by Mark Mountjoy
Scripture reading:"And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved. 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" (Matthew 10:22-23).
For most Bible scholars and students of the Scriptures Matthew 10:23 has long been considered to be a problematic and difficult text; it carries implications that contradict what Christians have long understood to be the orthodox basis of the Christian life; the direction of time and the goal of history: the final coming of Christ, the universal resurrection of the dead and the end of time. But is Matthew 10:23 really out of the ordinary? Is it a lone passage announcing a contemporary expectation of a first century return of the Lord, or will a cursory study of the entire New Testament show otherwise? It is not alone! Indeed, there are many other passages--passages that say the same thing, passages that have similar implications, yet these other instances do not carry the distinction of being “difficult.” Why not?
Could it be that some are not perceived to be difficult because they can seemingly be lifted out of a first century context with impunity? The majority of the New Testament's apocalyptic texts and passages (apparently since very early on in the Christian era) have never been understood, appreciated or appraised in light of the social world of the Apostles: the Second Jewish Commonwealth.
Some of these other passages seem so fantastic (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 cf. Revelation 12:7-13) that it seems unbelievable and impossible that such things could have already happened; and some are simply passed over in silence (without comment, e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:1-4 and 5:23-24; Hebrews 10:37 cf. James 5:1-9; 1 John 2:18-19) by virtue of the fact that they directly conflict with the Church's major creeds which affirm an eventual return of Christ at the end of time as we now know it.
But in the case of Matthew 10:23 there are some who assert that it is a problem, an anomaly, an apparent gaffe that goes against the collective testimony of both Christ and the Apostles. This general consensus has led some men of learning to insinuate that this verse somehow got put into the New Testament long after the Bible was completed. Some have gone so far as to plead that St. Matthew deliberately misrepresents the nearness of the Second Coming in order to comfort a persecuted and desperate first century church; however, there are many, many others like it.
This essay will closely examine Matthew chapter 10 in its entirety and attempt to provide a reasonable interpretation of its details in light of the little known and fascinating history of the late Second Temple period--the social world of the Apostles: the Second Jewish Commonwealth. In the same light we will also examine other similar texts to determine (with a fair degree of certainty) whether or not the coming of the Son of man was once understood to be impending within the scope and parameters of the end of the Second Temple and the downfall of the Mosaic era.
These are the issues to think about as I invite you to take a closer look at the probable meaning of this cryptic text.Fourth Edition The Second Coming in Light of the Second Jewish Commonwealth, the Social World of the Apostles by Mark Mountjoy F or most Bible scholars and students of the Scriptures Matthew 10:23 has long been considered a unique, problematic and difficult text; it carries implications that obviously contradict what Christians have long understood to be the orthodox basis of the Christian life: The second final coming of Christ, the universal resurrection of the dead and the end of time as we now know it. But in this extraordinary text Jesus envisions this event happening early, certainly within the lifetime of his Apostles. But is Matthew 10:23 really out of the ordinary? Is it a lone passage announcing a contemporary expectation of a first century return of the Lord, or will a cursory study of the entire New Testament show otherwise? It is not alone! Indeed, there are many other passages, chapters and verses that say essentially the same thing. These other passages have similar implications, yet these other instances do not carry the distinction of being “difficult.” Why not? Could it be that the other examples are not perceived to be difficult because they can seemingly be lifted out of a first century context with impunity? The majority of the New Testament’s apocalyptic passages, chapters and verses (apparently since very early on in the Christian era) have never been understood, appreciated or appraised in light of the social world of the Apostles: the Second Jewish Commonwealth. Some of these other passages (see e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:16- 17; Jude 14 cf. Revelation 12:7-13) appear to be so fantastic that it seems totally unbelievable and impossible that such things could have already happened; and some are simply passed over in silence (without comment, see e.g., 1 Thessalonians5:1-4and5:23-24; cf. Hebrews10:37 and James 5:1-9; 1 John 2:18-19). One can say that these instances are ignored by virtue of the fact that they directly conflict with theChurch’smajor creeds, which all affirm an eventual