December 18, 2018

IM Book Review: Simply Jesus

IM Book Review
Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters
by N.T. Wright, HarperOne

• • •

“It is time, I believe, to recognize not only who Jesus was in his own day, despite his contemporaries’ failure to recognize him, but also who he is, and will be, for our own.”

N.T. Wright has given us a riveting vision of who Jesus is and what he came to do in his recent book, Simply Jesus. Along with Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel (heavily influenced by Wright’s studies), this book has invigorated and expanded my understanding of the Gospel in the context of the Biblical Story and the culture in which Jesus lived.

In the preface, Wright shares that his personal interest in Jesus grows out of both his Christian faith and his vocation as a historian. The result is his attempt to write about Jesus and be faithful to the complexity of the historical data while at the same time speaking “simply” in a way that will make a real difference in the lives of those who are seeking to follow him.

Simply Jesus is written in three parts.

  • In Part One, Wright introduces us to the major questions about Jesus that we must answer.
  • In Part Two, he tries to explain as simply as possible what Jesus’ public career was all about, what he was trying to accomplish, and how he went about it. Key to this section is Wright’s attempt to help readers see things from a first-century Jewish point of view.
  • Part Three, one long chapter, seeks to answer, “What does this all mean for us now?”

Through it all, Wright’s passion comes through:

“Perhaps even ‘his own people’ — this time not the Jewish people of the first century, but the would-be Christian people of the Western world — have not been ready to recognize Jesus himself. We want a ‘religious’ leader, not a king! We want someone to save our souls, not rule our world! Or, if we want a king, someone to take charge of our world, what we want is someone to implement the policies we already embrace, just as Jesus contemporaries did. But if Christians don’t get Jesus right, what chance is there that other people will bother much with him?”

N.T. Wright begins his presentation of Jesus with a section on the “Perfect Storm” of controversy that mention of Jesus conjures up in today’s world. On one hand, you have the conservative, classic Western Christian myth about Jesus, and on the other, the liberal/skeptical myth. The third element of the storm “is the sheer historical complexity of speaking about Jesus,” which has often been ignored, causing people in a variety of times and places to read the evidence according to their own cultural settings, thus making for themselves a “Jesus” in their own image.

Instead, he asserts, we must step out of our own stormy weather for a moment and re-enter the “Perfect Storm” Jesus himself faced in his own world. There was a Roman element to that storm, ruled by Augustus Caesar. Hailed as “the Son of God,” his reign was presented to the world as “good news” of “peace” for all people. There was also a Jewish storm. The Israelites found themselves in a chapter in their long story where they (once again) languished in“Exile.” Even though they lived in the Promised Land, they did so under Roman oppression. Alongside this depressing reality, they also clung to a long tradition of hope that one day, when the last great world empire had done its worst, a new “Exodus” would occur to usher in the Messianic Age of true justice and peace. The third element of the first century “Perfect Storm” was the rise of revolutionary movements, which sensed that the world was at the turning of the ages, when God himself would come and establish his rule in the world.

Into this “Perfect Storm” Jesus came, announcing, “The time has come! The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV).

One of the most helpful contributions of Simply Jesus is Wright’s focus on the Exodus as a paradigm for Israel’s hope. In the minds of those who looked for God’s ultimate deliverance, there were seven aspects to the Exodus theme that embodied their hope:

  • The Exodus hope was about a wicked tyrant who had enslaved God’s people.
  • The Exodus hope was about a God-chosen leader, raised up to set God’s people free.
  • The Exodus hope was about God exercising divine judgment and winning a great victory over the evil ruler.
  • The Exodus hope was about God rescuing his people by an act of special grace and mercy.
  • The Exodus hope was about God’s people entering into a marriage covenant with God.
  • The Exodus hope was about was about God being with his people, dwelling in their midst, as in the Tabernacle or Temple.
  • The Exodus hope was about fulfilling the ancient promises to Abraham.

As Wright says, “there was a well-recognized set of expectations for a ‘king of the Jews,’ with roots extending all the way back to the Exodus.” Jesus, through his public ministry, was announcing that the ultimate Exodus was at hand. He, their King, had arrived to set them free. God had come to rule on earth as in heaven. In Jesus, God was accomplishing his great victory over all the powers that had held God’s people in captivity. God was becoming King!

