Going city to city till the Son of Man comes.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 October 2022

Mt 10.23.

Today’s verse isn’t actually part of Jesus’s Olivet Discourse. But plenty of Christians think it is, and a number of Christians have shoehorned it into their End Times views.

In Matthew 10, Jesus sends out the Twelve in teams of two, to share the good news that God’s kingdom has come near, with Israeli towns. Mt 10.5-7 He instructs them on how they’re to do it, and to be wary because people can be awful. Mt 10.8-16 And then Jesus starts to say some stuff about the students getting persecuted.

Most scholars believe the synoptic gospels were written together thisaway: Mark was written in the late 50s, and Matthew and Luke quoted it for their gospels in the mid-60s. (Those who think Matthew was written by the Matthew in Jesus’s Twelve, and not by some different guy named Matthew, theorize Mark is a condensed version of Matthew… but if that’s true, Mark is garbage; he took out the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s great commission! Nah; other way round.)

Now. When Jesus talks about persecution, Matthew takes the verses from Mark’s version of the Olivet Discourse. Some of it’s word for word. It’s why I’ve been quoting these verses in my previous Olivet Discourse articles; it’s because they’re parallel. But in Mark, Jesus says it to only four students in his Olivet Discourse, and in Matthew, it’s to all the students as they prepare for their mission. Different contexts altogether.

Matthew 10.17-22 KWL
17 “Be aware of the people.
For they’ll hand you over to senates,
and have you flogged in their synagogues.
18 You’ll be brought before leaders and kings
for my sake, for testimonies of me, to people groups.
19 Whenever they hand you over,
don’t fret over how or what you should say,
for what you should say will be given to you
at that hour.
20 For you aren’t to be the speakers.
But your Father’s Spirit should be speaking in you.
12 Sibling will betray sibling to death,
and parent to child,
and children will revolt against forebears,
and put them to death.
13 You’ll be hated by everyone because of my name—
and this person will be saved
when they endure to the end.”

So… when did Jesus actually say it? At the Olivet Discourse, or years earlier when he sent out his students to evangelize?

Personally I don’t see why Jesus can’t have said the same thing twice. I’m sure he did! We all do. Dig through TXAB’s articles and you’re sure to find me repeating myself from time to time. I have a book of assorted C.S. Lewis articles which he wrote for various publications: Not only does he repeat certain ideas in multiple articles; you’re gonna find those ideas in his other books too. He had pet issues and ideas which he loved to talk about—or always felt he had to talk about. We all do. So does Jesus.

So Jesus certainly could’ve said this stuff dozens of times, and at the Olivet Discourse he simply said it again. But now let me get to the verse we find in Matthew which we don’t find in Mark or Luke—one which is wholly unique to Matthew’s gospel, and isn’t included in Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse either. It’s in chapter 10, not chapter 24.

Matthew 10.23 KWL
“When they persecute you in this city,
flee to another.
For amen!—I promise you,
you ought not complete the cities of Israel
before the Son of Man might come.”

In context, Jesus is talking about the Twelve at that time; however long they were meant to travel from Israeli city to Israeli city, sharing the gospel. Long enough to hit many of the cities by the time he caught up with them. Not all, but he didn’t expect them to finish. Although, since Jesus was using subjunctive verbs (“ought not complete” and “might come,” which indicate it’s likely, not definite) he allowed for the possibility that—who knows?—maybe they might get to all of ’em.

But as I said, Christians frequently ignore the context.

Bent into an End Times prophecy.

As I’ve said throughout the Olivet Discourse articles, many Evangelicals believe the Discourse is an End Times prophecy. It’s not. Jesus is foretelling how the Romans would destroy Jerusalem in the year 70. It’s not the End, though to Judeans of the day it absolutely felt like the End. (Same as it’d feel to you if your country were invaded, your major cities destroyed, and millions of your fellow citizens crucified along every major road.) But since today’s average Christian knows nothing of the Roman-Jewish War, they don’t realize the Discourse was fulfilled 19 centuries ago—and “prophecy scholars” can easily convince ’em the great tribulation is yet to come.

These “prophecy scholars” are constantly on the lookout for bible verses which support their crackpottery. Few care at all about context. Any iffy, illegitimate reason to use a verse will totally do for them. Matthew 10.17-22, though it’s not part of the Olivet Discourse, uses the very same words as the Olivet Discourse in Mark and Luke. Therefore, to these “scholars,” it’s actually an End Times prophecy. Not just the verses that are parallel to the Olivet Discourse; all of it. Some of ’em actually try to find End Times tropes in the verses where Jesus tells his kids to not bring money, a bag, extra clothes, or a staff, Mt 10.9-10 and claim, “See, when Christians have to flee the Beast’s secret police during the End Times, they shouldn’t bother with luggage or money; that stuff’s just gonna weigh them down.” No it’s not even about that, but like I said, any iffy reason will do.

Verse 23 doesn’t have a parallel in the other gospels. It’s only found in Matthew. And yet because it’s next to verse 22, which does have a parallel in Mark 13.13 and Luke 21.17, 19, the “prophecy scholars” will insist it should be part of the Olivet Discourse anyway, and must be an End Times prophecy. After all, verse 23 refers to when “the Son of Man might come,” and that’s gotta mean the second coming, right? Right? Obviously.

Okay. First of all, Jesus called himself the Son of Man constantly. Yes, the phrase comes from an apocalypse in Daniel, and Jesus is using it on purpose: “Hey, y’know that guy who receives the everlasting kingdom from the Ancient of Days? That’s me.” But it doesn’t automatically follow that whenever Jesus speaks of himself in the third person as “the Son of Man,” he’s making an End Times statement. Including when he speaks of the Son of Man coming and going. You’re not telling me this is an End Times prophecy, are you?—

Matthew 11.19 KJV
The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.

