Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Prophetic Trajectories in Matthew

Matthew 10 recounts the commission of the twelve disciples to take the good news of the kingdom to all the cities of Israel.

There is a specifically ethnic character to this set of instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” instructs the Lord.

At this time and for this specific purpose, the Lord equips his servants with a tool kit you and I do not possess in taking the message of gospel to the world today: he “gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.”

The First Phase of the Commission

This very limited, Jewish mission was a great success, at least in terms of addressing physical needs. The “tool kit” worked splendidly. Matthew does not tell us about it, but Mark says, “They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” and both Mark and Luke describe the return of the Twelve to report what God had done through them. In both Mark and Luke, the instructions to the disciples end with this first phase of the commission, the Twelve go out to evangelize the Jews, and the respective narrators move on to tell us about the perplexity of Herod the tetrarch and John the Baptist’s execution. In his following chapter, Luke describes a “second wave” of this same first phase of the commission with an almost-identical set of instructions, as seventy (or seventy-two) others are sent out because “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few”. This larger group of disciples later return to the Lord having had similar success.

In Matthew 10, however, the Lord continues giving the Twelve directions, and it is immediately apparent that he is speaking prophetically of another phase of the commission entirely, or perhaps we might call it an extension of the original commission into another time period. These are not instructions to the seventy-two, who Matthew does not mention, though he does reference the Lord’s line about “lambs in the midst of wolves” which Luke includes in the commissioning of the larger group.

The Second Phase of the Commission

No, this second set of instructions in Matthew 10 does not apply to the immediate job at hand; it is prophetic. Here is what he says:
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
“Beware of men,” he says, “for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues.” That definitely did not happen the first time out. If it had, the returning apostles would surely have mentioned it. Nor were either group of disciples who were given the original commission “dragged before governors and kings” the first time out, nor did they bear witness to Gentiles, who were declared off limits. The Lord has skipped forward in time to speak of another phase of the commission, and we have good reason to conclude his instructions were probably directed not just to the Twelve but to others not present at the time, and even to many yet to be born.

The Disciples as ‘Christians’

There is no getting around the fact that both the Lord himself and all twelve of his original disciples were Hebrews, Israelites, Jews, members of God’s chosen people. There are also plenty of times in the gospels when the Lord Jesus speaks to his disciples in which their ethnicity is completely irrelevant. We Gentile Christians find these moments easiest to relate to, because the things the Lord says to them about discipleship are almost always applicable to us today as his disciples as well.

For example, when the Lord says to his disciples, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you,” we too may blush with unexpected and undeserved pleasure at the thought that this statement might in some small measure be true of us as his disciples too. We do know what our master is doing. We have the entire New Testament to explain it to us and the Holy Spirit to give us understanding the original disciples didn’t have when these words were spoken. We, who have heard their message second, third, or fiftieth-hand, are fortunate enough to understand it better than they did at the time. Friends. Wow. That is something. My ethnicity doesn’t enter into the question of my friendship with the Lord Jesus at all; it is the fact that I am following Christ and seeking with all my heart to know him that allows me to think of myself in this way, and that is all that matters.

The Disciples as ‘The Remnant of Israel’

But Jesus also speaks to his disciples on occasion about times, places and situations having to do specifically with their nation and its dealings with God. From these moments I, as a Gentile, am quite reasonably shut out, except perhaps by some distant application of principle. In such circumstances, the Lord is addressing his disciples not just as followers of Christ, but as followers of Christ who represent the believing remnant of Israel, informed by the entire Old Testament and all its blessings, curses, promises and prophecies relating to the Jewish people in their relationship with their God. There are probably more of these peculiarly ethnic moments in Matthew than in any other gospel, and this, I believe, is one of those times.

So then, this second phase of the commission has no more to do with the Church than the first phase. Like the first, it is Jewish in character.

The evidence for this is considerable: (1) the scope of this second phase of the commission is also the “towns of Israel”, not the world; (2) when you tell a group of people they are going to bear witness before Gentiles, it is evident their ethnicity is a relevant issue; (3) a Gentile would not be flogged in a Jewish synagogue; (4) when the Lord says to his disciples, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household,” it is relevant to ask the question “Who is this ‘they’?” ... the answer, of course, being the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem, who accused to Lord not just of being possessed, but of being possessed by the chief of demons, giving him the power to drive out other demons; and (5) when you are being “dragged” before a court, the ethnicity of the presiding jurist is far less relevant than the ethnicity of those doing the dragging.

To sum up then, this second phase is to occur at a time when believing Jews — those who understand that their Old Testament and the prophesied hopes of their nation are all tied up in the person of Jesus of Nazareth — go out en masse with the intended purpose of taking the gospel to Jews who do not believe this at all, and who will prosecute, persecute, harass and kill them for imploring the nation to face up to its rejection of Messiah. It is Jews vs. Jews, and with respect to this commission, we Gentile disciples of Christ are mere spectators.

