Archive for the ‘N.T. Wright’ Category

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A New Kind of Revolution – N.T. Wright

December 29, 2011

 

Pietro Lorenzetti (or Pietro Laurati; c. 1280 - 1348) was an Italian painter, active between approximately 1306 and 1345. He was born and died in Siena. He was influenced by Giovanni Pisano and Giotto, and worked alongside Simone Martini at Assisi. He and his brother, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, helped introduce naturalism into Sienese art. In their artistry and experiments with three-dimensional and spatial arrangements, they foreshadowed the art of the Renaissance. Many of his religious works are in churches in Siena, Arezzo, and Assisi. His last documented work is the Nativity of the Virgin (c. 1335-1342), now in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. His masterwork is a tempera fresco decoration of the lower church of Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, where he painted a series of large panels depicting Crucifixion, Deposition from the Cross, and Entombment (shown here). In these works, massed figures display emotional interactions, unlike many prior depictions which appear to be iconic agglomerations, as if independent figures had been glued on to a surface, with no compelling relationship to one another.

First, it will not do to suppose that Jesus came to teach people “how to get to heaven.” That view has been immensely popular in Western Christianity for many generations, but it simply won’t do. The whole point of Jesus’ public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven and that, at death, they could leave “earth” behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on “earth”; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognize, in his own work, the signs that it was happening indeed; and that when he completed his work, it would become reality.

In particular, we must be clear what is and isn’t meant when Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, speaks about the “‘kingdom of heaven.” Many have wrongly assumed that he was referring to a “kingdom” in the sense of a place called “heaven” — in other words, a heavenly realm to which people might aspire to go once their time on “earth” was over. That is simply not what the phrase meant in the first century — though, sadly, it doesn’t seem to have taken very long within the early church for the misunderstanding to creep in, doubtless because within a century or two the original Jewish meanings of Jesus’ words were being forgotten.

Within Jesus’ world, the word “heaven” could be a reverent way of saying “God”; and in any case, part of the point of “heaven” is that it wasn’t detached, wasn’t a long way off, but was always the place from which “earth” was to be run. When, in the book of Daniel, people speak about “the God of heaven,” the point is that this God is in charge on earth, not that he’s a long way away and unconcerned about it. “The God of heaven” is precisely the one who organizes things on earth (Dan. 2:37) and will eventually set up his own kingdom there (2:44; see also 4:37; 5:23).

Second, was Jesus, then, mounting some kind of quasi-military revolution? Some have thought so. Many, fed up with the way contemporary churches have colluded with corrupt and wicked establishments, have been eager to find in Jesus a different dream, a dream that perches uncomfortably halfway between the Sermon on the Mount and the sermons of Karl Marx. Attempts have then been made to ward off this proposal by insisting that Jesus’ message was “spiritual” rather than “political.” This has been, in my view, another dialogue of the deaf.

The case for seeing Jesus as a would-be revolutionary bent on overthrowing the Roman order (and the Jewish aristocrats who functioned as Rome’s local puppets) and establishing himself and his followers as rulers in their place rests on one very solid foundation: Jesus’ announcement of God’s kingdom. As we saw earlier, first-century Jewish revolutionary movements used “God’s kingdom” as one of their major slogans. They didn’t want other rulers; they just wanted God himself to be king. From some points of view, Jesus does indeed look a bit like Judah the Hammer, going around with his little band of loyal followers, gathering support, managing to stay out of trouble, and eventually going up to Jerusalem, palm branches waving, to “cleanse the Temple.”

From some points of view, Jesus even looks a bit like Simon the Star, mounting a three-year kingdom movement in which the “kingdom” had indeed already begun (remember the year on Simon’s coins), while the great battle and the proper rebuilding of the Temple remained in the future. Jesus, like Simon, seems to have practiced and taught a severe way of life in which Israel’s ancient law was intensified; for Jesus, anger and lust were as much off limits as murder and adultery. And there are some signs in the gospels that people were eyeing Jesus, during his public ministry, to compare him with Herod Antipas. The sources suggest that he was giving his followers instructions on how to behave now that they were living under his rule. There are enough analogies there for us to say that Jesus really does belong on the map of those kingdom movements.

