Why would God hold the Jews at the time of Jesus responsible for all the sins of the Jews–even those in the distant past?
1. Why would Jesus charge the blood of all the prophets since Abel on the generation of Jews at the time of Jesus?
2. What is the definition of a prophet according to the Bible? I thought prophet means messenger of God, perhaps much like an angel. If so, why would Abel be called a prophet?
3. I’m not doubting Jesus’ justice, but doesn’t it sound too cruel to charge the blood shed by ancestors on their descendants? From what I understand God wouldn’t charge the sins of the father to the later generation, although the consequences of sins may linger through later generations.
The fact is that the vast majority of the Jews rejected the teaching of the prophets. They persecuted or killed Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others. Jesus is holding the Jews corporately responsible for rejecting those sent to him. This is told in more than one parable, such as the Parable of the Tenants. This is a blistering condemnation of the Jews’ refusal to accept admonishment from God. More on God’s discipline on peoples, as opposed to individuals below.
Of course, there were exceptions. There were faithful Jews who accepted his teaching humbly. There were Mary, Ana and Zechariah in Luke 1. There was Elijah who God told that there were 7000 who had not bowed the knee to the idols in 1 KIngs 19:18. I assume that these faithful Jews will be in heaven. Nevertheless, the great majority of Jews throughout their history stubbornly refused to listen to his word or to those sent to them by God. God has every right to judge Israel here, despite the small minority who were faithful.
It is not clear that the Bible defines the word prophet. However, Exodus 7:1-2 is helpful. Moses is told that, as prophet, he is to say everything he is commanded to say. Jeremiah 1:9 tells us that the prophet is in whom God has put his words. The prophet is a “seer” who has seen a vision sent by God (Numbers 12:6-8). Moses is a prophet because “I will put my words in his mouth.” (Deuteronomy 18:18. There is the passage in Deuteronomy 18:22 in which Israel is told that, if a prophet’s prediction does not come true, then he is no prophet, and his message is not from the Lord. But notice, it is the message that makes the prophet, not the prediction. In other words, scholars will all agree that the chief role of a prophet was as a spokesperson for God. They say “thus says the Lord.” The Prophet warns of punishment and encourages toward repentance, as well as holding out hope of salvation. Their predictive prophecy is more a matter of evidence we should believe their message than intended to allow us to know the future. Of course, the dictionary definition of prophecy (prediction) is part of the job, but not the principle part of the job.
As for Abel being a prophet, we know virtually nothing of what he said, so we are stuck simply taking Jesus at his word when he called Abel a prophet (Matthew 23:34-35). We do not have his words as a prophet recorded, but this is true of a number of prophets in the Old Testament. In 1 and 2 Kings we hear of more than one prophet from whom we have no actual prophecy. Philip had daughters who were prophetesses (Acts 21:9), but we do not know what they said. Apparently, Abel was a prophet to the people in his day, as Jesus calls him a prophet, but we do not know what his message was or even to whom he prophesied. Who did Abel prophesy to? The thousands of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great, great grandchildren that Adam and Eve had by that time.
God entrusted his covenant to his people as a whole, not to individuals. That is one of the differences between the Mosaic covenant and the New Covenant. Of course, there were individuals under the Mosaic covenant, but the agreement was between God and his people, corporately. Therefore the responsibility of the covenant lay with his people. Particularly responsible were the kings, the judges and the priests, but the people were also responsible as a whole to God. God told them that if they were not faithful, they would be conquered by a foreign king (Deuteronomy 28:45-52 for example). God always dealt with Israel as a group. The fact that God held the Jews at the time of Jesus responsible for what the Jewish people had done is not evidence that he is too hard on his people or that he is not just, although I suppose some of us might be tempted to think that way. Let me suggest you read Deuteronomy 28. It makes the principle of corporate blessing and corporate judgement very clear.
In Exodus 20:4 we learn that when we sin against God, the negative results come on our children, grandchildren, down to the third and fourth generation. The punishment for sin he is talking about in this context is is THIS LIFE, not in eternity. There is a moral principle, which is that when we rebel against God and when we sin against him, we bring suffering into this world. Exodus 20:4 tells us this. What is true of individuals in Exodus 20:4 is true of Israel as well. Of course, this does not mean that we are subject to eternal judgment in hell for what others have done. Ezekiel 18:3-18 teaches that we do not suffer eternal judgment for the sins of others–only our own. This does not contradict the consequences of sin in this life. I can see that this principle is a bit hard for you to accept–the idea of corporate judgment for Israel, but it was prophesied and God did what he said he would do. Eventually, when the Jews rejected the Messiah, he brought destruction to Jerusalem, as he prophesied in Matthew 24:9-21. Of course, not all the Jews rejected their Messiah, but most did and God judged the people as a group for their rejection of the one sent to them.
In summary, IN THIS LIFE, the consequences of our sins fall on those who come after us (Exodus 20:4), but in eternity this is not the case (Ezekiel 18, Revelation 20:12 and other passages). Corporate responsibility that individualists such as Americans find hard to grasp, but it is a biblical concept for sure.