Tag Archives: Gospels

Impressions of “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels,” by N.T. Wright

Impressions of “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels,” by N.T. Wright

N.T Wright’s How God Became King is the best biblical commentary I have read since Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm. This book complements that one. Heiser focuses on the enthronement of God as lord of the world. Wright focuses on the same events, culminating in the enthronement of Christ. Heiser look at God’s defeat of supernatural antagonists; Wright at Christ’s defeat of Casesar and his ilk. And while Heiser discusses God’s organization of his re-made domain, Wright explains Christ’s new-formed Kingdom.

You never thought of “Render under Caesar what is Caesar’s” as a call to divine revenge before, did you?

The King of Israel, the King of the Jews

Wright argues the Old and New Testaments a parts of one story: the triumph of the Jewish Messiah against the so-called rulers in the world. Wright argues that the combination of the personal name “Jesus” (a variation of Joshua) with title “Christ” (the Annointed One) is not an accident of history: following the life of Christ, the most relevant fact about God is that He is the King of the world.

Wright says this may be surprising to Credal Christians whose churches focus their education on the three great creeds, The Creeds, Greco-Roman works written in response to heresies, addressed controversial or not immediately clear aspects of Christianity. Indeed, there is nothing of the ministry of Christ in the Creeds at all! The the Athanasian Creed focuses on the nature or essence, and not the actions, of Christ. And what Christ did in his earthly life in skipped over, in both the Nicene Creed:

who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man;
he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate
,
and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;

And the Apostle’s Creed:

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
Under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified
,
died, and was buried. suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;

Wright (and Heiser) argue the scriptures place as much emphasis on Christ’s teachings his ministry, as the Creeds do His nature. The Scriptures refers to a political story, of the Ancient of Days and the One Like the Son of Man:

“I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,

And they brought Him near before Him.

Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
Which shall not pass away,
And His kingdom the one
Which shall not be destroyed.
Daniel 7:13-14

N.T. Wright also shows this vision is echoed (prophesied?) by Mary, as recorded by the Evangelist who most attended to the voices of women, Luke:

And Mary said:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,

And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.”
Luke 1:46-55

Catholic marionology builds a lot of meaning on the word “magnifies.” But relevant for N.T. Wright is that the Messiah is given dominion, re-organizes the political world, and is Himself enthroned.

A fiery stream issued
And came forth from before Him.
A thousand thousands ministered to Him;
Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.
The court was seated,
And the books were opened.
Daniel 7:10

Mary’s words describing revolutionary strength and “thrones” echo the the verses before the Son of Man passage in Daniel. Wright, like Heiser, sees in this the re-organization (that is, creation) of a Kingdom into one that places the Lord in direct control of the Earth. The Court of the Ancient of Days ruled against the former rulers, and granted dominion to the One like a Son of Man.

Paying Back to Caesar

But if Christ is a worldy ruler, what of “Render under Caesar”? What of “My Kingdom is not of this world”? What of the claims that Christianity, unlike Judaism or Islam, recognizes a separation of church and state as a founding claim?

Wright argues there is no contradiction, because the first quote is a threat, and the second indicates origin, and not maximum extent, of the Heavenly Kingdom.

Take first the “render under Caesar” line, which is more literally translated as “give back to Caesar.” The point is that the word used for “render,” apodote, is cognate with antapodote, pay back, which is also used for revenge.

But having perceived their craftiness, He said to them, “Show Me a denarius. Whose image and inscription does it have?”

And they said, “Caesar’s.”

And He said to them, “Therefore give back to Caesar the things of Caesar, and to God the things of God.”
Luke 20:23-25

Pay-back will come to our world too. Judas Maccabeus lead the Jewish revolt against another foreign invader, and promised pay them back for their atrocities:

“Now behold, I know that Simeon your brother is wise in counsel; always listen to him; he shall be your father. Judas Maccabeus has been a mighty warrior from his youth; he shall command the army for you and fight the battle against the peoples. You shall rally about you all who observe the law, and

avenge the wrong done to your people.
Pay back the Gentiles in full,

and heed what the law commands.”
1 Maccabees 2:68

What form shall this divine retributive justice, taken by men on behalf of God, take?

Matthew, the most Jewish of the evangelists, provides an extended midrash on paying back:

Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.

“But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt..So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.

