must expect that their royal task–for such it is–will be accomplished in the same way by the same means (221-222).
Yes, we must grasp it. This is the most embarrassing verse in the Bible, the Messiah “must suffer…and be killed.” And the second is like unto it, any who will follow must “deny self, and take up his cross” and die as well. The road to the kingdom is the road of suffering, the road to the lowest place. But we so often fail to see it because we are setting our minds “on the things of man.”