Following Jesus – Biblical Perspectives on Discipleship by N. T. Wright

Book Summary

This book is a series of twelve sermons given by Tom Wright covering various aspects of what it means to follow Jesus. Part One provides an overview of the following New Testament books:

    • Hebrews
    • Colossians
    • Matthew
    • Mark
    • John
    • Revelation

In Part 2 he covers the following major themes:

    • Resurrection
    • Re-birth
    • Temptation
    • Hell
    • Heaven
    • New Life

Part 1 – Looking to Jesus

Hebrews 12:1-3 What about us, then? We have such a great cloud of witnesses all around us! What we must do is this: we must put aside each heavy weight, and the sin which gets in the way so easily. We must run the race that lies in front of us, and we must run it patiently. 2 We must look ahead, to Jesus. He is the one who carved out the path for faith, and he’s the one who brought it to completion. He knew that there was joy spread out and waiting for him. That’s why he endured the cross, making light of its shame, and has now taken his seat at the right hand of God’s throne. 3 He put up with enormous opposition from sinners. Weigh up in your minds just how severe it was; then you won’t find yourselves getting weary and worn out.

Chapter 1 – The Final Sacrifice: Hebrews

Wright provides a summary of the book of Hebrews. He explains that the book is difficult for us moderns to read. He claims that this is for two reasons:

    1. It discusses themes that never made it into the top ten of Christian discussion topics
    2. It concentrates on animal sacrifice

He then gives us three reasons the book should be compelling to 21st century Christians:

    1. [the book of Hebrews] offers a compelling portrait of Jesus
    2. A new reading of the Old Testament – or it shows us how to read the Old Testament
    3. It offers Jesus as the Final Sacrifice

… chapter 2 [of Hebrews] emphasizes that Jesus is also totally and truly human. Please note: not only was Jesus totally and truly human, he still is.  … one of the major thrusts of the book [of Hebrews is] to emphasize that the one who sat where we sit; who has lived our life and died our death, has now been exalted and glorified precisely as a human being. He hasn’t, as it were, gone back to being just God again.

Wright tells us that the book of Hebrews was an argument clearly designed to convince Jewish Christians not to go back to non-Christian Judiasm.  The book of Hebrews does this in three ways:

    1. [As previously mentioned] It gives us a perspective on the Old Testament
    2. It reminds us that what God did in Jesus was not an odd, isolated, one-off invasion into the world. It was the climax of His long plan [ for Israel and mankind].
    3. [As previously mentioned] [The book of] Hebrews offers us Jesus the Final Sacrifice

Animal sacrifice is foreign to us in the 21st century. But Wright claims that:

    1. Sacrifice is part of what it means to be human
    2. Sacrifice reminds us that there is something terribly wrong in us and in the world and it needs to be put right.

He claims that

The sacrifice of Jesus is the moment when the human race, in the person of a single man, offers itself fully to the creator.

Chapter 2 – The Battle Won: Colossians

15 He is the image of God, the invisible one,
The firstborn of all creation.
16 For in him all things were created,
In the heavens and here on the earth.
Things we can see and things we cannot—
Thrones and lordships and rulers and powers—
All things were created both through him and for him.
17 And he is ahead, prior to all else,
And in him all things hold together;
18 And he himself is supreme,
the head Over the body, the church.
He is the start of it all,
Firstborn from realms of the dead;
So in all things he might be the chief.
19 For in him all the Fullness was glad to dwell
20 And through him to reconcile all to himself,
Making peace through the blood of his cross,
Through him—yes, things on the earth,
And also the things in the heavens.

Wright claims that the central theme of the book of Colossians is the victory of Jesus over the powers. But he asks what we ask: “What are the powers?” and “What does the victory consist of?”

He tells us that the hearers of this letter would have no problem answering the first question. The historian Robin Lane Fox “points out that when things went wrong, people didn’t blame each other: They named supernatural culprits.” This, claims Wright, cause the people a serious amount of angst. They were constantly trying to appease these many gods.

