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.
Indeed I have lost my love of “Marmite” and Wright! 😉 But then, since the mid 90’s I have been a PD or Progressive Dispensationalist! And oh yeah, both being in Gulf War 1 (Royal Marine, recon officer), then later teaching and living in Israel in the late 90’s. This was simply a “formation” for me, and an education of its own! See both Bock & Blaising’s book: Progressive Dispensationalism (1993) ; as too, Robert Saucy’s: The Case For Progressive Dispensationalism, The Interface Between Dispensational & Non-Dispensational Theology (also 1993). Until one has read these books, one knows not the latest form of Dispensationalism! See too, some of the people here from DTS, (Dallas).
I do believe progressive dispensationalism is a more balanced approach. I’ve interacted with people before who hold to such a view. But I still think keeping one’s roots in dispensationalism will not be extremely helpful. And reading some of your comments at times, like this one below, makes me think you lean more towards a classical dispensational view.
Scott: Sadly, like so many, it seems you are not engaging the subject, but simply disagreeing based upon NOT liking the general idea. And note “classic” dispensationalism is always Pre-trib, I am certainly Post-trib. And indeed “Dispensationalism”, of any kind, will always see a difference between National Israel (their Covenant & covenants), which we Gentiles are somewhat included spiritually.. now, verses the literal promises for the Nation of Israel, for both the Millennial Kingdom, and on into the lasting Eschaton and Eternity. It is here btw, that we should note the general theology of Irenaeus of Lyons, etc. And again, the general ideas of Augustine and Origen here, as to eschatology.. have failed theologically and even historically! Indeed, this “age” will end with Antichrist, and Judgment, but the full redemption of National Israel and the real Church of God!
Finally, let me share and challenge people today to see and read Joel Richardson’s new book (as his first: The Islamic Antichrist), Mideast Beast, The Scriptural Case For An Islamic Antichrist, (WND Books, 2012). “I am firmly convinced that Islam is the single greatest challenge that the Church will face before the Return of Jesus. Yet most are still either asleeep or in denial.” Amen!
I do try and engage the subject. I suppose I could point you to many of my articles on ‘last things’.
What do we do with the fact that almost 2000 years ago, John told us antichrist was already here?
And trying to figure out a particular antichrist/beast persona has always seemed to me futile. What if we considered engaging with Muslims over a meal rather than declaring it antichrist? Could be a paradigm shift that might draw Muslims to Isa.
@Scott: To answer your question both historically and biblically, this was one of the reasons I quoted Irenaeus, and more specfically see his work: Against Heresies, there he like others (Papias, Justin, Tertullian, etc.) believed in a last and final Antichrist, like St. Paul taught and teaches in 2 Thess. 2! (And one often overlooked verse here is John 5: 43, toward the Jews and Antichrist…”I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his ‘own name’, you will receive him.”) – And btw, here we should note too John 10: 25-26, as to who are the true “sheep” of Christ. And here too Calvinist doctrine has stong overtones! And if one cannot see the “end time” aspects today in the general culture, world, and even Church? Then one is simply “asleep” (Matt. 25: 1-13), these are not times of ease and sleep, but to “Watch” as our Lord has said! And WE can never do “biblical theology” without pastoral direction!
Finally, I am not at war with every Muslim, I have in fact some Muslim friends. I lived and taught in Israel in the late 90’s. But, Radical Islam, indeed I have seen close-up and have fought them literally! Sadly, but again providentially, we can see that biblically and theologically, Radical Islam is partnered with “Ishmael”, and as Richardson shows: “It is easy to see the generational bitterness of Ishmael being channeled through Muhammad’s teachings.” (Page, 252, in his new book: Mideast Beast, etc.) Again here, we simply must quote 1 John 2:22-23! This really is the essence of Antichrist! Again, I challenge every pastor-teacher today, who believes and knows the Bible, to read Richardson’s latest book! The point is not every detail, but the fact that Radical Islam is simply “the greatest antichristic religion the world has ever known.” (Again, page 252, Mideast Beast, etc. Richardson). I don’t enjoy agreeing with such statements, but both biblically and theologically, “truth” is always a bitter reality, especially in this day of Gentile Apostasy, in the Church and Culture!
And finally, the study of the Bible, and really this subject is never “futile”, nor can it be as God’s Word will always direct us and speak the truth! Again, we are seeing things in the Church, that we, and even those before us have never seen! And to quote even the often benigned Scofield: “Interpreters of the Revelation should bear in mind two important passages: 1 Pet. 1:12 / 2 Pet. 1:20-21. Doubtless much which is designedly obscure to us will be clear to those for whom it was written as the time approaches.” Amen indeed! And I believe myself, that.. that time is ever and always approaching! Let us “Watch” “Wait” & “See”! 🙂
See Scott: The NET Bible, Gen. 24: 18 (note 13), and too verse 18 (note 18), for the Ishmaelite-Israelite conflicts to come, its simply Biblical!
