This passage belongs to the coming of the kingdom, but it is emphasizing a certain aspect of this kingdom that comes in various stages. And part of this kingdom is judgment, particularly judgment upon Jerusalem and the nation of Israel. In light of this, the most plausible understanding of this passage is that it is a reference to Jesus coming in a form of judgment upon Israel—specifically in AD 70. Jesus repeatedly foretold the judgment that would befall Israel in the Gospel of Matthew (21:1-22; 21:28–22:14; 23:29-36; 23:37–24:1), and it seems that this fits that theme. Jesus is referring to the fact that He would come and bring destruction upon the nation that rejected Him.
One of the more challenging passages in the New Testament is Matthew 10:23, where Jesus tells His disciples:
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. (ESV)
This verse is rooted in the context of Jesus sending out the twelve. So the question arises—to what time was Jesus referring? There have been a variety of exegetical conclusions made about this passage, and the purpose of this article will be to look at the different understandings and provide our own analysis of the text.
Matthew 10:23 places us in the middle of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. In the beginning of chapter 10, Jesus commissions the twelve disciples and sends them out by twos to minister without Him. They are given instructions not to go outside of Galilee or the Jewish people (Matthew 10:5-6). The purpose for the restriction to only the Jewish people, the “house of Israel” (οἶκου Ἰσραήλ), seems to be redemptive-historical. Jesus limited the disciples’ mission for a time, but He Himself went deliberately to the Gentile areas in order to prepare His disciples for their later universal mission.
The content of the disciples’ message was the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven by which they would call men to repentance and confirm their message by various signs and wonders (Matthew 10:8). They were to be supported by those to whom they ministered, and they were not required to bring additional provisions for their journey. Jesus instructed them to bless the houses that welcomed them but to shake the dust off their feet when they were rejected. Those who would reject them were unworthy of the gospel of the kingdom, and the disciples did not have to cast their pearls before such swine.
In Matthew 10:16-23, Jesus expands His discussion not only to the immediate mission, but to the universal mission of the church. In this text, He prophetically warns His followers of the severe opposition and rejection they will face. They will be delivered over to the courts, flogged in the synagogues, and dragged before governors and kings to bear “witness before them and the Gentiles” (10:18). These prophetic warnings were amply fulfilled in sacred church history (Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-41; 6:12-8:3; 12:1-19; 16:19-40; 21:27-28:31), as well as later church history. Jesus encouraged the disciples to not worry in those times because He would give them the Holy Spirit who would speak through them. They would not be left without a comforter and guide. The Spirit of God would empower them to proclaim the gospel boldly. Jesus’ discussion on division within families (Matthew 10:21-22) describes a scene where things get progressively worse, where followers of Christ will be pressured from all sides to deny the Christ. And it is here in this immediate context that we come upon this peculiar text where Jesus tells his disciples that they will not finish going through the towns of Israel until He comes (10:23).
Different Interpretations of Matthew 10:23
In his commentary on Matthew, D. A. Carson lists at least seven different interpretations of this passage. It is not our purpose here to interact with all of them but to briefly survey some of the most popular views.
First, there are some who have advocated that Jesus is simply telling the disciples that they would not go through all of the cities until He came back to them. In other words, Jesus was referring to the moment that He would rejoin them after the immediate mission. However, this view is problematic at least for two reasons. First, although Jesus discusses the immediate mission of the disciples in 10:6-15, verses 16-22 discuss a broader scope of mission. These verses include persecution and other themes that suggest a time beyond the immediate mission of the twelve. To place verse 23 back into the discussion of the immediate mission is to misplace it contextually. Second, to follow this line of reasoning (that verse 23 is a reference to Jesus’ rejoining the disciples after the immediate mission), then it is hard to see how verses 16-22 of chapter 10 are fulfilled. There is little, if any, evidence to suggest that the disciples faced extreme persecution during that mission. The flow of the context, and the fact that no indication of persecution took place during this time, renders this view unlikely.
Second, others have interpreted this “coming of the Son of Man” as a reference to Jesus’ public identification as the Messiah at the resurrection. John Calvin connected Jesus’ coming to His aiding the disciples in their mission to Judea by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is true that Jesus does discuss His “coming” through the work and power of the Holy Spirit—particularly in the Gospel of John (see John 14:18; 16:16, 22). However, this view does not seem to be the best interpretation. It does consider the persecution to some degree, but it fails to address the urgency in the text—“truly I say to you” (ἀμήν γάρ λέγω). In addition, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, which occurred before much of the persecution of the disciples took place—effectively arguing for the opposite of what Matthew 10:23 says, that persecution would come first and then the Son of Man would come. Finally, it is important to note that the person of the Holy Spirit is not a major theme in the Gospel of Matthew, thus making this interpretation less likely to be correct.
A third and prominent view of this passage is to look at it from a future eschatological perspective, so that in some way Jesus was referring to His second coming. Some advocates would actually see a double fulfillment, in that Jesus was speaking in a form of prophetic shorthand. There is certainly some warrant for this interpretation because we have numerous examples in the Old Testament prophets of this kind of prophecy. However, just because there are examples of double fulfillment does not mean that every passage in question must be viewed in this way. It is difficult to infer that this is the case here. For one thing, Jesus is speaking to the disciples and their experience when they are enduring persecution.