Wednesdays with Wright–The Setting & The Story

Posted: March 3, 2010 in Uncategorized

Last week I outlined part 1 of Bishop N.T. Wright’s tome The New Testament and the People of God (or NTPG) in very, very broad strokes.  I summarized Wright’s argument stating that in order to understand Scripture, we need to grasp the worldview of the inspired authors of the Bible. 

Wright argues that we comprehend worldview by studying the stories by which the people lived within (think of how we live within the mega story of “get a degree, work hard, marry right and you will be happy”), their basic beliefs as well as the symbols and practices that dominated the day-to-day life of the authors.   We conduct this study humbly because we know that only God can see it all and understand it perfectly but we can still, at the very least, come to an approximation of the author’s intent.

We turn now to the setting of the “mega story” that 1st century Christians and Jews found themselves living within. 

Wright believes that first century Jews saw themselves as still in exile.  For those of you who remember your Old Testament history, you will recall that Assyria conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and carried off most of the citizens into slavery while the southern Kingdom of Judah was sacked by Babylon who also enslaved the Jews.  Eventually the Persians bested the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their home land although they were still servants of a foreign, pagan empire.  Many empires followed with Israel only receiving a brief respite from foreign oppression.  Yet, they believed that God would keep His ancient promise to, in Wright’s words, “to set the world to rights” via Israel.  Thus, they awaited the mighty act of God to restore them to the glory days of David and Solomon. 

By the time Rome ruled Israel, many Jews believed that the time for God to move was at hand even if they splintered into several groups who disagreed on  how this was to occur.  For example, the Zealots believed that if Israel would rise up in armed revolt then God would bless them with victory while the sectarian group at the Dead Sea hoped that an elect, righteous remnant of Israel would bring about the “last days” while the scholarly Pharisees, at least according to Bishop Wright, hung their hopes on a nationalistic desire to see Israel rise to prominence via a messiah and then rule over the nations like Adam ruled over the beasts of Eden.   In the meantime, again, according to Wright, the Pharisees were to keep the covenant, especially the boundary markers that separated them from the pagans (i.e., Sabbath, kosher food laws, circumcision, etc.)  Now this is a gross oversimplification but you get the general point–diversity reigned in first century Judaism even if most hoped for the same outcome. 

Thus, Wright summarizes the worldview of first century Israel as follows:

1. Who are we? We are Israel, the chosen people of the creator God.

2. Where are we? We are in the holy Land, focused on the Temple; but paradoxically, we are still in exile.

3. What is wrong? We have the wrong rulers: pagans on the one hand, compromised Jews on the other, or, half-way between, Herod and his family.  We are all involved in a less-than-ideal situation.

4. What is the solution? Our God must act again to give us the true sort of rule, that is, his own kingship exercised through properly appointed officials (a true priesthood; possibly a true king); and in the mean time Israel must remain faithful to his covenant charter.

How will God act? The Bishop writes,

“Throughout both major and minor prophets there runs the twin theme: Israel’s exile is the result of her own sin, idolatry and apostasy, and the problem will be solved by YHWH’s dealing with the sin and thus restoring his people to their inheritance.” 

Following this line of thought, Wright goes on to make a very controversial statement: “…the most natural meaning of the phrase ‘the forgiveness of sins’ to a first-century Jew is not in the first instance the remission of individual sins’ but the putting away of the whole nation’s sins.”  Thus, Jesus death on the cross was not so much the substitutionary atonement for those sins who proclaim Jesus as Lord but for the nation of Israel. 

Make sense to you?

As much as I enjoy reading Wright, here I think he is simply mistaken.  When you read through the Gospels, the easiest reading of Jesus pronouncement that an individual’s sins is forgiven is that he is speaking about…well…the individual! 

More on this later, but I am concerned that many pastors will drink Wright’s Kool Aid here and that an invaluable invitation to remission of individual sins will be lost or, at least, backgrounded when the Apostles clearly placed it at the foreground. 

Furthermore, as I lead Revolution Church through John’s Apocalypse it is clear to me that it is individual salvation with the promise of eternity in the new heaven’s and new earth that motivates those who have faith in Jesus to be loyal even unto death.

We will hit Part IV of Wright’s argument next week.

Until then, grace and peace.

Pastor Matt

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