I agree with the premise that the gospels are the story of God fully redeeming and reconciling Isreael to Himself, and in a way they did not look for or even WANT. It’s important to not look at it as merely doctrine and proofs of divinity, etc. It’s a story of God establishing the beginnings of His reign, which started with Israeal and will eventually end with Israeal as God literally brings His city down to earth.
However, the rest, as I previously stated in another comment, I simply can’t swallow. I can’t see this world at large as under God’s rule in the slightest. We, the church — Christians, are under God’s rule because we CHOOSE to place ourselves under His rule rather than rule ourselves or follow the God of this world. God will eventually rule all men and the physical world through His power, might and majesty. In other words, it won’t be a voluntary decision anymore. We are told to pray for the day when His rule is complete, as in complete for the whole world, not JUST in our hearts. We can no more bring that about any faster by our own actions than we go to the gym and workout, get fit and then call that our “incorruptable” bodies. It’s something only God can do.
Nicely said there Ken! Indeed GOD will have HIS New Creation, even here (in this world) ‘In Christ’, and that will first be with Historical Israel, then the Gentiles, (Matt. 5: 35 / Rom. 1: 16 ; 15: 8-9). Come Lord Jesus!
Btw, we are now seeing the great Gentile Apostasy! Sometime soon, the focus will swing back to National and Modern Israel, and then will come the close of this dispensation, and the Eschaton fully, as the Redeemed and the world see Christ! (Rev. 1:7)
I’d challenge us to not look in our own little corners to confirm whether Jesus is in charge or not. I’ll take him at his word – All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (Matt 28:18)
18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph 1:18-23)
I don’t disagree that the reality of his rule has not become fully realised. This is why Paul said – For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. (1 Cor 15:25) The word until denotes something is taking place now but must continue until it is fully realised. But we cannot get away from the actual reality that it is present. And so we continue to pray what Christ taught us – Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
If you are taking care of your body, then you are living in accordance with the good of such. Of course, it is ultimately a God-thing. But we can live in light of his rule – announcing the good news, calling people to believe & repent, serving the poor, taking care of the earth, making beautiful art, doing faithful business in integrity, and brushing our teeth. All of these are healthy expressions of God’s rule in our lives NOW.
Hi Scott, great write-up. Thanks for sharing.
One thing bothers me, and I’d be keen for your views on it:
The two books seem to require a great understanding of 1st Century Jewish culture in order to understand the true gospel. But, why is there such a big emphasis on Jewish 1st century context, when the gospel is for all time? If the gospels were written to be communicated to all people in all ages, then the necessary context should have been written in the gospels themselves, right? Unless, of course, the assertion is that it wasn’t really written for us, but we “borrow” it anyway. I think it is a big ask to require a 21st century 5 year old girl living in Africa (my daughter) to get into the minds of Jewish people who lived 2000 years ago. But the gospel is for her too. In any case no one, not even NT Wright, can really get into 1st century Jewish minds.
All this to say that the true meaning of the gospels should be obvious from reading it as me today. And that is why, I think, Jesus used stories – lots of different stories to illustrate the same thing. The kingdom of God is like… this…that…this other thing.
Not against understanding historical context: I think it is good. However, if it is required, in order to understand the message of the gospel, as NT Wright seems to suggest, then I think we are on shaky ground.
Just my first reaction to reading the reviews (not the books btw, not yet anyway!). Welcome other views…
Great to hear from you! You ask very good questions. All of this stuff has to become practical in the end, not just theory. And this not only for our children (including my 3-year old), but for you and I living out real life.
There are a few thoughts that come to mind. I might argue something like this: The Bible was not written to us, but it was written that we might benefit us. This might sound a bit off, but I sense that these writers of the documents and letters that our now in the Bible were not thinking of 21st century westerners or Africans when they wrote. Sounds simple, but it’s important to remember that. They were not writing with the thought – I better write this so that people for the next 2000 year can understand it. No, they were writing into real situations, to real people, dealing with real issues.
Of course, the argument would come that the Bible is inspired by God and so he can speak ‘above’ that specific context. But God has always been ‘incarnational’, meaning he comes into the situation of the people he is speaking with today. You and I believe God still speaks today, and so he’s going to speak into our situation. Again, we benefit from the Scripture and it is God-breathed. But it still is very, very Jewish. Hence why back then, the Scriptures were coming to the people in Hebrew and Greek, that languages God’s people actually spoke then. I suppose if I really want to understand Kenyan or Tanzanian rural culture, it is going to take more than translating the texts from Swahili to English. I’m going to need to be amongst the people, watch, listen, read, eat with the people, etc. I’d say the same with grappling with the Scripture text. We cannot do this fully some 2000 years later. But we can do it well, or there are others that do it well (and I think Wright is one) who breaks it down for the common folk like you and I.
