A few months ago, my pastor and I decided to read and discuss a couple of NT Wright books. He chose “How God Became King.” I read “Simply Jesus.” NT Wright is certainly a controversial name in many evangelical circles, and the subtitle of Simply Jesus (A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters) does little to quell the uneasiness about his writings. When he finished reading his Wright book, my pastor said that he believed that Wright was a Christian – something he wasn’t sure about based on what he’s heard about Wright. He also found Wright’s writing powerful and insightful.
We could say the same thing about Simply Jesus. Powerfully written, insightful, useful. The main differences between the book I read and the book my pastor read is that He God Became King focuses on the messages of the four gospels while Simply Jesus reads sort of like a short biography. Simply Jesus aims at telling Jesus’s story while highlighting the significance of Jesus’s life on earth. Wright tells that story in such a way that it pierces through Modern thinking of history: “I think, to be clear: writing about Jesus has never been, for me, a matter of simply ‘neutral’ historical study (actually, there is no such thing, whatever the topic…).” He defies the Bultmanian (I think that’s a word?) division between the Jesus of History and the Jesus of Faith. Wright makes no attempt to keep the two divided. His work is not merely academic, however. He writes for the person who wants to know the answer to the question: “Could you tell me about Jesus?” The question has no simple answer, but he tries to answer it as simple as possible.
He divides the book into three parts. The first part lays out what he calls “the key questions.” These questions relate to Jesus’s historical setting. We can’t think about history in a Modern, Enlightenment way (which even in the church tends to be deistic in nature). We must understand how Jewish people in the 1st century thought about God and his role in history, and we must understand what the role of the Roman government had in Israel at that time. We must do it in a way that is not biased against supernatural happenings. The second part is the meat of the book. This part attempts to answer: “What is Jesus doing?” Everything that Jesus does falls under the rubric of “God’s Kingdom Coming on Earth.” Jesus opposes the cosmic powers by casting out demons. Jesus fulfills biblical expectations of the Messiah by healing and forgiving sins – setting people free from all kinds of bondage. He defies improper thinking about the Messiah. They thought about the Messiah would inaugurate physical kingdom that would defeat the Romans. Jesus’s mission is concerned with much more than that. Jesus defeats the powers opposing his kingdom (political and cosmic, and sin and death) ultimately at the cross, that is, at his death. Evil is invited to do its worst and expends itself completely. Jesus conquers sin and diseases and opposing points of view with words and not swords. Jesus conquers death and the cosmic forces through humility and suffering and not with an army. In the third part, Wright describes how Jesus is raised from the dead in victory and now rules the world through his people who are now tasked with carrying out the same mission to the world in the same way that Jesus did.
I think Wright’s work is valuable in that he corrects “Christian escapism.” Christians do not need bunkers. Christ is reigning victoriously, and we need to live as if that were true. The old phrase “Kingdom Living” applies here. How does my life right now reflect the fact that Jesus is ruling this world, and that evil is already (although not yet) defeated? We preach that Jesus is Lord and restoring all things in himself. We are ministers of reconciliation – loving God and neighbor in ways that were impossible without Jesus.
The biggest thing I wish he emphasized more was that living Kingdom lives means living holy lives. Thus we follow Jesus’s lead in obeying God. On the cross, Jesus deals with our first and biggest problem. Jesus graciously bore our sin on the cross. This fact makes the gospel so good and makes the ministry of reconciliation possible.
Consider reading Simply Jesus. I’m curious as to what you might have to say!