In the meaty second part of Simply Jesus, N.T. Wright shows how Jesus announced this and then pointed to it by his words and actions in his public ministry. He talks about how Jesus explained what was happening through curious stories and illustrations called “parables.” Wright has a helpful discussion about how Jesus’ teaching — for example, about divorce (Matt. 19) — was not just ethical instruction, but always pointed to new realities of inner transformation and the establishment of justice and peace in the Kingdom.

In an insightful chapter, Wright compares Jesus with several other “God-chosen leaders” before and after him who raised the hopes of Israel that the time of God’s rule was arriving. Not only did they fit the mold of Exodus expectations we’ve outlined above, but they also set a pattern for a “two-stage” establishment of the Kingdom hope. The Kingdom, in some sense, is both present and future. It arrives with the King and is demonstrated as a present reality, but must also be settled in the future by a great, imminent event.

That event would involve a climactic battle against the powers that rule and hold God’s people captive. Not just against Rome or another national or military power, but against the dark powers themselves, against the satan, God’s ultimate enemy. It would also involve cleansing and reestablishing the Temple so that God might dwell among his people once more.

On this theme, N.T. Wright gives some of his best and most perceptive writing. In the chapter called, “Space, Time, and Matter,” he shows how, in Jesus, God’s space and human space come together (Temple), God’s time and human time meet (Sabbath), and the present age and the age to come merge (New Creation). The time is fulfilled. The Temple is reinterpreted as Jesus himself — the place where God and humans meet. The New Creation is breaking into this world of sin, evil, and death. God has come to rule on earth as in heaven.

This raises questions, however. What will bring this divine moment of time to its consummation? If Jesus is the Temple, where God meets with humans, what of the existing Temple? If New Creation is breaking into the world, what about the powerful forces of evil that still trouble the world? What climactic event will prove decisive?

The Cross.

Somehow, Jesus’s death was seen by Jesus himself, and then by those who told and ultimately wrote his story, as the ultimate means by which God’s kingdom was established. The crucifixion was the shocking answer to the prayer that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven. It was the ultimate Exodus event through which the tyrant was defeated, God’s people were set free and given their fresh vocation, and God’s presence was established in their midst in a completely new way for which the Temple itself was just an advance pointer.

N.T. Wright does not stop at this point to discuss theories of the atonement, but it is clear that the underlying emphasis he sets forth as primary is that of Christus Victor — God’s triumph over the powers that hold humankind in bondage under their rule. Furthermore, it is only by maintaining a connection with the Resurrection (by which Jesus becomes the prototype of the New Creation), the Ascension (by which Jesus is enthroned and takes charge), and the Outpouring of the Spirit that we can appreciate the full picture of victory that the Cross paints.

The Spirit-empowered Church is now the community that heralds the message, “Jesus is King!” As others have noted, this carries with it a counter message: “And ____________ is not!” The message of the Church is that Jesus is in charge; through him God has come to rule on earth as it is in heaven. And just as Jesus was the new Temple wherein God dwelt, so now the Church exists as a set of outposts of that new Temple in the world, filled with the Spirit, proclaiming, embodying, and living the good news.

At this point, we must be careful, and Wright wisely warns us that being on the side of triumph is not the same as being triumphalistic. For the “kingship” that Jesus brought is a different kind of kingship. And so he says, “The methods of kingdom work are in accordance with the message of Jesus as king; that is, they involve suffering, misunderstanding, violence, execution,” etc. Jesus won his victory through suffering. We do the same, until the day that he reappears, heaven and earth are joined irrevocably as one, and every creature bows to proclaim him King.

What does this mean for us today, to say that Jesus is King? N.T. Wright concludes Simply Jesus with a thoughtful discussion about how God extends his rule in the world through the Spirit-filled followers of Jesus who make worship their central priority and display a new way of being human to the world.

Get this book. Read it again and again. Fix your eyes on Jesus, the real Jesus, the Jesus who is King, the One who came not just to make a nice warm place for me in heaven, but who came to change the world by being a King unlike any other.

Comments

  1. Clay Knick says:

    Splendid review!

  2. This does sound good. Almost like it’s good news …

  3. Yes, your review is right on. This is a very good book. Wright is a faithful. thoughtful, articulate and clear writer. I also commend Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” for thinking about Jesus’ return and the reign of God and why that matters to us today.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    And after lightweight books by He-Man Driscoll and Seven-Day-Sex-Challenge Ed Young on these pages, now a book of Substance by Bishop Wright!

