Matthew 10:23 is one of the most difficult verses in the New Testament. It raises many eschatological problems. This podcast provides an overview of the options and issues.
This second discourse in Matthew’s gospel contains the instructions Jesus gave before sending the Twelve to minister on his behalf. This journey represents an important first step in Jesus passing his ministry to the apostles. He sent them into Jewish territory and gave them the authority to heal and teach as he has been doing.
Jesus made the journey harder to prepare them for the difficult task ahead. This journey will not be a victory tour where they gather support to overthrow Rome. They will be hated, rejected and persecuted.
“When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” – Matthew 10:23
This is a brief overview of the debate over what Jesus means by the coming of the Son of Man in Matthew 10:23. I have organized and grouped the interpretative possibilities into 5 main options.
Option 1: The coming of the Son of Man literally means as “until I come and catch up with you in your journey.”
- His point: Jesus intends to follow and overlap the Twelve on their travels. They won’t travel to the towns of northern Israel before he catches up to them and they resume traveling together. He’s saying something like: “You don’t have much time. You only have the time until you leave and when I re-join you.”
- Problems: While this avoids the eschatology issues, as far as I can tell, we have no other evidence that Jesus intended to join them. Also, since he’s sending them in pairs which are presumably headed different directions, how could Jesus catch up to all of them?
Option 2: The coming of the Son of Man refers to the resurrection, when Jesus is revealed in glory as the Messiah.
- His point: Your task of traveling to the towns of Israel will be cut short, because my earthly ministry will end. I’m going to Jerusalem where I will be crucified, but three days later, God will confirm that I am the Messiah by resurrecting me from the dead.
- Some support this view by appealing to Daniel 7:13-14. They argue that Daniel’s vision does not refer to the second coming, but rather to the end of his first coming. Daniel’s vision is the ascension from the heavenly side, not the earthly side.
- A lot of people disagree with this understanding of Daniel. But you could still argue for this understanding Matthew as referring to the resurrection without using Daniel as support.
- Problems: It’s not clear how the resurrection relates to this journey of the Twelve.
Option 3: The coming of the Son of Man refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
- His point: Your task of going to the cities of Israel will be cut short because the Messiah will come in wrath and cast Israel out of the land through the destruction of the temple at the hands of the Romans.
- Problems: Nowhere else in Scripture is the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD referred to as the coming of the Son of Man. It’s not clear how the destruction of the temple in 70 AD relates to this journey of the Twelve.
Option 4: The coming of the Son of Man refers to the second coming, an event that is still in our future.
- His point: Your task of going from town to town and proclaiming the gospel will be cut short, because one day I will return to establish my rule over creation.
- Problems: The obvious problem is the length of time between when Jesus said this and the second coming. 2000+ years doesn’t seem to be short. It’s not clear how the second coming relates to this journey of the Twelve.
Option 5: The coming of the Son of Man refers to the second coming, an event in our future, but his logic is different. (At this point in my studies, this view makes the most sense to me.)
- All of the other views assume that the coming of the Son of Man is the event that stops the task of going from town to town. That’s not the only interpretative option.
- The disciples might expect that this journey will be a triumphant victory tour as the people rally around the long-awaited Messiah, sweep out Rome and usher in the kingdom of God.
- But that’s not the plan. This journey is going to be hard. They will be persecuted and have to flee for their lives.
- His point: One of your tasks is to call the children of Israel to repent. However, you will not succeed in calling the children of Israel to repentance. The children of Israel are not going to repent until the second coming.
- Jesus does not explain that after the ministry to the Jews is cut short there will be a long extended period of ministry to the Gentles. But as we look at history, that is what happened.
Support for Option 5
- This verse opens “when they persecute you in one town flee to the next”, which could mean “keep moving.” When they reject you, you might think your job is to persist in trying to reach them. I’m telling you, don’t stay, flee to the next town.
- The phrase “you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel” is more literally “you will not finish or complete.” Most interpreters understand “completing” (Strong’s G5055) to travel to each and every town.
- But there’s more than one way to “complete” a mission. You could also “complete” this mission by persuading each person in each town to repent. Jesus is saying, “you might think your task is to bring all the cities of Israel to repentance, but that’s not the task. If they reject you, flee. The task of calling all the children of Israel to repentance is going to remain uncompleted for now.”
- “Before/until” (Strong’s G2193) can express several ideas:
- You will not do X until the deadline of Y (e.g. I will not finish my homework before dinner). You will not be able to finish going through all the cities of Israel before the deadline of the coming of the Son of Man.
- You will not do X during the span of time before Y (e.g. I will never like liver until the day I die). The task of seeing all of Israel repent and believe is not going to happen during the entire span of time between the first and second coming.
- You will not do X until Y and then you will (e.g. I will not be able to drive alone until I get my license). The task of seeing all Israel repent and believe is not going to happen until the second coming. Then and only then will all Israel repent and believe. (This option makes the most sense to me at this writing.)
- IF this view is correct, this language could be an echo of the prophets who talked about restoring the cities of Israel when the Messiah comes (e.g Amos 9:11-15; Ezekiel 36:4-10; Jeremiah 21:21-24).
I am sending you out with the mission of proclaiming the gospel and calling the children of Israel to repent. You will not be able to complete that mission, as Israel is not going to repent yet. Now is not the time for that full spiritual restoration. Instead, you will often find hostility and persecution. When that happens, leave and go to the next town. I know that you will not be able to complete that mission now and that all of Israel is not going to repent and believe. In fact that kind of restoration is not going to happen during the entire time I am gone. Except for a remnant, Israel will reject and persecute you. Only at the end when the Son of Man returns will this mission to Israel ultimately and finally be complete. Only then will they hear and repent.
Please listen to the podcast for more detail and explanation.
Podcast season 20, episode 14