John the Baptist and the wrath to come

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What did John the Baptist have in mind when he warned the Sadducees and Pharisees about the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7; Lk. 3:7)? Is there any scope for thinking that he is talking about more than—that his language exceeds or transcends—the disastrous events of AD 70? This is one of those posts that started out as a comment but got too big for its boots. It develops part of the argument put forward in ”Getting saved in the Gospels”.

I think we have to assume that if a Jewish prophet in the first century warns the leaders of Israel about the wrath to come, tells them that trees which do not bear good fruit will be cut down, and uses the language of threshing, chaff, winnowing and fire, he is speaking, as the prophets did, about God’s judgment on Jerusalem.

I don’t think there’s any question that John the Baptist had in mind the coming destruction of Jerusalem or something very much like it.

I don’t think he had in mind anything other than the punishment, refining, and reformation of Israel associated with the end of the age of second temple Judaism, climaxing in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

John gets his imagery from the prophets, and the prophets use it to speak about God’s judgment of his people in the form of invasion, destruction, and exile:

At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem, “A hot wind from the bare heights in the desert toward the daughter of my people, not to winnow or cleanse, a wind too full for this comes for me. Now it is I who speak in judgment upon them.” (Jer. 4:11–12)

I will scatter you like chaff driven by the wind from the desert. (Jer. 13:24)

I have winnowed them with a winnowing fork in the gates of the land; I have bereaved them; I have destroyed my people; they did not turn from their ways. (Jer. 15:7)

Therefore they shall be like the morning mist or like the dew that goes early away, like the chaff that swirls from the threshing floor or like smoke from a window. (Hos 13:3)

Judgment against Israel’s enemies, including Babylon, could be announced in similar terms—it is the language of the historical judgment of God against a people, nation or city:

O my threshed and winnowed one, what I have heard from the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, I announce to you. (Is. 21:10)

Behold, I make of you a threshing sledge, new, sharp, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff; you shall winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the tempest shall scatter them. (Is. 41:15–16)

Thus says the LORD: “Behold, I will stir up the spirit of a destroyer against Babylon, against the inhabitants of Leb-kamai, and I will send to Babylon winnowers, and they shall winnow her, and they shall empty her land, when they come against her from every side on the day of trouble. (Jer. 51:1–2)

References to fire in relation to judgment against Jerusalem are too numerous to list, but this verse should be noted as the source of John’s “unquenchable fire” imagery:

And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (Is. 66:24)

In Mark 9:43-49 Jesus links together Gehenna as a symbol for the destruction of Jerusalem, the image of “unquenchable fire” from Isaiah’s description of the corpses strewn on the ground outside Jerusalem, the bodies of those Jews who rebelled against YHWH, and the obscure idea that “everyone will be salted with fire”. The phrase “Gehenna of fire” presumably is a simple conflation of the two images (Matt. 5:22; 18:9).

Nothing is in view here other than the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome and the punishment of the generation of Jews which would again “rebel” against YHWH.

The prophetic imagery is focused sharply and consistently on the foreseen catastrophe of the war against Rome. To claim otherwise is theologically motivated wishful thinking.

Malachi associates the coming of the messenger who will prepare the way for YHWH to come with a refining fire to judge the priesthood:

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. (Mal 3:1–2)

Malachi goes on to say that a day is coming, “burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (Mal. 4:1). John must have been remembering this text—whether the historical John or the “literary” John—and we must assume that he was likewise speaking about an impending judgment/refining/reformation of Israel. The prophet Elijah (ie. John) will come to restore Israel. If he fails, God will “come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal. 4:5-6).

The reference to the Spirit may well be part of the judgment message rather than an allusion to Pentecost.

  • Note, in the first, place that John’s words are not addressed to Israel generally but specifically to the Sadducees and Pharisees. They are words of rebuke and condemnation, not of hope. Mark does not have the explicit confrontation or the sayings about judgment.
  • Grammatically, I think, there is one baptism—not a baptism with the Holy Spirit for those who repent and a baptism with fire for the wicked.
  • Isaiah connects washing, fire and the Spirit of God in speaking about judgment on unrighteous Jerusalem: “when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning” (Is. 4:4).
  • Wind or breath is frequently a means of refining or judging the people in the Old Testament (cf. Is. 11:4; 29:6; 30:28; 57:13; Ezek. 13:13).

