N.T. Wright, How God Became King (part 1)

N.T. Wright is Chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He received a PhD from Oxford in 1980.

N.T. Wright talks about themes in his book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.

Edited transcript

Gary Deddo: Professor Wright, thank you for taking some time out here at Saint Andrews [Scotland] this morning and joining us for the You’re Included interview series of Grace Communion International.

NTW: Good to be with you.

Wright screenshot2GD: I like to spend some time considering themes that you address in your recent publication, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospel. At the outset of your book, you tell the reader that you think there’s a serious problem at the heart of the Christian faith and practice as you’ve experienced it. You say your increasing impression is that most of the Western Christian tradition has forgotten what the four Gospels are really all about. That’s provocative. Could you elaborate on that statement and tell us what we have forgotten?

NTW: I’ve often wondered since writing that whether I was overstating it, but looking around and listening and attending church and talking with friends, I want to stick to it. At the heart of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is this enormous claim that something actually happened there at the beginning of the first century through the work and death and resurrection of Jesus, something happened which has transformed the world.

We have tended to slide that downhill into being Jesus simply providing a system of salvation which enables us later to leave the world or to escape the world in some way, either by our spirituality in the present or by a salvation which will take us entirely away from the world in the future. Whereas the four Gospel writers, living as they did within the world of second-temple Judaism, believed that through Jesus, the one God of Israel, the creator of the world, had acted to reclaim the world, to redeem the world, to rescue the world, not to enable people to leave it behind.

This idea is scary for most people in the Western world, because for the last 200 years, Western thought in general and Christianity along with that has tended to think in terms of splitting apart things that are “worldly” (whether we call them political or social or whatever) and then “religious” (or spiritual things) over there. So we have read the Gospels through a grid of interpretation which is systematically and at every point denying one of the main things that the Gospels are trying to affirm. I don’t know how to say that except by doing it rather sharply: I think we’ve all been getting it wrong.

GD: Could you recall for us some passages in the New Testament that point out the emphasis or the importance of Jesus and the kingdom and his kingship?

NTW: A passage which many Western Christians know well (because they may hear it read in church at Christmas time and so on) is the beginning of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

What John is doing in that passage — hooking up with what he does in his story of Jesus’ resurrection – is to tell the story of Jesus as the story of a new Genesis, a new beginning. Genesis is all about the creation and about God’s beautiful world, and the story John tells in his Gospel from begin­ning to end is not about Jesus telling people to leave the world behind and go somewhere else, but a story about how in and through Jesus, the one God of creation is rescuing creation and enabling his people to live as new-creation people. That’s a way of telling the story which I never heard when I was growing up in church and when I was being taught as a student. We need to recapture it.

This comes to a climax in John’s Gospel in that extraordinary scene in chapters 18 and 19 – when Jesus confronts Pontius Pilate — here we have the kingdom of God squaring off against the kingdom of Caesar. But it isn’t Jesus saying, “Well, all this kingdom stuff is a waste of time.” It’s Jesus and Pilate arguing about different visions of kingdom, truth and power.

We see that also in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, in chapter 2, where Luke spends some time setting up the chronology in terms of the Roman emperor of that time, Augustus Caesar, who was emperor when Jesus was born. Luke describes that in detail, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Augustus Caesar wanted to have a census so he could get more tax and do all that stuff which was standard practice at that time.

Anyone living at that time and a Jew living at that time would know this story – of somebody being born in the royal house of David in Bethlehem precisely the moment when the Roman empire is flexing its muscles – is bound to lead to a sense of, “Which kingdom are we going to go with, then?” The story ends for Luke, not at the end of Luke’s Gospel but the end of Acts, with Paul announcing God as King and Jesus as Lord in Rome openly and unhindered, and Luke says to us, “You do the math, you figure out what’s going on here.”

One third example: In Mark 10, when James and John say they want to sit one at Jesus’ right and one at his left, Jesus explains, not only do they not have a clue what they’re talking about, but that there are two different ways of doing power. The rulers of the nations, he says, boss people about and bully them and so on. He says, “We’re not going to do it like that – we’re going to do it the other way – by the power of servanthood. The Son of Man didn’t come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

In other words, the gospel isn’t about an other-worldly dream, it’s about a different way of doing stuff in and for this world – because it’s God’s world and God loves it and has come to rescue it. One of the most famous verses in Scripture, John 3:16, doesn’t say: God so hated the world that he sent his Son. God so loved the world, and that’s the whole purpose – God is re-claiming his rights as Creator over the whole world.

