“But when they persecute you in this city, flee to the next one; amen I say to you, you will not have completed the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes.” (Matthew 10:23 My translation)
Matthew 10:23b is a theological quagmire that has caused endless controversy especially since Albert Schweitzer’s seminal book, “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” (1906). His book in effect ended the “First Quest for the Historical Jesus” that had begun in Germany with scholars such as H. S. Reimarus, D. F. Strauss, Johannes Weiss, and William Wrede.
The so-called “First Quest” (circa 1700-1900) rose out of the Enlightenment Age with its emphasis on reason. It was an optimistic age. Western Civilization had “come of age” so to speak, and there was broad confidence that humanity would eventually solve every problem through the application of reason and modern science.
The original “questers” were confident they could uncover the true, historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, solely based on historical inquiry using scientific methods, rather than relying on faith or church tradition. They sought to distinguish the Jesus of Faith from the Jesus of History.
Then came Schweitzer who in effect devastated the whole enterprise by demonstrating that the historical kernel these scholars had uncovered was really a Jesus molded in their own image; that is, an Enlightenment era Jesus and not the Jesus of history. Each scholar’s ‘historical’ Jesus actually reflected the personal ideas of the scholar, whether a traveling sage, a Jewish mystic, a wise rabbi, a human prophet, etc…
History was not so objective as the enlightenment era scholar claimed.
That’s all good!
But Schweitzer went a step further. He offered his own version of Jesus: the failed eschatological Jewish prophet. Schweitzer sought to place Jesus within a first century Jewish context which he called a “late Jewish eschatology.” He insisted that Jesus can only be interpreted within that context and in light of his own convictions.
What was Jesus’ conviction?
According to Schweitzer, Jesus and his followers were utterly convinced that the end of the world was imminent, that it would happen within their own lifetimes.
(On a side note, “eschatology” comes from two Greek words: “eschatos” & “logos“. The “eschaton” is the “end” or last thing in a series (BDAG), and is generally used in the biblical narrative for the end of the world. Eschatology is the study of the last things.)
Hence, for Schweitzer, Jesus was an eschatological prophet because he sincerely believed “the end” was imminent, and whose basic message, “the Kingdom of Heaven is near!”, was quite literal.
Jesus was a “failed” eschatological prophet because “the end” did not occur. And so Schweitzer thought the church “invented” the gospel of salvation by grace through faith as a substitute for the failed reality of Jesus’ career as an eschatological prophet.
Christianity, according to Schweitzer, is an invention–at least the way Western Christianity developed. Think about that next time you quote Albert Schweitzer. A lot of Christians admire him without realizing what he actually thought!
So what do you do with a passage like Matthew 10:23? Did Jesus sincerely believe the end of the world was imminent? Within the disciple’s lifetime? Was Jesus sincerely wrong?
Two things stand out in that passage. 1) not completing the cities of Israel, & 2) until the Son of Man comes.
The first part probably has to do with the context of sending out the twelve for their initial mission to the lost sheep of Israel. It is about mission work from city to city. What that mission consists of is spelled out earlier in chapter 10: preaching the Kingdom of Heaven, healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, and casting out demons. (vv. 7&8) In other words, preaching and healing. And the mission is to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It is initially limited to the Jewish nation.
The second part is where the controversy arises. What does Jesus mean by, “until the Son of Man comes”? In order to understand the saying, we need to examine the original context for the Son of Man sayings. It comes, as all the good commentaries on Matthew have it, from Daniel Ch. 7:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7: 13&14 NIV)
Here we see that the one like a Son of Man is actually coming to heaven, approaching the Ancient of Days (namely, God) and not coming to earth. In other words, it is not about the parousia–the 2nd coming of the Lord from heaven to earth–but about the Lord’s ascension to the heavenly places where He receives from the “Ancient of Days” (the eternal God with no beginning or end) authority, glory, and power over all peoples and nations. This is the original context for the Son of Man sayings of Jesus. Viewed from this perspective, “until the Son of Man comes” has a reference to the post-resurrection ascension of Jesus to heaven:
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. (Acts 1:9 NRSV)
where he receives from God the Father all authority, glory, and power:
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. (Eph 1:20 & 21 NRSV)
Note the past tense “seated him at his right hand” meaning Paul is referring to the ascension of Christ as having already occurred. This is an event that has already taken place in Paul’s mind by the time he wrote Ephesians. It is certainly not “the end,” the time of Christ’s return and final judgment, the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth; what we normally think of as eschatology proper. Nor is this a realized eschatology, as if “the end” had already occurred with the events of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
These events inaugurated the Kingdom of Heaven. But an “inauguration” is not “the end” but a beginning. It is the “realized but not yet” quandary of the present condition we live in as Christian citizens of a Kingdom that has been inaugurated but has not yet been fully established. That’s a mouthful. To put it simply, we are living in the last days.
Note the plural.
Schweitzer may be right that Jesus was an eschatological prophet, but Schweitzer got Jesus’ eschatology wrong. Matthew 10:23b, “until the Son of Man comes” is an inauguration and a beginning of something new rather than the final eschatological end, the day of judgment. It is not the parousia–the 2nd coming of Christ to earth–but the ascension of Jesus to the heavenlies some forty days after his resurrection from the dead.