Amongst evangelicals, N.T. Wright is kind of like Marmite. If you don’t know what this product is, all I can say is that it’s basically a paste that you spread over toast and it’s made from yeast extract. Yummy…or not!
But what they say about Marmite is that you either love it or hate it. There’s not much room for in between. I’ll let you guess where I stand…
Anyways, some people really appreciate (or love) the work of N.T. Wright. Some are on the opposite side of the fence. Hence, the Marmite comparison. I am one who finds myself appreciating his work. And, whereas much of his early work was in the world of academia, he is now popping out books left and right to make available for common folk like you and I.
Two recent releases that have come to us over the past year, both in a very similar vein, are about a) the message of the gospels and b) the life and purpose of Jesus. The former is entitled How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels; the latter is called Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters.
Thus, the two books come together in a complementary style. Different? Not too much. But it’s worth reading them both to get Wright’s fuller perspective on the gospels and Jesus.
What’s the thesis?
I’ll briefly break it down book by book. But, in all, I would say Wright’s thesis is that we have missed some things concerning the gospel, the gospels, and Christ’s life, teachings and mission. And we need to revisit these things and understand them in their proper context. It’s not too unlike Scot McKnight’s work The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, which I review here.
Now, I am aware some people are tired of so many contemporary theologians and writers claiming that we have missed something and we need to get back on track. And I understand that. But we continue to need Martin Luther’s today, both in small and large ways. We are not there yet. And I do believe we have missed some things, gotten off track a bit with regards to understanding the gospels, the kingdom of God and the purpose of Jesus.
Having said all that, one critique I would give to someone like Wright, and others challenging the accepted status quo, is the tendency to overly mischaracterise conservative (or maybe fundamentalistic) Christianity and lump it all in together. Meaning, one group holds a very narrow view on a position and so most people hold to that same notion. For example, I believe dispensationalism is a system incompatible with Scripture. But to label every dispenationalist as a date-setting, chart-lover of all things end times would be a grave over-characterisation.
I’ve been guilty of such at times and I’m still learning how to better approach wrong thinking. I recognise this practice loses people’s interest. They will turn their ear the other direction if this is our ploy. So, in our challenges, we need to remain gracious and not make those in other camps to be the equivalency of a biblical nincompoop.
But, other than this little blunder, I believe the two works stand as significant contributions in helping common folk, you and I, better understand the message of the gospels and Christ’s purpose.
The thesis of How God Became King runs like this: Many Christians tend to emphasise the bookends of the Gospels – Jesus’ incarnation/birth in the beginning and his death, and possibly his resurrection, at the end. But the stuff in the middle, we aren’t quite so sure what it’s all about.
Why the miracles? Many would answer this question by saying it was to prove he was God or God’s Son.
What are all the teachings about? Many would answer this question by acknowledging the main thrust is about how to get to the other-worldly place known as ‘heaven’, maybe ‘up there’.
Wright believes these answers are inadequate, quite distant from understanding the gospels in their first century, Jewish context.
To tell us what the gospels are all about, he gives us the illustration of 4 speakers from a sound system set up in four corners of a room. All need to be turned to their proper volume to create the correct hearing atmosphere, keeping distortion out as well as making sure one speaker isn’t too soft as to miss it’s contribution to the full sound.
What are those 4 speakers?
- The climax of the story of Israel.
- The story of Jesus as the story of Israel’s God coming to rule amongst his people and the world.
- The launching of God’s renewed people, rather than starting up a new people called ‘the church’.
- The clash of the kingdoms – the kingdom of God with the kingdom of Caesar/Rome.
Sound a bit odd? It’s probably because, as noted earlier, we see the gospels as really about Christ’s incarnation and death, possibly with his resurrection as proof that he is God. And all the other things are there to mainly prove Jesus’ divinity.
But, and this is where N.T. Wright knows his stuff, if we try and get inside the mind of a first century Jew, as best we can, we will see the gospels as they were truly meant. It’s not to negate Jesus’ divinity or the importance of the cross. But they come into the first century Jewish story of the gospels, rather than a modern systematic approach of gathering together proof-texts to support a proposition.
And, to bring in some very important teaching on the cross, N.T. Wright shows how this act was not just about atoning for sin, but it was the act by which God became king of the world through his Messiah and Son, Jesus. The kingdom of God came in the most obscure and unexpected way – through the humiliating crucifixion of Christ on a Roman cross. And the cross continues to be the way that God displays his power and wisdom in this world, extending his kingdom to the ends of the earth.
In all, the book How God Became King is just about that – how the God of Israel became king of the world through his Messiah and Son, Jesus.
The thesis of Simply Jesus runs like this: Remember, this is not too far off from the previous book, with this one actually being published first chronologically. In all, what we have here is the challenge that, whereas many are fine to see Jesus as a religious leader who has come to save our souls and get us to the destination of ‘heaven’, Jesus’ coming was all about God becoming king. Not a king ‘up there’, not a king for a future reign for a certain time period, but king even here and even now.
Where as How God Became King uses the illustration of 4 speakers, Simply Jesus speaks of 3 storms coming together in the first century context that would help form the ‘perfect storm’.
What are those 3 storms?
- The Roman storm – Caesar and the ruling power of Rome.
- The Jewish storm – even though they were in the land and the temple was standing, the Jews were still longing for the restoration from exile.
- The God storm – God was returning to his people in power and glory.
In the pages that follow, Wright gives a holistic perspective on kingdom; temple; and space, time & matter. The kingdom is actually here, not in just a ‘spiritual’ sense, but in a real sense. God is now ruling the world through his Messiah and Son. And that kingdom is very political, but not in all the mess that comes to our mind today. Rather, for the kingdom to be political, it is challenging the rule of any Caesar, Rome then or another in history. And, yes, we still await the finality of this rule to come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.
The temple was to be the place where heaven and earth met. But now, the temple was no longer a building. It was God’s Messiah – in Jesus we find the temple where heaven and earth meet.
God was reclaiming all things in space, time and matter. God’s work is not simply ‘spiritual’, nor for another world or another time period. It comes into the real now, the real earth. The invisible is transforming the visible so that the kingdom rule of God becomes a visible and tangible expression today.
I really appreciate the last chapter of this book, which is not too different from Wright’s practise in many of his books. He answers the question: What does this mean practically? What does it really look like for Jesus to be ruler of the world today? Rather than sharing too many thoughts here, I point you to my last post, which quotes from the final chapter of Simply Jesus.
There you have it. A brief review of the two books. I, myself, wasn’t too shocked by the thesis of the two works, as this is the message coming via Wright in many other titles and teaching forms. But it is a premise that I can get behind, one that I believe is quite faithful to the Scripture’s teaching around the gospel, the gospels, Christ and the kingdom of God…all within its own first century, Jewish context.