“You will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23). What did Jesus mean?
Purpose of this article
Jesus, while sending His twelve disciples to preach on their own in the cities of Israel, said to them:
“whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23).
This seems to refer to His physical return, and seems to say that He will return soon; within a few decades from the time when He spoke. This statement has caused many to doubt the promise of His return. Over the years many different solutions have been offered for this perplexing passage. The purpose of this article is to determine the meaning of the phrase, “the Son of Man comes”.
Overview of Matthew 10
To appreciate the context, the reader should read the entire Matthew 10. The following is an extract from that chapter. Unless stated otherwise, all Bible quote are from the NASB:
Matthew 10:1 Jesus summoned His twelve disciples … 2 Now the names of the twelve apostles are these …
5 These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; 6 but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
7 And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers …
14 Whoever does not receive you … shake the dust off your feet. 15 Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city. …
17 But beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues;
18 and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they hand you over, do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say. 20 For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.
21 Brother will betray brother to death … and cause them to be put to death. 22 You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.
23 But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes.
Mission Instructions – Jesus made the statement in 10:23 after summoning His twelve disciples (v1) and sending them to go out to preach, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, and to cast out demons (v7, 8). Matthew 10 records His instructions. This was their first mission trip on their own. This must have been a short mission trip, for they were sent out in 11:1, but in 12:1 the disciples are back with Him. This event is also recorded in Luke 9.
Son of man – The title “the Son of Man” in 10:23 is the equivalent of ‘I’ (Mat. 8:20; 16:13). The expression “son of man” is a common Semitic way of indicating an individual man (Ps. 4:2; 57; 4; 58:1; 144:3; Jer. 49:18, 33; 50:40; 51:43). God addresses Ezekiel about ninety times by this title. In Dan. 7:13 the term is used to show that an actual man will come in the clouds of heaven to receive a worldwide kingdom. Jesus called Himself “the Son of man” eighty times in the Gospels. Note the definite article “the”; He is thé unique one and only Son of man.
Kingdom of heaven – Jesus told His disciples to “preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (v7). The “Kingdom of God” already exists. It has a King and laws and citizens, namely the believers. Today, on earth, it is invisible, but the statement that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” refers to a future event when it will become a visible reality. Since both the “kingdom of heaven” and the coming of the Son of man are near (10:7, 23), it is implied that the “kingdom of heaven” will become a visible reality when “the Son of Man comes”.
Below the following somewhat contradictory assertions are justified::
- “The Son of Man comes” refers to Christ’s physical end-of-time return.
- He will come soon.
- His disciples will suffer intense persecution prior to His coming.
- He will come for Israel exclusively.
Assertion 1: “The Son of Man comes” refers to Christ’s physical end-of-time return in power and with all His angels.
This is justified as follows:
Firstly, the exact same phrase “Son of Man comes” is found in two other places in the NASB, and both refer to His physical return:
“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.“ (Mt. 25:31-33)
“When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Here the phrase “Son of Man comes” refers to His movement from elsewhere to the earth.
Secondly, Jesus elsewhere also used phrases that are very similar to “the Son of Man comes”, and there also referred to His physical return:
“The Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds” (Mt. 16:27).
“If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3).
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26).
Thirdly, the New Testament, outside the gospels, use similar phrases, such as “Jesus … will come” (Acts 1:11), “the Lord comes” (1 Cor. 4:5) and “our Lord Jesus comes” (1 Thess. 3:13) to describe His physical return from heaven to this earth (Acts 1:11). “with all his holy ones” (1 Thess. 3:13), to “expose the motives of men’s hearts” (1 Cor. 4:5).
Lastly, Jesus also said that “the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (v22). The phrase “the end” is important. It does not refer to the end of a person’s life, but to “the End of the Age”. (Please see that article.) This is another indication that the “Son of Man comes” at the End of the Age.
In conclusion, the phrase “Son of Man comes” describes His return from heaven (John 14:3; Luke 18:8) “in His glory” “and all the angels with Him” to judge “all the nations”, and to take His people away with Him.
Assertion 2: He will come soon.
The following are indications that the “Son of Man comes” soon; that time is limited:
That is the meaning of the statement that “you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes”. Jesus did not say that they will not be able to reach every person; He said that they would not be able to reach every city. This would not require thousands of years.
