Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Spurgeon on Matthew 16:28

(The following blogpost was originally published on 12/19/05.) 

The following teaching by Charles Spurgeon concerning Matthew 16:28 was helpful to me in understanding this verse and I hope that you who are reading this post will be blessed as well with the careful examination of God's Word. The remainder of this post is the first half (roughly) of Spurgeon's sermon #594 preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1864. The thoughts that I had while reading this sermon will be interspersed in green.

An Awful Premonition

Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom. –Matthew 16:28

I confess that I have frequently read this verse with only a vague sense of its poignancy and have passed over it rapidly because I have not understood it clearly. Although I am well acquainted with the usual interpretations, none of them has ever really satisfied me. This text seems to arouse the reader’s surprise without suggesting a simple, obvious meaning. Bible commentators have thus invented explanations and offered suggestions that are widely divergent, but all are equally obscure and improbable.

I greatly appreciate Spurgeon's candor here in relating his struggles to understand this text as well as the confession that he gives that he has not, in the past, carefully examined the verse as he ought. This is encouraging in that we see that even a man of God as gifted as Spurgeon did not automatically have an adequate understanding of every passage. Spurgeon's words here are also convicting in that we see that in order to have an adequate knowledge of Scripture, we must apply ourselves to diligent study: in other words, we have to work to understand the Word.

Lately, however, in reading a volume of sermons by Bishop Horsley, I have met with an altogether new view of this passage, which I firmly believe to be the correct one. Though I do not suppose I will be able to convince all of you of this interpretation, yet I will do my best to elicit from our text the terrible charge that I believe the Savior has left here on record.

At this point I would like to encourage everyone to prayerfully examine Spurgeon's exegesis of this text. Spurgeon's explanation of Matthew 16:28 will most likely be significantly different from any previous material you may have studied on this verse, and we are often prone to favor the position we have become accustomed to rather than to allow our thoughts on a given subject to be challenged by sound reasoning from the Scripture.

With His own cross in mind, Jesus had just admonished his disciples to steadfastness and appealed to them to take up their crosses and follow him at any sacrifice, which he followed with a portrayal of the inestimable value of the soul and the horror of a soul being lost. (See Matthew 16:24-26.) The full force of that doom was (and is) impossible to comprehend until he “shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels” (Matthew 16:27). Then he stopped, looked on some of the company, and said something like this: “Certain people are standing here who will never taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Now, what did he mean by this? Obviously, it was either a marvelous promise to some who were disciples indeed, or else it was a portent of woe to others who would die in their sins. How do the popular interpretations of our learned commentators view this statement of our Lord?

The first of the "popular interpretations" mentioned by Spurgeon below is the one that I have read and had come to accept. You may also currently hold to this interpretation, but please weigh carefully Spurgeon's argument against this understanding of the verse under examination.

Some say it refers to the Transfiguration. It certainly is remarkable that the account of the Transfiguration immediately follows this verse both in Mark and in Luke, as well as in this record of Matthew. However, can you for a moment convince yourself to believe that Christ was describing his Transfiguration when he spoke of “the Son of man coming in his kingdom”? Can you see any connection between the Transfiguration and the preceding verse that says,

For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works” (Matthew 16:27)

We grant you that Christ was in his glory upon Mount Tabor, but he did not there “reward every man according to his works,” nor is it fair to call that a “coming” of the Son of Man at all. He did not “come” on Mount Tabor, for he was on the earth already; and it is a misuse of language to construe that into an advent. Besides, where would be the occasion for such a solemn prefix— “Verily I say unto you”? Does it not raise expectation merely to cause disappointment, if he intended no more than this—“There be some standing here who shall see me transfigured”? That scene took place six days afterwards. The next verse tells you so,

And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart. (Matthew 17:1)

Why, the majesty of the prediction which carries our thoughts forward to "the last things" in the world's history, makes us shrink from accepting an immediate fulfillment of it all. I cannot imagine, therefore, that the transfiguration is in the slightest degree referred to here; and I do not think that anyone would have thought of such a thing unless he had been perplexed and utterly nonpiussed for an explanation.

And again—though it seems almost incredible—Dr. Gill endorses this view, and moreover says, that it also refers to the descent of the Holy Ghost, At this I am staggered. How any man can find an analogy with Pentecost in the connection here I cannot think. Pentecost took place six months after this event, and why Jesus Christ should say, "Verily I say unto you there be some standing here who will live six months," I really cannot comprehend. It seems to me that my Master did not waste people's time by talking such platitudes.

Who that reads this passage can think it has any reference to the descent of the Holy Ghost—

For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works” (Matthew 16:27)

Did Christ come at Pentecost in the glory of his Father? Was there then any company of angels? Did he then reward every man according to his works? Scarcely can the descent of the Holy Spirit, or the appearance of cloven tongues, like as of fire (Acts 2:3), be called the coming of the Son of Man in the glory of his Father with his angels, [to give] every man according to his works, without a gross misuse of our mother tongue, or a strange violation of symbolic imagery.

Both these constructions, however, which I now mention, have now been given up as unsatisfactory by those modern students who have thought most carefully upon the subject. The third still holds its ground, and is currently received, though I believe it to he quite as far from the truth as the others.

