But when they persecute you in this city, flee into another: for verily I say unto you, You shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man comes.
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Augustine of Hippo
Cont. Faust., xxii, 36: Not that the Saviour was unable to protect His disciples, does He here bid them fly, and Himself give them an example of it, but He instructed man’s weakness, that he should not presume to tempt God, when he has anything that he can do for himself, but should shun all evils.
City of God, book 1, ch. 22: He might have suffered them to lay violent hands upon themselves, that they might not fall into the hands of their persecutors. Therefore if He neither commanded nor allowed this mode of departure from this world to His own, for whom He Himself had promised that He would prepare an eternal mansion; whatever instances may be brought by the Gentiles who know not God, it is clear that this is not lawful for those who believe one true God.
Ep. 228: Let the servants of Christ then do as He commanded, or permitted them; as He fled into Egypt, let them fly from city to city, whenever any one of themis marked out for persecution; that the Church be not deserted, it will ...
Jesus commands his disciples to flee from one town to the next, and from that one to another. In saying this he is not telling his disciples to be cowardly. He is telling them not to cast themselves into dangers and die at once, for that would be a loss to those who otherwise will benefit from the teaching.
Flee into another. Tertullian, with some others, held it never lawful to fly in the time of persecutions, against both the doctrine and example of our Saviour, Christ.
You shall not finish St. Chrysostom thinks the sense of these words is, you shall not go through, and have finished your preaching in all the cities of Israel, till I, who follow you, shall come, and join you again. Others expound it, till the coming of me, your Messias, shall be published, and owned after my resurrection. (Witham)
He then tells them to flee out of one city into another. This means that his message would first go beyond the borders of Judea and pass into Greece. Then the messengers would be harassed and the various apostles would suffer among the cities of Greece. At last the message would be established among all the Gentiles. He also wished to indicate that the Gentiles would believe in the apostles’ preaching but that Israel alone would not believe until his own return. For this reason he said, “You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes,” that is, after the conversion of all of the Gentiles. Israel will be left, and when he comes in splendor, it will fill out the number of the holy and be established in the church.
This should be read as referring to the time when the apostles were sent forth to preach. It was properly said to them: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,” because they should not fear persecution but should turn away from it. We see that this is what the believers did in the first days. When persecution began in Jerusalem, they scattered throughout all Judea. Their time of trial thus became a seedbed for the good news. On the spiritual level we propose this symbolic interpretation. When we are persecuted in one city—that is, in one book or passage in Scripture—we will flee to other cities, that is, to other books. No matter how menacing the persecutor may be, he must come before the judgment seat of the Savior. Victory is not to be granted to our opponents before we have done this.
This must be referred to the time when the Apostles were sent to preach, when it was said to them, “Go not into the way of the Gentiles;” they should not fear, but may shun persecution. This we see the believers did in the beginning, when on a persecution arising in Jerusalem they were scattered throughout all Judaea, and thus the season of tribulation was made the seedtime of the Gospel.
Spiritually, we may say; When they shall persecute you in one book or one passage of Scripture, let us flee to other volumes, for however contentious the adversary may be, protection will come from the Saviour before the victory is yielded to the enemy.
Having spoken of those fearful and horrible things, enough to melt very adamant, which after His cross, and resurrection, and assumption, were to befall them, He directs again His discourse to what was of more tranquil character, allowing those whom He is training to recover breath, and affording them full security. For He did not at all command them, when persecuted, to close with the enemy, but to fly. That is, it being so far but a beginning, and a prelude, He gave His discourse a very condescending turn. For not now of the ensuing persecutions is He speaking, but of those before the cross and the passion. And this He showed by saying, You shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of Man be come. That is, lest they should say, What then, if when persecuted we flee, and there again they overtake us, and drive us out?— to destroy this fear, He says, You shall not have gone round Palestine first, but I will straightway come upon you.
And see how here again He does ...
But that they should not say, What then if we fly from persecution, and again they cast us out thence whither we have fled? To remove this fear, He says, "Verily, I say unto you, ye shall not have completed” that is, yes hall not have made the circuit of Palestine and return to Me, before I shall take you to Me.
Or; He foretels that they shall not have brought all the cities of Israel to the faith by their preaching, before the Lord’s resurrection be accomplished, and a commission given them to preach the Gospel throughout the world.
Be it known moreover, that as this precept respecting endurance under persecution specially belongs to the Apostles and their successors, men of fortitude, so the permission to fly is sufficiently proper for the weak in the faith, to whom the tender Master condescends, lest if they should offer themselves for martyrdom, under the pain they should deny the faith; and thesin of flight is lighter than that of denial. But though by their flight they hewed that they had not the constancy of perfect faith, yet their desert was great, seeing they were ready to leave all for Christ. So that if He had not given them permission to fly, some would have said that they were aliens from the glory of the heavenly kingdom.
. The fearful things spoken of above, such as "They will hand you over" and "You will be hated," concerned those things which would take place after the Ascension. What is spoken of now concerns that which would take place before the Cross. "You will not be persecuted through all the cities of Israel before I shall come to you." He commands them to flee from their persecutors. For it is of the devil for a man to throw himself into manifest danger and thus become the cause of condemnation to those who would slay him and the detriment of those whom he was about to benefit by his preaching. "Till the Son of Man be come" — do not understand by this the second coming, but rather, His drawing together with them and the comfort that He would give them yet before the Cross. For when they had been sent out and had preached, they again returned to Christ and were together with Him.