So the overall thought, I suggest, is very simple. Many Jews were on a broad road leading to destruction; they would be destroyed in the fire of God’s wrath. A few would find the narrow road leading to the life of the age to come; they are the wheat gathered into the barn, the “lost” reconciled to Abraham, the poor in spirit who will gain the kingdom of God, the fish kept by the angels, etc.

Nothing in the passage points beyond this historical context. The prophetic imagery is focused sharply and consistently on the foreseen catastrophe of the war against Rome. To claim otherwise is theologically motivated wishful thinking.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 10/14/2016 - 13:27 | Permalink

Nope. (Surprise surprise). But I’m looking at the meaning of John (and Gehenna) in terms of the entire biblical narrative, not desiccated bits of it which leave out things that do not fit. The major interpretive issue is this: was John saying business pretty much as normal, except that some unusual events might be on their way, like destruction of temple, Jerusalem, and all the ‘baddies’ in the gospels whom Jesus had to contend with? Or was he preparing the way for a much greater transition to come, which would bring a major change to the narrative, which actually turned out to be where the narrative was heading all along?

Just to pick out one or two items.

Threshing and winnowing — OT antecedents use it as a term of judgment only. John the Baptist adds something, and speaks of gathering into the barn as well as burning the separated chaff.

This should alert us to the meaning of “Holy Spirit and fire” — Luke 3:16. A reasonable interpretation of this would assume that the prediction is fulfilled in Luke’s continuation of the story in Acts 2:3-4. But since that too is being questioned, we might consider the double edged character of John’s prophecy. The threshing/winnowing separates wheat and chaff, one for the barn, the other for burning. The fiery Spirit (“Holy Spirit and fire” it’s technically called a hendiadys) for purifying/gathering may be contrasted with the “unquenchable fire” for destroying.

Or they may be two sides of the same phenomenon, as Mark 9:48-49 also suggests. Fire for destroying — fire for purifying — “everyone will salted with fire” — the fire will be like salt which will also have this dual effect. “Our God is a consuming fire”.

Who was John addressing? Certainly he turns to address the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3:7, which precedes the discourse. But in Luke 3:7 it is simply “the crowds” that receive a tongue lashing, and then, after an interval between 3:14 and 15, the passage continues with “The people were all waiting expectantly, and were wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ”. It’s then that John describes the coming “of one more powerful than I” who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire etc.

The implication is this. In Matthew, the editorial interests of the author pick out the religious leaders for special excoriation. But the crowds are still watching and listening, so the discourse includes them as well. Luke emphasises this latter intention by having John focus exclusively on the crowds — who would benefit from receiving the Holy Spirit and fire (hendiadys), and be gathered like the wheat, if they responded positively. The opposite would be true of a negative response: chaff to be burned with “unquenchable fire”.

But how to interpret the meaning of the destructive “unquenchable fire”? It depends very much on who you think Jesus is — a question which the narrative historical approach doesn’t like to look into too closely. If you take the broader narrative interpretation — into which AD 70 fits, but by no means exhausts the meaning, you come up with some disturbing possibilities to do with the destiny not simply of Israel but of the whole earth. To avoid these kinds of questions — simple: desiccate the total NT narrative, and don’t let the bits talk to each other — or to pursue the jigsaw metaphor: make sure you keep the bits separated in tightly sealed boxes.

@peter wilkinson:

I don’t understand what your point is. Of course there are two sides to the coming judgment, destruction and restoration. It really looks as though you are disagreeing for disagreement’s sake. These statements from the post seem pretty clear to me:

I don’t think he had in mind anything other than the punishment, refining, and reformation of Israel associated with the end of the age of second temple Judaism, climaxing in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

John must have been remembering this text—whether the historical John or the “literary” John—and we must assume that he was likewise speaking about an impending judgment/refining/reformation of Israel.

A few would find the narrow road leading to the life of the age to come; they are the wheat gathered into the barn, the “lost” reconciled to Abraham, the poor in spirit who will gain the kingdom of God, the fish kept by the angels, etc.

The point is that it is all wihtin the nrrative of the renewal of historical Israel. But to dismiss the war against Rome as “some unusual events” otherwise it’s business as normal, is absurd. It hardly does justice to Jesus’ teaching. Half of the Old Testament is preoccupied with the analogous Babylonian invasion and exile. It’s history as usual, but the theological significance of the foreseen historical events (see the whole of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse) is massive.

