What Is the Meaning of Matthew 10:23?

By Wayne Jackson

“Would you please explain Matthew 10:23? ‘When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.’”

There are a number of ways by which the meaning of a passage might be determined. One should look at the grammatical forms employed, remembering that the Bible is a verbally inspired document, and grammatical clues are of supreme importance. One should observe whether or not there are historical, geographical, or cultural hints in the text that could be of significance in ascertaining its meaning. Also, does the passage embody literal or figurative language? Are there parallel texts that may shed light upon the narrative? These are significant possibilities to take into consideration in probing a difficult text of Scripture. When a passage is a point of considerable controversy, it is especially crucial that a balanced range of critical skills be exercised.

What, then, is the most reasonable approach to Matthew 10:23? First, let me cite several views that have been advanced relative to the meaning of this text, and weigh the merits, or lack thereof, in each instance.

The Liberal View

This view was most notably advocated by French missionary Albert Schweitzer, who contended that Jesus believed the end of time would take place in his day, and thus the apostles would not get their mission accomplished before he came (pp. 358-63). He alleged that Christ was wrong in his prediction. The theory is based upon no substantial evidence, is an insult to the Son of God, and reflects a complete abandonment of respect for the inspiration of the Scriptures. It is rejected without further notice.

The “Catch-Up” Concept

A rather novel idea is that, in effect, Christ was saying this to his disciples. “You will not have finished your preaching in the cities of Israel until I come, that is, until I catch up with you.” In a word: “Hold on, men, I’m coming.” This view is a real stretch. Carson suggests that it grows out of the notion that Matthew 10:23 is tied to Luke 10:1 by that mysterious, never-discovered “Q” document, which, supposedly, lies behind these New Testament texts (p. 250). There is no reasonable basis for this theory. A prevailing case can be made for the idea that Matthew and Luke wrote independently, without relying upon any mythical “Q” narrative (see Thiessen, pp. 114ff). Besides, the reference in Luke 10:1 does not indicate that he eventually “overtook” them [the seventy ]; rather, they “returned” to him (10:17).

The Preterist Theory

The “radical preterist” view contends that Jesus’ promise to “come,” as indicated in Matthew 10:23, is a reference to the parousia (a Greek term commonly used for the second or final return of the Lord). Max King, for example, cites the passage repeatedly in his defense of the notion that Christ “never taught or intimated a parousia beyond the coming of the kingdom of God within the generation of lifetime of His disciples” (p. 344; emp. WJ). This has led to the bizarre notion that Christ literally “came” in A.D. 70, at which point occurred the resurrection of the dead, the judgment day, and the end of the world. For a more thorough review of this false dogma, see the author’s work, The A.D. 70 Theory — A Review of the Max King Doctrine.

The notion that this text alluded to the Second Coming is negated by the fact that the passage clearly implies that Christ knew when the “coming” of 10:23 would transpire. This is evidenced in that the Lord declared that the disciples would not be finished with evangelizing the cities of Israel before he “came.” On the other hand, he did not know when the event of his final coming would occur (Mt. 24:36). This coming, therefore, was not the Second Coming.

The Dispensational Notion

The dispensational presupposition argues that Matthew 10:23 relates to the end of time, particularly the so-called “Great Tribulation and the Second Coming” (Kent, p. 946; Barbieri, p. 42). Such a view completely divorces the passage from its immediate and localized context, such as the fact that this was an admonition to the apostles—and not directed to a generation several millenia removed from the first century. Ultimately, this theory results from a theological structure (dispensationalism) that is absolutely void of scriptural support, virtually from start to finish.

The Resurrection Hypothesis

Some respected scholars have supposed that when Christ said “until the Son of man comes,” he referred to his appearances to the disciples following his resurrection from the dead (Tasker, p. 108; Mounce, p. 96). The problem with this idea is that no such language (e.g., “the Son of man is come”) is employed of post-resurrection appearances, as important as those incidents were. Carson says this would be a most “odd use of the expression” (p. 251). He likewise points out that this theory, or even a slight modification of it, does not explain the “note of urgency” that is characteristic of the Savior’s admonition that the disciples are to hurry from city to city in view of the projected “coming.” This concept is not radically erroneous, as the previously noted theories are; it simply lacks sufficient supporting evidence.

The Kingdom Supposition

Another view, with somewhat stronger support (but not one of which we are persuaded) is that the “coming” of 10:23 has to do with the inauguration of the kingdom of Christ on the day of Pentecost (Cottrell, pp. 536, 542). In favor of this position is the fact that there is a sense in which the arrival of the kingdom was a “coming” of the Lord, that is, he came representatively, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn. 14:18), and in the manifestation of his regime. Listen to Matthew’s affirmation elsewhere: “Verily I say unto you, There are some of them that stand here, who shall in no wise taste of death, till they see the Son of man *coming in his kingdom”* (Mt. 16:28; emp. added). As intriguing as this may be, it still does not explain the “urgency” factor, and the context of perilous times that is so apparent in the Matthew text.

The Destruction of Jerusalem Case

The most compelling position, in this writer’s judgment, is that argued by numerous respectable scholars (e.g., J.W. McGarvey, Albert Barnes, F.F. Bruce, D.A. Carson, R.C.H. Lenski, Theodor Zahn, W.W. How, J. Barton Payne, etc.), namely that the “coming” event of Matthew 10:23 is the Roman invasion of Palestine, which occurred in A.D. 66-70. The following factors lend their weight to this view.

First, divine punishments are commonly referred to in the Bible as a “coming.”

(1) When Jehovah providentially sent the Babylonians to ravage the southern kingdom of Judah, Isaiah depicted the event as an invasion of the Lord himself (Isa. 13:2-5).

