In his new book, How God Became King, Tom Wright argues that Christians have, for the most part, misunderstood the main point of the Gospels. Using the picture of an empty cloak, he charges Western Christians of muddle on a large scale with regard to all the bits in between the narratives of Jesus' miraculous birth and death/resurrection/ascension. Whether they have stressed Jesus as the divine Son of God, Jesus as moral teacher/exemplar, or Jesus as the perfect sacrifice/way to heaven, they have by and large missed the major point: the story of Jesus is the story of the new and ultimate exodus promised in Israel's prophetic scriptures. To put it differently, as Professor Wright does in his title, the story of Jesus is the story of how God became king.
According to Wright, this story of the coming of the kingdom of God has four dimensions that act something like a quadraphonic stereo system, in which all four speakers must be calibrated precisely in order to hear each in their proper balance in relation to the whole. In our previous two posts (here and here) we discussed the first and second of these dimensions, viz., Jesus' story as the climax of the biblical story of Israel and Jesus' story as the story of God's (YHWH's) promised return to his people. In chapters 6 and 7 Wright discusses the third and fourth dimensions he sees as integral to the story as intended by the Evangelists.
The third dimension concerns the Gospels' significance as foundational documents for the launching of God's renewed people, the Jew-plus-Gentile people we know as the church, that fulfills rather than replaces Israel (a significant distinction, by the way, with regard to a somewhat volatile issue) (105-25). In this chapter Wright sets his sights on previous generations of New Testament scholars who read the Gospels as historicised narratives reflecting the faith and concerns of the early church. No, says Wright. The Gospel writers deliberately told the story of Jesus as it actually happened, but nonetheless "in such a way as to put down markers for the life and witness of their own communities" (109). The Gospels are thus suitably understood as "myths," though Wright is careful to add what this does and doesn't entail: they are "myths" "not in the sense of 'stories that didn't happen.' but in the sense of 'stories communities tell to explain and give direction to their own lives'" (111).
Wright proceeds to demonstrate from multiple Gospel texts (e.g., Matt 10:5-23; 18:15-20) that Jesus' teaching anticipated the continued life and ministry of his earthly companions in the unspecified future. Indeed, "the gospels are consciously telling the story of how God's one-time action in Jesus the Messiah ushered in a new world order within which a new way of life was not only possible, but mandatory for Jesus' followers" (118). And this, of course, involved mission. Pointing to such texts as John 20:21-22 and Luke 24:13-35, Wright shows how the end of the Gospels precipitates a new beginning, and how "the unique and unrepeatable mission and achievement of Jesus becomes the mandate and pattern for the mission of the church" (119).
The fourth dimension of the Gospel story concerns "the story of the kingdom of God clashing with the kingdom of Caesar" (127-54). Once again Wright turns to two major parts of the Old Testament whose conceptual backdrop is the Babylonian exile, Isaiah 40-55 and the Book of Daniel, texts he has mined repeatedly over the years:
The heart and thrust of the two great books that reflect that period, Isaiah 40-55 and Daniel ... is the clash of the kingdoms. In both cases the theme is the same: the kingdoms of the world versus the kingdom of the true God. Israel's God confronts the pagan idols and the petty princelings who worship them. They are at present lording it over God's people; but when God acts, as he will, he will show them in no uncertain terms that he is God and that they and their puny little human-made idols (and cities) are not. He will vindicate his people, rescuing them from their exile (Isa. 52; Dan. 9), exalting them to his right hand (Dan. 7), setting up a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Dan. 2), the true Davidic kingdom, which, built on the renewal of the covenant, will be nothing less than new creation (Isa. 54-55). In Isaiah this will be accomplished through the work of the "servant of the LORD"; in Daniel it will be accomplished through the suffering and faithfulness of God's people. It's the same story all the way through. And there is no doubt that this is the story the gospel writers intend, in their different ways, to retell in the basic story of Jesus himself (130-31).Wright next turns to highlight the neglected theme of Christ versus Caesar in the Gospels. The famous "Christmas" story of Jesus' birth as David's son (= the King) in Bethlehem because of "Caesar" Augustus's census (Luke 2:1-5) literarily foreshadows the chief priests' accusation to Pilate that Jesus "was forbidding people to give tribute to Caesar" (Luke 23:1-2). Indeed, Luke's purpose in telling the story of the decree was theological — and political: "Augustus's signature on the decree was Rome signing the ultimate death warrant for its classic pagan power" (136).