In Matthew 10.23, when Jesus states the Son of Man might come, he’s not talking about the second coming. He’s talking about picking up his students after their mission. He’s talking, once again, as usual, about the near future. By the time he comes to collect them—not rapture them—he doesn’t expect them to have evangelized every last Israeli city.

Thus far it’s been 19 centuries, nearly 20, since the first Christian Pentecost. In that time, have Christians hit up every last Israeli city with the gospel? You bet your bippy we have—and the ancient Christians probably did that first! And we’ve done it ever since. Christians have thoroughly, thoroughly proclaimed Jesus to all the residents of Israel, and did it again at multiple times throughout Christian history. Did it after the Roman Empire became Christian. Did it during the Crusades (even though our methods of evangelism at the time were psycho). Did it during the French occupation, and the British occupation, and during the newly-recreated state of Israel. There are still Christians, both inside and outside the state of Israel, who make it their mission to share Jesus with every single Jew—for all sorts of reasons, valid and not.

Emeritus theology professor D.A. Carson stated in the 1984 edition of the Expositors Bible Commentary this passage is “among the most difficult in the NT canon.” Mostly because of all his contemporaries who insist it’s an End Times prophecy, who insist we Christians have gotta finish evangelizing Israel. And since Israel’s been so thoroughly preached to, maybe Jesus meant all the Israeli cities outside the land of Israel; maybe that includes all the cities round the world with substantial Jewish populations. Like New York City, which has more Jews than Tel Aviv and Jerusalem combined. Like Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia; the United States has more Jews than Israel does. (As of 2022, 7.15 million Jews in the U.S., 6.98 million in Israel.) Although it’d be hard to claim Americans haven’t heard the gospel.

Carson’s belief is “the Son of Man might come” doesn’t refer to the End, nor when Jesus caught up with his students, but the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Meh; the only way it would’ve taken 40 years for Jesus’s students to share the gospel with all of Israel, is if they were extremely lazy. Word of mouth travels faster than that! Carson’s bucking the trend in Evangelical circles by claiming it’s not an End Times prophecy; it’s an Olivet Discourse prophecy. But it’s in Matthew 10, not 24, remember?—it’s not in the Olivet Discourse. In context it’s about what might happen to the apostles on this mission. Not in the great tribulation; certainly not in the End Times.

This verse only becomes a bible difficulty when you rip it out of its context and try to force it where it doesn’t belong. Heck, every verse becomes a “bible difficulty” when we do that! So let’s not.

“Gotta evangelize everybody!”

I said Christians make it our mission to share Jesus with every individual Jew, for reasons valid and not. The valid reason is we need to share Jesus with everybody, period. And since Jesus is king of Israel, stands to reason we oughta particularly share the good news with Jews. Their Messiah has come!—they don’t need to look for him anymore, for his kingdom has come near. Repent and believe the good news! Mk 1.15

The not-so-valid reason comes from those Christians who think Jesus’s return is contingent upon sharing the gospel with every Israeli. Where do they get that idea? Um… this very verse we’ve been talking about. Matthew 10.23. “You ought not complete the cities of Israel before the Son of Man might come”—so in order to ensure the Son of Man returns, they’ve taken it upon themselves to finish the apostles’ job, and evangelize every last Jew.

Now, verse 23 doesn’t say every last Jew. It only says “the cities of Israel.” These overzealous evangelists have added to Jesus’s words—and think they’ve discovered a magic formula for triggering the rapture.

Other End Times prognosticators figure verse 23 is a confirmation of a different verse—which is in the Olivet Discourse, and which I’ll discuss once we get to it.

Matthew 24.14 KJV
“This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed to every civilization
for a witness to all the people-groups.
And then the end will arrive.”

To these folks, “the cities of Israel” is a metaphor for “every civilization”—it’s not just every last Israeli who has to hear the gospel, but every last human. And again they’ve added to Jesus’s words: He doesn’t say every individual person, but every civilization. Every people-group. Every collective. Are there any people-groups left which we Christians haven’t reached with the gospel? Well, many a missionary is trying to make absolutely sure we made contact with them all. ’Cause again: They think it’ll trigger the rapture.

Okay. Jesus says it’s not for us to know when he’s returning to conquer the world. Ac 1.7 That’s to be determined by the Father—and therefore it’s not determined by us Christians ticking off all his boxes for him. True, every people-group oughta be told about Jesus. Let’s say we complete that mission, reach every civilization—even reach every individual—and now everyone’s fully aware we Christians believe there’s a second coming. Good job folks; I knew you had it in you. But must Jesus immediately return right that second? Nah. Not if he’s got some more setup to do.

And he might yet have years of setup. Maybe centuries! He might be waiting for a majority of a certain people to embrace him. Or he might be waiting for the warm fuzzy feelings to wear off, and for those who didn’t really mean it when they said the sinner’s prayer, to quit faking it and get out of his churches. Or maybe he’s waiting for them to repent. Or waiting for his church to stop condemning our neighbors and love ’em for once. Or anything. God didn’t share all his criteria for a second coming; he’ll do it when he’s good ’n ready.

Meanwhile we oughta get ready. Our job is to stop fretting about the End and trust God to sort it out. He knows what’s coming, and what he’s doing. Our job is to simply share Jesus with Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the rest of the planet. Ac 1.8 Be okay with the fact Jesus isn’t telling us everything. He’s Lord; he doesn’t have to.