Fourth Revised Edition
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 lonely 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 the 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.
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 good Christian life? Christians are divided on these questions and throwing the spotlight on these controversies 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.
If one is interested in questions of origins, issues of reliability and the credibility of Christianity's truth claims, Ancient Near East (A.N.E.) history will be seen as important, timely and relevant. Indeed, as Christians, issues of what is true should always be foremost in our study 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). How many times in the past twenty-one centuries have we Christians told an unbelieving world that Jesus was coming “soon” on such-and-such date, only to have those predictions prove utterly false? And, it should be known we would not have done so had we been better acquainted with God's Word.
And so a desire to know the Atavist1 sense of the original circumstances of a text like Matthew 10:23 carries the possibility that one day, knowledge and acceptance of early Christian eschatology will be the rule rather than the exception—as unfortunately is the case in our day and time.
A desire to please 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, hoping to be eyewitnesses of promises that, in reality, were made to others for their lifetime (willfully neglect audience relevance in Bible interpretation). These same persons are in the chronic and unfortunate habit of interpreting the world today “as if” the end of today's world was actually the original intent and focus of Jesus and the Apostles—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)
Furthermore, we are commanded and admonished by the Apostle Paul not to lie to one another (Colossians 3:9). Using prophecy falsely is surely a way of “lying” is it not? Christians are being taught (through the creeds and hearsay) to expect events in the future that are not likely to occur because they have already happened in antiquity!
Of this, Matthew 10:23 and the larger issues of context, demands that they contain uncorrupted doctrine, (Titus 2:7). And so, to teach directly contrary to those expectations falls under the warning Paul gave Christians in 1 Thessalonians 4:6.
Again, to insist to our brothers and sisters that something like Matthew 10:23 and all the Scriptures, passages, and verses like it are yet in the future, is 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 in antiquity.
Therefore, in light of these reasons (along with what Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:15) we must study to show ourselves approved unto God, workmen that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth. These, it seems, are more than sufficient reasons 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 John the Baptist, Jesus, the Apostles, and all the first Christians to believe that the Second Coming was to be fulfilled in their days.
Can the Gospels Be Trusted?
On the question of the reliability of the New Testament, as a whole, and the Gospels, in particular, Bible-believing Christians are quick to answer, Yes! But with that "Yes!" there's the caveat that on the Second Coming, the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament are not that clear that we can take a stand on what it exactly means. But this position is extremely problematic—and much more—once we do an exhaustive audit of just what is being claimed by Jesus in the four Gospels.
Certainly the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 establish 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 (and even the rest of the New Testament assumes that that would certainly be the case—Acts 6:14; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-13 and Revelation 11:1-2) then a non-occurrence of the Second Coming between the autumn of A.D.66 and the autumn of A.D.70 means the notion that the Gospels cannot be trusted on one of its major promises: Contrary to what might be expected upon reading the entire New Testament, conventional wisdom stipulates 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, but Jesus cannot be trusted to keep the promises he made to return in the Gospels (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 in the Gospels are unreliable)?
There are far too many passages in Matthew and Mark, and Luke and John, that won't allow Christians to successfully dissimulate or answer, Yes! We can't have it both ways on the question of trust! If we do not believe the prophecy part happened as it should of, then we are going to say, "No!" 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).
Positive Impact of This Truth
As a child, I was raised steeped in Premillennial2 Dispensational theology. As a teenager reading the Scriptures for the first time on my own, verses like Matthew 10:23 scarcely bothered me. Indeed, I seemed to be completely blind to them! When I was 20, however, I came into contact with Historicism.3 and suddenly verses that I had always ignored seemed to be present everywhere I looked! The truth of the matter is this: all Premillennial logic is not false (even if much of it is).
On top of that, all Historicist logic is not 100% true to the New Testament understanding of last things, either. And this realization gave me an insight into a third issue ignored by both Premillennialism and Historicism: the exact expectations of an early Second Coming by the first Christians.
This sudden realization threw me into terrible confusion and ideological turmoil. As time went by I became totally depressed and befuddled about studies in Bible prophecy and, before very long, I fell down on my knees and frankly confessed to God my ignorance and stupidity.
I told the Lord that I had a burning desire to know what the truth really was and (at the very same time) I had the utmost confidence that He heard my prayers and He would answer them.
