Wright makes the quest for the historical Jesus a matter of discipleship
The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: IVP Books
Each time I read N. T. Wright I am the better for it, and The Challenge of Jesus is no exception. This dives deeply into the quest to discover the historical Jesus. In a field that is often marked by liberal scholarship, it’s refreshing to read someone who takes the subject seriously while avoiding much of the confusion and errors.
For those new to the subject, this is a fine introduction. I trust Wright even if I don’t always agree. He brings a depth of scholarship and wisdom to each subject that he engages. If nothing else, his applications at the end make this worthwhile. I never imagined that I would be promoting the work of someone in the Anglican faith, but Wright thrills me with his breadth of analysis, an evangelical heart and an all-encompassing vision.
Early in my Christian life, a church I formerly attended frequently referenced the proverb, “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint …” (Proverbs 29:18 ESV). We heard it as “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” No danger of that here. If I had a complete collection of Wright’s works, something I would relish, I would be well-served. I would not be casting about to find some larger narrative to make sense of life.
Wright is consistent is asserting that God’s plan has always been to save the world through Israel. The birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the fulfillment of that intention. It’s not just a matter of personal salvation. It’s much bigger. It includes the eventual redeeming of all creation. In the meantime, it groans with us as we long to be part of the ultimate manifestation of the kingdom of God.
Some may be tempted to think that thoughts and studies like this have no practical value. Wright answers: “If church leaders themselves spent more time studying and teaching Jesus and the Gospels, a good many of the other things we worry about in day-to-day church life would be seen in their proper light” (31).
Wright never advocates engaging in “abstract dogmatics to the detriment of our engagement with the world, but that we should discover more and more of who Jesus was and is, precisely in order to be equipped to engage with the world that he came to save. And this is a task for the whole church, especially those appointed to leadership and teaching roles within it” (31).
I commend his attitude: “I regard the continuing historical quest for Jesus as a necessary part of ongoing Christian discipleship. I doubt very much if in the present age we shall ever get to the point where we know all there is to know and understand about Jesus, who he was, what he said and what he did, and what he meant by it all” (15). Wright sees this as the leading means to exploring God himself.
He goes on to examine what Jesus meant when he said the kingdom of God is at hand. “First, he believed that God had purposed from the beginning to address and deal with the problems within his creation through Israel…. Israel was to be the means through which the world would be saved” (35).
Wright then explains that the works and words of Jesus “make the point that the return from exile was happening in and through his own work” (42). Christ “was doing what the prophets always warned: he was judging Israel for her idolatry and simultaneously calling into being a new people, a renewed Israel, a returned-from-exile people of God” (41).
The author then turns his attention to what it means to become the new people that inhabit the kingdom coming into being. What Jesus did in relation to the key symbols of Israel—Sabbath, nation and land, and temple—play into what God was calling His people to be.
Would a Jew in the time of Jesus have any concept of a crucified Messiah? How did Jesus think of himself and his role? Wright briefly looks at these issues but saves the best for last.
Probably even more than the scholarship, I enjoy when Wright gets practical because he advocates creativity. It’s not just preaching; it’s enacting the saving message of the gospel in every sphere of life. He tells us: “You are called, prayerfully, to discern where in your discipline the human project is showing signs of exile and humbly and boldly to act symbolically in ways that declare that the powers have been defeated, that the kingdom has come in Jesus the Jewish Messiah, that the new way of being human has been unveiled, and to be prepared to tell the story that explains what these symbols are all about. And in all this you are to declare, in symbol and praxis, in story and articulate answers to questions, that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not; that Jesus is Lord and Marx, Freud and Nietzsche are not; that Jesus is Lord and neither modernity nor postmodernity is. When Paul spoke of the gospel, he was not talking primarily about a system of salvation but about the announcement, in symbol and word, that Jesus is the true Lord of the world, the true light of the world” (187).
Sometimes, for whatever reasons, our horizons begin to shrink. Our vision can die. It’s for this reason I appreciate the expansive views that Wright offers.
Don’t misunderstand. He’s not advocating triumphalism. “It’s a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world …” (189). Our means must always be cross-shaped. Suffering love is the order of the day.
There is so much more than can be conveyed through what I have written. This is a valuable resource in the search for the historical Jesus.