Simply Jesus: Unpredictable


For the sovereign Lord is awe-inspiring;
he is the great king who rules the whole earth!
He subdued nations beneath us
and countries under our feet.
(Ps. 47:2-3; NET)

This is the best chapter (#5) of the book (so far), and an excellent explanation of how the OT had setup expectations and varying ideas in the minds of those living in the first century about how God was going to fulfill His promises to return and restore Israel. In a flowing narrative full of references to Scripture, Wright describes the difficulty that the people of Israel had in understanding how both God and David would be King.

The Jewish narrative (storm #2) was:

God had promised to come back, to return to his people in power and glory, to establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven.

These promises were held tightly by the Jewish people. In these promises the story ended with God returning to be King, to dwell in the Temple, to rule over his people, and to restore the nation of Israel as a sovereign nation. He would subject the rest of the nations of the world and establish a kingdom of peace and justice.

What would it look like for God to rule through a Davidic king?

Recounting the history of the nation – from rejecting God as King (1 Sam 8;12) to the promise of a ruler in the line of David (2 Sam 7), to the clear pronouncement that no man was capable of establishing the kingdom so God, Himself would come to rule (Ezek 34) – Wright puts us into a first century mindset. A mindset that asked – how was God going to rule through a Davidic king?

That promise was remembered and pondered again and again in the days to come, right up to the time of Jesus. Nobody, it seems, was absolutely sure what it would mean in practice.

How would God establish His kingdom through His servant David? That is the pressing question for the Jewish people when Jesus arrives. Nobody had put all the pieces together.

would YHWH actually appear, visibly and in person, to take charge? If so, what could people expect to see? How would it happen? Or if not, would he act through […] prophets?

In reading the Gospels and thinking about Jesus’ contemporaries, I have often wondered that myself. What did Israel expect as they waited for the Messiah? What did Simeon and Anna expect when they waited at the Temple for the ‘consolation of Israel’? What had God revealed through the Spirit to these two prophets? What did Peter actually understand when the Spirit revealed to him that Jesus is the Messiah? Was the struggle to reconcile these passages – God will reign and a Davidic king will reign – part of why many struggled to understand and accept Jesus during the first century?

The answer of course is found in Jesus. God was fulfilling his promises in ways that cut against the Jewish understanding of how that story was supposed to play out. Jesus believed that he was coming to Jerusalem “incarnating, the return of Israel’s God to his people” and

[w]ithin a few years of his death, the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth were speaking and writing about him … as a strange combination: both the Davidic king and the returning God.

This first century question (how was God going to rule through a Davidic king) is then turned into a 21st century question. The question, Wright reminds us, for anyone who is studying the historical Jesus is: why did anyone put the pieces together in this way? With the raging storms of an Imperial cult, Israel’s heightened expectations, and Jesus’ appearance on the scene all coming together, why would anyone claim that Jesus was “both the Davidic king and the returning God”? And why would anyone believe them?

Which brings us back to the problem or challenge that Wright highlighted in chapter 1:

If Christians don’t get Jesus right, what chance is there that other people will bother much with him?

This is what Wright will tackle in the rest of the book. And it seems this has become a timely topic. The popular book Zealot by Reza Aslan (which I have not read) attempts to answer these same questions about the historical Jesus. Here is the summary from the Good Book blog:

The central argument of Zealot is this: Jesus, like other messianic figures of his day, called for the violent expulsion of Rome from Israel. Driven by religious zeal, Jesus believed that God would empower him to become the king of Israel and overturn the hierarchical social order. Jesus believed that God would honor the zeal of his lightly armed disciples and give them victory. Instead, Jesus was crucified as a revolutionary.

Early Christians changed the story of Jesus to make him into a peaceful shepherd. They did this for two reasons: because Jesus’ actual prediction had failed, and because the Roman destruction of rebellious Jerusalem in AD 70 made Jesus’ real teachings both dangerous and unpopular. Paul radically changed the identity of Jesus from human rebel to divine Son of God, against the wishes of other leaders like Peter and James.

I recommend reading the rest of this book review.

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