Monday, January 12, 2015

Review of N. T. Wright’s Simply Good News (Part 3)

We live between the good news of the past (Jesus’ death and resurrection) and the good news of the future (Jesus’ return and new creation). And that has tremendous implications for the value and urgency of embracing this good news for the present.  This is paradigm Wright has set up for us in the first two chapters (Part 1 of this review).  Chs.3 and 4 (Part 2) explored the good news of the past – Jesus, the good news of his life, death, and resurrection and influences that have distorted that good news through the centuries. His next two chapters take up the good news of the future and various distortions that have bedeviled it.

We live between history and hope. These give our present meaning.  Or they should. However, the default gospel Wright outlines in the first two chapters often leave the present vacant and of seemingly little value by its twin convictions that the purpose of Jesus’ saving us and our ultimate destination is heaven where we will dwell with God forever.

But the good news is about what happened in and through Jesus of Nazareth (Part 2).  Thus, the future can’t be about leaving earth and going to heaven. It’s about bringing heaven and earth, sundered in the fall, back together.

But many of us work with a split-level view of reality – heaven up there, earth down here – each self-contained and sealed off from each other - with all the good stuff happening upstairs.  The Bible and its good news give us a different take altogether.  It is “about the rescue and renewal of the whole creation. And if God will, in the end, transform(ing) the whole created order, flooding it with his presence and glory— and that is what we are promised,” thus, “what matters for us is not where we will be in the meantime but how we will get to share in that new world. (Kindle Location 1291-1293).

In other word, what finally matters is the new heavens and the new earth – new creation.

Jesus did say “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).  But this does not mean his people are not in the world. It means their origin and animation are not from the world (that cluster of people and forces opposed to God).  And Paul does say “We are citizens of heaven” (Philippians 3:20) and await the Savior coming from there. “It isn’t,” Wright says, “that we are going off to the capital city to join the king; he is going to come from there to transform our lives here.” (Kindle Locations 1373).

Through Jesus’ resurrection new creation has begun (Part 2).  Therefore his return is not to take us away from this new creation to heaven but rather to reunite heaven and earth. “We must imagine the future world as a more solid, more permanent, more altogether glorious place than this present one (Kindle Location 1391) . . . we will be more truly human—more fully ourselves, in every sense.” (Kindle Location 1397)

Saving the World

God made us in his image and gave us the job of setting things in his creation right again.  Our failure to do not only constitutes dereliction of duty, it frustrates creation’s own future.

“To say ‘Jesus died for your sins’ ought to lead at once to ‘so you can freely pick up your role as a truly human being and discover your particular vocation within God’s purposes for his world.’” (Kindle Locations 1430-1431)


Resurrection as the Beginning of New Creation

“God made the world as a project: the garden of Eden was the start of something , not a small world in which Adam and Eve might live a languid life like figures in a private tableau. Their failure meant that the project was aborted, or at least radically corrupted and put on hold. But with Jesus—precisely with Jesus as the true king, the Messiah— the project has now been restarted. This is partly because, as some early Christians discerned, the Psalms spoke of the “son of man” who would inherit the role marked out for Adam and Eve in Genesis 1, looking after the garden and the animals on God’s behalf. That is true, but it’s not the whole truth. The whole truth is that Jesus himself, in his risen physical body, is the beginning of God’s new creation.” (Kindle Locations 1445-1450)

The resurrection thus completes Jesus’s coronation as Messiah, the true king and lord. It also completes the narrative of the covenant,” (Kindle Locations 1468-1469), this means with his being raised from the dead that new creation has been inaugurated.

It’s new creation thus begun that’s the good news about the past.  New creation finally and fully realized is the good news about the future.  We experience the good news in the present is living into and living out that new creation in our day to day lives.

Ultimately this means we are included in God’s great project, drama, of cosmic redemption and renewal.  It’s not about us, but we are graciously called and equipped to participate in it.  This is the meaning of our lives.


This good news for the future has proven as even more difficult to grasp than the good news for the past.  Several factors account for this.

The Myth of the Delay of the End

Some claimed that the New Testament and Jesus himself promised his imminent return to bring about God’s kingdom and the end of the world.  This turned out to be wrong.  The early church then panicked and began to alter the biblical message to account for this problem. 

“Some wanted to say that the early Christians had a valid and important religious experience but that they expressed this in the language and imagery of the day— which means end-of-the-world language. According to these interpreters, they really did believe the world would shortly end, but since we know they were mistaken we can strip away this language and get back to the pure experience underneath. Attempts to do this have been notably unsuccessful.” (Kindle Locations 1508-1512).

But let’s start with Jesus and his world. In that world colorful language of cosmic tumult, astral distress, disasters, and the like was standard language for political upheaval and national defeat, for regime changes or new imperial aggressors taking over.

