Simply Jesus: Part Two(b)

As I said in the last post of this series, I am breaking Part Two of Simply Jesus into posts covering three chapters apiece. This post covers chapters 9-11.

The Kingdom Present and Future

In this chapter, Wright offers four examples, both before and after the time of Jesus, to show how the Jews believed that the kingdom could simultaneously be both present and future. The kingdom was “now” when announced and “still to come” in the sense that there was work to do to bring the kingdom to completion.

The four would-be messiahs or established “kings” that he surveys are, respectively, Judah the Hammer (Judas Maccabeus), Simon the Star (Simon bar-Kochba), Herod the Great, and Simon bar-Giora. All four, while having at least some of the seven themes of the exodus (pp.64-65), had at least two main parts: 1) a great battle to fight and victory to win (themes of wicked tyrant, chosen leader, and victory of God); and 2) to cleanse or rebuild the temple (presence of God). By exploring the history of these characters, it doesn't take much imagination to see why Jews started following Jesus around, wondering if he might actually be the Messiah.

(What is interesting, is that Judah the Hammer and Herod the Great were both “successful” in their endeavors. Yet, neither one had a right to David's throne by way of lineage. Plus, it was obvious to Jews that things were still not quite right.)

Battle and Temple

The battle that Jesus came to fight, was not so much against Rome or corrupt Jewish leaders, but against “the quasi-personal source of evil standing behind both human wickedness and large scale injustice” (p. 120), the satan. Wright explains that when the kingdom of God comes on earth as in heaven, “It's a clash of kingdoms: the satan has his kingdom, God has his, and sooner or later the battle between them will be joined” (p. 125). Jesus initially won the battle by being tempted in the wilderness but would fight the final battle on the cross.

Jesus is indeed fighting what he takes to be the battle against the real enemies of the people of God, but it is not the battle his followers or the wider group of onlookers was expecting him to fight. Jesus has redefined the royal task around his own vision of where the real problem lies. And he has thereby redefined his own vocation, which he takes to be the true vocation of Israel's king: to fight and win the key battle, the battle that will set his people free and establish God's sovereign and saving rule, through his own suffering and death. (p. 126-127)

Jesus' “cleansing of the Temple” would have been similar to Jeremiah's smashing of the pot (Jeremiah 19) and interpreted as God's judgment on the Temple. As we saw earlier, cleansing/restoring the Temple was a royal task for the king to perform, which makes sense of the question that the Jewish leaders asked Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things?” (e.g., Mt 21:23) This action could only mean that the Temple itself had become obselete:

It looks as though everyone knew that Jesus was in some sense or other pronouncing God's judgment on the Temple itself – and by implication, on the present regime that was running it… [W]hen Jesus stopped the changing of money…and the selling of sacrificial animals, he was effectively stopping the sacrificial system itself, for a brief but symbolic moment. And if you stop the regular flow of sacrifices, you bring the Temple to a shuddering halt. It no longer has a purpose. And if you do that…it can only be because you think Israel's God is now acting in a new way. (pp. 129-130)

Space, Time, and Matter

Chapter 11 has been one of my favorite chapters so far. The sections are “Redefining Where God Dwells” (space), “Time Fulfilled” (time), “A New Creation” (matter), and “A New Kind of Revolution.” I will briefly summarize these sections:

  1. Space – Jesus redefined sacred space around himself as the new Temple, where heaven and earth overlap. “Heaven and earth were being joined up – but no longer in the Temple in Jerusalem. The joining place was visible where the healings were taking place, where the party was going on…, where forgiveness was happening… [T]he joining place…was taking place where Jesus was and in what he was doing. Jesus was…a walking Temple. A living, breathing place-where-Israel's-God-was-living.” (p. 133)
  2. Time – The time of fulfillment, the time to which all of the sabbath days, sabbath years, and years of Jubilee (if Israel ever actually practiced it) were pointing, finds its significance in Jesus' public career.
  3. Matter – The material world was meant to be filled with the glory of YHWH. Not least in Jesus' healing ministry, but also in the Transfiguration (e.g., Mt 17:1-13), it is evident that God is restoring the created order. In other words, “new creation” is breaking into the old one.
  4. Revolution – Jesus' movement had some similarities to other revolutionary movements of that period, but his was still strikingly different. Here we must debunk a few common misperceptions about what Jesus was doing: He was not a) telling people how to “go to heaven,” b) starting a military revolution, or c) simply doing things to “prove” his divinity.

