I didn’t know what to expect in picking up this book. I believe N.T. Wright’s theology has some serious deficiencies, but I really appreciate his excellent scholarship on some things (especially on Christ’s resurrection). But overall, I’m very glad I read it.
The Challenge of Jesus basically addresses the issue of the quest for the historical Jesus (Jesus the man, the historical figure rather than the Jesus of dogma and theology), as well as how this directly and freshly relates how we live our lives today. Wright believes that investigating Jesus in his historical context does no violence to the Faith: Jesus “has his feet solidly planted in first-century Palestine and yet rings deeply true to the resurrected Christ of Christian belief, worship, and experience” (backcover).
I liked the entire premise of the book – that Christians should pursue seeing Jesus as the man of history in his first-century world in order to know God more deeply and learn how to live in our postmodern age. Wright argues that because of God’s glory revealed in Jesus, Jesus’ centrality to Christian mission, and our imperative to pursue truth and loyalty to Scripture, we’re obligated look to the real Jesus of history. I was a history major in college, thus I’m always frustrated by theologians who downplay the importance of history and narrative, instead focusing on the abstractions and philosophical categories of theology. Just because people misuse history to diminish Jesus does not mean we cannot use history to discover more truth about Jesus. After all, the historical Jesus is the same Jesus we worship.
I liked how Wright counter-acted revisionists of the historical Jesus — while at the same time mostly ignoring them! He only occasionally mentioned the “Jesus Seminar” authors, but using the internal character of the Gospels, Second Temple Judaism literature, and other background knowledge, Wright decisively rebuts their theories. This is a very nice feature and puts a positive face on the book that will make its message and truth appeal to more people (in particular, those who dislike the whole idea of “debate”).
I did learn some valuable things from this book I did not know before. The contrast between Jesus and the Jerusalem temple was a powerful and very compelling evidence that Jesus believed himself to be divine. The Jewish self-understanding of exile and Kingdom/Messianic hope was also informative, as was his chapter on the resurrection (not surprising, that being Wright’s forte). Furthermore, he describes biblical and theological truths in an inspiring and rich vocabulary (in contrast to some theologians who seemingly even try to sound boring).
On the negative side, there was much I honestly didn’t like about the book. While I did enjoy the historical bent Wright took, he uses it to come up with interpretations of Jesus’ parables and other things that virtually no one in church history has taken, and his reasoning for taking those interpretations does not always follow. He lacks tight argumentation. He applies 1st century texts and events to the biblical text and events without giving warrants on why those 1st century backgrounds should be applied in the way Wright is applying them.
Case in point: Wright notes a passage in Josephus’ works where Josephus was telling a brigand leader to “repent and believe in me” to lay down his rebellion against Rome. Wright notes the similarity of the Greek sentence to Jesus’ own teaching of “repent and believe,” and makes the conclusion that Jesus’ kingdom message was one of political bent and against war with Rome. While I find that comparison between Josephus and Jesus’ statements informative and worthy of further study, he makes a big logical jump here.
Wright’s hermeneutics have weaknesses – he leans toward heavily allegorical rather than plain-literal interpretation. The Bible certainly has many parallels, types, and allegories, but may of his connections are a bit of a stretch, and he’s a more dogmatic on them than he should be. He takes some shots at Premilennialists and to my surprise, brings up some of his “New Perspective on Paul” soteriology into the book, which seemed out of place.
Things like this made many portions of the book less helpful, and I was unsure about recommending it until I came to the last two chapters on applying Jesus to today, especially this postmodern world and the chaotic changes going on. The last two chapters are excellently written, wise, and tremendously inspiring. They alone make me want to buy the book now (I borrowed this copy from a library). Wright is strong on practical, all-encompassing applications, the joy and anticipation of the future, what the historical Jesus can bring through us in ministering to people in the postmodern culture, and connecting our vocation with biblical truth. It really impacted me and helped my spiritual life this whole week.
