Bret James Stewart's Reviews > Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament

Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament by Christopher J.H. Wright
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it was amazing

This review is for a previous edition published in 1992. There is no index or footnotes, which I regret, but Wright has done this on purpose to avoid making a "scholarly book." Thus, I did not take away any stars for it. This is a wonderful book that I think all Christians should read. Others interested in the Christian faith and Jesus' identity through the lens of the Old Testament will also find it valuable. A chapter-by-chapter review follows.

Chapter One: Jesus and the Old Testament Story

Wright opens his book by beginning at the beginning of the New Testament, using the genealogy of Matthew 1:1-17 to demonstrate the Old Testament qualifications of the Messiah. This genealogy serves as the segue between the testaments, so it is a good place to start. This first section provides more than a cursory reading implies. First, it demonstrates that Jesus was a real Jew. Genealogies were an important means of establishing Jewish identity. Christ was not an abstract figure, He was an actual Jewish person with the history and customs of His people. This identity helps people to understand His purpose and message, which are in the context of the Jewish and Old Testament culture (1-3).

Second, Jesus was a real man, more specifically, a “son of Abraham” (3). This places Him within the context of the real world complete with people and nations and geopolitical settings. God had promised a nation to Abraham that would be a blessing to all nations which would serve as the launch point for the universal plan of redemption for all the world (see Genesis 12). Jesus’ birth into the family of Abraham means that He is participating in the mission of the nation to bless the world (3-4). Indeed, He is the culmination of this mission.

Third, Jesus is the Son of David. Matthew provides an official genealogy, tracing Jesus’ descent through the line of kings to demonstrate that Christ has a legitimate claim to the throne. This messianic status means that Jesus’ presence coincides with God’s redemptive plan for the nation of Israel and the world (5-6).

Fourth, Jesus represents the end of the time of preparation. Like Matthew’s genealogy, Jesus is the segue between the Old and New Testaments. He marks the end of the Old Testament story. The Old Testament is forward-looking, knowing that the Messiah will continue and fulfill the eschatological thrust of Scripture (6-7).

Fifth, although He represents an end, Jesus also represents a beginning. He initiates the New Testament story. He also begins the messianic fulfillment of the redemption of humankind (7-8).

All of these factors combine to demonstrate that Jesus has a unique status. He meets all messianic qualifications. Moreover, He is the prophesied one who will fulfill all the Old Testament prophecies and inexorably move the world forward in God’s plan of universal redemption as the culmination of salvation history. His incarnation supports the fact that God is in control of all history and that all the nations ultimately share the fate of Israel. His mission will fulfill the Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 12, demonstrating that God keeps His promises (39-49).


Chapter Two: Jesus and the Old Testament Promise

After laying out the basics in chapter one, Wright moves to show how the Old Testament promises a Messiah, which must be established before Jesus can be posited as the fulfillment of such promise. He begins with the infancy narrative and early childhood of Jesus to show that the story involves a broad range of people and nations. The different national and ethnic groups as well as the various nations demonstrate the universal scope of the narrative (55-63). The Old Testament features many promises that are ultimately fulfilled by Christ. These promises involve a commitment between two parties: God and humanity (64-67). They also require acceptance by both parties. God originated the promises and therefore accepted them in this sense; the Israelites and humanity are required to accept the promises. As Wright puts it, the “…initiative of his [God’s] grace (promise) calls forth a response of obedient faith…” (70). It is this faith that represents acceptance.

Old Testament promise also involves an ongoing level of commitment as evidenced by the covenants between God and humanity. These generally amplify progressively through history (70-72). Biblical covenants are initiated by God, involve one or more promises of God, and require acceptance by humanity (78-79). The process of amplification can be seen by comparing the Noahic (Genesis 6:18-21; 8:21-9:17), Abrahamaic (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-21; 17:1-27), Sinaitic covenants (Exodus 19:3-6, 24 and essentially all of Deuteronomy), and the covenant with David (II Samuel 7; 23:1-7; Psalms 82, 132), all of which culminate in the new covenant (Jeremiah 30, 31; Ezekiel 34, 35, 36; Isaiah 40-55) (81-95). This new covenant is both nationalist and universal in scope, involving both Israel and all nations (95-97). The substance of the new covenant is multi-faceted. First, it involves a new relationship with God in that it includes all the faithful of all people groups. Second, it involves a new experience of forgiveness and expanded cleansing from sin (Jeremiah 31:34; Ezekiel 36:25; 37:23; Isaiah 55:6-9). Third, it involves a new obedience to the law as this covenant features the law “written in the heart” (99) that will magnify knowledge and obedience. Fourth, there will be a future Davidic king. Fifth, there will be a new abundance of nature hearkening back to Eden (97-100). It is this new covenant the Messiah is to fulfill.

God’s intent is to bless the world. The promises of God are unwavering, and He fulfilled them all through Jesus Christ. This fulfillment was made possible by the existence of the Old Testament promises as best exemplified by the various covenants, which serve as a sort of road map to universal redemption. These promises were what allowed people to recognize Jesus for what He was and what He was going to do (100-102).


Chapter 3: Jesus and His Old Testament Identity

This chapter deals with the concept of sonship and what it meant in Old Testament times and addresses the idea of Jesus as the Son of God. Matthew 3:17 reads, “This is my son, whom I love, the one in whom I delight.” This verse sums up Jesus’ identity. The surrounding people may have thought of Him as the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, but His true identity was the Christ (103-104). Jesus’ identity and awareness of this identity were based upon His Father’s identification of Him as it appeared in the Scriptures. The authority of the Davidic king has been given Him. He further had a unique sonship to God the Father. Obedience was an important concept in literal father-son relationships and the more symbolic Father-son relationships between God and His people. Thus, this characteristic is one of the defining traits of the Messiah. Obedience also served as a link to the Servant aspects of Christ, an obedience so strong that He would sacrifice Himself for His Father’s will. These three aspects of Davidic sovereignty, obedience, and servanthood are the foundation of His identity (108-110).

