The Day the Revolution Began (Book Review) Part Two

Revolution
Part One of this review can be found by clicking here.

In the next section of the book, Wright focuses on three elements which are “found within the varied pre-Christian expressions of Jewish hope. Each then played a large part in the early Christian understanding of what actually happened on the cross.” (Page 116) They are: 1) The Messiah would be a king; 2) The final redemption might come about not only in the context of extreme suffering, but by the means of it; 3) The “forgiveness of sins” and the “end of exile” would be the dramatic expression of the covenant of love.

In the King/Kingdom section, Wright writes a bit about the gospel (the proclamation of the good news that the righteous king is now in power), and a new exodus. He uses Daniel chapters 2, 7, and 9 to show how the Messiah would overcome the world empires and reign as king forever. Chapters 2 and 7 show how the world empires are destroyed by the Messiah King, and chapter 9 shows that Israel would have to endure a prolonged exile (70 x 7 years), but then the Messiah would come and save the people. This section is a short one and one could read Wright’s Simply Good News to get a better idea of how he presents the gospel.*

In the next section on suffering, Wright writes: “It is important … to detach the pre-Christian Jewish notion of a coming Messiah from the notion of suffering.” (Page 122) He points out that the notion of one man coming to suffer on behalf of the group is not necessarily a Jewish idea, but rather a pagan one.

“[F]rom quite early on in … Israel’s scriptures, some prophets and psalmists seemed to come back regularly to this idea of great suffering as the prelude to the coming deliverance. This suffering would, however, only be ‘messianic’ in the loose sense that it might immediately precede the ‘messianic age.’ Sometimes Israel’s scriptures refer to the suffering that results from Israel’s idolatry and sin. Sometimes, however, as in many of the psalms, it is suffering inflicted on God’s people, or perhaps an individual, despite their innocence. The night gets darker, the pain still more intense, and then a new day will dawn.” (Page 122)

Wright then focuses on the story of the Maccabean revolt. Wright says earlier in the book: “To understand any event in history, you must put it firmly into that history and not rest content with what later generations have said about it.” (Page 51) So, I guess he is trying to figure out why the early Christians viewed passages like Psalm 22, Isaiah 50 and 53 as describing the suffering Messiah (Jesus) as one who came to suffer for all the people when pre-Christian Jewish thought did not follow that narrative. It’s a bit of a confusing section, and I don’t think Wright gets his point across clearly enough here to the reader. He assumes you know (or hopes you don’t know) the Maccabean story well enough to follow his reasoning. Whereas Wright is very clear in other sections, repeating his main points over and over, here he is quite vague.

Well, the Maccabees were a Jewish family who rebelled against the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes IV ca 160 BC. Antiochus had greatly oppressed the Jews, prevented them from temple worship, and pushed them out of Jerusalem. The Maccabees fought back, won the day, and ruled Israel as kings and priests for the next 100 years or so. Antiochus had removed the rightful Zadokite high-priest, but the Maccabees did not reinstate him (or his descendant), but rather made themselves high-priests as well as kings.

The story as told in 1-4 Maccabees** is a story of Jewish covenant renewal (Antiochus’s oppression was the result of Jewish unfaithfulness), but it also emphasizes the suffering of the few, or the one, for the many, and so Wright suggests that it is here where the pagan idea of one suffering for many is combined with the narrative of Jewish covenant renewal. No doubt the Jews at this time were heavily influenced by Greek culture.

“Suffice it to note that at precisely the point where a Jewish writer [the author of Maccabees] is drawing explicitly on pagan philosophical traditions and doing his best to present a story of Jewish martyrdom as a story of human virtue [a pagan theme], especially courage and nobility, these themes come suddenly into prominence. Was that the reason, one might wonder, why some of the early Christians said some things about Jesus’s death that strike us, at least at first glance, as very similar? Or were they following a subtly different interpretive line?

“In any case, the point is clear. Within the larger Jewish hope, there are signs that some people at least, under pressure of intense suffering and persecution, reached for ways of interpreting that experience not only as something through which God’s people might pass to deliverance, but as something because of which that deliverance would come about… The point … is that the idea of redemptive suffering, though certainly not associated with messianic expectation, was clearly available in the Jewish world of Jesus’s day.” (Page 131)

The third element is titled Divine Faithfulness and Covenant Love. One theme that is absent from the Maccabean writings, but is clear in passages like Isaiah 40-66, is that God’s redemptive work is the result of His faithful love. A new exodus would occur with God taking the initiative to save, and not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles as well.

