Was Jesus Mistaken?

A lot of Christians have been puzzled by this statement made by Jesus:

“For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.  But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”  (Luke 9:26-27)

That seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?  In the first sentence Jesus is warning that those who lose faith in Him will be in trouble when He returns again in glory, and then the next sentence states that some of his disciples will still be alive when that occurs.  But obviously that’s not what actually happened!  Here it is 2000 years later and everyone who heard Jesus say those words is certainly long dead!  (And if Jesus could be so wrong about this, what else might He have been wrong about?)

Let’s look at this passage more carefully (and also the parallel passages in Matthew 16:27-28 and Mark 8:38-9:1):   Following a basic rule for reading the Bible we immediately look at the larger context in which this passage appears.  What we find is that it follows Peter’s bold confession that Jesus is the Messiah from God.  Jesus acknowledges this but then warns that before the glory they expect of the Messiah’s coming, there would be some really difficult times that would challenge them.  The above passage appears right at the end of this warning and is then immediately followed by the account of how a few days later Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain where they see Him transfigured in glory.  In other words, these three disciples were privileged to get a glimpse of what it would be like when Jesus returned in His full power and glory to finally and fully establish God’s Kingdom of Heaven on earth (as we pray for whenever we say the Lord’s Prayer).

This makes us question our assumption that the two sentences (verses 26 and 27) are actually referring to the same event.  Rather, it is very natural in the context to now recognize that the first is pointing far ahead to Jesus’ final return at the end of the present age, and the second to the transfiguration event that would shortly occur.  A very liberal paraphrase of the gist of the complete passage might then go something like this:

“Some will be tempted to give up on me when it gets tough to be my disciple and that would be a bad mistake.  But though you may be dead before my Kingdom is fully and gloriously established on earth, a few of you are going to get a sneak preview of what it will be like when that happens.”

An example like this should make us cautious that taking an isolated passage out of context can lead to serious misunderstandings.  It also is an obvious example of how the Bible’s divisions into chapters, verses, and paragraphs (things that were added by editors only within relatively modern times) can subtly shape the way we read the text, and we sometimes need to look beyond them.  (Interestingly, the man who invented our chapter and verse divisions broke the chapters between these two sentences in Mark’s gospel.)  Also, we shouldn’t get overly excited when we think we spot something incongruous in the Bible, but rather ask someone trusted for guidance.  And most importantly, we should approach scripture with full confidence in our loving Lord while humbly asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

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