The parallel with Simon the Star is particularly striking, showing how easy and natural it was in that climate to speak of something having already been well and truly inaugurated — the coins, again — and also of something that had yet to be accomplished. Jesus’ way of combining present and future sayings about God’s kingdom has long baffled scholars who were trying to understand him without reference to his Jewish context. Once we put him back in that world, the problem simply vanishes. Of course he believed that God’s kingdom had already begun. Of course he believed that it would take another great act to complete the job. These are not in tension. They belong together quite naturally. The combination comes with the territory.

We can of course see why, faced with the Jesus-the-Marxist theory, many scholars and preachers have reacted in horror. It wasn’t just their possible right-wing sympathies, though those may have come into play as well. It was that the whole thrust of Jesus’ public career, insofar as we can reconstruct it from passage after passage in the gospels, seemed to be going in a very different direction. Whatever else he was, he wasn’t a violent revolutionary. We have already studied his commands to love and forgive and we have set them in their first-century political context. He warned at one point that, if God’s kingdom was breaking into the world, the men of violence were trying to muscle their way into the act (Matthew 11:12; Luke 16:16). He just wasn’t the sort of freedom fighter we have come to know rather well in the last hundred years or so.

It won’t do, then, to suppose that what Jesus was doing was simply advancing a kind of human revolution, a proto-Marxist movement in which the poor would overthrow the rich. Jesus has plenty of harsh words for the rich — far more than for anyone else, in fact. But, just as, to the dismay of his own imprisoned cousin, he showed no sign of launching a movement to oust Herod Antipas and set his prisoners free, so he showed no sign either of joining one of the various already existing resistance movements or of starting his own.

Those movements, clearly, were using the same language as he was, since they too spoke about God becoming king. But what Jesus meant by that, acted out in a hundred vivid demonstrations of God’s sovereign power, and explained in a hundred parables that told the ancient stories in a new way, was quite different from what the ordinary revolutionaries had in mind.

Nor does that mean, of course — in the light of the first point we have just made — that Jesus was saying, “Forget revolution. Go to heaven instead.” It was about giving up the ordinary kind of revolution, in which violent change produces violent regimes, which are eventually toppled by further violent change, and discovering an entirely different nay instead. “Don’t resist evil,” he said, and the words he used didn’t mean, “Lie down and let people walk all over you.” They meant, “Don’t join the normal `resistance’ movements.” The Marxist or quasi-Marxist option simply has too many elements of the story running against it. Clearly, Jesus was not apolitical — how could he be, talking about God becoming king in first-century Palestine? — but his “politics” don’t seem to fit the molds into which many have tried to squash him.

Nor was Jesus simply advocating a clever, philosophically savvy way of living courageously within the present evil world, a way by which his followers might be able to attain some kind of detachment. After the failure of earlier attempts to make Jesus into a Marxist hero, we have seen more subtle attempts to make him a Cynic hero, looking out on the follies and failings of the world with an ironic smile and teaching his followers how to rise above it all. No doubt there are echoes of Cynic sayings and attitudes here and there in Jesus’ words, just as his voicing of the Golden Rule (“Whatever you want people to do to you, do that to them,” Luke 6:3 1) is echoed in many cultures and traditions. But he wasn’t teaching his followers how to rise above the mess of the world. He was training them to be kingdom bringers. As Marx himself said, the point is not to understand the world, but to change it.

Third, and most important, we must avoid jumping to the conclusion, from all that has been said above, that Jesus was doing things that “proved his divinity” — or that the main point he was trying to get across was that he was the “son of God” in the sense of the second person of the Trinity. Here we must be careful. I have already hinted strongly enough, I think, that Jesus saw his own work, his own public career, his own very person, as the reality to which Temple, Sabbath, and creation itself were pointing.

That is, or ought to be, a clear indication that, in terms of the “God” of first-century Jews, Jesus understood himself to be embodying this God, doing things whose best explanation was that this was what God was doing, and so on. My problem with “proofs of divinity” is that all too often, when people have spoken or written like that, it isn’t entirely clear that they have the right “God” in mind. What seems to be being “proved” is a semi-Deist type of Christianity — the type of thing a lot of Christians in the eighteenth century, and many since then, have thought they should be defending. In this sort of Christianity, “God” is in heaven and sends his divine second self, his “Son,” to “demonstrate his divinity,” so that people would worship him, be saved by his cross, and return with him to heaven. But in first-century Christianity, what mattered was not people going from earth into God’s kingdom in heaven. What mattered, and what Jesus taught his followers to pray, was that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven.