“This opens the possibility of finding a new way through an old puzzle. Jesus spoke of certain things that were to happen “within a generation.”

Many modern readers have supposed that he was talking about “the end of the world,” and that he was wrong. But, in those famous passages in the Gospels, Jesus is talking not about the end of the world but about the fall of Jerusalem. The central passage here, makes this abundantly clear. And of course Jerusalem did indeed fall to the Romans about forty years after the end of Jesus’s public career.” (Kindle Locations 15334-1537).

This was the “end” for the Jews.

It also makes sense of Jesus’ claims that failure to follow him would result in destruction.  Though typically taken as a reference to eternal destiny or hell, Wright takes it to mean “unless you turn from your crazy path of nationalist rebellion against Rome, Rome will come and do to you what it has done to everyone who stands in its path. Jesus’s contemporaries took no notice. The warnings came true.” (Kindle Locations 1551-1552)

The Problem of Progress

The “eschatological snobbery of progress” is another reason we have trouble getting our heads around the good news for the future. (Kindle Location 1559) That we are inevitably on the upward way to human and world betterment is the birthright of those in the West. This conceit is rooted in part in the split-level view of the world that isolates God in heaven and leaves the world downstairs to move by its own dynamics and momentum.  And in the West that movement seemed always upwards or “universal liberal democracy.”

“All this means that the wider secular world has long given up on the hope expressed in Isaiah 11 or Psalm 96, let alone in Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, or Revelation 21 and 22. If there is a glorious future ahead, it will come through progress. Not through anything God does— which is what those passages have in mind.” (Kindle Locations 1612-1614)

As our birthright as westerners, we not only believe in progress, we want it to be true.  Even in the wake of history’s most brutal century and postmodernism’s attack on this belief, most of us still want the myth of progress to be truth and continue to act and live as if it is true. (Kindle Location 1625)

Good News - for the World?

The church again has too often gone along for the ride with culture on this.  Optimistically, especially when times are going good, we believed the evangelization of the world was a good possibility. When times go bad, we often knee-jerk and assume everything is going to hell. However, the church must keep in balance the often brutal reality of the world and the reality of the extravagant promises and actions of God for us.  The powers of the world defeated at the cross and resurrection of Jesus but not yet eradicated still thrash around in death throes opposing God and inflicting harm on God’s people.  Yet, even in death, God’s power continues to make good things, sign of the kingdom, happen and endure.

“Somehow, in ways we cannot at present discern, what is done in the present out of love for God and in the power of the Spirit will be part of God’s new world when it finally arrives.” (Kindle Locations 1646-1647)

“The resurrection of Jesus launched a new, and newly integrated, way of life. All that stood in the way of justice and peace— all the selfish concerns, petty jealousies, ambitions and rivalries and sheer human nastiness —belonged to the old world, to the old age that had been superseded by the new world of Easter . . . Thus the early Christians prayed and acted on the basis that the good news was true. (Kindle Locations 1659-1663)

Five ways to hold on this crucial balance.

-First, the lordship of the risen Jesus, who has launched his new creation in the middle of the present old one, means that real and lasting change is possible at personal, social, cultural, national, and global levels. (Kindle Locations 1684-1685)

-Second, though, is a point we too easily forget: real and lasting change is costly. (Kindle Location 1688) No easy assumptions of progress here.  Change comes only through the way of the cross.

-Third, therefore, real and lasting change in everything from personal to global life is always sporadic. (Kindle Locations 1693-1694)

-fourth, there is an equal and opposite danger that Christians, recognizing the danger of a triumphalist progress of the gospel, will retreat once more into gloom and negativity. True, real and lasting change in the present time will not bring God’s kingdom all by itself, but such real and lasting change genuinely anticipates God’s final kingdom, points toward it, and gives a foretaste of that ultimate reality. (Kindle Locations 1701-1703)

-Fifth, therefore , it is vital that those who believe the good news work tirelessly for real and lasting change in individual lives, the church, and the wider world. (Kindle Locations 1708-1709)

Good News for You – Personally

Each person in the church receives new birth through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  As we have seen, this is not the point, not the whole point, of God’s intentions, but it a part of what God wants for us so we can function effectively in the roles we have to play in God’s larger purposes.

Getting the Balance Right

“The good news, then, is good news about the present as well as the past and the future. Despite the secular claim that all real advances in the world are the result of secular modernism, and despite the barrage of hostility launched against the church by some new atheists, it remains the case that the church has, for two millennia, been in the forefront of education, medicine, and care of the poor. Real and lasting change has happened. Lives have been transformed.” (Kindle Locations 1754-1757).

And the ultimate good news of the gospel, the really good “good news,” is that God has come to rescue his wayward creatures and restore them and the creation to his good end for them.

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