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The four Gospels: how do they fit?

For years I had a sneaky feeling that we evangelicals must be missing something in the way we regarded the four Gospels. We were strong on Pauline doctrine, but it was hard—in fact near-impossible—to find Paul’s major themes in the Gospels. We noticed ‘kingdom’ coming through strongly there but weren’t quite sure how to square that with ‘church’: were the two the same or different, and if so, how?

Back in the ‘Restoration’ days many of us began to get the difference sorted out in our minds, but in our defence of Christ as King and the meaning of the kingdom we had little support from mainline Christian thinking or evangelical writing. That has (at last!) changed for ever with this book: How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels by N.T. (Tom) Wright (Harper One, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-06-173057-3).

In his usual warm and lucid way Tom Wright shows how the all-important kingdom theme comes through in each of the Gospels. In the person of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, God himself came to put the messed-up world to rights and to establish his eternal kingdom: God became King.

And in line with Tom Wright’s thoughts in Surprised By Hope, that kingdom isn’t ‘pie in the sky when you die’. It is here and now, and Christians are God’s advance force, placed in the world to bring it ever more into line with what it will ultimately be after Christ’s return—when the ‘new heavens and new earth’ will be a total reality.

This is wonderful stuff, meaty and tasty to the spiritual taste-buds. I shall read the Gospels from now on with huge confidence knowing that at last I know what they are really saying. Highly recommended.

Most of the Western Christian tradition has simply forgotten what the gospels are really all about.  (Preface)

The ascension, for many people, implies Jesus’s absence, not his universal presence and sovereign rule.  (p16)

As an American friend of mine put it, most Western churchgoers treat the gospels as the optional chips and dip at the start of the evening. They are the cocktail nibbles. Only after that do we sit down at table for the red meat of Pauline theology.  (p20)

What I miss, right across the Western tradition, at least the way it has come through to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is the devastating and challenging message I find in the four gospels: God really has become king— in and through Jesus! A new state of affairs has been brought into existence. A door has been opened that nobody can shut. Jesus is now the world’s rightful Lord, and all other lords are to fall at his feet.  (p37)

The “kingdom of heaven” is not about people going to heaven. It is about the rule of heaven coming to earth.  (p42)

The Greek [of John 20:31] almost certainly should be read with the emphasis the other way around: “that you may believe that the Messiah, the son of God, is none other than Jesus.” This Jesus, in other words, not someone else, is the Messiah; in this man, and in him alone, we see the way the living God is establishing the kingdom spoken of in Psalm 2.  (p55)

To speak of Jesus’s divinity without speaking of his kingdom coming on earth as in heaven is to take a large step toward the detached spirituality— almost a form of Gnosticism— that the first two centuries of the church firmly rejected.  (p56)

The four gospels present themselves as the climax of the story of Israel.  (p65)

In Israel’s scriptures, the reason Israel’s story matters is that the creator of the world has chosen and called Israel to be the people through whom he will redeem the world.  (p73)

The story of Jesus [is]…the story of Israel’s God coming back to his people as he had always promised.  (p83)

For far too long now Christians have told the story of Jesus as if it hooked up not with the story of Israel, but simply with the story of human sin as in Genesis 3, skipping over the story of Israel altogether. From that point of view, the story of Israel looks like a failed first attempt on God’s part to sort out his world.  (p84)

John describes Jesus not only as the Temple in person, but as the one in whom everything that would normally happen in the Temple is fulfilled, completed, accomplished.  (p103)

The gospels [tell] the story of the launching of God’s renewed people. It is wrong to imagine that the gospels (or Jesus, for that matter) were concerned with “founding the church,” which is the way some people have said it. There already was a “people of God.”  (p112)

Now, with Jesus’s death and resurrection, the rule of the king of the Jews has been established over the nations, as in Isaiah 11 and Psalms 2, 72, and 89. His followers are therefore to go and put that rule into effect.  (p115)

[The Gospels are] the story of Jesus told as the story of the kingdom of God clashing with the kingdom of Caesar. (p127)

If this story of Jesus is the story of Israel reaching its climax, it is inescapably political and will raise questions the Western world has chosen not to raise, let alone face, throughout the period of so-called critical scholarship.  (p139)

The gospels are telling us that the whole story belongs together: the kingdom and the cross are part of one another…  We have become stuck in habits of thought that pull these apart.  (p158)

The early Christian writers…believed themselves to be living between Jesus’s accomplishment of the reign of God and its full implementation.  (p161)

Interpreters have, of course, regularly noted the hints (such as Mark 10: 45) in the direction of Isaiah 53, the climax of the “suffering servant” theme. Fewer have noted the way in which the servant’s suffering, in that chapter in particular, is framed by the promise of the kingdom.  (p181)

God called Israel to be the means of rescuing the world, so that he might himself alone rescue the world by becoming Israel in the person of its representative Messiah.  (p187)

The gospels themselves were written from and to communities of Jesus’s followers, who believed that in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah this renewal had become actual. Israel had not been abandoned. It had not been “replaced.” It had been transformed.  (p196)

The baptism scene is dramatic and decisive. The heavenly announcement that Jesus is “my son, my beloved one,” the one with whom God is delighted, indicates for those with biblically attuned ears that Jesus is marked out as the king of Psalm 2 and the servant of Isaiah 42.  (p213)

All four gospel writers believed that with his crucifixion Jesus of Nazareth had indeed been enthroned, however paradoxically, as Israel’s Messiah and that, with that event, Israel’s God had established his kingdom on earth as in heaven.  (p224)

“But sitting at my right hand or my left— that’s not up to me. It’s been assigned already.” (Mark 10: 38– 40)  The significance of this in our present discussion is massive. For Mark, it is clear that the two brigands on Jesus’s right and left, as described in 15:27, are the ones to whom “it’s been assigned already.”  (p227)

The gospels tell the story of Jesus as the story of a one-man walking temple.  (p236)

The four gospels leave us with the primary application of the cross not in abstract preaching about “how to have your sins forgiven” or “how to go to heaven,” but in an agenda in which the forgiven people are put to work, addressing the evils of the world in the light of the victory of Calvary.  (p243)

The Temple was the intersection between heaven and earth; but now the place of intersection is Jesus himself, who is equally at home in either or both of the twin halves of God’s good creation.  (p246)

The ascension is then, as Luke certainly intends and John and Matthew hint, not Jesus “going away” in the sense of being out of sight and out of mind. Heaven, in biblical thought, is after all the “control room” for earth. For Jesus to be now “at God’s right hand” is for him to be given full authority over heaven and earth, as Matthew’s Jesus says explicitly.  (P268)

I have put together a synopsis of this book, which you can read here

Other books by N.T. Wright reviewed on my website:

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