The Revolution 8 (final): The revolution continues
Eighth (and last!) post on N.T. Wright, 2016. The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. London: SPCK.
The previous post (The Revolution 7) in this series on Tom Wright's book is here.
In Parts 1-3 of The day the revolution began Tom Wright has shown us that when Jesus died on Good Friday, something happened that made the world a different place. Early Christians saw his death as the ultimate victory over evil, the dawn of ‘the age to come’. The first sign of that difference came when Jesus was gloriously raised from the dead. With wickedness and suffering still pervasive, though, it felt and feels as if the ‘present age’ has yet to end. In the midst of this, the mission of Jesus’ followers is to work for the kingdom of God, announcing God’s amnesty to sinners wordwide. But a mission that promises only that the forgiven will go to heaven ignores Jesus’ claim to be launching the kingdom of God. Mission requires Jesus’ followers to be God’s image-bearers. ‘Christian mission means implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross. Everything else follows from this.’
Jews of Jesus’ time believed that history was divided into the ‘present age’ and the ‘age to come’. The latter was when God would assume his rightful power at last. When Jesus died something happened that made the world a different place: the ‘present age’ ended and ‘the age to come’ began.
Wright asks what it looks like when the vision of Jesus’ death that he has presented in Parts 1–3 is turned into mission. Beginning to answer this question is the purpose of Part 4.
How did the church get where it is today?
Some Reformation theology led to what has been called the “Puritan hope”: the vision that the kingdoms of the world would become the kingdom of God (Revelation 11:15). Significantly, when the composer Handel set scripture passages to music in his oratorio The Messiah (first performed 1742) , this text from Revelation was used in his “Hallelujah Chorus,” a powerful celebration of the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. Handel placed the chorus not at the end of part 3, celebrating the resurrection of the dead and new creation, but at the end of part 2, after Jesus’ resurrection and the preaching of the gospel.
This 17th- and 18th-century view of kingdom of God on earth was challenged from the late 18th century by those who thought that social and cultural reform was a distraction from saving souls for heaven. ‘Had not Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world”?’ (John 18:36) Actually, no, he said, ““My kingdom is not from this world”. That is, 'my kingdom' is here, but it originates from God.
As Christians abandoned the reform-minded aspects of ministry, turning their backs on this world, the Enlightenment grabbed the optimism of the Puritan hope and channelled it into secularism, seeking ‘the development of the world and society as though God was either remote or nonexistent, … in effect trying to get the fruits of the older Christian culture while ignoring the roots,’ a situation that continues today.
Wright’s goal is to change this.
Rethinking mission: mission and suffering
Mission can encounter two major errors. One, a mission based on ‘victory’ that does not have ‘forgiveness of sins’ at its heart produces triumphalism. A mission that interprets “forgiveness of sins” as “saving souls for heaven” leaves the powers to rule the world unchallenged. ‘The New Testament insists on both and in their proper relation.’
The Jewish longing was for forgiveness of sins as a liberating event in history, as the possibility of being human in a new way, liberated from the sin that flows from the idolatry that ‘corrupts, distorts, and disables the image-bearing vocation’. The Biblical vision of what it means to be human, to be a ‘royal priesthood’, is to stand between heaven and earth, adoring God and bringing his purposes to fruition in this world, confident that his victory has already been won.
‘The victory was indeed won, the revolution was indeed launched, through the suffering of Jesus; it is now implemented, put into effective operation, by the suffering of his people.’ (cf Romans 5:3–5; 8:17–18; 2 Corinthians 6:4–10),1 as the book of Acts illustrates over and over. As they suffer, Paul (in Romans 8:23) 2 sees ‘the Messiah’s people groaning within themselves as they long for their new resurrection bodies’.
Wright doubts that the necessity of suffering has been grasped by much of today’s Western church. ‘This is how it works. The Messiah suffered and won the victory over the powers of evil. The church, the Messiah’s people, must suffer in the present, because they share the Messiah’s life, his raised-from-the-dead life, and this is the way to implement the Messiah’s victory. This is part of what it means to share in his “glory,” his splendid rule over the world, which at present is exercised through the Spirit-led work and suffering of his people.’
Part of this is prayer, ‘particularly the prayer that comes from the indescribable depths of a sorrow-laden heart’ (cf Romans 8:26–27).3 Wright sees intercession as ‘one of the key focal points in the divine plan, not just to put into effect this or that smaller goal, but to rescue the whole creation from its slavery to corruption, to bring about the new creation at last.’