After less than a year, He answered my prayers and my faith flourished (though it was soon to be sorely tested by skeptical Christians).
My confidence in Christ soared to heights that I never would have imagined. Christianity became even more credible in a way I never thought possible—to such a degree that I have no doubt that it is the wave of the future of the entire human race.
It will be relevant to people yet unborn. It will govern the conduct of generations of people in cities that do not now exist and nations and kingdoms that are yet to be.
Before I used to fear that man could destroy this planet earth with his military magic and mechanical toys, but after I discovered what the Lord has done in antiquity, I simply put that fear away as totally unfounded. And whereas I used to believe the devil was the chief enemy, I came to believe that the enemy of all is the enemy within deceitful lusts, pride, and ignorance.
Truth and Its Consequences
My newfound insight definitely had consequences. A look at these may shed light on what may prove true in your own experience should you own and confess these things. I had found that there are those who would rather not rock the boat or who fear questioning the status quo. Some fear that the Church itself might be upset or even be destroyed by a reinvestigation of the Word of God and a turn toward acknowledging the valid hopes of the original Christians (but this is not necessarily so).
There are others who do not believe it is even possible to find legitimate answers to questions like these. If these answers had not been forthcoming long before now, it is believed that now is far too late to make it a concern.
Therefore, those who feel this way deprive themselves of a critical inquiry without serious consideration of any of the many merits that support it, even when doing so ultimately strengthens faith in Jesus as a God who was 100% right and true in everything he said while he walked this earth.
There are many people who will strongly resist the fact that they are going to have to change in order to believe as the first Christians did. And their response may be simply that they will not welcome Christians who believe these things as “equals.” (This attitude is ironic, if not but for the sole fact that the New Testament shows that Jesus, the Apostles, and the entire brotherhood of Christians believed these very things!).
Some may regard these teachings as "blasphemous errors" or simply as a "dangerous doctrinal mistake." In any case, for those who do see it, Atavist Bible Churches are forming to meet the spiritual needs of anyone who desires to live the life of a disciple without censure or reproach around these ideas and issues.
And now, as mentioned above, I would like to begin by exploring the circumstances of the ancient time in which Matthew was writing.
The Social World of the Apostles in Judæa and the
Surrounding Context of the Ancient Near East (A.N.E.)
From the time I was a boy through adulthood I remained blissfully unaware that the New Testament was written a staggering 1,900 years before we were born! The implications of that incredibly long span of time reveal that an astonishing amount of important information about the history, culture, and nature of that civilization along with the issues of life concerning the aspirations, social struggles, and religious expectations of its citizens would be lost to our knowledge, or, would not (without some effort) be discovered.
Understanding just a 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 gross caricatures of what the Scriptures really intend to convey.
For example, the institution of the Temple of God and the Levitical priesthood, the animal sacrifices, and the Judæan Theocracy—its policies and politics—are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of realities that would be of keen interest and concern to Christians living then, but not now.
Think of obvious financial 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 the Judæan Theocracy and its Temple in order to worship and serve Jesus.
Imagine how this spreading trend would have been a source of alarm and of grave concern to the officials of that world! Consider how, in the ears of those expecting the return of a warrior Messiah to restore Israel's sovereignty, the preaching of a crucified God, dead, buried, and raised, might have sounded quite dangerous and preposterous.
Moreover, racial and 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 equal 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 break longstanding taboos surrounding clean and unclean; who was in and who was out; who were the People of God and who was 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 and social norms in the Land of Israel as well as the Diaspora [Jews and Jewish converts living outside the Land of Israel]. As a result, anger and animosity would have been generated in the wake of such preaching.
These discordant teachings would have clashed like powerful Titans with the older Jewish norms in a competitive struggle to win converts and to retain human resources against a new social force threatening the 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 aspirations and exploitations of the West—embodied in the Roman Empire.
Therefore, troubling questions about Roman dominance in the East were high on the list of priorities 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 to destroy the cozy arrangement between Rome and the Judæan Aristocracy. This was a paramount goal many Jewish revolutionaries planned and counted on for a number of decades.6
Those were hard times, confusing 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 the hot summer sun. The sense of life's unfairness and injustices was strong.
