Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  October 30, 2011

Simply Jesus: Who He Was, What He Did, Why It Matters
By N.T. Wright
4 Stars (out of 5)

I’ve read many books on the gospel recently and what makes this one unique is that it is a presentation of the gospel, and explanation of the gospel, without the word “gospel” in the title. It’s a book about the historical Jesus, and that’s just the point. It’s not a book about justification by faith, it’s not a book about the Roman’s Road to Salvation, it is a book about Jesus Messiah, and that is what makes it a book about the gospel.

Simply Jesus – a book with virtually no footnotes – is the sum of N.T. Wright’s mind on Jesus, who he was, what he did and why it matters, written with a broad evangelical audience in mind. It opens up by stating fairly early on a problem which Wright means to counter. He says that the church has:

“reduced the kingdom of God to private piety, the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience, and Easter itself to a happy, escapist ending after a sad, dark tale. Piety, conscience, and ultimate happiness are important, but not nearly as important as Jesus himself.” (p.5)

Playing off of the “Perfect Storm” metaphor, the perfect storm which the Gospels tell about is the collision of the Western winds of empire, “that was the gale: the first element in the perfect storm at whose centre Jesus of Nazareth found himself”, colliding with the Eastern winds of “the story of Israel as Jesus’ contemporaries perceived it and believed themselves to be living in it” which together collided with the third element of the perfect storm, the hurricane, which is God himself who is the one unpredictable element of the Jewish story (on Palm Sunday, 2011, Wright delivered this main premise in a sermon at the University Chapel of St Salvator, St Andrews).

N.T. Wright says, “only when we reflect on that combination [empire, Israel and the Kingdom of God] do we begin to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death.” (p.39)

Some of the main points in this book are:

  • The message of the gospel is primarily a message about the kingdom of God, Jesus’ primary message, not just in words but in his deeds also, was that – to use Wright’s terminology – “God is in charge now, and this is what it looks like”.
  • This message was subversive and threatening to the political powers of the first century, “announcing that God was becoming king, they [Roman and Jewish authorities] would smell trouble at once” (p.69). “The book of Daniel [which Jesus alluded to in his own actions and message] was designed to be subversive, to act as ‘resistance literature’ to help Jews as they face persecution. Jesus seems to have designed his parables a bit like that too.” (p.92)
  • This was a message about “creation and covenant”: that the creator God – Israel’ God – was finally delivering on his covenant promise by arriving to set up his kingdom (in an unpredictable way of course)
  • The great Christian creeds – for all of their good – did us a terrible disservice. They read the Gospels in a way that suggested that their primary purpose was to prove the divinity of Jesus. This had the adverse effect of suppressing the primary message of Jesus – not just his death and resurrection, but his life and actions and what they meant – which was all about God’s kingdom.
  • Throughout this book we see the usual emphasis of the exodus and exile motifs; “When he was talking about God taking charge, he was talking about a new Exodus (p.66)
  • Jesus was the embodiment of the Temple, “Jesus seems to be claiming that God is doing, up close and personal through him, something that you’d normally expect to happen at the Temple. And the Temple – the successor to the tabernacle in the desert – was, as we saw, the place where heaven and earth met.” (p.79)
  • Jesus is compared in his context to other would-be kings of Israel at that time (in the chapter titled “The Kingdom Present and Future”). In this context Jesus is shown to believe that “God’s kingdom was already a present reality and that it would be settled by a great event that would shortly happen.” (p.117)
  • Of particular interest in this book is how N.T. Wright does not shy away from Jesus’ regular workings of miracles or his spiritual warfare. “Jesus defined the great coming battle, so that it would no longer be a military battle of us against them” (p.128) because “the battle Jesus was fighting was against the satan” (p.120). In this discussion he offers this much needed advice today: “As C.S. Lewis points out in the introduction to his famous Screwtape Letters, the modern world divides into those who are obsessed with demonic powers and those who mock them as outdated rubbish. Neither approach, Lewis insists, does justice to the reality. I’m with Lewis on this.” (p.121)
  • Wright shows how Jesus redefined where God dwells in an interesting discussion on “Space, Time, and Matter”, and shows how all three converge on his very being. (p.132 ff.)
  • The point of Jesus’ words, “It is finished” in John 19:30 is not to say that he has now rescued people from creation, rather it was to echo God’s sentiments at the end of day six of the creation account so as to mean, by “it is finished” that creation itself is rescued.
  • The meaning of Easter is obvious: “This is the real beginning of the Kingdom”.
  • Wright – not wanting to be accused of downplaying any significant parts of the Jesus Story – spends some time on what the ascension means (which is something Protestants are good at ignoring and the Orthodox are good at reminding us of that fact). “His ascension tells us that he is now running [the world]” (p.195). It is interesting how Luke tells the story of the ascension itself in a way as to be politically charged and explicitly anti-imperial (p.197).
  • Wright also – of course – turns to a discussion on the second coming, and one of the first thing he says is: “don’t believe everything you read about the Rapture. In fact, don’t believe most of what you read about the Rapture.” (p.199) What Wright does not do however is outline a second coming theory at all.
  • To round things out Wright answers the “now what?” question. Jesus is King, so what? Well, everything actually. In this final section he talks about what it means to evangelize. Why it matters to highlight Jesus’ life in our teaching and thinking about our faith. Our goal is not to get people to ask Jesus into their heart (a concept foreign to the scriptures), but to carry on Jesus’ exact message! That is, Jesus’ message – the gospel – was about the kingdom of God, and that is supposed to be our message too!
  • We are delegates. This is an important part to understanding our vocation. In Genesis the means by which God chose to would rule the world was through humans, and according to Wright, that hasn’t changed. In fact, that is still the same today. When we ask in what way God wants to run the world the answer is “the delegation of God’s authority, of Jesus’ authority, to human beings”. (p.212).