The third interpretation that Spurgeon wishes to refute is especially relevant to us today with the current popularity of "partial preterism." Partial preterism is the view that nearly all of the prophesies of the Bible- save for the bodily return of Christ and the final resurrection- have been fulfilled in the past (from our point of view), specifically in the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem and in the reign of the Roman emperor Nero. Though partial preterists have some very compelling arguments, they tend to see all references to the future found in the New Testament as referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, even when this interpretation is not supported by the text.

Will you carefully read the chapter through at your leisure, and see if you can find anything about the siege of Jerusalem in it? Yet this is the interpretation that finds favor at the present time. Some persons were standing there who would be alive when Jerusalem should be destroyed by the Romans!! Nothing surely could be more foreign to the entire scope of our Lord's discourse, or the narrative of the evangelists. There is not the slightest shadow of a reference to the siege of Jerusalem. It is the coming of the Son of Man which is here spoken of, in the glory of his Father with his angels, to reward men according to their works. Whenever Jesus spoke of the siege of Jerusalem and of its coming, he was wont to say,

Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled;” (Matthew 24:34)

But he never singled out some few persons and said to them, “Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till the city of Jerusalem is besieged and destroyed.”

If a child were to read this passage I know what he would think it meant: he would suppose Jesus Christ was to come, and there were some standing there who should not taste of death until really and literally he did come. This, I believe, is the plain meaning.

"Well," says one, “I am surprised; do you think, then, that this refers to the apostle John?” No; by no means. The fable passed current, you know, that John was to live till Christ came again. But John himself repudiated it. For at the end of his gospel, he says,

Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? (John 21:23, emphasis added)

This, you see, was putting a suppositions case, and in no sense the language of prediction.

Having examined the interpretations that he believes are contrary to the meaning of the text, Spurgeon now moves on to present his positive argument for what he believes the text is intended to indicate.

Now, dear brethren, if you are so far convinced of the unreasonableness of each of these efforts to solve the difficulty by feigning a sense, I shall hope to have your minds in readiness for that explanation which appears to me to harmonize with every requirement. I believe the “coming” here spoken of, is the coming of the Son of God to judgment at the last great and terrible assize, when he shall judge the righteous, and separate the wicked from among them.

The next question is—“Of whom were the words spoken?” Are we warranted in supposing that our Lord intended this sentence as a gracious promise, or a kindly expectation that he would kindle in the breast of his disciples? I trow not. To me it appears to have no reference whatever to any man who ever had grace in his soul: such language is far more applicable to the ungodly than the wicked. It may well have been aimed directly at those followers who should apostatize from the faith, grasp at the world, shrink at the cross, endeavor to save their lives, but really lose them, and barter their souls.

Now, carefully weigh Spurgeon's exposition of the use of the phrase "taste of death."

At the glorious appearing of Christ there are some who will taste death, but will they be the righteous? Surely, my dear friends, when Christ comes, the righteous will not die; they will be caught up with the Lord in the air. His coming will be the signal for the resurrection of all his saints.

But mark you, at the time of his coming, the men who have been without God, and without Christ, will begin for the first time to “taste of death.” They passed the first stage of dissolution when the soul quitted the body, but they have never known the “taste of death.” Till then, they will not have known its tremendous bitterness and its awful horror. They will never drink of the wormwood and the gall, so as really to “taste of death,” till the Lord shall come. This tasting of death here may he explained, and I believe it is to be explained, by a reference to the second death, which men will not taste of till the Lord comes.

And what a dreadful sentence that was, when the Savior said—perhaps singling out Judas as he spoke—“Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, who shall never know what that dreadful word ‘death’ means, till the Lord shall come. You think that if you save your lives, you escape from death. Ah! you do not know what death means. The demise of the body is but a prelude to the perdition of the soul. The grave is but the porch of death; you will never understand the meaning of that terrible word till the Lord comes.”

This can have no reference to the saints, because in the eighth chapter of John, and the fifty-first verse, you find this passage—

Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death. Then said the Jews unto him, Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death.” (John 8:51-52)

No righteous man, therefore, can ever “taste of death.” He will fall into that deep oblivious sleep in which the body sees corruption; but that is another and a very different thing from the bitter cup referred to as tasting of death. When the Holy Ghost wanted an expression to set forth that which was the equivalent for the divine wrath, what expression was used?—“Christ, by the grace of God, tasted death for every man” (cf. Hebrews 2:9).
The expression “to taste of death,” means the reception of that true and essential death, which kills both the body and the soul in hell for ever. The Savior said then, as he might say, I fear, if he stood in this pulpit to-night—

Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28)

If this be the meaning, and I hold that it is in keeping with the context, it explains the verse, sets forth the reason why Christ bespoke breathless attention with the word “verily,” answers both the grammar and the rhetoric, and is not by any argument that I have ever heard of to be moved—if this be so, what thrilling denunciations are contained in my text. O, may the Holy Spirit deeply affect our hearts, and cause our souls to thrill with its solemnity!

What thoughts it stirs up! Compared with the doom which will be inflicted upon the ungodly at the coming of Christ, the death of nature 'is nothing. We go farther: compared with the doom of the wicked at the coming of Christ, even the torments of souls in a separate state are scarcely anything. The startling question then comes up. Are there any sitting or standing here who will have to taste of death when the Lord comes?

I urge every reader of this post to carefully re-read and prayerfully consider the last question given above.




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