MATTHEW 10:23—Did Jesus promise to return to earth during the lifetime of the disciples?
PROBLEM: Jesus sent His disciples on a mission and promised them, “you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” However, it is obvious that He never even went to heaven, to say nothing of returning again, before they had returned from their evangelistic tour.
SOLUTION: There are many interpretations of this passage. Some take it to be a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem (a.d. 70) and the end of the Jewish economy. But this hardly suits as a fulfillment of the phrase “before the Son of Man comes.”
Others understand Jesus’ statement to refer to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit or a great revival before the return of Christ to earth to set up His kingdom. They believe the preaching of the Gospel will usher in the kingdom (cf. Matt. 24:14). But, this too seems to go far beyond the literal meaning of the text here.
Still others see it as containing a projection from their immediate mission to their continuing mission to proclaim the Gospel “even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Note the fact that the disciples would probably have not gone through all “the cities of Israel” in the short mission on which Jesus sent them. One problem with this is that there is no direct indication in the text that Jesus was referring to the distant future.
Another alternative is to take the promise literally and immediately and to interpret the phrase “before the Son of Man comes” as a reference to the fact that Jesus rejoined the disciples after their mission. This view may be supported by several facts. First, the phrase “before the Son of Man comes” is never used by Matthew to describe the Second Coming. Second, it fits with a literal understanding of the first part of the verse. The disciples went literally and immediately into “the cities of Israel” to preach, and Jesus literally and immediately rejoined them after their itinerant ministry. Third, there is no indication here or anywhere else that the disciples believed that Jesus was going to go to heaven while they were gone on their preaching tour. This certainly would have startled them (cf. John 14:1–5). Furthermore, He had already told them that He had to die and rise from the dead (John 2:19–22) before He could go to heaven and return.