GD: What about Jesus’ parables of the kingdom? Do some of those point in the same direction?

NTW: The parables of the kingdom are fascinating because at one level, they are illustrations, just like you or I might toss into a sermon or a talk, an illustration happens to occur to us while we’re on the way to church or whatever. But they’re much more than that.

Those parables of seed and growth play back in the minds of Jesus’ hearers (and we have to remember that most of them, the main texts they had in their minds were the Old Testament Scriptures). They play back particularly through the prophetic images about God sowing his people, about God sowing Israel, making it a fruitful place, etc. But they play all the way back to Genesis 1 again, where you get the lavish account of God creating plants with seed in them bearing fruit and so on.

The idea of plants coming up and bearing fruit is a new-creation idea, a new-Israel idea. If you track it through Isaiah and Jeremiah, it’s a return from exile idea – these all nest together and fit together, so that though what Jesus is saying is a direct challenge to these people who are listening to him now, that challenge resonates with a sense that this kingdom vision is about God doing the new thing which is going with the grain of the original creation but now making it much more fruitful.

You see this in the miracle stories when Jesus multiplies loaves and fishes. It isn’t that he says, “Forget eating loaves and fishes entirely, I got something totally different.” These are signs that the God of creation is doing new things, he’s on the move in a new way.

GD: I think what you are bringing out here is that we can’t fully appreciate what the New Testament means until we read about its connections to the Old Testament. Could you say a little more about that need to be familiar with Old Testament and its background?

NTW: If one doesn’t know the Old Testament, one doesn’t have a chance of understanding the New, because again and again, and you see this in the Gospels, the way they told a story is not just with the odd glance over their shoulder – that something interesting happened back there and this is an odd reference. Like I might drop a reference to a Shakespeare play into a speech or a book I was writing or something that is just for decoration. Some people think the Old Testament is just a back decoration. It’s much, much more than that.

The Old Testament – whether we read it in the English translations from Genesis to Malachi or as you do in the Hebrew from Genesis to Chronicles (they ordered the books differently) – whichever way you do it, it’s telling a story, and the story is going somewhere, and it stops short. The end of Chronicles, the end of Malachi, it’s pointing ahead, it’s as though we’ve got a 12-chapter novel and we’ve got nine or ten of those chapters, or maybe nine and a half. Or as I’ve sometimes said, take a Shakespeare play, it’s as though we’ve got three acts of the play, and we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen in the 4th act, when it all really works out.

The Gospels are written very cleverly – quite different, all four, each one in its own way is taking that Old Testament narrative and saying, the story that I am telling you, the story about Jesus, is where that story was going. It doesn’t look like what you were expecting, but this is where it all had to go.

It is, in modern terms, this-worldly – the Jewish story is about God prom­ising Abraham a family and a land, and then all the bad things that happen when they get it wrong, messed it up and all the rest. In the New Testament the family gets expanded so that it includes people of all ethnic backgrounds, not just the Jewish people. The land gets expanded, as you see in the Acts of the Apostles, so it’s now the whole world.

That sense of a narrative which suddenly does this new thing is powerful in the Gospels. I suspect that 90 percent of Christians in today’s world haven’t thought that, let alone tried to read the text in that way.

GD: So Jesus is fulfilling the expectations and hopes of Israel in many ways. Sometimes it seems we’ve too narrowly construed the kind of fulfillment that Jesus is bringing about. It has kingdom dimensions and time and space, and “on earth” dimensions.

NTW: Yes, and of all the Scriptures that the people of Israel in Jesus’ day would know, what would they know most? Possibly the Psalms. Think for instance of the Psalms in the 90s – “The Lord is King and has put on his glorious apparel and he is taking his power and reigning” and “the Lord is King let the earth be glad thereof.” You get those wonderful psalms like 96 and 98, which say that the mountains and hills and the sheep in the field are all going to sing for joy because Yahweh is coming to be king.

