Leaving Open Questions: Matthew 16:21-28

Focus Passage: Matthew 16:21-28 (GNT)

21 From that time on Jesus began to say plainly to his disciples, “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life.”

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “God forbid it, Lord!” he said. “That must never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned around and said to Peter, “Get away from me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my way, because these thoughts of yours don’t come from God, but from human nature.”

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me. 25 For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it. 26 Will you gain anything if you win the whole world but lose your life? Of course not! There is nothing you can give to regain your life. 27 For the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he will reward each one according to his deeds. 28 I assure you that there are some here who will not die until they have seen the Son of Man come as King.”

Read Matthew 16:21-28 in context and/or in other translations on BibleGateway.com!

Shortly after Jesus rebuked Peter for speaking out against His death, Jesus shared a profound phrase and prediction that may be challenging for us to grasp or understand. While the statement sounds simple and straightforward, it can be understood, and perhaps even misunderstood, in several different ways.

Matthew tells us that Jesus told this statement to His disciples, and while Mark and Luke include this teaching, these two gospel writers have other followers included within earshot of Jesus’ message. Following talking about the challenge of being a true disciple, Jesus tells all those who were present, “For the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he will reward each one according to his deeds. I assure you that there are some here who will not die until they have seen the Son of Man come as King.” (v. 27-28)

Both sentences in these two verses are powerful individually, but together, they give an amazing message regarding where Jesus’ ministry will ultimately end. Both statements refer to Jesus’ second coming, and with this time frame in mind, we see two other details in place:

  • When Jesus comes, He will reward each person according to His deeds. (v. 27)

  • There are some (i.e. more than one) who were present there who will not die until they have seen this event. (v. 28)

The first statement is easier to grasp. When Jesus comes, the reward that is brought will be based on what we have done. The trick or challenge with this statement is where belief fits in. On the surface, this statement sounds like a person’s actions being used to justify his or her salvation, but then does it nullify faith?

In the first statement, while we could see it as supporting a works based salvation, it doesn’t really address salvation as a topic. Instead, it talks about rewards based on our deeds. Every one of us have sinned, and the only “reward” that sin can bring is death. One thousand righteous actions mixed together with one sinful action still results in the reward of death. God could reward all those righteous actions first, but when He gets to the single sin, death comes – and its consequence is more serious than the rewards given for our righteous deeds. This statement actually promises death for everyone because everyone has sinned.

Salvation fits into the first statement because when we put our faith, trust, and belief in Jesus, He gives us His life as a reward, so when receiving our rewards, we receive the reward Jesus should have received because He took the reward (the death) we deserved. This is how I understand the first statement.

I don’t really understand the second statement. This statement also sounds simple, but is Jesus talking about death as perishing in the second death, or simply ceasing to live on this earth during the present age?

When Jesus went to the mountain and was “transfigured”, did this act give Him the appearance of coming as King, or does this second statement refer exclusively to the second coming?

Does this “not facing death before the second coming” say that some of these followers would be immediately taken to heaven, either at their death or right before their death?

Is this a statement meant for all of Jesus’ followers throughout history, or is it a statement meant for those listening to His words at that moment?

I have some ideas regarding all these questions about the second statement, but sometimes it’s best to leave the questions open, because when we have answered the questions we have, there is nowhere else to grow. Answering questions caps our growth. It is only by searching for answers that we can continue to grow, and when we have found answers, we continue growing by asking more questions.

This thought was inspired by studying the Walking With Jesus “Reflective Bible Study” package. To discover insights like this in your own study time, click here and give Reflective Bible Study a try today!

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