In conclusion, I highly recommend this book, but not to a new believer. If you already have a holistic grasp on the Bible, theology, and hermeneutics will you better appreciate how wonderful and fresh Wright’s insights are… and discern some of his craziness!
Here are some highlights from the book:
“We can categorize the challenged of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to historic Christianity in terms of its asking a necessary question in a misleading fashion” (19)
“Jesus took his own story very seriously. He would turn the other cheek; he would go the second mile; he would take up the cross. He would be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. He would be Israel for the sake of Israel. He would defeat evil by letting it do its worst to him.” (85).
“The cross is the surest, truest and deepest window on the very heart and character of the living and loving God; the more we learn about the cross in all its historical and theological dimensions, the more we discover about the One in whose image we are made and hence about our own vocation to be the cross-bearing people, the people in whose lives and service the living God is made known.” (94-5).
“If, therefore, Judaism did indeed have a great incarnational symbol at its very heart, namely the Temple, then for Jesus to upstage the Temple, to take on its role role and function and to legitimate this with Davidic claims, meant that Jesus was claiming that he rather than the Temple was the place where and the means by which the living God was present with Israel.” (111).
“My proposal is not that we know what the word god means and manage somehow to fit Jesus into that. Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy, vocation, riding through Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple and dying on a Roman cross — and that we somehow allow our meaning for the word god to be recentered around that point.” (123-4) [very much in the spirit of John 1.18]
“Suppose Jesus’ execution was not a clear disproof of his messianic vocation but its confirmation and climax. Suppose the cross was not one more example of the triumph of paganism over God’s people but was actually God’s means of defeating evil once and for all. Suppose this was, after all, how exile was designed to end, how sins were to be forgiven, how the kingdom was to come.” (162).
“The individual existential angst of the sixties has become the corporate and cultural angst of the nineties. The human beings who could not pull themselves together in the 1960s have become the human societies that cannot pull themselves together in the 1990s… The Christian answer to it is the love of God, which goes through death and out the other side. What is missing from the postmodern equation is of course love. The radical hermeneutic of suspicion that characterizes all postmodernity is essentially nihilistic, denying the very possibility of creative or healing love. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus we find the answer: the God who made the world is revealed in terms of self-giving love that no hermeneutic of suspicion can ever touch, in a Self that found itself by giving itself away, in a Story that was never manipulative but always healing and recreating, and in a Reality that can truly be known…” (170).
“When God does what God intends to do, this will be a fresh act of grace, of radical newness. At one level it will be quite unexpected, like a surprise party with guests we never thought we would meet and delicious food we never thought we would taste. But at the same time there will be a rightness about it, a rich continuity with what has gone on before so that in the midst of our surprise and our delight we will say ‘Of course! This is how it had to be, even though we’d never imagined it.'” (179-180).
“Bearing God’s image is not just a fact. It is a vocation” (183).
“We can and must as Christians within a postmodern world give an account of human knowing that will apply to music and mathematics, to biology and history, to theology and chemistry. We need to articulate, for the post-postmodern world, what we might call an epistemology of love.” (195)
God tells us He forgives to the very depth of our soul, covering the worst outbursts of our depravity:
“… Through His name, everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” – (Acts 10.43)
“If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, Oh Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that you may be revered. I wait for the Lord. My soul does wait, and in His word do I hope.” (Psalm 130.3-4)
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. . . . If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous. And He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for those of the whole world.” (1 John 1.9, 2.1-2).
Introspective hearts will ask, “Will this really work yet again? Will God forgive me today, just like yesterday? He can’t forgive me again. I can’t ask His forgiveness now. He’s bound to be angry. Maybe later when I’m doing better.”
