Modern Christianity can be defined by two sides.
On one side, you have committed Christians who believe Jesus’ act of salvation on the cross is the most important belief. Jesus came to “rescue” sinners from this world, they argue, so that “believers” may experience eternal life in Heaven. The cross and forgiveness become central ideas in this belief. Others argue Jesus is more interested in building the kingdom of God. This idea was central in the social gospel movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Here, Jesus is about justice and reconciliation.
Both are important contributions to Christianity, but the two sides rarely interact with one another. Those who advocate Jesus is only about the cross often ignore the kingdom realities of Jesus’ life and teaching. At the same time, those who argue that Jesus is building a kingdom often forget that Jesus is interested in naming sin as sin and calling people to forgiveness.
What do the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – have to say about Jesus’ ministry and purpose? What is the message that the gospels are trying to make regarding Jesus, his mission, and his kingdom?
Noted scholar and former Anglican bishop N.T. Wright attempts to answer these questions in his latest book “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.” Wright argues that the Gospel writers make a specific claim about Jesus that connects the incarnation and the crucifixion as the basis for a missiology of the kingdom. Wright says,
Sometimes, without stating any such narrative, different Christians have found that they want to highlight one element of the other, whether the “kingdom,” to validate a contemporary social agenda (and to leave a question mark as to why the cross mattered at all), or the “cross,” to emphasize the mechanism by which God rescues sinners from this world and enables them to go to “heaven” (leaving a question mark as to why either Jesus or the evangelists would think it mattered that much to do all those healings to walk on water, or to give such remarkable teachings.)
The entire book is an oration on how the gospels deal deeply with the implications of Jesus being the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. Wright argues that the gospels tell of how Jesus’ entire life and ministry was about building God’s kingdom. The incarnation, Jesus’ entrance into humanity, was the moment Jesus came humbly into the world as king. His life is the teaching about the kingdom, what it looks like, and how it stands in polar opposite to the powers of this world. His death is the moment in which the world’s kingdoms are defeated and God’s power is on display through the foolishness of the cross. His resurrection is the proof of God’s hope that exists in the world and that, as Wright argues, the world’s powers are no longer in control.
The entirety of Jesus’ mission is held together to show how Jesus is king not in a time to come, but today. Jesus, Wright reminds us, is our Lord and King and we are called to live as “kingdom-bringers” in response. This isn’t by living out a political agenda, but by being followers of Christ and participating in Jesus’ ministry and suffering.
The implicit ecclesiology of all four gospels is a picture of a community sharing the complex vocation of Jesus himself: to be kingdom-bringers, yes, but to do this first because of Jesus’s own suffering and second by means of their own.
Wright also addresses how the message of the gospels has been muted and not properly heard. He spends a large portion of the book addressing how are own ideas have caused the gospels to not be properly heard. There are multiple reasons for this, and too long to address in a review. Wright focuses on four specific areas that are either not focused on enough or are overemphasized to the determent of other issues. They are: believing that the gospels are presenting the climax of Israel’s story instead of its continuation; overemphasizing that Jesus is Israel’s God to where we struggle to grasp what the writers are saying about the servant nature of Jesus’ divinity; claiming that the gospels are just a projection of the early church instead of focusing on the Gospels as a launching narrative of a new movement; and, how we ignore that Jesus combated the kingdom of Caesar (or the kingdoms of the world) in bringing about the kingdom of God.
By alerting the reader to how we can mishear the gospels, Wright invites the reader to deeply engage the gospels. Doing so allows us to understand that Jesus is our Lord today because of the crucifixion and resurrection, which has deep implications for how we live our lives today.
“How God Became King” is an excellent and challenging read, but it must be read with some of Wright’s other books, such as “Surprised by Hope,” in order to gain a fuller appreciation for his theology and thoughts. Wright is a challenging New Testament scholar and that tradition continues in this book. This book suited for scholars and pastors. Laity desiring to read this book would be advised to read “Simply Christian” along with it in order to understand more intimately Wright’s ideas.
Those who do read “How God Became King” must be prepared to have their views challenged on the kingdom of God and the mission of the church. That challenge will bring forth a deeper appreciation of the gospels, the mission of the kingdom, and our faith in Jesus Christ.