How God Became King: Kingdom and Cross, the Remaking of Meanings

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We’re on the home stretch of N.T. Wright’s new book How God Became King as we turn now to look at the second to last chapter, which I found to be the most provocative of the book. Wright has done so much in laying out groundwork and preparing the way to this point. He has hinted throughout of implications of his project, but here in chapter 10 he is more explicit in bringing the concepts of kingdom and cross together, as he believed the gospel writers were doing all along.

This is a particularly dense chapter, the longest of the book. It would be too much in this blog format to try to sum up every aspect of the chapter. Instead, I want to highlight some of the more poignant bits and make brief comment on these.

First, on the incarnation of Christ, the Right Reverend makes a comment he’s been needling at the whole book. The quote comes thusly: “Jesus has not come simply as a ‘superman’ figure, a ‘divine hero’ parachuted into the world to sort out the mess. He has come – and the gospel story only makes sense if we take this very seriously – as the one who will embody Israel’s ultimate vocation in himself” (213).

A major part of Wright’s agenda (I think rightly so) is to argue against a rather common Western Christian assumption that Jesus came to rescue us from this world. This, however, is simply contrary to the whole biblical witness. God’s aim, from the start has been to rescue both humanity and the world, to redeem the whole lot. The goal is not to get everyone into heaven, as is often suspected, but to get heaven into the earth. We therefore must regard Jesus, as so many throughout history have done, as getting right into the thick of humanity, as it were.

Again on the vocation of Jesus, the servant of God:

With the echo of the opening words of the first “servant” poem, the synoptic writers are not inviting their readers merely to contemplate Jesus as the one who dies so that sinners may be forgiven. They are invoking one of the primary scriptural passages in which Israel’s God, YHWH, establishes his sovereignty over the whole world, doing so indeed despite the failure of his own people to believe in him. He will rescue them through the servant’s work, but merely to do that is “too light a thing.” He will provide, through the servant, “a light to the nations, that [his] salvation may reach to the end of the earth” ([Isa] 49:6). At the heart of all this is the ultimate good news: “Your God reigns,” malak elohayik ([Isa] 52:7). He is king, and has demonstrated this by overthrowing the pagan kingdoms and their idols, unveiling his worldwide justice, and inviting all and sundry to turn to him and enjoy the benefits of his renewed covenant and renewed creation (Isa. 54-55). (216)

Perhaps put more simply, the gospel narrative is the culmination of a story that is not merely looking for a way to “deal with sin,” but to re-establish God’s dominion over the earth through humanity, broadly, and Israel, specifically.

On the realization of the kingdom that Jesus announced, Wright makes it clear that the gospel writers believe that it indeed arrived, albeit in partial fashion, through Jesus’ death and resurrection. They did not believe that it was fully here, by any means. There was still plenty to be done. Nevertheless, the evangelists, along with the earliest Christians, believed that they were charged with expanding and instituting what Jesus had inaugurated.

On Jesus and the Temple, Bishop Wright calls Jesus “a one-man walking temple” (236). He is “the place where heaven and earth meet, the place where and the means by which people come and find themselves renewed and restored as the people of God, the place where power is redefined, turned upside down or perhaps the right way up” (236).

Wright has quite a lot to say to us about the kingdom’s ideas on power. We would all do well to listen. In reading the gospels, one cannot escape the fact that God’s victory over the most horrific powers on the planet comes precisely through his own suffering and death. Do we think we might advance the kingdom by other means?

Finally, we’ll leave this chapter with a passage that more or less sums up the thesis of the whole project.

We have, alas, belittled the cross, imagining it merely as a mechanism for getting us off the hook of our own petty naughtiness or as an example of some general benevolent truth. It is much, much more. It is the moment when the story of Israel reaches its climax; the moment when, at last, the watchmen on Jerusalem’s walls see their God coming in his kingdom; the moment when the people of God are renewed so as to be, at last, the royal priesthood who will take over the world not with the love of power but with the power of love; the moment when the kingdom of God overcomes the kingdoms of the world. (239)

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