@Andrew Perriman:

The extracts you have quoted from your piece are precisely what I am questioning, with reasons given which you haven’t commented on. The Babylonian invasion wasn’t simply analogous, but precursor to the final invasion, which was not “history as usual”.

Our disagreement is over how much changed in history. I think the changes you suggest don’t go far enough, and take you to some insupportable conclusions (which I’ve drawn attention to in previous posts, but have passed without comment).

I’m presenting a framework which makes sense of the whole story, and is the unifying thread of the New Testament. Your framework separates (I used the word “desiccates”) different parts of the NT story and assigns them to separate compartments. This not “disagreeing for disagreement’s sake”, but making critical and supported observations.

Anyway, you’ve heard enough from me for now. Thanks for the opportunity to think things through which your posts have provided.

@Andrew Perriman:

P.S. Just to demystify things slightly — I decided not to reply in detail to your post, but was slightly frustrated in that what had been included in the comment discussion on a previous post jumped to become the subject of a new post. As this has happened a couple of times, I just wanted to give a general summary of what I feel is a feature of the way you interpret things, and what you automatically rule interpretively inadmissible.

For example: that there can be no further significance to OT prophecy other than OT history itself (or immediately following) — the rest is analogy; that there is no further significance to what John the Baptist warns of other than 70 AD; that Jesus has nothing further in view than history up to 70 AD; that there is no great continuity between gospels and letters except perhaps the overarching ‘Jesus is Lord’; that there is a compartmentalisation of Jesus, Paul, kingdom, new creation etc.

When you identify this as a feature of the whole, I think it suggests weakness in the rationale, not only in the light of compelling features suggesting a more direct continuity, but also in your assertions of continuing history where there is actual discontinuity — such as the assertion of the survival and continuity of Israel beyond AD 70 (within the NT framework — this is nothing to do with the historical survival to this day of the Jews), when the letters and reconstituted people including Gentiles who do not have to observe what is essential to Jewish identity say the contrary.

By contrast, I understand much in the OT that not only looks forward to 1st century AD events including Jesus, but that the story itself compels us to see that historic Israel is fading even after return from exile, that the OT story of Israel always was a precursor to a greater extra Jewish fulfilment (ie promises to the nations through Abraham; new covenant in Deuteronomy 30:6 which was fulfilled as an extra Israel based reality), and that this prophetic fulfilment which occurred outside the terms of historic Jewish identity in the NT is the actual fulfilment of OT prophecy, such as Isaiah in particular. Given that Paul’s ministry begins so soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that Jesus is the foundation of Paul’s ministry as well as its content, it seems bizarre to suggest that he has an entirely different focus — ie political overthrow of historic Rome as opposed to Jesus focusing on historic Jerusalem. (Maybe that isn’t bizarre to you, but I’m sure it would be to many).

Given that Paul also looks forward to a new creation, it also seems to me bizarre to arbitrarily separate this from the Rome-focused ministry, and suggest it was not for that time and place. But if Jesus was introducing the new creation in himself, through who he was and through his resurrection, which the letters dwell on extensively as being ours by the Holy Spirit deposit, it is a small but logical step to view many of the statements of the gospels as having this frame in view, whatever they may also have been saying about AD 70.

This is why I used the rather provocative term “desiccation”. I wasn’t commenting on the inner detail of the immediate post itself, but suggesting a hermeneutical weakness. We may have been at cross-purposes (again). The detail is in the comments submitted to previous posts, not least on John the Baptist. I hope that makes sense.

This postscript is intended to be a clarification — not an invitation for yet more comments!

@peter wilkinson:

…that there is a compartmentalisation of Jesus, Paul, kingdom, new creation etc.

This in a way gets to the core of the narrative-historical hermeneutic. Do we tell the story in the way that history works? Or do we allow for rewriting, reinterpretation, a blurring of boundaries, a merging of horizons, a heightened and unhistorical awareness of how things work out?

From a historical point of view there is nothing wrong with supposing that John or Jesus looked no further than AD 70, even allowing for prophetic foresight. Historical figures presuppose historical contexts. Neither Napoleon nor Churchill foresaw Brexit. It was beyond their historical horizons.