The book of Acts is laden with stories of suffering that result in victories. Followers of Jesus are not to suppose there will be no suffering along the way--and when there is, they are not to atttribute it to God punishing them. Rather, they share in Jesus' suffering, because they draw enemy fire. Think, for example, of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who consciously went into the enemy's camp, was imprisoned and was martyred or his faith. Think of some of those beheaded by ISIS, shouting 'Jesus' in their final moments.
'And so we go to our work, not . . . with the arrogance that expects to “build the kingdom” by our own efforts, but in prayer and faith, with the sacramental ministry and prayer of the church around and behind us and with the knowledge that the victory won on the cross will one day have its full effect. We expect to suffer, but we know already that we are victorious.'
The sacraments prepare us for this. For Paul someone who had been baptized into the Messiah had already died, been buried, and been raised to new life. This doesn’t mean that baptized persons won't come to harm or that they won't sin. Part of Paul’s point in Romans 6 is that members of the Messiah’s family must constantly make it real, in thought and deed: “Calculate yourselves as being dead to sin, and alive to God in the Messiah, Jesus,” and “Don’t allow sin to rule in your mortal body” (6: 11, 12).
Communion is a declaration to the powers 'that Jesus is Lord, that he has faced the powers of sin and death and beaten them, and that he has been raised again to launch the new world in which death itself will have no authority.' Paul writes, “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are announcing the Lord’s death until he comes” (11: 26).
Thus the sacraments celebrate the fact 'that Jesus has paid the price and that he has all power on earth and in heaven.' This 'talk of “victory” means what it means because . . . on the cross Jesus died for our sins; the blood of the new covenant was shed for the forgiveness of sins.' And sins were the chains by which the dark powers held us in slavery.
When Jesus gives his disciples the great commission, he tells them to teach forgiveness and to forgive (John 20:23). In John it comes with an explicit warning that they will suffer (John 21:18), in Luke with the gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:26-29). Receiving forgiveness comes through repentance, by a new mindset that turns away from idolatry. It is the entry to a new way of living, to new creation. The idols' power has been broken through Jesus' victorious death, and the resurrection is the demonstration of that victory.
'Resurrection and forgiveness belong together. Both are the direct result of the victory won on the cross, because the victory won on the cross was won by dealing with sin and hence with death. Resurrection is the result of death’s defeat; forgiveness, the result of sin’s defeat.'
Forgiveness always takes the world by surprise. When the relatives of a murder victim publically forgive the perpetrator, jaws drop in amazement.
Freedom from idolatry, freedom from sin, freedom from the powers
Modern Christians sometimes lose sight of the fact that Jesus' death was intended to set the whole world free. When some Greeks wanted to meet him, Jesus implied that their request was 'a sign that it was time for the great victory to be won, the victory through which non-Jews would be set free from the dark power that had hitherto enslaved them, free to worship the one true God. “This is the moment,” he says, “for the son of man to be glorified. . . . Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains all by itself. If it dies, though, it will produce lots of fruit”.' (John 12: 23–24). It was time for "this world's ruler" to be thrown out, and '
"when I’ve been lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself" (12:32-32).
Paul did not preach to the gentiles because the Jews rejected his message but because Jesus had commanded him to do so during his encounter on the road to Damascus, so that they could be set free from Satan's power (Acts 26:16-18). 'The dark powers invoked in paganism had held the world captive in the “present evil age,” but now something new had happened: "The Messiah . . . gave himself for our sins, to rescue us from the present evil age. . . ." (Galatians 1:3-4).
In recent decades Christians have seen people set tree in a national level from dark powers: from Communism, from Apartheid, from racial oppression in the USA. But in the west the 'familiar trio of money, sex, and power are enthroned as securely as ever.'
Churches everywhere need discernment to see where idolatry has resulted in slavery and to understand what it would mean to announce there 'the forgiveness of sins and the consequent breaking of the enslaving powers.' They must attempt to hold together the whole truth of the gospel, the forgiveness of sins through which the dark power is broken, and to find every way in which it may be announced and applied.