From what I've posted so far, how does this view of Jesus and the message of the gospels differ from the Jesus and gospel you have learned about?


Simply Jesus: Part Two(a)

As I said in my first blog on N.T. Wright's Simply Jesus, I am processing what I'm learning by blogging through the book. Part Two consists of nine chapters, so I will blog through three chapters at a time.

God's in Charge Now

To summarize chapter six is to say that, in a sense, God's people knew that he was already in charge (before Jesus announced that God's kingdom was at hand), but at the same time knew that all the wrongs polluting God's good world must be put to rights. Up to this point, no leader, whether Jew or Gentile, had been able to do so. After spending much time under foreign rule, the Jewish people longed for God to rescue them as he did when they were slaves in Egypt. They were longing for a “new Exodus.”

Wright uses the analogy of sports fanatics celebrating when their team gets a new coach (or when a country elects a new leader) who will “sort things out” to help us understand the celebration that occurred wherever Jesus was. Israel had been on a roller-coaster ride of just-okay-kings, bad kings, and pagan kings/rulers for many years (see the outline of Jewish history on p. 62), but yet longed for the king (Messiah/Christ) of which their prophets had foretold. Jesus' healing and teaching led many to believe that he was the one they were looking for. Hence, the celebration, the good news.

Wright teases out these seven themes (pp. 64-65) of the Exodus to show what the Jews were expecting when the kingdom of God arrived:

  1. Wicked tyrant
  2. Chosen leader
  3. Victory of God
  4. Rescue by sacrifice
  5. New vocation and way of life
  6. Presence of God
  7. Promised/inherited land

This was the story in which the Jews were living and Jesus used the Passover festival (celebrating the Exodus) as the climax to his public career. It was finally time for the new Exodus.

The Campaign Starts Here

Jesus' proclamation that the kingdom was at hand, that God was becoming king on earth as in heaven, would have been understood by Jews at the time in terms of Jubliee (e.g., Leviticus 25 and Is 61:1-3) and New Exodus. Wherever Jesus was announcing the kingdom's arrival, in both word and action, there was celebration, healing, and forgiveness (pp. 68-73). A new kingdom was forming in the midst of the existing one, right under the noses of Herod Antipas, the high priest, and Rome. Wright explains:

The campaign, you see, isn't about someone running for office as happens in our modern democracies. Jesus isn't going around trying to drum up support like today's politicians. He is much more like a rebel leader within a modern tyranny, setting up an alternative government, establishing his rule, making things happen in a new way. He chooses twelve of his closest followers and seems to set them apart as special associates. For anyone with eyes to see, this says clearly that he is reconstituting God's people, Israel, around himself… This is a campaign. It's a rebel movement, a risky movement, a would-be royal movement under the nose of the present would-be “king of the Jews,” Herod Antipas himself. (pp. 85-86)

Stories That Explain and a Message That Transforms

Jesus spoke in parables about what it looks like when God becomes king on earth as in heaven. His hearers would have heard echoes from their ancient scriptures, which should have led them to recognize that God was fulfilling his promises, but most did not.