John's Gospel is even more explicit and, indeed, penetrating (140-47). John portrays the ultimate conflict as transcending the surface-level conflict between the kingdom of God and Caesar. The real conflict, in his view, was being waged against a power, "the accuser" and "ruler of this world" (John 12:28-33; 13:2, 27; 14:30-31). Indeed, he portrays the events of Jesus' arrest, trial, and passion as the climax of God's battle with the real enemy who was working through the betrayer, Judas, and the callous power of Rome, represented by Pilate. In response to Pilate's interrogation, Jesus explicitly points to the clash of kingdoms and explains their fundamental difference. Jesus' kingdom was not "of this world" (John 18:36). This certainly does not mean that his kingdom is "spiritual" rather than political. Wright explains: "His kingdom is certainly for this world, but it isn't from it" (144). And it has an entirely different modus operandi: "Caesar's kingdom (and all other kingdoms that originate in this world) make their way by fighting. But Jesus's kingdom—God's kingdom enacted through Jesus—makes its way with quite a different weapon, one that Pilate refuses to acknowledge: telling the truth" (144, citing John 18:37-38). But the Judean leaders will have none of it. "We have no king except Caesar" (John 19:15), they infamously told Pilate, pitifully unaware of the irony that they preferred the kingdom of Daniel's fourth beast to the kingdom of God which was irrupting in their midst.
Wright concludes with a discussion of the famous "Render unto Caesar" saying in the Synoptic triple tradition. Here he repeats the interpretation he introduced 16 years ago in Jesus and the Victory of God. In short, Jesus is not advocating a Reformational "two kingdom" theology (let alone the bastardized, Enlightenment offshoot of that). What Jesus says rather has "everything to do with the fact that God trumps Caesar on all fronts" (149). Indeed, his deliberate ambiguity was the perfect way to distance himself from both the revolutionaries and the pro-Roman loyalists in his midst, demonstrating that one's ultimate loyalty must be to the God whose image was not to be found impressed on a tawdry coin but stamped on the being of every one of his human creatures.
These chapters are not unexpected from any who have read Wright's previous works. Indeed, his material on the Gospels as foundational for the launching of God's renewed people should not be controversial to any but the most dyed in the wool, old school dispensationalist. Indeed, it was considerations like those discussed by Wright in this chapter that ultimately caused me to reject the dispensationalism of my youth. Continuity and fulfillment, on the face of it, are assumed on every page of the Gospels.
Wright's discussion on the clash of the kingdoms also should not surprise. After all, he is famous for his understanding of the "political" implications of the gospel's declaration of Jesus' risen Lordship. "Jesus is Lord. That means Caesar is not." And he is right, of course. Drawing on the background of Daniel 2 and 7, the narrated story of Jesus' death and resurrection is the story of how God enacted the promised overthrow of the world's kingdoms (at least provisionally) and establishment of the kingdom of God. In this chapter Wright doesn't discuss inaugurated eschatology, but the continued presence of the kingdoms of the world does not negate the ultimate authority of God's already inaugurated eschatological rule. Exactly how the Christian should navigate the treacherous waters of political engagement in the kingdoms of the world is left undiscussed by Wright at this point.
At times, especially in his discussions of Paul, I suspect Wright has overplayed the anti-Imperial thrust of the text—not to say that such a thrust is not there, but that it more often lies somewhere under the surface. Here I think his emphasis is spot on. John and Luke are especially clear in this regard. Another clue, unmentioned by Wright, occurs in John 20, when "believing Thomas" makes a startling confession of faith when he sees the wounds in the body of the risen Jesus: "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28). As the climactic confession of the faith called for by John, in a book whose opening sentence declared that the "Word" (the pre-incarnate Son) was "God," this undoubtedly carries the note of ontology later developed thoroughly and philosophically in the classic ecumenical creeds of the church. But the polemical — indeed, anti-Imperial — thrust of the confession becomes clear when one reads Suetonius's The Lives of the Caesars. According to Suetonius, the Emperor Domitian, who reigned from 81-96 CE —meaning that he was almost certainly the Emperor on the throne when John's Gospel was written — insisted on referring to himself and being addressed as "Dominus et deus noster," "Our Lord and God" (8.13.2). To John, the true Lord and God was not the vile Domitian, but the resurrected Jesus. And the shocking thing about this claim is the belief that he attained to that kingship through being crucified on a Roman cross. Our next installment will take up that theme.