That imposes a certain compartmentalisation on history, but it doesn’t mean there is no continuity. The continuity becomes apparent retrospectively.

Go back to the 5 act play model. You don’t learn everything about how the story works out in act 1 or act 2. The story unfolds, there are twists and turns, the unexpected happens.

What you are proposing is a measure of sensus plenior—that the text transcends the historical meaning, which is the traditional approach. You favour Motyer’s commentary on Isaiah, I favour Watt’s.

Historically I can see no problem at all with thinking that Jesus looked no further than the coming judgment on Israel and establishment of God’s reign over his reformed people. He has nothing to say about the expansion of the church beyond Israel or the inclusion of Gentiles and all the problems that would entail. The Evangelists show remarkable historical restraint in that respect.

The disciples then discover what that means for the early Jewish church, and more importantly Paul, having had a dramatic encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus (his experience was certainly compartmentalised), came to understood what the reformation of Israel (and in particular the resurrection of Jesus) meant for the nations. That is all of a piece.

So obviously you can argue for a different approach. There are plenty of books out there that recommend your way of telling the story. My approach on this blog is to ask whether we cannot actually come up with a powerful and comprehensive evangelical self-understanding on the basis of a thoroughgoing historical reading that doesn’t rush the texts to get where we want to go. History is slow. It takes time. History is not theology.

Given that Paul’s ministry begins so soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that Jesus is the foundation of Paul’s ministry as well as its content, it seems bizarre to suggest that he has an entirely different focus - ie political overthrow of historic Rome as opposed to Jesus focusing on historic Jerusalem.

That’s not a very accurate restatement of my argument, but the answer is all there in Acts 17.

Finally, Jesus talks at great length about kingdom, but the kitizō word-group appears only twice in the Gospels and then with reference to the old creation rather than the new (Matt. 19:4; Mk. 13:19). Kingdom everywhere in the Old Testament and in second temple Jewish writings and, I would argue, in the New Testament is a political motif, not a cosmic motif.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thank you, but it’s not so ‘either/or’ as you suggest. I want to take full account of history, but there is a point, in Isaiah for instance, where immediate or actual OT time frame history has to be weighed against what Isaiah is describing, and the way he is describing it, with the question of whether this was fulfilled at all before Jesus came, and whether it has been fulfilled even now — sensus plenior or not.

In the NT, questions have to be asked not simply about Jesus as a kind of cypher who filled in some blanks for Israel’s history, but about who he was. Word counts have some value, but statistics do not always tell us everything about their significance. If Jesus came not simply to introduce the next phase in Israel’s history, but to introduce in himself the new creation, through his earthly ministry and supremely in his resurrection, which he then transferred to us, ontologically, through the deposit of the Spirit, then word-counts do not necessarily tell us how significant this is as the basis of the immediately continuing New Testament story. It should be overwhelmingly apparent that this was of immediate and on-going significance for the disciples, and for Paul as reflected in the letters.

If this is correct, then there is a seamless transition between gospels and letters via Acts. It is also a development of such importance that it becomes centrally significant for the world beyond Israel, and the created world itself. On this basis, it is not only sensible but necessary to read the gospels as not simply describing a future bounded by AD 70, but as a turning point in the world’s as well as Israel’s history. It is, to my mind, antiquarian myopia to fail to read the gospels in this way, not least from the perspective of what Acts unleashes on the world, and with the letters, Paul’s especially, providing an explanatory commentary.

If the Exodus was a story still in search of an ending in Jesus’s day, Jesus provided it. If much of Isaiah is prophecy searching for an adequate fulfilment in Jesus’s day, Jesus also provided it, in himself and in what happened through him. It’s through this approach that the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle from the OT, its story and its prophetic announcements, fit together. Kingdom is the theme of the synoptics and bookends Acts. Jesus as the beginning of the new creation is the figure central to the whole story. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation/creature”. The pieces of the jigsaw fit perfectly together from the start, and need not be kept in separate boxes for separate times.

I alluded to Kidner and Motyer on Isaiah simply to show that some of the best trained biblical commentators reflect the interpretation of Isaiah 65 that I was suggesting. You can disagree, but you can’t say there is no other possible interpretation than your own, which is what was being implied. Whether you go all the way with what they say is another matter. I would be surprised if any bible expositor tried to suggest that little or none of Isaiah or any other OT prophecy did not find its fulfilment in Jesus and him alone, and through him a picture of a world transformed, in a way that Jerusalem/Israel never was, and though we have a downpayment now (already) the full payment is yet to come (not yet). The question is not simply how have we written ourselves into the story/five act drama or whatever, but how much of the downpayment do we want to receive in order to propel the story forwards?

