Matthew 10:16-23 continues Jesus’ instructions to the disciples as they are about to go on their first “missionary” journey – a tour of Israelite towns with the goal of declaring the nearness of the Kingdom of God. You don’t have to look hard to find that verses 16-23 (and beyond) have been read in a much larger context than those of verses 5-15. While verses 5-15 are fairly localized, fitting the limited scale of the mission and historical reality, 16-23 suggest that the disciples will meet with persecution – something that the Gospel record itself does not suggest happened during this mission. Christians over the last 2000 years have looked at these verses and found repeated warning and direction as they continue to spread the news of the Kingdom.
10.16 Ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἀποστέλλω ὑμᾶς ὡς πρόβατα ἐν μέσῳ λύκων· γίνεσθε οὖν φρόνιμοι ὡς οἱ ὄφεις καὶ ἀκέραιοι ὡς αἱ περιστεραί. 10.17 προσέχετε δὲ ἀπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων· παραδώσουσιν γὰρ ὑμᾶς εἰς συνέδρια καὶ ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς αὐτῶν μαστιγώσουσιν ὑμᾶς· 10.18 καὶ ἐπὶ ἡγεμόνας δὲ καὶ βασιλεῖς ἀχθήσεσθε ἕνεκεν ἑμοῦ εἰς μαρτύριον αὐτοῖς καὶ τοῖς ἔθνεσιν. 10.19 ὅταν δὲ παραδῶσιν ὑμᾶς, μὴ μεριμνήσητε πῶς ἢ τί λαλήσητε· δοθήσεται γὰρ ὑμῖν ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ὥρᾳ τί λαλήσητε· 10.20 οὐ γὰρ ὑμεῖς ἐστε οἱ λαλοῦντες ἀλλὰ τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ πατρὸς ὑμῶν τὸ λαλοῦν ἐν ὑμῖν. 10.21 παραδῶσει δὲ ἀδελφὸς ἀδελφὸν εἰς θάνατον καὶ πατὴρ τέκνον, καὶ ἐπαναστήσονται τέκνα ἐπὶ γονεῖς καὶ θανατώσουσιν αὐτούς. 10.22 καὶ ἔσεσθε μισούμενοι ὑπὸ πάντων διὰ τὸ ὄνομα μου· ὁ δὲ ὑπομείνας εἰς τέλος οὗτος σωθήσεται. 10.23 ὅταν δὲ διώκωσιν ὑμᾶς ἐν τῇ πόλει ταύτῃ, φεύγετε εἰς τὴν ἑτέραν· ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐ μὴ τελέσητε τὰς πόλεις Ἰσραὴλ ἕως ἂν ἔλθῃ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.
10.16 Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 10.17 Be on guard against people, because they will hand you over to the local councils and you will be flogged in their synagogues. 10.18 And you will be tried before both governors and kings on account of me, in order that there would be an opportunity to offer proof to them and the nations. 10.19 But when they hand you over, don’t be concerned about how or what you are to speak: It will be provided to you in that hour what you are to say; 10.20 For it is not you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. 10.21 One sibling will hand over another sibling to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 10.22 You will be hated by all because of my name: but whoever endures to the end will be saved. 10.23 And when they persecute you in that city, flee to another. Truly I say to you, you will not have exhausted the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
Verse 10:6 provided me immediately with things to think about, as I already noted. What a lot of animal metaphors out of nowhere! Jesus points out that the disciples will be like “sheep among wolves.” This is followed by two parallel expressions to indicate the character to be displayed by disciples, as they make contact with “the wolves”: φρόνιμοι ὡς οἱ ὄφεις and ἀκέραιοι ὡς αἱ περιστεραί.
First, they are commanded to be φρόνιμοι, which has a rich range of meaning, including “wise”, “prudent”, “thoughtful”, “sensible”, and “clever”. Apparently this is a character trait that would have been associated with serpents, since Jesus presents it in a way that assumes the disciples will understand the association.
Second, they are told to be ἀκέραιοι – “pure”, or even “innocent”. Based on its basic association with the concept “unmixed”, I’m a little puzzled where the NLT gets its wording “harmless”. And this character trait is similarly associated with an animal – the dove or pigeon. The dove or pigeon, as noted by BDAG, is associated with many virtues by early Christians, and is similarly associated with the Holy Spirit in its descent at Jesus’ baptism.
Carson’s summation is well-done:
Doves are retiring but not astute; they are easily ensnared by the fowler. So Jesus’ disciples, in their mission as sheep among wolves, must be “shrewd,” avoiding conflicts and attacks where possible; but they must also be “innocent,” i.e., not so cautious, suspicious, and cunning that circumspection degenerates into fear or elusiveness. The balance is difficult, but not a little of Jesus’ teaching combines such poles of meaning.
