I’ve just finished reading How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels by N. T. Wright. It’s another marvelous book by a man who just keeps turning out marvelous books.
I’m going to briefly summarize the early chapters of the book and then deal in detail with his conclusions. Unlike, say, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters, How God Became King is a slow-developing book. Wright work through the four Gospels and builds a theology of cross and Kingdom that deeply enriches our understanding of the Gospels, but he doesn’t really explain why this theology matters so much until the end of the book — and so that’s where the book becomes a truly riveting read.
But resist the temptation to skip straight to the end. You have to read the early parts of the book to really understand the conclusions.
Wright suggests that the Gospels present a balance of four major themes. He asks us to imagine listening to a symphony through four speakers. Some are too loud, some not loud enough. The music doesn’t really achieve its intended beauty until the sounds of the four speakers are probably balanced and faded.
So that you can properly follow the analogy, some music — in four movements — to enjoy while reading the rest of this and future posts of the series:
Or, if you prefer — although technically an oratorio rather than a symphony —
First Speaker — the Gospels as the Climax of the Story of Israel
Today, we tend to skip the story of Israel even when teaching a narrative view or hermeneutic. We go straight from Creation and Fall to the Crucifixion, as though Abraham and the entire story of Israel was simply a mistake by God — a good try gone awry — best forgotten. After all, Israel didn’t work out so well. It’s kind of an embarrassment. But God finally got it right with Christianity.
As the psalms and prophets sharpen up their vision of how God’s kingdom is to come to the world, there emerges a strange and initially perplexing theme: Israel itself will have to enter that darkness. The songs and oracles focus, from time to time and often mysteriously, on the idea that Israel’s own suffering will not simply be a dark passage through which the people have to pass, but actually part of the means whereby they will — perhaps despite themselves! — fulfill the original divine vocation [to bring God's rescue to the world].
Wright refers to certain psalms and, of course, the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah. He begins in Psalm 22 —
(Psa 22:1-4 ESV) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. 3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
(Psa 22:6 ESV) 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
(Psa 22:14-15 ESV) 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; 15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
(Psa 22:22-24 ESV) 22 I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: 23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! 24 For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.
(Psa 22:27-28 ESV) 27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. 28 For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.
Christians, of course, interpret this psalm of speaking of Jesus’s atoning work on the cross. But the Jews pray this psalm on their death beds, because they believe it speaks of Israel.
When we see the story of Jesus as the climax of the story of Israel, we should not be surprised to discover that the suffering of Israel and of Israel’s supreme representative is to be understood as part of the longer and larger purposes of Israel’s God, in other word, the establishment of his worldwide healing sovereignty. Conversely, we should not be surprised to discover that when this God finally claims the nations as his own possession, rescuing them from their evil ways, the means by which he does it is through the suffering of his people — or, as in the story of the gospels themselves are telling, the suffering of his people’s official, divinely appointed representative.
Thus, Wright concludes, the Gospels draw together the themes of cross and kingdom. There can’t be one without the other. In other words, the kingdom comes by means of the cross because it’s through suffering that Jesus becomes king.
It is, of course, a very different kind of kingship that requires a cross for a coronation. Indeed, it re-defines “king” altogether.
Second speaker — Jesus is Messiah
Wright takes us to —
(Dan 7:13-14 ESV) 13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
(Dan 7:17-18 ESV) 17 ‘These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.’
(Dan 7:21-22 ESV) 21 As I looked, this horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them, 22 until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom.
(Dan 7:26-27 ESV) 26 But the court shall sit in judgment, and his dominion shall be taken away, to be consumed and destroyed to the end. 27 And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’
Daniel speaks interchangeably of the “son of man” and “the saints of the Most High.” Is he speaking of the Messiah or Israel? or both?
The same is true of the concluding chapters of Isaiah. At times, the “servant” is clearly the nation of Israel and at times the “servant” is an individual, indeed, the Messiah.
Thus, Wright concludes,
In the first century, … if someone were evoke the theme of “the coming of the son of man,” people would naturally hear three things. First, this would be about representation: “the son of man,” or “one like a son of man,” could of course refer to a single human being, but within the implicit narrative of Daniel 7 that was being evoked the human being would be seen as a literary or apocalyptic symbol standing for “the people of the holy ones of the Most High.” Second, it would be about vindication: the scene being evoked is focused on the vindication of Israel over the nations that had hitherto been oppressing it. It is, quite explicitly, a courtroom scene, in which the judge finds in favor of one party and against the other. Third, it would be about kingdom: with increasing volume as the chapter progresses, Israel (or the righteous within Israel) will end up ruling the world on God’s behalf. This would be how God’s kingdom, his sovereignty over the world, would be established.
Thus, God’s people are rescued, not to fly off to another dimension, but to be enthroned. There are, in Daniel 7, “thrones.” One is for the Ancient of Days and another is for the Son of Man — which is both the Messiah and the saints, as he is a representative of the saints.
Jesus suffered and died in order to establish a theocracy — but a different kind of theocracy in which the king is a servant.
God himself will come to the place of pain and horror, of suffering and even death, so that somehow he can take it upon himself and thereby set up his new style theocracy at last. The evangelists tell the story of Jesus in such a way that this combination of Israel’s vocation and the divine purpose come together perfectly into one. This, I suggest, is the reality behind the later abstractions of “humanity” and “divinity.” The humanity is the humanity of Israel, the divinity is the divinity of Israel’s God.
How better to unite God and man than through Jesus, who is both?