return of Christ at the end of time, as we now know it. But in the case of Matthew 10:23 there are some who assert that it is a problem, an anomaly, an apparent scribal gaffe that goes against the collective testimony of both Christ and theApostles. This general consensus has led many men of learning to conclude that this verse somehow was put into the New Testament long after the Bible was completed. Some have gone so far as to plead that St. Matthew deliberately misrepresents the nearness of the Second Coming in order to comfort a persecuted and desperate first century church; however, as we said, there are other chapters, passages and verses like it and we believe such verses would make sense if we stood back and saw them, not from the standpoint of the early Roman Empire and its imperial persecution of Christians, but in light of the Second Jewish Commonwealth, the social world of the Apostles. This essay will closely examine Matthew chapter 10 in its entirety and attempt to provide a reasonable interpretation of its details in light of the fascinating history of the late Second Temple period—a little known milieu. In that same light we will also examine other similar texts to determine (to the best of our ability and with the available evidence we now have at our disposal) whether or not the coming of the Son of man was once understood to be impending within the scope and parameters of the end of the SecondTempleand the downfall of the Mosaic era, its way of life, its StateTempleedifice, its rituals and its cherished institutions. These are the issues to think about as I invite you to take a closer look at the probable meaning of this enigmatic text. Chapter Two Why Should We Be Curious About These Things? Some might ask, why would anyone want to pry into these obscure questions, ideas and issues? Why not let well enough alone and live a exemplary Christian life? Bible believers are divided on these questions and shining the spotlight on these controversial texts almost guarantees confusion, so why be concerned with matters that don’t directly affect everyday life? And my answer to these qualms and objections is this: It depends on where one’s interests are. And it depends on whether one believes it is better to have questions we may not be able to fully answer, or to have answers we are not allowed to question? Interested in matters surrounding origins and issues of reliability and credibility ofChristianity’s truth claims and how those claims are supported by Ancient Near East (A.N.E.) history and Jewish antiquities will be seen as important, timely and relevant. As Christians, the importance of what is true should always be foremost in our study, interpretation and preaching of the Bible. So why should we be curious and why should we delve? King David said, “Thy Word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Psalms 119:1-13). Now, let’s just be real: How many times in the past twenty- one centuries have we Christians told an unbelieving, skeptical and suspicious world that Jesus was coming “soon” on such-and-such date, only to have those predictions prove to be utterly false? We are notorious for this because it has happened more than fifty dozens of times! Whenever we made claims about Jesus publicly, and those claims collapsed and failed to materialize, we misrepresented something about Jesus, the New Testament and prophecy that was obvious for all the world to see! Even though we did not intentionally make false claims, it should be admitted that we would not have made these announcements if we had been better acquainted with God’sWord. And so a desire to know an accurate atavist3sense of the original circumstances of a text like Matthew 10:23 carries the possibility that, one day early Christian eschatology may gain credence and become the rule rather than the exception—as unfortunately is the case in our day and time. A desire to please our God Jesus in all we say and do in his name is also a powerful motive toward investigating the true meaning of the matters at hand. Bible prophecy is a major component in the teachings of Christ, yet many believe it is a minor and negligible part of it. And some people (hopingtobeeyewitnesses of promises that, in reality, were made to others for their lifetime, willingly reject audience relevance in Bible study and interpretation, preaching and teaching. These same persons are in the chronic and unfortunate habit of interpreting world events as if what is happening now was actually the original intent and focus of Jesus and the Apostles, and an honest investigation into their “proof” will show that this is not the case at all! Pleasing the Lord entails continuing in his Word, for he said, “If ye continue in my Word, then are ye my disciples indeed. And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). The truth will make us free, but we are commanded and admonished by the Apostle Paul not to lie to one another (Colossians 3:9). Using prophecy improperly (or even rejecting it out of hand) does not improve the chances that we can finally be right— especially if the premise of our expectation is founded on erroneous assumptions to begin with. Christians are being taught (through the creeds, hearsay and baseless rumors) to