We’re considering 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.
In the previous post, we considered two of four “speakers” playing the music of God — or Gospel themes — that Wright says need to be re-balanced so that we more truly hear what the Gospels are saying to us.
Third Speaker — God’s renewed people
The gospels themselves were written from and to communities of Jesus’s followers, who believed that in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah this renewal [of God's people] had become actual. Israel had not been abandoned. It had not been “replaced.” It had been transformed. That, indeed, was the source of many of the early Christians’ problems (should pagan converts get circumcised and keep the food laws?) as well as the root of their self-understanding.
Jesus’s repeated call to his disciples in the Gospels is to “follow me.” And this meant much more than getting their theology right!
We should not be surprised, then — though many in the church down through the years would be very surprised to hear this — that the early Christians understood their vocation as Jesus followers to include, as a central and load-bearing element, their own suffering, misunderstanding, and likely death. … [T]he suffering of Jesus’s followers is actually, like Jesus’s own suffering, not just the inevitable accompaniment to the accomplishing of the divine purpose, but actually itself part of the means by which that purpose is to be fulfilled. …
Here, the suffering and death of Jesus’s people is not simply the dark path they must tread because of the world’s continuing hostility toward Jesus and his message. It somehow has the more positive effect of carrying forward the redemptive effect of Jesus’s own death, not by adding to it, but by sharing in it. …
All this demands, of course, a strong theology of the Holy Spirit as the one who dwells in Jesus’s followers and enables them in turn to be kingdom-bringers. Without that, the vocation would encourage either arrogance or despair.
Wright then criticizes the notion that Christians can convert the world with bombs and bullets. (And history is proving powerfully how impotent the military is when it comes to winning hearts and minds.)
Those who interpret the Revelation as about a great battle won with Blackhawk helicopters fail to realize that the hero of the story is a slain lamb.
Fourth speaker — Caesar’s world
The Gospels tell the story of Jesus’s death as the story of God’s victory over the powers, including especially Rome. And so, of course, the victor — the Kingdom — could not be a kingdom like the ones defeated.
Wright explains how, in the trial scenes preceding Jesus’s crucifixion, it is in fact the rulers who are on trial.
This enables us (looking back from the fourth speaker to the first) to understand more fully the reason why it is that Israel’s story itself comes to its climax on the cross. The story of Israel, in its own terms within the ancient Hebrew scriptures, was all along the story of the way in which the creator God was going to deal with the problem of evil. …
His victory over [the nations] will not be the victory of swords and guns and bombs, but the victory of his people and of their derivative suffering and testimony. … For God to become king, the usurping rulers must be ousted.
… The point of the resurrection is that it is the immediate result of the fact that the victory has already been won. Sin has been dealt with. The “accuser” has nothing more to say. The creator can now launch his new creation.
We have, alas, belittled the cross, imagining it merely as a mechanism for getting us off the hook of our petty naughtiness or as an example of some general benevolent truth. It is much, much more. It is the moment when, at last, the watchmen on Jerusalem’s walls see their God coming in his kingdom; the moment when the people of God are renewed so as to be, at last, the royal priesthood who will take over the world not with the love of power but with the power of love; the moment when the kingdom of God overcomes the kingdoms of the world. It is the moment when a great, old door, locked and barred since our first disobedience, swings open suddenly to reveal not just the garden, opened once more to our delight, but the coming city, the garden city that God had always planned and is now inviting us to go through the door and build with him. The dark power that stood in the way of this kingdom vision has been defeated, overthrown, rendered null and void. Its legions will still make a lot of noise and cause a lot of grief, but the ultimate victory is now assured.
Oh, wow! But I’m pretty sure I don’t live in Eden — yet. And if this isn’t Eden, what does it mean to say that the Kingdom has already come?
Wright begins to answer that question by reflecting on the combination of cross and Kingdom found in the Gospels.
First, God became king through Jesus.
First, the evangelists insist that the kingdom truly was inaugurated by Jesus in his active public career, during the time between his baptism and the cross. …
In the messianic life and death of Jesus, Israel’s God really did become king of the world.
Second, the kingdom is defined by suffering.
Second, the kingdom is radically defined in relation to Jesus’s entire agenda of suffering. …
Our “big story” is not a power story. It isn’t designed to gain money, sex, or power for ourselves, though those temptations will always lie close at hand. It is a love story — God’s loves story, operating through Jesus and then, by the Spirit, through Jesus’s followers.
Third, the Kingdom is for the world.
Third, the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated, that is implemented through his cross, is emphatically for this world. … The church belongs at the very heart of the world, to be the place of prayer and holiness at the point where the world is in pain — not to be a somewhat “religious” version of the world, on the one hand, or detached, heavenly minded enclave, on the other.
And so, what happens when we view the Gospels present the cross as the means by which God becomes king of the world?
First, … our questions have been about a “salvation” that rescues people from the world, instead of for the world. … In all four gospels, not only in John, the cross is the victory that overcomes the world.
And substitutionary atonement becomes re-defined and re-understood —
Second … Jesus, for them, is dying a penal death in place of the guilty, of guilty Israel, of guilty humankind. Though his death, the evangelists are telling their readers there will come the jubilee event, the great redemption, freedom from debts of every kind, which he had earlier announced and which is the central characteristic of the kingdom. …
To de-Judaize or dehistoricize this document is to run the risk of the caricatures that have, sadly, been all too common in some evangelical preaching (God demanding blood, eager to punish someone, somewhere, and quite ready to take out his fury on an innocent bystander who happens to be his own son).
You see, Jesus wasn’t requiting a blood-thirsty God. Rather, Jesus was God himself suffering and dying for our sins.
Third, the Gospels establish —
an agenda in which the forgiven people are put to work, addressing the evils of the world in the light of the victory of Calvary. Those who are put right with God through the cross are to be putting-right people of the world.
Wright concludes the chapter by expressing some serious doubts about the church.
Our culture, including much of our Christian culture, doesn’t want to know about this kingdom and prefers a cross that takes us safely away into another sphere.