We alluded to today’s issue yesterday (and, of course, there’s more back story here, here, and here). And today’s issue is this: If we’re reading the gospels, we must be reading the story of God returning to His people, just as He had promised.
That is to say, that according to the gospel writers we should see in the words and actions of Jesus the very words and actions of the Creator. “Fair enough,” says the Western Christian. “It’s just as we always thought: Jesus is God.”
Well, yes, says NT Wright, but not the way you think.
In fact, the bishop insists that most of Western Christianity, particularly the more conservative elements, have read the gospels exclusively for proof that Jesus was God, the second person of the trinity. That tendency, then, has deafened the church to hearing the other movements of the gospels and has actually distorted this tune itself.
In order to best understand just how it is that Jesus represents God, we must first understand the role that humanity was always supposed to play within the creation. Most Christians will be familiar with the fact that Genesis regarded the first couple as having been made in the image of God (Gen 1:26). Much has been made of this by the church over the centuries, but its primary connotation is this. In the ancient world, each temple would contain a statue of its god. That statue, then, was seen as physically representing the deity on the earth. Humanity, according to the biblical tradition, was meant to represent Yahweh on the earth.
This connection is severed, though, at the fall, but a hint of the lost reality is maintained in God’s presence with Israel in the tabernacle and the temple. But alas, God departed the temple as a result of Israel’s continued rebellion and had not returned, so it was felt, by Jesus’ day.
But the message of the gospels is, in part, that God is returning to Israel, and He’s doing so in the person of this one Jesus of Nazareth. The distortion comes for Western Christians in that we regard it as a general impossibility (or, at least, absurdity) that God would have much connection at all with flesh and blood humanity. We have for too long regarded God as a distant, ghost-like deity residing someplace among the clouds. In other words, we are too Greek.
But the Hebrew concept that infuses the Bible is the notion that God and humanity were always meant to be intimately united. The chasm between human and divine is not an ontological split. No, God and human are naturally connected. Rather, the split between the Creator and us is a distinct result of our actions.
In Wright’s words, “the gospels offer us not so much a different kind of human, but a different kind of God: a God who, having made humans in his own image, will most naturally express himself in and as that image-bearing creature; a God who, having made Israel to share and bear the pain and horror of the world, will most naturally express himself in and as that pain-bearing, horror-facing creature” (104).
So when Jesus walks about the earth doing everything in accordance with the will of his Father, he is simultaneously embodying the ideal of humanity and a perfect representation of humanity’s Creator. And so the gospels then are telling that part of the story as well, that God is returning to His people Israel, and He’s doing it in the person of Jesus.