Context and a Hard Saying

The Bible is not a hard book to understand. I know that for many, that previous sentence feels false. But, if you think about it, God did not inspire a book that was intended not to be understood. For the most part, if we will read it simply, clearly, in its context, we will understand the message that the author intended us to get. When God says for us not to have any gods before him, that is not hard to grasp. When we read of Jesus calming a storm with a word, we understand what happened there and are rightly amazed. When James tells us that out of the same mouth we wrongly speak blessings and curses, we know what he means.


But there are some verses that, on their surface can cause problems. In Mark 9, for example, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” (Mark 9:1). How can that be? How can Jesus say that some of the men standing with him, his disciples, will see the kingdom of God come with power before they taste death?


One way this is handled by some is to say that the kingdom of God arrived in power at some point during the lives of the disciples. A few groups point to the fall of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70 as such a time. But, at that point, the arrival of the kingdom is in a form only grasped by a select few. Others, liberal scholars, argue that Jesus was simply wrong about the timing of his return. But we who believe in the deity of Christ reject this notion out of hand. Still others tie the coming of the kingdom in power to Jesus’ resurrection or to the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.


But, in the Mark passage, as well as in the parallels, the context of Jesus’ statement could give us a clue that, to interpret A.D. 70 or one of the other later times as the arrival of the kingdom to which Jesus is referring might be over-interpreting the passage.


Look at the words in context, taking note of what follows Jesus’ declaration without a transition.  


Mark 9:1-3 – 1 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”

2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.


In all the parallel passages (Mat 16:28-ff, Mark 9:1-ff, and Luke 9:27-ff), Jesus declares that some of his disciples will see the kingdom in power. Then, immediately the authors of the gospels tell us about this trip up the mountain with Peter, James, and John. There, the three see Jesus transfigured. His glory shines. His identity as God is gloriously visible in a way that others do not get to see. Old Testament saints join Jesus on the scene and speak with him.


I would suggest that this scene is what Jesus hinted at in verse 1. Only some standing with Jesus in Mark 9:1 will see the kingdom of God coming in power. This is not because only a few disciples lived to A.D. 70, but rather, it is because only 3 go up the mountain of transfiguration to see the unveiling of the glory of Jesus. They see what the kingdom of God will eventually look like. They see the Savior in his glory, his power, his majesty.


I know that there are others, very solid believers, who reject this explanation. But I do find it interesting that, as topically as some of the gospel writers arrange their material, they all choose to put the claims of Jesus together with the transfiguration. They want us to see that these are part of the same context. Peter, John, and James glimpse Jesus for a moment, not as suffering servant, but as the glorified Son of God. Though their glimpse on the mountain is a short-lived experience that they only bring into focus after his crucifixion and resurrection.


My point in all this is not to utterly finalize the debate on what Jesus said, but to point out that often, if we will look, the context of a passage will open to us its meaning without us having to feel like we cannot possibly understand Scripture. God gives us clues that make it possible for us to grasp what feels, at first, impossible.


And, of course, from the passage, the disciples did see the kingdom of God as it was coming. Now Jesus is risen and glorified. And now, we have the odd position of living in the already and not yet state of believers who are both in the kingdom and awaiting the kingdom. We know Jesus is alive and glorified. We now have the Holy Spirit and the completed word of God. We now share the gospel, preach the word, change the world, and bring the kingdom. We also await the return of Jesus when he will bring the kingdom, come in judgment, reign as king, and set all right forever.