Jesus’ powerful acts of healing, then, together with all the other extraordinary things the gospels credit him with, are not done in order to “prove” his “divinity.” If you see them like that, they prove too much and too little. Too much: other people had, and still have, remarkable gifts of healing. That’s always been a feature on the edge of religious movements, and sometimes in the center of them. But it doesn’t mean that the person doing the healing is “God,” just like that.

Were that to be the case, there would be quite a lot of gods. Equally, too little: those who have seen Jesus’ powerful acts as “proofs of divinity” have often just stopped there, as though that was the main thing one was supposed to conclude from a reading of the gospels. They have then allowed the “right” answer to the question about “divinity” to shut down the question the gospels are urgently pressing upon us — is God becoming king?

A considerable amount of “apologetics” to this day, in fact, has consisted of arguing for the “right answers” to two questions. First, asks the apologist, did Jesus do these things? Yes! Second, what does it prove? That he was God! QED! And off goes the apologist in triumph, a day’s work done.

And Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John would call the apologist back. Sorry, but you’ve just scored a home run when you should have scored an end run. You’re playing the wrong game. The gospels are not about “how Jesus turned out to be God.” They are about how God became king on earth as in heaven. The good is the enemy of the best. From one point of view it’s good to see the intimate connection, throughout the gospels, of Jesus with Israel’s God. If you’re trying to score a point against a Deist opponent who sniffily suggests that Jesus couldn’t possibly have been “divine,” because no sane human being could imagine that he was God incarnate, you may end up winning that game. But you may then lose the real one.

Plenty of Christians, alas, have imagined that a “divine Jesus” had come to earth simply to reveal his divinity and save people away from earth for a distant “heaven.” (Some have even imagined, absurdly, that the point of “proving that Jesus really did all those things” is to show that the Bible is true — as though Jesus came to witness to the Bible rather than the other way around.) It has been all too possible to use the doctrine of the incarnation or even the doctrine of the inspiration of scripture as a way of protecting oneself and one’s worldview and political agenda against having to face the far greater challenge of God taking charge, of God becoming king, on earth as in heaven. But that is what the stories in the Bible are all about. That’s what the story of Jesus was, and is, all about. That is the real challenge, and skeptics aren’t the only ones who find clever ways to avoid it.

Once we begin to see beyond these three distracting angles of vision, then, and grasp the story in its own terms, we find ourselves compelled forward into the narrative again. If the time is fulfilled, what will happen to bring even this fulfilled-time moment to its proper conclusion? If Jesus is behaving as though he were the Temple in person, what will this mean both for the existing Temple and for his followers? And if, through his work, new creation is breaking into the world, how is it going to make any headway against the apparently still all-powerful forces of corruption, evil, and death itself?

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A New Creation — N.T.Wright

December 28, 2011

The Transfiguration by Rubens

The theme of new creation that bubbles up from these stories emerges in our third category: matter (Space and Time the other two). Reality. The physical world in all its complexity and glory. Here today’s readers of the New Testament have to take an even deeper breath than before. We have been schooled to believe, as a bedrock principle in our worldview, that the material world is relentlessly and reductively subject to the laws of physics, chemistry, and the more specific sciences of astronomy, biology, zoology, botany, and the rest. But as with geography (space, the temple) and chronology (time), so here also the Jewish worldview begs to differ.

The world of matter, no less than those of space and time, was made by the creator God. It was made not only to display his beauty and power, but also as a vessel for his glory. Again and again the prophets and psalms hint at what we might conceivably have guessed from the story of creation itself: the material world was made to be filled with God’s glory. “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of YHWH, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk. 2:14). Suppose that isn’t just an extravagant way of speaking? Suppose it means what it says?

What prevents us from thinking in these terms, I believe, is the long and often unrecognized triumph of the movement called Deism — a modern version of the ancient philosophy called Epicureanism. As long as we are thinking in that way, with God or the gods a long way away and earth trundling on entirely by its own steam, we will never glimpse that vision. As long as we are still in awe of the great Scottish philosopher David Hume, who declared that miracles don’t happen because they can’t happen, we will not only find it difficult to believe in the ancient Jewish worldview. We will find it difficult even to understand what it was about.

