Friday, 12 March 2010

"Some of you will not taste death"

Six days before his Transfiguration, and some months before his death, resurrection and Pentecost, Jesus said these words:
“Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.” (Mark 9:1)
There is some difficulty in these words - exactly which event (events?) was Jesus referring to? What does the seeming suggestion that some (many, most?) of the apostles could taste death in the meantime imply? What is implied by the immediate conjunction of the account of the Transfiguration in the accounts in each of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and their remarks on the time-scale intervening? (John does not report this saying or the Transfiguration)?

If I remember correctly, in his thought-provoking and very worthwhile book "The Last Days According To Jesus", R C Sproul argues that this reference must be ultimately to AD 70. That is the year when the old theocratic kingdom and the Old Covenant was finally abolished, leaving only the world-wide church of Jew and Gentile joined together in Christ. That, he argues, is when the kingdom had finally come with power - the old scaffolding of Judaism which had preceded and supported it for a time as it had grown and distinguished itself was now totally taken away.

This interpretation has some attractions, chiefly in the words that "some... will not taste death", which on the surface do seem to imply a time-gap to be measured in terms of years, not days or weeks - and a significant number of the apostles dying off in the meantime. My problem is whilst I do see the Biblical importance of AD 70, I do not see that importance explained in terms of the kingdom of God "coming with power" at that date. On the contrary, I do see the day of Pentecost as explicitly being marked out in terms of that significance (exemplified in many many texts, e.g. John 7:39, "But this he spoke about the Spirit, which those who believe on him would receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified" and the words spoken on the day itself, Acts 2:16ff). The pouring out of the Spirit and the formation of the church was when the kingdom came "with power". The kingdom was present when the king began his ministry (Mark 1:15) - but then hidden, and in apparent weakness, even seeming to die (at Calvary); but from Pentecost it was present "with power". Jesus the king was risen and ascended and had now climbed his throne from there to reign. He had then received and poured out the promised gift of the Spirit as the first and fundamantal act of his inaugurated kingship over the nations.

We can add to this the consideration that in fact one of the twelve, Judas, did in fact die before the day of Pentecost. It could be objected that "some will not die" suggests that several will - but there is plenty of Biblical precedent for Jesus speaking in a guarded and cryptic manner at this time when his disciples were still somewhat limited in their understanding (c.f. John 16:25, spoken in the very eve of Passover). Perhaps we can fold in the years after Pentecost into the fullness of what is meant by Jesus? i.e. He does not mean "you will not die until the day the Spirit has come", but he also includes the outworking of the Spirit's presence in the church as the church would grow, survive persecutions, envelop Samaritans and then Gentiles, etc. i.e. Not only Pentecost, seen as the seed, but also its inevitable fruit as it came to maturity. We know that James the son of Zebedee, for one (Acts 12), died before this power had gone forth in the first formal Gentile missions (Acts 13:1ff) - in the days when the promise of a multi-national church as still awaiting major chapters in its fulfilment.

The Transfiguration was witnessed only be "some", namely Peter, James and John - but in what sense did the kingdom come with power on that day? It was by its very nature a secret event - hidden except to a close inner-circle, and gone as soon as it was come. To be sure, those three witnessed Jesus in his glory, which was to see the power of the king himself. But how was the actual rule of the king established or advanced through that event? Furthermore, none at all of the twelve had died before that day - this seems to stretch the words to breaking point and beyond. It is true that the gospel writers draw our attention to the following of this event after the saying, which suggests a connection. But I do not think that the connection they are drawing is "this is the fulfilment"; the connection they are drawing is that the apostles were given an assurance and confirmation of what Jesus had promised, though it is not yet. What is now will still be weakness and death and the apparent annihilation of the kingdom - yet they may patiently wait, because Jesus has shown them the secret of how they will be fulfilled in due time.

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