A question recently came up in studying about the kingdom of God with a friend. It involves Mark 9:1 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” My friend insists that Jesus is talking about “soul” death and Jesus’s second coming and not physical death. When asked why he thinks so, he said look at the context in the previous scripture in Mark 8:37-38 Mark 8:37-38, which talks about when Jesus comes back “in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” He is a very smart guy and has a religious background, so it was hard for us to convince him that Jesus is talking about the kingdom coming with power in the “lifetime of some of the people standing here.” How do we explain this accurately?
There are a few basic rules of interpretation which apply here. One is that one should let the context determine the meaning. The other is that one should let other passages on the same topic help us to determine the meaning. The third is that we should presume that the Bible is inspired, so the interpretation which is consistent with the Bible being inspired should be the correct meaning. I believe that two of these rules favor the interpretation that Jesus is talking about physical death, not eternal death (that which occurs when Jesus comes back?). However, one of the rules leads to two possible interpretations, as your friend is pointing out.
Let me tell you that the context favors your friend’s position to some extent. He has already mentioned this to you. In Mark 8:38 Jesus is clearly talking about when he comes back! (“…when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”). Yet the context of the next verse–Mark 9:1 is a bit uncertain, because the immediate context of the statement in this verse regards when they “see the kingdom of God come with power.” Could this be a reference to the second coming? The context says that it is likely the answer is yes, to be honest. You should be concede this fact with your friend. Yet, it could also refer to an event which is closer it time. The Kingdom of God has come many times and in many ways. It came when Jesus arrived on the scene. It came when David established the Kingdom of Israel. It came when the gospel was first announced on the Day of Pentecost. It will come at the end of time, with the return of Jesus. The Kingdom of God is a big concept.
But, unfortunately, your friend has bought into premillenialism. This false teaching is that the Kingdom of God will only come in the last days—which for them are at the end of time. Premillenialists generally believe that Jesus will come back and literally rule from Jerusalem, setting up the kingdom of God. This, despite the fact that the Hebrew writer tells us that right now is the last days (Hebrews 1:2). Here I am applying the second of my three rules above, which is that we should let other verses determine what the “last days” are. Your friend probably does not apply Hebrews 1:2 to help interpret this passage!. Also, as you know, there are many passages in both the Old and the New Testament which imply that the Kingdom of God will come, at least in some sense, at Pentecost. (Isaiah 2:2-4, Matthew 3:2, 4:17, etc There are many others!!) Both Jesus and John the Baptist said that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” (which means it is really near). Probably this is a reference to the arrival of Jesus, not to Pentecost, but in any case, the Kingdom comes long before end time. Bottom line is that your friend reads his presupposition into Mark 9:1. He presupposes that any reference to the Kingdom of God coming can only refer to the second coming of Jesus–at end times. OK, but he should understand that if this is a proof text, then it is circular reasoning. We should never apply circular reasoning. Mark 9:1 appears to prove that the Kingdom of God came, at least in some sense, during the first century, because Jesus tells us that some of those with him at that time would still be alive when the Kingdom of God comes. Your friend needs a good reason to assume that Jesus is not talking about the first century.
The third “rule” is that the verse should be interpreted in light of the assumption that the Bible is inspired. If the Kingdom of God is to come within the lifetime of some of those to whom Jesus spoke directly, then it certainly had to “come” at least in some sense, during the first century. The most obvious interpretation is that it “came” at Pentecost. In fact, Peter himself tells us that this event (Pentecost) happened at the dawning of the “last days,” as is clearly shown in Acts 2:17. The last days began with the coming of the Kingdom of God, as indicated by Mark 9:1, and the evidence of Acts 2:17 is that this happened at Pentecost. It just so happens that this is the most likely explanation of Mark 9:1, where we are told that some of the apostles would be alive when the event happened. If your friend is right, then some of the apostles are still alive. Well, that certainly is not the case. Is it still possible to defend your friend’s view? I suppose it is, but it requires doing some gymnastics with the passage. It requires ad hoc hypotheses concerning what Jesus meant. My suggest is to go with the simplest and most obvious interpretation which is consistent with all “rules” of interpretation. This is the interpretation you are trying to get him to see.
Now, remember that this is not a salvation issue. It is not clear that it is even an important, never mind an essential teaching. So, I would present the case but let your friend know that this is perhaps a debatable matter (personally, I do not see it as being debatable, for what it is worth, but that is my opinion…), and you will not allow it to stop him from moving forward with his studies. I would consider smoothing over this disagreement for now and try to overcome his false assumptions about premillennialism at a later time. That is my advice.