It was a time, for some, when great doubt stood in the mind of the Jewish public about the validity of its own Mosaic and Torah heritage and, for others, certain prophecies were widely understood to mean that Judæa would inherit a glorious kingdom and someday, very soon, dominate the entire world.
In light of these realities, along with the expectation of a particular kind of messiah (a conquering warrior), dangerous and bloody insurrections were fueled. And the insurrection that is now best known involving 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, in major ways, conflicted with what the people had been groomed to expect. Claims he made of himself did not always meet ready approval—in fact, the opposite was often the case.7
Despite this opposition, the Bible reflects that the Apostles were successful in evangelizing many of their Jewish brethren (Acts 2:36-47; Acts 14:1; Acts 21:20). Yet, it cannot be ignored that, simultaneously, there was major resistance to the idea of a crucified Messiah. Such a notion, to other Jewish minds, was insulting and incomprehensible in the extreme.
There was, moreover, in existence a large majority in the Second Jewish Commonwealth8 who did not believe in anything they could not see, touch, hear, smell or taste. Because of the Hellenistic apostasy of Epicureanism9 they were completely sensual in their outlook. Being thus biased, all the preaching about harvesting angels, and an afterlife of souls giving an account of their deeds to a heavenly King and Judge sitting on a glorious throne10, smacked of sheer folly to their listening ears.
To complicate matters, those of this persuasion were high officials of the Temple—which merely represented a position to make a living by going through the motions and, for some, to accumulate riches and prestigious power.11
I have briefly touched on certain aspects of the milieu of that time; therefore, some general observations about Matthew 10 are certainly in order.
Matthew 10:23 could be taken in almost any direction but the options immediately dwindle once it is framed in the context of Jesus' world: the Second Jewish Commonwealth and the late Second Temple period). Those options shrink even more when this verse is further isolated and considered in light of the concerns that are presented in the chapter itself.
Such a circumspect analysis is rare indeed. Therefore a verse-by-verse survey will suffice.
Right Motives and a Right Spirit
"God, You are our Father and the redeemer of all Christians. We seek Your help and Holy Spirit in our endeavor to study and understand Your Word. Help us to be mindful of Your law of love12 in our relationship and attitudes towards other Christians and towards the whole human race. That we may be mindful that strong meat belongs to those who are mature in faith, but milk belongs to those who are weak.
We pray for sincerity and humility and gentleness in conveying Your truth to others who may not readily accept this perspective. Help us to exercise thoroughgoing self-control, patience, and brotherly kindness in any Christian circles that may be unaware of Your mighty manifestations of terrible judgments in the first century in order that Atavistic truth may spread in a considerate, gracious, and orderly way.
In Jesus' glorious and matchless Name, we pray. Amen and amen!"
Scripture Texts and Comments
“1 And when [Jesus] had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits and all manner of disease. 2 Now the names of the twelve apostles are these; The first Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas, and Matthew the publican; James the son of Alphæus, and Labbæus, whose surname was Thaddæus; 4 Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.”
“1 And when [Jesus] had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease. 2 Now the names of the twelve Apostles are these;”
The chapter begins with the Lord's calling of the twelve Apostles, giving them powers over spirits, sicknesses, and diseases. The list begins with Peter and ends with Judas Iscariot, noting him as the perpetrator of Christ's betrayal.
“5 These twelve Jesus sent forth and commanded them saying, Go not in the way of the Gentiles, and unto any city of the Samaritans enter ye not. 6 But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 And as ye go, preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' 8 Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give. 9 Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses. 10 Nor script for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat. 11 And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and there abide till ye go thence. 12 And when ye come into an house, salute it. 13 And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. 15 Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city.”
“5 These twelve Jesus sent forth and commanded them saying, Go not in the way of the Gentiles, and unto any city of the Samaritans enter ye not. 6 But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
This commission was limited to Israelites only, avoiding both Gentiles and Samaritans. The command to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel certainly means that they were not lost insofar as their location was concerned (which was evidently known), rather they were lost in terms of their salvation.
“7 And as ye go, preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' 8 Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give. 9 Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses. 10 Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat.”
The command to preach “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” so long ago (over one thousand nine hundred and seventy-four years) means a lot. The promised kingdom of God must have been historically and chronologically near to their days, and it means the Judæans must have been living both at the end of a great epoch and within reach of a new one. The miracles of the Apostles functioned as a seal of the authenticity of their message.13
“11 And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and there abide till ye go thence. 12 And when ye come into an house, salute it. 13 And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. 15 Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city.”
