Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Simply Jesus (Page 1 of 3)

Jesus enthroned

KingdomToday is the last in a series of posts surveying Tom Wright’s Simply Jesus, which is highly recommended for anyone wanting a more scripturally, historically and theologically faithful understanding of who Jesus was, what he did and why it matters. (You can read my full review here; for a link to all posts in the series, click here.)

As I was discussing with some friends yesterday, Simply Jesus is one of those books where you have to read right to the end before you understand the whole case the author is making. The case put forward by Tom Wright is really about how Jesus’ primary concern, the kingdom of God, was established through his life, death and resurrection. Only by understanding the rich story of creation, fall, covenant and redemption – which is the story of Israel, its chequered journey through history and its often tumultuous relationship with God – can we hope to properly understand just what this strange kingdom is and how it operates.

Let’s get to today’s excerpt:

This is what it looks like, today, when Jesus is running the world. This is, after all, what he told us to expect. The poor in spirit will be making the kingdom of heaven happen. The meek will be taking over the earth, so gently that the powerful won’t notice until it’s too late. The peacemakers will be putting the arms manufacturers out of business. Those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice will be analysing government policy and legal rulings and speaking up on behalf of those at the bottom of the pile. The merciful will be surprising everybody by showing that there is a different way to do human relations other than being judgmental, eager to put everyone else down. ‘You are the light of the world,’ said Jesus. ‘You are the salt of the earth.’ He was announcing a programme yet to be completed. He was inviting his hearers, then and now, to join him in making it happen. This is, quite simply, what it looks like when Jesus is enthroned.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

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Forgiven sinners

Fisheye churchThis is the penultimate post in our ongoing survey of the final chapters of Tom Wright’s Simply Jesus (full review here; click here to link to all posts in the series).

Let’s jump right in with today’s quote from the final chapter of Simply Jesus:

The church is not supposed to be a society of perfect people doing great work. It’s a society of forgiven sinners repaying their unpayable debt of love by working for Jesus’ kingdom in every way they can, knowing themselves to be unworthy of the task. The moment any Christian, particularly any Christian leader, forgets that — the moment any of us imagine that we are automatically special or above the dangers and temptations that afflict ordinary mortals — that is the moment when we are in gravest danger. Peter’s disastrous, humiliating crash came an hour or two after he had declared that he would follow Jesus to prison and even to death.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

You might well read the above paragraph and think it says nothing that isn’t perfectly obvious. However, there is a big implication for the church.

If you asked many non-religious folks their opinion of Christians, you would undoubtedly get a wide range of answers. However, a good chunk of those answers would surely be along the lines that Christians are a bunch of holier-than-thou do-gooders, people who consider themselves morally a cut above the average Joe or Jane and who spend their lives looking down their noses at the moral inadequacy of those not so enlightened as they are. This view may appear to be based on a caricature, but it’s the view that a lot of people hold, and one has to assume that they mostly have at least some reason for holding it.

Jesus spent his time hanging out with people who were transparently bad and/or messed up in a variety of ways. When he was referred to as the “friend of sinners”, this was not a compliment. Furthermore, the twelve men he chose to be his closest associates and into whom he poured his life and teaching were a motley band of liars, hot-heads, deniers and betrayers.

And so we seemingly have a major disconnect. On the one hand, the Jesus of first century Palestine kept community with all manner of social misfits, outcasts and ne’er-do-wells; on the other hand; the community of Jesus in the twenty-first century (the church) is largely seen as being made up of self-important morality police.

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Good works and the kingdom

Good worksAs regular readers will know, over the past two or three months we’ve been working our way through various excerpts from Tom Wright’s highly recommended book Simply Jesus (my full review is here, and you can find all posts in the series here). There will be two more posts in the series after today’s.

Let’s go straight to today’s excerpt, from the final chapter:

We have domesticated the Christian idea of ‘good works’, so that it has simply become ‘the keeping of ethical commands’. In the New Testament, ‘good works’ are what Christians are supposed to be doing in and for the wider community. That is how the sovereignty of Jesus is put into effect.

[…]

Jesus went about feeding the hungry, curing the sick and rescuing lost sheep; his Body is supposed to be doing the same. That is how his kingdom is at work. That is how he is at work.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

I’m not sure what mental associations the phrase “good works” conjures up for you. For me, the thought that automatically comes to mind has to do with doing “works” out of a sense of obligation, as though I am somehow duty bound to try to pay God back for my salvation. This kind of thinking about good works needs to be actively resisted, for it both undermines the gospel and puts you on a never-ending hamster wheel of performance-based religion.

But, as the good ex-bishop points out, this is not the only way in which we can misconstrue the notion of good works. More common still is to think of good works as the mere keeping of ethical commands. The problem with this understanding is that it assumes that the Christian life is fundamentally about keeping commands.

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Kingdom agenda

BeatitudesWe’re approaching the end of our survey of Tom Wright’s Simply Jesus (you can read my review here; other posts in this series can be found by clicking on the Simply Jesus category in the sidebar of the home page).

