Tuesday, 05 June 2012 03:23

Finish the cities of Israel?

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What did Yeshua mean when he said, "You will not finish the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes?" Let's take a closer look at Matthew 10:23 to understand.

The Gospel of Matthew is organized into 5 thematic discourses. The second of these, Mt. 9:35—11:1, describes the Mission Charge to the Twelve. Chapter 10 can be broken down as follows: Disciples are briefed on mission to “lost sheep of Israel” 10:1-5; Warned of future trouble 10:16-25; Exhorted to not be afraid 10:26-33; Told about divisions 10:34-39; Promised rewards 10:40-42.

The section containing verse 23 is concerned with the troubles and tribulations facing the disciples. While this verse is unique to Matthew, it comes at the end of a section paralleled almost word for word in Mark 13:9-13. However, the context in Mark is not Missions as in Mt. 10 but the Second Coming and the signs of the end times. A common thread which ties together these two themes (Missions and Second Coming) is the fact that the tribulation and persecutions suffered by the early disciples accounted for the spreading of the gospel from “town to town.” This also resulted in spreading the witness beyond Israel to both rulers and Gentiles (see Mt. 10:18; Mk. 13:9,10).

There is another connection between the Mission Charge and Eschatological Events. Mt. 10:17-23 is closely paralleled in Mt. 24:9-14 in his discourse on the end times. In fact, Mt. 10:22 is found word for word in Mt. 24:9b, 13. Notice once again the missions theme included in both the eschatological discourse (Mt. 24:14) and the commissioning story (Mt. 10). This Eschatological/Missions theme may shed light on a proper understanding of vs. 23.

When they persecute you in one town, flee to another”
Fleeing from town to town was a sign of the end times. It is the language of tribulation and is here due to the persecution of the believers. R. Eliezer (Ben Hyrcanus), a first century rabbi, says “with the coming of Messiah… the people shall go about from city to city with no one to show pity on them…” (m. Sotah 9:15; t. Sanh.49a). Interestingly enough this Mishnaic passage is an exposition of Micah 7:6 quoted here in Mt. 10:21, 35-36.

Aware of the persecution and dispersion of the early Kehila, Matthew (A.D. 50-60?) recognizes the advantage this effects on the spread of the gospel. This may have inspired him to combine the teachings on tribulation and persecution with his theme on the Mission to Israel.  In any event Matthew intermingles the spread of the gospel with persecutions (10:17-24) and moving from town to town.  “From town to town” is a major theme within the commissioning story and characterized the mission of Yeshua (9:35;11:1) and of the Twelve (10:5,11,14,15,23).


“You will not finish the cities of Israel”
The meaning of the aorist subj. “telesate” (you will finish) is difficult. The second person plural clearly relates to the Twelve; but, what will they not finish? Finish preaching? Finish all the towns? Finish being persecuted? The immediate context of verse 21-24 is concerned with the persecutions and tribulations of the believers. However, as noted the wider context is concerned with both persecutions and the spread of the gospel. Furthermore, the disciples were moving from town to town and so the NIV translates “you will not finish going through the cities of Israel.” This translation is reflected in the modern translation of the Hebrew NT as well and may very well represent the sense of the meaning of the verb “telesate” here. It should be understood however that the disciples were both persecuted and preaching as they went “through the cities of Israel.”  A dynamic translation of  this portion of the verse could be “you will not finish going through the cities of Israel being persecuted and spreading the gospel....until the Son of Man comes”

“Until the Son of Man comes”
The coming of the Son of Man raises important questions. Did Yeshua mean it in a temporal sense whereby the coming of the Son of Man will be at the time when the disciples have “finished” the cities? Latter variants of the verse reveal that some church fathers were troubled by this saying because in effect the Apostles had finished going through the cities of Israel yet Yeshua hadn’t returned. The earliest is a forth century Armenian manuscript attributing the text to Diatessaron (second century).  The variant reads, “if they persecute you out of one city flee to another, and if they persecute you out of that city flee to another.” In this way the verse can be understood to mean that “You will not finish the cities of Israel (as places of refuge) until the Son of Man comes.” In other words the Apostles would be kept in safety until the time that Yeshua returns.

Others have understood it to mean that “the Son of Man’s coming will occur before the mission to Israel is completed” (Anchor Bible). In this way the verse is commonly used to support Jewish evangelism with the understanding that the mission to Israel is not complete until Yeshua returns. The verse is translated “You will not finish the mission to Israel until the Son of Man will come.”

Although there are some good reasons to interpret the verse in this way there are some problems. To begin with the verb “finish “ is directed specifically to the Twelve in the context of going through the cities of Israel persecuted and preaching. Can we extend this to all disciples through time?

Or perhaps the meaning is that the Second Coming of Messiah is contingent upon completing the mission to Israel. In other words the verse is translated, “When you finish the mission to Israel then the Son of Man will come.”

The idea that Yeshua intended this verse to mean that he will return when his disciples complete the mission to Israel also proposes problems. Was Messiah’s intention to get the Apostles to hastily evangelize  the Jews so that he could return? “Come on, get going. You know that I am not coming back until you finish this mission to Israel.” Hard to imagine that this is the intention here. This understanding  creates a number of problems such as; preaching a superficial message in order to get numbers of  conversions, attempting to manipulate prophecy, extremes such as the Messiah Now movements or other deviations of bringing Messiah by keeping Shabbat etc.

So whether Yeshua meant ”the Son of Man will not come until you finish the cities of Israel” as “you cannot have your desert until you finish your dinner” or “before you even finish your dinner you can have your desert” we need to try and grasp the impact these words had on the Apostles.

