For most of his life N.T. Wright—one of the world’s most distinguished biblical scholars as well as an active churchman and bishop in the Church of England—has pondered various of questions regarding Jesus and His people. In Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York: HarperOne, c. 2011), he sets forth some definitive answers to his quest. “This book is written,” he declares, “in the belief that the question of Jesus—who he really was, what he really did, what it means, and why it matters—remains hugely important in every area, not only in personal life, but also in political life, not only in ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality,’ but also in such spheres of human endeavor as worldview, culture, justice, beauty, ecology, friendship, scholarship, and sex” (p. 5). He also endeavors to move beyond the “conservative vs. liberal,” or “personal salvation vs. social gospel,” divisions by subsuming them all beneath his thesis regarding the neglected Truth declaring Christ’s Kingship.
To find who Jesus really was requires serious historical research, seeking to understand His milieu rather than re-shaping Him to fit ours. First, that means properly using proper sources—primarily the four canonical gospels. It also means understanding the ancient milieu within which they were written, when a powerful religious movement (labeled a “philosophy” by the Jewish historian Josephus) reflected an expectation of the coming Messiah and insisted “that it was time for God alone to be king” (p. 41). Over the centuries Israel’s prophets, reflecting on crucial events such as the Exodus and Exile (cf. Ezekiel 34) had envisioned a time when God fully manifested his royal authority on earth as well as heaven, working through purified hearts rather than foods and rituals. Israel’s poets (cf. Psalm 2) expected YHWH, working through His anointed Son, would “establish his own rule over the rest of the world from his throne in Zion” (p. 50). Jesus, drawing on such passages from the Psalms and Isaiah, portrayed Himself as the “suffering servant” expected by some first century Jews, but “Nobody, so far as we know, had dreamed of combining these ideas in this way before. Nor had anyone suggested that when the prophet spoke of ‘the arm of YHWH’ (53:1)—YHWH himself rolling up his sleeves, as it were to come to the rescue—this personification might actually refer to the same person, to the wounded and bleeding servant” (p. 173).
Precisely that’s what happened in Jesus, his disciples insisted! “Within a few years of his death, the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth were speaking and writing about him, and indeed singing about him, not just as a great teacher and healer, not just as a great spiritual leader and holy man, but as a strange combination: both the Davidic king and the returning God. He was, they said, the anointed one, the one who had been empowered and equipped by God’s Spirit to do all kinds of things, which somehow meant that he was God’s anointed, the Messiah, the coming king. He was the one who had been exalted after his suffering and now occupied the throne beside the throne of God himself” (p. 54). God’s plan was fulfilled, Luke declared, when Jesus ascended the Cross rather than a throne—“or, rather, as all four gospel writers insist, a cross that is to be seen as a throne. This, they all say, is how Jesus is enthroned as ‘King of the Jews.’ Jesus’ vocation to be Israel’s Messiah and his vocation to suffer and die belong intimately together” (p. 173). Jesus and His disciples saw the Cross as “the shocking answer to the prayer that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven” (p. 185).
Consequently, God Himself is in charge of His Kingdom, ruling through his Son Christ Jesus. “It was this new world in which God was in charge at last, on earth as in heaven. God was fixing things, mending things, mending people, making new life happen. This was the new world in which the promises were coming true, in which new creation was happening, in which a real ‘return from exile’ was taking place in the hearts and minds and lives both of notorious sinners and of people long crippled by disease” (p. 91). Inevitably this provoked animosity from the principalities and powers determined to replace YHWH! As is revealed in Jesus’ wilderness temptations, the LORD battles Satan and his earthly satraps—a battle finished on the Cross, where Jesus forever defeated the powers of darkness.
That Christ is King explains the frequent NT references to Jesus forgiving sins and replacing the Temple (where sins were normally forgiven). The Temple was YHWH’s dwelling, the sacred site where His Shekinah glory declared His presence. It was literally the center of the world “where heaven and earth met” (p. 132). When Jesus dramatically cleansed the Temple He “was staking an implicitly royal claim: it was kings, real or aspiring, who had authority over the Temple” (p. 127). By this action Jesus declared “that the Temple was under God’s judgment and would, before too long, be destroyed forever” (p. 129). Indeed, He Himself would become the Temple! Still more: He became the new Sabbath and Jubilee! Time and space are transformed in the new creation wherein He now rules.