It is these mini-god, these powers that Paul is trying to convince the church at Colossae that Jesus has overcome. He sums up what Paul is saying with the following:

Let’s sum up where we’ve got to. The powers were created good, but got too big for their boots because we humans allowed them to. On the cross, Christ has defeated these rebel powers and stripped them of their ultimate power. Now he seeks to reconcile them, to create a new world, ordered by the power of the love of God. That is the context in which the Colossians have now been set free – free from the powers, free to follow Jesus.

The response Paul wants from this letter, is a life of gratitude, a life of thanksgiving. A kind of “thanksliving.” This is the new way of living. All the powers have been defeated. “They have no rights over you. The battle has been won.”

Christ’s first coming places us between D-Day and VE-Day. The decisive battle has been won. The battles we fight now are the mopping up campaign.  Wright goes on to ask:

How can we celebrate and put into practice this victory today? How can we follow this Jesus into genuine victory? It is surprisingly simple. Every time you kneel down to pray, … you are saying that Jesus is Lord and that the “powers” aren’t.  Every time you say grace at a meal, you are saying that Jesus is Lord and that the world, and all it has to offer is his… And every time you celebrate the Eucharist, we celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ. … The task of the church is to get on with implementing the victory of the cross: and if we grasped that vision and lived by it, we would be able at last to address some of the problems of the church  and the world that loom so large and seem so intractable. The battle has been won; let’s get on and implement it.

Chapter 3 – The Kingdom of the Son of Man – Matthew

I cannot imagine summing up the book of Matthew in a sermon – but this is what Wright did. He explores how Jesus uses the phrase “Son of Man” to show how he is fulfilling the prophecy from Daniel 7. The problem is that Matthew, who is always showing us how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies does say that. When Jesus proclaims before Caiaphas,

“I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Matthew 26:63-64

Matthew doesn’t tell us: “This was to fulfill what the prophet Daniel spoke…”

Or when Jesus says:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. “ Matthew 28:18

Wright claims “the Daniel prophecy has come true.” Yet Matthew doesn’t tell us that. In fact the only prophecy of Daniel that Matthew tells us is fulfilled was the abomination of desolation:

15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand)” Matthew 24:15 from Daniel 9:27b

And then Matthew has Jesus telling us that it fulfills the prophecy. Clearly, the two times Jesus quotes Daniel 7 refer to that prophecy – but perhaps it wasn’t clear to Matthew how Jesus fulfilled all of Daniel 7. This is what I think but not Tom. Boy, it’s hard to disagree with a scholar like Tom Wright!

Tom tells us that Matthew presents the passion through several lenses:

    • “The cross is the decisive royal act; Jesus on the cross is the Son of David and the King of the Jews.”
    • “The cross is the decisive saving act; this is how he is saving his people from their sins”
    • “The cross is the moment when the monsters [From Daniel 7] finally close in on the Son of Man…. The cross is the defeat of evil”
    • “The cross is the great divine act … the victory in which the Son of Man bears the saving purposes of the Father through his atoning death and out into the new day of resurrection.

He concludes the chapter with this:

… let us heed the call that goes with the [Eucharist]; that we should go into the world to follow this Emmanuel, to work and pray so that the healing celebration of the Coronation Anthem [which Tom calls the entire Gospel according the Matthew] may woo this weary old world back to the God who made it and who still loves it.

Chapter 4 – The Glory of God – John

Wright begins this chapter by describing the differences between the Gospel of John and the synoptic Gospels. He tells of a job interview he had where he was asked to describe the difference between Paul and John. He says that with Paul we are in the seminar room, arguing things out and taking notes. But with John, we go to the mountain top and John whispers “Look! From here, on a clear day,  you can see for ever.” He also compares his relationship with John to his relationship with his wife. “I love her very much, but I wouldn’t claim to understand her.” Notes that he didn’t get the job!

