I should have anticipated it from the title, but N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is presented me with an unexpected personal challenge. Wright is an historian of the New Testament era, and in this book heset out to accomplish two historical purposes. The first was what one might call an attempt at time travel: to help us understand the way first century Israelites would have experienced Jesus among them, and how they would have understood his message. The second purpose was to establish reasons to believe the New Testament accounts—especially of the Resurrection—can be trusted historically.
His apologetic for the Resurrection was a new one to me, creative and (I think) compelling, and I would recommend the book on that basis alone. The first part of the book had a deeper, not entirely comfortable impact on me, though. That is where I will dwell for this review.
Even Christ followers can go off track, Wright says, by misunderstanding the context of Jesus’ times:
We have to make a journey as difficult for us in the in the contemporary Western world as that taken by the Wise Men as they went to Bethlehem. We have to think our way back into someone else’s world, specifically the world of the Old Testament as it was perceived and lived by first-century Jews. That is the world Jesus addressed, the world whose concerns he made his own. Until we know how Jesus’ contemporaries were thinking, it will not just be difficult to understand what he meant by the “Kingdom of God”; it will be totally impossible.
Is he saying Christianity has Jesus all mixed up? No and yes. Wright takes Scripture to be historical; he regards it as trustworthy. The message of Christ in it is true. But most of us probably do not understand quite what he meant by his central message: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Like the tables in the Temple, he turned upside-down Jewish expectations regarding the Kingdom. In fact, “repent” in this context (which in the Greek is metanoia, change of mind) did not mean, “stop sinning,” though that would certainly be one effect of what it meant. At a deeper level it meant to change one’s entire way of thinking about the Kingdom of God in the world.
Much of Jesus’ ministry was to overturn the Temple system itself, preparing to establish a new way of relating with God. This was more radical than most of us realize. The Temple was the heart of Israel’s national life, not just its religion. It was the center of power for some Jewish leaders—the ones who would ultimately have him killed.
This is what Wright wants us to see, and to see it through the eyes of a first-century Jew. For me, his time-travel purpose succeeded. He enabled me for a while, to a deeper extent than ever before, to see Jesus as many of his contemporaries must have seen him: the son of a carpenter, youngish, probably not at all outstanding in his physical appearance, walking the countryside with a small group of followers, teaching wisdom, demonstrating truth and love—and leading a revolution that would change not just one nation at its heart, but the whole future history of the world.
But wait. They wouldn’t have seen him as leading a revolution that would change the nation and the world. Not clearly, and certainly not until much later. He would have appeared to them as what I’ve already described: a youngish carpenter’s son, who had taken up the role of a wandering rabbi. We know of him as the leader of an historic revolution. To them, how likely would that have seemed? I’ll come back to that question in a moment.
To be sure, Jesus stood out among rabbis. He performed miracles, including healings, exorcisms, feeding large crowds with little food to start with, and raising the dead. He taught unique wisdom of a life of truth and love, and he taught it from his own authority (Matthew 7:28-29). More remarkably yet, he lived by his own teaching, consistently setting the highest example of how to live a life.
Still, how likely would it seem, to someone watching him teach in the synagogue or debating in the marketplace, that this one youngish (apparent) carpenter’s son, without benefit of microphone, megaphone, or public relations officer, with no head-start by way of family money or reputation, lacking the right degrees from the right schools, and gathering such a strange assortment of followers, would be the one to overturn the whole way God interacted with humans and humans with God?
Wright actually had me thinking for a while, “you know, this is just so implausible.” It wasn’t because he said anything to indicate it might not be true (quite the contrary). It was because I was seeing Jesus, I think, the way many people would have seen him at the time: the youngish carpenter’s son turned into a wandering rabbi with a strange set of followers. He was in those ways a very ordinary man. Israelites at the time thought that when God sent someone to change the world, it would be someone a lot less ordinary-looking, doing something a lot more spectacular. I caught myself thinking, “Yes, that’s how God would have/should have done it. Not this way.”
And then it hit me: it had to be this way.
It had to be this way because of what Jesus came to do, especially in his earthly ministry before the cross. Jesus’ purpose was not to make a spectacle of himself. He even asked people to keep some rather spectacular things quiet for the time being (Mark 8:27-30; Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 3:7-12; Mark 5:21-43). His purpose was to show how to live a life God’s way. More specifically he came to show you and me, and ordinary people everywhere, how we can live life God’s way. As much as possible, he had to do it as an ordinary person, so that we ordinary people could see his example and follow, in our ordinary lives.
Of course he had other purposes besides this: to display the Kingdom of God through his miracles, and ultimately to make it possible through his death and resurrection for us to be reconciled to God and enter the Kingdom with him. His life in those ways was not at all ordinary, and not what we are called to do.
Much of his ministry, though, was about praying and teaching, loving others, affirming the outcast, comforting the hurting, and confronting purveyors of falsehood and hypocrisy. These are things we can do as he did. These are ordinary kinds of things, for ordinary people in God’s Kingdom to do.
To do them as lovingly and consistently as he did—now, that’s far from ordinary. If you haven’t ever done it read the book of Mark or Luke (start at Mark 1 or Luke 1 online if you don’t have a printed version handy). See how extraordinarily he lived out the ordinary things of life.
Pick up a copy of Wright’s book as a companion to your reading, too. Perhaps you’ll see as I did that when God sent someone to change the world, it had to be this way.
The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is by N.T. Wright. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999. 204 pages including endnotes and index. Amazon price US$12.24.