Contrary to ultra-dispensationalist, E.W.Bullinger, (1837-1913) the consequences of rejecting the Word of Truth were not negligible. Where is the suggestion here of Judæa's 'acquittal'? Where does Jesus suggest that those under the Law were being 'set aside'? Instead of being given a pass, a frightful price, exceeding even the severity of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah (who fell afoul of the patience of God for their wicked sins) would be incurred by any negligent first century Judæan. All who failed to heed the Apostles or take their message to heart and govern themselves accordingly stood in danger of impending consequences.
“16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. 17 But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; 18 and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. 19 But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. 20 For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you.”
“16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
This precautionary note tells us that the work was not for the faint of heart. In reality, much hostility and violence would come in the wake of the Apostles’ itinerary in Jewry. However, despite this hatred and subjection to social malevolence, they were to be shrewd and under no circumstances were they to respond to violence in kind.
“17 But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; 18 and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles.”
In the earliest days of Christianity, the Jewish authorities pursued a legal strategy against the evangelistic efforts of the churches.14 Because Judaism was already fifteen centuries old, it enjoyed a legal status in the Roman Empire known as Religio licita (or Tolerated religion) thereby giving the Jewish authorities the right to prosecute Christians.
The Christians were the 'new kids on the block' (so-to-speak), so it became immediately clear to their foes that this new and strange doctrine about “God crucified, dead, buried and raised to be Savior and King” was not protected under the Roman decrees of religious toleration.
On the contrary, it could be pointed out that, not only was Christianity an intolerable religion, its founder had died as a person guilty of blasphemy against the Jewish religion, claiming himself to be the Son of God.15
These circumstances created the perfect scenario for legal entanglements before judicial councils and physical harm in synagogue settings(!) Subpoenas to appear in the presence of governors and kings would result in testimony adverse both to Jews and Gentiles alike.
“19 But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. 20 For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you.”
The very fact that the Apostles were not imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit until the day of Pentecost, after the resurrection of Christ, and, in fact, that they were first punished after (not before) Pentecost16, casts these events as post-Pentecost situations. Thus, when Peter and the Apostles were brought before the Council of High Priests for the second time (Acts 5:27) this resulted in their first beating (Acts 5:40) which places these painful events, predicted in Matthew 10, after Jesus' earthly ministry.
“21 And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. 22 And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved. 23 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.”
“21 And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. 22 And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.”
The situation noted here finds its parallel in Matthew 24:9-10 where we read:
“Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another.”
Here the context is clearly the days immediately preceding the eve of the Destruction of Jerusalem. Elsewhere, in a similar colloquy, St. Luke wrote,
“But before all these, they shall lay their hands on you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons, being brought before kings and rulers for my name's sake. And it shall turn to you for a testimony. Settle it therefore in your hearts, not to meditate before what ye shall answer. For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist. And ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolk, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death” (Luke 21:12-16).
This strong evidence suggests that these betrayals, summons, altercations, and executions belong to the tumultuous four-year pre-war period from roughly A.D. 62.17 to the commencement of the Great Jewish Rebellion in A.D. 66.
“22 And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.”
Judaizers,18 Sicarii,19 and Zealots, (the imperious, extremist champions of nationalism and secession from the Roman Empire) seem the most likely to have been the mortal foes of the first Christians. The threat of robbery, betrayal, imprisonment, torture, and death is voiced most forcefully in Josephus' chronicles of the Destruction of Jerusalem which can be read about in his Wars of the Jews.20
“23 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.”
Jesus admonishes the Apostles to do what? Flee persecution. And he states bluntly, that they will not have gone to all the cities of Israel, before his return. Does this mean that they did not finish their preaching? By no means! Verse 22 and other passages in the New Testament attest that the preaching of the Gospel was completely and totally accomplished to the "world." In Matthew 24:14 and Acts 17:6 the Greek word “ecumene,” translated as "world," means neither the globe, nor the Roman Empire, but the religious household of Jews and proselytes subject to Jerusalem (See Acts 2:5 and Colossians 1:23).
