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