Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Challenge of Jesus (N.T. Wright)

Wanting to go deeper in studying the New Testament has led me to a lot of the writings of New Testament scholar N.T. (Tom) Wright. There’s no doubt he is one of the brightest and best! I doubt I’ll ever be able to read everything he has written (just look at the list of his books on, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try. The books I’ve read of his are excellent. When he is arguing something or trying to make a point he really covers all his bases well (he covers the arguments of his critics and even his critics’ critics down to the fourth generation, ha! This can make his writings a little dry at times). So if you are going to set out to read something by Wright be prepared for some serious discussion.

I’ve been working my way through The Challenge of Jesus and have discovered that Tom is very helpful in getting me to see Jesus in his Jewish context. He does an incredible job of revealing what life was like for a Jew in the First Century. The Jews were who Jesus came to first minister the kingdom of God to. Because of this, Wright asserts that many of Jesus parables (e.g., parable of the prodigal son, the parable of the talents) are in some way or another referring to Israel.

For example, we read the parable of the Prodigal Son and assume it is about God’s forgiveness and love for the lost. We assume the prodigal represents a lost sinner. Put on your Tom Wright glasses and you see that this parable is about God the Father waiting for Israel, the rebel son, who has run off and mingled with pagans (remember the son eating and working with pigs?) to return to Him. Now this parable is just as much about Israel (the real prodigal son) as it is about God and His forgiveness and love for the lost sinner. It becomes now about a group of people and not just an individual. The parables of the lost coin and sheep become about lost Israel and God’s intention and desire to see them found again too.

So, why does this matter? Why is it important to place Jesus in His Jewish context? Well, for one it helps us see that Jesus was on a mission to seek and save lost Israel. Not saying He did not come to reveal the kingdom to us (Gentiles), but His first priority was to reveal Himself to Israel and be their King. Israel was really important to God. Israel really was His firstborn son. What God was attempting to do with Israel (Israel was to be a blessing to the other nations, see Gen 12:2-3) was important and mattered to God. He wasn’t about to throw them to the curb.

Second, maybe we need to re-examine some of Jesus’ parables in light of all this. If most of Jesus’ parables were originally understood to be about Israel, we might need to revamp some of the application we draw from such parables (i.e. is the parable of talents/ten minas really about the judgment we will face if we do not use our gifts for God?). I’ve still got a lot more to learn and this post is just the beginning. Honestly, I'm still working on how much difference this understanding of certain parables of Jesus will make. We'll see.

So, if you want to really get a good grip of the background to the New Testament and the context of Jesus I recommend reading N.T. Wright.

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