A good friend of mine recently called to ask me about a perplexing passage in Matthew. We discussed the issue at some length, and I gave what I thought was a fair interpretation. After some healthy give and take, he was like, “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” And that was it.
But that wasn’t it. I had that uncomfortable gnawing feeling, as if I had just made the incorrect call as a referee in a ball game. And it stayed with me. So I soon found myself pondering the issue while walking the mail, chewing and thinking, mulling over the text over and over again. “What does it mean?” I kept asking myself. Round and round went the thoughts.
It happened over my lunch break, while eating some oatmeal cookies at McDonalds (3 for a dollar! Hard to beat!), when the answer hit me. And it felt right... and it continues to feel right.
So now I’m here, talking to you, wondering if you’ve ever wrestled with Matthew 10:23. Perhaps the following explanation will prove helpful. Or maybe, perhaps, you’ll tell me to keep thinking; to try again. It would provide a good excuse to keep eating those cookies, at least.
So here’s my thought.
First, the passage.
“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)
Now here’s the email I recently sent my friend (with the beginning chopped down, as those details aren’t relevant here).
Jonathan, I’ve had a change of mind!
(Stuff is chopped out here).
Here’s what I now think.
The thing that kept bothering me was the connection between verse 23a and 23b, namely, the idea of fleeing to another city and the impending arrival of the Son of Man. Why say that? What is the logical connection between them? The “For” is intriguing, to say the least.
For example, it would make sense if Jesus said, “And when they persecute you, flee elsewhere, for you should be concerned about saving your neck.” That would provide an apparent connection between part (a) and (b). But it doesn’t say that, obviously. Instead, the idea of the Son of Man coming is linked with fleeing to another city. But again, why? What is the connection?
Two things stand out in my mind. First, why does Jesus say “Son of Man” here? And secondly, what message were the disciples supposed to preach (in Matthew 10)? Regarding the content of their message, they were to preach “that the Kingdom of God is at hand” (vs. 7). Interestingly, the title “Son of Man” is firmly rooted in Daniel, and it’s inextricably linked with the coming of the kingdom. Consider Daniel 7:13-14:
"I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”
So how does this relate to Matthew 10? Imagine you’re a first century Jew following Christ, and you’ve just been commissioned to go out to the sheep of Israel, preaching that the kingdom of God is at hand. “It’s coming soon!” was the message. Jesus then warns that you’re going to face opposition. And when you do, shake the dust off your feet and move on. Others need to hear. In fact, the kingdom is so near, stresses Jesus, that the Son of Man will come before you have time to make it through all the cities of Israel!
But wait a minute! Am I saying that Christ’s Second Coming was in view? Not exactly. I think He was stressing the arrival of the kingdom, which is bound up with the concept “Son of Man,” which the disciples would have certainly have understood. In fact, just think of Jesus’ triumphal entry. They were waving palm branches and expecting the Messiah to crush Roman oppression. What they didn’t expect, however, but should have, was that the kingdom was going to be inaugurated through the Messiah’s death! That truly ushered in the kingdom! Think Psalm 2 and Psalm 110. Christ’s resurrection and ascension marked His kingly ascent. He is King of kings and Lord of lords.
Think also of the disciple’s ignorance of the Second Coming, as we now understand it. Before the cross, which of course is true of Matthew 10, they wouldn’t have had the foggiest idea of a Second Coming. They thought His being there was the final coming. He was the Messiah, after all. So for Jesus to be referring to the Second Coming, when He says “before the Son of Man comes,” would be strange indeed. It makes much better sense to suppose that He would speak in terms they would understand... even if their dullness prevented their understanding it (which certainly happened). And besides, the Second Coming didn’t happen in the first century.
So what does “Son of Man” mean in that text? I think it should be connected with the Kingdom of God. Given the context, it makes very good sense. And given the fact that Jesus died, rose again and ascended before all the cities of Israel had been reached, which inaugurated, in a definitive way, the Kingdom of God, it allows us to fully preserve the first century reference, which the context seems to demand. At the same time, the already/not yet nature of NT eschatology, which is a clear NT doctrine, is likewise upheld. The Kingdom did come, but it is also awaiting consummation.
So while I think the destruction of Jerusalem makes very good sense elsewhere, it suffers the same problems as the Second Coming supposition. I don’t think 70 AD is what Jesus had in mind in Matthew 10:23.
A few other things could be said, but I think I’ve rambled on long enough :-)
In a nutshell, I think this is what Matthew 10:23 is saying:
My paraphrase: “When they persecute you, don’t waste your time there. Move on! Go to the next city. Time is of the essence. In fact, the Son of Man is so at hand, which you know means the coming of the Kingdom of God, it’s going to arrive before all the cities are covered.”
And when Jesus rose victorious, it happened.
See also Daniel 2:44-45.
My two cents,