In the fifteenth and final chapter of Simply Jesus, titled “Jesus: The Ruler of the World”, Wright sets about explaining just how it is that God, through Jesus, has established His kingship in the world. In the midst of his explanation, the good professor refers to the Beatitudes. This, of course, is the name given to the most famous portion of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, found at the beginning of Matthew 5. Let’s remind ourselves of the text:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

While these enduring words of Jesus have no doubt been the subject of many sermons down the centuries, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of sermons I’ve heard on the Beatitudes in 29 years in charismocostal* churches. And that would still be true if several of those fingers had been amputated.

I suspect the main reason for this relative neglect among modern evangelicals is that you can’t easily shoe-horn the Beatitudes into any kind of teaching about how to be a go-getting, world-changing, ass-kicking super-Christian. (Sorry, I may have got a bit carried away there. But I hope you see my point.)

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Temple and kingdom

TempleAs you’ll know if you’re a regular reader, over the past two or three months we’ve been surveying Tom Wright’s wonderful and important book Simply Jesus (you can find my review here). With only a few posts left, we’re into the final chapter.

Here’s today’s excerpt:

The Temple was the place, like the tabernacle in the wilderness, from which God ruled Israel. Now the new Temple — Jesus and his Spirit-filled followers — is the place from which and through which God is beginning to implement the world-transforming kingdom that was achieved in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

I first started reading outside of my safe charismocostal* bubble around seven or eight years ago. In so doing, I embarked on a voyage of discovery that would ultimately expose and demolish a good number of shaky beliefs, some of which I hadn’t even realised I held. (You can get an idea of the kind of thing I’m referring to by reading my very first post, which is still one of my most read posts, I used to believe.)

One of those unspoken shaky beliefs (in fact, it was more of a pervading Christian worldview) was that, since God’s plan in sending Jesus was to save the whole world, the whole business about the Jewish people and their complex and sometimes bizarre history was really no more than a parenthesis – a kind of historical quirk, if you will. It was certainly of little or no interest to us twenty-first century westerners.

OK, Jesus was a Jew, and that’s why we have to have all that Jewish history in the Old Testament – I get that. But the main point, surely, is that Jesus came and died was raised to new life for all humankind. That being the case, all that Jewish history and religion is really just a bit of local colour, right?

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Meant to be

God is loveToday we return to our overview of the final couple of chapters of Tom Wright’s heartily recommended book Simply Jesus. (You can read my review here and all related posts here.)

God’s kingdom comes like a farmer sowing a fresh crop or like a vineyard owner looking for workers to pick the grapes, bringing people on board to help. When God goes to work — when Jesus becomes king — human beings are not downgraded, reduced to being pawns or ciphers. In God’s kingdom, humans get to reflect God at last into the world, in the way they were meant to. They become more fully what humans were meant to be. That is how God becomes king. That is how Jesus goes to work in the present time. Exactly as he always did.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus (emphasis added)

In my last post on Simply Jesus, I talked about how Christians often see the kingdom of God as being largely irrelevant in this life, either because it exists entirely in the future or because it resides wholly in another dimension and rarely breaks into our universe of space, time and matter. Often, as we see it, our job is to get saved and be nice until either Jesus returns or we die and go to heaven.

In the above excerpt, our friend Tom brings out another angle to help us understand just what this mysterious kingdom is all about. God’s kingdom, in short, is the place and time where God is king. It follows from this that to join in Jesus’ kingdom work means to make God king in our lives.

Now, talk of making God the king of our lives is familiar territory for anyone who’s spent much time around Pentecostal/charismatic churches. (While I think about it, since “Pentecostal/charismatic” is a bit of a mouthful, perhaps I should invent a new word that covers both categories – how about “charismocostal”?)

We sing about Jesus being king and we earnestly declare in our prayers that we want him to be on the throne in our lives. But what do we really mean by that?

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Rescue and renewal

Kingdom beachThis, then, is how Jesus puts his kingdom-achievement into operation: through the humans he has rescued. That is why, right at the start of his public career, he called associates to share his work and then to carry it on after he had laid the foundations, particularly in his saving death. It has been all too easy for us to suppose that, if Jesus really was king of the world, he would, as it were, do the whole thing all by himself. But that was never his way — because it was never God’s way. It wasn’t how creation itself was supposed to work. And Jesus’ kingdom-project is nothing if not the rescue and renewal of God’s creation-project.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

One of the themes that has really begun to come clear for me through Tom Wright’s work is the number of parallels between what God has done in and through Jesus, what He was already doing in creation and what He did through earlier covenants with Abraham and Moses. One such parallel is drawn out for us in the above excerpt.

Implicit in God’s creation was the command for man to order and tend the whole world and to multiply and fill it. The fact that God declared His creation “good” did not mean it was a static, finished work that required no further input. God set creation in motion – you could say He inaugurated it – and tasked man, as His agent, with subduing and taking care of it. One has to assume that God’s design right from the outset was for man to rule over an orderly, peaceable kingdom on earth. It didn’t go well: sin entered the picture, and instead of a peaceable kingdom we ended up with warring empires ruled by violence, oppression and fear.

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