“So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Matthew 18:23-35

The mercy we show to sinners is pay back God’s enemies. It is through love given to sinners we grind the head of the Serpent into the dirt, as Paul said in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians:

since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Thessalonians 1:6-8

Similarly, Wright argues that Christ’s statement that his kingdom is not of (or, in Greek, ek) this world refers to the His kingdom being from (ek) a victorious realm Heaven, and not the soon-to-be-conquered Earth. In this reading, Christ’s speech recorded by the philosophical John is more an indictment of the weakness of earthly forces than submission to them:

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world; if My kingdom were of this world, My attendants would fight that I might not be betrayed to the Jews. But now My kingdom is not from here.”
John 18:36

Likewise, the Greek-English Interlinear Bible provides uses of ek which clearly mean “out of” or “from”. N.T. Wright rejects the idea the Christian scriptures encourage the separation of church and state. Atheists from Razib Khan to Sam Harris laud “render under Caesar” as implying a necessary distinction between government and religion in Christianity. Wright argues there reading is wrong, and is a reflection not of Biblical teaching but of Enlightenment error.

Creating His Kingdom

Wright’s logic is in keeping with the Canaanite view of creation as proper Ordering or Organizing. Ba’al crafted, or literally contracted out, the crafting of his home when he “made” his Temple — and he made mistakes while doing so. The shocking part of the Genesis narrative is not the mere existence of a creator god — most near eastern cultures had that — but that He is also a competent craftsman. The Jewish Bible subsequently records God organizing Earth as His holy temple and Canaan as His holy land in the same way: by taking existing parts and putting them in a new order, he created them.

As creation is ordering, un-creation is disordering: being placed under the ban or made herem. Pre-Israel Canaan was uncreated to be later remade for Israel. The corrupt Kingdom of Israel itself would be uncreated — the prophet Elijah actually tried to hurry this process along. Ordering-as-Creation occurs in each human life. God’s servants who let themselves be un-created by God’s enemies will find themselves re-created by God Himself:

The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Although she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She encouraged each of them in the language of their ancestors. Filled with a noble spirit, she reinforced her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.”
2 Maccabees 7:20-23

Yet, if Christ is a King, how can we serve him? The traditional Reformed view is not through own work: Some Reformed theologians even claim that “Davidic kingship was not in fact restored after the exile, nor was such a restoration ever seriously contemplated” and that the promises of a King of the Jews was subverted by “transferal of the Davidic promises to the entire people.”

The polar opposite of this is the Catholic view, arguing that Christ is King, Mary is Queen-Mother, and Peter the first Pope was Prime Minister. Like Judaism, Catholocism provides a ladder of allegiance to God, with an earthly apparatus to guild the follower along.

In keeping with his position as a former Bishop in the Anglican Church, Wright also finds a middle ground between the Reformed and Catholic traditions in how Christ’s Kingship should be manifest in the world. Specifically, Wright adopts Reformed terminology and Catholic practice. His use of “theocracy” to refer to the state of existing under Christ’s kingship and explicit recognition of God as King (without explicitly stating the existence of any intermediaries) recalls the Reformed tradition. But Wright’s attacks on the Enlightenment concept of a separation of the political and theological spheres, not to mention the recall the universal nature of the Catholic faith.

But this creates a difference with Heiser’s Unseen World that is not addressed in the text. Who are the thrones seized from that are given to God, who controlled the separate sphere that was abolished by Christ? Heiser argues that these are supernatural entities, “gods,” who may literally include Ba’al, Ashtarte, and the Canaanite pantheon. That is, the supernatural hierarchy envisioned for man in Genesis, Hebrews, and The Psalms

What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.

You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
Psalms 8:4-6

… is not merely poetic, but refers to Christ’s literal overthrow of supernatural overlords. But here Wright seems to hew to a Reformed — or at least post-Enlightenment — line. While a few brief words about possible supernatural entities are shared, the focus seems to be on men like Caesar who are cast down. (Allegorical or “hyper-real” readings, such as Jordan Peterson’s view that the defeated gods are disorganized aspects of personal psychology, are not addressed at all.)

Final Thoughts

How God Became King by N.T. Wright is an excellent work, focused on the New Testament, arguing that Christ is the real and true King of our world, and that this story is told through the Gospels. Wright looks beyond the Creeds to the enthronement of God on Earth, His command to pay back His enemies, and instructions as to how we should proceed. Became King relies less on the literary and theological background of Second Temple Judaism than Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, but perhaps because of that, is more accessible.

For those interested, a conversation between Heiser and Wright is available online as audio and in transcript.

I read How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels in the Audible edition.

The Gospel of Luke

abraham_and_lazarus

In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

Luke 16:24

Ruth said,
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.

Ruth 1:16

In both Judges and Luke, a Messenger of the Lord appears to a couple, promising a son. In both cases strong drink is specifically prohibited. In both cases Israel will be moved by the promised boy. Both are the beginning of deliverance

And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”

Judges 13:3-5

Annunciation-Samsons-Birth-c1250-Maciejowaki-Bible-Magic-Lantern-Glass-Slide

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.

