For those looking for a modernized version of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, this isn’t it. N. T. Wright (Tom Wright) is challenging the very fabric of what he characterizes as the Conservative Christian myth about Jesus. Lewis, in Mere Christianity was not breaking new ground theologically. The subtitle of this book is: A new vision of who He was; what he did; and why it matters. That pretty much sums it up. N.T. Wright wants us to embrace his view of Jesus which is far from simple but it is compelling and I would say biblical and historical. So fasten your seat-belt and dig in. If I have done my work well on this summary you will go and buy the book. Barbara and I also took the on-line course he offers on the book. This I would not recommend as it doesn’t follow the book closely enough although the major themes covered in the book are covered in the on-line course. But you can get it all in the book.
Chapter 1 – A Very Odd Sort of King
Tom opens this book with the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem
(Luke 19:36-37). He says of the people: “At last their dreams were going to come true.” But Tom says, “their leader wasn’t singing. “When he came near and saw the city, he wept over it. (v. 41) Yes, their dreams were indeed coming true. But not in the way they had imagined.” He goes on to say He wasn’t like the monarchs of old or the warrior-king with a mighty army (or sling-shot) to bring down the giant oppressor. “… he was weeping, weeping for the dream that had to die, weeping for the sword that pierce his supporters to the soul. Weeping for the kingdom that wasn’t coming as well as for the kingdom that was.”
Tom presents a misunderstanding 1st century Jews had about who Jesus was. He says that the church also has this misunderstanding. “Jesus – the Jesus we might discover if we really looked! – is larger, more disturbing, more urgent than we – than the church! – had ever imagined. … We have reduced the kingdom of God to private piety, the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience, and Easter itself to a happy, escapist ending after a sad, dark tale. Piety, conscience, and ultimate happiness are important, but not nearly important as Jesus himself.”
Describing Jesus as the odd sort of King, “He was the king alright, but he had come to redefine kingship itself around his own work, his own mission, his own fate.” Wright tries to make the case that “if Christians don’t get Jesus right, what chance is there that other people will bother much with him?”
With these and other shots across the bow, Wright has defined what he intends to do in this book – awaken the church to Simply Jesus.
Chapter 2 – The Three Puzzles
Wright begins this chapter by telling us that, in spite the wide recognition of Jesus, people are still puzzled by Him. “Who is this Jesus?” Wright says there are three things that puzzle us:
- Jesus’ world is strange to us – This is Wright’s area of expertise. So he is going to help unravel this for us.
- We don’t understand “what he meant when he spoke of God.”
- Finally, “Jesus spoke and acted as if he was in charge.” In charge of what? He “did things people didn’t think you were allowed to do, and he explained them by saying he had the right to do them.”
Tom then sets the tone of the book:
What would happen if we took the risk of going back into his world, into his vision of God, and asking, “Suppose it really is true?” What would it look like, in other words, if Jesus not only was in charge then, but is in charge today as well?
Chapter 3 – The Perfect Storm
Tom begins to teach us about what it was like to live in the 1st century in Israel.
He starts this chapter by comparing Jesus’ time to the story of the Andrea Gail as portrayed in the book and the movie: “The Perfect Storm.” Tom tells us that there were three elements to the perfect storm that were brewing:
- The power and the might of imperial Rome and their occupation of Palestine
- The boiling pot of expectation and anguish of the Jewish people – expecting the Messiah soon. They understood the prophecy in Daniel 9 that predicted the exact date of the Messiah to be in the neighborhood of 30 AD. And they also knew the awful oppression of being an occupied people.
- Jesus is the third element – doing things no man had ever done; saying things unlike any man had ever said; and drawing a large number of the poor and disenfranchised around Him. But Wright later defines this third element in a different way – see my notes Chapter 5.
But Wright’s main “perfect storm” in this chapter is his own. In the academic world where he lives, “the very mention of Jesus raises all kinds of winds and cyclones.” So the first element of the perfect storm of our day is the skepticism of the present age (especially in the academy). The second element is “the ‘conservative’ Christian reaction to that sneering modernist denial” of the academy. He claims that the “massive social, political, and cultural storms that have raged across the Western world over the last two or three hundred years … seem… to be coming to something of a climax.” He will tell us about the third element of this perfect storm later.
In the midst of this perfect storm of today, Tom sees two myths about Jesus that “swirl around our head, around the churches, around TV studios, and around the editorial offices.”
- A “supernatural being called ‘God’ has a supernatural ‘son’ whom he sends, virgin born into our world … so that he can rescue people out of this world by dying in their place.” [He anticipates many of your responses: “What d’you mean it’s a myth? Don’t you believe that?” He tells those of you saying this: “Please wait. Patience is a Christian virtue.” He will explain what he thinks is wrong with this view. Remember the subtitle of the book – he is casting a new vision of who He was; what He did; and why He matters.]
- Jesus was “an ordinary man, a good first-century Jew, conceived and born in the ordinary way. He was a remarkable preacher and teacher, but he probably didn’t do all those miracles.” “The idea of being a supernatural ‘son of God’ never occurred to him; he’d be horrified to hear such a thing and even more to have had a ‘church’ founded in his memory.”
The third element of today’s perfect storm is “the sheer historical complexity of speaking about Jesus.” Clearly spoken by a historian who is trying to be faithful to his discipline.
Chapter 4 – The Making of a First Century Storm
In this chapter, he draws us back to the three elements of the 1st century storm; Rome; the Jews awaiting the Messiah; and Jesus. He starts with a brief history of the Roman Empire up until the time of Jesus. He tells us that all we need to know about this storm is captured on a coin of the time. On one side is a picture of Tiberius Caesar and the inscription: “Augustus Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.” On the reverse is a picture of Tiberius dressed as a priest with the title PONTIFEX MAXIMUS.” Caesar was “Son of God” and High Priest of Rome and of Judea.