He points out something that I missed. John points out the first two signs (the changing of the water into the wine and the healing of the official’s son) but doesn’t point out the next 4. What? Also John only delineates 6 signs.  The number 6 isn’t special. What is the seventh sign? Wright claims that the cross is the seventh sign. At our daughter’s church (New Day in Enfield) their pastor counted the miraculous catch of fish in John 21 as the seventh sign. But of course – let’s not forget the Resurrection. We may be putting too much into the number seven. Maybe the number is nine:

    1. Water into Wine
    2. Healing of the Official’s son
    3. Lame man walks
    4. The feeding of the great multitude
    5. Blind man sees
    6. The raising of Lazarus
    7. The cross
    8. The resurrection
    9. The miraculous catch of fish

Wright identifies two strands in the Gospel of John. The first is the “7” signs and the second is that John uses words and phrases that have multiple meanings and resonate at different levels. As an example of this he references the phrase “lifted up” from John 3

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

John 8:28-29 reads:

28 So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. 29 And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.”

And John 12

32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

What does it mean: Lifted up on the cross; lifted up at the ascension; lifted up in our praise; or something else. I was always a little uncomfortable of the phrase “Lift Jesus higher” from the old praise chorus and the by-line of our former church in its early days “Lifting up Jesus.” It seems from these three passages, for John – lifted up means lifting up on the cross. Yeah – our church puts Jesus on the cross and then lifts the cross higher. Ouch!

Wright closes this by looking at Jesus’ words from John 20

21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

The love, which he incarnated, by which we are saved, is to become the love which fills us beyond capacity and flows out to heal the world; so that the Word may become flesh once more and dwell (not just among us, but) within us; we must then reveal his glory, glory as the beloved children of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Chapter 5 – The Servant King – Mark

Wright opens this chapter by describing a picture in a book by Carl Jung. In the book is a picture of Adolf Hitler.  The caption under the picture says: “This man is going to set all Europe ablaze through his incendiary dreams of world domination.”  But in the text Jung tells that this is a quote from Adolph Hitler about Churchill. He describes this in the psychological term: projection – when I cannot face the evil within me and we project on others what is our own sin. He then takes us to the story of John and James when they asked Jesus to sit one on his right and one on his left.  Wright claims that Jesus’ rebuke of them was not for some minor offense. They were embracing “an entirely wrong vision of God and his purposes.”

Wright tells us that the book of Mark is broken into two halves: The first half (chapters 1-8) introduces us to a secret: Jesus is the true Messiah. The second 8 chapters introduces us to another secret: “this Messiah is not the military warrior, but the Servant King.”

He tells us:

Mark invites us to stop projecting the guilt and fear we feel inside ourselves out on the rest of the world. And he invites us to take up our own cross and follow Jesus.

And Wright invites us not to follow the two options most commonly followed by the church: To try to advance our imperialistic dreams with the gospel through our might or to withdraw from the world. We are to become to the world what Jesus was – He came to serve.

Wright provides several examples of Christians doing that; standing up for blacks; resisting apartheid; standing up to the radical opposition parties on issues like abortion; standing up to the media barons who destroy people’s lives and reputations.

Chapter 6 – A world reborn : Revelation

Wright opens this chapter challenging the church with the message “Your Easter is too Small.” [My words not Tom’s].

We in the church have made Easter the source of our present spiritual life: Jesus is alive today, so I can have a personal relationship with Him. … We have made it the ground of our future hope: Jesus’ resurrection proves that there is life beyond the grave.

Tom agrees that these are true but we have not even made “the first base camp on the Everest called Easter.” He says that Easter is the beginning of God’s new world. … “Easter is the victory of the creator over all evil.”