  5. David Cornwell says:

    The book is powerful, intelligent, and full of insight about those things that we as followers of the King need to recover. The chapter on “Space, Time, and Matter” brings it all into focus and in many ways opens doors into what we have been missing.

    One sentence that should speak to us is the following: “But in first-century Christianity, what mattered was not people going from earth into God’s kingdom in heaven. What mattered, and what Jesus taught his followers to pray, was that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven.” When we pray His prayer this is what we are praying for.

    This book is, like you said, is to read again and again. Read, think, underline, and absorb. Thanks for reviewing it. I look forward to the comments.

  6. Ah Good ol’Tom Wright. I very excited to get this book & suprised by hope. I attended the megachurch in town this past weekend…and the sermon was:

    – Eternal rewards! &$#@ Earth! ETERNITY,HEAVEN!
    – End times and how the white throne judgement is soon!
    -apparently advocating inequality in heaven. Some will “RULE OVER CITIES & JUDGE ANGELS!..while those who didn’t find the center of god’s purpose for their life on earth make it to heaven by the skin of their teeth”.
    -Threatening us to do good works , to make it to heaven(good works=purity,godliness(whatever that means today) , but no mention of loving all people around you unconditionally,hmm..)
    – More about heaven…talking about a LITERAL cube city(new jerusalem) , there will be farming in heaven! , blah blah blah , “No fasting in heaven HALLELUJAH”. He also talked about how in heaven those who are rewarded at judgement , get “money,power,respect”. thats why we should store up treasures in heaven.

    and last but not least…an “invitation to accept jesus christ as your lord and savior”. Last sentence of the sermon:” i know my sermon didn’t make you feel good , but if you listen to what The holy spirit has to say through me , you will Hug me in heaven”

    ..anyway , sorry that was so long , just had to tell the story. I’m very thankful for N.T. wright and his working. I find it to be a very refreshing alternative to much of what i hear. The way jesus is presented with him. May his kingdom come on earth indeed.

    • “He also talked about how in heaven those who are rewarded at judgement , get “money,power,respect”. thats why we should store up treasures in heaven.”

      I’m pretty sure that’s heresy. I’m also amazed that any Christian preacher is telling his congregation that money as we know it will be around in the new Heaven and the new Earth and that it will form a basis for the perpetuation of good old class differences – only this time, if you were poor in the world, you’ll be rich in Heaven and have all those who looked down on you as a worthless bum or “My mother was right, I should have married Bob” grovelling before you

      • well he didn’t say money , instead he said “mansions , glistening crowns , airplanes , etc” , oh and of course “power & respect” …. i was just waiting for him to mention 72 virgins , or something.

      • Hell in heaven: “bad” Christians relegated to the ghetto of heaven, while the “good” Christians get an uptown mansion. Christian caste system, dividing heaven into economic tiers. As I told someone recently, it makes purgatory attractive; at least one will eventually get out of purgatory; there’s no escape from the ghetto of heaven taught by some Protestants.

    • It sounds like that pastor has been reading Randy Alcorn’s book, Heaven. It would be better if he read Tom Wright.

  7. I read through this, and it sounds pretty much like my lesson book for teaching Sunday school in the LCMS, except the atonement theory. Everything in the OT points to Jesus; all the temple ceremonies, the smoke in the tabernacle, the cloud leading the Israelites, the passover lamb, Jesus Jesus Jesus. In the NT, he is the Gospel counterpart to the type of King that rules in the kingdom of the world. Where David brought order with armies; Christ brings peace with grace and forgiveness. etc. etc

    Some Lutheran needs to tell me what he is teaching that’s different that I should be looking for.

  8. Excellent review, Chaplain Mike. Sometimes after reading so many books about Jesus and Christianity, I think, “What new stuff is there to say?” Somehow, N.T. Wright manages to say it and he does so in such an engaging manner. I will read the book. Thanks!

  9. Putting it on my Amazon wish list.

    I wonder if this will sell as many units as Driscoll’s guide to sex and marriage?

  10. Thanks for the breath of clean, biblical, air. haven’t bought anything lately on the Kindle: looks like this one ( or McKnight’s) will be next up. Encouraging to know that there are solid teachers out there getting it done.

    GregR

  11. I recently read this book too but was less impressed.

    Don’t get me wrong, I respect N.T. Wright a great deal and appreciate his work, but in the book he came across as trying to show people (both modernist liberals and traditionalists (including Evangelicals/fundamentalists) that *he* had found the real Jesus and they were both wrong about Him.

