With all due respect to those who think that Jesus was a kindly, loving, unworldly pacifist who rose above the Old Testament logic of sin and violence, I think that this is a serious misreading of the Gospels. The “historical” Jesus—by which I mean the Jesus who makes sense in the context of first century Israel—was not less than an apocalyptic prophet sent by YHWH to Israel to call the Jews to repentance in light of coming catastrophic divine judgment in the form of war and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. He was more than that, but he was not less than that.
I need to keep this brief, so I will focus on the climax to the series of “woes” that Jesus pronounces against the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23.
The passage culminates in a furious denunciation: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! … You serpents, you brood of vipers….” Jesus deliberately echoes John the Baptist’s rebuke to the Pharisees and Sadducees, a “brood of vipers”, who thought that they could escape the “wrath to come”.
The axe is already laid to the root of the trees, John says. “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 3:7-10). Jesus will later tell a parable about a harvest at the close of the age of second temple Judaism, when the weeds will be gathered and burned with fire (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43). A Jewish prophet can only have meant by “wrath to come” material destruction as an expression of YHWH’s anger, either against his people or against their enemies.
The scribes and Pharisees will not escape the “judgment of Gehenna” (tēs kriseōs tēs geennēs). The reference is to the terrible destruction of war: bodies of the dead will be thrown over the walls of the city into the surrounding valleys. But “judgment” also makes this an intentional act of God: cf. “Hear, you peoples, the judgment (krisin) of the Lord…, because the Lord has a case (krisis) against his people, and he will dispute with Israel” (Mic. 6:2 LXX). Jesus here repeats the point made by his violent action in the temple (Matt. 21:12-13). The leaders of the people have turned the temple into a den of robbers and will suffer the consequences:
Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. (Jer. 7:11–12)
What did God do to the sanctuary at Shiloh? He razed it to the ground.
The reference to the sending of “prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town” (Matt. 23:34) echoes the parable of the wicked tenants, which ends with the grim warning that the master of the vineyard “will put those wretches to a miserable death” (Matt. 21:41). Jesus is looking ahead here, rather than backwards as in the parable, but the point is the same: the Son is just one of many messengers who have been sent and will be sent to warn the Jews of coming judgment and call them to repentance.
This generation of Jewish leaders was bringing upon itself vengeance for “all the righteous blood shed in the land” (Matt. 23:35). This is a thoroughly Old Testament rationale—there is nothing “Christian” about it.
Jesus was clearly heartbroken that Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it”, would suffer this fate, but the prophetic word was that Jerusalem’s “house is left to you desolate”. Again, we may imagine that he had the words of Jeremiah in mind:
Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then there shall enter the gates of this house kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their servants and their people. But if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.
For thus says the LORD concerning the house of the king of Judah: “‘You are like Gilead to me, like the summit of Lebanon, yet surely I will make you a desert, an uninhabited city. I will prepare destroyers against you, each with his weapons, and they shall cut down your choicest cedars and cast them into the fire. “‘And many nations will pass by this city, and every man will say to his neighbour, “Why has the LORD dealt thus with this great city?” And they will answer, “Because they have forsaken the covenant of the LORD their God and worshiped other gods and served them.”’” (Jer. 22:3–9)
Here we have—remarkably, I think—the condemnation of Israel for shedding innocent blood, the warning that the temple would become a desolation and that the city would be destroyed by an invading army as a direct act of divine judgment, and the more hopeful prospect that a Davidic king would pass through the gates of the house of God. Jesus concludes by saying that they will not see him again until they say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, evoking the image of the triumphant king coming to the temple (Matt. 23:39; Ps. 118:26-27).
Then, of course, Jesus leaves the temple and answers the question put to him by the disciples: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). Their mission to Israel will take place against the backdrop of the build-up to war. The destruction of the city and temple will mark the vindication not only of Jesus but also of their mission.
So Jesus brought the old covenant to an end, but he did so on old covenant terms. The rebellion of Israel was met with violence from YHWH. Jesus’ insistence that his followers should love their enemies presupposes the eschatological narrative; it does not abrogate it.