'In the New Testament, “forgiveness” goes closely with “repentance”; and “repentance” doesn’t just mean feeling sorry (perhaps because one has been caught!), but is an active turning away from the idols one had been worshipping,' and the worship in their place of Jesus as Lord. Wright asks what it would mean for the Western world if the almost omnipresent powers of Mammon and Aphrodite were confronted, and if our leaders ceased to rely on Mars, god of war, to assert their power and instead sought reconciliation. 'Part of believing in Jesus’s victory on the cross is believing that he there overcame those idols, so that it is now possible—despite what many say and most believe—to resist them and find radically different ways of addressing global difficulties. Not for nothing did Jesus invoke God’s blessing on the peacemakers.’
'The reason the cross carried such life-changing power, and carries it still, is because it embodied, expressed, and symbolized the true power of which all earthly power is either an imitation or a corrupt parody.' In the West, having got rid of tyrants and adopted democracy, we are often content to overlook vested interests and corrupt use of power, but '[t]he Christian role, as part of naming the name of the crucified and risen Jesus on territory presently occupied by idols, is to speak the truth to power and especially to speak up for those with no power at all.' Wright points to instances where Christians working in prisons have successfully lobbied to improve conditions, where the protests of a small group have saved a refugee from being returned to the country from which he had fled for his life, where a church’s young people cleaned up and beautified a back street in a poor neighborhood where drug dealers and the like had openly plied their trades, so that residents took back control of their neighbourhood, and where churches campaigned successfully for the remission of Third World debt. Part of our vocation is, with thoughtfulness and prayer, to remind people with power, official and unofficial, that there is a different way to be human, the Jesus way.
For a Christian to sin is 'a radical inconsistency, like a musician playing music from the wrong symphony. . . Jesus himself was quite clear, . . . : the human heart is deceitful, and out of it come all kinds of things that defile people, that is, that make them unable to function as genuine human beings, as the royal priesthood they were called to be. The gospel Jesus announced was not about getting in touch with your deepest feelings or accepting yourself as you really are. It was about taking up your cross and following him.' This means seeking personal holiness, walking between two dangers. One is to use large public issues to cover up the nagging problems within. The other is to be so concerned with our own struggle for sanctity that we overlook others’ needs. When I am tempted to sin, a dark power is asking me to hand back something of the God-given power that is supposed to be exercised over my life, and the parts of the world I touch. Sin distorts our true vocation and 'leaves the powers in power'. We can go about our work praising God in the knowledge that he has already defeated those powers on the cross, even if at times we celebrate Jesus' victory 'through tears and tiredness, through grief and the groaning of the Spirit.'
'Mission . . . is the Spirit-driven, cross-shaped work of Jesus’s followers as they worship the true God and, confronting idols with the news of Jesus’s victory, work for the signs of his kingdom in human lives and institutions.' The individual message of the Gospel is neither more nor less important than its worldwide, cosmic message. Jesus dying for my sins' is not the whole purpose of the cross. The typical Western view of life after death as 'going to heaven' is too small: the escatology of the New Testament foresees 'new creation' in a 'new heavens and new earth'. Human behaviour is not a matter of following a moral code. It is a vocation 'to worship God and reflect him into his world.' Jesus won the victory over the powers by dying under the weight of the world's sin, and our mission is to put this victory into practice by taking up our own cross, as Jesus warned us (Mark 8: 34–38).
In the footwashing scene of John 13: 1–38 Jesus takes off his outer garments and acts the part of a slave In an acted parable of what he is accomplishing through his incarnation and death, having taken off the garments of heaven to reveal his glory on the cross (cf Philippians 2). At the same time the powers of evil are gathering for one last attempt to thwart the divine rescue plan. The confrontation continues until Jesus argues with Pilate over kingdom and truth, and Pilate loses the argument by sending Jesus to his crucifixion. Had the rulers of this age known what they were doing, they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of Glory (1 Cor. 2: 8), because Satan’s power is broken by the cross.
Our task is not just to tell the story of Jesus but to live it. The New Testament tells us the meaning of the cross not by a theory, but by 'an earthly story of a human Messiah who embodies and incarnates Israel’s God and who unveils his glory in bringing his kingdom to earth as in heaven.'
- [^1] ἡ βασιλεία ἡ ἐμὴ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου· εἰ ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου ἦν ἡ βασιλεία ἡ ἐμή, οἱ ὑπηρέται οἱ ἐμοὶ ἠγωνίζοντο ἂν ἵνα μὴ παραδοθῶ τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις· ‘My kingdom is not from this world: if my kingdom were from this world, my servants would fight to deliver me from the Jews.’