“When they persecute you in one town, escape to another.
For I assure you: You will not have covered the towns of
Israel before the Son of Man comes”.
This saying, found in Matthew’s Gospel only, comes at the end of Jesus’ commission to the twelve apostles when he sent them out two by two.
The commission to the Twelve, as given in Matthew 10:5-23, has two parts, each with its own perspective. The first part (Matt. 10:5-18) deals with immediate situation, within the context of Jesus’ own Galilean ministry. The second part (Matt. 10:19-23) envisions a later period, when the apostles will be engaged in a wider ministry.
Think of the warning:
“Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles”. (Matt. 10:17, 18).
This reference to the Gentiles presents a contrast with the reference to them in Matthew 10:5, where they are excluded from the scope of the earlier preaching tour. The warnings just quoted have a close parallel in Mark 13:9-10, where the situation is that leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. And in both places the warning is followed by an assurance that, when the disciples are put on trial and required to bear witness to their faith, the Holy Spirit will put the right words into their mouths.
It is this second part of the commission in Matthew 10 that is rounded off with the difficult saying “You will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes”.
What, then, does the saying mean in this context? It means, simply, that the evangelization of Israel will not be completed before the end of the present age, which comes with the advent of the Son of Man. The parallel passage in Mark has a similar statement, which, however, takes more explicit account of Gentile as well as Jewish evangelization: before the end time, “the gospel must first be preached to all nations” (Mark 13:10).
Paul, from his own perspective, expresses much the same hope when he foresees the salvation of “all Israel”, the sequel to the ingathering of the full sum of Gentile believers, being consummated at the time when “the deliverer will come from Zion”
The wording of Matthew 10:23 is earlier in its reference than that of the other passages just mentioned: here witness-bearing to the Gentiles receives a brief mention, but all the emphasis lies on the mission to the Jews.