N.T. Wright, How God Became King (part 2)

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

GD: Professor Wright, thank you for joining us again here in St. Andrews. I’d like to follow up with a few more questions that are derived mostly from your book How God Became King. I’m particularly interested in the connection and relationship between heaven and earth. Often we think of them as separate, and we’re going to heaven and leaving earth, but you want to bring out the relationship and the connection. Can you say something more about that?

NTW: A few years ago, in 2005, I was working on another book called Simply Christian. I found myself having to explain certain things in a way I hadn’t before, and I did it in terms of the temple in Jerusalem. When they built the temple in Jerusalem (and when they had the wilderness tabernacle before that), the idea of the temple was this was the place where heaven and earth would overlap and interlock.

That seems counterintuitive to most people in the modern West. The reason for that is: ever since the Renaissance, Western culture has become more and more Epicurean, in terms of ancient philosophy. Epicurus and his follower Lucretius split apart heaven and earth and said that the gods are somewhere far away, are not bothered about us, are not interested in us, and we just do our own thing, and the world rambles along under eternity. That’s Epicureanism. Much of the modern Western world has been Epicurean. Thomas Jefferson said, “I am an Epicurean.”

The Enlighten­ment of the 18th century is built on the principle that God and the world don’t basically mix. The Bible is built on the principle that they’re designed to, but, because the world is in rebellion, that’s a complex and contested idea. Nevertheless, the point of the temple in Jerusalem, and the reason why the main thing you do there is sacrifice, is because God wants to get together with his people.

Then the extraordinary thing happens in the New Testament: Jesus behaves and talks as if he is somehow almost the temple in person, a living, breathing temple. Paul says (even more extraordinarily) to the Chris­tians in Corinth, of all places, that because God’s Spirit now dwells in you, you are the temple of the living God [1 Corinthians 3:16] and therefore, you have to figure out how to handle that, what comes as a result. That is hugely challenging intellectually, personally and ethically, but that’s how it’s meant to be, that God and the world are meant for each other. Heaven and earth are meant for each other, not meant to be pulled apart. In Jesus and the Spirit, that’s what we’re supposed to see happening.

GD: They touched, came together.

NTW: They touched, they merged. In 1 Corinthians 15:28, Paul says, God will eventually be all in all.

GD: The problem for some people is when we read that Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world. That’s often interpreted in a certain way and you’re trying to bring out a different, a particular way of viewing that. Could you say something about it: what did he mean when he said, “my kingdom is not of this world”?

NTW: Part of the difficulty here is in the translation. The phrase “not of this world” has been used to mean it’s an otherworld sort of thing, in the sense of nothing to do with space, time and matter. Nothing to do with politics and mess of this world.

The phrase in Greek is “my kingdom is not ek tou kosmou toutou. Ek means “out of” or “from.” Jesus is saying, “my kingdom isn’t the sort that grows in this world of itself.” It’s not the sort of kingdom that grows in this world, like the ancient Roman kingdom, like many modern empires.

This is the next line that Jesus goes on to: by violence. He says, “If my kingdom was the sort that grows in this world, then my followers will be fighting to stop me from being handed over. My kingdom is not from here.” The point is his kingdom is from God, from heaven, but it is for this world. It isn’t from this world, but it’s for this world.

That’s why, when Pilate sends Jesus to the cross with ironically the words “King of the Jews” above his head… (Any first-century Jew would know that that has to do with this kingdom vision from Psalm 2 and so on, which is “the king of the Jews” whose dominion will be from one sea to the other and from the river to the ends of the earth. This is not about another worldly kingdom.) Pilate (like the centurion at the foot of the cross in Mark’s Gospel) is saying more than he knew: Jesus is the true king of the world, and that’s what begins properly with the resurrection.

GD: So “not of this world” means “it’s not of that sort or of that kind.” It doesn’t mean it’s of another world and place.

NTW: Exactly. It comes from God’s world, but God’s world, heaven, was always meant to intersect with our world. If a kingdom merely grows in this world, it will do its business by violence and death, and it will die. God’s kingdom is a new thing coming in, but it is for this world, to make it a world that God wants it to be.

GD: How would you see that working out in the life of the church and the people of God? How do we go about living in Christ’s reign here and now on this earth?

NTW: The most important thing is worship. Most Christians worship, because they go to church on Sunday, or they say their prayers or whatever, but very few reflect on what actually happens when you worship. When you worship, you’re saying to God with your innermost being, “You are in charge. You are the King. You are the Lord, and we are available for your use, as it were.”

This is a scary, risky and dangerous thing to do, but that’s basically what one is doing. When you’re worshiping, you are adoring the God in whose image you are made. In the New Testament, Paul and others say things to do with that. It means you get remade in the image of God, so you become somebody who can reflect God into the world, perhaps in ways that one is not aware of oneself. That’s what worship ought to result in.

Therefore, as Christians are worshipers, they ought to be kingdom bearers. They ought to be stewards in God’s world. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world”; that’s how we are supposed to be. Without worship, that won’t happen. With worship, it begins to happen, but it takes more than that — it takes teaching and thinking through how the practice is going to work out.

GD: Could you give us some examples of where you think the church (or a branch of the church or individual Christians, or organizations) has done a good job of making this apparent?

NTW: There are positives and negatives. As with Jesus in his work and then his confrontation with Pontius Pilate, some of the kingdom work is positive, planting new things, planting seeds which are going to grow. Some of it is negative, confronting the past of the world with the fact that they’re getting it wrong.