The Jewish storm is “more turbulent and complex than the first element [Rome].” Keeping it simple, Wright boils it down to: “The God who brought order out of chaos and who brought his enslaved people out of Egypt would do it again.” He says: “Though many Jews had, remarkably enough, been brought back from Babylon and by the end of the 6th century [?BC] had even rebuilt the Temple, there remained a strong sense that this was not yet the real ‘new exodus’ for which they longed.” They were looking for a new Exodus led by a new Moses – the Messiah – God’s anointed One.
Chapter 5 – The Hurricane
Tom starts this chapter by describing how, in the past, Israel had looked to God to do things one way but He did it another way. “And Jesus believed that this was happening again in his own time.” [Jesus] “believed … that as he came to Jerusalem he was embodying, incarnating, the return of Israel’s God to his people in power and glory. But it was a different kind of power, a different kind of glory.” This is quite a statement by Wright and he develops this more fully in Jesus and the Victory of God and How God Became King.
As I promised, Wright now expands on the third element of the perfect storm of the first century: “the strange, unpredictable, and highly dangerous divine element. The wind of God. This is God’s moment, declares Jesus, and you were looking the other way. Your dreams of national liberation, leading you into head-on confrontation with Rome, were not God’s dreams. …This was where the hurricane of divine love met the cold might of empire and the overheated aspiration of Israel. Only when we reflect on that combination do we begin to understand the meaning of Jesus’s death.” He quotes from Psalm 18:7-15 and says: “That sounds pretty much like a hurricane to me.” Check it out yourself.
Next Tom addresses the question “Who should be king?” He claims from history as he understands it that “At exactly the time when Jesus was growing up, there was a movement … that said it was time for God alone to be king.” But he claims they didn’t know what they were asking. As Bob Dylan once said, “‘I am the Lord thy God’ is a fine saying, as long as it’s the right person who’s saying it.”
There was a longing with the people “for YHWH himself to come and take charge.” He quotes two pages of various Psalms (10:16-18; 47:1-9; 95:3-7; 96:10-13; 145:1, 10-13) and Isaiah 52:7-10 where this is promised. Then he quotes in full from more Psalms and the prophets – all trying to help us see what the people were expecting and yearning for.
The people who were longing for God alone to be their king were clinging to the hope set out in scripture: the hope that, after all these years, Israel’s God would return to be with his people, to rescue them, to restore them, to condemn their oppressors, to take charge, to do justice, to sort things out, to rule over them like a good king should, but unlike any actual human king they had ever known.
Now Tom brings up two more puzzles:
- Why would anyone call Jesus the Messiah, the King of the Jews “who had not done the things people expected a victorious king to do?”
- Second, what on earth might it mean today to speak of Jesus being “king” or being “in charge,” in view of the fact that so many things in the world give no hint of such a thing?
These are the two questions he addresses in the rest of the book.
Chapter 6 – God’s in Charge Now
Tom opens this chapter by addressing the question of miracles. The gospels are full of them. Matthew says it this way: Jesus went through the whole of Galilee; teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God and healing every disease and illness among the people. (Matthew 4:23). But what do we know about miracles from a first century perspective? He points out four quick responses:
- Jesus attracted large crowds – Why? – the gospels all link the crowds to the miracles
- Opponents accused Jesus of being in league with the devil – Why? – people don’t accuse you of being in league with the devil unless you are doing some pretty amazing stuff.
- “the explanation Jesus gave for what was going on was that something new was happening—something powerful, dramatic, different. If all he’d been doing was encouraging people to feel better about themselves and not actually transforming their real lives, there would have been no sign of anything new. There would have been nothing to explain. His explanations only make sense if the thing they are explaining is sufficiently startling to raise questions. “
- It’s “time to be skeptical about skepticism itself.” “By all means, people think, let Jesus be a soul doctor, making people feel better inside. Let him be a rescuer, snatching people away from this world to ‘heaven.’ But don’t let him tell us about a God who actually does things in the world. We might have to take that God seriously, just when we’re discovering how to run the world our own way.”
So where is the story going, he asks? “It leads straight to the announcement that Jesus was making: “God’s in charge now—and this is what it looks like!”” Tom then outlines a brief history of Israel because he wants us to understand what is going on from a first century perspective. Here are some of the pivotal beliefs they had:
- God had created a good world but something went terribly wrong and needed to be set right.
- They, the Jews, were the key element in God’s rescue plan.
- “they believed that the Temple was the one spot on earth where the two [heaven and earth] overlapped.”
The story of the Exodus was the key narrative that gave them hope which had the following key elements:
- A wicked tyrant and an oppressed people of Israel
- A leader chosen by God
- A great victory of God
- Rescue of His people by sacrifice
- A new vocation and a new life in a new land
- Presence of God being specially manifest
- The promise land / the inheritance
The first-century Jew expected this powerful narrative to be repeated. The perfect storm is ready to hit!
Chapter 7 – The Campaign Starts Here
Tom starts this chapter by helping us understand what Jesus was saying about God. Tom believes that the central message was that “God was at last becoming king.” (Mark 1:15 and Luke 11:20 among others). He goes on:
An announcement like this isn’t simply a proclamation. It’s the start of a campaign. When a regime is already in power and is simply transferring that power to the next person in line, you just announce that it’s happening. But if you make that announcement while someone else appears to be in charge, you are saying, in effect, “The campaign starts here.”
