The Challenge of Jesus | Notes & Review

Posted on December 25, 2008


N.T. Wright. The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999. (202 pages).


“Just as integrity demands that we think clearly and rigorously about Jesus himself, so it also demands that we think clearly and rigorously about the world in which we follow him today, the world we are called to shape with the loving transforming message of the gospel.” (p.12)

This work is from a series of lectures given to the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Chicago, January 1999 under the twin title: “Following Christ/Shaping our World.”  Wright challenges Christians to rethink Jesus, questioning our traditionally held views and stereotypes, and begin a historical quest [“I am someone who believes that being a Christian necessarily entails doing business with history and that history done for all it’s worth will challenge spurious versions of Christianity, including many that think of themselves as orthodox, while sustaining and regenerating a deep and true orthodoxy, surprising and challenging though this will always remain. (p.16)]

Wright gives four reasons for grappling with the historical question of Jesus.

1) We are made for God: for God’s glory, to worship God and reflect his likeness.
2) Loyalty to Scripture.
3) The Christian imperative to truth.  Christians must not be afraid of truth.
4) The Christian commitment to mission.

There are also two points in his chapter entitled “The Challenge of the Kingdom” that “are foundational to everything I shall say from now on.” (p.35)  “First, he believed that the creator God had purposed from the beginning to address and deal with the problems within his creation through Israel. Israel was not just to be an “example” of a nation under God; Israel was to be the means through which the world would be saved.  Second, Jesus believed, as did many through not all of his contemporaries, that this vocation would be accomplished through Israel’s history reaching a great moment of climax, in which Israel herself would be saved from her enemies and through which the creator God, the covenant God, would at last bring his love and justice, his mercy and truth, to bear upon the whole world, bringing renewal and healing to all creation.  In technical language what I am talking about is election and eschatology: God’s choice of Israel to be the means of saving the world; God’s bringing of Israel’s history to its moment of climax, through which justice and mercy would embrace not only Israel but the whole world.” (p.35)

Some of my favorite quotes:

“If we really believe in any sense in the incarnation of the Word, we are bound to take seriously the flesh that the Word became.  And since that flesh was first-century Jewish flesh, we should rejoice in any and every advance in our understanding of first-century Judaism and seek to apply those insights to our reading of the Gospels.” (p.26)

“…being a Quester is simply the same thing as being a disciple.” (p.32)

“Jesus was not primarily a ‘teacher’ in the sense that we usually give that word. Jesus did things and then commented on them, explained them, challenged people to figure out what they meant.” (39)

“One of the noblest and most deep-rooted traditions in Judaism is that of critique from within.” (51)

What Jesus was to Israel, the church must now be for the world. (53)

“…the agenda of the Pharisees in this period was not simply to do with ‘purity,’ whether their own or other peoples’. All the evidence suggests that at least the majority of the Pharisees, from the Hasmonean and Herodian periods through to the war of A.D. 66-70, had as their main aim that which purity symbolized: the political struggle to maintain Jewish identity and to realize the dream of national liberation.” (56)

“What mattered, then, was not religion but eschatology, not morality but the coming of the Kingdom.” (57)

“As Jacob Neusner has strikingly shown, the way in which Jesus managed to upstage the Mosaic Torah in his teaching (notably, but by no means only, in the Sermon on the Mount) indicates that he regarded himself as authoritative over Torah and authorized to issue a new version of it in a way that made him not a new Moses but in some sense or other a new YHWH.” (114)

“…the word resurrection was only used to describe reembodiment, not the state of disembodied bliss.” (134)

“I believe we have this as our vocation: to tell the story, to live by the symbols, to act out the praxis and to answer the questions in such a way as to become in ourselves and our mission in God’s world the answer to the prayer that rises inarticulately, now, not just from one puzzled psalmist but from the whole human race and indeed the whole of God’s creation: ‘O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.’ ” (171)

“People who think like that sometimes end up making the cross simply the great example of self-sacrificial love instead of the moment within history when the loving God defeated the powers of evil and dealt with the sin of the world, with our sin, once and for all. That is, once more, to make the gospel good advice rather than good news.” (181)

If you are to shape your world in following Christ, it is not enough to say that being a Christian and being a professional or an academic (to address these worlds particularly for the moment) is about high moral standards, using every opportunity to talk to people about Jesus, praying for or with your students, being fair in your grading and honest in your speaking. All that is vital and necessary, but you are called to something much, much more. You are called, prayerfully, to discern where in your discipline the human project is showing signs of exile and humbly and boldly to act symbolically in ways that declare that the powers have been defeated, that the kingdom has come in Jesus the Jewish Messiah, that the new way of being human has been unveiled, and to be prepared to tell the story that explains what these symbols are all about. And in all this you are to declare, in symbol and praxis, in story and articulate answers to questions, that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not; that Jesus is Lord and Marx, Freud and Nietzsche are not; that Jesus is Lord and neither modernity nor postmodernity is. When Paul spoke of the gospel, he was not talking primarily about a system of salvation but about the announcement, in symbol and word, that Jesus is the true Lord of the world, the true light of the world. (187)

“I believe that a biblical account of ‘knowing’ should follow the great philosopher Bernard Lonergan and take love as the basic mode of knowing, with the love of God as the highest and fullest sort of knowing that there is, and should work, so to speak, down from there.” (195) “We need to articulate, for the post-postmodern world, what we might call an epistemology of love.” (195)