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The way of life and the way of death

13 Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Jesus tells the disciples to choose a difficult road leading to life rather than an easy road leading to destruction. The basic question to be addressed here is this: Is this a choice exclusively for the community of his followers in the context of first century Judaism, or does Jesus have in mind a universal dilemma? We should also consider the possibility, of course, that Jesus intended both the historical and the universal frame of relevance.

The argument for the historical reading arises from a number of considerations.

1. The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to Israel. It is a response to the initial preaching of good news (euangelion) about the imminence of the kingdom of God (Matt. 4:17, 23), behind which is Isaiah’s proclamation (euangelizomenos) of salvation for Israel - that YHWH is returning to Zion and will reign over his people (Is. 52:7-8 LXX). The beatitudes similarly draw on a narrative about the judgment and restoration of Israel. Jesus is quite explicit about the fact that he has come to fulfil the prophets (Matt. 5:17), but what the prophets consistently speak about is the transformation that will take place in Israel when YHWH comes to punish unrighteousness, restore a remnant, and reign over his people in place of their enemies. The judgment of gehenna (eg. Matt. 5:22, 29, 30) is closely associated with judgment on Jerusalem (cf. Jer. 7:30-33; 19:6-8). In other words, in the Sermon on Mount Jesus defines a community that will survive the imminent eschatological crisis.

2. The image of the two paths is used by Jeremiah to express the choice with which Israel was confronted when faced with the judgment of the Babylonian invasion:

And to this people you shall say: ‘Thus says the LORD: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war. For I have set my face against this city for harm and not for good, declares the LORD: it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire’ (Jer. 21:8-10).

If Jesus was understood by his audience to be speaking as a prophet in the language of the prophets, we can suppose that they would readily have drawn the conclusion that he made use of the image for much the same purpose as Jeremiah: he confronted Israel with a choice between the ‘destruction’ of military invasion and the ‘life’ of community survival. This is not a ‘fulfilment’ of Jeremiah: he simply re-uses the argument for his own purposes.

3. There may also be recollection of Deuteronomy 30:19: ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live….’ As a conclusion to the covenantal blessings and curses this choice must be taken quite realistically. Jesus invokes a motif that has to do fundamentally with the survival of the community.

4. In Luke an abbreviated version of the saying occurs in a passage that clearly has in view the historical fate of Israel and Jerusalem (Lk. 13:24). Jesus warns that if the people do not repent, they will perish like the Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate or the inhabitants of Jerusalem who were crushed when the tower of Siloam collapsed (13:1-5). He tells a parable about a fig tree that would be cut down if it failed to bear fruit (13:6-9). Those who are excluded from the kingdom of God will protest, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets’ (13:26), which, even if it is not quite to be taken literally, gives a strong sense of historical immediacy to the coming judgment. The passage concludes with Jesus’ powerful lament over a city facing desolation and destruction:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Lk. 13:34-35)

If in this context Jesus warns, in response to a question about how many will be saved, that only a few will succeed in entering by the narrow gate, we are bound to assume that he means that few will survive the judgment on Israel and Jerusalem.

4. The saying about the two ways in Matthew 7:13-14 is followed by a warning about ‘false prophets’ who will be known by their fruits. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (15-20). This inevitably recalls John’s fierce rebuke to the Pharisees and Sadducees who were fleeing from the ‘wrath to come’. They must bear fruit in keeping with repentance, for the axe is already ‘laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’ (Matt. 3:7-10). The phrase ‘wrath to come’ in this context must have been understood as a reference to God’s judgment on Israel (cf. Zeph. 1:15; 2:1-3; Mal. 4:1; Rom. 9:22).

5. The Sermon on the Mount concludes with another image of eschatological destruction (Matt. 7:24-27), reminiscent of Ezekiel 13:8-16 (cf. Dan. 9:26).

It seems to me, therefore, that the eschatological-historical context of the saying has to be taken very seriously: Jesus presents first century Israel with a choice between destruction and life. Given both the consistent force of the Old Testament background and the historical threat that Rome posed to Israel’s political and religious integrity, there are good reasons to think that the prospect of ‘destruction’ was concretely realized in the events of AD 70. If that is the case, then ‘life’ must be interpreted in the first place as the life of the community following judgment on Israel - that is, the life of the age to come.

This is not to say that the motif of the two ways cannot be used to speak of judgment and salvation outside the immediate eschatological-historical framework of Jesus’ teaching. But I think we have to recognize that this would be a secondary, analogical and in certain respects divergent application. Clearly, however, this reflects a significant hermeneutical commitment - namely, to Scripture as ‘historical narrative’ rather than as ‘universal spiritual manual’. The big question is whether the ‘historical narrative’ approach can safeguard the fulness of biblical truth for the people of God. I am increasingly convinced that it can and that we would greatly benefit from reading the New Testament in this way, but I recognize that it would entail a major paradigm shift.

Comments

The big question is whether the ‘historical narrative’ approach can safeguard the fulness of biblical truth for the people of God. I am increasingly convinced that it can and that we would greatly benefit from reading the New Testament in this way, but I recognize that it would entail a major paradigm shift.

While I am aware that history is not made with ifs and buts (“If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas”), nevertheless I think that this hypothetical question would be worth asking: what would have happened if Israel had accepted Jesus as their Messiah? Would that have simply advanced the final destruction of Jesusalem about 100 years?

(Simon bar Kokhba ruled over an independent Jewish state as Nasi between 132 and 135 AD, and was considered the “Messiah” by Rabbi Akiva.)

It’s a good question.

What if Israel as a nation had taken John the Baptist more seriously? How would whole-hearted and widespread “repentance” at that stage have changed things? Does Jesus initially simply continue the mission of John, adding only the healings and exorcisms and a focus on the coming rule of YHWH? If he had been welcomed as king while alive, how would he have dealt with Rome?