Perhaps most decisive of all, in Isaiah 52, “How lovely in the mountains are the ones who say to Zion, your God reigns” – that is, your God is becoming King. How does that come about? We go from the end of Isaiah 52 into Isaiah 53, which is an extraordinary picture of the suffering servant, who is the obedient representative of Israel taking the weight of sin and sorrow upon himself. Then in Isaiah 54, there is new covenant; in Isaiah 55 there is new creation. It’s an extraordinary sequence, and I think that Jesus and the Gospel writers have that prophetic sequence in mind: The kingdom of God through the work of the servant, resulting in the total renewal of covenant in creation.

GD: How would their understanding of Jesus as Son of David or Messiah fill out and inform what we hear Jesus saying in the Gospels?

NTW: The word Messiah (or Christ, which is just a re-translation) is often misunderstood, not least by Christians who have short-circuited the argument over the last two or three hundred years, particularly the question that Western cultures ask is, Is Jesus divine? People have taken the word “Christ” and assumed that it meant divine. Then it comes as a shock to people when they’re told, “It means Messiah, and as far as we know, first-century Jews didn’t imagine that the Messiah would be in any sense divine.”

We see in the New Testament a swirling mass of different Jewish ideas. There was no one identikit picture of what the Messiah would look like. Jesus takes the variegated expectations of the time and remolds them around himself. We can see other figures doing the same thing in the same period. Jesus draws those Messianic expectations (which are fuzzy and ill-formed) onto himself, and through his own work, he does this stuff in a new way, so he doesn’t appear like the “warrior messiah” that some were imagining. He doesn’t appear to be wanting to rebuild the temple, as some people thought the Messiah ought to do. (That’s why the Herod family were trying to legitimate themselves as kings of the Jews, by doing stuff with the temple.) Jesus, on the contrary, seems to be attacking the temple and warning that it is under threat of immanent destruction and so on.

But his followers see that he is obedient to a deeper Messianic vision rooted in Israel’s Scriptures, one which is producing an extraordinarily different sort of messianic victory. Instead of beating the pagans in an old-fashioned military battle, he is beating the darkest enemy of all, death, which is caused by human rebellion and sin. Jesus is redefining the messianic agenda around a deeper vision, his understanding of what the real problem is – which has to be dealt with by the King when he comes.

Many Jews looked at Jesus (in his lifetime and when Paul was preaching about him) and said, “That’s not the sort of messiah we were expecting, thank you very much.” But the early Christians nevertheless said, “The resurrection of Jesus is the declaration by the living God that he really is the Messiah, and hence this is the redemption you were expecting, even if it doesn’t look like you thought it would at that time.”

GD: Another important element needed to follow the Gospel writers’ story regards the nature of this kingdom and Jesus’ redefinition of it. Jesus’ kingship relates to the idea of righteousness – the righteous kingdom (and God’s righteousness is a theme in both the Old Testament and the New Testament). How would you define biblical righteousness (because we can think of that in purely spiritual or moralistic ways)? How does that notion of righteousness relate to Jesus being King in the kingdom of God?

NTW: Part of our difficulty with the word righteousness and its cognates – righteous and justify, etc., which is the same root in the Greek or Hebrew – is that we don’t have one English word or set of words which map directly onto the Hebrew words or the Greek words that we find in the Old or the New Testament. This is a common problem with many words, but this is one of the big ones.

The Hebrew word tsedaḳah, the word we normally translate as righteousness, is like a large ocean-going freight vessel which carries a lot of freight from different bits of Israel’s Scriptures and Israel’s history. In contemporary English, we don’t have any vessel big enough to carry all that freight. So when we say “righteousness,” we have to educate ourselves to think back into what that word would carry.

It’s complicated, because many of the Jews of Jesus’ day would read the Septuagint, the Greek translation, but the Greek word dikiosyne carries some of the content that tsedaḳah would, but for a Greek speaker, it would also carry quite a lot of Plato, who had written about dikiosyne as justice. It is hugely complicated in the New Testament, and the word moves this way and that, from writer to writer. The center of it is something to do with God’s righteousness, something to do with God’s faithfulness to his people, to the relationship he’s established with his people, which we call the covenant relationship. But because God’s intention for his people is that they would be the genuine humans, the real deal, then the word has (inescapably) what we call an ethical content as well. They wouldn’t have dissociated covenant from ethics – those two go together. God says, “if you are my people, then this is what it’s going to look like.”

