Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Unhelpful Equivalencies

Self-righteousness and hypocrisy are unappealing qualities, whether in gospel preaching or in discussing the word of God with believers. They provide one’s audience with a convenient excuse to dismiss ideas they might otherwise find persuasive … or worse, convicting.

Nobody wants to look like a Pharisee, right?

As a result, Christians seeking to avoid accusations of fake piety are tempted to self-deprecate.

The Foremost of Sinners

Now, to the extent any confession of failure is personal, historical* and honest, it is both biblical and useful. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost,” wrote the apostle Paul. He said it to remind Timothy of the almost-unbelievable extent to which the Lord Jesus is willing to forgive his enemies and reconcile them to himself. So Paul confessed plainly that “formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent”. That’s useful self-deprecation.

What’s not so useful is deprecating other people, especially when you say more about them than the scripture itself does.

Responding to the assertion that the Jewish people were betrayers and murderers of Christ, Doug Wilson writes:

All of us were betrayers and murderers of Christ. Otherwise, whose sins did He die for?”

I think that’s technically and theologically incorrect, and most unhelpful under the circumstances. I doubt Doug’s reader was persuaded by his rhetoric.

You Would’ve Done It Too … Maybe

I don’t want to put words in Doug’s mouth, but I think I understand what he may be trying to get at. Sure, “He came to his own [Israel], and his own people did not receive him.” But put any other nation in the world in the place of first century Jews, and human nature and our own histories tell us we would almost surely have done exactly the same thing they did. Any of us may have been as quick to crucify the Lord of glory as the Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests and scribes who intimidated Pilate into pronouncing his death sentence, making all Israel nationally accountable for the murder of God’s beloved son.

Then again, it’s quite likely some present day believers would have responded to the Lord Jesus like the great multitude of people who followed him to Golgotha mourning and lamenting for him, not knowing how much they might be risking by doing so. Jesus Christ was a polarizing figure. Those who loved him really, really loved him. Doug might guess how he may have responded to Christ as a first century Jew, but he can’t know how others may have responded to him.

That’s why Doug is welcome to confess his personal sense of responsibility for the death of Christ in whatever words he chooses, but very much unwelcome to confess the guilt of other Christians. Because chances are that in many cases he would be flat-out wrong.

Death on Another’s Behalf vs. Betrayal and Murder

The truth is that like most Jews and Gentiles of the first century and all Jews and Gentiles since, Doug Wilson didn’t betray or murder Christ, even if he genuinely thinks he did. I know I didn’t, because the Bible tells me so.

Christ died for our sins, of course; we were and are sinful people. All of us at one time were estranged from God and on our way to hell. That was true of unsaved humanity long before Christ entered the world and it remains true of the unsaved today. Dying on our behalf was a choice the Lord Jesus willingly made, but that’s quite different from accusing every human being for whom Christ died of betrayal and murder. It didn’t take the betrayal and murder of Christ to alienate us from God. As the psalmist wrote, “There is none who does good, not even one,” and he said that centuries before our Savior came into the world.

Where the betrayal and murder of Christ are concerned, some individuals were distinctly more responsible than others. To equate the quantum of guilt belonging to John the beloved disciple with that of, say, Caiaphas, is biblically illiterate.

Handed Over

Words have meanings. Sometimes those meanings are elastic, and broaden or invert over time. That doesn’t mean we are wise to help our existing vocabulary along in its inevitable dissolution into gibberish. The English word “betray” is a translation of a Greek word with a fixed meaning. It means what the writers of the New Testament used it to mean, and nothing else. The word translated “betray” in our Bibles is paradidōmi, which means to “deliver up”; to physically, legally or metaphorically hand over, or in some cases to “rat someone out” so that others can carry him off for their own evil purposes.

With respect to the “handing over” of Christ, paradidōmi is used only of Judas, of the soldiers who took Jesus prisoner in the garden, of the chief priests and rulers of the Jews, of Pilate himself, and of Israel nationally, who did it by proxy through their leaders and by adding their voices to the condemnation of Jesus before Pilate. That was the human chain of custody in the Lord’s “deliverance” to death.

Behind the scenes, the word is also used of God, who “gave him up [paradidōmi] for us all”, and of Christ himself, who “loved me and gave himself [paradidōmi] for me”. These latter two divine “deliveries” were obviously not betrayals, and no Bible version I know of so translates them. So perhaps there is a better translation than “betray” for other instances of the New Testament use of paradidōmi; I’ll leave that to the professionals to sort out. But the word is currently used in our Bibles, requiring we interpret it, and do so faithfully. With respect to Christ, it means what the underlying Greek means, not any old meaning we feel like assigning it in the heat of an impassioned argument.

The Preaching of the Apostles

Consider the preaching of the apostles. Post-Pentecost, Peter spoke to Jews in the temple precincts of “Jesus, whom you delivered over [paradidōmi] and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him”. You will search in vain for any such accusation made against Gentiles in Acts or the epistles. Concerning the Jews, Peter even says outright to Cornelius and those gathered in his house that “they [Jews] put him to death”. When Paul preached to Gentiles, he never mentioned betrayal or murder. Rather, he warned them the resurrection was a sign that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed”.

Sin? Absolutely. Righteousness? You bet. Judgment? Certainly. Betrayal and murder of Christ? Not a word. It simply isn’t there. The apostles are making a clear distinction between Jewish and Gentile guilt in the death of Christ that we cannot reasonably ignore.

So did “all of us” betray and murder Christ? Not in any biblical sense. Doug Wilson is merely waxing hyperbolic, and to the extent he has departed from the language of scripture, his hyperbole falls flat.

Now, I understand the temptation to do it. He suspects his reader is anti-Semitic, and he wants to persuade him that the Jews of the first century didn’t do anything you and I didn’t do. He wants to draw a moral equivalency between his reader and the murderous religious leaders who cried out “Crucify him!” until Pilate finally let them have their way.

Him Whom They Have Pierced

Except what he’s saying isn’t true, and it isn’t biblical. Some equivalencies are simply unhelpful. Jews today don’t deserve to be attacked as a group for what their religious leaders did to the Lord Jesus two millennia ago. But those leaders did something uniquely awful, bringing the judgment of God on their nation. For that, they will give account. Minimizing their culpability with a false moral equivalency does not help them repent; they are long dead, and their fate is sealed. More practically, though, to the extent modern Jews continue to reject their Messiah, they are joining hands with the men who put him to death and risking entering into the national judgment their conduct made inevitable. They can do without yet another evangelical enabler.

Zechariah writes:

“I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”

Why the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem? Because they still have history’s greatest injustice to rectify with their Messiah. As a nation, they pierced him. As a nation, they will weep over him.

You and I won’t. Not then, at any rate. Our sins against the Lord Jesus, vile as they may be in many cases, were dealt with once and for all at the cross.

* It may not have gone over quite so effectively if Paul had written, “Presently I am a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.”

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