And Tom says that the way He started the campaign was through healings and parties. Wright believes that Jesus loved to go to parties – and these parties that He loved to go to were celebrations that God is becoming king. Healing for inner and outer man and parties to celebrate.
But, from whatever angle you look at Jesus, he was concerned not just with outward structures, but with realities that would involve the entire person, the entire community. No point putting the world right if the people are still broken.
Tom then asks:
But what had the curing of dozens, perhaps thousands, of people to do with the hopes and aspirations we studied earlier, the dream of a new Exodus, a victorious battle against the old tyrant, the rebuilding of the Temple, the creation of justice and peace?
According to Tom, along with healing and celebrating is another thread: Forgiveness. Drawing from the formal announcement of Jesus’ ministry in Luke 4, he believes that setting the captives free has both a physical (healing) component and an inner healing component (forgiveness). Tom asks:
How does God normally forgive sins within Israel? Why, through the Temple and the sacrifices that take place there. Jesus seems to be claiming that God is doing, up close and personal through him, something that you’d normally expect to happen at the Temple.
This is a major theme of Tom’s writing. Jesus is declaring that He is the new temple (this is a major theme of Pope Benedict’s book on Jesus as well).
In this chapter Tom also introduces us to the idea that Herod was seen with messianic aspirations. He tells about when John the Baptist called Herod out for marrying his brother’s wife, John was saying – He cannot be the Messiah – see how he disobeys the law. Tom introduces something I had never seen in the passage where Jesus asks the crowd who they went to see in the desert. A reed? He asked. Tom says Jesus did not want to attack Herod directly but
Antipas’s symbol was a particular kind of reed that grows beside the Sea of Galilee. So, asks Jesus, “What were you expecting to see when you went out into the desert? A reed wobbling in the wind?” In other words, “When you went off after John, were you looking for another ruler like the ones you’ve got already?”
Tom closes the chapter with this description of Jesus
He is much more like a rebel leader within a modern tyranny, setting up an alternative government, establishing his rule, making things happen in a new way. He chooses twelve of his closest followers and seems to set them apart as special associates. For anyone with eyes to see, this says clearly that he is reconstituting God’s people, Israel, around himself.
Chapter 8 – Stories that Explain and a Message That Transforms
In this chapter, Tom starts talking about how Jesus explained His message through parables:
As part of his campaign, he told stories. Not just any old stories. These stories were, for the most part, not “illustrations,” preachers’ tricks to decorate an abstract or difficult thought, to sugarcoat the pill of complicated teaching. If anything, they were the opposite. They were stories designed to tease, to clothe the shocking and revolutionary message of God’s kingdom in garb that left the hearers wondering, trying to think it out, never quite able (until near the end) to pin Jesus down.
These explanatory stories—the “parables”—were not, as children are sometimes taught in Sunday school, “earthly stories with heavenly meanings,” though some of them may be that, as it were, by accident. Some, indeed, are heavenly stories, tales of otherworldly goings-on, with decidedly earthly meanings. That’s exactly what we should expect if Jesus’s kingdom announcement was as we are describing it, with God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven.
He then gives a lot of examples to illustrate his point [why you need the book]. The parables are filled with the echos of the ancient stories of Israel. Jesus was:
[allowing the] ancient echoes to take root in the fertile and scripture-soaked minds of his hearers, to try to get through to them the message that what they have longed for is happening at last, but it doesn’t look as they thought it would! God is at last doing the great new thing he’s always promised for Israel—but the wrong people seem to be getting the message, and many of the right people are missing it entirely!
Tom tells us what he thinks the parables were all about:
The parables, in fact, are told as kingdom explanations for Jesus’s kingdom actions. They are saying: “Don’t be surprised, but this is what it looks like when God’s in charge.” They are not “abstract teaching,” and indeed if we approach them like that, we won’t understand them at all.
But some of the parables carry with them a dark foreboding of what is to come:
Even the story of the great wedding party to which all and sundry are invited carries within it a dark note of warning: don’t think you can come into God’s party without putting on the proper clothes. Even the great story of spectacular forgiveness is turned back against itself when the servant who had been forgiven a huge sum refused to forgive his fellow servant a tiny sum. If this is what it looks like when God’s kingdom comes on earth as in heaven—if this is what it looks like when God’s in charge—then there must have been more wrong with “earth” than anyone had supposed.
It isn’t that God, coming to rule on earth, is picky or grouchy, determined to find fault. It is, rather, that the patient is deathly sick, and the doctor must prescribe an appropriately drastic course of treatment. It is that the sheep are in danger of being totally lost, since they appear to have no shepherd at all.
When Jesus declared all foods clean and that people become unclean because of what is inside of them:
what is Jesus saying? That some people are simply permanently unclean—namely, all those who find these [bad] things bubbling up in their hearts? Hardly. There wouldn’t be too many “clean” people around if that were his point. No, his point is that when God becomes king, he provides a cure for uncleanness of heart. Again and again it comes, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), on the edge of one remark after another. When God becomes king, he will come with a message of forgiveness and healing … and this is designed to renew the whole person from the inside out.
How was Jesus going to put forth this new agenda Wright asks:
[Is He] going to force this new agenda on people, even though their hearts are still hard? No. Putting this together with all the other passages about the heart, we can say with confidence that Jesus’s point was this. When God becomes king, on earth as in heaven, he will provide a cure for hardness of heart. The healing that Jesus offered for sick bodies was to penetrate to the very depths of one’s being. Transformed lives, healed from the inside out, are to be the order of the day when God becomes king.
Tom says that Jesus’ message was political as well as religious. Those opposed to Him want to show that He is transgressing the law to discredit Him and His ministry.
