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As believers in the internal consistency of Scripture, we’re often troubled when we read passages that seem to contradict other texts. For example, three times in the New Testament Gospels, Jesus makes a solemn prediction that at first glance seems like he thinks his second coming will take place before all his first followers have died (Mark 9:1; 13:30; Matt. 10:23).
This would obviously be a problem had Jesus predicted such a thing—both for historical and theological reasons. However, if we consider these passages closely, we will find that there are reasonable explanations for all three. Since Matthew 10:23 is the most difficult, we will spend most of our time on it.
Mark 9:1: Anticipating His Transfiguration
In Mark 9:1 and its parallels (Matt. 16:28; Luke 9:27), Jesus promises that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
Yet the very next event in Mark is the transfiguration, which Jesus’s three closest disciples witness, so he may well have that in mind. The fact that the transfiguration is dated as “six days after” this promise seems to confirm this interpretation, as does Peter’s description of the transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:16–18.
Mark 13:30: Predicting Jerusalem’s Destruction
In Mark 13:30, Jesus declares that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” “These things” presumably refers to what he has just been describing, and in verses 24–27 he has described his return. Still, he has also spoken of “these things happening” in verse 29 as the clue to recognizing that his return is near, and it would make no sense for him to say, in essence, “Once you see I’ve returned, know that I’m near.”
“These things” in verses 29–30 must therefore refer to the events described in verses 5–23, all of which can be understood to have been at least provisionally fulfilled in the years between Jesus’s death (most likely AD 30) and the destruction of the temple in AD 70—a 40-year period, or a generation.
Matthew 10:23: Interrupting the Apostles’ Brief Missions Trip?
The hardest passage to decipher is Matthew 10:23. In verses 5–42, Jesus is teaching the Twelve about what to expect as they travel around Israel to replicate his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing: “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 10:23).
It seems like Jesus thinks his second coming will happen within a matter of weeks or months.
It seems like Jesus thinks his second coming will happen within a matter of weeks or months. Will he be killed and resurrected, go away into heaven and then return, all during the comparatively short period of time that the apostles are on the road proclaiming the good news of the kingdom within Israel? This seems highly unlikely. If it weren’t for the other two passages we discussed, this idea might never have even occurred to anyone. But what then does he mean?
Perhaps Jesus meant he would meet up with the Twelve again somewhere before they’d completed their mission. That would be the simplest answer. “Son of Man,” after all, is Jesus’s favorite self-designation and could be just a synonym for “I” (cf. Matt. 8:20).
But “Son of Man” in the Gospels regularly harkens back to the “one like a son of man” (a human being) in Daniel 7:13–14, who comes on the clouds of heaven to God himself and receives universal, everlasting authority over the earth. Every other time Jesus speaks of the Son of Man coming, he refers to his return in glory (in Matthew alone, see 16:27, 28; 24:27, 30, 37, 39, 44; 25:31; 26:64).
This observation makes the “meeting up with the apostles before their mission trip was over” interpretation unlikely, along with various other interpretations. For example, some have suggested that the coming of the Son of Man could refer to Jesus’s resurrection, to his sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, or to his invisible coming in judgment against Israel with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Sometimes interpreters have tried to strengthen their case for one of these by reinterpreting one or more of the other occurrences of the Son of Man’s coming in Matthew in the same way.
A better approach pays more attention to the larger context of verse 23 within Jesus’s discourse on mission in Matthew 10.
For starters, verses 5–15 seem limited to the immediate circumstances of Jesus sending out the Twelve without accompanying them. Many of the teachings in these 11 verses cannot refer to the longer-term mission of Jesus’s followers. Most notably, Jesus rescinds the restriction to going nowhere among Samaritans and Gentiles but only to the lost people in Israel (vv. 5–6) when he gives his Great Commission (Matt. 28:19–20). Nor is it likely that Jesus intended his followers to never take money or extra provisions with them (vv. 9–10) in their later missionary activity, nor always to rely on others’ hospitality for their room and board (vv. 11–12). As far into his message as verse 15, he is still speaking of literal towns in first-century Israel.
In verse 16, however, he transitions to a longer-term perspective. While it is perennially true that Christ’s followers should be as “shrewd as snakes” yet “as innocent as doves” (v. 16), this is particularly appropriate for their ministry after his death and resurrection. Verses 17–42 are regularly punctuated by warnings against rejection, persecution, hostility, arrest, imprisonment, beatings and even martyrdom for allegiance to Jesus (see esp. vv. 17–23a, immediately preceding our mysterious half-verse). Most of this didn’t begin until after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and sending of the Spirit, and it has continued in various parts of the world ever since.
The Great Commission to make disciples of all nations includes Israel just as much as the rest of the world’s nationalities.
Since verse 23b appears in this precise context, within the same verse as prediction of persecution, it’s best to understand Jesus as teaching the perennially incomplete nature of the mission to the Jews, with “cities of Israel” understood both literally and (by extension) to refer to all Jewish people everywhere. After all, the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations (or people groups) includes Israel just as much as the rest of the world’s nationalities.
So the practical upshot of Matthew 10:23 is simply to get busy. Until the Son of Man comes, all of us who bear his name have more work to do.