Simply Jesus: Where Space, Time, and Matter collide


The star cluster Pismis 24 Stephen Hawking in his book – A Brief History of Time describes the quest to understand the universe we live in:

And our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in. … if we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.

Throughout the book Hawking describes general relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory, trying to help those of us who are not uber-physicists get a handle on how the universe works.

But Wright reminds us that the way space, time, and matter are viewed and studied today are very different than how first century Jewish people would have understood them and how they fit within them. Their worldview would center on their covenant relationship with God.

God has a purpose for his good creation, a purpose to be worked out in time. Indeed the Jewish people think of themselves as living within the long story of how that purpose is to be worked out.

And, according to Wright, they would see space, time, and matter as corresponding with their covenant relationship with God.

  • Space: as the Temple, which was the spot in the universe where ‘heaven and earth met‘ and God’s glory dwelt.
  • Time: as the Sabbath, which was a day set aside ‘to celebrate, to worship, to pray, to study God’s law‘.
  • Matter: Creation is demonstrating the beauty and power of God, and it was made to be filled with the glory of God.

These seem like fair assessments of how first century Israelites saw the Temple, Sabbath, and creation (although I am not sure if that is how they understood space, time, and matter).

Wright then shows us how each of these (Temple, Sabbath, creation) was a signpost or a marker pointing to a future and more complete fulfillment in Jesus.

  • Space: the physical Temple was replaced by Jesus who was now ‘the place where God’s world and ours meet‘.
  • Time: the Sabbath day was replaced by Jesus who was now ‘the place where God’s time and ours meet‘ and instead of being a time marked ‘for rest from the work of creation‘ it is a time ‘for celebrating God’s victory over the satan‘.
  • Matter: Jesus became ‘the place where – so to speak – God’s new creation intersects with ours‘. It is through Jesus that the new creation is ‘breaking into this world‘ and through whom all things are going to be renewed.

Jesus said and did the things he did because he wanted people to understand that God was taking charge of the earth and creation (a repeated theme in Simply Jesus). To let them know that the kingdom was at hand and the king had come. That God was working out his purpose in creation and launching his ‘great renewal movement’ over space, time, and matter.

Wright contrasts this view of Jesus’ miracles and teachings with the more common view regarding their purpose:

we must avoid jumping to the conclusion, from all that has been said above, that Jesus was doing things that “proved his divinity” … [or proving] that he was the “son of God” in the sense of the second person of the Trinity.

I assume Wright’s primary problem is one of emphasis. He views those who look at Jesus’ miracles and teachings as proof of divinity as missing the point. Jesus was announcing God is in charge. And working to fulfill his mission as the Messiah.

In the next chapter (12), Wright develops how Jesus saw himself as fulfilling his mission in relation to some key OT prophecies that describe God becoming king. The primary passages in the OT that Jesus relied on were:

  • Isaiah 40-66, primarily these four poems
    • Isaiah 42:1-9
    • Isaiah 49:1-7
    • Isaiah 50:4-9
    • Isaiah 52:13-53:12
  • Daniel
  • Zechariah

I recommend reading Wright’s treatment on these passages. As he explores these passages he opens up the question – how does the return of YHWH and the suffering servant come together in the person of Jesus?

Somehow, the servant is a kind of true Israel figure, doing Israel’s job on behalf of the Israel that has failed. And doing God’s job on behalf of God himself.

The return of YHWH to Zion, on the one hand, and the suffering of the servant, on the other, turn out to be – almost unbelievably, as the prophet realizes – two ways of saying the same thing.

Which is another way of asking the question, posed in chapter 5, how does the Davidic king and the returning God come together in Jesus?

Who is Jesus?

The Messiah, Davidic king, and suffering servant that embodies the returning God is how Jesus is described. But how does Wright view Jesus and His divinity? I found his writing on the topic difficult to assess because Wright has presented things in a very nuanced way.

In Jesus himself, I suggest we see … the loving God, rolling up his sleeves to do in person the job that no one else could do – Wright

His description of the “classic myth” in chapter 3 of Simply Jesus is one part of the puzzle.

In this myth, a supernatural being called “God” has a supernatural “son” whom he sends … so that he can rescue people out of this world by dying in their place. As a sign of his otherwise secret divine identity, this “son” does all kinds of extraordinary and otherwise impossible “miracles”

And statements like this in a paper by Wright, Jesus and the Identity of God also cloud our understanding of Wright’s position.

I do not think Jesus “knew he was God” in the same sense that one knows one is tired or happy, male or female.  He did not sit back and say to himself “Well I never! I’m the second person of the Trinity!”

But we also see the theme in Simply Jesus come through in this paper.

Jesus believed he would win the messianic victory over the real enemy and would build the true messianic temple through taking Israel’s fate upon himself and going to the cross.  Jesus believed that in doing so he was not just pointing to or talking about, but was actually embodying, the return of YHWH to Zion

The main question from the paper is:

were the NT writers when describing Jesus losing touch with the real, historical, earthly, flesh-and-blood Jesus, and through ascribing something like “divinity” to him, were they creating a non-earthly “Christ of faith”?

The question in a nutshell is – did the NT writers invent the “Christ of faith”? He answers this question as follows:

Whatever we say of later Christian theology, this is certainly not true of the NT.

Does that mean that the NT authors do not claim Jesus is divine, only “something like divine”? Wright goes on to suggest that the NT authors would not recognize the “Christ of faith”, but would have readily described him using the Jewish monotheistic categories (Spirit, Word, Law, Presence/Glory, Wisdom).

It is as though [the early Christians] discovered Jesus within the Jewish monotheistic categories they already had. The categories seemed to have been made for him.  They fitted him like a glove.

And it was the human Jesus, the earthly Jesus, that they fitted.  It was not some nebulous “Christ of faith” that these writers were talking about.

How then are we to understand Wright’s understanding of Jesus? Is Wright claiming that Jesus was the Messiah but was not “divine”.

One of Wright’s tendencies is obscurity, and on this question he does not state (in the first 12 chapters of Simply Jesus or Jesus and the Identity of God) what he means. I had to think and re-read parts of what Wright was saying. But even now I must admit I am not sure I fully understand Wright’s position on this topic.

My proposal is not that we understand what the word “god” means and manage somehow to fit Jesus into that.  Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew, possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy, vocation, riding into Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple, and dying on a Roman cross—and that we somehow allow our meaning for the word “god” to be recentered around that point.

After wrestling with what Wright is proposing, I again see it as a matter of emphasis. Wright is challenging us not to take our view of God and then shape Jesus into that. But rather to look at Jesus so that we can see what the true God looks like. It is the historical, miracle working, mission fulfilling Jesus that we should start with in order to understand God.

Start with the real historical earthly Jesus, and your God will come running down the road to meet you, deeply attractive, deeply preachable, deeply challenging in his transforming embrace.

Working out the details on how space, time, and matter in the universe all work is a worthwhile pursuit, but if we want to know the mind (and heart) of God we need only look at Jesus. I think (and hope) that is the point Wright is making here.

This is post is part of a series of posts as I blog through the book Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright. Feel free to join in at anytime.

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