I remember publishing “The Bible That Borrows” earlier this year and everyone freaking out when my whole series hinged on Moses not writing the first books of the Old Testament, nor giving the Torah. “But, Chris, Jesus said the law came from Moses! Do you claim to know more than Jesus?”—I remember reading over and over again. Of course, by the time I got to the part of the series when I explained everything, most people had moved on.
I find myself in this series in a familiar position. I spent the first four parts talking about how the story of Jesus was first written down as a reaction to the devastation of Rome’s war with Israel. When you read it that way, the stories really jump out. Details in the stories that didn’t seem important before really start to pop. Jesus’s teachings are carefully hewn to the language and motifs of second-temple Judaism, but in substance are a scathing prophetic witness against the war machine of Rome and the Hell-bent rebellious imagination of the Israelites.
And here we are again.
“You certainly have a great imagination, Chris, but what I have is the Bible. You’re doing what all liberals do: editing out what the Bible says about the wrath of God.” You may think interesting my writing on Jesus as the divine anti-war, anti-empire prophet, but your theology has no space or categories for that.
Meanwhile, your theological space for the angry, retributive, wrathful God is crammed full.
After all, if Jesus is so anti-war, what was God doing in the Old Testament when he was commanding his people to exterminate the Canaanites? What about God’s vengeance and wrath we read so much about?
Fair questions. Let’s go there today.
Jesus Edits the Bible
Christians generally affirm that Jesus’s ministry began when he completed his forty-day testing in the wilderness and returned to Nazareth. If you want to understand Jesus well and read the Bible well, you need to pay close attention to the first thing he did when he began there.
In Luke’s telling of the story, it was the Sabbath and Jesus went to the synagogue where he began to teach. We’ve already talked at length in this series about the distinctly earthy Messianic expectations found in the book of the prophet Isaiah, and, not surprisingly, he began by opening the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
He turned to what we today call chapter 61, and he began to read. Here’s what it says:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God.
This is the beginning of his ministry. This is the introduction to him. This is what he wants you to know he is about. And, so, Jesus reads:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free.
(I will interrupt here to point out that this is all the kind of stuff I’ve been talking about for the last several installments.) But then Jesus continues:
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and . . . . . . . he rolled up the scroll and sat down.
Did you catch that?
(re-read it if you didn’t)
What Jesus did is the key to his whole project. The key to literally everything that happens next in his ministry. Jesus edited the book of Isaiah. He cut Isaiah off mid sentence. The text of Isaiah describes a messiah, which is a Jewish synonym for “king.” This messiah is supposed to bring in the year of Jubilee (the “year of the Lord’s favor”) and the “day of vengeance.”
Jesus gets to that language, that “day of vengeance”, but instead of reading it, he just rolls up the scroll.
And it wasn’t an accident. Wasn’t unimportant. Notice what happens next. Jesus doubles down.
“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
Jesus entered an oppressed community whose imagination was saturated in the early images of God that depicted anger, wrath, retribution, and violence. And the Israelites would have been happy to see that retribution dished out at its neighbors, the Sidonians and the Syrians.
But Jesus is calling into question how we read our Bibles. The Old Testament depictions of God are not the full revelation of God.
The Bible is the diary of the people of God as they came to a clearer and clearer revelation of God. It begins with the illuminated Moses who went on Mount Sinai but could only see the back of God. But when Peter, James, and John saw the illuminated Jesus on Mount Tabor, they saw the face of God. Peter, who understood the revelation of God from Moses the law giver and Elijah the prophet as equal to the revelation of God in Jesus, announced that he would build a tent for each of them. He could not imagine Jesus contradicting the law and prophets.
But God announces, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
The story tells us that the disciples wake up, and all that remains is Jesus. The message here is unmistakeable: The Bible’s depictions of God from beginning to end are not meant to carry equal weight. The Bible is not flat. The law, the prophets, and Jesus are not equals. Certainly, the law and the prophets point us to Jesus, but they are not the perfect revelation of God.
And because the inspired Bible tells you that they are not the perfect revelation of God, sometimes they need to be edited. As Brian Zahnd says, “God is exactly like Jesus. There’s never been a time when God wasn’t exactly like Jesus. We haven’t always known this. But now we do.”
Don’t believe me? That’s fine, but neither then do you believe the Bible, which is screaming this at you.
Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”
“I and the Father are one.”
Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me.”
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.
All this renouncing of divine violence, of course, is not how the Jews saw God depicted in the law and prophets. Time and time again, the Gospel writers place Jesus in nearly identical situations as those when the Old Testament depicted the anger, wrath, retribution, and violence of Yahweh. And the people were primed to see Jesus pay them back.
Certainly the Bible comes to see the mercy of God more clearly as you advance in the Old Testament. But a flat reading of the Bible requires us to equate the teachings of Jesus with the wrath and tribalism in the Old Testament. And we love wrath directed at our enemies. We love hellfire and brimstone when it falls on them. Today, we call it “karma.”
Or the war on terror.
But, notice what happens next in the story of Jesus in the synagogue.
And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath.
You want wrath? Luke says there it is. Not in God, of course, but in you. So, when the story says that they next tried to throw Jesus off of a cliff, it says that Jesus “passed right through their midst.”
If you open the Bible and all you can see is a God of wrath, it’s not because of God’s wrath.
It’s because of yours.
If you want a God of wrath, he will pass right through your midst.