So we separate these things out and ask, is this a status, is it behavior, is it spirituality? The answer: it’s all of those but more. When you learn to think in the way that the Psalms do, talking about Yahweh’s righteousness, or again, Isaiah 40-55, the passage is full of talk about the fact that Yahweh is righteous, so you may be in exile now, but you can trust him, because he is righteous, he will restore you, he will rescue you, he will bring you back. But then you have to be a people who not only embody but reflect that righteous quality.

The New Testament is drawing cheerfully on all of that as part of this overall picture that if God is becoming King, then that is both a revelation of his faithfulness to creation and covenant, and a summons to all those whom he is calling to live as part of that, to be God’s righteous people — both as the status they are given by God’s grace and then, as Paul says in Romans 6, in the way they behave.

Part of our problem in the last two, three centuries in the Western world is that we have separated status and behavior in a way that the New Testament writers wouldn’t have, so that we want to emphasize the one or the other, but it’s difficult to do both at the same time. The New Testament doesn’t seem to suffer from our inhibitions at that point.

GD: Sometimes the notion of righteousness is related to the notion of justice (in our Western parlance anyway). Righteousness is often understood as rewarding the good and punishing the evil. God’s righteousness would be fulfilled, even if that’s all God accomplished, that he rewarded the good and punished the evil. It seems to me you’re talking about something more than that.

NTW: Yes. When I think about the way the Bible treats the righteousness of God, I think of a passage like Daniel 9 – the great prayer of Daniel in exile, where he says, “We’ve been here a long time, and we know why this happened, it’s because you [God] are righteous.” How does that work? It’s because we were in covenant, we broke the covenant, so because you are righteous, you were obliged to punish us. Go to Deuter­onomy 27, 28 — God was obliged to punish his rebellious people by sending them into exile.

Then Daniel says, “However, because you are righteous, now is the time for you to rescue us and bring us back.” In other words, the covenant was not simply a quid pro quo: “you behave like this, this happens; you behave like that, that happens.” The covenant was God setting up the family of Abraham as the family through whom he was going to rescue the whole world. (That’s how Paul expounds the Abrahamic story in Romans 4 or Galatians 3, for instance.) God knew from the beginning when he chose Abraham, that this family was going to mess up. These people were themselves part of the problem as well as part of the solution.

So the story gets complicated, morally, theologically – but when it all comes into land in the New Testament, we find that the notion of God being like a just judge who punishes the evil and rewards the good is not totally removed, but we go beyond that into the extraordinary idea that God’s righteousness is about his grace and mercy — and his over-flowing faithfulness to a purpose, which is to say, “The whole world has messed up, but I love you so much that I’m going to take that on to myself, and deal with it, so that there can be new creation, forgiveness, and new life for anyone who is hearing this message and is able to respond.”

GD: So the idea of new creation and restoration is intrinsically related to righteousness. [NTW: Absolutely.] If God merely stopped short of that and didn’t provide us renewal, then that would be a different notion. But because he’s righteous, he renews, he restores, recreates…

NTW: One of the fascinating things which the New Testament holds together (which we often manage not to) is the dealing with evil on the cross, making the way therefore for new life to happen. Because it’s evil which is stopping the new life happening (as we all know in ourselves, that when we mess up, when we sin, when we rebel, that stuff which ought to be flourishing in our lives then doesn’t). That happens cosmically, and God takes the weight of that evil upon himself in the person of Jesus, and that’s what the cross is all about.

But if it just stops there…. (Some Western piety has done that — think of the great work of Johann Sebastian Bach, The Matthew Passion, The John Passion — we almost have a theory of salvation stopping with the cross. Bach didn’t have a very big theology of the resurrection — interesting, in his Lutheran world.) Sometimes, we’ve allowed ourselves to think you can tell the story with the resurrection as kind of a nice happy ending, as an afterthought. But the point is, now that sin has been dealt with, new creation can begin. That’s where the kingdom of God comes in.