Times and Circumstances

Since this second phase of the commission is unarguably prophetic, we might reasonably ask the times and circumstances to which the Lord Jesus is referring.

Because the prophecy relates to a group of believing Jews commissioned to go through “all the towns of Israel”, it is exceedingly unlikely that it occurs during the Church Age. This is because for most of the last 2,000 years, there have been no “towns of Israel” to which members of the remnant of Israel might take the good news of the kingdom; the nation of Israel has been dispersed all over the world. We also do not see this happening today, and given the 1977 law passed by the Israeli parliament which makes it illegal to proselytize Jews and provides penalties of up to five years in prison for attempting to convince a Jew in Israel to change his religion and up to three years for any Jew who converts, the chances of us seeing the fulfillment of this second phase of the commission any time soon are not great. Christians make up less than 1% of Israel’s population, and many of these are Palestinians rather than Jews.

If not the Church Age, then this second phase of the commission must either have taken place in the thirty or forty years of transition prior to the Church Age, or else it is scheduled to take place immediately after our present era, during the Great Tribulation.

Before or After?

I will not waste time here considering the objection that every one of these described events has already occurred, as that is something the scriptures themselves do not say and cannot be made to conclusively prove. The vast majority of evangelicals these days reject dispensational premillennialism, and you can find their arguments in commentary after commentary on the internet and elsewhere. Their position stands or falls on reading the words “the Son of Man comes” to mean the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, the evidence for which I find uncompelling and mostly extra-scriptural.

It may be said in favor of their interpretation that we can certainly find in the book of Acts examples of believing Jews being dragged before governors and kings of various ethnicities for the sake of the Lord’s name, of persecutions and floggings and court appearances and impromptu speeches in front of dignitaries which were clearly the product of the Holy Spirit.

What we do not find in the book of Acts is evidence of brother delivering brother over to death, of children rising against parents and so on. Nor do we find evidence in the book of Acts that the church in Jerusalem was engaged in methodically taking the gospel through all the towns of Israel until interrupted by the Romans, but perhaps Luke wrote the book too early to include such things, or perhaps they were not his subject.

More importantly, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem does not remotely fit the Lord’s “Jew vs. Jew” description of coming persecution. Titus besieged Jerusalem because he had been charged with putting down the First Jewish Revolt, not because of any particular antipathy toward the followers of Christ. Persecution of followers of Christ by the Romans occurred only at the local level until the mid-third century AD. Back in AD70, the Roman State was quite uninterested in what the Jews it was killing believed about their Messiah. By way of contrast, what the Lord Jesus described to his disciples in Matthew 10 was persecution for HIS sake, not suppression of a nationalist uprising.

The Case for a Coming Fulfillment

From the scriptural evidence at least, it would seem that while some parts of the Lord’s prophecy may have been fulfilled in the transitional years prior to the Church Age, other parts still have yet to occur. And we read of a Great Tribulation evangel in which their fulfillment seems a far more likely prospect than that provided by the historical interpretation of the passage.

Revelation 7 speaks of the sealing of 144,000 people “from every tribe of the sons of Israel”, exactly the sort of event Jesus told his disciples to anticipate. 144,000 certainly beats twelve, or even seventy-two. This is right in sync with the prophecy of Zechariah, who wrote that in a future day, “I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” The apostle Paul also speaks of a spiritual restoration for Israel in Romans 11, and it seems hard to imagine how this might be accomplished apart from a faithful group of believing Jews taking the gospel to their hardened nation, a point Paul makes only a chapter earlier.

The Rest of Matthew 10

In any case, if we accept that the second phase of the commission of verses 16-23 contains instructions for disciples of a future time, whether we view that as the immediate or long term future, the remainder of Matthew 10, verses 24-42, take on an interesting quality, as they seem to be all part of the same discourse.

More than a few of these verses are “repurposed” in the gospels of Mark and Luke in much less obviously Jewish contexts, so I am not suggesting they have no relevance for the Church. However, in the context of carrying the gospel to a bitterly opposed Jewish nation during the Great Tribulation, where a gruesome death for the Jewish believer is the all-but-inevitable outcome of faithfulness to Christ, a statement like:
“Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows”
takes on a poignancy we might not read into it if we are not keeping its Tribulation context in mind.

Likewise, while small kindnesses during the Church Age carry little attendant risk, in a context in which identifying yourself with Israel’s Messiah is as likely as not to end in capital punishment, an apparently insignificant gesture like a “cup of cold water” given to a little one who is his disciple reveals itself as an act of extreme and self-sacrificial loyalty.

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