Now, is verse 23 a Second Coming text? The demand upon the reader to interpret this Scripture literally is heavily favored. Who is the “you?” here? The Apostles. Now add the nature and geography (“cities of Israel”) of their persecution during this time period and “the Son of man be come” most obviously points to the Second Coming of Jesus in their lifetime! In this light, Matthew 10:23, we believe, has to be a Second Coming text.
Indeed, if Matthew 16:27-28; John 21:22; Romans 13:11-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-4, 23-24; Hebrews 10:25 and 37; James 5:1-9; 1 Peter 4:7; 1 John 2:18; Revelation 1:1, 3,7; 2:24-25; and 22:10 harmonize with the period's circumstances and events, then it is completely possible (and very likely) that the prophecy expectations of today's approximately 2.18 billion Christians are fundamentally at odds with the Scriptures!
In fact, contained in Matthew 10:23, and throughout the entirety of the New Testament, the suggestion is plain and clear, explicit and implicit that something near rather than far as expected.
A foreboding toll of the bell rings in the air. Threats voiced in Matthew 10 and everywhere in the New Testament point directly to Jewish revolutionary nationalism as a huge problem to the peaceful existence of the churches. The Second Coming was to occur* to bring those very dangers to heel.
* See the Annotation below.
Some Bible scholars suggest this verse, and others, are add-ons to buoy the hopes of the first Christians. But, if Christ’s return is to happen in the 21st century or beyond, it could hardly have served as comfort or “consolation” to first-century Christians. And we, their spiritual descendants, are left without a clue as to whether there is to be a return of Christ at any time.
But let us continue our comments on this fascinating chapter . . .
“24 The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. 25 It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the Master of the house 'Beelzebub,' how much more shall they call them of his household? 26 Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. 27 What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops.21 28 And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. 30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear ye not, therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. 32 Whosoever, therefore, shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. 33 But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.”
“24 The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. 25 It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the Master of the house 'Beelzebub,' how much more shall they call them of his household?”
By these words, Jesus informs the Apostles what they can expect during their tenure: being esteemed none above their Master and their Lord. As some Judæans were quick to call Jesus “Beelzebub,”22 so much more were they to accuse the Apostles to be children of the “prince of flies.” So Jesus' admonitions speak to the Apostles' commitment to God above and beyond any other consideration, entitlement, or expectation to any modicum of respect. They could expect contempt—even gross blasphemy and infamy among the apostatized First Covenant people of God.
“26 Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. 27 What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops.”
Repeated words of encouragement [that the truth will ultimately prevail] drive home the need to be brave in the face of defamation and danger. And it emphasizes the need to have confidence that whatever is concealed shall, in due time, be exposed. Also, that the mysteries of Christ, which were taught to them in strict privacy, will be dispensed freely, using even the rooftops as pulpit podiums.
“28 And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
An understanding of whom not to fear and the limits to what man can do are spelled out here. And, although in the Bible (on occasions) the whole person is described as a “soul” it is clear here when Jesus said do not be afraid of them that can kill the body but cannot kill the soul, that he intended for the Apostles to understand “soul” to mean an invisible aspect of themselves that only God himself could harm or destroy.23 They were not, therefore, to stand in any fear of martyrdom.
“29 Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. 30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear ye not, therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.”
Jesus assures his holy servants that their lives are of supreme value and precious in the eyes of God. And by this, he intended for them to rest assured their earthly woes and plights would not go unnoticed, even in the minutest way.
“32 Whosoever, therefore, shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. 33 But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.”
Thus, having made clear their risky and dangerous mission, the promise of intervention; the warnings of insults and dishonor; at the same time, the certainty that all secrets will be exposed, Jesus divulges that these gloomy prospects pale in comparison to God's ability to destroy a soul and a body in hell. Therefore, no reason or excuse was left to deny Christ before men—which if it were to happen, it would result in the repudiation of Jesus' acknowledgment of that servant before God the Father on the day of judgment.24
“34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I come not to send peace, but a sword. 35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. 37 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me is not worthy of me.”
“34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I come not to send peace, but a sword. 35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
Jesus describes the social unrest his coming into the Jewish world would bring in its wake. The mere fact of choosing sides—choosing him—choosing to believe him and his message against the norms, customs, legends and superstitions and taboos of the highly apostatized society, pitted son against father and daughter against mother and in-laws against one another—some choosing Jesus, whilst others remained steadfastly against him.