And this in turn explains once more why Jesus only gives a cryptic answer in public and waits until he is in private before saying the truly explosive thing—that what you eat is irrelevant for genuine purity. That is tantamount to burning a flag or spray-painting a revolutionary slogan on a palace wall.
Tom discusses how Jesus answered the question about divorce:
Mark and Matthew both locate the incident in question in “the districts of Judea across the Jordan.” Memories are stirred. That was where John had been baptizing. That was where John had denounced Herod Antipas for taking his brother’s wife. To ask the question of divorce in that setting was no mere theoretical inquiry. It was inviting Jesus to incriminate himself, to say something that might lead Antipas to do to Jesus what he’d done to John.
He ends the chapter with a question that will lead us to chapter 9:
But what then must we say about Jesus’s vision of the kingdom itself? Did he think it was already here, or was it still in the future? Or was it in some sense both, and if so how?
Chapter 9 – The Kingdom Present and Future
Tom opens the chapter with this:
When Jesus healed people, when he celebrated parties with all and sundry, when he offered forgiveness freely to people as if he were replacing the Temple itself with his own work—in all these ways it was clear, and he intended it to be clear, that this wasn’t just a foretaste of a future reality. This was reality itself. This was what it looked like when God was in charge. God’s kingdom was coming, as he taught his followers to pray, “on earth as in heaven.”
A great deal of what Jesus was doing and saying only makes sense on the assumption that he really did believe that God was already becoming king in the new way he had promised. It was happening, and this is what it would look like.
Tom then gives us a history lesson of other failed Messiahs and false kings (interesting history – so get the book!). All followed the same great Exodus them he introduced:
- Oppression by a tyrant
- Raising up a a God ordained leader
- Defeat for the tyrant and great victory for God and His people
- A rescue and restoration of God’s people
- Rebuilding the temple / restoring the temple
- Starting a new vocation
- God’s presence restored
He gives us details about the following false Messiahs / false King of the Jews who claimed to fit into the above narrative:
- Judah the Hammer (or Judas Maccabeus) 160 BC
- Simon the Star (132 AD)
- Herod the Great (great victories over foreign invaders; rebuilt the temple; called “The King of the Jews” 40 BC until his death shortly after Jesus’ birth).
- Simon Bar-Giora (66 AD – defended the temple but was defeated as the temple was destroyed after 3 years of his reign as “King of the Jews”)
He does this to emphasize two points:
- Israel had a well-recognized set of expectations for a “King of the Jews.”
- The movement would have two moments: A time of announcement and a time of battle with a victory and subsequent rebuilding of the Temple. Tom claims that most Jews did not really accept Herod’s temple as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel.
The battle and the temple are where he takes us next.
Chapter 10 – Battle and Temple
Tom starts the chapter by citing the Sermon on the Mount, the Luke 4 Nazareth manifesto, the binding of the strong man, and the coming of the son of man language to show that Jesus knew that He was in a battle and the battle was coming to a climax. According to Tom, the Jews were expecting the battle to be against the Romans. But for Jesus, the battle was against the satan. [The word in Greek has an implied “the.” Not “accuser” but “the accuser.”] Tom takes seriously that this personal evil exists and attempts to derail the Kingdom of God. And when Jesus brings the Kingdom to earth, there is going to be war. And that war will be with the satan.
Only twice in the gospel story does Jesus address “the satan” directly by that title: once when rebuking him in the temptation narrative (Matthew 4:10), and again when he is rebuking [Peter] (Mark 8:33).
So the battle that the Jews were expecting (against Rome) was, according to Tom, replaced by Jesus as a battle against the satan. And Tom claims that Jesus has already won an initial victory:
But if there had been an earlier “victory,” when did it take place? Matthew, Mark, and Luke all supply the answer: at the beginning of Jesus’s public career, during his forty-day fast in the desert, when the satan tried to distract him, to persuade him to grasp the right goal by the wrong means, and so to bring him over to his side (Matt. 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13). Jesus won that battle, which was why he could then announce that God’s kingdom was now beginning to happen. But the battle clearly isn’t over yet. The great initial victory, won in Jesus’s own intense private struggle, has created a space in which God’s kingdom can now make inroads,
Next he shows how, in the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus is declaring that the Temple and its system of sacrifices is finished.
he was effectively stopping the sacrificial system itself, for a brief but symbolic moment. And if you stop the regular flow of sacrifices, you bring the Temple to a shuddering halt.
And He did that to point to Himself as the new Temple – the place where heaven and earth meet.
I have become convinced that Jesus’s dramatic action was a way of declaring that the Temple was under God’s judgment and would, before too long, be destroyed forever. That is certainly how the gospel writers saw it.
Chapter 11 – Space, Time and Matter
Tom begins this chapter by teaching us that the people of 1st century
Palestine did not think of space, time and matter the way we do in the West.
Most people in the Western world today think of geography as simply places on a map. The sense of “sacred space” or even a sense of “place” is gone; territory is just real estate to be developed, exploited, bought, and sold. We are brought up short when confronted with the worldviews of different groups (say, the indigenous populations of America or Australia) who persist in regarding “their land” as “special” in a way that transcends mere ownership and cultural memory.
Our Western world also devalues time and no longer has special times. And matter? We see matter as just stuff – nothing special about it. Tom then looks at each of these with a 1st century lens:
Space: Tom argues that one particular space was special – The Temple. It is where heaven and earth meet. And Jesus’ radical announcement that He was now the place where heaven and earth meet. “Jesus is acting out a vision – astonishing, risky, and one might say crazy – in which he is behaving as if he is the Temple…”
Time: “The Sabbath was the day when human time and God’s time met, when the day-to-day succession of tasks and sorrows was set aside and one entered a different sort of time, celebrating the original Sabbath and looking forward to the ultimate one. … Rather, the sabbath was the regular signpost pointing forward to God’s promised future, and Jesus was announcing that the future to which the signpost had been pointing had now arrived in the present. …If Jesus is a walking, living, breathing Temple, he is also the walking, celebrating, victorious Sabbath.”