Luke 1:13-16

But quickly after this familiar Jewish scene is something far rarer in the Hebrew Bible. A direct conversation, with quoted words, between two women not about a man.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

Luke 1:39-45

Men are often foolish in Luke. Herod, who murdered John the Baptist, wants to see Jesus because he thinks he may be John the Baptist, risen from the dead!

samuel and saul

Now Herod the ruler heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Herod said, “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he tried to see him.
Luke 9:7-9

and later Herod has such an emotional journey on the day of the Crucifixion that one is reminded of poor king Saul, whose demons destroyed his life and his mind

When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer.  The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.
Luke 20:8-12

Women, and what they observe, are a theme. The Lord’s conversation with Mary and Martha hints at something to come..

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;  there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Luke 10:38-42

And these themes, wisdom, observing reality, are repeated. The Gospel of Luke is explicitly in the Wisdom tradition of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, but without the reassuring calmness of Proverbs

1_6-1_ruth_ruth_and_naomi_gleaning_in_the_fields

Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary.
Luke 11:49-51

Luke disturbs the reader, introducing sarcasm not seen in the Bible since Job or Ecclesiastes

But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;

ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?

Job 12:7-9 (on the death of his family)

All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upwards and the spirit of animals goes downwards to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?

Ecclesiastes 3:20-22

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

Luke 13:31-33

While it is men who murder, it is women who watch. Women have the gift of realizing a murder is a murder, no matter who is being murdered. The camera pans back — Christ, the soldier, the crowd, the acquaintances, the women —- the witnesses of murders

pharaoh-s-daughter-finding-baby-moses

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things

Luke 23:45-49

The closest parallel to this in the Bible — of woman seeing the thing, clearly, is Sarah at her Annunciation, when she spoke to the LORD

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him.  Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”

Genesis 18:9-14

sarahlaughed-abelpann-1024

But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Genesis 18:15

The traditional view of this scene is negative for Sarah, the doubter, who laughed. But the ridiculous is ridiculous, no matter the speaker. Just as a murder is a murder, no matter the victim. The LORD is fully present in the world, really and truly was at supper with Abraham and Sarah. Sarah, like Mary, actually listened to the LORD, and engaged the LORD, and reacted to the human God as the most treasured guest one could have.

The same pattern, with the same wry humor from the LORD, was repeated shortly before His crucifixion. But unlike women, the men do not engage enough to understand what is ridiculous. Given a command to trade cloth for swords, they immediately begin counting the swords in the house, as if the goal was Herod’s head. “Enough,” indeed.

He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.”

He replied, “It is enough.”

Luke 22:35-38

Joseph must have felt similar feelings of love and irritation when he sat down for dinner with his brothers.

joseph-with-brothers

The annunciation to Sarah, of course, occurred at a meal

Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

Genesis 18:7-8

lds-hearts-burn-bread-jesus

Immediately after the resurrection, the Lord appears to two men, revealing his identity as food is handed out.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

Luke 24:28-31

Even in the parables, in visiosn of heaven, we see flesh and blood — Abraham and Lazarus — proof that this creation, through Christ, may live forever.

And that is the world of the Gospel of Luke. Earth. A Creator who became a Creature.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t contradict each other, but they emphasize different thing.

In Matthew, primarily, Jesus is Legislator, King of Israel, and Prophet — the Son of Man
In Mark, primarily, Jesus is God of All.
In Luke, primarily, Jesus’s lives in the world of sarcasm, women, and food.

The Legislator…
The King…
The Prophet…
The One True God…

Is a creature,
Is a human,
Is a man.

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.

Genesis 2:18

The Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark is so fast it leaves you dizzy.

It begins quoting three seperate Bible verses, introduces the King of Israel, the sacrement of baptism, and the prophet John.

john-the-baptist-jesus

In four verses:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;

the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Mark 1:1-4

It ends just as abruptly

So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it

Mark 16:19-20

And in between… in between is not the careful point-by-point capstone to the Hebrew Bible that Matthew wrote. The message is shorter, more concise:

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Mark 8:34

These are not idle words:

Now it was the third hour, and they crucified Him. And the inscription of His accusation was written above:

THE KING OF THE JEWS.

With Him they also crucified two robbers, one on His right and the other on His left. So the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And He was numbered with the transgressors.”
Mark 15:25-27

In this short Gospel Mark, we have all the elements that Matthew would expound on.

John_of_the_Cross_crucifixion_sketch

But instead of an argument that the Hebrew Bible is incomplete without the Gospel, we have this

Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear His cross.
Mark 15:21

There are conversions in the Old Testament (Ruth, Naaman), and believers with foreign names (Esther, Mordecai).

We are told to carry the cross. And the man who did so lives in Africa, with sons named after Roman politicians and Greek kings.

Simon-Cyrene

The message of Matthew is that Jesus, Son of David, is the King, the Law-Giver, the LORD of Israel.

The message of Mark is that Jesus is for everyone.