He then launches into his overview of The Revelation of Jesus Christ. He claims that the vision of Jesus in chapters 1 and 5 and as revealed in the letters to the churches is the Jesus of Easter. And John 5:12 shows us how Easter is celebrated in heaven.

Wright compares the tears of Mary at the tomb with the tears of John as he saw that no one was worthy of opening the scroll. “Easter is all about wiping away tears.” We have lost the art of tears and so have lost the joy of having Jesus wipe them away. “But if Good Friday and Easter don’t stir our emotions, then the tyrant has indeed enslaved us.”

He goes on to ask: “…  what then is the full hope which Easter unveils. The tumult and the battle of the middle chapters of Revelation lead up to the great victory of the Lamb over Babylon, the tyrannous city that has opposed God and his loving purposes. Then, in the last two chapters, we find the vision of the new city which takes the place of the wicked tyrannous city. … It is the Easter vision of a world reborn.”

Wright then summarizes one of the major themes of all his writing:

Most Christians, if pressed, would express their future hope in terms of leaving this world and going to another one, called “Heaven.” But here [in Revelation 21-22], at the climatic moment of one of the greatest New Testament books, the heavenly city comes down to earth. To be sure, God’s people go to heaven when they die: they pass into God’s dimension of reality, and we see them no more. But Easter unveils the truth beyond the truth of mere “survival,” beyond the truth even of heaven; the truth that God’s kingdom shall come, and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Our ultimate destiny is not a disembodied heaven… God wants to re-create [the world.]

This is how Tom sees the book of Revelation – the ultimate Easter celebration – death to the tyrants so that the earth can be re-created.

Part II – A Living Sacrifice

Chapter 7 – The God who raises the Dead

In this chapter, Tom addresses the following question: “What does the resurrection of Jesus tell us about the true God?” He breaks his response into three threads:

    • The surprising command
    • The sudden crisis
    • The surpassing God

The Surprising Command – In this response, Tom address the false view that God created the commands in order to keep us from having fun. Quoting someone from his undergraduate days: “The trouble is, everything Jesus is against – I like.” He claims that this conception of God is a lie. And the resurrection proves that it is a lie. He then asks us – What is the most frequent command given in the Bible? Be good? Be holy? Don’t sin? No. He says that it is “Don’t be afraid. Fear not.”  Click here for a list.

He finds irony in the fact that even though it is what we all want to hear, we have difficulty obeying this command.

… Let’s make no mistake about it: until you learn to live without fear you won’t find it easy to follow Jesus.

And then if that isn’t enough he lists many of the big fears we face:

    • Fear of being alone
    • Fear of being unloved
    • Fear of looking stupid
    • Fear of being left out
    • Fear of missing a golden opportunity
    • Fear of marrying the wrong person
    • Fear of growing old
    • Fear of not being able to do our job properly
    • And so on!

And to console us, he tells us that those are just the big ones. Behind these are a host of “lesser fears that reinforce and feed on each other.” Behind all of them is the fear of death.

Just reading this list makes me afraid – afraid that I might have some greater fear! He asks: “Can you imagine living without fear?”

The bad news in the midst of the good news about this command is that we don’t have a “clue how to obey it.” He draws us back to the resurrection and says: “the resurrection of Jesus issues the surprising command: don’t be afraid.” And we don’t just believe the literal facts about the resurrection to counter this fear. These literal facts need to point us back to the God who raised Jesus from the dead. He goes on:

… though we may at any stage in our lives grasp the truth that God raised Jesus from the dead, it takes us all our life long to let that belief soak through and permeate the rest of our thinking, feeling and worrying lives.

The sudden crisis He reminds us of the apostle Paul’s account of a time when he was in Turkey that “he went through a horrendous and traumatic experience that seemed to destroy him totally.”