Emblematic of the new creation is the Passover meal Jesus celebrated with His disciples. It was a traditional Jewish ceremony, but it was radically new. “Like everything else Jesus did,” Wright says, “he filled the old vessels so full that they overflowed. He transformed the old mosaics into a new, three-dimensional design. Instead of Passover pointing backward to the great sacrifice by which God had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, this meal pointed forward to the great sacrifice by which God was to rescue his people from their ultimate slavery, from death itself and all that contributed to it (evil, corruption, and sin). This would be the real Exodus, the real ‘return from exile.’ This would be the establishment of the ‘new covenant’ spoken of by Jeremiah (31:31). This would be the means by which ‘sins would be forgiven’—in other words, the means by which God would deal with the sin that had caused Israel’s exile and shame and, beyond that, the sin because of which the whole world was under the power of death. This would be the great jubilee moment, completing the achievement outlined in Nazareth” (p. 180).
“The gifts of bread and wine,” Wright continues, “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. This is the new Temple, this strange gathering around a quasi-Passover table. Think through the Exodus themes once more. The tyrant is to be defeated: not Rome, now, but the dark power that stands behind that great, cruel empire. God’s people are to be liberated: not Israel as it stands, with its corrupt, money-hungry leaders and it is people bent on violence, but the reconstituted Israel for whom the Twelve are the founding symbol” (p. 180). The Last Supper, of course, set the stage for Jesus’s crucifixion and Resurrection; thereafter his followers—His reconstituted Israel—quickly spread around the world declaring “Jesus is Lord, and He is risen.” The Risen Lord unveiled “the beginning of the new world that Israel’s God had always intended to make” (p. 191), and in His post-Resurrection appearances He materialized as “a person who is equally at home ‘on earth’ and ‘in heaven’” (p. 192). After 40 days, He ascended into heaven. But His heaven permeates the earth—Jesus is in “heaven” but He is everywhere present on earth as well. “If Easter is about Jesus as the prototype of the new creation, his ascension is about his enthronement as the one who is now in charge. Easter tells us that Jesus is himself the first part of new creation; his ascension tells us that he is now running it” (p. 195).
And in time He will fully assert His rule. He’s coming again! “Heaven is God’s space, God’s dimension of present reality, so that to think of Jesus ‘returning’ is actually, as both Paul and John say in the passages just quoted, to think of him presently invisible, but one day reappearing” (p. 202). The new world envisioned in Romans 8 and Revelation 21-22 will be a place under Christ’s control, “administering God’s just, wise, and healing rule” (p. 202). “The second coming is all about Jesus as the coming Lord and judge who will transform the entire creation. And, in between resurrection and ascension, on the one hand, and the second coming, on the other, Jesus is the one who sends the holy Spirit, his own Spirit, into the lives of his followers, so that he himself is powerfully present with them and in them, guiding them, directing them, and above all enabling them to bear witness to him as the world’s true Lord and work to make that sovereign rule a reality” (p. 203).
We Christians (his Christ-bearers, His followers) are assigned a vital role in the Kingdom, for God ever intended to rule earth through human beings. Jesus redeemed us on the Cross in order for us to join him, ruling the world in accord with His design. “In God’s kingdom, humans get to reflect God at last into the world, in the way they were meant to. They become more fully what humans were meant to be. That is how God becomes king. That is how Jesus goes to work in the present time. Exactly as he always did” (p. 213). And He established His Church (His Body), wherein we work to accomplish His ends. Our work (as concisely outlined in the Beatitudes) is to bear witness to His way in His world.
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In How God Became King: Getting to the Heart of the Gospels (New York: HarperOne, c. 2012) Tom (a.k.a. N.T.) Wright continues to develop the thesis earlier enunciated in Simply Jesus. He thinks we have lost touch with the canonical gospels, using them as props or tools to further our own agendas rather than as sources demanding our prayerful attention and implementation. He acknowledges that for 20 centuries numerous scholars have devoted much time and intellectual firepower to the task of understanding them, but he thinks they have, by-and-large, failed to rightly discern and declare their real message. (There is, of course, more than a little hubris in any declaration such as Wright’s that he alone has at last found The Truth—but that is something of a scholarly virus, an occupational hazard, frequently found in brilliant folks such as he.)
