Posted by: Keith Clark | December 8, 2011

Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright

I’ll never forget what it was like having my mind blown. I thought that twenty years of growing up in the church and an undergraduate degree in Christian ministry with a heavy emphasis on biblical text had given me a pretty good grasp of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. Then I was assigned N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God for my first graduate class, “Advanced Introduction to the New Testament.” It only took a couple pages and my mind was blown. Wright revolutionized my understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus, turned upside down my ideas about the Pharisees, and opened my eyes to the gospel’s rightful place within the story of God and God’s people, Israel. So began my journey with Wright that has played a pivotal role in my overarching journey of faith and ministry.

It is thus with great anticipation that I approach each new contribution to Wright’s canon. I don’t so much expect to have my mind blown again; before I was navigating scripture with a completely different map than Wright, now I think I’m looking at and using the same map. However, I do expect to have my understanding refined, my eyes opened to things I’ve previously overlooked, and some of my conclusions challenged. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters has done precisely that.

Cutting through the fog that destroys communication between skeptics and conservatives and mapping with clarity a way through the challenging terrain of historic complexity, Wright lays out the contest that is underlying, overlaying, and surrounding any conversation about Jesus: Roman aspirations for dominance, Jewish longings for liberation, and God’s intention of establishing God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. By drawing parallels between the work of Jesus and the Exodus story, contrasting Jesus to other would-be Jewish messiahs, establishing the contextual plausibility of an already-not yet kingdom, and insisting that in Jesus space, time, and matter are all redefined, Wright lays the foundation on which he claims Jesus was establishing God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. Further, Wright argues Jesus set about this task out of a sense of vocation cultivated by the images of Isaiah’s suffering servant, Daniel’s son of man, and Zechariah’s king, and undergirded by the themes of the Psalms. With that sense of vocation propelling him, Jesus humbled himself to death on a cross, convinced that such a death was “the ultimate means by which God’s kingdom [would be] established…[and] the shocking answer to the prayer that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven” (185). Wright concludes his examination of Jesus’s life and work with immensely helpful reflections on his resurrection, ascension, and promised second coming, and the role each plays in God’s intention of establishing God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.

Wright’s final move explores the implications of Jesus’s enthronement as ruler of the world for present-day living. Three themes familiar to Wright’s readers take center stage in these explorations: God’s desire to rule the world through humanity, the role of worship in creating a community whose allegiance is to Jesus alone as Lord, and the indispensible calling of the church to bear witness to Jesus’s lordship even as God works outside the church as well as inside. While he does not offer endless examples of “practical applications,” leaving that task to astute readers familiar with their local contexts, he concludes, unsurprisingly, by suggesting that when humanity lives as though Jesus is Lord, we will begin to see the themes of the Sermon on the Mount come to life.

Those without a formal theological education or those unfamiliar with Wright’s work, may find the experience of reading Simply Jesus to be like my experience reading The New Testament and the People of God. But even for those with a formal theological education or familiar with Wright’s work, Wright has prepared and served up a feast in Simply Jesus. His ability to hear resonances between seemingly distant and disparate biblical texts is on full display. His skill at employing metaphors to make complex historical problems accessible is present throughout. His talent of relating seemingly every episode of Jesus’s life and ministry to the overarching story of God and God’s people is evident on nearly every page. Those who taste will, I suspect, see that the Lord is good.

Disclosure: Thanks to HarperOne for providing me a review copy with no obligation for a positive review.

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