“36 And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. 37 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me is not worthy of me.”
Following Jesus against prevailing Jewish social conventions meant that familial ties would become acrimonious. Yet, Jesus is clearly and brazenly soliciting the highest position in any contest concerning family loyalties and, as a result, Christian commitments are to be held far above parental or familial affections or ethnic loyalties. Moreover, acceptance of one's duty to carry one's cross, under God, is seen as imperative in the eyes of our Lord.
“39 He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. 40 He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. 41 He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward. 42 And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.”
“39 He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”
The path of “self-fulfillment” in the sense of taking the route of least resistance and self-gratification, or following the crowd, would result in doom. This outcome, for many, became a tragic reality and is substantially noted in Josephus' account of thirty to forty thousand persons joining the Jewish Rebellion out of a pitiful desire to preserve their houses and effects for a time to come (see 1 Timothy 6:5-10 and The Wars of the Jews 4.9.11:574)
Instead of seeing those hopes fulfilled, many of them lost their lives in the most brutal and appalling atrocities at the hands of their own countrymen and by the Divine distresses sent down from heaven against them. And their effects, which they cherished more than salvation, were burned up in the widespread fiery conflagration that enveloped the Holy Land and the Diaspora.
“40 He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. 41 He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward. 42 And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.”
A direct link (from bottom to top) between the Apostles, the Son of God, to God the Father, meant that a conduit of blessings and rewards would flow out to anyone who avoided the prevailing trend of ostracism, rejection, and neglect and cared for these beleaguered servants of God. The clear meaning was this: Whatever was done on behalf of the Apostles or any disciple of Christ or a prophet would be seen by God as an act done to Christ and the Father himself (Matthew 25:31 cf. Acts 9:4-5).
Conclusion of Our Analysis of Matthew 10
These are our observations of the entirety of Matthew 10. In this chapter the Apostles' ministry begins as a limited commission to the house of Israel only and continues with the endowment of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and immediately came to the disapproving attention of Jewish and Gentile authorities, as can be seen in Acts 4:3-30; 5:17-19; 5:21-41; 13:44-51 (cf. Matthew 10:14); Acts 14:1-6; 14:19; 17:5-9; 18:4-6; 18:12-17; 19:34ff; 21:26-36; 23:1-15; 24:1ff; 25:1ff; 26:1ff; 27:1ff and finally, 28:1ff.
In Matthew 10:19-20 Jesus tells the Apostles that even though they will be brought before “governors” and “kings,” the “Spirit of your Father” will supernaturally speak through them. This encouragement is a foreshadowing of the Apostles’ preaching under the direct power of the Holy Spirit which happens after the Apostles received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
This important fact places these events squarely AFTER the ministry of Jesus.
And, as I noted above, vs. 21-23 are most certainly events that transpired in the generation of the Apostles, ca. A.D. 62-70.
Matthew 10:23 in Relation to Other Similar Texts in the New Testament
In many ways, Matthew 10:23 is just the tip of a proverbial iceberg. Occasionally it catches the attention of some, but it is by no means alone. And, like an iceberg, ignoring it is fraught with peril. The folly of acting upon an incorrect understanding of the reason for the existence of the Christian faith as it began in antiquity and would otherwise still be known.
Now, to prove this—or rather, to demonstrate this, there are other Scriptures in the New Testament that easily fall into the same category found in Matthew 10:23 (e.g., Romans 13:11-12 and 16:20; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 and Philippians 4:5). For brevity, I will list only a few of them.
First, in Hebrews 10:25 the author writes that the Christians he was writing to were clearly able to see the Day approaching, something absolutely impossible to do if the events in question are outside of their lifetime.
Second, 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 definitively says that their whole spirit and soul and body would be preserved blameless unto the coming of the Lord and, “God is faithful, who will also do it"--the Apostle Paul was very certain (not unsure) when he stated this to these Macedonian Christians.
Third, 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 says the man of sin (the anti-Christ) was being held back. How could he be held back in the first century if he was not born yet? But this could explain why the anti-Christ has not appeared in our own times – he would be 2000 years of age and this is seriously unrealistic.
Fourth, in James 5:1-9, the Lord's brother told the rich of Jerusalem that the time of miseries and the coming of the Lord and his judgment had arrived.