(2) Christ warned the erring churches of Ephesus and Pergamum that if they did not mend their rebellious ways, he would “come” and bring punishment upon them (Rev. 2:5, 16).

(3) God warned the Jews that he would send “his armies” to destroy those who murdered his Son, and cause their city to be burned (Mt. 22:7); this was to be accomplished by the Roman invasion. And it was represented as a “coming” of the Son of man in power and great glory (Mt. 24:30, 34; cf. Lk. 21:27, 32). For further consideration of this matter, see: “A Study of Matthew Twenty-Four”, elsewhere on this site.

Second, this event fits the “urgency” factor precisely. When the disciples were rejected by the Jews as they proclaimed the gospel, they were to flee from city to city in view of the coming destruction upon this dreadfully hateful nation. Even at that, they would not reach every city in Israel before the Roman “judgment” descended.

Third, there is the parallel evidence supporting this view. When one compares material from Matthew 10, with that found in Luke 21, it becomes apparent that, while the occasions are different, the same general theme is strikingly similar; there are unmistakably common elements in the Savior’s two warnings. Let us first take a broader look at Matthew 10.

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to councils, and in their synagogues they will scourge you; yea and before governors and kings shall ye be brought for my sake, for a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, be not anxious how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you. And brother shall deliver up brother to death, and the father his child: and children shall rise up against parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved. But when they persecute you in this city, flee into the next: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone through the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come” (vv. 16-23, ASV).

Now consider the material from Luke’s pen, chapter 21.

“But before all these things, they shall lay their hands on you, and shall persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for my name’s sake. It shall turn out unto you for a testimony. Settle it therefore in your hearts, not to meditate beforehand how to answer: for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to withstand or to gainsay. But ye shall be delivered up even by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolk, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake. And not a hair of your head shall perish. In your patience ye shall win your souls. But when ye see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that her desolation is at hand. Then let them that are in Judaea flee unto the mountains; and let them that are in the midst of her depart out; and let not them that are in the country enter therein. For these are days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. Woe unto them that are with child and to them that give suck in those days! for there shall be great distress upon the land, and wrath unto this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led captive into all the nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled. And there shall be signs in sun and moon and stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the billows; men fainting for fear, and for expectation of the things which are coming on the world: for the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these things begin to come to pass, look up, and lift up your heads; because your redemption draweth nigh” (vv. 12-28).

Here are some significant points of comparison.

(1) Both texts warn of an impending time of terrible persecution for the Lord’s disciples (Mt. 10:16; Lk. 21:12).

(2) Both passages affirm that persecution will come from the Jewish leaders, who will beat the Lord’s followers, even in their synagogues (Mt. 10:17; Lk. 21:12).

(3) Both texts declare that the disciples would be brought before governors and kings for the Savior’s sake (Mt. 10:18; Lk. 21:12).

(4) Both sections affirm that the disciples’ courage under persecution would turn out to be a compelling “testimony” in the interests of others (Mt. 10:18; Lk. 21:13).

(5) Both contexts declare that when the disciples are called upon to defend their case, they are not to be anxious about responding. Indeed, they are not to even think about preparation, for the appropriate words will be given to them by the Holy Spirit at the needed hour (Mt. 10:19-20; Lk. 21:14-15).

(6) Both texts warn that the coming crisis will be so great that even family members will yield to the temptation of delivering their loved ones over to the persecuting authorities (Mt. 10:21; Lk. 21:16).

(7) Both segments announce that the disciples will be hated by all men on account of Jesus’ sake (Mt. 10:22; Lk. 21:17).

(8) Both passages encourage endurance or patience, for deliverance will come eventually; there will be a “saving” or “redemption” for the Lord’s faithful (Mt. 10:22; Lk. 21:19).

(9) Both sections encourage the disciples that when the danger becomes life-threatening, they are to take flight (Mt. 10:23; Lk. 21:21f).

With these obvious parallels in mind, we now are ready to focus upon Matthew’s mysterious phrase, “till the Son of man comes” (10:23). The conscientious student asks: “What is the most likely meaning of this obscure phrase?” Luke’s conclusion is perfectly clear (and quite analogous to Matthew 24); Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies (the Romans) that will desolate the once-sacred city. Many Hebrews will fall by the sword; others will be taken captive. The revered city will be trodden down permanently (Lk. 21:20ff). There is no question. The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 is clearly the focus of this text.

In conclusion, let us remind ourselves of this well-known principle of biblical interpretation. When there are Scripture texts that treat the same general theme, and yet one passage is more obscure than the other, the more enigmatic text always is to be interpreted in the light of the clearer.

If we apply this principle to the situation at hand, it is reasonable to conclude that the phrase “till the Son of man comes” represents a “judgment” coming of the Savior upon the nation of Israel and the city of Jerusalem. It was a just punishment for their culminating act rebellion in rejecting their Messiah, the Son of God.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Barbieri, Jr., Louis A. (1983), The Bible Knowledge Commentary — New Testament, John Walvoord & Roy Zuck, Eds. (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books).
  • Carson, D.A. (1984), “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank Gaebelein, Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), Vol. 8.
  • Cottrell, Jack (2002), The Faith Once For All (Joplin, MO: College Press).
  • Kent Jr., Homer A. (1962), “Matthew,” The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Charles Pfeiffer & E.F. Harrison, Eds. (Chicago: Moody).
  • King, Max R. (1987), The Cross and the Parousia of Christ (Warren, OH: Privately Published).
  • Mounce, Robert (1991), New International Biblical Commentary — Matthew (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
  • Schweitzer, Albert (1911), The Quest for the Historical Jesus (London: A. & C. Black).
  • Tasker, R.V.G. (1961), The Gospel of Matthew — Tyndale Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
  • Thiessen, Henry C. (1955), Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.