My last blog post was about the pernicious tendency we have to recreate Jesus in our Image. Part of the reason we are able to do that is because all too often in church we don’t get confronted by the real authentic, Jesus. The way we understand Jesus at times robs us of understanding the significance of what He is saying and often more importantly doing. Tom Wright is a towering figure when it comes to the academic study of the New Testament, former professor of NT at Durham University, Bishop of Durham and now a prof at St Andrew’s University, he is also pretty unique. What is unique about Tom Wright is that he is passionate about taking the new discoveries that help us understand the NT better and making them available in a form that ordinary Christians can understand and respond to. In case you are in the market for one of his books, he publishes his more “academic” books as NT Wright and his books aimed at a more popular level as Tom Wright.
Knowing my place I am reading a book by Tom Wright for Lent 😉 Its called “Simply Jesus” and is Wright’s attempt to help us get to grips with the real Jesus by rooting him firmly back in the world of the 1st Cent AD and the world of the teaching of the Old Testament. I think this is great book for that very reason. I can remember my own understanding of Jesus being transformed when I started reading some of this stuff, about contemporary Judaism and what else was going on in the Roman world when I first went to bible college. Its a shame that more of it doesn’t “trickle down” but its probably not really appropriate to have a whole sermon on “2nd Temple Judaism” Simply Jesus is Tom Wright’s attempt at allowing some of the best contemporary insights into Jesus to do just that and trickle down to “ordinary” christians. Why should you read it? Well imagine watching a silent black and white film and then seeing it in 3D, colour with stereo surround sound and you begin to get the idea of the difference it makes to your understanding of Jesus if you understand what Tom Wright is talking about in this book.
I am going to do a few blog about his conclusions to give you a flavour of the book and maybe motivate you to read it for yourself.
The book is split into 3 sections and in the first section Wright is trying to explain why getting to grips with the real Jesus is so hard and what the important questions are that help us to do that. He says something which I can really identify with as a preacher “With Jesus its easy to be complicated and hard to be simple” p6 That’s a pretty good description of Wright’s purpose in this book, to make something potentially very complex a bit more simple. That doesn’t mean this book is simplistic, its takes real concentration and works the old grey matter, but surely understanding Jesus better is worth the effort?
There are other factors which make studying Jesus more complex today. There is what we could call “reductionism” groups of people who want to reduce Jesus to something less than he is. Today’s militant atheists, like Dawkins and “liberal” biblical scholars want to reduce Jesus to just a teacher, just a man and strip away anything and everything miraculous connected to him on the grounds that they know these things can’t happen. Reading that section got a hearty amen from me and created a bit of feeling of smugness. Wright burst my smug balloon by pointing out that we evangelicals often do the same thing, we reduce the significance of Jesus making his significance about me, about only a personal relationship and so very individualistic. Just listen to this, I had to admit he was rightIt is we, the churches who have been the real reductionists. We have reduced the Kingdom of God to private piety, the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience, and Easter itself to a happy, escapist ending after a sad dark tale” p7 Tom isn’t saying that Jesus doesn’t have implications for us personally but he is saying if we reduce him to that we are not allowing ourselves to be confronted by the authentic Jesus, we are reducing Jesus significance.
If we try to get grips with Jesus Wright reckons we are confronted by three things that can easily puzzle us as 21st century people.
JESUS WORLD …. Jesus world of the 1st century was very different from our world. People thought very differently, their whole worldview was radically different from ours. If we try and read what is going on in the Gospels without trying to understand how they thought and acted we will inevitably not understand the significance of what is going on or even seriously misunderstand it.
<strong>JESUS GOD … Jesus God was unpredictable and unexpected. He didn’t fulfil the prophecies the way that many contemporary jewish people expected to him. Its a challenge to understand what God is up in Jesus, it was a challenge to Jesus’ contemporaries and is for us to.
JESUS BEHAVIOUR …. Here is a real conundrum, Jesus was a working class guy, a carpenter, he wasn’t a formally trained rabbi, he wasn’t priest, wasn’t part of the religious establishment and he had no political or military power either. Yet as you read the Gospels you get the distinct sense that this “nobody” in most people’s eyes spoke and acted as if he was in control of events. Who on earth did he think He was? Now that is a puzzle!
So understanding Jesus means we need to grapple with these puzzles and also understand what Wright describes as the “perfect storm” that Jesus was surrounded by and in some ways provoked. What he is talking about was the cultural and religious forces that were unleashed around Jesus and which eventually led to his death and provides Jesus motivation for doing what he did.
Tom Wright identifies these components of this storm
THE ROMAN STORM …. The Roman `Empire was dominant world power in Jesus day and claimed complete loyalty from its people. In fact its Emperors now claimed that they were the “son of God” and their empire was a new “golden age”
JEWISH STORM …. The Jewish people were unique in the ancient world. They believed that history was heading for a great climax in which once again, as God had done in the Exodus, their God would return, defeat the evil empire which had enslaved them and set them free. They looked forward to a “golden age” in the future, the Kingdom of God. Expectation of something “happening” in Jesus’ day was at fever pitch.
Basically Jews believed three things about the future
God himself would return
He would rescue His people
He would establish His world wide rule
Some parts of the OT suggested that it would be God himself who would return and meet these aspirations others suggested that this new age would be ushered in by a messianic figure who would come from King David’s family.
Jesus burst into this world, the world of ancient Judea, of Roman power and Jewish expectation. What happened was the might of a powerful empire determined to be in absolute control and a Judaism that believed and longed for the day when God would break into history and free His people and defeat their enemies collided with Jesus. They collided with him so violently because Jesus claimed that in and through him God was returning to establish His Kingdom and that he was the King in the line of David. The Romans reacted violently because Jesus’ claims threatened their power. Most Jews eventually reacted negatively because Jesus made it clear that God’s Kingdom wasn’t the kind of kingdom they expected and that they were as much part of the problem in the world as the evil empires that had enslaved them.
So the Romans thought Jesus was a political and military threat, some Jews believed Jesus was a disappointment, His revolution didn’t include swords, battles and dead Romans which is what they expected and other Jews saw him as a heretic, claiming God was uniquely speaking and working through him, a carpenter! That storm was only ever going to lead to one place, and it would involve wood and nails.
Think about some of that stuff as we read Mark together