If we do try to believe it, we will be forced to treat it simply as fantasy, a pretty idea rather than rock-bottom reality. That is the curse of the false either/or that has been wished on scholarship these many years: either robust skepticism or grit-your-teeth conservatism. Back to our first perfect storm. It’s time for both of those false reactions to be confronted by first-century reality.

Space, time, and now matter. In this last respect too the prophetic visions of the ancient scriptures suddenly acquire new dimensions. Jesus’ announcement that God is now in charge, that God is becoming king on earth as in heaven, means that we can glimpse, fitfully and in flashes, something of what this prophetic vision might mean — in where Jesus is and what he is doing. We can see the material world itself being transformed by the presence and power of Israel’s God, the creator.

We see it already, to be sure, in the healing stories. In them the physical matter of someone’s body is being transformed by a strange power, which, in one telling scene, Jesus feels going out of him (Mark 5:30). But then, to the astonishment of the first onlookers and the scornful skepticism of Epicureans ancient or modern, we see creation, as it were, under new management. The professional fishermen who caught nothing during the night are overwhelmed with the catch they get when Jesus tells them where to cast the net.

Jesus not only heals the sick; he raises the dead. He feeds a hungry crowd with a few loaves and a couple of fish. Something new is happening, and it’s happening to the material world itself. He commands the raging storm to be quiet, and it obeys. Then, worse still, he walks on the lake and invites Peter to do it too.

As with the resurrection itself, which forms the climax to this whole sequence, it is no use trying to rationalize these events. Disbelieve them if you will; retain the Epicurean detachment, the belief that if there is a God he (or she, or it) is a long way away and doesn’t get involved with this world. But at least see what is being claimed. These “miracles” make little or no sense within the present world of creation; where matter is finite, humans do not walk on water, and storms do what storms will do, no matter who, Canute-like, tries to tell them not to.

But suppose, just suppose, that the ancient prophetic dream had glimpsed a deeper truth. Suppose there were a god like Israel’s God. Suppose this God did after all make the world. And suppose he were to claim, at long last, his sovereign rights over that world, not to destroy it (another philosophical mistake) or merely to “intervene” in it from time to time (a kind of soggy compromise position), but to fill it with his glory, to allow it to enter a new mode in which it would reflect his love, his generosity, his desire to make it over anew.

Perhaps these stories are not, after all, the sort of bizarre things that people invent in retrospect to boost the image of the dead hero. Perhaps they are not even evidence of the kind of “interventionist,” miracle-working, “supernatural” divinity of some “conservative” speculation. Perhaps they are, instead, the sort of things that might just be characteristic of the new creation, of the fulfilled time, of what happens when heaven and earth come together.

Perhaps, after all, the attempts to cut them down to size are themselves part of a different agenda-driven process of invention that yields a world where such things don’t happen because they shouldn’t, they couldn’t. Because if they did, it might mean that a living God really had established his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven and was intending to let this rule grow into a large shrub from a small seed, putting an end to the fantasy of human sovereignty, of being the master of one’s own fate and the captain of one’s own soul, of humans organizing the world as though they were responsible to nobody but themselves.

Perhaps the real challenge of Jesus’ transformations within the material world is what they would imply both personally and politically. If they are about God becoming king on earth as in heaven, the chances are he’s not going to stop with storms on lakes. There will be bigger fish to catch. And to fry.

At the heart of the story told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke — and suffused through the whole narrative of John — we have the most striking example of all:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and James’s brother John, and led them off up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Then, astonishingly, Moses and Elijah appeared to them. They were talking with Jesus.

Peter just had to say something. “Master,” he said to Jesus, “it’s wonderful for us to be here! If you want, I’ll make three shelters here — one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them. Then there came a voice out of the cloud. “This is my dear son,” said the voice, “and I’m delighted with him. Pay attention to him.”

When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were scared out of their wits. Jesus came up and touched them.

“Get up,” he said, “and don’t be afraid.”

When they raised their eyes, they saw nobody except Jesus, all by himself.
(Matthew 17:1-8)

Suppose that, after all, the ancient Jewish story of a God making the world, calling a people, meeting with them on a mountain — suppose this story were true. And suppose this God had a purpose for his world and his people that had now reached the moment of fulfillment. Suppose, moreover, that this purpose had taken human form and that the person concerned was going about doing the things that spoke of God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, of God’s space and human space coming together at last, of God’s time and human time meeting and merging for a short, intense period, and of God’s new creation and the present creation somehow knocking unexpected sparks off one another.

