How God Became King: Part Two (Adjustment)

Derek Ouellette —  March 17, 2012

(For part 1 click here)

In the next part of Wright’s new book (4-stars) he reaches for the metaphor of a sound system whose speakers are in serious need of adjustment. While reading the Gospels, the Church has tended to turn the volume down on some speakers, up on others and nearly off on yet others still. The result has been a distortion of the beauty that is meant to ring through the beautiful and true message of the Gospels.

Turn Up Israel’s Story

After assessing the problem we face, a misreading of the Gospels, Wright directs us into an adjustment of sorts by taking us through the Gospels one book at a time. He wants to draw attention to the importance of the story of Israel for the Gospel writers and reminds us that if Israel’s story is important for them, it should be for us as well. Of particular interest is Wright’s continued insistence in the Exile motif at this junction. This view that he holds to is still widely contested but for Wright it is absolutely essential to get it right and to understand that first century Jews believed they were still in Exile and that the Messiah would come and deliver them.

So to this end – in chapter four – he talks about Daniels seventy-weeks – “a jubilee of jubilee’s” if you will – and connects it directly to Matthew’s genealogy list where the Gospel writer structures Jesus’s genealogy into three fourteen generations (14 x 3 = 42) with Jesus being the last (totalling 49, a la Daniel’s seventy-weeks). I agree with my friend Drew, that when we think about this type of math it does seem that Wright is stretching things a bit, looking for any under-the-rock evidence connecting to key Exile-related numbering systems. But maybe Wright is correct here. Maybe we are just not thinking “Jewishly enough”. Perhaps for a first century Jew, Matthew’s point would not have gone unnoticed. I can’t say for sure, but Wright does present an interesting case.

Turn Down These Two Speakers

Many Christians will find Wright’s next adjustment somewhat shocking. He says that the next two speakers have been turned up way too loud, thus making the Gospel writers more subtle points nearly impossible to hear.

Yes “JESUS IS GOD!” But…

As he touched on earlier, the Church has been obsessed with proving the deity of Christ and reading the Gospels as if that (and perhaps some moral teaching stuff) is all they had to say.  Wright says, YES THERE IS A GOD, YES JESUS IS GOD (reflecting the volume of this emphasis), but the screaming of some points has drowned out the more subtle emphasis of the Gospels, not that Jesus is God (though he is), but that God has dwelt among us. Jesus did not do things to prove that he is God, he did things to show us what God is up to. It’s also been custom in the Church Tradition to read “JESUS IS GOD!” as simply an answer to Genesis 3, and to skip over, almost complete, the story of Israel. Yes Jesus is God, but he’s not just any old god, he’s Israel’s God. In fact, the main point of this whole chapter is to further what he said in Simply Jesus to remind us that the story of Jesus is more than just the story of Israel, the story of Jesus is the story of Israel’s God.

Yes, the Gospels are for the Church, But…

The second speaker that has been turned up way to loud is the one that emphasizes the Gospels as simply reflecting the life of the early Church. They have no real connection to Israel and are rather merely a reflection of the crisis’ that arose in those early days. Each Gospel writer, it is said, wrote to a specific audience to address a specific issue. They’re also read, then, as providing the early Church a proper moral compass, via the life of Christ. From the liberal point of view, this is why the Church made up a fictitious Jesus and filled his mouth with words and his hands with actions, things he said and did that he never actually said and did.

The truth is, says Wright; the Gospels are the Churches foundational documents, but primarily in the sense that they tell “the story of the launching of God’s renewed people” (emphasis original). But it’s not right to think of Jesus’ mission as one of “founding the church” because, as Wright points out, there already was a people of God.

Turned Off, Unplugged and Placed in an Attic

The first speaker, says Wright, was turned down too low and the second two were turned up way too high. But the fourth speaker, he goes on, “has often not merely been turned down, but never switched on in the first place. Maybe, to extend the metaphor, it’s even worse; maybe the speaker needs to be retrieved from its lonely spot in the attic, dusted off, put in its place, and plugged in.”

What speaker could Wright be talking about? Well, that precise speaker that speaks of the clash of the Kingdoms. Not some secondary, subsidiary, incidental clash, but an actual clash of the Empire of Caesar with the Kingdom of God. Explicit. Intentional.

For Wright there can be no doubt about it. It is especially clear, he seems to think, for anyone who embraces the notion that the true gospel is understood as the story of Jesus as fulfillment of Israel’s story. For Wright, that is a direct corollary to the notion that Jesus and his followers consciously pitted the Kingdom of God against the Empire of Caesar. (This must make Scot McKnight’s view ironic to N.T. Wright. McKnight passionately affirmed the first – that the gospel is Jesus’ story as fulfillment of Israel’s story – while rejecting the latter. )

Wright then sets about to make an impassioned case for the explicit conflict between the Kingdom of God and the Empire of Caesar in the Gospel’s:

“But, you say, surely Caesar is only mentioned once in the gospels, and there Jesus says that there’s a clear division between God and Caesar, a split of church and state, so that never the twain shall meet. Well, not so fast. We’ll get to that. It sounds suspiciously modern. Did Jesus really anticipate post-Enlightenment Western ideology so exactly? And the objection is forgetting, in any case, the wonderful passage in John 18-19 (to which also we shall return), in which Jesus, representing God’s kingdom, confronts Pilate, representing Caesar’s. They go at it together, arguing about kingdom, truth, and power until Pilate proves Jesus’s point by having him executed with the words “King of the Jews” above his head. And once we recognize that confrontation for what it is – part of the very climax of John’s astonishing gospel – there is more. Much more.” (p.135)

He goes on, in the allotted time, to build a wonderful case for the clash of the Kingdoms, not by appealing to some obscure verse here or there, but by tackling large portions of each of the Gospels and mixing them with the times and context of Israel’s own his(story). The confrontation of God and Caesar is a final corollary to the confrontation of God and Babel, or perhaps more explicitly, God and Egypt. Each case, as much as they have a spiritual element, have an explicitly physical one too.

In the end Wright’s point is that “the four gospel writers, each in his own way, tell the story of Jesus as the story of the new and ultimate exodus. What our present fourfold exercise has done is to draw out the various dimensions of that new exodus and to highlight their significance.” (p.153)

All of this delivers us through the corridors of the main arteries and directly into the heart of Wright’s book: “the explosive combination of the kingdom and the cross.” – Part 3…

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Dave Leigh

    Great work, Derek! I wish I could devour books the way you do and explain them so well! I’m a big fan of your reviews. Well… a big fan, period.