That’s a puzzling verse, spoken when Jesus commissioned his twelve disciples to go out on a short-term mission trip and then come back. It seems as though the Second Coming will happen before they preach in all the towns of Israel. How do we solve this problem?
In its context, the verse does not mean an ongoing mission two thousand years later. He meant it for the twelve while they were alive.
All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted. You are encouraged to see other translations at biblegateway.com.
This post is adapted from my larger translation and commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, which is part of my larger translation and commentary on the NT, free and easily accessible online to everyone, particularly to people all around the globe who cannot afford or do not have access to Study Bibles or commentary sets.
For I tell you the truth: you will not complete the towns of Israel until the Son of Man comes. (Matt. 10:23)
The Greek is emphatic. “You will in no way complete” or “You will certainly not complete.” I could also insert the phrase for clarity: “You will not complete (going through) the towns” …. and the future past: “You will not have completed (going through) the towns” ….
The clause “for I tell you the truth” is a solemn declaration.
What does it mean that the disciples won’t complete their task of going through all the towns in Israel before the Son of Man comes? The best solution is related to Matt. 26:64, where Jesus proclaims before Caiaphas the high priest and the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish Court and Council in Judaism, that from now on they will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven. This confession refers to the Son of Man in Dan. 7:13-14, when he comes in clouds of heaven:
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14, NIV)
The Ancient of Days is God. Jesus was about to ascend and be enthroned on high, sitting next to God. So his coming here in v. 23 refers to his ascension and enthronement. It is simply a fact that the disciples did not complete their task of going through the towns of Israel before this “coming” happened. Jesus was granted authority over heaven and earth (28:18), before the disciples completed their mission. This makes the most sense of v. 23 in light of Dan. 7:13-14.
France and Carson interpret v. 23 in this way, though Carson expands the coming to mean the partial coming of the kingdom, which is a dynamic concept, and not just to the Son of Man’s ascension and vindication and then fall of Jerusalem in judgment.
Against this background [of the eschatological judge and because the messianic reign is now dawning in both blessing and wrath] the coming of the Son of Man in v. 23 marks that stage in the coming of the kingdom in which judgment repeatedly foretold falls on the Jews. With it the temple cultus [ritual worship] disappears, and the new wine necessarily takes to new wineskins … The age of the kingdom comes into its own, precisely because so many of the structured foreshadowings of the OT, bound up with the cultus and the nation, now disappear … The Son of Man comes. (p. 293)
Therefore, both the ascension and enthronement—and the coming kingdom are in view here. (See 12:28, which says that if Jesus expels demons by the Spirit of God, the kingdom has come upon the people of his generation.)
As usual, France is insightful, so his comments deserve to be read in full.
It is widely agreed that the wording of these passages is based on Dan. 7:13, … Daniel’s vision is of one who is brought before God’s throne in heaven and there given an everlasting kingdom over all peoples. … In Dan. 7:13-14 the “Son of Man” comes before God to be enthroned as king. There is nothing in the imagery of Daniel to suggest a coming to earth, as Christian interpretation has traditionally found in these passages; he comes in the clouds of heaven to God. The verb used both in Daniel and in the NT allusions is the very ordinary verb “come,” which is not related to the more technical term for Jesus’ eschatological return, parousia. The term parousia in fact occurs only four times in the gospels, all in Matt. 24, where we shall see that that future parousia is carefully distinguished from the “coming in the clouds in heaven” described in Matt. 24:30. (p. 396, emphasis original)
See my comments on Matt. 24 and 25 for how the coming-in-judgment on the temple and the parousia (Second Coming) interrelate, but are different.
Matt 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 (and 17) in Parallel Columns Are Finally Clear
Then these two posts go into much more detail:
Matthew 24:4-35 Predicts Destruction of Jerusalem and Temple
Matt. 24:36 to 25:46–From Second Coming to New Messianic Age
Also see my post that defines parousia:
It basically means “arrival,” in this case when the Son of God arrives to the earth. In contrast, the coming in 10:23 means his coming towards the Father in heaven.
Then France encourages a second look at the standard Christian interpretation of the “coming” of Jesus in similar contexts to that of 10:23. He says:
This means that, despite centuries of later Christian tradition, when the gospels speak of “The Son of Man coming,” the presumption must be that they are speaking not of eschatological parousia but of heavenly enthronement, the vindication and empowering of the Son of Man after his earthly rejection and suffering, when God will turn the tables on those who thought they had him in their power. … “The coming of the Son of Man” is thus not a description of a particular historical event but evocative language to depict his eventual vindication and sovereign authority. (pp. 396-97)
So the bottom line of v. 23 is that the Son of Man’s coming refers not to his Second Coming to earth, but to his coming in the clouds towards his Father, which happened at Jesus’ ascension, when the Father vindicated his Son, after he had unjustly suffered at the hands of men. It is not his descent, but ascent and enthronement. However, I add that sometimes Jesus does talk about his earth-changing Second Coming. Context will have to guide us.
And it is this coming that explains Jesus’s seemingly out-of-sequence or missed or odd chronology in v. 23.
And yes, the ongoing mission to Israel must still go on, but that is not the original context of this verse.
So how does this post help me know Scripture better?
We now have to read Scripture in its own context and not assume that every time we see the word “coming” in the Gospels, it automatically means his Second Coming, though sometimes it does.
Rather, the main point of this post is that v. 23 does not refer to the grand and glorious Second Coming when the whole earth will be overtaken and changed. Instead, the disciples will not complete their mission before the Son of Man comes–ascends (not descends)–before his Father on his throne. After his resurrection, according to Dan. 7:13-13, Jesus will “come” and take his seat on the right hand of the Father, at the Son’s enthronement.
What Jesus Told High Priest and Sanhedrin Now Makes Sense
“Some Shall Not Experience Death until They See Son of Man Coming”
Carson, D. A. Matthew: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. Ed. by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Vol. 9. (Zondervan, 2010).
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Eerdmans 2007).