How God became King

I’ve referred once or twice in this blog to N.T. (Tom) Wright's 2012 book, How God became King: Getting to the heart of the Gospels (London: SPCK).  What follows is a brief review I wrote for a book group I belong to. The book has a similar theme to McKnight's The King Jesus Gospel, but is work of exegesis, whereas McKnight's is one of exhortation.

Basic thesis: modern evangelical Christians tend to read the Gospels (and the rest of the New Testament) in a less than adequate way.

(Liberal interpretations are even less adequate. Wright is very clear in asserting that the miracles, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension all occurred, and are not to be explained away. If anything, he suggests that we don't take them seriously enough, don't grasp their full import.)

What is an adequate reading of the gospels? One that sees them in the light of Jewish understandings at the period of the incarnation. (Wright is a historian.) One that sees them as the culmination of the story of Israel as it has been told up to that point in the OT. It was a common Jewish understanding that the Jews were still in exile and under oppression. They had returned to Jerusalem, to be sure, but they still lived under an oppressor and there was a feeling that God had not yet returned to His temple. They believed they would be set free and would again become the light to the gentiles, as God had promised them, when the Messiah finally arrived.

Israel’s story matters because the creator of the world has called Israel to be the people through whom he will redeem the world. That calling is fulfilled in Jesus.

The gospels clearly depict Jesus as that Messiah, who ushers in the new age (’the age to come’ in Hebrew), the age of God’s kingdom on earth. For example, the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew, with its counting of the generations, alludes to God’s answer to Daniel when he asks how long it will be before Jeremiah’s prophecy is fulfilled (‘seventy weeks of years’, i.e. 490 years). This is just one of hundreds of allusions in the gospels back to the OT narrative.

Evangelical Christians sometimes have little to say about Jesus’ earthly life because we focus on the crucifixion and resurrection. But in Wright’s view Jesus' life embodies the declaration of God’s kingdom on earth. It embodies it not only through his preaching and his declaration in John’s gospel that he will be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness but through his miracles which John again focuses on very clearly. Jesus’ life reflects the new creation, the new heavens and the new earth, that will come in its fullness at the end of the age. Jesus' resurrection was the exemplar -- the first fruits in Paul's language -- of our resurrection at the end of the age. But because Jesus' death and resurrection brought about the defeat of evil and represent the establishment of God's kingdom on earth, the church needs to be far more concerned than it often is with showing God's mercy and bringing about God's justice in the present, e.g. by remitting third-world debt
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This is an enormously rich and thought provoking book. I have gone through Mark and John carefully, looking at Wright’s references to them, and have found a great deal more in them than I had ever recognised before.

Postscript: I find I don’t fully agree with Wright’s view of an adequate reading of the New Testament texts as I have sketched it above (but I may have misread him). Whilst I heartily agree that we need to read them in the light of Jewish understandings at the period of the incarnation, I also think we need to apply what we learn to our own contexts. I have just written about an example of this in my post Thinking about life after death.