    Apart from some interesting historical insights and connections, I didn’t glean much from it. Now, maybe that’s because I’ve read other writings by him and so know what his take on things is. Maybe it’s because I’m Catholic and neither fundamentalism nor liberal deconstructionism is an issue for me. So I think it’s an interesting book and helpful but he excessively played up the “I’ve found the true Jesus and you other people are wrong.”

    • That would probably be because of his Anglican roots.
      He was one conservative who was part of the Jesus Seminar, but being an Evangelical Anglican, he also dialogues with Evangelical Christians a lot.
      An Anglican way of doing theology can be described as a via-media, or more of a middle road.

    • Thanks, Devin. I haven’t read the book yet but your assessment resonates with me.

      To me, this is one of the most annoying things about evangelicalism: the constant striving to discover the “REAL” Jesus or the “REAL” Gospel. If, after 2000 years of Him being the central figure in Western civilization, we still don’t REALLY know who Jesus is or what His Gospel is, then either God is a very poor communicator or we are hopelessly stupid.

  12. This is one reason I love liturgical Christianity: everything mentioned in your review of this “new” book is a central part of the old, traditional Easter declaration each year:

    This is the night
    when first you saved our fathers:
    you freed the people of Israel from their slavery
    and led them dry-shod through the sea.

    This is the night
    when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin!

    This is the night
    when Christians everywhere,
    washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
    are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.

    This is the night
    when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death
    and rose triumphant from the grave….

    The power of this holy night dispels all evil,
    washes guilt away, restores lost innocence,
    brings mourners joy;
    it casts out hatred, brings us peace,
    and humbles earthly pride.

    Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth
    and man is reconciled with God!

    (from the Exsultet)

  13. David Cornwell says:

    Wright infuses his writings with an understanding of the Kingdom. I’ve been convinced for some time that we very often misconstrue its true meaning. Two more quotes that are very significant:

    ‘…’heaven’ in biblical thought is not a long way from ‘earth.’ In the Bible,’heaven’ and ‘earth’ overlap and interlock, as the ancient Jews believed they did above all in the Temple.”

    “Suppose, in other words, that the ancient Israelite scriptures were right, and that heaven and earth were after all the twin halves of God’s created reality, designed eventually to come together.”

    If we understand this the implications are astounding.

    • That’s very similar to what the Catholic Church teaches about what happens at the Mass.

      • David Cornwell says:

        Michael, thanks for sharing this. I realize more and more how little I really know. One of the things I love about Internet Monk is that it helps me to understand different traditions. There is and was so much more to our life together than the little places we find ourselves. And yet we can all be together under the flag of the King.

    • David, those quotes are fantastic, especially the second one. I’m almost finished re-reading Between Noon and Three and this fits nicely with what Robert Farrar Capon says.

  14. Sounds like this is a book I will purchase …I’ve been looking for a little Light reading.

    Hopefully, as indicated in CM’s review, the book adds to our understanding of the first-century Hebrew expectation of who Christ was to be and how all of scripture points to Him. This is a missing element in our Western Church. We simply need to focus more on the historic and cultural context in which Jesus lived and conducted his ministry to understand what we’re reading. Without that standard The Bible becomes a collection of bedtime stories which we bend to meet our own individual needs. This also just happens to be the topic we addressed at length on the air this morning.

    Looking forward to this book. Thanks for the review! …

  15. Charles Fines says:

    I cannot speak too highly of Tom Wright. I believe him to be the most important voice in contemporary Christendom and our means of getting out from the rusty chains of the Reformation. Not that he has all the answers or that he is right in everything he says, as I’m sure he would be the first to agree.

    My main assignment in study now is to read everything that Wright has written, which is difficult since he seems to come out with new books as fast as I can digest the old ones. His set of commentaries on the New Testament is still in the box waiting, his new translation of the New Testament has me reading straight thru again.

    Wright is a historian, a Bible scholar, and a theologian, all in equal measure, and I think this is what allows him to break thru the obfuscation and tunnel vision we swim in. I find that these have come to be my main areas of interest and it is most exciting to find them so exquisitely balanced in one highly perceptive mind and spirit.

  16. *sigh* You’ve done it to me again, CM. The ol’ reading list just keeps getting longer and longer . . .