Thursday, November 17, 2011

What I heard-listening to N.T. Wright

I didn’t take notes. I generally don’t take notes for later study, but the act of writing notes helps me remember what was said. But in this case I just wanted to absorb the lecture given by N.T. Wright on Jesus and the Kingdom. After having just read some of Nain Stifan Ateek’s book A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation Wright’s lecture was like eating hot buttered English muffins when you still had the taste of cold burnt toast in your memory. Ateek divided up the various pictures of the promised messiah as competing paradigms; he was either the Davidic king or the suffering servant. Finally, in the New Testament, the suffering servant wins. Wright on the other hand pulled the whole Hebrew Bible into the New and allowed Jesus to bless the promises with his life.

Wright spoke of four themes about Jesus in the Gospels and how sometimes we in the West listen too loudly to several; Jesus as the second person of the Trinity was one we listen to at full volume. We don't listen to his life enough. But Wright used the Old Testament to show how the life of Jesus fulfilled the promises of the kingdom to Israel.

One highlight, at least for me, was Wright’s use of Daniel. And he used a great deal of Daniel. One surprising detail was a rarely used excerpt, except by dispensationalist trying to make a different unhelpful point. The passage is chapter 9, Daniel’s prayer of confession and hope for the fulfillment of God’s return of his people since the promised seventy years of Israel’s exile was finished. But Gabriel restates the prophecy; it is 70 weeks of years. And Matthew’s genealogy holds that detail intact showing how Jesus fulfills the promise of God’s presence to his people. Jesus’ birth and life, according to Wright is God returning to Israel in fulfillment of the promises and in answer to Daniel’s prayer that God would “let” his “face shine” on his “desolate sanctuary.”

And here, to make a jump, Wright reminded his hearers that the new Kingdom, the promise to Israel could not really be found in the second temple built after the exile. And that was because God had not yet returned to Israel, they were still waiting. And although I don’t remember exactly the verses that Wright quoted he did go to Malachi. And there is God’s word, “And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, ‘He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts.” (3:1b)

Returning to Daniel, the picture of the kingdoms of the world that rise in King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream are shattered by a stone cut out without hands. The stones smash the kingdoms of the world to fine dust that is blown away. And the stone “becomes a great mountain,” and so the kingdom of Christ. And then Wright pulls in the suffering servant, that beautiful picture in Isaiah of the coming Messiah. Wright covers Isaiah 40 to 52, reminding his listeners of the shepherd who carries the lambs and leads the nursing ewes. But this is God who bares his arm in the midst of his people, this is the Incarnation. Now Jesus fulfills the image of the suffering servant. God comes back to Israel and to all the nations, in the suffering servant who is nonetheless a king.

So the whole life, not just his birth and death are a fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. He is the promised one whose kingdom fills the whole earth. And then, at the end, Wright did write the cross large in our minds, because he connected the cross of Christ to the kingdom. Jesus challenges Pilate with his kingdom, coming from above, his kingship that is not like worldly kings, his truth. And truth often brings suffering—so Jesus dies but the resurrection—brings the cross to us, his followers. We too must speak the truth and bear the cross and so the kingdom comes.

When one finishes on a note of suffering and crosses it is best to bring in real witnesses. Wright spoke of those he knew in Nigeria and Sudan. We could add so many places, Egypt, North Korea, and Iran. But the Kingdom comes through suffering. In the coming of Jesus it will be over. But God is with us now.

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