My successor Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby [now Archbishop of Canterbury], was recently in the news because he was in the business world before he became a priest and then a bishop. He is now one of the church’s representatives to speak into the world of banking and commerce. He made a speech recently (which got the headlines) pointing out that the way the banking industry has run was purely for the benefit of the banking industry. It was called the service industry, but it wasn’t actually serving anyone. That is a classic example of a wise Christian who understands what he’s talking about, not just shooting his mouth off to somebody he doesn’t like (which is always a danger), but actually naming an issue in our society which has been a major sore point, putting his finger on it in the name of God—not in order to say you silly people, whatever, but in order to produce the serious prophetic critique which we need, the positive as well.

From my time in Durham I saw a lot of this. It was one of the poorest areas of the U.K., and there were churches that didn’t have a great deal in terms of big theological education telling them how to do it. They were worshipping people who look around at their local communities. In one case a church in one of the poorest parts of the northeastern England saw that there were a lot broken homes. There were single mothers with young kids, but the mothers were out at work; the kids were running wild on the street. The church with minimal resources started an amazing child daycare center which became a flagship project that other people from around the country looked at. They said, We never thought of doing it like that, but how did this work, and how did you solve that problem, et cetera.

That’s how it often works: two or three people (maybe even one person) out of the life of worship, prayer and Scripture study see that there is something which needs to be done. They say, “This seems impossible, we will pray about it, we will work it, we’ll go and talk to the local council.” When they do it, it cascades. Other people say, “we could do that” as well.

My favorite example (not recent, because I was involved in it) is the Hospice Movement. Fifty or 60 years ago there wasn’t a hospice movement as we now know it. It was because Cicely Saunders, a Christian with a bit of steely eye who wasn’t going to take no for an answer, knew that the care that people were getting in hospital when they were dying was not good, that the doctors would just give them up. So she started St. Christopher’s Hospice in London. The government didn’t want to help, the medical profession weren’t interested. She raised the money herself. There are now hospices all over the Western world which really flowed from that and have given hope and comfort and solace to millions of people. That’s within my lifetime that’s happened, and that’s a sign of God being king even here even now—paradoxically, even in the midst of death bringing signs of life.

GD: They’re not necessarily grandiose. You might think the kingdom of God is going to be heroic and grandiose and these aren’t.

NTW: Exactly.

GD: It can take simple forms.

NTW: It’s precisely not grandiose. That’s why the parables are often about a tiny seed which then will grow into something. The book of Zech­ariah says, Don’t despise that they’re small things. Again and again I have seen kingdom projects, you might call them, which started amazingly small—with one poor person in a poor rundown church who gets this idea that when she or he is praying, God seems to be saying, “I want you to go and do this.” “That’s crazy, how could I make a difference?” It is extraordinary: one or two or three people saying prayers, worshipping, attentive to the needs around them. It’s extraordinary what God can do.

GD: Another theme that you bring up in your book is the theme of suffering as a part of demonstrating the kingdom and participating in Christ’s reign. Can you say something about that?

NTW: We’re not good at suffering in the Western world. The whole Enlightenment project was about, “We have grown up now, we have more meds and we have modern technology, therefore we shouldn’t have to suffer, so we’ll vanish suffering.” The trouble is that there’s lots of suffering in the rest of the world, and some of it, sadly, we have inflicted on the rest of the world; there’s all sorts of issues around that.

There is the danger as well, which is there in the second century already, of Christians embracing martyrdom a bit too eagerly, and wanting to throw themselves on to the fire, or have themselves taken off to be fed to the lions. The church has navigated that, but it goes back to the sense of the way the world is at the moment. If the world is run by kingdoms from this world, which do what they do by bullying and by violence, and the church is called to make its way in a totally different way, there is bound to be again and again a point of conflict.

We saw this in the churches in Eastern Europe under communism, but we see it in plenty parts of the world today, where the people who are bearing faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ are stamped upon, denied access to jobs, or whatever it may be, and that sadly goes on. There is a question as to whether in the Western world the church ought to be suffering a bit more than it is, because the church ought to be bearing witness to the kingdom of God against the way the Western powers work. People in the Middle East look at the Western powers and think, “They’re Christian nations.” We who live in the West know that that’s not the case. Our nations are not run on gospel principles, and so it’s a challenge to the church.

However, anyone in the Western world who seeks to follow Jesus and be loyal and works for his kingdom and his gospel is going to face suffering sooner or later. It’s going to happen through sickness, family problems, financial difficulties, or whatever. Suffering comes in all shapes and sorts and sizes, and it’s usually messy, and usually it doesn’t mean that we can say, “I am suffering this because I am a Christian, so I can feel good about this.” Sadly, it’s not like that.

Second Corinthians 4 is the passage I go back to again and again where Paul basically says we are cast down but not destroyed [verse 9]. We are at a loss, and yet not completely lost. At the time, it probably did feel that we were completely lost, that we were killed, that we were overthrown. It’s only with hindsight that we look back and say, “That’s strange—we went through a dark patch there, and somehow we’ve lived to tell the tale.” Again and again, it’s in those dark patches that often God is most powerfully at work. It doesn’t feel like it at that time, but having lived 63 years now and trying to follow this out, I can say again and again in my life, and that of many people who might have the privilege of ministering, that’s how it’s been.

GD: Thank you again for joining us, and I encourage our listeners to get your book How God Became King, because we haven’t touched on everything but …

NTW: It’s enough to get you going.

GD: Some very important themes. Thank you again.

NTW: Very good to be talking with you. Thank you.

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Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2019, 2:31 PM