Thy Kingdom Come: The Son of Man and the Kingdom of Heaven

Matthew 16:28: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

This verse has confused many a Christian, myself included, throughout the years. Jesus is speaking to his disciples immediately after Peter confesses him to be the Christ, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for telling him he didn’t need to go to the cross, and then Jesus basically says, if you want to follow me, you’ve got to die.

But he ends with the encouragement of verse 28: “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

That sounds good. Sounds great even, if you’re one of the ones he’s referring to who won’t be dead when the kingdom comes.

The difficulty in interpretation comes when we look around and say, “Wait a minute! The disciples are all dead and we don’t see the kingdom anywhere! Jesus lied to us!”

May I submit that the problem isn’t with Jesus, but with our reading. Because Jesus is simply setting up what’s coming next. In Chapter 17.

The chapter and verse division throw us off, but we need to remember those weren’t part of the original text. They were added later to make it easier to navigate the massive tome that is the Bible, but they can get in the way if we are not careful.

Because in Matthew 17, Jesus’ prophecy is fulfilled, at least in part, only six days later. Not all of the disciples see it, but three do and they’re not dead. Starting in verse 1 of chapter 17…

[1] And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. [2] And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. [3] And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. [4] And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” [5] He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” [6] When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. [7] But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” [8] And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.


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Throughout the gospel of Matthew, we have seen references to the Kingdom of Heaven. The Sermon on the Mount described what life looked like in the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus demonstrated the power of the Kingdom of Heaven, and now these three disciples see the Kingdom of Heaven come.

But it comes in a surprising way. Because the Kingdom of Heaven is revealed not as an earthly kingdom with geographic boundaries, flags, and fortresses: it’s Jesus, finally fulfilling all God’s plans and prophecies. Jesus only!

The Kingdom of Heaven is Fulfilled in Jesus (1-8)

If we don’t see Jesus as Lord, we won’t understand him as the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven.

Our text points us to the need to see Jesus as the fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven:

Matthew 17:5b “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

Listen to him. Why should we listen to Jesus? Why should we acknowledge him as Lord? Why is He the fulfillment of the kingdom?

Three reasons:

1. Jesus is the ultimate revelation from God

We are told in scripture that in the former times, God spoke in various ways and through various people, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his son.

Peter missed this. And I think that we do as well.

Peter wanted to build three tabernacles for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He was essentially equating the three. He was honoring them, elevating them above him and James and John. But he was wrong. Jesus was not the equal of Moses and Elijah but was their Lord. He was not another prophet leader sent from God: he was the ultimate revelation from God.

[17] “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Matthew 5:17

Peter assumes that Moses and Elijah are equal to Jesus: Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, point to Jesus. We are to point to Jesus as the fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven.

“This is my beloved son, listen to him.”

We don’t believe that we should stone disobedient children, but that’s what the Law said. We don’t believe that anyone who dashes a Babylonian baby’s head against a rock is blessed, but that’s what the Psalms say. We don’t believe that we have to keep the Sabbath day, but that’s what the Prophets say.

We’ve got to be careful as Christians to not be so in love with our moral code, picked and chosen from passages of Scripture that we like and ignoring the ones we don’t, that we miss the truth of the kingdom: Jesus. We can’t love our system of morality more than we love the master of our souls.

Jesus is sent from God as the ultimate revelation of what God is like and how we ought to live and everything we think we know needs to be filtered through him.

But, that’s not the only reason we ought to see Jesus as Lord…

2. Jesus is the ultimate authority as God

When Jesus was transfigured, his face shone like the sun

This scene is, I believe, intentionally reminiscent of a scene on another mountain many years before. Mt. Sinai. As the children of Israel waited to receive the commandments of their God. Moses went up on the mountain and asked to see God and then his face shone for days afterward.

What is different about the scene in Matthew is that Jesus wasn’t reflecting an external light, but was revealed to be the source of the light. He was transfigured before them. He was and is and will be God.

“But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.’” Hebrews 1:8

The Son of God is God. Jesus is God. That’s remarkable. Peter thought that Jesus was like Moses and Elijah, but Jesus made Moses and Elijah.

And Jesus made you.

Believe it or not, Jesus has the authority to be Lord of your life, not because he was a good teacher, not because he was a righteous man, but because he created you. He molded you and formed you and knit you together in your mother’s womb. He does not have the right of ownership over you as if his authority was purchased: he has the right of creation of you.

Do you see what a shameful thing Peter did in talking of three equal shelters, albeit in ignorance? It’d be like you inviting me to thanksgiving dinner and then me thanking the turkey for the fine hospitality!

Jesus has the ultimate authority not just because he reveals God to us, but because he is God over us.

3. Jesus is the ultimate standard for His people

Every year, around Easter, I hear people who say, “I just can’t believe Christianity because how could a dead man raise to life?”

And Christians get bent out of shape when people question the resurrection.

I don’t. Because that’s not even the crazy part! What’s more amazing than the resurrection to me is the incarnation. That God, the creator of the universe, the sovereign Lord, took on flesh. That the second member of the trinity came to earth as a baby. He was a man. Because he was God he could pay the price for our sins. Because he was a man, Hebrews tells us, he could identify with us in our weaknesses. In those two facts, we have redemption.

And we also have a life plan. We have the example that we needed showing us, as frail humans, how to live before God.

“Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” 1 John 2:6

So many of us evaluate our spiritual growth by comparing ourselves to those around us: I’ll never be as good as her, at least I’m better than him. The trouble with comparative Christianity is it always misleads us because people are always changing. I can always find somebody that I’m better than if I want to feel good about myself. If I want to beat myself up, I can always find someone better than me. But what Jesus shows us is that we need to quit focusing on ourselves or comparing ourselves to those around us.