The earth shall be filled, said the prophet, with the knowledge of the glory of YHWH as the waters cover the sea. It is within some such set of suppositions that we might make sense of the strangest moment of all, at the heart of the narrative, when the glory of God comes down not to the Temple in Jerusalem, not to the top of Mount Sinai, but onto and into Jesus himself, shining in splendor, talking with Moses and Elijah, drawing the Law and the Prophets together into the time of fulfillment. The transfiguration, as we call it, is the central moment. This is when what happens to space in the Temple and to time on the Sabbath happens, within the life of Jesus, to the material world itself or rather, more specifically, to Jesus’ physical body itself.

So what does this story mean? What, if anything, does it “prove”? Consider another transfiguration story, from a different time and place. Nicholas Motovilov (1809-32) visited Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833), a well-known saintly hermit, and asked him how one could know that the Spirit of God was really present. It was a cloudy day, and they were sitting on tree stumps in the woods. He describes what followed:

Then Father Seraphim gripped me firmly by the shoulders and said: “My friend, both of us, at this moment, are in the Holy Spirit, you and I. Why won’t you look at me?”

“I can’t look at you, Father, because the light flashing from your eyes and face is brighter than the sun and I’m dazzled!”

“Don’t be afraid, friend of God, you yourself are shining just like I am; you too are now in the fullness of the grace of the Holy Spirit, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see me as you do.”

Then I looked at the holy man and was panic-stricken. Picture, in the sun’s orb, in the most dazzling brightness of its noon-day shining, the face of a man who is talking to you. You see his lips moving, the expression in his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel his arms round your shoulders, and yet you see neither his arms, nor his body, nor his face, you lose all sense of yourself, you can see only the blinding light which spreads everywhere, lighting up the layer of snow covering the glade, and igniting the flakes that are falling on us both like white powder.

“What do you feel?” asked Father Seraphim.

“An amazing well-being!” I replied…

“I feel a great calm in my soul, a peace which no words can express…. A strange, unknown delight…. An amazing happiness…. I’m amazingly warm…. There’s no scent in all the world like this one!”

“I know,” said Father Seraphim, smiling. “This is as it should be, for divine grace comes to live in our hearts, within us.”
[From V. Sander, St. Seraphim of Sarov, trans. Sr. Gabriel Anne (London: SPCK, 1975), pp. 15-16, as quoted in Roger Pooley and Philip Seddon, The Lord Of The Journey (London: Collins, 1986), p.51.]

One can, of course, doubt stories like this as well, but there are enough of them to suggest that we should rather keep an open mind. But if this suggests that we should be wary of dismissing them out of hand, it is also a reminder that the Transfiguration of Jesus is not, as it stands, a “proof” of his “divinity.” Moses and Elijah were “transfigured” too. So, in this nineteenth-century story, were the Russian mystic and his disciple.

What the story of Jesus on the mountain demonstrates, for those with eyes to see or ears to hear, is that, just as Jesus seems to be the place where God’s world and ours meet, where God’s time and ours meet, so he is also the place where, so to speak, God’s matter — God’s new creation — intersects with ours. As with everything else in the gospel narrative, the moment is extraordinary, but soon over.

It forms part of a new set of signposts, Jesus-shaped signposts, indicating what is to come: a whole new creation, starting with Jesus himself as the seed that is sown in the earth and then rises to become the beginning of that new world. Something similar seems to have been going on, as we shall see later, in the upper room on the night when Jesus was betrayed.

God’s space and ours, God’s time and ours, God’s matter and ours. These three dimensions of the story of Jesus demonstrate the complete inadequacy of three ways of looking at Jesus that, however popular they have been, must be set aside at this point before we can proceed with yet more dimensions of this most extraordinary of stories.

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Time Fulfilled – N.T. Wright

December 27, 2011

Branchini Madonna, 1427 Giovanni di Paolo. Giovanni di Paolo combines for us two pictorial types of the Virgin here: the Madonna of Humility, who sits on the ground, and the Virgin as Queen of Heaven, who wears a crown and an ermine cloak. Scattered throughout the picture are symbolic references to the Virgin and to Christ: thistles on Christ’s drapery allude to His Passion; pomegranates foretell the promise of the Resurrection; roses and marigolds refer to Mary; and cornflowers relate to Christ and heaven.The artist has inscribed his own prayer around the Virgin’s halo: “Protect, O Virgin, the man who has painted thee.” This panel originally hung in the Branchini family chapel in the Church of San Domenico, Sienna.

