Completing the cities of Israel before the second coming.

Matthew 10.23.

In the middle of Jesus’s Olivet Discourse, there’s this verse, only found in Matthew, which goes like yea.

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

Because translators tend to automatically convert any sentence with οὐ μὴ/u mi, “never,” into absolute statements (like Luke Skywalker’s “I’ll never join you; you killed my father!”) they dismiss all the subjunctive verbs Jesus uses in such statements. He said might never, but they translate it as if he said never.

Because people find comfort in absolutes. Especially when the absolutes promise ’em something they want. We want Jesus to return! (Well, most of us.) So here, Jesus promises, with “amen amen,” that his students might not have to be chased through every city in Israel before he returns for them. And Christians nowadays, who want Jesus to return already, are happy to grab this paragraph and claim, “See? All we gotta do is be chased from town to town in Israel, and before we’re done, Jesus’ll come!”

This passage, paired with others, has evolved into a couple different popular End Times claims:

  • Once every Israeli city has been properly evangelized, Jesus will return.
  • Once every last Jew on earth has heard the gospel at least once, Jesus will return.
  • Once every city on the planet has been evangelized, Jesus will return.
  • Once every human on earth has heard the gospel at least once, Jesus will return.

So if we really want Jesus to return—if we’re really serious about it, and aren’t just claiming we want the second coming, when really we just want temporal religious power over our neighbors—we’ll get to work on evangelizing all the Jews. Or evangelizing everybody. We’ll make him return.

And if any other Christians aren’t contributing to the effort, we’ll make ’em feel super guilty. “Yeah you say you want Jesus to return, but what’re you doing to evangelize the planet? I don’t see anything.”

But I remind you: Jesus used a subjunctive verb, τελέσητε/telésite, “you all might finish.” Might finish, not shall finish. This might happen. Or not.

If it’s a hypothetical statement, why does Jesus make a promise of it by beginning it with “Amen amen” (KJV “Verily”)? Because what he’s properly promising is the Son of Man will come. And he might do it before his apostles finish traveling the entirety of Israel… and he might do it after. Might do it long after. But regardless the second coming will happen.

As for when it happens, or what prefaces it… well we always gotta remember Jesus said this about his second coming:

Mark 13.32 KWL
But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.

Jesus didn’t know when he’d return. He had an idea of what might have to happen first, which is why he expressed what might have to happen first. Thing is, Christians want something more concrete than that: We wanna know what has to happen first. We want the timeline of events. We want to feel some sense of control over these events, and knowledge is power. But not even Jesus has that power. It happens when it happens; it’s not for us to know when. Ac 1.7 It’s for us to share Jesus. Ac 1.8 Including with all the cities of Israel. And the world.

How the mistranslation confuses people.

Let’s check out how the KJV translated it:

Matthew 10.23 KJV
But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.

Thanks to this rendering, this passage “is among the most difficult in the NT canon,” as stated by D.A. Carson in the 1984 edition of the Expositors Bible Commentary. Well duh: It’s profoundly likely Christians have thoroughly, thoroughly proclaimed Jesus to all the then-residents of Israel, achieved 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 pretty psycho); did it during the French occupation, and the British occupation, and during the newly-recreated state of Israel.

Israel has been overrun by Christian evangelists multiple times. Hence Christians have realized “Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come” can’t be interpreted the way we presume. Something’s off here.

Carson pitched a few theories, which I’ll summarize for your convenience:

  • Remember how Jesus sent out the Twelve, Lk 9.1 then the 72, Lk 10.1 to go preach the gospel? This is another case of that. He had them go round Israel again, but he said he’d catch up with them before they were done. This is about that, not the second coming.
  • “The Son of Man be come” doesn’t refer to the second coming, but of some other major revelation of Jesus as Messiah. Like his triumphal entry of Jerusalem, or his resurrection.
  • “The cities of Israel” aren’t literally Israel. It’s a metaphor for the whole world. We’ve gotta track down everybody on earth, figure out their language, and make sure they understand the gospel.
  • Jesus doesn’t know the date of his return, Mk 13.32 and he incorrectly assumed it’d take place in a few years. Whoops. His bad. (Or alternatively, it was gonna take place in a few years, but we did something to delay him, and thus nullified this prophecy. Our bad.)
  • This prophecy isn’t activated till the End Times. First the seven-year tribulation has to start, and then we gotta proclaim Jesus to all of Israel… who is, because of the Beast’s persecution of them, a lot more open to the idea of Jesus’s return. But we’ll barely finish going the rounds before the second coming.
  • “The Son of Man be come” isn’t the second coming, but the Lord’s judgment upon Jerusalem, which the Romans destroyed in the year 70.

Carson, and preterists like myself, tend to lean towards the last theory. After all, the Olivet Discourse was triggered by Jesus’s statement the temple would eventually come down, and how was that gonna happen? What events came first? So even though Jesus brought up his second coming, he was still primarily talking about Jerusalem’s destruction, and in the 17 years between his rapture and Jerusalem’s fall, there’d barely be enough time to evangelize Israel.

But I still remind you this is not Jesus’s declaration of what will happen, because Jesus lacked full knowledge. He didn’t know when he would return! Still doesn’t know. When he became human—and he’s still human, y’know; he didn’t shed some human suit when he took his seat at the right hand of the Father—he surrendered his power, and limited himself to the power of the Holy Spirit. Which ain’t nothing! But it means he only knows of the future what the Spirit shows him, and apparently the Spirit doesn’t want any human, Jesus included, to have a comprehensive knowledge of the future. For some of these events, he doesn’t want us to intervene. ’Cause we totally would—’cause we have our own ideas about how the End should play out. And they’re nowhere near as benevolent as God’s ideas. They’re a lot more petty and vengeful.

So yeah, Jesus was making an educated guess about what might happen before his return. Hence all the subjunctive verbs. Which our translations don’t show… because again, we have our own ideas about how the End should play out. And when Jesus spoke about the End, we don’t want to imagine him guessing. We want him knowing. We wanna tap his foreknowledge, so it can become our foreknowledge. We want it to be definite, so we can be masters of our destiny.

But that’s not for us to have. We’re to trust God. Ac 1.7 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.