The redemptive work would come through a royal servant. “There is a well-known fluidity between the nation and its royal representative: the king holds the key to the destiny of the people.” (Page 139) The king, through the love for his people, takes on himself the consequences of his people’s sins.

Then the Lord saw it, and it displeased Him
That there was no justice.
He saw that there was no man,
And wondered that there was no intercessor;
Therefore His own arm brought salvation for Him;
And His own righteousness, it sustained Him.
~Isaiah 59:15-16 (NKJV)

I looked, but there was no one to help,
And I wondered
That there was no one to uphold;
Therefore My own arm brought salvation for Me;
And My own fury, it sustained Me….
In all their affliction He was afflicted,
And the Angel of His Presence saved them;
In His love and in His pity He redeemed them;
And He bore them and carried them
All the days of old.
~Isaiah 63:5 & 9 (NKJV)

To be continued in Part Three….

*An excellent and illuminating commentary on the book of Daniel was written by James B. Jordan. I took a whole bunch of notes on that book which you can read here.

**A history of the Maccabees (and other events surrounding the life of Jesus) that I recommend is Emil Schürer’s A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ.

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The Day the Revolution Began (Book Review) Part One

Revolution

You could rename this book Christianity 101. If I were to recommend just two books by N.T. Wright, they would be Simply Good News, and this one, The Day the Revolution Began.

N.T. Wright’s main push in a lot of his books is that the traditional definition of Christianity (Jesus died for your sins so that you don’t have to go to hell) is only one slice of a much larger pie, and the problem of Western Christianity is that it made that slice the whole pie.

The Reformation really centred on one main issue: How does the individual get saved? It was necessary to focus on that issue at that time as the Catholic Church had really messed it up. But, over the last 500 years, the Church has never gotten away from focusing on that one issue. N.T. Wright criticizes that problem. The early Christians didn’t focus on that issue, and neither did the pre-Christian Jews.

This is how many, if not most, Christians view their faith:

“God told his human creatures to keep a moral code; their continuing life in the Garden of Eden depended on their keeping that code perfectly. Failure would incur the punishment of death… Humans were therefore heading for hell rather than heaven. Finally, however, Jesus obeyed this moral law perfectly and in his death paid the penalty on behalf of the rest of the human race… Those who avail themselves of this achievement by believing in him and so benefiting from his accomplishment go to heaven… those who don’t, don’t.” (Page 75)

Wright does not deny the truth of that description of Christianity; he just argues that there is much more to the faith that only that. Wright says our biggest problem as humans is not that we are sinners who broke some law, but rather that we are idolators. “The human problem is not so much ‘sin’ seen as the breaking of moral codes–though that, to be sure, is a part of it…– but rather idolatry and the distortion of genuine humanness it produces.” (Page 74)

The result of putting anything before God, refusing to worship Him, and refusing to live out our created purpose leads to sin, and sin leads to death, which is separation from God. The Israelites of the Old Testament saw their exile as a form of death. It was when Israel stopped worshipping God and refused to fulfill their role as a kingdom of priests to the nations that God desolated the temple and sent His people into exile.

For Israel, the term “forgiveness of sins” was directly related to being allowed to return from exile. Wright argues that we too need to see that term in the same light as the Jews. Exile for humanity is the being cut off from proper human life: peace, unity, love, being proper image bearers and worshippers of God.

“[L]awbreaking is a symptom of a much more serious disease… [idolatry]… The result is slavery and finally death. It isn’t that humans do wrong things and so incur punishment. This is one element of the larger problem, which isn’t so much about a punishment that might seem almost arbitrary, perhaps even draconian; it is, rather, about direct consequences.” (Page 77)

N.T. Wright suggests “that in the Bible humans are created in order to live as worshipping stewards within God’s heaven-and-earth reality, rather than as beings who, by moral perfection, qualify to leave ‘earth’ and go to ‘heaven’ instead.” (Page 77-78)

Wright uses the term vocational covenant. Our vocation as humans is to image God to creation as caring stewards, and to image creation back to God as thankful worshippers. If we abandon that vocation we corrupt ourselves and creation too. Sin is simply the result of breaking that vocational covenant, which then leads to death and separation from God.