Matter: This new vision of matter comes up in Jesus’ teaching about the new creation. The Jews believed that all matter was made by God to not only display his beauty and his power but to be a vessel for his glory. Jesus vision is that the material world itself is being transformed by the presence and power of God the creator.
All of this points to a new revolution. Jesus did not come to earth to show people how to get to heaven. … The whole point of Jesus’ public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven and that, at death, they could leave “earth” behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on “earth”; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognize, in his own work, the signs that it was happening indeed; and that when he completed his work, it would become reality.
But he wasn’t teaching his followers how to rise above the mess of the world. He was training them to be kingdom bringers. As Marx himself said, the point is not to understand the world, but to change it.
But in first-century Christianity, what mattered was not people going from earth into God’s kingdom in heaven. What mattered, and what Jesus taught his followers to pray, was that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven.
Jesus’ powerful acts of healing, then, together with all the other extraordinary things the gospels credit him with, are not done in order to “prove” his “divinity.” If you see them like that, they prove too much and too little. Too much: other people had, and still have, remarkable gifts of healing. That’s always been a feature on the edge of religious movements and sometimes in the center of them. But it doesn’t mean that the person doing the healing is “God” just like that. Were that to be the case, there would be quite a lot of gods. Equally, too little: those who have seen Jesus’ powerful acts as “proofs of divinity” have often just stopped there, as though that was the main thing one was suppose to conclude from a reading of the gospels.
The gospels are not about “how Jesus turned out to be God.” They are about how God became king on earth as in heaven.
Chapter 12 – At the Heart of the Storm
In this chapter, Tom returns us to the storm. And the place where the storm hits is recorded in John 18-19 – in particular when Jesus was before Pilate (Rome) with the Jewish leaders looking on:
It seems to be, in theory, a kind of judicial hearing, but the conversation constantly threatens to lapse into a sharp-edged discussion about worldviews, with the chief priests looking on and giving their point of view as well. That gives us the three-angled picture I am talking about.
Tom asks – do the Scriptures predict this perfect storm? Tom says that Isaiah 40-55 does just that. The role of the servant of YHWH as described here shows that God knew this perfect storm was coming. Tom quotes from these chapters extensively and comments on it.
He also sees the perfect storm coming in the book of Daniel – in particular chapter 7. Here we have the anointed one (the Messiah), the people of Israel and the pagan nations coming into conflict. One thing that he points out that I never saw before was that the “son of man” who comes with the clouds goes in an upward direction not a downward direction.
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him. Daniel 7:13
The Ancient of Days is God the Father. This is pivotal to Wright’s understanding of Daniel.
Finally, Tom points us to passages in Zechariah that predict the perfect storm. He ends the chapter asking:
Who did Jesus think he was, what was he intending to do, and why? What did he think it would all accomplish? What did he think it would all mean?
Chapter 13 – Why Did the Messiah Have to Die?
Tom is now ready to address those questions from the last chapter:
The answers come too in more or less equal profusion. But, like all the best answers to the hardest questions, they come themselves as a set of sparkling puzzles, as though to remind people both ancient and modern that the questions are questions precisely because something is going on that demands a collapse of categories, a breaking of boundaries, a widening of worldview to the point where the new thing, whatever it is, will make the sense it does.
Tom says that the answers don’t come easy because:
Jesus fitted no ready-made categories.
Was Jesus’ vocation one of:
- Messiah? Well, Jesus wasn’t doing the things you would expect a messiah to do, and yet so much of what he did and said seemed irresistibly messianic.
- Rabbi? Clearly, he wasn’t simply a rabbi with a different message, and yet he was a teacher, interpreting and expounding the scriptures and applying them urgently to what he believed was their moment of ultimate fulfillment.
- Priest? Well, priests taught people the law, and Jesus was doing that in a sense, though it wasn’t like anything they’d heard before. And priests also went up to Jerusalem to serve their turn in the Temple. Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, but, as we have seen, his deeds and words indicated that he was going to upstage the Temple, to do something that would make it redundant and leave it to its fate.
- Prophet? Yes, indeed, he spoke and acted as a prophet, but, however cryptically, he described his cousin as “more than a prophet” and clearly believed that he was bringing something greater again. … Prophets characteristically pointed away from themselves to God and what God was doing and would do, but Jesus, as we have seen, spoke about God in order to explain what he himself was doing and was about to do.
Wright now starts addressing that myth that upset us at the beginning of the book:
Many would-be “orthodox” or “conservative” Christians in our world have wanted a cross without a kingdom [a whole chapter is devoted to this in “When God Became King”], an abstract “atonement” that would have nothing to do with this world except to provide the means of escaping it. Many too have wanted a “divine” Jesus as a kind of “superman” figure, a heavenly hero come to rescue them, but not to act as Israel’s Messiah, establishing God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. Jesus’s shocking combination of scriptural models into a single vocation makes excellent historical sense; that is, it explains at a stroke why he did and said what he did and said. But, as we shall see, it remains as challenging in our world, and indeed in our churches, as it was in Jesus’s own day.
Jesus is beginning the new exodus – but the tyrant is not Rome but against “evil, corruption, and death itself.”