If you ask me if this book is worth is, my answer: of course!

The quotable Wright:

“The disciples wanted a kingdom without a cross. Many would-be “orthodox” or “conservative” Christians in our world have wanted a cross without a kingdom, an abstract “atonement” that would have nothing to do with this world except to provide the means of escaping it.” ~ p.173.

“When he wanted fully to explain what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory. He didn’t even give them a set of scriptural texts. He gave them a meal” ~ p.180

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Derek Ouellette

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

    Not sure I get the final quote: “what his forthcoming each was all about”?? Is this correct?

    • Derek Ouellette

      If you did that would be a miracle. HA! I fixed. I confess that my brain was mushing out by the end of this review and I got lazy in that rather than taking the time to organize those points into well thought out sentences, I left them as were. Mea culpa!

      • Dave

        Thanks. Much better!

  • Sam

    Derek thank you for your summation on “Simply Jesus”
    I have been studying N.T. Wright over the last couple of years, and as one who has been entrench in reform theology; the question that keeps nagging me; how to I communicate Jesus and His kingdom to my pagan community? A gospel that departs from the reform focus on ‘justification by faith’ (for example ‘the roman road’). In other words how do you articulate ‘Simply Jesus’ in place of the traditional view of the gospel?

    • Derek Ouellette

      Sam, you and I are much in the same boat. It’s a question I’ve struggle with as of late and one I hope to take up more fully in my forthcoming ebook. In short, Wright says that our mission is to preach the “Kingdom of God” with the goal of getting people to change their allegiance from the kingdom of Darkness to the kingdom of Light. When the New Testament witnesses preached the gospel they did so by pointing to Jesus “Messiah” or the “Lord” Jesus (or a combination of those two). Either way you have a message of Jesus’ “in-charge-ness” or, to word it as Jesus did, “the Kingdom of God has come upon you”. But declaring this “out of the blue” (as it were) would make no sense to people who don’t think anything is wrong, don’t believe they are aligned with the kingdom of darkness and in fact don’t think they themselves have a spiritual issue. So to explain “Jesus Messiah” is to first live in a way that shows what it means to be subject to his rulership, and then to explain Jesus’ own backstory – from creation to resurrection – buy different as the occasion calls for. I say this because when Paul presented the “gospel” in Acts 17 two things are mysteriously absent in his presentation: 1) no mention of Israel as the backstory of Jesus (which tells my that it is not always necessary to take that route) and – oddly enough – 2) there is no mention of the cross or of personal sin (only the sin of idolatry, which is Paul’s way of saying “here is humanity’s real problem”). What is here that is often missing in our presentations of the gospel is an emphasis on the resurrection, which connects the inauguration of the Kingdom of God with New Creation. Paul sees that as a part of his gospel presentation.