Only when we fix our eyes on Jesus will we have a sure guide for how we ought to live and a vision of what we ought to be.

Jesus is Lord. That means he tells and shows us how to live. Proclaiming Him Lord is not merely an intellectual exercise: it affects every single area of our lives: mind, soul, and body.

It’s not easy.

The scene on the mountain showed the three disciples the Kingdom, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. But that wasn’t all they needed to see or hear or do to understand the kingdom…

The Kingdom of Heaven is Revealed in Suffering (9-13)

[9] And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” [10] And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” [11] He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. [12] But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” [13] Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

It is no accident that Jesus turns the conversation to suffering after the disciples had just glimpsed heaven

Elijah suffered.

John the Baptist suffered.

Jesus will suffer.

The implication is obvious: the Kingdom of Heaven is revealed in suffering.

All of Scripture recognizes this:

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” 1 Peter 2:21

The hard truth of the kingdom is that people who are satisfied with the things of this world cannot appreciate the promise of heaven. People who are drunk on the wine of this world cannot appreciate the promise of new wine at the banquet of the lamb. People who’ve cultivated a self-centered vision of a personal heaven will find that they have no desire for a Christ-centered vision of a corporate heaven.

Suffering forces us to relinquish our reliance on this world, on self-fulfillment, on a privatized religion of mental appeasement.

Suffering wakes us up to the reality of the gospel. Suffering is the tool that God uses to wean us off this world in order to use us in inaugurating the kingdom of heaven.

“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” CS Lewis The Problem of Pain

We shouldn’t seek suffering in this life, but when it comes, don’t lose heart. It’s not that God is picking on you; he’s preparing you for two things:

1. Living in the kingdom of heaven.

2. Demonstrating the good news of that kingdom to others.

A comfortable person speaking of a suffering savior will not be heard, but a suffering person speaking of a conquering savior will.

The Kingdom of Heaven is expressed by serving others in faith (14-20)

[14] And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, [15] said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. [16] And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” [17] And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” [18] And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. [19] Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” [20] He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Matthew knew what he was doing by presenting the trio returning with Jesus and immediately coming face to face with suffering that they could do something about after having had a foretaste of heaven.

This passage has been used and abused for people to think that if they have enough faith they can get whatever they want for themselves. That is not at all what is in mind here.

The disciples were condemned for their lack of faith in God, “why couldn’t WE cast it out” – they thought they could attain the desired result apart from the power of God.

The faith that Jesus has in mind is never centered in what we get, what we do, or what we are recognized for. The faith he is speaking of here is the faith that God will work in spite of us, not because of us. That God will use our feeble efforts to accomplish healing and restoration in this broken world

When we serve in our own strength, we fail. When we serve for our own advancement, we fail. When we serve for our own gain, we fail. We fail to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven through efforts in our own strength.

But, when we serve through faith in God’s power, we succeed: the kingdom of heaven is made real. This theme resonates throughout the gospels: don’t seek power for yourself, but exercise the power of God for his glory and the good of others.

“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:26-28

The reason faithful, selfless service is so important is because of what the Kingdom of Heaven costs, both Christ and us…

The Kingdom of Heaven is grounded in the agony of the cross and the victory of the resurrection (22-23)

[22] As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, [23] and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed.

The disciples hear of the coming cross and they are distressed. They freak out.

They couldn’t understand it then, but we understand it now: What the disciples heard as the worst news possible is actually the best news ever! Why? Because “he will be raised on the third day!”

We need to live as if the cross were actually good news. Not just good news for us because of Jesus but good news because the cross in our lives is good news.

To die to self is the goal of Christianity. To have no thought of personal gain or personal power, but to joyously own Jesus as Lord, to willingly suffer for his kingdom, to faithfully serve others, and to boldly die to self all because the Kingdom is seen in resurrection – and in the eternal life that flows from that resurrection.

The Apostle Paul got it: 

[8] Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ [9] and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—[10] that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, [11] that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11 ESV)

He’s talking about the kingdom of heaven. And Jesus as the Lord of that Kingdom.

Jesus showed us, told us, reminded us, that the kingdom of heaven starts now. That means owning Jesus as Lord to the point that we are willing to suffer for him, to serve for him, to die for him.

And yet, in America, we’ve made our faith about managing the discomforts in the world as best we can so that one day, we can get to “heaven.” I’m not saying that’s not good, but it’s certainly not all we are supposed to be about.

I’m afraid that as I’ve walked through Matthew the past few months, I may have done a poor job of explaining what the kingdom of heaven is. When you hear heaven, don’t think about clouds, and harps, and wings. Put that out of your mind. Instead, when you hear heaven, think about Jesus, glorified on the mountain, think about his followers gladly suffering for him, think about serving tirelessly and thanklessly, think about death and resurrection. Take your hope of heaven off the shelf, put it on your feet, and go live it out now. Go befriend the person at work that everyone else makes fun of. Turn off the TV, make cookies with your kids, and take them to the widow next door. Quit bashing your neighbor’s theology and start demonstrating the love of Christ to them. Make gathering with fellow believers a priority, not something governed by your desires or whims. Don’t say how excited you are for heaven and then spend every dollar you make on yourself trying to create a little personal heaven on earth

When do we, church, when do we, Christian, begin to stand and fight, here and now, because of the glory that awaits? When do we cease to pretend that the gospel is good news because it eases my conscience and begin to see that the gospel is good news because it lays claim to my every breath, my every decision, my very life?

When do we stop seeing heaven as the reward for our useless spirituality and start seeing it for what it is: the joy of our Master into which we are called but into which we dare not come empty handed?

We don’t get whisked away to heaven immediately upon getting saved because God is purging us of selfishness! He is guiding us towards Christlikeness, not for our glory but for His, not for our benefit alone, but for those around us. The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus Christ, changes everything.


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