@peter wilkinson:

If Jesus came not simply to introduce the next phase in Israel’s history, but to introduce in himself the new creation, through his earthly ministry and supremely in his resurrection, which he then transferred to us, ontologically, through the deposit of the Spirit, then word-counts do not necessarily tell us how significant this is as the basis of the immediately continuing New Testament story. 

So why doesn’t he actually say this? Why doesn’t he say, “I have come to introduce the new creation”? You are putting words in Jesus’ mouth. What’s good about that? It’s all supposition.

If you read Jewish apocalyptic literature, you find that there are visions of a renewed creation, when the creator is finally vindicated. But before we get there, there is a lot of intermediate “political” stuff which made use of “new creation” themes, as Isaiah, but which had to do with Israel’s place in relation to the nations.

I think Jesus and the apostles assume this, but they understand that YHWH will bring this about in a very different manner, through the suffering and vindication of the Righteous One.

The full narrative is there, running all the way through to the renewal of creation, but Israel takes its historical existence utterly seriously, and history has to come first. Israel must be restored, YHWH must rule over the nations.

@Andrew Perriman:

That’s a reasonable question, but equally you could ask: why did Jesus not immediately announce that he was Israel’s messiah, the restored king of David, who would replace the Jerusalem temple with himself, pour out the Holy Spirit, bring about the resurrection of the dead, and defeat the pagan gentiles (if that’s what you believe Jesus came to do to the gentiles ultimately)?

The answer to some of these questions might be similar to the question about why he did not announce the start of the new creation, in the way that you are suggesting. In terms of the story, I think he did. But he also worked within what was culturally and politically possible at the time, and wanted people to find these things out about himself on the basis of the credibility of his character and deeds, rather than political rhetoric, which might have aborted his mission and prevented the formation of his discipleship band who on whose continuation of the mission his own mission depended. Jesus seemed to be aware that there were those who wanted him to be a messiah of the wrong kind and for the wrong reasons. The answer is also that he did model many of the things which he did not announce publicly. They are there to see if we look and listen carefully.

The same is true of Jesus as inaugurating the new creation. He adopts the signs of creation renewal which are provided in Isaiah, which Isaiah’s new exodus is pointing towards. The biggest modelling of creation renewal was in his resurrection, which became the basis of creation renewal thought in Paul’s letters, made real for us by the Holy Spirit deposit. He also modelled creation renewal through his reshaping of the Exodus story in himself. The Exodus story was now leading not to Canaan but himself, through a new covenant which depended on his death. The other side of that death was resurrection — which was unquestionably the beginning of the new creation.

Jesus’s teaching is apocalyptic in the sense that it prepares his followers for the new age to come — both in this life and the completed new creation — which is a decisive shift from the present arrangements. For this, you need new creation character, which is what sermon on the mount is about, which also requires a reorientation in relation to the Law — not least in recognising that the law is fulfilled on the principle of love (for God and neighbour). The Law operated as an interim arrangement which worked with the world as it was at the time. That time, and all the world-systems then and now, are passing and only interim arrangements. Jesus’ death on the cross was where all was “accomplished”, which led to the end of Torah observance, and opened the door to the gentiles, as Paul announces in Romans 3:21.

The time for modelling the new arrangements came with Jesus, and that’s supposed to be our job in the world now.

@peter wilkinson:

but equally you could ask: why did Jesus not immediately announce that he was Israel’s messiah, the restored king of David…

But at least all these issues actually feature in the Gospels—from the birth narratives (“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end”) through to Jesus’ confession before Caiaphas (“You will see the Son of Man…”) and the centurion’s declaration (“Truly, this man was a/the son of God”). It doesn’t matter that Jesus was reticent to put forward Messianic claims until his trial. It’s what the whole story is about.

But your supposed “new creation” theme doesn’t get a mention at all. The best you can offer is “He adopts the signs of creation renewal which are provided in Isaiah, which Isaiah’s new exodus is pointing towards.” But that is precisely the point at dispute: Isaiah does not talk about a new heavens and new earth in the sense that you require. The overrated “new exodus” theme is not a new creation idea.