We are called to announce the gospel for all time, and this is where I think the gospel can be shaped slightly based upon the culture and time. Not the essential announcement that God is King through his Son, Jesus, now repent and believe. But how to make that announcement stick in our times and cultures. How are we going to make sense of this now, today?
With communicating to a small child, what you describe is true with almost any concept or framework. Not just with the gospel, but with mathematics, history, acceptable behaviour, etc, etc. You and I can have ‘adult talk’ about things. But when we come to interacting with others, like children, we need to break it down to their level. Hence, as you noted, why we might tell stories like Jesus. It’s the same with big, nasty words like justification or regeneration or ecclesiology. I don’t use those words with my son. But I read the Bible stories in his children’s Bible, I might explain a little bit, I tell him Jesus is in charge of the world and he asks us to believe he is in charge and live the way he wants. It’s interesting to note that children’s Bibles leave out some of the ‘messy’ stuff of Scripture or much with the NT epistles. I’m not too bothered, as I know it is still inputting at a level that children can grasp.
I don’t know if I have answered too well. But those are some initial thoughts on a) why I think it worth grappling with the text within the framework it was given and b) how we still break this down for children, or an adult living 2000 years later in a western, postmodern, European context.
“Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all.” I Chronoicles 29:11-12
“The Lord has established His throne in the heavens; and His sovereignty rules over all.” Psalm 103:19
Psalm 135:6 “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in seas and in all deeps.”
When has God not been King? And why and how did He have to become King in Jesus? I don’t understand this idea at all. Certainly His Kingship on this earth was not fully realized in the Old Testament. But neither is it fully realized in the age in which we now live in which He has supposedly just “become” King.
I haven’t read Wright’s book, so maybe I am misunderstanding what he is saying as all I know is what is being said about it. But if I am understanding correctly, it seems to me that Wright and others saying the same thing are the ones that have really missed something.
What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.’?
Also, what was Israel’s story and Scriptures all about?
Scott, it seems to me that it might be a lot more accurate to say that the Kingdom became more obvious on earth, or the King was revealed in a new way when Jesus came then to state that God “became” King in Jesus.
Since the OT seems to be clear that He was always King, I don’t know how it can be said that He only “became” King at the point of Jesus life and death.
Jesus the Christ was and is the “Incarnate” King of Kings and Lord of Lords! Btw, Christ is still “Incarnate” though now Risen & Ascended, even on the Throne of God, in the glory! (Heb. 1:3 ; 9: 24)
I agree with you 100% that God has always been King – from the beginning. Most people don’t recognise that. But there is something special that is taking place when Jesus arrives on the scene and announces – “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).
And I think we get a better understanding of what’s going on with Jesus’ announcement when we understand what’s going on in that context. The Jews knew Yahweh was King over all. They knew the Psalms and other passages that clearly stated such. They also remembered the promises of the prophets that said God was going to do a special work, a new age of restoration, making things right, judging the enemy of God’s people, and do it through a special person, the anointed one (messiah). And so an expectation kept building up, for even though their ancestors had returned, they were in the land, and the temple stood, there was a sense that they were still in exile – under the rule of a foreign power, the torah had not become the desire of the nations, nothing looked like God was king. When were they going to be fully freed? When was Israel going to be fully restored? It’s funny they are even asking it in Acts 1:6. Israel was going to be restored, but it was going to be through a work that would go from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.
Anyways, the Jews knew God was king. But where was the one that was supposed to make this a reality here on earth? And so, in steps the Messiah to bring the rule of God on earth as it was in heaven. But in a very unexpected way – a way that left many Jews then thinking it still had not come and leaves many of God’s people today still questioning the fact that God is now king through the work of his Messiah and Son.
But Jesus has become king of the world and in the most unique ways – through giving of his life in death. Astounding! And now those who are being renewed in the image of God, through life in Christ, are God’s kingdom announcers making known that our good God is in charge, is making all things new, come and return to the Father and Creator. And we live in light of the fact that Jesus is now in charge.
You can see how much the situation of 2000 years ago and the situation of today can be paralleled. They weren’t so sure God was in charge then, and God’s people today still struggle to believe so. But if we got a glimpse of the true reality that he is reigning, and began living in light of that, we might start to see some beautiful transformation, a taste of new creation.
I’m not going to argue what you have said here, Scott. And maybe it is just a matter of semantics. But I find the book title, “How God Became King,” to be quite misleading. Reckon I wil just leave it at that. Thanks much for the interaction!
God was always a God of salvation. But, with the coming of God’s Son and the new covenant, we might make statements like this – God’s salvation has arrived in Jesus Christ.
God has always been king. But God’s kingdom rule has arrived in Jesus Christ.
Hey Scott, the link you left about 1 Cor 1-2 doesn’t work.