GD: In another of your books, you talked about God’s commitment to “putting things to rights.”

NTW: Yes. I think is a British-ism, that we talk about putting things to rights. If my bicycle has been messed up because of an accident, I take it to the shop and they will put it to rights — they will fix it. Or if my radio is on the blink, then somebody will fiddle inside, and we say, he’ll put it to rights. I think in America you often say, will put it right, we’ll make it right.

I like the phrase “put it to rights” because that has a little echo of “rights” as in the sense of justice, and the way I’ve often put it is (this relates to the doctrine of justification in Paul) that God’s eventual aim is to put the whole world to rights. It’s to sort the whole world out. That’s in the Psalms, Isaiah, Genesis, Deuteronomy, etc.

Part of the means whereby God does that in and through Jesus Christ is to put people right. Justification serves the larger cause of justice. It is not just about me needing to be right with God. (I do, and that’s important, and that’s central – when I look in the mirror, I need to know that that’s there. But God doesn’t stop there.) He says, “I’m putting you right so that you can be part of the team which is working on the putting-the-world-right stuff,” because that’s what, by the Holy Spirit, God is intending to be doing in and through us.

GD: It’s clear in your book that you think an emphasis on going to heaven doesn’t do complete justice to the message of the gospel in the New Testament. What’s the problem with setting out the gospel in that way — going to heaven — and is there a way to correct for that?

NTW: This is a big and deep one, and I struggled with this when I was in my late teens and early twenties, because I’ve grown up going to church where the emphasis, the assumption was, if you are a Christian, you get to heaven, and if you’re not a Christian, then watch out, because you probably won’t get to heaven. Much of Western Christianity has been stuck on that. This is a medieval thing.

An anecdote may help. I was once in a worship service in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, with that great picture by Michelangelo at the far end. I was sitting next to a Greek Orthodox archimandrite. (It was an ecumenical row we were on.) He pointed at that painting and said, “That’s not how we do it in the Greek East. We don’t tell the story like that, with some going to heaven and some going to hell.” Because for them it’s all about resurrection and new creation. They’re not necessarily universalists, but the emphasis is not on “some this way, some that way.” It’s on the newness and the new creation and the life, rather than the either/or.

What we then find is a problem: If you grow up with going to heaven as the ideal, people envisage heaven as outside space and time and matter. But, excuse me, we have Jesus being raised from the dead, and we are promised that we will be raised bodily from the dead. Most devout Christians believe that without ever stopping and thinking, how does that work together?

The answer is, as any first-century Jew would know, that resurrection means a two-stage, post-mortem reality, that you don’t go straight from death to resurrection. Jesus himself didn’t go straight from death to resurrection. Jesus was in the tomb, and then was raised on the third day. He talks to the brigand beside him on the cross when he says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Because in that world, paradise is not the ultimate place you go to be. Paradise is the temporary resting place.

Just under two years ago, my father died. I had the privilege of taking his funeral, and it was a wonderful sense — he was a devout Christian man — of giving him over to God, to be rested and refreshed and restored, a big sigh of relief, against the day when one day, he will be raised from the dead, when we all will be, when God makes the new heavens and new earth.

When we talk about going to heaven, okay, but the New Testament doesn’t usually do that. Hardly any passages in the New Testament use that language. In Revelation it talks about the souls being under the altar and saying to God “how long?” They’re on a holding pattern, in a waiting mode, and the eventual thing is the new heavens and the new earth, which will be like this world, only more so.

God made space, time and matter – and he loves that stuff. He said in Genesis it was very good. He wants to do it even more, so the new world which God will make will be like the present one, only more so. Where the dead are now… If they belong to Christ, Paul says, they are with Christ, which is far better. But that is not the end of the story. There’s resurrection still to come. Getting that two-stage story into people’s heads when they have a whole lifetime of thinking of “one step straight into heaven and that’s it,” that’s difficult. Fortunately, if you read the New Testament, it becomes clearer and clearer.

GD: Thank you so much. We’re out of time, but I know our viewers will be prompted with this interview to look at your book How God Became King.GCS offers online master's degrees.

Last modified: Sunday, February 17, 2019, 10:37 AM