Everything that Jesus adopts from Isaiah points to the coming judgment and renewal of Israel.

What Jesus modelled was not so much the life of the age to come but what it would take to get there. The obvious passages are those in which he calls his disciples to take up their own cross and follow him. He is not modelling new creation life, he is modelling the radical faithfulness required of those who would continue his ministry to Israel through to the end of the age when they would be saved.

Again, your claims are simply unfounded.

I agree that the resurrection was a new creation in a more literal sense—an ontological novelty, the ground for the final hope expressed in Revelation 20-21, and not merely a metaphor for Israel. But that is not the meaning expressly attached to it in the Gospels, and certainly not by Jesus. The Old Testament references by which it is interpreted (Dan. 12:1-3; Hos. 6:1-2) all come from prophetic narratives about the judgment and renewal of Israel at times of political crisis. It has to do with the “resurrection” of the people from the death of judgment, on the one hand, and the vindication of the persecuted righteous, on the other.

What Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount is that the meek, etc., will inherit the kingdom of God. As I said before, the idea of a final renewal of heaven and earth was alive in Jewish apocalyptic, but he does not say that the meek will inherit the new creation. Kingdom of God language from Psalm 2 to Daniel 7 is about the rule of God over his people in the midst of the nations. It’s political.

This continues to be a very unsatisfactory debate in my view because you keep making these sweeping theological statements about new creation without providing a scrap of serious exegetical evidence.

@Andrew Perriman:

To take Isaiah’s new exodus language and the language of new heavens and new earth as fulfilled prophecy in the OT is, to my mind, to show historical unawareness, to be blind to the facts of the return from exile as they are presented elsewhere in the OT, and to lack responsiveness to the language with which the predictions are made. Ezra and Nehemiah speak of a return to Jerusalem that fell well below expectations, and Haggai speaks of “the latter glory of this temple” to be not a current reality to the returnees, and it never became such. Likewise the eschatological language and temple of Ezekiel. So you either take the view that Isaiah and Ezekiel were mistaken, or that they were looking for a greater fulfilment than was seen in the immediate return from exile and subsequently until the coming of Jesus. Then the jigsaw pieces begin to fit together.

So Jesus’s identification in the gospels with the new exodus language of Isaiah is of the utmost importance. His messianic ministry was launched with it, and it defined his messianic ministry — Matthew 11:2-6; Luke 4:18-19; Luke 7:18-23. His ministry concludes with a Passover meal which was not a simple repetition of past Passovers, nor a “history as usual but with some modifications” Passover, but a commentary on the cross. The theme is not “supposed”, the claims are not unfounded; they simply contrast with your own, and fit the historical scenario and make sense of the biblical story.

The resurrection is a new creation theme precisely because of the OT prophetic passages you describe. It is a novelty precisely because it was unexpected and took the story in a very different direction from what had been anticipated: which you should take note of. The resurrection of Jesus was the only way in which renewal was going to come, and not just for Israel, but the whole world. The cross made forgiveness of sins available to the world — Romans 3:21; the resurrection was the pathway for renewal for Israel as well as all the world — since Spirit reception was a downpayment of the resurrection to come for all. It was the new creation brought forward into the present.

The gospels were in every respect a preparation for this development, for both the immediate and longer term future. They prepare for and describe an eschatological turning point, which was coming with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the consequences of which are described as above. The other evidence for a more immediate eschatological turning point was AD 70, though events limped on until AD 135. No more temple, because Jesus and his gathered people were now the temple. No more Jerusalem as the locus for that temple, because the followers of Jesus were now the New Jerusalem, which spanned heaven and earth. The prophecies concerning the birth of Jesus which you mention were fulfilled by him in a very different way from how you see it. The beatitude you quote actually says that the meek will inherit the earth, not in fact the kingdom of God, though it’s pretty obvious that the kingdom of God is theirs along with the poor and the persecuted — the only mentioned recipients — who bookend the whole series.