Not to stop here with words that defy our modern context, Jesus continues, warning them that they will be handed over to the authorities, παραδώσουσιν…ὑμᾶς εἰς συνέδρια. Συνέδρια, here in the plural, has an array of possibilities for translation. BDAG identifies this reference as local governing councils, though συνέδριον could also refer to the high council in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin. At first I questioned why one would be chosen over the other of these possibilities, but after thought it become clear that the plural form argues in favor of the former option.
Continuing the onslaught of words from a foreign context, Jesus declares that because of their association with him, they will be tried ἐπὶ ἡγεμόνας δὲ καὶ βασιλεῖς “by governors and even kings”. Ἡγεμών could be used of anyone who rules, but here is probably referring (per BDAG) to the head imperial provincial governor; in Judea, the “procurators” or “prefects”.
The preposition ἐπί in verse 18 gave me a moment’s pause, but BDAG was instrumental in fleshing out what was going on. Ἀχθήσεσθε without ἐπί would give us something along the lines of “you will be arrested”, “you will be taken into custody.” But with ἐπί and an accusative noun phrase (usually a person or group), we have something more like, “you will be tried/arraigned before X” – X being the person officiating or deciding matters.
Verse 18 continues with εἰς μαρτύριον αὐτοῖς. μαρτύριον indicates “testimony” or “proof”, rather than the actual person giving testimony. With εἰς we have a goal, “for a testimony to them”, or a clearer but more verbose, “in order that there would be an opportunity to give testimony or proof.” However, this testimony is not just for the rulers, but also τοῖς ἔθνεσιν “to the nations.” BDAG indicates that this is more than just foreigners, but a reference to unbelievers in general, polytheists, those opposed to the sovereign God of Israel. Maybe Jesus has in mind those in the courts of the rulers – the professionals in the service of empire.
In verse 21, I translated ἀδελφός (found in both nominative and accusative) as “sibling.” Ἀδελφός could have the idea of “compatriot”, in which case translating as “sibling” would hide meaning. However, it appears clear that this is one of three references to family relations that will be perturbed by the testimony to Jesus.
Καὶ ἐπαναστήσονται τέκνα ἐπὶ γονεῖς “And children will rebel against their parents,” indicates more than just children being unruly or disobedient. Rather, the children will rise up in rebellion. It is clear that testimony concerning Jesus will be a polarizing message, one that rips right through the normal fabric of society.
Because of my name, διὰ τὸ ὄνομα μου…Jesus does not paint a picture of arms thrown wide open, with a promise of success to those who speak his name. Instead, they will receive hatred. As Matthew continues Jesus’ instructions, this theme will take flesh and become even more pronounced; what Jesus will experience will be what his disciples can expect to experience.
Finally, we come to verse 23, which is not so hard to translate if you mean “gloss”. But if you are trying to translate in context it is a little more difficult. οὐ μὴ τελέσητε τὰς πόλεις Ἰσραὴλ… could be rendered, “In no way will you complete Israel’s cities…” My Greek text lacks the article τοῦ before Ἰσραήλ that is present in some manuscripts, but this does not affect the translation – other than making case unclear since Ἰσραήλ does not decline. In context the genitive case seems natural to me. “Complete” seems awkward, and has also been rendered “go through” or similar in many translations. I like the feel of “exhaust”. Jesus seems to be saying that they should flee, and encouraging them that there will always be somewhere to run to. “Exhaust” gives just the right feel in that regard.
But Jesus’ final words in this set of verses make our reading of the entire passage more difficult: …ἕως ἂν ἔλθῃ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, “until the son of man comes.” What this coming refers to is not directly apparent – or at least not beyond argument. It seems transparent enough that ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου “son of man” is a self-reference by Jesus. But the timing Jesus is pointing to is not as clear without reference to other passages and frameworks.
Carson does a decent job (I think) defending the idea that the coming here refers to Jesus’ judgment on Israel in and through the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. All the other views seem to be unconvincing to me, not properly accounting for the specific reference to Israel, or making Jesus out to be mistaken, unaware and constantly adjusting his eschatology. The result is something like: “Truly I say to you, you will not have exhausted the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes [to judge Israel, the faithless nation that has repeatedly rejected its prophets and now its Savior and his messengers].” In this sense Jesus’ coming referred to here is actualized from our standpoint – and is not to be equated or associated with his second coming at which point all will be judged.
A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd Edition) [BDAG], University of Chicago Press 2000, ISBN 0226039331
A Reader’s Hebrew and Greek Bible [RHGB], Zondervan 2008, ISBN 9780310325895
Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8 [EBC8], Zondervan 1984, ISBN 9780310365006