Another dimension of what it would look like when the kingdom of God broke through is that people would be restored, not just physically and not by external purity rules, but by transformed hearts:

Jesus had grasped that, if God was to become king on earth as in heaven, something deeper than outward reformation would be required. It wouldn't do simply to tighten up existing laws and regulations and enforce them more strictly… What will it look like when God becomes king? Hearts will be transformed… (pp. 98-99)

Jesus was announcing that God was taking charge, that the kingdom of God was at hand. The campaign had begun, and he spoke in parables to explain (to perceptive hearers) what was taking place.

What God Thinks About Death

Whether it is a mass murder of children several states away, a friend of a friend, or a close relative, death is all around us. Death is often unexpected and tragic. We could have a natural tendency to ask: “Where is God in all of this?” “If he is so good, why doesn't he intervene?” “Does he even care?”

Origins of Life and Death

The Adam and Eve story has God breathing the “breath of life” into Adam (Gen 2:7). He was also free to eat, as much as he wanted, from all the trees in the garden, including the tree of life. He was told, however, not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or else he would die. (Gen 2:15-17)

One day, Adam's wife, Eve, was having a conversation with the serpent about God's withholding this privilege of knowledge from his people. She and Adam both ate, and…well you know the rest… (Genesis 3) God then banished them from the garden so that they could not eat from the tree of life and live forever in their broken condition. (Gen 3:22-24) The very next story is about their oldest son murdering the younger (Gen 4:1-16) and Genesis 5 repeats the refrain then he died… With Enoch and Elijah as exceptions, this pattern of life being swallowed up by death is repeated throughout the Old Testament, indeed throughout human history… (Rom 5:12-21)

It would be easy to wonder why God is so callous, so cold, so disinterested in our pain, suffering, grieving. To see what God thinks about death, we need to look to Jesus, the one who reveals God most fully. (cf., Jn 1:18; Col 1:15-20) With his being God in flesh (cf., Jn 1:1-2, 14), Jesus is the source, the author of life. (Acts 3:15-16; cf., Jn 1:4-5) Indeed, he is divine, eternal, uncreated life. (cf., Jn 14:6; 1 Jn 1:1-3)

Jesus and Lazarus

Jesus has a friend named Lazarus who becomes sick and dies. (Jn 11:1-16) Jesus goes to see him and when he arrives in Bethany, Lazarus' hometown, he learns that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Lazarus' sister Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn't have died…” Jesus explains that Lazarus will rise again, but she thinks he is talking about the resurrection in the distant future, on the “last day.” Jesus says: “I AM (ego eimi; Gk. Ἐγώ εἰμι) the resurrection and the life…” Martha is in the presence of the resurrection and the source of life. (Jn 11:17-27)

Martha tells her sister Mary that Jesus has arrived, and she gets up, runs to him, falls at his feet and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Jesus is “angry in his spirit” and goes to the tomb where he weeps or (the Greek is stronger) bursts into tears. Some standing there note that Jesus must have really loved Lazarus to be so deeply moved; others wonder why Jesus could not have prevented the death in the first place. (Jn 11:28-37)

Jesus, foreshadowing his own resurrection from the dead, requests that those standing there remove the stone that covers the tomb. Martha tries to dissuade him, saying that Lazarus was starting to stink. Jesus is not deterred and calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Lazarus comes out as a live man wrapped in burial cloths. (Jn 11:38-44)

What God Thinks About Death

So what does God think about death? Jesus was angry in his spirit and burst into tears in the presence of death. (Jn 11:33-35) Death is God's enemy. (1 Cor 15:26) Death will be ultimately destroyed. (Rev 20:13-15) There will be a resurrection (1 Corinthians 15), a new creation (Is 65:17; Rev 21:1-8), and the reappearance of the tree of life. (Rev 22:1-3) That's what God thinks about death.

For those who are hurting right now, let me leave you with a Philip Yancey quote from Finding God in Unexpected Places:

We need a renewed awareness of death, yes. But we need far more. We need a faith, in the midst of our groaning, that death is not the last word, but the next to last. What is mortal will be swallowed up by life. One day all whispers of death will fall silent. (18)