Fifth, Peter, too, in his remarks, was under the very same impression, as 1 Peter 4:7 and 17 reveal.
Sixth, furthermore, the Apostle John believed it was the last hour 2,000 years ago (1 John 2:18).
Seventh, Revelation 1:1, 3 and 7 and all the remaining heralds of that great book, (Revelation 16:15; 22:10; 22:12 and 22:20) insist and reconfirm, to the very end of the New Testament, that the coming of the Lord was on the brink of taking place. These verses, along with Matthew 10:23, cast the Second Coming in a different light. Indeed, if nothing was going to happen, why did they insist it would? And if something did happen, why do not the churches teach accordingly? Could the churches be laboring under a preconceived notion and not even looking for the fulfillment of the Second Coming in that direction? This appears to be the case!
Matthew 10:23 is not unusual. In light of what the New Testament says about the Second Coming, from Matthew to Revelation, it is certainly the norm. Nor is it difficult to see just why all the first Christians believed Jesus was going to come back in their lifetime.
The chapter that contains verse 23 (Matthew chapter 10), if understood in the context of the late Second Jewish Commonwealth in the A.N.E., yields a considerable amount of information, most of it quite surprising! Our exegesis of the chapter informs us about dark days and grisly struggles of the early Church in an unbelieving Jewish world. And our cross-references to other similar passages give meaning and shape to the opposition faced and the hope held by Christians undergoing trials, beatings, imprisonment, hunger, and death. Much more could be said, but space forbids it.
In the end, however, we are not disadvantaged to know the true meaning and the wider implications of this fascinating verse. The earliest Christians lived in the final days of an epoch that started on Mount Sinai and ended in A.D.70. After that, all remaining vestiges of Hebrew political history ended seven decades later in the totally disastrous Bar Kokhba Israelite Rebellion of A.D.132-136.
The ultimate hope of Christians does not lie in exaggerated, erroneous, and extreme views of the return of Christ. One view expects the destruction of the planet to make way for the supposedly delayed return of Christ and another view conflates the promises of the new heaven and earth completely into A.D. 70.
The Atavist Bible concept holds the view that the ultimate goal of Christians is the hope of the glory of God in heaven, living eternally with our Lord according to the promises of Revelation 21 and 22).25
1 The term “Atavist” means a throwback to the original ideas and world outlook of the first Christians. It is the governing theme behind the conception of Atavist Bible Churches. These churches are designed to provide a forum for worship, fellowship, and discussion for Christians who embrace Atavist beliefs and practices. See the Atavist statement of faith @ www.atavistbiblechurch.org.
2 Premillennialism is the belief that the Second Coming of Jesus will immediately precede the millennium (1000 year period referred to in Revelation 20) which is in the future but could happen at any time.
3 The Historicist view teaches that Revelation is a symbolic representation of the course of history from the lives of the Apostles to a FUTURE end of the age.
4 Acts 11:1-3.
5 Hengel, Martin, Crucifixion, pp. 1, 22, and 84ff. Fortress. 1977.
6 Hengel, Martin, The Zealots. Scotland. 1997.
7 John 10:32-33.
8 Second Jewish Commonwealth was the period of Jewish history from the return of the nation of Judea from Babylonian Captivity, the establishment of the Second Temple (circa 550 B.C.) to the Destruction of the Jerusalem in A.D.70, the subsequent 'Kitos Wars' in A.D.115-117, to the end of the Jewish State upon the failure of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion in A.D.132-136.
9 Epicureanism was a Greek school of philosophy founded by Epicurus of Samos (342-270 B.C.). He taught freedom from fear and from desire through knowledge as natural and pleasurable life. Rhetorical literature falsely accused Epicurus of materialistic hedonism. As the Epicureans did not believe in a world to come nor in the resurrection of the dead, they ridiculed Paul: "Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans and the Stoics encountered him. And some said, what does this babbler want to say? Others said he seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods: because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection." (Acts 17:18). They took him to the Areopagus for a debate, and their challenge led to one of his most famous speeches (Acts 17:22-31).
10 Matthew 25:31-46 cf. Matthew 22:23-31; Acts 23:8.
11 Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.2:205-207.