The disciples are mentioned by name (vv2-4) and He gave them “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness” (v1). These instructions were therefore meant for these twelve disciples specifically. The “you” in verse 23, when Jesus said “you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes”, should therefore not be applied to His disciples in all ages.
As argued above, “the end” in verse v22 does not refer to the end of a person’s life, but to “the End of the Age”. If we understand these instructions as given to the twelve disciples specifically, then Christ’s statement that “the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (v22) also applies the twelve disciples specifically. Jesus thereby implied that some of the Twelve would remain until the End of the Age.
Mistaken – This assertion contradicts the first one. Many people simply conclude that Jesus made a mistake; He thought that He would return soon, but He was mistaken.
Task too large – Others try to reconcile the two assertions by arguing that Jesus simply meant that the task is so large and the laborers so few that the work will never be finished. Jesus said this about 2000 years ago, and even today, it is argued, many people in Israel have not heard the gospel. And there are people born every day in Israel that still need to hear. The work of Christ, even in Israel, will never be finished till He comes. However, as already mentioned, Jesus did not say that they will not be able to reach every person; He said that they will not be able to reach all “the cities of Israel”. To reach all these cities would not require thousands of years.
Assertion 3: His disciples will suffer intense persecution prior to His coming.
Jesus said, “they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues; and you will even be brought before governors and kings” (vv17-18).
Verse 23 starts with the words “whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next”. Only after this persecution will “the Son of Man come” (v23).
Catch Up – Matthew 11:1 reads, “when Jesus had finished giving instructions to His twelve disciples, He departed from there to teach and preach in their cities” (Mat. 11:1). Some therefore propose that the disciples were being sent out to prepare the cities in which Christ Himself was about to preach. What Jesus then meant by 10:23 is nothing as spectacular as Christ’s physical return, but simply that He would catch up with the Twelve before they have been able to visit all the cities, even if they move quickly from one town to the other. However, on the basis of the above, this proposal can be fairly easily disposed:
- Jesus never caught up with His disciples. We simply read in 12:1 that His disciples are again with Him.
- The disciples never experienced the form of persecution which Christ said they would, on that short mission trip. Christ’s followers first experienced such persecution after His death and resurrection.
- The evidence that “the Son of Man comes” refers to His physical return, is too strong.
Assertion 4: He will come for Israel exclusively.
There are also indications that, in Matthew 10, the “Son of Man comes” for Israel specifically, as opposed to His coming at the End of the Age for “all the nations” (Mat. 25:32):
Jesus explicitly told the Twelve not to go to the Gentiles, nor to the Samaritans, but only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v5, 6).
Verse 23 says “you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes”. The task for Israel will therefore not be finished before he comes. In contrast the task for the entire world will be finished: In the Little Apocalypse, where He described events until “the End of the Age” (Mt. 24:49), Jesus said, “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Mt. 24:14). This seems to imply two different comings in Matthew 10 and 24, and that “the Son of Man comes” in Matthew 10 for Israel exclusively.
A.D. 70 – This implies that it is Israel’s time specifically that is limited. Many commentators therefore propose that the Son of Man came in judgment on Israel in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Type – The current assertion may help us to reconcile the previous assertions:
In Matthew 10 Jesus gave instructions for their short term mission trip, but He included warnings about persecution which only became true after His death. It is therefore clear that Christ’s teachings were given at the time of the current mission trip, but part of it was not immediately relevant, but only had relevance in the longer term.
It may then be possible to argue that the destruction of Jerusalem was a type of the end-time destruction of the cities of the world. If that is true, then Jesus in Matthew 10:23 was simultaneously referring to both the destruction of Jerusalem and to His end-time physical return.
The Proposed Solution
Many other solutions have been proposed by Bible students. The proposals discussed above are intended to address the Matthew 10:23 conundrum specifically, but actually do not adequately solve the questions raised by that verse. In the article The Lord is coming soon it is shown that there are many other statements throughout the New Testament promising that Christ’s return will be soon. Other proposals, that attempt to address all these statements as a collective, as well as the solution proposed by this website, are discussed in the article Why did He Not Return in the First Century as promised?