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. 2 Corinthians 1:8-9

He claims that a good part of Paul’s second letter was “to explain that being an apostle, and ultimately a Christian, was not a matter of being a success story, but of living with human failure – and with a God who raises the dead.” Paul tells them of the depression he went through when he faced unrelenting resistance to the gospel and the failure of some of his church plants to flourish:

was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
2 Corinthians 1:10

Tom doesn’t want us to think that we learn this easily or quickly. “Living by faith rather than by fear is so odd for us, so scary for us, that it takes a lot of learning. Bit by bit we must open ourselves to the power of this resurrection God.”

The surpassing God – When Israel was at its lowest point: the land taken over by others; they themselves as refugees; all hope appeared to be lost; then the surpassing God revealed Himself as the resurrection God in Isaiah 54.

54 “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.

“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the Lord has called you
like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
For a brief moment I deserted you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing anger for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord, your Redeemer.

“This is like the days of Noah to me:
as I swore that the waters of Noah
should no more go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you,
and will not rebuke you.
10 For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,”
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

Chapter 8 – The Mind Renewed

Tom opens this chapter with the story of Naaman taken from 2 Kings 5. He delves into the transformation that is taking place in Naaman following his healing. God is straightening out his view of God and of himself. Naaman believed in territorial gods – so he brings some dirt back from Israel so that he can worship on Israel’s territory. He also recognized that he was going back with a vision of a God who heals, loves, and is alive to a place where his former muddled life was “hemmed in by lifeless and useless idols.” Getting your view of God straightened out inevitably leads to you getting your view of your life straightened out.

For Wright – following Jesus is first and foremost the renewing of the mind. Something you would expect from a lettered professor!  He asks us if Naaman was a compromiser, because unlike Daniel, he would continue to bow to the false idols of Syria whenever the king did (Naaman helped the king to bow because the king was old). He asked forgiveness in advance. To Wright this is a sign of deep transformation not compromise.

One of the signs of thinking straight is to recognize that we are involved in compromises all the time – buying stock in imperfect companies and riding busses that pollute. We should be like Naaman and ask for forgiveness in advance. Elisha and God’s word to us compromisers who are just starting out are simple and clear: “Go in peace.”

Chapter 9 – Temptation

In this chapter Tom deals with the role that temptation plays in following Jesus. He believes that one of the reason for the popularity of team sports is that we get to have clear black and white enemies and good-guys. “We emerge from the murky world where we live most of the time into the artificially bright light of a straightforward dualism.”

He then tells us:

The trouble with most views of temptation is that we are always hoping that Christianity will be more like sport and less like real life.

He sees temptations as things that prevent us from following Jesus the way we would like. He wants us to observe 3 points:

    1. “Temptation always takes as its starting point something which in itself is good. The dualistic division of the world into good things and bad things simply won’t do. … sin comes, not in the thing itself, but in its wrong use.”
    2. All the talk in the bible about the flesh is not talking about physicality. Most of the works of the flesh could be committed by beings without bodies: pride, malice, hatred, anger, jealousy.
    3. We cannot “say that the thing offered is bad in itself. … No, the answer to temptation is to find out, perhaps painfully and over a long period, what it is about you that is at the moment out of shape, distorted, in pain. … God longs to help you to get what is distorted back into focus; to get what is crooked back into shape; to get what is bruised and hurt back into health. That will take time; it will certainly take prayer.”

Here are his four steps to approaching temptation:

    1. Thank God that you are human
    2. Pray for the grace to use the responsibility we are given as humans
    3. Recognize that every moment is a moment when the gracious God longs to give you the good gift of his presence and his love.

Finally, we are to recognize in the midst of temptation that though we fail, God’s love does not. To know that we are deeply loved is our chief weapon against temptation.