The obedience of Jesus as the Son of God paves the way for the redemption of humanity and the universe. Christ’s sonship achieved the goal for which the God-Israel sonship had prepared: the redemption of all Israel and the ingathering of the nations. This was achieved via His death and resurrection, effectively winning the world for God and providing an expanded method for non-Israelites to become believers. Gentiles accepting the faith became the “sons of the living God” (Hosea 1:10) just like the Jews, acquiring sonship status along with them (126-133).


Chapter Four: Jesus and His Old Testament Mission

With His identity established, Wright turns to the mission corresponding with that identity. When Jesus came on the scene, the nation of Israel was expectant, awaiting the promised restoration of Israel and the nation’s vindication in light of the pagan nations as well as the consequent ingathering of the nations (Jeremiah 30-34; Ezekiel 40-48; Isaiah 40-55) (137-139). The agent of this redemption would be the anointed one, the Messiah, the true son of David (144). This messiah ushers in a new age of blessing, sacrificing Himself for fallen humanity (147), which involves Him serving as both the identity/representative—in the sense of a proxy for sinful humans—and destiny of the nation (148). The ushering in of the kingdom was often misunderstood by the populace of the time who frequently expected a political, national, or even military liberation from the Roman occupation and other physical enemies of the surrounding nations. In fact, Jesus was bringing a liberation and salvation that would ultimately stretch to the ends of the earth and beyond, but not in the form many of the Jewish people believed it would come (144-145).

Jesus realized His mission, broadly speaking, was to spend some time in earthly ministry, laboring without His full power by choice, and which culminated in rejection and suffering and dying and rising three days later (e.g. Mark 8:31). Finally, He recognized the eschatological dimensions of His purpose (150): the Second Coming, the future final judgment, and the New Heavens and New Earth. These categories encapsulate the Old Testament mission as Christ viewed it and were prefigured in the Old Testament predominantly by the “son of man” figure in Daniel 7 and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 42 and 53 (153-155). Initially, Jesus keeps His earthly ministry almost exclusively to the nation of Israel, but the universal dimension of His plan is fully spelled out after His resurrection. He is to bring law and justice as ethical values and social priorities of God to the nations and saturate them with compassion, enlightenment, and freedom. In Luke 4:18 ff., Jesus explicitly acknowledges these qualities as part of His identity (180).


Chapter Five: Jesus and his Old Testament Values

In this chapter, Wright demonstrates how Jesus used Old Testament values to fulfill His mission. In particular, the books of Deuteronomy and Psalms were important to understanding the values God had inculcated in his people. In Deuteronomy, Moses calls for complete obedience and loyalty to God. In Psalm 91, the provision of God for His humble and obedient servant is found. These ideas form the core concept of what it means to live faithfully before the Lord. To obey God’s law whole-heartedly is the natural result of the redeemed status of the Jewish people and such obedience results in the blessings overflowing to other nations. This obedience to the moral and ethical values of the Old Testament is to be uncomplicated and motivated by love (182-190).

Jesus came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it (Matthew 5:17-20). Thus, the law is not going away with the coming of the Messiah, so it is important to see how He built His values and priorities around it. First, the law must be considered the response to redemption. It is not something people do in order to be saved, it is something people do because they are saved. Second, it is important to recognize the motivations underlying the law. One is gratitude for what God has done for His people and, indeed, the whole world. Another is to imitate God by modelling the traits He displays via the law. Holiness is also a motivation. This means being distinct or apart from the worldly society; this is achieved by modelling God. The assurance that the law is in place for the good of humanity is a further motivation. As the omniscient Creator, God knows what is best for His people, and the most humane and beneficent society is going to naturally result from following the tenets of a loving God (195-206).

In addition to motivations, it is important to understand the law’s value scale. The Golden Rule encapsulates the values of the system. God comes first and is to be place first in the lives of His people regardless of the cost in which that may result. People come second, and people matter more than any object. The sanctity of life is paramount. In fact, the importance of the first two ideas is to realize that the death penalty is permitted only in cases of violations against God or against other people—it is never allowed for property issues. Third, human needs come before rights. The protection of the weak, defenseless, and oppressed are important elements of the law (209-213).

By fulfilling the law, Jesus was bringing the underlying spirit, premises, and motivation to the fore. He is clarifying the inherent priorities and the values of the Torah. Christ, of course, expands and modifies the law, but He makes it better by elevating the original intent of the law is an easy to understand manner (219).

Wright proceeds to identify Jesus as being among the prophets in the sense He promoted the same agenda. There were three main areas of concern: spiritual loyalty to God, economic concerns, and political issues. Spiritual loyalty to God was compromised by apathy, idolatry, and a hypocritical practice. Economic concerns included abuses and exploitation that resulted in poverty, corruption, and persistent debt for the poor. Political issue included the misuse of power in the court, temple, and similar venues, all of which resulted in sin and oppression, especially for the poor and defenseless. Jesus, of course, was opposed to all this as it perverted the intention of the law designed to bring blessings to others (219).

The kingdom of God, especially as understood in the Psalms was another major value of Christ. The reign of God has three core dimensions. First, it is universal, encompassing not only Israel, but all people of all nations as well as nature and everything in it. Second, justice and compassion are the hallmarks of God’s reign as evidenced by the law provided for the good of His subjects. Third, there is the eschatological dimension that acknowledges that God will intervene in the future to bring the first two dimensions into their fullness (244-248).

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