The coming of the Son of Man was not a teaching about time sequences or order of events need not be understood in a strictly temporal sense.  Yeshua and all the Prophets spoke about His coming as the Son of Man in terms of its qualities and not its schedule.

The concept of the coming of the Son of Man has its earliest expression in Daniel chapter 7. Here it is clearly a coming in judgment. The idea of coming in judgment is also reflected in the intertestimental period in both IV Ezra and I Enoch (Tdot 96). In the NT and in Matthew’s Gospel the coming of the Son of Man is definitely a coming in judgment and is tied to rewards and punishments (Mt. 16:27; 25:31). Matthew in chapter 10 also ties in the impending judgments upon those who reject the message of the gospel (vs. 15,33), together with the rewards available to the obedient (vs. 22,32,40-42).
It is also a coming in the midst of persecutions (Mt. 24:9ff) and tribulation (24:15ff).  The central affirmation of the coming of the Son of Man for the disciples is the “promise of an end of affliction as they flee the persecution.” (Colpe).  It was a message to those experiencing tribulation. It conveyed a promise of relief to the afflicted. The coming of the Son of Man emphasized the imminence of deliverance in the coming Kingdom and would hold forth great hope to one who is apprehended by Sanhedrin, synagogue or Gentile authority (Mt. 10:17), or those experiencing the great tribulations of those days (vs. 21-2).

The promise of the Son of Man encouraged the disciples and gave them hope. It was an exhortation not to give up but “to stand firm to the end” (vs. 22b). It helped the disciples put their mission in proper perspective. It didn’t mean that they must hurry up and quickly spread the message because the Lord is coming right back, rather they should be alert and aware of the reality, the at-handedness of God’s judgment, His punishment and rewards. They should be willing to leave all worldly possessions (vs. 9-10), families (vs. 37), take up their cross and follow Yeshua (vs. 38). It is an exhortation to be awake and aware of the closeness and reality of God’s visitation. This word of exhortation, this promise of deliverance and hope is then followed naturally by the encouragement in vs. 26-31 “so do not be afraid of them… .”

This same pattern is found in Mt. 24:9-19 and its parallels. In the midst of great distress and tribulation there is a promise that “he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (vs. 13). It is interesting that Matthew also concludes this section with “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come (vs. 14). A saying similar in meaning to the Mt. 10:23 passage. Both of these verses (10:23; 24:14) are unique to Matthew, both appear in the context of persecutions and tribulation, and both are concerned with preaching the gospel in the end times.

The Son of Man’s coming gives the Apostles a reason o press on. It is hope in troubled times, not a dispensational plot whereby they can force the Second Coming by completing the Jewish Mission.  He wants them to grasp the significance of the Mission to the Jews as it relates to the End Times, to invest in a quality Mission worthy of total commitment and the courage necessary to fulfill the Mission in troubled times.

So a Lazarus interpretation of Mt.  10:23 might look something like this.
“When you are persecuted as you preach the Good News to the Jewish People, you can flee to another city in Israel, but when it gets really tough don’t leave the country, as some have just because it is so hard. I explained to you that you must stay here and keep bringing the message to Israel because these are my brothers and sisters and it is right that we honor family first, though eventually these persecutions (not honorariums) will force some you out of Israel so that and you can bring the Good News to the Gentiles as well. I cannot emphasis this any more than to say to you Amen, my highly esteemed Apostles, that even before you have gone through the towns of Israel preaching the Good News as I commanded you,  and as you continue to suffer the persecutions and tribulations you are even now experiencing, that the Son of Man will come. He will come in judgement on all those wrong doers that are troubling you and he will come to reward you for all you are doing for my name’s sake. He will deliver you from all these troubles. So don’t worry. Be bold. Rise up and take risks for the sake of the message you carry. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain. Do not be afraid of those who are laughing at you or despise you because you are following me. Let me be the judge of what is right and wrong. You just keep doing what is good and don’t loss heart just because it seems like things are not going well. In fact, I am going to use the insecurities you experience of being pushed around and rejected and all the other troubles you are going through to further spread the Good News to places and people you could never even imagine. So keep your heads up, your hearts encouraged and put your hands to the plow even if you get kicked around. Believe me, I know what it’s like. Stop trying to make believe that it is going to be easy trying to convince our people to believe (Believe me I know it’s tough. I’ve been at it a long time!). Just because it is hard don’t water down the message. That will only make things worse. Uphold the truth and press on with the message because in the end everything is going to be put right.  My dear Jewish Disciples the Son of Man himself is coming for you. Don’t ever forget that. From the beginning all the prophets told you so that at times like this you wouldn't give up. And I will come for you. How can I leave you alone? It is for me, and for the sake of our beloved Israel that you are laying down your lives and going through all these troubles. And not only for our people Israel, but even for the whole world. Hang in there, the best is yet to come.” 
Read 109 times Last modified on Sunday, 08 July 2012 12:04

1 comment

  • Comment Link Anonymous Tuesday, 19 June 2012 06:37 posted by Anonymous

    Could the reference to "not finishing the cities of Israel until the coming of Mashiach" be alluding to the 42 cities of Israel mentioned in Joshua 21 corresponding to the 42 campsites of the exodus and the 42 months of the great tribulation (3.5 years)? Perhaps the second exodus of Jeremiah 16 will include a movement of God's people from place to place for 42 months? Maybe 42 campsites? Or 42 cities?

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