Chapter 10 – Hell

Tom starts with the obvious. We don’t like to talk about the alternatives to following Jesus. We like to talk about the positive sides of following Jesus. He offers us three points to start:

    1. If we find ourselves wanting to believe in hell, we find ourselves in danger of wanting to see people punished. Not denying the need for justice, we need to be careful if we relish divine punishment for others.
    2. Most of the passages in the New Testament that refer to people going to eternal punishment after they die are not talking about that. “As a historian, I can say categorically that Jesus’ language about the awful punishment in store for those who reject his message must be read as predictions of the awful future that awaited the nation of Israel if she rejected the way of peace which he was proposing.”
    3. If we worship other gods (and he claims there are many in this day and age), the beautiful image of God will atrophy and eventually cease to be a human who is made in the image of God.

He addresses the conflict between those Christians who believe in eternal punishment and those who believe in conditional mortality ( and thus annihilation). He tells us that his way of addressing this is different (no surprise there from Tom!). “Those who persistently refuse to follow Jesus … will by their own choice become less and less like him, that is, less and less truly human.” And God will honor their choice and this for Tom, is what hell is.

Chapter 11 – Heaven and Power

Tom starts by addressing how the world disdains heaven: “Imagine there’s no heaven?” He claims that they (and many in the church) believe that heaven is some place far away. And the world finds that incredible. Moreover, oppressive. The wrong view of heaven has been used to exploit and pollute the earth; the “O you better watch out…” kind of heaven. Heaven is not “way beyond the blue…” nor is it a state of mind.  “Heaven is God’s space, which intersects with our space but transcends it.” More like another dimension of our own world. “Heaven is the extra dimension – the God dimension, of our present reality.” Then he presents one of the central themes of all of his writing. We don’t just go to heaven when we die. We do go and be with God when we die. But Christian hope is that heaven and earth (which are separate now) will be joined together in the new heaven and the new earth.

He then talks about the power unleashed at the Ascension of Jesus – not to some far off space – but in this extra dimension of our own world. Jesus death was a victory for the power of love over the love of power. And as followers we are to live in that power and model it for the world.

Chapter 12  New Life – New World

Tom starts this chapter off with a light and breezy question: What happens to people when they die? I find it amazing that this most weighty and important question is so seldom talked about – even in church! He wants to address the misunderstanding that much of the church has concerning the immortality of the soul. He claims that orthodox mainstream Christianity has always claimed that our destiny is more than just vaporous beings floating on clouds – but a robust new kind of physicality that comes with the resurrection.

Tom quotes from chapter 3 of the Wisdom of Solomon which speaks of both a disembodied person in the presence of God (vs 1-3) and then in verse 7 how the dead will rule over people and govern nations with the Lord ruling over them. Clearly this sounds like resurrection language. Clearly it describes this ‘middle’ time between death and the resurrection. Tom says that this book, although not part of the canon, was widely read during the time of Jesus. And he tells us that the Jews of Jesus’ day were thoroughly hoping for a restoration of Israel. And for the restoration to be complete, it required the saints of old to be resurrected. Jesus built on this but made it his own. And followers of Jesus preached that Jesus’ resurrection was evidence of this restoration that will happen at the final resurrection.

He further challenges us to ask: What would have caused the early followers of Jesus to proclaim this radical vision. It was not identical to the Old Testament vision – but it was in some profound ways – fulfilling that Old Testament vision. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is one explanation for their behavior.

Resurrection then means what it says: not survival, not the immortality of the soul, not eternal disembodied bliss, but bodily resurrection.

Tom encourages us “to build the resurrection into our thinking about what will happen to all of us. … God’s future for his people is a newly embodied life on a renewed earth, married to a renewed heaven.”

He goes on to talk about how this affects following Jesus:

… the real incentive towards genuine holiness, towards taking up our cross and following Jesus, comes not from fear of punishment but from a clear understanding of what it means to be human. And we only get that clear understanding when we grasp the truth of the resurrection.

As often happens with me at the end of a book, I wish the author would tie it all together. But since this is a compilation of sermons, it is understandable why this doesn’t happen. Good stuff, but, in my opinion, not an integrated whole. It is supposed to paint a picture of what it means to follow Jesus and it does at one level.