      I Don’t know if that answered your question to your satisfaction, but look for my both coming e-book (perhaps in January 2012) titled, The Justification of N.T. Wright where I explore this question in more detail.

      • Sam

        Thank you Derek, your response shed some light in areas that I have not consider, I will walk in those spaces in hopes that I can craft a message that will best express that Jesus is Lord of the present and “you” can enter into that reality.
        You are absolutely right about the need to put great emphases on the resurrection. One of the “truths” that I glean from Wight’s writing has been his emphases on the fact that the resurrection ingurated the beginning of renewing both heaven and earth and He has removed the Cesaers of this earth. The kingdom is here in the ” now “; the powers of darkness has been defeated. This has transform my thinking on multiable levels. As a result I have greater confidence in faith and to take it to the streets.
        I am grateful for your blog, I will eagerly wait for your e-book and will frequent this site often. Sam


        • Derek Ouellette

          Thank’s very much Sam!

        • Adam Shields

          Their theology is not completely the same, but I think Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel spends more time talking about what a presentation of the gospel of Jesus as King would look like. I think it is a helpful combo book with Simply Jesus

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  • Tran Viet

    after reading this book, I have not seen anything new yet. I think the author just echos what have said in a different perspective.

  • Clive Clifton

    I am going to purchase Tom’s book from my local Christian book shop which is run by unpaid volunteers, hopefully I will then be able to join the debate.
    However, I will share what I believe. I am a member of the Church of England and I have found it to be a welcoming Church with no rules that restricts my walk with God. The C of E is not what people would call a Free Church but after visiting several of the so called Free Churches over the years I think mine is the most free of them all. I have learnt so much about God the Father and The Son and the Holy Spirit. I just love His Word the Holy Bible and have never found it complicated from beginning to end, obviously I have needed explanation of what was happening and have found going to conferences and listening to numerous Christian speakers especially at the New Wine summer events, has put flesh on the bones a bit like the vision Ezekiel had of a valley laden with dry bones ch 37 v 3 to 10. I believed but could only see dry bones and over the years God has put flesh on the rest of the body, eventually He breathed His Holy Spirit into me.
    I can say the Creed without flinching because it tells the truth but it does not bind me into do’s and don’ts.
    I simply follow Jesus way after all He did say I AM The Way The Truth and The Life, no one can come to God The Father except through His way.
    What is This way, Believing that the man Jesus was, is and is to come, He always was with the father before time and always will be.
    His teachings are the Way to live. The things I hold on to are the two commandments that fold everything together, Love God totally and equally into that love your neighbor as you love yourself, there are NO greater commandments than these, in these are ALL the laws and the prophets.
    Jesus showed us how to live when on the Thursday before Good Friday He humbled Himself by stripping off his top raiment, tied a towel around His waist and proceeded to wash the disciples smelly disgusting feet. This job was done by the lowest of the low the slaves, who were not even noticed never mind thanked. After this he said Love one another as I have loved you. We must always prefer the other person and treat him as more important than ourselves. Do these things and your life will be one of total service to God. Matthew 25 V 35 He says “I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick and in prison”. In verse 40 he says “I tell you The Truth, when you did it for one of the least of these My brothers and sisters you were doing it to Me”.
    The rest is up for debate, which I enjoy.
    people ask me “do I have to go to Church to be a Christian” the answer is no but if I hadn’t I would not be where I am today, and would not have had all the love, fellowship and joy that I still have now 30 years on. Church is not easy as it’s absolutely full of heretics, hypocrites, bullies, thieves, liars, adulterers, homosexuals, non-believers, etc but they are my brothers and sisters, and like me are on a journey.
    Church should be a safe place for all, enabling them to draw closer to God and change.
    I’m not their master, there is only one master and He loves all seekers. Those who are not seekers will eventually leave as they will soon get bored with us fanatics. When others call me a fanatic I say Amen because it means single minded, radical and a devotee, thats how I am about God. If you don’t agree with me, I won’t kill you I will just hug you and if your very lucky I will give you a kiss.
    Clive the zealot.