[This post is part of the Christian Origins and The Question of God series]
Two weeks ago we started working through Jesus and The Victory of God thanks to Fortress Press sending me a review copy. Last week we covered the biggest chunk of the book. Now that we’ve seen Jesus’ profile as a prophet, we can examine the conclusions N. T. Wright draws in the final full section of the book.
This section has three chapters, each intended to draw out more fully the aims and beliefs of Jesus:
- Jesus and Israel: The Meaning of Messiahship
- The Reasons for Jesus’ Crucifixion
- The Return of The King
As we’ve done so far, let’s look at each in turn.
Jesus and Israel: The Meaning of Messiahship
Here Wright unpacks what he conceives to be the meaning of “Messiah” in light of the previous groundwork into Jesus’ worldview. Wright is careful to point out that the resurrection did not prove Jesus was the Messiah in the way we might think of it. Rather, that idea was already present beforehand and the resurrection confirmed it. In other words, Wright wants to make sure we know that Jesus being the Messiah wasn’t something the early church invented after the fact that make sense of his life.
To do this, Wright surveys Jesus actions, specifically around the temple, to demonstrate that he saw himself as the Messiah and we can see it in both what Jesus said and what Jesus did. Specifically, for Wright, Jesus understanding himself to be the Messiah meant that he
believed himself to be the focal point of the people of YHWH, the returned-from-exile people, the people of the renewed covenant, the people whose sins were now forgiven. He embodied what he had announced. He was the true interpreter of Torah; the true builder of the Temple; the true spokesperson for Wisdom (538).
This in capsule form, is what Wright believes are the aims and beliefs of Jesus.
The Reasons for Jesus’ Crucifixion
Proclaiming these sorts of things as Jesus did, and with increased intensity during Passover week, led to continued conflict with the religious leaders. It was expected that Messiah would “go to Jerusalem, fight the battle against the forces of evil, and get yourself enthroned as the rightful king” (539). Wright argue that Jesus in fact did do this, but his method of fighting the forces of evil meant dying on a Roman cross.
After thoroughly examining the Jewish and Roman charges against Jesus, Wright turns to the significance of the Lords’ Supper. Here he argues that “Jesus’ meal fused this great story [the Exodus] together with another one: the story of Jesus’ own life, and of his coming death” (554). Wright then explores other symbols surrounding Jesus death as well as predictions of his coming demise.
Wright then offers an extended section on the Jewish expectation of redemption. Here things get rather eschatological, since in the Jewish understanding YHWH would act at the end of history to vindicate his people and redeem them from oppression. As Wright continues to develop the background, he hammers home the background of exile and restoration, just in case anyone missed it earlier.
The final section is actually where the title of the book comes since it details just how Jesus’ death was in fact the victory of God. Wright’s hypothesis is worth quoting in full:
I propose that Jesus, consistent with the inner logic of his entire kingdom-praxis, -story, and -symbolism, told the second-Temple story of the suffering and exile of the people of YHWH in a new form, and proceeded to act it out, finding himself called, like Ezekiel, symbolically to undergo the fate he had announced, in symbol and word, for Jerusalem as a whole (594).
In other words, the judgment Jesus announced (esp. in the apocalyptic discourses like Matthew 24 and Mark 13) he then underwent himself in place of the people of God. But this judgment wasn’t the end of the story. Rather, it was actually the subversive way in which God conquer his enemies and make the cross the symbol of the victory of God.
The Return of The King
What seemed like a total loss at the time turned out to be YHWH’s way to return to Zion as king. This is more or less the thrust of the concluding chapter. Wright summarizes the aims and beliefs of Jesus and shows how they all hang together for a single, multi-faceted purpose. He presents his summary in what I would consider a triperspectival fashion, and centers them around monotheism, election, and eschatology:
- Jesus believed that there was one God who had made the world, and who had called Israel to be his people.
- Jesus believed that Israel was the true people of the one creator God, called to be the light of the world, called to accomplish her vocation through suffering.
- Jesus believed in the coming kingdom of Israel’s God, which would bring about the real return from exile, the final defeat of evil, and the return of YHWH to Zion.
The difference though between Jesus and the average Jew of his day (who also would have believed similar things) is that Jesus also believed that all of these things would be accomplished in and through himself (652). His aims then reflected this constellation of beliefs. Interestingly, Wright wants to maintain that Jesus did not know he was God, at least in the way that you or I know that we are male or female. Rather Wright sees Jesus believing that to be true and living out the calling by faith.
I’m not sure I completely follow this line of reasoning, but after reading the book in full, I can see where Wright is coming from. He is trying to historically anchor the man Jesus in the first century Jewish world. He also wants to do justice to the things Jesus said and did in light of their Jewish background. In doing so, he is trying to avoid reading later Christological theology into the Gospel accounts.
From a historical perspective, I can see the reason for this. However, from a Christian perspective as a reader of Scripture, I think we are validated in seeing more than a simply a man who believed he was God acting as the Messiah in the Gospel accounts. I’m grateful for N. T. Wright’s painstaking reconstruction of the background context and his exegesis of the Gospels in that light. In the end though, I think we can go beyond what Wright says without contradicting his own aims in writing Jesus and The Victory of God.
But for that, we’ll have to wait until the last post next week!