Jesus came to believe that the only way one could defeat death itself, and thereby launch the new creation for which Israel and the world had longed, was to take on death itself, like David taking on Goliath in mortal combat, trusting that Israel’s God, the creator of life itself, would enable victory to be won. And, since death was seen in the scriptures as the ultimate result of human rebellion against God and the failure to obey him, if death were to be defeated, then idolatry, rebellion, disobedience, and sin would be defeated along with it. Death, like a great ugly giant, would do its worst, and pour out its full weight upon him. And the creator God would overcome it, showing it up as a defeated enemy.
Look back at the seven themes of the great Exodus narrative:
- A wicked tyrant and an oppressed people of Israel – not the corrupt Jewish leaders nor Roman leaders – but evil itself
- A leader chosen by God – Jesus
- A great victory of God – Victory over sin and death
- Rescue of His people by sacrifice – The cross – “[Jesus took] upon himself the full weight of evil, the concentrated calamity of the cosmos, by giving ‘his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45, echoing Isaiah 53:11–12) he was putting into operation a different way of life entirely, a different way of power”
- A new vocation and a new life in a new land – The sermon on the mount – love one another; turn the other cheek; the church; etc
- Presence of God being specially manifest – The real presence of God in Christ who appears in Jerusalem on a donkey. This real presence carries over post-Pentecost into the church with the coming Holy Spirit
- The promise land / the inheritance – Now the whole world – not just Israel
Tom defends this new reading of Jesus like this:
This way of looking at the climax of Jesus’s story is not, to be sure, the standard, traditional, “orthodox,” “conservative” reading, though it highlights from a new angle the “traditional” dogmas of “incarnation” and “atonement.” My contention is that it enables us to understand the original, historical reality for which those dogmas are later, often dehistoricized, abstract summaries.
Jesus had a hard time convincing His disciples about His death but notice how He does it:
When he wanted fully to explain what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory. He didn’t even give them a set of scriptural texts. He gave them a meal. … The gifts of bread and wine, already heavy with symbolic meaning, acquire a new density: this is how the presence of Jesus is to be known among his followers. Sacrifice and presence.
Wright says that we often read John’s gospel incorrectly. We
read John as a “spiritual” or (in that sense) “theological” tract, encouraging them into a personal spirituality and the hope of an otherworldly salvation. But John is quite clear. When the power of Rome and the betrayal of Israel’s leaders meets the love of God, the great whirlpool that results will bring about God’s kingly victory, the victory of the kingdom of God over the kingdoms of the world.
The point was not to rescue people from creation, but to rescue creation itself. With the death of Jesus, that work is complete.
Somehow, Jesus’s death was seen by Jesus himself, and then by those who told and ultimately wrote his story, as the ultimate means by which God’s kingdom was established. The crucifixion was the shocking answer to the prayer that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven.
Tom looks at a few models people use to interpret Jesus’ death:
- His death is another example of a good man being crushed by the system; “another eager revolutionary who gave his life for a cause.”
- His death is “the ultimate example of love”
- His death is representative of one who has successfully passed through death so that we can make the same journey “in him” or “through him.”
- His death absorbed the punishment we deserved. “God, who wanted to punish people was content to punish the innocent Jesus instead. “
Wright says that each of these has a point to make. But we need to not lose the nuance that each provides and yet put all of these “within a larger” construct that are illustrated by Jesus Himself in the Gospels and that is that His death was used to establish God’s kingdom. “The crucifixion was the shocking answer to the prayer that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven. It was the ultimate Exodus event through which the tyrant was defeated, God’s people were set free, and given their fresh vocation, and God’s presence was established in their midst in a completely new way for which the Temple itself was just an advance pointer. ”
This is a radical redefinition of the cross and I encourage you to chew on this and leave me comments so that I too can work through it.
Tom tells of how Albert Schweitzer saw the wheel of history moving towards greater pain and destruction. Jesus threw himself upon that wheel of history. It crushed Him and “it did indeed start to move in the opposite direction.”
Chapter 14 – Under New Management: Easter and Beyond
Tom starts this chapter by saying that he has already written extensively about Easter (The Resurrection of the Son of God which I have read and Surprised by Hope which I have not read) and so this chapter will merely summarize that. He tells us that the meaning of Easter cannot be separated from what we have already discovered about Jesus in this study. And, he tells us that this is different than what most churches believe.
When Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning, he rose as the beginning of the new world that Israel’s God had always intended to make. That is the first and perhaps the most important thing to know about the meaning of Easter.
Wright comes at this from a “when Jesus rose” not an “if Jesus rose.” As his other works demonstrate, Tom is fully convinced that a real Jesus really rose bodily from the dead. The resurrection is the birth of a new creation; the launching of God’s kingdom in power and glory on earth as it is in heaven.
The kingdom that Jesus had inaugurated strangely, mysteriously, and partially during his public career through his healings, feastings, and teachings was now unveiled in a totally new dimension. If we think of Jesus during his lifetime in the way we have throughout this book and then ask about the meaning of Easter, the answer is obvious. This is the real beginning of the kingdom. Jesus’ risen person—body, mind, heart, and soul—is the prototype of the new creation in person. We have already seen him as the Temple in person, as the jubilee in person. Now we see him as the new creation in person.
That is why, in Luke’s gospel, the risen Jesus tells his followers to go and announce to the world that a new way of life has been opened, the way of “repentance” and “forgiveness” (24:47). To us Westerners, that sounds a bit gloomy, as though it’s a perpetual act of contrition, dredging up our “sins” in order to hear someone declare them forgiven (until next time!). But it’s far, far bigger than that. The old creation lives by pride and retribution: I stand up for myself, and if someone gets in my way I try to get even. We’ve been there, done that, and got the scars to prove…
The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t mean, “It’s all right. We’re going to heaven now.” No, the life of heaven has been born on this earth.