expect events in the future that are not likely to occur because the promises in the Bible do not actually allow for it. What the Bible doe sallow means the things we expect to happen in our own lifetime or, perhaps, in the distant future, probably already happened in antiquity! Hints of this probability are inherent in verses like Matthew 10:23, but will only be recognized when seen in light of the larger issues of contextual demands. The Apostle Paul in Titus 2:7 exhorts us to teach incorrupt doctrine; but going directly contrary to the early expectations of Jesus’ return flouts the real truth and falls under the warning Paul issued in 1 Thessalonians 4:6. Again, to tell ourselves and insist to anyone who will listen that something like Matthew 10:23 and all the Scriptures, passages and verses like it are yet in the future, is completely contrary to all the hopes of the first Christians. And it theoretically cheats them out of an inheritance that relies on God’s mighty works being accomplished when he insisted he would do it. Therefore, in light of these reasons we must double-down and study to show ourselves approved unto God, workmen that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth (2Timothy2:15). From the above reasons are more than sufficient for us to want to know the truth about Bible prophecy. But we need more specific knowledge about the circumstances of that time. We need to understand what caused Jesus, the Apostles and all the first Christians to believe that the Second Coming was to be fulfilled in their days. Chapter Three Can the Gospels Be Trusted? On the question of the reliability of the NewTestament,as a whole, and the Gospels, in particular, Bible believing Christians are quick to answer,“Yes, it can be trusted!” However, with that“Yes!”there's the proviso that on the Second Coming, the jury is still out: the Gospels and the rest of the NewTestamentare not that clear that we can take a stand on what it exactly means or says. But this position is extremely problematic—and even more so—once we do an exhaustive audit of just what is being claimed by Jesus about his return in the fourGospels. Certainly the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 establishes the fact that Jesus believed his return would happen in connection with the abomination of desolation of the Second Temple (called“Herod’s Temple”). If that did not happen when the rest of the New Testament—in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-13; in Revelation 11:1-2 and in Revelation 13:5-18—assumes it would certainly be the case, then a non-occurrence of the Second Coming between the autumn of A.D.66 and the autumn of A.D.70 means the Gospels cannot be trusted on one of its central promises. Now, contrary to what might be expected upon reading the entire New Testament, conventional wisdom stipulates and demands that the public return of Jesus in the clouds of heaven at Jerusalem FAILED TO TRANSPIRE! If the Gospels can be trusted on who they say Jesus is, if we can believe the women who first learned our Lord arose from the dead; but Jesus cannot be trusted to keep promises he made to return in the lifetime of the Apostles (Matthew 16:27-28; Mark 14:61-62 and John 21:20-23), where does that really leave us on the question of the reliability of the message? How can we have it both ways (that the Gospels can be trusted, but the prophecy claims within the Gospels are unreliable)? There are far too many passages in Matthew and Mark, Luke and John, that won’t allow Christians to halfheartedly answer,“Yes, but . . .! ” We can’t have it both ways on the question of trust! If we do not believe the prophecy part can happen at any specific time we are going to warn people, “No! Don’t put too much faith in THAT or you stand a good chance of being disappointed!” This happens when we turn around and equivocate on what Jesus meant when he said he would be seen in the clouds of heaven immediately after the tribulation of those days (Matthew 24:29-34 cf. Mark 13:24-30). Chapter Four Peering Into the Semitic World of the Apostles Now, we may be blissfully unaware that the NewTestamentwas written a staggering 1,900 years before our day and time. The implications of this incredibly long interval means that an astonishing amount of important information about the history, culture, and civilization along with its everyday life, beliefs and expectations would be lost to our knowledge. Understanding a very small fraction of the voluminous data related to the conditions of the Biblical world would radically alter many explanations of Matthew 10:23 that amount to grotesque, bizarre and exaggerated caricatures of what the Scriptures really intend to convey. For example, the institution of theTemple of God and the Levitical priesthood, the twice daily animal sacrifices, the three major annual holy convocations, and the exercise of power and authority of the Judæan Theocracy—its policies and politics—are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of realities that would be of concern to Christians living then, but out of sight and out of mind now. Think of obvious business interests and then think of what a financial disaster it would have been to the Levitical priesthood to have thousands