This thinking is absolutely wrong! God will forgive you every day of your life! Every moment of your life! To say that God can’t forgive us because we’re “too bad,” to delay going to God in order to make ourselves “good” again — all is a kind of pride. That’s saying God isn’t gracious enough. Let’s be humble enough to accept God’s forgiveness! HE is God and has the right to forgive, and fortunately for us, He does. His Word guarantees it. God is immensely gracious, beyond anything we can comprehend! All because of the cross of Christ satisfying the penalty for our guilt, believers in Him go free forever, and when we sin now we can come to God and ask forgiveness to receive renewed fellowship with God.
Not that we deserve it. We never merit forgiveness, nor can we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and be good by ourselves, or atone for our own sins by asceticism or self-punishment or doing some kind deed. Let God be God. The cross of Christ atoned for every last ounce of your sin.
Let’s seek God for forgiveness when we’ve done wrong. This causes us to revere God, and therefore glorifies Him. And isn’t that what God wants? What else does He want you to do: to stay away from Him? Punish yourself in some way first? Our Lord is clear: He has been punished for us; so every time we sin, the only thing Christ desires is our rush back into His love and grace – and stay there.
If you believe this, you can take on anything in the world.
I want to comment on something I’ve been hearing lately in Christian circles — that the worklessness of Satan or demons proves that faith in Christ must include a life of commitment and good works for it to be truly saving. John Piper tweeted recently “If we could receive Jesus as Savior and not receive his teachings as our daily norm, Satan would be the first person in line.” All too frequently James 2.19 used in the same way: that if “even the demons believe [that God is one] and shudder” yet have no good works, then also if we humans believe and do no good works, our faith is incapable to save and we’re on our way to hell. The debate over the relationship between faith and works is an important one, but this argument is very misguided!
The simple truth is this: The only way to be saved is to have Jesus die for you. BUT Jesus did not die for Satan and the demons. Nor for plants, or animals, or rocks. Jesus died for humankind. God became man to die for man; if He wanted to open a way of salvation for these spirits, he would have become a finite spirit like them.
Scripture clearly teaches that it is because of the death of the Son of Man that people can be saved. Without the cross, no matter how much humanity believed in God, they could never be saved. We’ve sinned. The penalty is death. Whatever righteousness we do is filthy rags (Rom 3.23, 6.23a, Isaiah 64.6) before God. If our works of righteousness are so worthless, how much more pitiful is believing in God without a way to pay the penalty for our sins!
Only because of the cross is there an open way for humanity’s salvation, and God has chosen that this salvation is not to be obtained by working for the benefit of atonement, but simply believing into Jesus to receive this benefit freely as a gift. None of the angelic spirits have access to this. In fact the whole point of Hebrews chapter 2 is how Christ died for man to put man in authority rather than the angels. If Christ did not die for His own angelic spirits, he certainly did not die for the evil angelic spirits. So no – Satan is not first in line for salvation, nor can he be.
The only biblical reference for these common demonic faith analogies is James 2.19, but this misconstrues this passage, imposing pre-conceived assumptions. James 2.19 is using demons as an example of the importance or unimportance of works. It is debated whether James is even teaching this himself or if he is still quoting the objector from verse 18 (Greek did not have punctuation marks, so where the quotation marks end is up for debate from the context). But for this argument, whichever option doesn’t link to human faith:
1.) If 2.19 is quoting an objection to James’ argument, then it’s using demons as an example to argue that faith and works have no relationship because demons believe and don’t do good, to which James responds to re-assert that faith without works is useless and gives examples with Abraham and Rahab to show works do fulfill faith’s righteousness.
2.)If we take it that the quotation marks end before 2.19 and this is James resuming his argument, then it is apparent James is only using demons as an illustration to say that living a life that has faith but no works is repulsive. No one likes to be compared to demons. Furthermore, demons “believe God is one.” This is mere monotheism, not a trusting faith in the person of Christ for salvation. Big difference!