Or should we suppose that judgment was determined from the start, and that the call to repentance was never expected to avert the disaster of war? Perhaps there was never any serious doubt in Jesus’ mind that Jerusalem would be destroyed within a generation.

Perhaps it would be more plausible to suggest that Paul hoped for a renewal of the synagogues across Europe so that even if Jerusalem was destroyed, a Christ-honouring diaspora Judaism would still bear witness against the pagan world that sooner or later the reign of YHWH’s son would be established.

What if Israel as a nation had taken John the Baptist more seriously? How would whole-hearted and widespread “repentance” at that stage have changed things? Does Jesus initially simply continue the mission of John, adding only the healings and exorcisms and a focus on the coming rule of YHWH? If he had been welcomed as king while alive, how would he have dealt with Rome?

If we take the Gospels seriously, John the baptist did NOT have a separate mission: his mission was calling to repentance and preparing the way for the Messiah.

The “healings and exorcisms” are NOT some sort of “add-on” of Jesus vs John, BUT, as you rightly say immediately after, “a focus on the coming rule of YHWH”. AND the self-witness of Jesus on his role in the coming Kingdom of Heaven.

If he had been welcomed as king while alive, how would he have dealt with Rome?

It’s a good question. Have YOU got any idea … ?

Or should we suppose that judgment was determined from the start, and that the call to repentance was never expected to avert the disaster of war? Perhaps there was never any serious doubt in Jesus’ mind that Jerusalem would be destroyed within a generation. [underlining added]

All the above sounds rather … deterministic!

Perhaps you should consider an alternative approach. Jesus, with his call to repentance, his confrontation with the ruling class of Israel, and, eventually his final ordeal (caused jointly by the Jews and the Romans) consciously accepted, truly atoned for the sin of the world (epitomized by Pilate’s violence, Caiaphas’ falseness and Judas’ betrayal) with the only “weapons” that he had: Love and Truth. Neither the Jewish wars were a judgment on the Jews, nor the defeat of Paganism a judgment on the Roman-Greek oecumene. Jesus is, at present, more the head of a liberation army than a reigning king. The war isn’t over yet … (see my Atonement: “Penal Justice” vs “Liberation War”)

Perhaps it would be more plausible to suggest that Paul hoped for a renewal of the synagogues across Europe so that even if Jerusalem was destroyed, a Christ-honouring diaspora Judaism would still bear witness against the pagan world that sooner or later the reign of YHWH’s son would be established.

Paul, at first, hoped indeed to convert as many Jews as he could to Jesus as God’s Messiah. BUT then, when the synagogues manifestly rejected him …

And when they [the Jews of Corinth] opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” (Acts 18:6 - underlining added)

Not only, but after that decision, Paul admitted the Gentiles without any prerequisite of acceptance of the Mosaic Law, the circumcision first of all.

What do you mean when you say that Jesus responded with the only two weapons available, love and truth? How is that argument expounded in the New Testament?

Neither the Jewish wars were a judgment on the Jews, nor the defeat of Paganism a judgment on the Roman-Greek oecumene.

In both the parable of the vineyard and in Matthew’s parable of the banquet the wicked enemies of the YHWH figure are destroyed: “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” (Matt. 22:7). Are we not to read this punishment as a comment on the destruction of Jerusalem predicted in the Olivet discourse?

What is Paul talking about here if not the imminent judgment of the oikoumenē: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the oikoumenē in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31)?

Where does the New Testament say that Jesus was the head of a liberation army rather than a reigning king?

[a] What do you mean when you say that Jesus responded with the only two weapons available, love and truth? [b] How is that argument expounded in the New Testament?

[a] It is perfectly evident, from the Gospels, that Jesus resorted to no “weapons” other than Love and Truth. Why, can you think of any other?

[b] How about what Jesus said to “one of those who were with [him]” at the Gethsemane, when they came to arrest him, and who “stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear” (Matthew 26:51-52)?

How about what Jesus said to Pilate?

“(…) If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. (…)” (John 18:36)

In both the parable of the vineyard [Matthew 21:33-46] and in Matthew’s parable of the banquet [Matthew 22:1-14] the wicked enemies of the YHWH figure are destroyed: “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” (Matt. 22:7). Are we not to read this punishment as a comment on the destruction of Jerusalem predicted in the Olivet discourse?

In both parables, Jesus is not referring to a punishment of Israel in its entirety, but of its chiefs: in Matthew 21:33-46 they are explicitly identified as “the chief priests and the Pharisees”; in Matthew 22:1-14, when “those who were invited to the wedding feast” in the first place (a figure for the elders of Israel) not only did not accept the invitation, but even killed the King’s “servants” (a clear figure for the prophets of Israel), the King’s servants “gathered all whom they found, both bad and good”: the simple ones, who had followed Jesus from the start.

What is Paul talking about here if not the imminent judgment of the oikoumenē: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the oikoumenē in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31)?

You seem to take it as a given that the oikoumenē of which we read in Acts 17:31 is limited to the Roman Empire, whereas, that is only a secondary meaning of oikoumenē, which fundamentally and etymologically simply means “inhabited earth”. See Thayer’s Lexicon (G3625), LSJ Greek-English Lexicon (οἰκουμένη). That is the obvious meaning in Luke 4:5, Luke 21:26, Acts 24:5, Rom 10:18, Rev 16:14, Heb 1:6, Matt 24:14.

Where does the New Testament say that Jesus was the head of a liberation army rather than a reigning king?

Pilate labelled Jesus as “king of the Jews”, but that was when he was on the cross and about to die. For Christians, after the resurrection, he “sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty” until God “makes his enemies his footstool” (Psa 110:1). The war is going on …