The real problem with your approach is how intolerant it is. And I can understand, that having come across a way of interpreting things that is quite unique to you, you should want a patent on it, and for it not to be seriously questioned. But the intolerance excludes parts of the story which are actually important not as later developments, but make sense of the whole. The AD 70 story, if I can put it that way, which includes Jesus as an example for pursuing the way that leads to life, fits within the larger story, the new exodus, new covenant, resurrection story, where resurrection has ontological meaning as well as prophetic or metaphorical significance. This suggestion for a modified presentation is historical, because the significance of the players in the OT story, Israel especially, is restored to their proper position of importance. It is narratival because the importance of the narrative, in particular exile and return, which contains the new exodus material which is so important a feature of Isaiah, is highlighted. Jesus was not simply fulfilling an existential problem using biblical imagery (although he certainly was doing that), but was doing so in a way that drew together all aspects of the OT story and its means of presentation.

If the words “new creation” don’t feature as such in the gospels, their significance casts light on the teaching and narrative of the gospels. The words themselves don’t feature much in the letters — possibly only in Galatians and 2 Corinthians. But to rely on word counts for the relative significance of their meaning is absurd: the new world that was introduced through the resurrection of Jesus is alive everywhere in the letters, which in this sense are a commentary on the preaching and spread of the gospel in Acts. 2 Corinthians 5:6 could be said to be the ontological kingpin of the New Testament. The new heavens and new earth of Revelation 22 are a future reality, but clearly coming into the present in view of the location of the New Jerusalem on a still very imperfect earth.

I’ll conclude the discussion here. Thanks for the opportunity to talk things over with you, which I have found personally helpful. I always appreciate discussions with you, despite sometimes finding them frustrating. Head to head conversation is more productive.

peter wilkinson | Mon, 10/17/2016 - 11:57 | Permalink

It’s a last gasp perhaps, but I just came across the following quote from an old item by N.T. Wright (and note his qualified support for the notion of a new exodus).

When Paul draws on scripture, whether it be Genesis, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, or Habakkuk, he is more often than not aware of, and intending to resonate with, the place of the scripture in question within a longer narrative. This is where the motif of ‘return from exile’ is so important, though still so controverted. The best example is the use of Deuteronomy 30 in Romans 10: 5-8, exactly parallel to the use of the same passage in 4QMMT. Paul believes himself to be living in a story, the real story of the real world, which stretches back to creation, and comes forward, through Abraham, the exodus, the monarchy, the prophets, to the exile, which in the political and theological sense has continued to his own day. He believes that the real return from exile, which is also the new ‘exodus’, has taken place in Jesus the Messiah, and that this has brought to birth the ‘new age’, the ‘age to come’, by freeing God’s people from ‘the present evil age’.

JackM | Mon, 10/17/2016 - 20:08 | Permalink

I am not quite sure if you accept any kind of a “new narrative” concept (one that fully recognizes the ended privileges and status of congenital Israel); or where you may stand on the “wrath of God” after the Baptist’s eschatological wrath. But in brief:

1) I submit that the narrative pertaining to congenital Israel is an echo of a much larger and controlling narrative. And, 2) that he “wrath of God” did not end in 70AD.

The scenery is enlarged. Jesus makes the disclosure that the time to avenge the blood of Abel had fully arrived, and he takes the issue all the way back to “the foundation of the world”. (Luke 11:50-51). This mention of Abel is of course astonishing, because Abel was not an Israelite. So Jesus was seeing himself in a narrative that commenced before Moses, before Isaac, before Abraham, before Noah, and all the way back to the borders of the Garden. So today when the Cross is looked upon, and the significance of the great expulsion of 70AD is being weighed, what narrative can these historical events be applied to? Should there be a focus exclusively on the benefits won for some among the congenital Israelites within a nation whose very privileges and elevated status was decreed to come to a total end? Or should the focus now be on discovering the benefits won for all of the posterity of the displaced Garden dwellers and to learn the provisions made for them to return to their eternal Homeland?

The “People of God” are now no longer limited to congenital Israelites. A brand new rule of sonship has been announced. Of course not in the Synoptic gospels, but in Paul. “We brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise.” He does not say “as Jacob was”, but specifically “as Isaac was”. So here is a narrative, a new narrative. It is now all about these Isaac-ites, not the Israelites. And what is interesting here, is that Paul is very thorough in identifying who these Isaac-ites are. He identifies the very promise by which they are called the children of promise, to wit: “This is the promise. At this time will I come and Sarah shall have a son.” The emphasis here is on the word “I”. So in English it is “will I Myself come”. Thus, the children of promise are those who are children of a coming, a particular coming, of the Father himself.