So, notice how Wright’s emphasis is not You broke God’s law and now He’s angry at you and you are going to hell, but rather it’s, We abandoned our vocational covenant by refusing to worship God and refusing to steward creation, and because of that we have corrupted ourselves and are separated from God.

The question then is: How is this problem of us breaking our vocational covenant, and the consequences thereof, fixed?

Wright spends some time writing about the purpose of the nation of Israel. As I mentioned above, Israel was a kingdom of priests to the nations. That means that they were acting as the image bearing mediators between God and the world. They were priests, and as priests they were to work to reconcile creation with God. That of course included being a light to the Gentile nations. This was, as Wright puts it, their vocation.

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
~Exodus 19:4-6

It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob,
And to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles,
That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth….
Kings shall see and arise,
Princes also shall worship,
Because of the Lord who is faithful,
The Holy One of Israel;
And He has chosen You.
~Isaiah 49:6-7

Arise, shine;
For your light has come!
And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.
For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
And deep darkness the people;
But the Lord will arise over you,
And His glory will be seen upon you.
The Gentiles shall come to your light,
And kings to the brightness of your rising.
~Isaiah 60:1-3

When Israel was faithful to that vocation they were at peace with the nations and the nations would come to them to worship God. But, when they abandoned that covenant, they would be in conflict with God, and thus the nations as well. Continual non-repentance led to exile, when the Israelite people were pushed out of their promised land, their temple was abandoned by God, and they spent a time in “death” separated from the true life that they were supposed to have.

“[H]umans were made for a purpose [and] Israel was made for a purpose, and … humans and Israel alike have turned aside from that purpose, distorted the vision, and abused their vocation.” (Page 99)

The Greek word for sin, hamartia, means “missing the mark”. Wright points out that sin then is not so much a result of failing to keep a “do/don’t do” list of rules, but rather failing to be proper image bearers, and failing “to reflect the praises of creation back to the Creator and [failing] to reflect the Creator’s wise and loving stewardship into the world.” (Page 99)

If Israel was supposed to reconcile the creation back to the Creator, what would happen if Israel itself was in need of reconciliation? How could they fulfill their vocation if they themselves were just as corrupt as those they were called to help? What could be done if those who had the authority to reconcile had forfeited that authority over to powers which worked for evil and death? Others, or One, would have to come and take back that authority and fulfill the vocation of reconciliation.

When the tabernacle was first complete, the glorious presence of God came down to cover it (Exodus 40:34ff), and again when Solomon’s temple was complete, the glory cloud of God came again (1 Kings 8:10-11). However, after the exile, when the Jews went back to Jerusalem and completed the rebuilding of the temple, there is no mention of God’s glory coming down then (Ezra 6:13ff). What you do see is the presence of God leaving the temple (what would have been Solomon’s temple) in Ezekiel 10 & 11.

In Malachi, a prophet sent to Israel after Ezra’s temple had been built (the second temple), we see that the Jews were neglecting their covenantal responsibilities again. They were doing so because they were disappointed at what the second temple era was: no renewed kingdom of Israel (they were still in a form of exile) and a perception that God’s glory never did return from exile with them to once again fill the temple. But Malachi told the people: “Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming.” (Malachi 3:1) Now, that messenger sent to prepare the way was John the Baptist (Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27), so, “the Lord who will suddenly come to His temple” was Jesus.

“In Jesus’s day, the hope was alive that the Glory would return at last. But nobody knew exactly what that would mean, how it would happen, or what it would look like.” (Page 112) The Jews’ great hope after the exile was not to make it to heaven when they died, but to be restored within the present world, to be forgiven of their sins, and to be a part of the new covenant promised to them by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31-34). This new covenant, we know today, would also include the Gentile nations.

Jesus is the One who took the vocational covenant of Israel onto Himself and fulfilled it once and for all in His life, death, and resurrection. But how does that work? What did Jesus really do on the cross?