In Wright’s reading of Church history, orthodox theologians and preachers have (rather narrowly following St Paul or Luther or Calvin) reduced “the gospel” to the historic creeds—i.e. Apostles’ and Nicene—and neglected if not totally bypassed the Gospels. “The great creeds, when they refer to Jesus, pass directly from his virgin birth to his suffering and death,” whereas the four Gospel writers “tell us a great deal about what Jesus did between the time of his birth and the time of his death. In particular, they tell us about what we might call his kingdom-inaugurating work: the deeds and words that declared that God’s kingdom was coming then and there, in some sense or other, on earth as in heaven. They tell us a great deal about that; but the great creeds don’t” (p. 11). “The gospels were all about God becoming king, but the creeds are focused on Jesus being God” (p. 20). The creeds are not wrong, Wright insists, in what they affirm! But when the Faith is reduced to creedal verities the Jesus Message gets lost.
The Message got lost early on as misinterpretations came to dominate the Church! For 1500 years or so Christians have seemed to ignore the fact “that the Jewish context of Jesus’ public career was playing any role in theological or pastoral reflection,” and He became “founder” of the faith, “with the type of Christianity varying according to the predilections of the preacher or teacher” (p. 110). Three centuries ago Enlightenment thinkers, reviving the hedonistic materialism of Epicurus and Lucretius and heeding biblical critics such as H.S. Reimarus and Baruch Spinoza, embarked on a quest for the “historical Jesus” that refused to see Him as the Gospels reveal. As variously portrayed by multitudes of liberal professors and preachers, poets and songsters, Jesus appears as “a revolutionary, hoping to overthrow the Romans by military violence and establish a new Jewish state. Or he’s a wild-eyed apocalyptic visionary, expecting the end of the world. Or he’s a mild-mannered teacher of sweet reasonableness, of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of ‘man.’ Or perhaps he’s some combination of the above” (p. 26). Indeed, according to Rudolph Bultmann and his 20th century epigones, details regarding His life have no bearing on much of anything, for the Gospels (in their view) are not bona fide biographies conveying truthful details. They were fanciful projections, written long after the events described, of an evolving community looking for illustrations to justify their “faith.”
As a result of skeptical scholarship, “there seems a ready market right across the Western world for books that say that Jesus was just a good Jewish boy who would have been horrified to see a ‘church’ set up in his name, who didn’t think of himself as ‘God’ or even the ‘Son of God’, and who had no intention of dying for anyone’s sins—the church has got it all wrong” (p. 27). To Wright, such a reading of the Gospels clearly ignores their obvious content. Markedly deistic, Enlightenment thinkers wanted nothing to do with a God who intervenes on earth, much less actually rules anything. They rejected both earthly kings and the heavenly King come to earth in Jesus. “But the whole point of the gospels is to tell the story of how God became king, on earth as in heaven. They were written to stake the very specific claim towards which the eighteenth-century movements of philosophy and culture, and particularly politics, were reacting with such hostility” (p. 34). The Deism promoted by Voltaire and Thomas Paine removed God from His world. “The divine right of kings went out with the guillotine, and the new slogan vox populi vox Dei (‘The voice of the people is the voice of God’) was truncated; God was away with the fairies doing his own thing, and vox pop, by itself, was all that was now needed” (p. 164).
It’s now time to escape the intellectual shackles of the eighteenth-century! It’s time to read the Gospels with 20-20 vision, taking them as trustworthy sources regarding who Jesus was and what He declared. For, Wright incessantly repeats, they give us a largely forgotten narrative, “the story of how Israel’s God became king” (p. 38). As the Messiah—a Jewish Messiah fulfilling the Hebrew Scriptures—Jesus came not so much as to provide a pathway to an ethereal heaven removed from the earth as to establish an outpost of heaven on earth. “Jesus was announcing that a whole new world was being born and he was ‘teaching’ people how to live within that whole new world” (p. 47). To rightly hear the Gospel we must turn down the volume of skeptical scholars and moralistic reformers and hear the annunciation of Jesus “as the climax of the story of Israel” (p. 65). As Matthew insists, Jesus consummates the history of Israel initiated by father Abraham and “will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). But Jesus came to save more than the children of Israel, and “the reason Israel’s story matters is that the creator of the world has chosen and called Israel to be the people through whom he will redeem the world. The call of Abraham is the answer to the sin of Adam. Israel’s story is thus the microcosm and beating heart of the world’s story, but also its ultimate saving energy. What God does for Israel is what God is doing in relation to the whole world. That is what it meant to be Israel, to be the people who, for better and worse, carried the destiny of the world on their shoulders. Grasp that, and you have a pathway into the heart of the New Testament” (p. 73).
Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus’ baptism, where He is anointed with the Spirit and declared God’s Son by the Father. Thenceforth He selected His 12 disciples, symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel and doing dramatic things, such as calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee, illustrating what He was doing as God rescuing His people. Toward the end of Mark’s Gospel, we encounter a Roman centurion who declared the crucified Christ as truly the Son of God. Given his background, we assume the centurion didn’t fully understand what transpired on Golgotha. “For him, the phrase ‘God’s son” would normally have meant one person and one person only: Tiberius Caesar, son of the ‘divine’ Augustus” (p. 94). The centurion tacitly recognized a larger truth: in Jesus God regained His rightful throne as earth’s real Ruler.
This too John makes clear in the Prologue to his Gospel, where he “takes us back to the first books of the Bible, to Genesis and Exodus. He frames his simple, profound opening statement with echoes of the creation story (‘In the beginning . . .’, leading up to the creation of humans in God’s image) and echoes of the climax of the Exodus (‘The Word became flesh, and lived among us,’ 1.14, where the word ‘lived’ is literally ‘tabernacled’, ‘pitched his tent’, as in the construction of the tabernacle for God’s glory in the wilderness). This, in other words, is where Israel’s history and with it world history reached their moment of destiny” (p. 77). John’s Jesus “is a combination of the living Word of the Old Testament, the Shekinah of Jewish hope (God’s tabernacling presence in the Temple), and ‘wisdom’, which in some key Jewish writings was the personal self-expression of the creator God, coming to dwell with humans and particularly with Israel (see Wisdom 7; Sirach 24)” (p. 103).
Climaxing his story with Jesus on the Cross, John portrays Him as “enthroned,” truly the King of Kings. It was a new kind of Kingdom, one of Love and Truth rather than Power, as he explained to Pilate, and the Roman Procurator acted more presciently than he imagined when he had a sign (a typical public notice called a titulus) in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin —“JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS”—affixed to the Cross. “The cross in John, which we already know to be the fullest unveiling of God’s and Jesus’, love (13:1), is also the moment when God takes his power and reigns over Caesar” (p. 146). Cross and Kingdom, like hand and glove, go together. “Jesus, John is saying, is the true king whose kingdom comes in a totally unexpected fashion, folly to the Roman governor and a scandal to the Jewish leaders” (p. 220). “Part of John’s meaning of the cross, then, is that it is not only what happens, purely pragmatically, when God’s kingdom challenges Caesar’s kingdom. It is also what has to happen if God’s kingdom, which makes its way (as Jesus insists) by non-violence rather than by violence, is to win the day. This is the ‘truth’ to which Jesus has come to bear witness, the ‘truth’ for which Pilate’s world-view has no possible space (18:38)” (p. 230).
Following the Crucifixion, of course, we read of the Resurrection and Ascension, fully affirming Jesus’ mission. “It is the resurrection that declares that the cross was a victory, not a defeat. It therefore announces that God has indeed become king on earth as in heaven” (p. 246). Then comes Pentecost, when the Spirit fully enters Jesus’ disciples, enabling them to “be for the world what Jesus was for Israel” (p. 119). And just as Jesus battled satanic powers and tackled worldly tyrants, so too His followers continue that work. The clash of kingdoms foreseen by Daniel and Isaiah and dramatically evident in the life of Jesus continues today. As with Pilate, the paramount issue is Truth, to which Jesus and His followers bear witness. This “truth is what happens when humans use words to reflect God’s wise ordering of the world and so shine light into its dark corners, bringing judgment and mercy where it is badly needed” (p. 145).
Jewish prophets predicted the Messiah would inaugurate a theocracy—the righteous reign of God, ruling through human beings, stewards of His creation. “Those who are put right with God through the cross are to be putting-right people for the world” (p. 244). In the Temple—“the fulcrum of ancient Jewish theocracy”—priests and kings had joined to do God’s work in His world, with priests leading worship and kings establishing justice. He Himself is the new temple, which, “like the wilderness tabernacle, is a temple on the move, as Jesus’ people go out, in the energy of the spirit, to be the dwelling of God in each place, to anticipate that eventual promise by their common and cross-shaped life and work” (p. 239).