The Easter stories come at the end of the four gospels, but they are not about an “end.” They are about a beginning. The beginning of God’s new world. The beginning of the kingdom. God is now in charge, on earth as in heaven.
Tom now introduces something that has been missing in my theological framework – the ascension. He says that if the resurrection was the prototype of the new creation, the ascension is about his enthronement as the one in charge. The ascension is not about Jesus going to heaven, it is about Jesus being enthroned in the new creation where heaven and earth are one. There are four things he wants us to know about the ascension:
- Heaven and earth are not very far apart. “And the whole point of Jesus’ identity, all along, is that he has been a one-man walking Temple; he has been, already, the place where heaven and earth have met, where people on earth have come into contact with the life and power of heaven. … The ascension enables him to be present everywhere.
- “heaven is the place from which the world is run. It is the CEO’s office.”
- It fulfills Daniel Chapter 7.
- It is not the end of the story.
Next, Tom attacks the concept of the rapture. He believes it is a complete mis-reading of Paul and a complete misunderstanding of Jesus. He tells us that “if we believe that Jesus died and rose, that’s the way God will also, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Tom says that we should think of it, not as Jesus returning from heaven like a space ship, but as the previously invisible King becoming visible. To “speak of the second coming is therefore to speak of God’s whole new world.”
Having addressed Jesus’ resurrection as the prototype of the new creation and Jesus’ ascension as the ruler of the world, he now asks what does Jesus look like today? Ah, we have to move on to Part 3.
Chapter 15 – Jesus: The Ruler of the World
Here is how this chapter begins:
What on earth does it mean, today, to say that Jesus is king, that he is Lord of the world? How can we say such a thing in our confused world? If we do want to say it, what are we saying that Jesus is up to, in our swirling mix of modern, postmodern, and other cultural movements? What is he doing, in the midst of the dangerous clash of the new secularisms and the new fundamentalisms? What does the lordship of Jesus look like in practice? … Most Christians in today’s world have not even begun to think how calling Jesus “Lord” might affect the real world.
Tom admits that these questions should be the subject of another book. He attempts it none-the-less. He reminds us:
In ancient Judaism and early Christianity, heaven and earth, God’s world and our world, overlap and interlock in various ways that put quite a different spin on all sorts of things.
What we do in the present, as Paul insists, is not wasted (1 Cor. 15:58). It will all be part of the eventual structure, even though at the moment we have no idea how.
We are called, as part of the new creation to work with God to advance His kingdom. This is our vocation which is not that different from the very beginning:
And yet the vocation sketched in Genesis 1 remains: humans are to be God’s image-bearers, that is, they are to reflect his sovereign rule into the world. …Jesus rescues human beings in order that through them he may rule his world in the new way he always intended.
You purchased a people for God, From every tribe and tongue, From every people and nation, And made them a kingdom and priests to our God And they will reign on the earth.” (Rev. 5:9–10)
It has been all too easy for us to suppose that, if Jesus really was king of the world, he would, as it were, do the whole thing all by himself. But that was never his way—because it was never God’s way. It wasn’t how creation itself was supposed to work. And Jesus’ kingdom project is nothing if not the rescue and renewal of God’s creation project.
Nor was this simply pragmatic, as though God (or Jesus) wanted a bit of help, needed someone to whom certain tasks could be delegated. It has to do with something deep within the very being of God, the same thing that led him to create a world that was other than himself.
When Jesus announced his intention to launch God’s kingdom at last, he did it in a way that involved and included other human beings. God works through Jesus. Jesus works through His followers. This is not accidental.
Christians use the word “witness” to mean “tell someone else about your faith.” The way Luke seems to be using it is, “tell someone else that Jesus is the world’s true Lord.”
But they are the modus operandi of the thing that really matters, the fact that through Jesus’ followers God is establishing his kingdom and the rule of Jesus himself on earth as in heaven.
He notes that all kingdom work is “rooted in worship.”
worshipping the God we see at work in Jesus is the most politically charged act we can ever perform. Christian worship declares that Jesus is Lord and that therefore, by strong implication, nobody else is. … Worshipping the God we see in Jesus orients our whole being, our imagination, our will, our hopes, and our fears away from the world where Mars, Mammon, and Aphrodite (violence, money, and sex) make absolute demands and punish anyone who resists. It orients us instead to a world in which love is stronger than death, the poor are promised the kingdom, and chastity (whether married or single) reflects the holiness and faithfulness of God himself.
Over the years two men have significantly impacted my life through their writings: Dallas Willard and N. T. Wright. What does one do when they hold diametrically opposing views on some scripture? And one that shapes their whole theological framework? I feel like I have two brothers who are fighting about something important. Let’s try to summarize their two positions:
Wright says in the introduction and then in this chapter:
… the Beatitudes … offer a vantage point from which to explore the ways in which the project of God’s kingdom, which Jesus announced and which he believed would be accomplished through his death, can become a reality not only in the lives of his followers, but through the lives of his followers.
The Beatitudes are the agenda for kingdom people. They are not simply about how to behave, so that God will do something nice to you. They are about the way in which Jesus wants to rule the world.
So followers of Jesus are to read them as His agenda about how He wants us to behave: To mourn; to be poor in spirit; to be meek; to hunger and thirst for righteousness; to be merciful; to be pure in heart; to be a peacemaker; to be persecuted, reviled and slandered. Sounds good.
