Comparing the first three Gospels raises questions sometimes, but sometimes the comparisons are helpful, as is the case here in Matthew. In Mark’s and Luke’s accounts, Jesus’ instructions to the Twelve end with the material Matthew reported in the first half of chapter 8. Instead of stopping at this point, however, as Mark and Luke do, Matthew
continues by adding Jesus’ words found in vv.17- 42. These words
are not inappropriate for these first disciples, though they are
different in some respects from what Jesus told them earlier. But
their real application – and the reason Matthew has added to the
material – is for the mission of the disciples and others following
Jesus’ death and resurrection. In other words, the addition is for
Three chief differences exist between this and the earlier section. There will be severe persecution. No evidence exists that the disciples
experienced persecution until after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and
ascension. Second, the disciples will witness before Gentiles. In the
first discourse, Jesus told them to avoid Gentile territory, to limit
their mission “to the lost sheep of Israel.” Third, there is a
reference to the “coming” of the Son of Man. This seems to refer
to a judgment at the end of history. When we put these points
together, they tell us that Jesus anticipated a significant time of
witnessing in the midst of persecution. “In short,” as D. A.
Carson writes, “a witnessing and suffering Church.”
There are questions, however. One of them is v.23, a verse that many
scholars consider among the most difficult in the New Testament to
understand. In it Jesus says to the disciples, “You will not have
gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
How can that be? Jesus has not come again, and are we to think that
the cities of Israel, either then or now, have not been evangelized?
Or to look at it another way, Jesus is speaking to the original
twelve disciples. Does His instruction not infer that He will come
again in judgment in their lifetimes?
It should surprise no one to hear that scholars have offered many
possible solutions. D. A. Carson lists seven of them: First,
the “coming” of Jesus refers to a coming of the historical Jesus
to the Twelve, following their mission. He was telling the Twelve to
get going, because they will not have finished going throughout all
Israel before He catches up with them. This doesn’t fit the setting
very well. The chief problem is that there is no evidence that the
disciples suffered persecution during this early period.
Secondly, the “coming” of Jesus refers to Jesus’ public identification of Himself as Messiah after the resurrection. Some of the earlier commentators, such as Chrysostom and Calvin, saw this as the coming of Christ by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This explanation fails to account for a time of persecution or for the haste Jesus is urging.
Third, the “coming” of Jesus is the second coming referred to in Matthew 24.30; 25.31; and 26.64. It refers to His coming in judgment “with the holy angels.” This is the most obvious meaning of the verse, and it has the advantage of interpreting the word coming in the same way throughout the Gospel. Yet it creates a problem with the words
“of Israel.” How can these cities not have been evangelized in
all the many centuries since Jesus spoke this prophecy? To escape
this difficulty, some commentators identify Israel as the world, but
this is foreign to Matthew’s use of both words.
Fourth, Albert Schweitzer argued that Jesus expected the end of time to arrive so quickly that He did not expect to see the disciples return
before the end came. In this interpretation, Jesus would have been
mistaken. This is not acceptable to anyone who believes that Jesus is
the divine and thus inerrant Son of God.
Fifth, some have linked the 3rd and 4th interpretations
to teach that Jesus expected the end of history within a single
generation. There are hints, however, of a much longer delay, both
here and elsewhere in Matthew, particularly in chapters 24 and 25.
Even more important, Jesus would have been mistaken according to this
composite view also.
Sixth, according to the dispensationalist system, v.23 refers to Jewish witnessing among Jews after the largely Gentile Church has been taken up to heaven. Unfortunately, this understanding detaches v.23 from
its context and provides a meaning that would have been
incomprehensible to the disciples as well as to the first readers of
Seventh, the “coming” of the Son of Man refers to His coming in judgment against Israel at the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D.70. This explanation seems a bit far-fetched, but D. A. Carson favors it, arguing that “the coming of the Son of Man marks that
stage in the coming of the kingdom in which the judgment foretold
falls on the Jews. The temple cults disappear, and the new wine
necessarily takes to new wineskins.… The kingdom comes into its
own, …” According to Carson, what Jesus means is that the
disciples “will not have finished evangelizing the cities of Israel
before the Son of Man comes in judgment on Israel.”
I think it is best to see v.23 as stating a general principle: We will always have work to do and we will never get to all the places we
ought to go before Christ’s second coming. Reference to “Israel”
here would be an application of the principle to this particular
setting. The disciples would not get to all the cities of Israel,
just as we will not get to all the world’s cities in our day, but
we should get on with the Great Commission anyway. We need to keep