To be continued in Part Two…..

Further reading….

N. T. Wright: The Church Continues the Revolution Jesus Started

N. T. Wright Reconsiders the Meaning of Jesus’s Death

Simply Good News by N.T. Wright (Brief Book Review)

Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It GoodSimply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good by N.T. Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wright starts off by defining the word gospel (good news) as how it would mean to first century people. For many today the gospel is good advice (believe this and you’ll go to heaven when you die) rather than good news. But, the gospel really is news, and that’s how we should present it.

The good news is that Jesus has become king and He is now restoring the world. He’s not going to whisk us all away to heaven and destroy the world. Jesus started this restoration at the cross and will complete it at the last day. N.T. Wright uses an example of a Roman emperor defeating his enemy and taking power. The news of this would be good to all who support this emperor, and they would be happy to hear that he was now in charge. But first, the emperor would have to consolidate his power before taking his throne. So, the good news of his coming to power would include both something that had happened (the defeat of his enemy) and something that would happen (his coming full rule).

We today are living in that between time. Jesus defeated sin and death at the cross, and now His enemies are being put under His feet, and He will one day come and complete the work He has begun of building His kingdom on earth.

Wright also discusses misunderstood concepts people have today about God (and His anger), sin, hell, eschatology, atonement, creation, covenant, rationalism, and romanticism.

I highly recommend this one.

An excerpt…

Most people who regard the statement that Jesus died in your place as the center of the gospel place this truth, this beautiful fragment, into a larger story that goes like this. There is a God, and this God is angry with humans because of their sin. This God has the right, the duty, and the desire to punish us all. If we did but know it, we are all heading for an eternal torment in hell. But this angry God has decided to vent his fury on someone else instead — someone who happens to be completely innocent. Indeed, it is his very own son! His wrath is therefore quenched, and we no longer face that terrible destiny. All we have to do is believe this story and we will be safe. That is the reconstructed scene offered in many churches, sermons, and books. It is not completely wrong. But as it stands, it is deeply misleading. It distorts the very thing it is trying to frame. It takes the truth that Jesus died in your place and puts it in the wrong context. It does indeed make some sense there. But this is not the same sense that it would make if you put it the right context. This, in anyone’s account, is near the heart of what the early Christians meant by the good news. Since it is also, clearly, near the heart of what many Christians today understand by the good news, it is important that we sort this out.
~Page 68 or Location 976 (Kindle)

* You can take an online course on this book taught by N.T. Wright for (I think) $29USD.
Click here for that.

View all my reviews

N.T. Wright’s Justification (Book Review)

justification-gods-plan-and-pauls-vision

This book is written in response to John Piper’s book “The Future of Justification”, which I have not yet read. You do not have to read Piper’s book in order to understand or enjoy Wright’s book.

The whole debate is about the “New Perspective of Paul”, a debate I do not fully understand, although this book helps a lot. From what I can gather, the arguments center around what Paul was really talking about when he was describing salvation in terms of God’s faithfulness and righteousness. The Old Perspective focuses on the individual’s salvation and little else, while the New Perspective says there is more going on than that: a greater purpose which looks at the overarching salvation plan of God including Old Testament Israel.

It seems like it is an “either/or” argument when it should be “both/and”. God both saves the individual sinner through the work of Christ and is creating a special people for Himself who will one day inherit the new heavens and the new earth.

I do recommend the book.

Here’s a video of N.T. Wright explaining the book himself…

Work Out Your Salvation

obedience

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.
~Philippians 2:12-13 NKJV

“Sin is what bubbles up unbidden from the depths of the human heart, so that all one has to do is go with the flow. That has the appearance of freedom, but is in fact slavery, as Jesus himself declared. True freedom is the gift of the spirit, the result of grace; but… it isn’t simply a matter of being forced now to be good, against our wills and without our co-operation, but a matter of being released from slavery precisely into responsibility, into being at last to choose, to exercise moral muscle, knowing both that one is doing it oneself and that the spirit is at work within, that God is doing himself that which I too am doing. If we don’t believe that, we don’t believe in the spirit, and we don’t believe in Paul’s teaching.”
~ N.T. Wright, “Justification~God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision”, pg. 164