Either way, James’s point is the unproductiveness of faith without works, not that demons would be saved if they only had faith with works attached to it. To say anything beyond this pushes the analogy farther than what the text actually says. There’s a good summary of this from Dr. Charlie Bing, “Demon Faith and the Misuse of James 2.19”
The condemnation of Satan and his spirits was accomplished before humanity’s fall, and their knowing choice for rebellion was already quite made. They are not in any way analogous to what kind of faith humans must have in Christ to be saved. They are only analogous to us in that we both do evil things. Therefore, statement’s like Piper’s above are confusing and misguided, and should be avoided in any debates over the relationship between saving faith and works.
There is an old hymn I sung last night in church. It goes, “Alas, and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” This is the original anyway. Many modern renditions quietly replace “such a worm as I” with “such a sinner such as I.” True, all Christ-followers agree we’re sinners. But are we as low-down as to be called “worms” too? I’ve read or heard a few Christians say that we should not call ourselves “worms.” It is degrading, because people are made in the image of God. What’s more, as Christians, we have been redeemed and God calls us “saints.” They say we’re not worms anymore, if we even ever were.
Before going further, please read this carefully:
“But I am a worm, and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. Everyone who sees me mocks me; they sneer and shake their heads, saying ‘He relies on the Lord, let Him rescue him, let the Lord deliver him since He takes pleasure in him.’ . . . My strength is dried up like baked clay; my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you put me in the dust of death. For dogs have surrounded me, a band of evildoers has closed in on me, they pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people look and stare at me. They divided my garments among themselves and cast lots for my clothing.” (Psalm 22.6-8, 15-18 Holman Christian Standard Bible).
If you haven’t guessed yet, this is a prophecy of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Psalm 22 reflects Jesus’ point of view as He hung on the cross, being mocked and subject to sarcastic jabs as He is humiliated in excruciating pain from being beaten and having his hands and feet nailed to wooden beams. He did this to satisfy the penalty for our many sins.
The Supreme Being, God Almighty, became a human, named Jesus. Jesus means “Yahweh [the personal name for God] is salvation.” Jesus called Himself the “Son of God,” but also the “Son of Man.” God becoming human is stooping down quite low in itself. Yes, humans are made in God’s image, but God is still infinitely more than us. For God to manifest Himself into a finite being is an amazing act of love. But He goes yet further in His humiliation, and from the cross He says He is “a worm, not a man.”
From God, to man, to worm. From the highest of the high to the lowest of the low. The Bible says that God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corin. 5.21). Jesus became the shameful and despicable as an innocent man, thus making atonement for our sins and everyone who is in Him therefore no longer sinners, but righteous. “Since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5.1 HCSB). God then glorifies Himself and and receives the eternal love of His followers through His own humility.
I am a sinner. I am the lowest of the low because of my sin. I deserve to be a worm forever in hell in unquenchable fire. Yes, my Savior did bleed for such a worm as I; not for me to stay a worm, but to have Christ’s righteousness and live eternally with Him in total awe of His glorious grace.
I’m sorry, this question is lost on me now. Who is the worm?
Today I was walking past a door in upper center and saw a poster of a bearded, scruffy homeless man holding up a cardboard sign. (The poster may not have been intended to mean what I am about to say; maybe it comes from talking to broken-hearted homeless people a lot). His sign read, “I just want my childhood back.” It made me stop and stare at it, almost to tears. That is so sad. I’ve heard somewhere this quote: “There is nothing so sad in this world as innocence lost.” Childhood represents all that is pure, humble, trusting, secure, joyful, blissful – before cold, hard reality sets in, when mistakes are made, which lead to bigger mistakes, getting tossed around so much that bearings are lost – then purity becomes impurity, humility becomes pride, trust becomes doubt and distrust, security becomes insecurity, joy becomes sorrow, bliss becomes worry.
This innocence of Adam and Eve was lost at Eden when they disobeyed God. It has been lost ever since. God came in Jesus to set this right. He went to die on a cross to pay the deathly penalty for that lost innocence. We can have it all back, if we believe in Him.