Review: N. T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus (IVP Academic)

 

But as we do this, we must remind ourselves again and again—as the liturgies of the traditional churches do in so many ways—that when we are telling the story of Jesus, we are doing so as a part of the community that is called to model this story to the world. –N. T. Wright

The Challenge of Jesus challenged my understanding of who Jesus was and is. In a way that Wright often does, he chops the feet off both conservative evangelicals and liberals. This can be both a strength and weakness. I found my understanding of the significance of the Temple for Christ’s vocation and for the gospel story expanded (more on that later). My only gripe if I must have one was that in several places bold statements are made without citation (see 45, 106, 131, 147). In many cases, these were statements I quite agreed with and wanted to further dig into, but there was nothing to follow up on.

In The Challenge of Jesus, Wright is at his best. He interacts with the historical Jesus crowd and he does so on their terms as a historian and, in my opinion, conclusively shows that Jesus was a real person who actually died and actually rose from the dead. He also very deftly situates his task within its proper context. He shows why we needed the Enlightenment (19-20), where modernism failed, and where postmodernism took over and where it too failed, and he does all this with an eye towards who Jesus is and was.

Wright sets out his plan of attack (33):

  1. “Where does Jesus belong within the Jewish world of his day?
  2. What, in particular, was his preaching of the kingdom all about?
  3. Why did Jesus die? In particular, what was his own intention in going to Jerusalem that last fateful time?
  4. Why did the early church begin, and why did it take the shape it did? Specifically, of course, what happened at Easter?
  5. How does all this relate to the Christian task and vision today?”

With regard to answering these questions, Wright succeeds. But especially for me the answer to question five was refreshing and encouraging. Best I’ve read so far—Wright answers the so what for Christian living as it relates to the gospel story. He gives major emphasis to the new exodus thread through out the New Testament and demonstrates thoroughly why we should be rehearsing it just as the saints in the Old Testament rehearsed the story of their Exodus. Wright says,

Before you can say ‘as Jesus to Israel, so the church to the world,’ you have to say ‘because Jesus to Israel, therefore the church to the world.” What Jesus did was unique, climatic, decisive. That, indeed, is the ultimate theological justification for continuing the quest for the historical Jesus. (181)

The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even heaven help us, biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way into the post-postmodern world worth joy and humor and gentleness and good judgement and true wisdom. (196)

Here are some areas that made me think hard and pushback. Wright deals a lot with the Temple and he offers an alternate take on Matthew 24 where the passage isn’t about the second coming but about God coming to Jerusalem (117-120). This was an area of thinking hard. I’ve got the section and those passages marked for further study. Also, a major question Wright answers is whether Jesus knew he was God. Wright’s answer is a qualified no. He argues Jesus knew the ways the Messiah would bring about the kingdom and acted accordingly—heavy emphasis on vocation. He demonstrates the importance of the Torah, Temple, Word, Spirit, and Wisdom for Israel. But I’m not sure you can draw such a fine line between Jesus knowingly acting in ways only God would act and him being consciously aware he was God. It seems like an unnecessary distinction. This was an area of pushback.

Overall, an excellent primer for those new to Wright and in my estimation a must read due to his interaction with the historical Jesus crowd and also his dominating handling of the story of the gospel and the new exodus theme. I’m more and more convinced that seeing what Jesus did in terms of a new exodus is a missing note in the drum beat of the church’s preaching and teaching today. We need more of this and Wright provides an excellent launching pad.

 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and a contributor in Make, Mature, Multiply (GCD Books). He completed over forty hours of seminary work at Geneva Reformed Seminary. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and the project manager for the Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Mathew offers freelance editing and book formatting services. He is a member at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.