Yesterday, N.T. Wright rounded out the January Series at Calvin College by proving he doesn’t mind saying things that would make most people squirm.
The theme of his talk was “Why we’ve all misunderstood the gospels.” For him, the gospels are, at their core, a proclamation of theocracy, the news that God has actually become king.
Most of us don’t care for the word theocracy, and for good reason. You only have to pick up a history book (or visit Wikipedia) to see what happened last time the church held that kind of power. And before you think, Thank God that’s all in the past, take a look at the movement known as “Christian reconstructionism” or “dominionism” in America (as represented by groups like WallBuilders). Or the controversial anti-homosexual bill still being considered by Uganda’s parliament.
But Wright means something different by theocracy. He unpacks this by identifying four key themes from the gospels, and he says most of us have only heard two of them.
He starts with one of the overlooked themes: Jesus as the climax and fulfillment of Israel’s story.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s also a major theme of Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel. (No wonder these guys endorsed one another’s books.)
All four gospels connect Jesus to the Old Testament narrative in their own way. For example, Matthew presents Jesus as leading a new exodus. Luke connects Jesus to God’s covenant with Abraham.
Many Christians connect the Old Testament story to Jesus only insofar as the OT prophets predicted something, which Jesus then fulfilled, thus proving the accuracy of the Bible. That’s all well and good, says Wright, but the bigger point is that “the ancient story of God and God’s people hasn’t come to a stop.” The story that Christians regard as our starting point is also the continuation of Israel’s story. Israel’s story is our story.
Most Christians are more familiar with Wright’s second theme: the story of Jesus as the story of God incarnate. Belief in Jesus’ divinity is embedded in our creeds, and most Christians (Wright included…and myself, for that matter) would agree the story doesn’t make sense without it.
But Wright insists we’re emphasizing the wrong note. The gospels aren’t so much concerned with making the point that Jesus is God (rather, this seems to be assumed), but with how Jesus, being divine, reveals the next chapter of God’s story.
God has a story?
Yup, says N.T. Wright.
That story reached its low point in the story of Israel, when God became fed up and departed the temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 10). From then on, God is missing in action. He is notable mainly for his absence. The temple liturgy becomes empty ritual because the priests are kneeling before an empty throne (so to speak).
But the gospels announce that God has come back in the person of Jesus. This is why Mark begins his story with God’s spirit — the same one that departed the temple centuries before — descending on Jesus like a dove. It’s why John opens with, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [literally tabernacled or, as Wright says, pitched his tent] among us.”
According to Wright, Jesus shows who he is “not by striding around, being divine all over the place” (BEST quote of the afternoon), but by acting out the part of the ancient covenant God — the God who has come back to be king.
Third, many Christians read the gospels as the story of how Jesus founded the church. To which Wright responds, “Jesus wasn’t founding a church, because the people of God had been going ever since Abraham.” (Second best quote of the day.)
Again, if we listen to the first theme (Jesus as the resolution of Israel’s story), we see that Jesus isn’t forming a new people so much as he’s creating a whole new identity for God’s people. And if we pay attention to Israel’s story, we realize this was the plan all along, because God’s promise to Abraham included all nations of the world.
The redemptive agenda is, as Wright puts it, “an agenda for a renewed humanity and for a renewing humanity through which God renews the world.”
Finally, there’s the fourth (and generally ignored) theme: the story of how Israel’s god defeated the powers of the world.
It’s no accident Luke mentions Caesar Augustus near the beginning of his story.
It’s no coincidence Matthew depicts a hapless Herod (Israel’s “king,” installed by Rome), desperately trying to kill the infant Jesus, whom he regards as a threat to his rule.
It wasn’t just to prove Jesus’ divinity that Mark has the centurion at the cross confess that Jesus was “the son of God” even though (as Wright points out) every coin in his pocket said otherwise. (Roman coins from that time bore the image of Caesar, along with the inscription “son of God.”)
And it’s no accident that John features a dramatic confrontation between Pilate, Caesar’s authorized representative, and Jesus, God’s authorized representative — debating their competing notions of truth, power, and kingdom.
God is becoming king, Wright says, but crucially:
The gospels demonstrate not only an alternative king, but an alternative mode of kingdom. We’re going to do ‘power’ in another way.
God reveals how he’s becoming king in the Sermon on the Mount:
God doesn’t send in the tanks; he sends in the meek, the brokenhearted. . . . God doesn’t bring about his kingdom with superior power of the same kind, but with another kind of power altogether.
In other words:
Kingdom and cross cannot be separated. The kingdom is launched in Jesus’ life and ministry, but established in his death and resurrection. The cross is the victory of the kingdom-bringer.
Which means that we are “called to be kingdom people AND cross people.” You can’t have one without the other.
The prophet Isaiah anticipated both a triumphant king returning in power AND a suffering servant, sacrificing himself for his people. Because we read about one in Isaiah 52 and the other in Isaiah 53, we tend to think of them as separate categories. But the chapter numbers are an artificial division, in this case obscuring the fact that Isaiah 52 and 53 are part of one poem. (Which, incidentally, is why we should read the Bible without chapter and verse numbers.) The triumphant king and the suffering servant are one and the same.
Theocracy, as seen through the gospels, isn’t about self-righteous Christians competing for power, working the system, and imposing their will on others. It’s about creating an altogether different system where the meek inherit the earth, the hungry are fed, and broken hearts are mended.
Wright’s next book, How God Became King, releases in March.