Does God punish nations for the sins of their forefathers? Did God punish Israel for killing his prophets? It seems like it when you read these words of Jesus:
Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (Matthew 23:34-36)
Both here and in Luke 11:49-51, Jesus pronounces what is effectively a death sentence on the nation of Israel. “You’re going to pay for the blood of Abel and Zechariah.”
This raises some interesting questions because the first-century Jews did not kill Abel or Zechariah. Abel was murdered by Cain, thousands of years earlier, while Zechariah was murdered eight centuries back. Yet Jesus says, “Zechariah whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.”
That’s like telling an Englishman, “You killed Braveheart.”
Did Jesus pronounce divine punishment?
The first-century Jews did not kill Abel and Zechariah, but they paid for the crime. Within a generation Jerusalem was wiped off the face of the earth. From this we can draw one of three possible conclusions about the Jews and the murder of Abel:
- God punished them as though they did it
- God punished them for the sins of their fathers
- They were punished, but not by God
The first conclusion is easy to dismiss for God is gracious. If he won’t punish you for the sins you have done (Psalm 103:10), he certainly won’t punish you for the sins you haven’t. All this is to the glory of Jesus who bore our sins along with the sins of the scribes and Pharisees.
The second conclusion – Jesus charged them with sins their fathers did – sounds like it comes out of the old covenant, but it doesn’t. The Law of Moses forbade punishing children for their parents’ mistakes. According to the law of the day, the scribes and Pharisees could not be held accountable for the sins of their fathers, let alone their distant ancestors. Thus we can dismiss the second explanation.
So who punished them?
Not God, but sin. By sin, I am referring to that spiritual power that crouched at Cain’s door (Gen. 4:7). Sin as a noun, rather than a verb. In Romans, Paul talks about how sin desires to enslave and dominate us. Sin is a monster that seeks to kill us.
You’d be surprised at how often people confuse God with the devil or the Savior with sin. But when Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees that a day of reckoning was coming, he was simply saying their chickens were coming home to roost.
The blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation. (Luke 11:50, KJV)
“Required” in the sense that sin has consequences. Sow death, and you’ll reap death.
Again, this has nothing to do with divine vengeance and everything to do with the natural consequences of our actions. Sin is destructive. Text on the freeway and you could crash. Flirt with your coworker and you might destroy your marriage. Slaughter a Roman garrison and you’ll invoke the emperor’s wrath.
And none of it will be God’s fault.
But Abel, really?
Abel was the first man of faith in the Bible. His offering was a signpost to Jesus. When righteous Abel was murdered by his self-righteous brother, it was the beginning of a bad pattern. From Abel to Zechariah, faithful men have been killed by the religious.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets… (Matthew 23:37)
For hundreds of years God had been trying to draw Israel from their self-destructive course, but they kept the pedal to the metal, and now their end was imminent.
Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! (Matthew 23:38)
Your temple, your religion – it’s empty. There’s nothing there! God has left the building.
For I say to you, from now on you will not see me until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 23:39)
In Luke’s account these words come before Palm Sunday (Luke 13:34-35), but in Matthew’s they come after. Palm Sunday, as you may recall, was the day the crowds welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem shouting:
Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. (Matthew 21:9)
This is a psalm of salvation (see Ps. 118:26). The cry of Hosanna literally means “save us.” The Pharisees were indignant when they heard the crowds shouting this (Matt. 21:15). They were offended. Yet Jesus told them, “You will never see me again until you say these words yourselves.”
After he rose from the dead the Lord revealed himself to hundreds of believers, but not once did he appear to the unbelieving Jews (except Saul). They had had their chance, but now he was gone.
But all was not lost. The religious leaders had rejected Jesus, but he had not rejected them. If they were to cry, “Lord, save us,” he would be there. The moment they saw him as a blessing from the Lord, they would be blessed.
You may be the worst sinner on the planet, even a murderer of prophets and apostles, but cry for salvation and the Savior will hear.
Extracted and abridged from Paul Ellis’ book AD70 and the End of the World.
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