of Jews and proselytes walking away and abandoning their tithes and sacrifices to God, the maintenance of theTempleand the polity connected to it in order to worship and serve Jesus in small house churches. Imagine how this spreading trend would have been a source of alarm and of grave concern to the officials of that world! Consider now, how in the ears of those expecting the coming of a human warrior Messiah to restore Judæa’s recently lost sovereignty, the preaching about someone like Jesus (which was almost completely unexpected) might have sounded quite questionable and even dangerous, bizarre and laughable. Moreover, ethnic issues would have been quite different from almost anything we know today. The Jews, as a people, were not allowed to sit at dinner with Gentiles.4 Yet, the Apostles were teaching that Jews and Gentiles not only could eat together but, also should consider one another equals in the name of a man who was executed in what was believed to be the most shameful method possible.5 Moreover, because of the message of the Cross, the Apostles and evangelists of the church were, in essence, inviting uncircumcised Gentiles to do something Jewish people could view as high-handed, disrespectful and incendiary: As far as they were concerned the Apostles were violating long established norms surrounding who was in and who was out; who were the people of God and who were not. Astonishingly, this was at a time when circumcision was the rule of thumb. Therefore, in the eyes of most Jews, the first Christians were egregiously flouting sacred norms in the Land of Israel as well as the Diaspora (the realm of Jews and their converts beyond the Land of Israel). As a result, animosity, oppression and violence would have been generated in the wake of Gospel preaching. These discordant teachings would have clashed like powerful Titans with the older Jewish norms locked in a competitive struggle to win converts and to retain human resources against a new and strange social force threatening the established but fragile Jewish status quo. In another example, the A.N.E. saw no “Arab/Israeli” conflict, as we know it today. Instead, then, the conflicts were between powers of the East and the conquering military exploitation of the West—embodied in the aggressive ambitions of the Roman Empire. Therefore, troubling questions about Roman dominance in the East were high on the list of priorities and a favorite subject of discussion among many contemporaries of our Lord Jesus. And thus, paying taxes to Rome and its military presence in the Holy Land heightened long-term aims and a determination to destroy the cozy arrangement between Rome and the Judæan Aristocracy. This was a paramount goal many Jewish revolutionaries planned, trained and counted on for up to seven decades.6 Those were hard times, confused times, superstitious times, bloody times. It was a time when a festival at the Temple could easily turn into a bloodbath and see three or four thousand people trampled in a frightful stampede. It was a time when one might see many criminals hanging on crosses in the blistering heat of a hot summer sun. In these harsh circumstances the sense of life’s brutal injustices was strong. It was a time, when great doubt stood in the minds of some about the validity of their own Mosaic and Torah heritage and, for others, certain prophecies were widely understood to mean that Judæa would inherit glory and someday, very soon, dominate the West by destroying the hated Roman Empire. In light of these realities, along with the expectation of a conquering human warrior, dangerous and bloody insurrections were fueled. And the insurrection that is now best known involved Barabbas, was, in reality, a very small example. So when Jesus came onto the scene, he attracted attention as a possible candidate for these popular expectations. However, his message conflicted with what the people had been groomed to believe and expect and it is for this reason that claims he made of himself did not always meet with ready approval—in fact the opposite was often thecase.7 But despite a general opposition the Bible reflects that the Apostles were successful in evangelizing many of their Jewish countrymen (e.g., Acts 2:36-47; Acts 14:1; Acts 21:20). Yet, it cannot be ignored that, simultaneously, there was a major resistance to the idea of a crucified Messiah. Such a notion, to the majority, was scandalous and incomprehensible in the extreme. There was, moreover, in existence a large priestly faction who did not believe in anything they could not see, touch, hear, smell or taste.8 Because of the Hellenistic apostasy of Epicureanism (introduced into Israel after the conquests of Alexander the Great) many priests were completely sensual in their outlook and philosophy of life.9 Being thus biased, the notion of spirits, an afterlife and harvesting angels, and souls giving an account of their life’s conduct seemed like unrealistic fables to their listening ears.10 To complicate matters even more, those of this persuasion were high officials of theTemple. Their occupation there allowed them to make a living by going through routines, but for some others it was a way to accumulate riches while basking in prestige and power.11