By Florian H. Berndt
Addressing the increasing number of recent posts arguing for a god that can’t make up his (its?) mind if he (it?) should love or destroy us, I’ve been arguing that a god that doesn’t look like His Son is not the Abba of Jesus. This obviously implies that one deals with the real Jesus, rather than a projection of our anger, guilt and fears, an idol of which there are plenty of versions “out there” (2. Corinthians 11:4).
The more disturbing was a recent post of someone claiming to proclaim the “real Jesus” as a rebuke against moral laxity, posting, “Jesus will burn evil, unrepented people with unquenchable fire … (so repent),” based on Matthew 3:12: “His (Jesus') winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).
Sadly, I am seeing this kind of rhetoric emerge with concerning rapidity, even from people who should know better, who without doubt have at some point encountered the real Jesus, but who for some reason are reintroducing the idea of a retributive deity back into their theology and spirituality.
This should not surprise us too much, since we all can fall prone to this error – the most famous example probably being the Apostle Peter, who in one moment received revelation about the identity of Jesus from Abba, and in the next breath attempted to oppose His mission – just after Jesus warned them about the influence of the Pharisees and Sadducees (in Matthew), as well as Herod (in Mark), all holding retributive views about God (Matthew 16:23).
In Luke’s Gospel the phrase spoken to Peter in this narrative, “get behind me satan (adversary)” (Luke 4:8), is in the context of Jesus being tempted to fashion His ministry according to the retributive ways of what John and his community call the “world” with all its conflict creating cravings (1. John 2:17-16). Would He try and prove His identity by turning stones into bread, show of His power by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, or exercise it by bowing down to the ways of the empires of this world, rather than pouring out His life in love, as His Abba does? That was His temptation, and it still is ours.
But when John the Baptist proclaimed that He that baptizes in the Holy Spirit, would “burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” he was speaking in the tradition of the Jewish prophets (Matthew 11:10-12), as the messenger that was sent beforehand (a reference to Malachi 3:1-2), to a people under foreign occupation, waiting for their deliverance.
Interestingly, the Lord, for Whom the messenger prepares the way, is described as “a refiner’s fire, like a launderer’s soap” – two different images that have nothing to do with the destruction of people, but the cleansing of the temple in which He suddenly appears - Malachi 3:3 – an event that is described in all four Gospel accounts: Matthew 21:12–17; Mark 11:15–19; Luke 19:45–48; and John 2:13–16.
While I’ve heard people use this incident to claim that Jesus will employ violence in the future, thereby going against His own teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and other places, we don’t read of anyone getting hurt, no bleeding people lying on the ground begging for mercy, no wounded animals. Instead we read of him driving out the animals and overthrowing tables (John 2:15-16). He was prophetically enacting (like the prophet in Jeremiah 19) the overthrow of the temple, that would occur years later, because Jerusalem was continuing its program of violent insurrection against the occupying Romans.
It was the same warning that Jeremiah before Him announced against those who attempted to violently overthrow their Babylonian oppressors. And while John the Baptist might have anticipated - like most people at the time – the Messiah destroying Israel’s enemies, Jesus’ message was different, as shown in His first message in the synagogue, after having rejected the retributive ways of the systems of this world (Luke 4:1-29). As He later explained in a message to his disillusioned cousin John, the reign of His Abba was not established in violence, but manifests in healing, deliverance, and restoration (Matthew 11:4-6).
Now, why was John the Baptist offended (verse 6)? Because Jesus did not fulfill his expectations of violently overthrowing the Romans and establishing Jerusalem as the capitol of the world under the rule of retributive justice, while he suffered in prison for confronting Herod. Instead it was Jerusalem that got burned to the ground years later (Matthew 24; Mark 13 etc.), meaning that those who rose up in violence to fight for retributive justice, suffered the fate they wanted to inflict upon their enemies (Matthew 26:52)
Rather than retributive justice we see a God Who turns His enemies into friends when Jesus baptized His disciples in Holy Spirit, with the manifestation of flames of fire, and 3000 people, who formerly shouted for the crucifixion of the Messiah get added to His body of followers, after being confronted with what they had done (Acts 2:1-41).
For the same God Who is an All-Consuming Fire (Hebrews 12:29), is Love (1. John 4:16) and Light - which is fire – in Whom there is no darkness (there is no two-faced god) – the very message Jesus proclaimed (1. John 1:5), the Father of lights in Whom there is no shadow of turning (James 1:17), which means He has no dark side, and hence, we His children cannot live double-minded either (James 1:8).
Here I have heard it said that, “Jesus came as a Lamb (in gentleness), but He will return as a Lion (violently),” as if He lived like a doormat during His earthly life (e. g. Luke 4:30 etc.), or as if He was crucified because He couldn’t stand up for Himself (e. g. Matthew 26:53; John 10:18 etc.) – not to mention that the letter to the Hebrews speaks about Him being the same, “yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
Further, in reference to the Lion of Judah, that is supposed to support the aforementioned claim of Him returning in violence, there is no lion in the book of John’s Revelation. Instead, we see the prophet turning around when the voice declares to him, “Behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Who has triumphed,” and we see a slaughtered Lamb instead (Revelation 5:5-6). Because, this is how Jesus overcomes the forces of evil (Colossians 2:15).
No, Jesus doesn’t burn evil and “unrepented” people with “unquenchable fire” (in ancient texts, including the Jewish and Christian scriptures, describing a fire that will not go out until it establishes its purpose). In fact, He said, “Everyone will be seasoned with fire” (Mark 9:49) – the unquenchable fire of His love. This is the same love that the two sons in Jesus’ parable of the loving father were confronted with (Luke 15:11-32), melting the younger son’s shame in the father’s embrace, and calling the older one to give up his ideas of performance and retributive justice. That is the Abba of the real Jesus, the only true God that ever existed ( John 17:3).