Context is important if we are to understand events in ordinary life. In the same way, context is critical to understanding the Bible. By ignoring context, some misunderstand Matthew 10: 23. They erroneously claim that Jesus predicted an event that did not happen, and then incorrectly conclude that Jesus was a false prophet.
Matthew 10:23 reads. "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." The last part of the verse is a prophetic statement that has proven true up to the present time. If the current situation changed before the return of Christ, then the prophecy would fail.
What, then, is the context for Matt 10:23? Matthew 10 begins with the selection of twelve men from among those who follow Jesus. Jesus picks these men, whom we know as the apostles, because they are the ones who will be in charge of carrying out His work after He is gone. These twelve will, in turn, teach others those things that Jesus had taught them. That cycle would continue so that the work that Christ had begun would be carried out until His return.
The specific mandate in verses 7-8, given first to the twelve apostles and that which Christians are to carry out today, is to "preach... the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils...." That message, initiated by Christ and first carried to Israel, is now proclaimed throughout the world.
In the immediate context, we find Jesus preparing to send the twelve out to evangelize towns in the surrounding region. Jesus uses this first evangelistic exercise as the backdrop to prepare the apostles for those things that they will begin to face as they go out on this first task and later throughout their ministries.
As Jesus sent the twelve out to evangelize the surrounding towns, He made it clear that this was not a one-time event. Evangelizing was to be their vocation for the rest of their lives. Jesus spoke broadly of the conditions they would face in their evangelistic efforts. Earlier, He had told the apostles to count the costs of following Him. Here, He laid out those costs.
As the disciples traveled to the surrounding cities in Israel, Jesus told them that they would be denied entry into some cities and threatened with persecution in others. On those occasions where the disciples encountered indifference or persecution, they were to leave immediately for the next city. They were not to make special efforts to preach the gospel to those who did not want to hear it. As a consequence, they would not be able to complete the assignment to preach the gospel in every city they visited.
Indifference and hostility to the gospel message were two of the problems that the apostles would face in their evangelistic efforts. In Matthew 10:17-18, Jesus told the disciples that they would also be scourged in the synagogues and brought before governors and kings.
Within the above context, the difficulty presented by the phrase, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, or, as in the NIV, You will not have finished going through the cities of Israel, can be resolved. Those who ignore context will read the prophecy as if the disciples were merely to visit every city in Israel before the second coming of Christ. Such is a relatively simple task, which could easily have been accomplished in a short time. If that were the point of the prophecy, the prophecy would be false. That view misses the entire purpose for Jesus' birth, life, and ultimate death on the cross.
Using this prophecy, Jesus told not just his disciples, but all believers in the future, that they would not be able to finish the task of preaching the gospel in every city in Israel before His second coming. Jesus was simply saying that the Jews would resist the message of the gospel until the very end. They would be indifferent to its message, often openly hostile, and even seek to persecute those who tried to preach it. Those who have tried to preach the gospel to the Jews can testify that their efforts have been resisted. They have not been able to go through all the cities of Israel preaching the gospel and will not be able to do so before the second coming of Jesus.
The Greek text supports this interpretation. The key word in the verse is the Greek word telew, translated as, gone over, in the KJV. It is a word that one uses to describe completing a task or finishing an assignment. Jesus, in using the Greek word telew, did not predict a failure to physically visit every city in Israel, a relatively simple task, but a failure to accomplish a specific assignment that was to be carried out in every city of Israel.
We see, then, that Jesus has predicted that the Jews would turn
away from those who go to Israel to preach that Jesus was the Christ.
They would refuse to listen to that message and would even persecute
those who preached. That happened when Jesus sent out the disciples,
and it has happened even to our time whenever people have gone to the
cities of Israel with the good news of Jesus Christ. The prediction has
proved accurate. The disciples were not able to preach the gospel in
all the cities of Israel during their lifetimes, and those who have
followed them have not been able to finish the task. The task will not
be fulfilled by the time Jesus returns.
We see then that the prophecy in Matthew 10:23 has not failed. It is as relevant and true today as it was when Jesus spoke it.
(Roger Hutchinson, 11904 Lafayette Drive, Silver Spring, MD
20902 e-mail: RHutchin@AOL. com)