You said “salvation today means becoming part of a people that was saved from destruction two thousand years ago”. Well, perhaps better: “salvation today means becoming awakened to the status of sonship as a member of the Isaac-ite community.”

Everything points to a narrative larger than congenital Israel. A narrative that reaches all the way back to the foundation of the world and even redefines the “People of God”. And I have the feeling that once the Isaac-ites are re-awakend to their heritage and destiny there will be a New Exodus back to their Homeland that is so massive that the exodus out of Egypt will no longer be remembered.

With regard to the current status or the “wrath of God”, if I knew only about the narrative surrounding congenital Israel, I might conclude that “God’s wrath is past”, especially after 135AD. But there is a definition of the “wrath of God” that needs to be considered. It is this: “For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.” (Revelation 22:15). Essentially it is “Out!” “Out!” “Out!“. It is a law of exclusion that does not rest until a total banishment is accomplished. The exclusion activities of 66-70AD are indeed a special expression of the wrath of God. Here, in Revelation, it is the Great Exclusion, the “Magna Exclusa”. And this most holy wrath of God is for the comfort, security, and protection of all the saints. Forever.

So is the wrath of God still in effect today? Absolutely. It never ends. It is eternal, except for the one exception found at John 3:36.


Jack, thanks for your thoughts. Some reflections in response…

I suspect that Jesus’ reference to Abel is largely rhetorical. The flood was God’s judgment on violent humanity up to that point, so why would Israel be liable?

I don’t see any problem with speaking of the church as “Isaacites”—though I doubt it will catch on. But I don’t agree with your point about God coming. I would have thought that the emphasis in the patriarchal narratives and in Paul is on the God who keeps his promise and ensures that his people have a future.

In that respect, I would say that Abraham is the more significant figure because he was the one who believed the promise and was counted righteous.

Jesus, as much as Paul, made salvation and righteousness a matter of being reconciled to Abraham.

So salvation today would mean becoming part of the family of Abraham through the promise, which was saved from destruction two thousand years ago by the faithfulness of Jesus.

I tend to think that the “wrath” of God belongs to the narrative that culminates in judgment against Rome as the arch and final enemy of YHWH and his people in the biblical narrative. That narrative derives from the old covenant, so I’m not sure it still applies. The family of Abraham is no longer at risk of condemnation and wrath; no invading enemy, therefore, will be used to punish the family of Abraham; no enemy, therefore, will be subject as a consequence to the wrath of God.

But there will, of course, be a final judgment when all humanity, ourselves included, will be judged according to what it has done.

@Andrew Perriman:

Andrew, thanks for rewarding me with your response.

You wrote: “I don’t agree with your point about God coming. I would have thought that the emphasis in the patriarchal narratives and in Paul is on the God who keeps his promise and ensures that his people have a future.”

Keeps his promise, yes. Definitely. But in your understanding, what is this “promise”?

For several exegetical reasons I think the promise is this: “At this time, I Myself will come”. This promise is explicitly referred to in Rom 9:9 . This is the very promise, the keeping of which brought Isaac into the world. And the very promise that Abraham had in his heart as he ascended Mt Moriah. To have the faith of Abraham is to have the unwavering faith that God will surely, most surely, come as He promised. This faith of Abraham, which was still in his heart as he ascended Mt Moriah, was rewarded on Mt Moriah when he saw the ram caught in the thicket, and by which coming of this ram the imminent death of Isaac was interrupted and Abraham then received Isaac as if raised from the dead. And when Abraham saw that ram, his eye of faith saw something else. Because Jesus says of the events on Mt. Moriah: “Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad”. It was indeed “My day” because the promise was “I Myself will come.”

So from my perspective it is indeed all about coming. Even to the coming of God Himself. So much so that His very name from antiquity is “The Lord which is come, which was come, and which is to come.” (Rev 1:8).

The poignant fact here is that the Everlasting Promise was made to Abraham. God Himself would come down from heaven to save a people who were dwelling in a land of banishment. A people with no discernable way to return to their Homeland. So God Himself would come. At any cost. And Abraham believed it. “He saw it and was glad.”

Coming. Coming. Came. This is the heritage of the People of God, the Children of Abraham in the very best sense of the word.

(No need to respond, as this is getting off subject. In the meantime, I hope to peruse some of your archived postings.)