I taught a class, as part of a King’s School of Theology course over the weekend, on Jesus and the story of Israel. My starting point was to say that we have two basic ways of telling the story about Jesus. There is a vertical-theological story about the eternal Son who is incarnated in the middle of time, who dies for the sins of the world, and who returns to resume his place in the godhead for the rest of eternity. There is also a horizontal-historical story about Jesus. In this story he is the beloved Son sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel, whose death at the hands of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem opens up a difficult, narrow and hazardous path for the few who are prepared to follow him, and whose resurrection vouches for the continued existence of God’s people in the age to come.
In the first story, I suggested in my usual simplistic fashion, that Jesus is the ladder between sinful humanity and God. This is the story that evangelicals love. In the second story, Jesus is the rickety bridge between Israel’s past and Israel’s future, spanning the chasm of the war against Rome, where the fires of Gehenna burn. I didn’t actually mention the fires of Gehenna, but we had a good conversation about whether it was right to describe Jesus as a rickety bridge. This is the story which I think evangelicals need to learn to love.
There is an enigmatic saying in Luke’s Gospel that helps us to grasp the significance of Jesus’ death for the horizontal-historical story, as we approach Good Friday.
Jesus is being led away to be crucified. Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross behind him. They are followed by a “great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him” (Lk. 23:27). Jesus turns and speaks to the women:
Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry? (Lk. 23:28–31)
Luke then tells us that two “evil-doers” (kakourgoi) are led away to be put to death with him, and when they come to the place known as The Skull, Jesus and the two other men are subjected to the routine humiliation and agony of crucifixion. Certain rulers of the people mock Jesus’ pretension to be “the Christ of God, his Chosen One”, and the soldiers taunt him: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Lk. 23:37). A facetious inscription above his head reads “This is the King of the Jews.”
Let’s look at the details of Jesus’ gloomy pronouncement.
When Isaiah contemplates the restoration of sparsely populated Jerusalem after the exile, he exclaims: “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married” (Is. 54:1). Jesus’ vision of Jerusalem’s future overturns this optimism. A time is coming when fecundity and procreaton will be a curse, not a blessing.
He then quotes from the prophet Hosea. Israel has turned after other gods, but the Lord “will break down their altars and destroy their pillars”—a violent act of judgment to be carried out by the Assyrians. When this happens ‘they shall say to the mountains, “Cover us,” and to the hills, “Fall on us”’ (Hos. 10:1-8). “When I please, I will discipline them, and nations shall be gathered against them when they are bound up for their double iniquity” (Hos. 10:10). Jesus believes that the God of Israel will again gather the nations to discipline his people.
The meaning of the saying about the wood is not as transparent. Implicit in the metaphor is the idea that dry wood burns more easily than green or damp (hygros) wood, and it is not difficult to find statements in the prophets about the fire of God’s wrath that will consume the forest of Israel. For example, Ezekiel is instructed to prophesy against the forest land in the Negeb: “Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree” (Ezek. 20:47; cf. Is. 10:16-19; Jer. 11:16, 19; Ezek. 17:24; 24:9-10). Perhaps Jesus had this saying specifically in mind.
Nolland warns against being over-precise in explaining the difference between the “green” and the “dry” wood. But there must be some sense in which the treatment of Jesus foreshadows the fire of God’s judgment that will destroy Jerusalem within a generation. “Jesus does not consider himself to be a natural object of the disaster that he senses is soon to engulf his people as a judgment upon their sins,” Nolland writes, “but he goes to the cross at his Father’s bidding and as his destined mode of participation in that wider impending disaster.”1
In Jesus’ mind his suffering—and presumably the suffering of the two malefactors crucified alongside him—anticipated the much greater suffering that would be inflicted by the Romans on Judea in days to come. He has interpreted his own death as a prophetic warning of the terrors that will come upon Israel. The more significant event is still to come. Wright captures the historical dimension well:
Jesus was warning, one last time, of what would happen as a result of Jerusalem rejecting ‘the things that make for peace’. She had chosen the way of revolution, of confrontation with Rome; the youngsters playing in the streets in Jesus’ day would become the firebrands of the next generation, and would suffer the terrible consequences. The mothers should save their tears for when they would really be needed.2
As Wright goes on to point out, Jesus attaches no atonement theology to this interpretation of his death: “it holds out no hope of rescue, only the warning that what is happening to Jesus is a foretaste of what will happen to many more young Jews in the not too distant future” (570). Jesus explicitly locates his own death not in a general theology of atonement, but in the brutal tragedy of his people. Nevertheless, he given us solid grounds for speaking of his death in “penal” terms:
Having announced the divine judgment upon Temple and nation alike, a judgment which would take the form of awful devastation at the hands of the pagan forces, Jesus was now going ahead of the nation, to undergo the punishment which, above all, symbolized the judgment of Rome on her rebel subjects. If they did this to the one revolutionary who was not advocating rebellion against Rome, what would they do to those who were, and those who followed them? (570)
I rather think that Paul had something like this in mind when he wrote that “God, having sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned the sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:3-4). Crucified as a false messiah, alongside two other troublemakers, Jesus had the appearance of these misguided Jewish revolutionaries. In this way God condemned the particular form of Jewish sinfulness in the flesh (tēn harmartian en tēi sarki) flesh that would eventually bring disaster upon the dry wood of Israel. Those who would be “in Christ” must learn to walk “not according to the flesh”—not in self-destructive defiance of YHWH—“but according to the Spirit”.