Why did Jesus say he would crush some to pieces?

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If you’re looking for a good example of how conservative evangelicalism gets the Jesus story wrong (albeit with the best of intentions), look no further than this piece on The Gospel Coalition site, in which Steve Mathewson asks, “Why Did Jesus Say He Will Crush Some to Pieces?”

It has to do with the parable of the vineyard, which I take to be perhaps the clearest and most precise summary of the story about Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. Because the tenants violently reject not only the servants sent to the vineyard but also the son, the owner will kill the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Not only that, but the stone rejected by the builders will become the cornerstone of a new temple, and “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (Lk. 20:18).

“Shocking words,” Mathewson says. What are we to make of this ferocious Jesus who “crushes people”, who grinds his enemies to powder? “Where is his love? How can Jesus tell his followers to love their enemies… if he does not love his?” He suggests a number of ways in which we may make sense of this, and I will suggest a number of ways in which I think this line of defence is unhelpful.

Jesus speaks about the enemies of God

This is certainly true. “Jesus will not crush random people—those at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Mathewson takes us back to Zechariah’s prophesy that Israel would be saved from its enemies. “Jesus becomes the instrument of this crushing judgment.”

But in what sense? How? Who were Zechariah’s enemies. The unrighteous in Israel? The occupying Roman force? How would Jesus become the instrument of a crushing judgment on these specific groups of people? The reference to Jesus as the “foundation stone for a renewed temple” perhaps serves as an allusion to the destruction of the old temple, but why suppress the controlling historical frame of the parable? Because ordinary Christian folk today are not interested in history?

It’s no contradiction for Jesus to express both love and wrath

The reference to Isaiah 28:21 in this context is interesting: “For the LORD will rise up as on Mount Perazim; as in the Valley of Gibeon he will be roused; to do his deed—strange is his deed! and to work his work—alien is his work!” (Is. 28:21).

The inference is that wrath is “unnatural to God”—a “strange work” and an “alien task”. But Isaiah’s point is not that wrath is alien to God; it is that the wrath of God will be a shock to, or foreign to, the complacent people of Jerusalem.

They think that they have made a covenant with death: “when the overwhelming whip passes through it will not come to us, for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter” (Is. 28:15). They think that death can’t touch them.

And look what follows! Isaiah again uses the metaphor of a cornerstone laid in Zion at a time of political crisis:

therefore thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’ And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plumb line; and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter.” Then your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand; when the overwhelming scourge passes through, you will be beaten down by it. (Is. 28:16–18)

This is a restatement of an earlier passage, when Isaiah was told that the Lord of hosts would become “a stone of offence and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken” (Is. 8:14–15).

The narrative context is clear. The inhabitants of Jerusalem do not fear the Lord (cf. Is. 8:12-13), they do not enact justice and righteousness, they dismiss the threat of the Assyrian invasion, but the prophet has “heard a decree of destruction from the Lord of hosts against the whole land” (Is. 28:22). God will become for his people a “stone of offence and a rock of stumbling”. This is the primary source of Jesus’ language. Perhaps in Isaiah 28:16 the “precious cornerstone” is the saying “the one who trust will not hasten”—note the contrast with those who have made Jerusalem a “refuge of lies”. However we understand it exactly, the metaphor signals a day of judgment against the city that will mean destruction for the wicked and narrow escape for the righteous (cf. Hab. 2:4).

Jesus instructed his disciples to love their enemies, to love those who persecuted them, but his warning to the scribes and the chief priests here in Jerusalem is stark and unequivocal: they have set themselves in opposition to YHWH and the result will be an act of God comparable to the destruction wrought by the Assyrians and the Babylonians centuries before.

Jesus loved his enemies by dying for them

Mathewson points to Romans 3:25-26: Jesus’ death turns out to be an expression of love because it “satisfies God’s righteous anger against sin… and thereby allows him to declare guilty sinners just without violating his justice”. But the most that we can say, presumably, is that Jesus’ death accounted for the forgiveness of that quite small part of Israel which repented of its opposition to YHWH and believed that YHWH had raised his Son from the dead. It doesn’t alter the fact that the greater part of Israel would carry on marching stubbornly, blindly down the broad road of history until it arrived at the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Jesus loved his people, God’s people, just as Paul did (cf. Rom. 9:1-5), but the nation was bringing calamity on its own head.

God is patient in pouring out his crushing judgment through Jesus

Yup, God waited forty years.

I’m not sure about the “through Jesus” part. In Psalm 118 the stone rejected by the builders, which becomes the cornerstone, is the king, who has been saved by God from his enemies and from death. Luke’s Jesus applies this to himself as the son rejected by the wicked tenants, but he also makes himself “that stone” on which many in Israel will fall and which will crush them.

This perhaps signifies a future act of Jesus as the judge of Israel. Remember that John said of him that “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). But Isaiah’s usage of the metaphor may suggest that it was the reaction of the Jews to the presence of Jesus in Jerusalem at that moment that would determine the future act of divine judgment. After all, the son is not the executor of judgment in the parable. Rather, it is the murder of the son when he is present that provokes the owner of the vineyard, who is not the son, to kill the tenants.

Jesus’s future crushing of evildoers frees us from taking revenge now

The parable is aimed at the leaders of Israel. It has no application beyond the eschatological horizon of early first century Israel. The crushing has happened. So there is no need to worry about a “future crushing of evildoers”. Instead, at the final judgment all evildoers will be thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death. We should worry about that instead.

Salvation in no one else

The narrative frame is still in force when we get to Peter’s affirmation before the Jewish Council: “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11–12).

Mathewson applies this directly to the modern reader: “Jesus is the cornerstone. What you experience from him depends on your response. He will crush the proud who resist and oppose him. He will save those who call on his name in faith. Both responses are entirely consistent. Both flow from God’s astounding love.”

But that is beyond the purview of the disciples in Jerusalem in the weeks after Pentecost. When Peter says “we”, he means “we Jews”. When he says “saved”, he means saved from the destruction of Jerusalem, prophesied first by Jesus and then by the prophetic Pentecost community. He means, quite simply, that there is no one else, whether Jew or Gentile, who can save Israel from the impending wrath of God.

I’m not saying that the general point that Mathewson makes is wrong. I’m saying that he has offered us a poor interpretation of the New Testament.

A man crushed by a rock in Pompeii?

The picture at the top shows the skeleton of a man killed when the Roman city of Pompeii was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. It was first assumed that he had been crushed by the large boulder that was positioned over his head, but archaeologists have had second thoughts. When the rock was removed, it was found that the man’s skull was intact. So the theory now is that he died from asphyxia caused by the pyroclastic flow from the volcano. The rock fell later.

Still, amid the abundant sexually explicit graffiti found on the walls of the buried city someone had scrawled the words “Sodom and Gomorrah”—presumably an outraged member of the local Jewish community. If he survived the disaster, he may well have felt that this was some measure of payback for the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. What goes around, comes around.

“So the theory now is that he died from asphyxia caused by the pyroclastic flow from the volcano. The rock fell later.”

That’s nowhere near as exciting and I suspect the victim ‘died of fright’ in the same manner as Goliath, i.e., such a thing had never entered his head before. ;)