Did Jesus say He would come before His disciples evangelized Palestine? What did Jesus mean when he said this? Was he being cryptic or speaking plainly?
Mat 10:23 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 [erchomai].
This saying of Jesus has undergone much speculation and critique. Mostly because, as we shall see, people do not want to accept the plain meaning of what Jesus says. In this verse, Jesus indicated when He, or his Presence, would “come” to his disciples before they evangelized all the towns of Palestine. People squirm, evade and want to get away from the plain meaning of this text. I suspect that this is because either, they do not understand, and therefore, do not want to recognize Jesus’ 70AD Parousia or coming in judgment on Jerusalem AS the Coming of the Son of Man. Or, it is because they recognize that, indeed, Jesus DID SAY that He would do that here. But then, again, for the same reason, they assume Jesus was WRONG. Or, some have hoped for a “double fulfillment” of Jesus’ words here. But this is a forced and unnatural rendering for which I have yet to see a Biblical, rather than a merely emotional, case.
But let’s look at the verse, and deal with what is written. Let’s set aside for a moment, what we “wish” Jesus said, and just deal with what he DID say. The word for “come” that Jesus uses here is erchomai. It means to come or make one’s appearance. It is the same word that Jesus and others use to describe the “coming” of the Son of Man elsewhere. We can safely conclude that this reference to the coming of the Son of Man is the same event here as it is elsewhere. This would be when Jesus would come into his Kingdom among us, when he would come to his eagerly waiting disciples. When He would come and consummate the Old Covenant Age.
Who was Jesus speaking to here? His disciples, or all people for all time, or a specific group of people thousands of years and miles away? Judging by the context, and the words written, Jesus is speaking to his then-living disciples.
This is the first direct overture, of several, that Matthew will record Jesus telling his disciples WHEN he would come to them. Jesus tells them when He would come several times, in several ways, all pointing to the same general time-frame. Because the subject of this verse in Matthew chapter 10 better fits the topic talked about more in depth in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Matthew chapter 24, some scholars have wondered if Matthew is relaying a conversation from the Olivet Discourse out of chronological order. In the Olivet Discourse, the disciples ask Jesus directly when He will return and Jesus gives them a dozen signs that would precede the destruction of Jerusalem and his coming, which seem to be synonymous events. And then Jesus makes the Generation Promise to them, promising them that His coming will be toward the end of their generation, or in about 40 years (Mt 24:34). So whether or not this verse in discussion was recorded out of order, it is significant that it is in harmony with Jesus’ more detailed talk on the matter.
In Mt 10:23, the way Jesus words it is that He would come before his disciples finished bringing the Good News through the towns of Israel. Israel is a small area (about 150 miles long and an average of 40 miles wide). It wouldn’t take very long for dozens of evangelists to make their way through it. It would probably take no more than two or three decades to start churches in nearly every ancient town in Palestine. Certainly it wouldn’t take 2000 years!
Plus, if Jesus didn’t mean, plainly, to give his disciples a time indicator that they could readily understand, then what would be the point of His giving one at all? It would make no sense. It would be only confusing to them, and God does not author confusion, and Jesus spoke words from God. It certainly wouldn’t be loving to knowingly confuse them. And it wouldn’t be authoritative to say something vague. Leave that for the false prophets. This is Jesus we’re talking about – the embodiment of love and AUTHORITY. Jesus was trying to gain credibility for the sake of the Kingdom. There is no room for error in His mission.
Thinking contextually, if I was Jesus’ disciple, hearing him say this, it would be comforting and confirming to know he was being consistent with all of his other plainly spoken time-indicators. Jesus said that He would come before all his disciples died (Mt 16:28), His coming would be in conjunction with the destruction of the then-standing Temple in Jerusalem (Mt 24, Mk 13, Lk 21), He would come before His generation of disciples passed away (Mt 24:34) and even before John died (Jn 21:22). These are each pointing to a time that was about 40 years down the road. So Jesus’ statement in Mt 10:23 was consistent with his entire message as recorded in all four Gospels. The Gospel message went out, John stayed alive, the destruction of the Temple occurred, the law and it’s elements finally passed away 40 years later. All of this was in sync with the letters of the Apostles as well. Coincidence or authoritative prophet?
Here is what scholar Dr. A.B. Bruce says about this passage, “The coming alluded to is the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jewish nation; and the meaning is, that the apostles would barely have time, before the catastrophe came, to go over the land warning the people to save themselves from the doom of an untoward generation; so that they could not well afford to tarry in any locality after its inhabitants had heard and rejected the message.” 1 This is why Jesus told them that when someone rejects their message, they should shake the dust off their feet and move on.
1. (Russell, J.S., The Parousia (London: Baker Books, 1887) p. 29.