12 Luke 6:31; 1 John 4:11-12; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.
13 Hebrews 2:2-4.
14 See Acts 17:5-8 cf. Acts 24:1-13.
15 John 19:7.
16 Acts 2:47.
17 In fact, that very spring, James, the Lord's brother and some of his companions, were tried by Ananias, son of Ananias, sentenced to death and stoned—The Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1:198-203.
18 A Judaizer was someone who believed Jesus was the Messiah, but who also sought to bring baptized Gentile Christians into conformity with circumcision and other laws and customs of Second Temple Judaism.
19 Sicarii were members of the radical wing of the Zealots, a religious and political group in the Roman province of Judæa (first century A.D.). Expressing the interests of the most downtrodden social strata, the Sicarii were implacable opponents of Roman rule and of oppression by their own propertied classes. The Sicarii destroyed debt documents en masse, freed slaves, and called on the freed slaves to join their ranks. The leaders of the Sicarii were Menahem, son of the Zealot leader Judah the Galilean, Eleazar ben-Yair, and Simeon bar Giora. In A.D. 66, early in the Jewish War of 66–73, the Sicarii captured the fortress of Masada and held it until A.D. 73. Some groups of the Sicarii fled to Egypt and Cyrene, where they also led a struggle against Rome.
20 Josephus, Complete Works, The Wars of the Jews 4.4.3:241-242.
21 In ancient Judæa the roofs of homes were flat and used as places to gather.
22 Beelzebub means “Lord of the Flies.”
23 In Genesis 2:7 God made man a “living soul” but even God has a soul—Hebrews 10:38.
24 “If we deny him he will deny us” (2 Timothy 2:11-13).
25 Revelation 14:13 and 21:5-7.
All too often, it is assumed that nothing in accordance with Jesus' promise to personally return came to fruition. But we have demonstrated that he DID promise to come with his armies in the contemporary milieu. But he did not fail; the contrary is true! Jesus said, “When you see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judea flee into the mountains, and let them which are in the midst of it depart out, and let not them which are in the countries enter thereunto” (Luke 21:20-21).
Josephus reports several eyewitness accounts of heavenly armies being seen in the sky before the war between the Jews and Romans broke out:
“So these [men of learning] publicly declared, that this signal foreshadowed the desolation that was coming upon them. Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the twenty-first day of Artimisius [Jyar], a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable nature as to deserve such signals; for before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities” (Wars 6.5.3:296-299).
This passage in Josephus attests that before Jerusalem even initiated a war of combat with Rome, God's armies appeared in the skies and surrounding cities in the land of Israel! Not only that but elsewhere it is reported that a showdown occurred in the skies over Herod's Temple:
“Such prodigies had happened, as this nation, which is superstitious enough in its own way, would not agree to expiate by the ceremonies of the Roman religion, nor would they atone the gods by sacrifices and vows, as these used to do on the like occasions. Armies were seen to fight in the sky, and their armor looked of a bright light color, and the Temple shone with sudden flashes of fire out of the clouds. The doors of the Temple were opened on a sudden, and a voice greater than human was heard, that the gods were retiring, AND AT THE SAME TIME THERE WAS A GREAT MOTION PERCEIVED [emphasis added], as if they were going out of it, which some esteemed to be causes of terror” (Josephus' Complete Works, Appendix Dissertation 3, Book 5, Chapter 13).
These highly unusual events happened (as predicted) in the contemporary period in which the Apostles and the first Christians were taught to believe they would.
Amusin, I. D. “Zhrebii poslednikh zashchitnikov Masady.” Voprosy Istorii, 1965, no. 8. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979).
© 2010 The Gale Group, Inc.Sicarii> Bible Dictionary and Concordance.
Epicureans, Epicureanism. © 2011 Answers Corporation
Hengel, Martin. The Zealots. Paperback ed., Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1997.
Horsley, Richard. Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs. Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus. San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1985.
Horsley, Richard. Jesus and the Spiral of Violence. MN: Fortress, 1987.
Josephus, Flavius. The Complete Works. Trans. William Whiston. Nashville, TN. Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1998.
Levinskya, Irina. The Book of Acts In Its First Century Diaspora Setting. Vol 5., Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996.
Mendels, Doron. The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism. 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997.
Smiles, Vincent M. The Gospel and the Law in Galatia. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical
The New Testament, King James Version. 1611 ABS New York.
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