But here’s what Dallas says. He believed (I wonder what he believes now!) that:
Sometimes people turn the Beatitudes into something they aren’t. Contrary to how many people have interpreted the Beatitudes, these are not teaching on how to be blessed. They aren’t instructions to do anything. They don’t indicate conditions that are especially pleasing to God. … The Beatitudes are not indications of who will be on top “after the revolution.” They are explanations and illustrations of how the kingdom is available through personal relationship to Jesus – in the here and now. They single out cases that show that God’s rule reaches the circumstances that seem beyond all human hope. Interpreting the Beatitudes as “how to be blessed” because I’m poor, because I’m persecuted is incorrect. Reading it this way only distills Jesus’ words into a new kind of legalism. Consider interpreting the Beatitudes as Jesus’ way of saying, “the Kingdom is available to all, through me.” Even those who were thought to be farthest from God’s blessing are lifted up.
The Beatitudes prove to all that no Human Condition excludes blessedness, that God may come to any person with his care and deliverance
Jesus rules the world through those who launch new initiatives that radically challenge the accepted way of doing things
Kingdom and cross went together in his own work; they will go together in the kingdom work of his followers.
So how does the church fit in?
This vision of the church’s calling—to be the means through which Jesus continues to work and to teach, to establish his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven—is an ideal so high that it might seem not only unattainable, but hopelessly out of touch, triumphalistic, and self-congratulatory. One of today’s most-repeated clichés is that there are lots of people who find God believable, but the church unbearable, Jesus appealing, but the church appalling. … The effect of perspective (we only notice the things that get into the papers, but the papers only report the odd and the scandalous) means that almost all of what is done by the churches goes unreported, allowing sneering outsiders to assume that the church is collapsing into a little heap of squabbling factions.
The church is not supposed to be a society of perfect people doing great work. It’s a society of forgiven sinners repaying their unpayable debt of love by working for Jesus’ kingdom in every way they can, knowing themselves to be unworthy of the task.
He lays out three truths:
- The first is that God’s principle of operation (his intention to run his world through human beings) applies just as much here as elsewhere. God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic. He intends to bring that order to the world through the work, the thought, the planning, and the wisdom of human beings. Human rulers were God’s idea in the first place. The Bible insists that this was a good and wise plan.
- Second, even when the rulers are wild or wicked, God can bend their imaginings to serve his purpose.
- God will, in the end, call the nations to account.
Wright believes that we have missed a large part of our calling as we allowed the state to do what God wants the church to do.
leaving all the things that the church used to be best at to the “state” or other agencies. “Religion,” as one recent writer says, then “dwindles to a kind of personal pastime, like breeding gerbils or collecting porcelain.”
Calling upon the role of the Spirit to bring accountability here and now is what Jesus promised:
“When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong on three counts: sin, justice, and judgment. In relation to sin—because they don’t believe in me. In relation to justice—because I’m going to the father, and you won’t see me anymore. In relation to judgment—because the ruler of this world is judged.” (John 16:8–11)
Finally, Tom sums it all up.
We can sum it all up like this. We live in the period of Jesus’s sovereign rule over the world—a reign that has not yet been completed, since, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20–28, he must reign until “he has put all his enemies under his feet,” including death itself. But Paul is clear that we do not have to wait until the second coming to say that Jesus is already reigning. In fact, Paul in that passage says something we might not otherwise have guessed: the reign of Jesus, in its present mode, is strictly temporary. God the father has installed Jesus in power, to act on his behalf; but when his task is complete, “the son himself will be placed in proper order” under God the father, “so that God may be all in all.” I do not think that Paul would have quarrelled with the Nicene Creed when it says, of Jesus, that his kingdom “will have no end.” That, after all, is what the book of Revelation states on page after page. But I stress this point in 1 Corinthians because it makes it very clear that the present age is indeed the age of the reign of Jesus the Messiah.
In trying to understand that present reign of Jesus, though, we have seen two apparently quite different strands. On the one hand, we have seen that all the powers and authorities in the universe are now, in some sense or other, subject to Jesus. This doesn’t mean that they all do what he wants all the time, only that Jesus intends that there should be social and political structures of governance. Jesus himself pointed out to Pilate that the authority that the Roman governor had over him had been given to him “from above” (John 19:11). Once that has been said, we should not be shy about recognizing—however paradoxical it seems to our black-and-white minds!—the God-givenness of structures of authority, even when they are tyrannical and violent. Part of what we say when we say that a structure is God-given is also that God will hold it to account. We have trained ourselves to think of political legitimacy simply in terms of the method or mode of appointment (e.g., if you’ve won an election). The ancient Jews and early Christians were far more interested in holding rulers to account with regard to what they were actually doing. God wants rulers, but God will call them to account.
There are millions of things that the church should be getting into that the rulers of the world either don’t bother about or don’t have the resources to support. Jesus has all kinds of projects up his sleeve and is simply waiting for faithful people to say their prayers, to read the signs of the times, and to get busy.
This is what it looks like, today, when Jesus is running the world. This is, after all, what he told us to expect. The poor in spirit will be making the kingdom of heaven happen. The meek will be taking over the earth, so gently that the powerful won’t notice until it’s too late. The peacemakers will be putting the arms manufacturers out of business. Those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice will be analyzing government policy and legal rulings and speaking up on behalf of those at the bottom of the pile. The merciful will be surprising everybody by showing that there is a different way to do human relations other than being judgmental, eager to put everyone else down. “You are the light of the world,” said Jesus. “You are the salt of the earth.” He was announcing a program yet to be completed. He was inviting his hearers, then and now, to join him in making it happen. This is, quite simply, what it looks like when Jesus is enthroned.
Whew! Even so, Come Lord Jesus and rule and reign through us!