Jews in Jesus’ day and Jews in our own day have a very special sense of time. Time is moving forward in a linear fashion, with a beginning, a middle, and an end — unlike some other visions of time, in which everything is cyclical, going around and around and constantly returning to the same point. The Jewish view of time is part of the Jewish view of God and creation: 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.

But already, in the opening of the Bible, there is another feature. When God made the world, he “rested” on the seventh day. This doesn’t just mean that God took a day off. It means that in the previous six days God was making a world — heaven and earth together — for his own use. Like someone building a home, God finished the job and then went in to take up residence, to enjoy what he had built.

Creation was itself a temple, the Temple, the heaven-and-earth structure built for God to live in. And the seventh-day “rest” was therefore a sign pointing forward into successive ages of time, a forward-looking signpost that said that one day, when God’s purposes for creation were accomplished, there would be a moment of ultimate completion, a moment when the work would finally be done, and God, with his people, would take his rest, would enjoy what he had accomplished.

One of the few things that ancient pagans knew about the Jewish people was that, from the pagans’ point of view, they had a lazy day once a week. From the Jewish point of view, it wasn’t laziness; it was the chance to celebrate time in a different mode. The Sabbath was the day when human time and God’s time met, when the day-to-day succession of tasks and sorrows was set aside and one entered a different sort of time, celebrating the original Sabbath and looking forward to the ultimate one.

This was the natural moment to celebrate, to worship, to pray, to study God’s law. The Sabbath was the moment during which one sensed the onward movement of history from its first foundations to its ultimate resolution. If the Temple was the space in which God’s sphere and the human sphere met, the Sabbath was the time when God’s time and human time coincided. Sabbath was to time what Temple was to space.

This sense of looking forward was heightened by the larger sabbatical scheme in which the seventh year was a year of agricultural rest and the seven-times-seventh year the year of jubilee, the time for slaves to be freed, for debts to be cancelled, for life to get back on track. As we have already seen in this book, the theme of jubilee ties in closely and naturally with the great all-encompassing theme of the Exodus. The jubilee was, as it were, the once-in-a-lifetime “exodus” that everyone could experience. We don’t know whether or to what extent the jubilee as set forth in Leviticus 25 was actually practiced in Jesus’ day. But it remained in the scriptures as a reminder that God’s time was being marked out week by week, seven years by seven years, half century by half century.

Matthew hints at all this in his own way, right at the start of his gospel, by arranging Jesus’ genealogy in three groups of fourteen generations (that is, six sevens), so that Jesus appears at the start of the Sabbath-of-Sabbaths moment. And, as we have seen, people in Jesus’ day were pondering, calculating, and longing for the greatest super-jubilee of them all, the “seventy weeks” (that is, seventy times seven years) of Daniel 9:24. The great Sabbath was coming! Soon they would be free!

Now, and only now, do we see what Jesus meant when he said the time is fulfilled? That was part of his announcement right at the start of his public career (Mark 1:15). Only this, I believe, will enable us to understand his extraordinary behavior immediately afterwards. He seems to have gone out of his way to flout the normal Sabbath regulations. Most people in the modern church have imagined that this was because the Sabbath had become “legalistic,” a kind of observance designed to boost one’s sense of moral achievement, and that Jesus had come to sweep all that away in a burst of libertarian, anti-legalistic enthusiasm. That, though commonplace, is a trivial misunderstanding. It is too “modern” by half.

Rather, the Sabbath was the regular signpost pointing forward to God’s promised future, and Jesus was announcing that the future to which the signpost had been pointing had now arrived in the present. In his own career. He was doing the “God’s in-charge” things. He was explaining what he was doing by talking about what God was doing. The time was fulfilled, and God’s kingdom was arriving.

In particular, Jesus came to Nazareth and announced the jubilee. This was the time — the time! — when all the sevens, all the Sabbaths, would rush together. This was the moment Israel and the world had been waiting for. When you reach your destination, you don’t expect to see signposts anymore. Nobody puts up a sign on Capitol Hill pointing to “Washington.” Nobody needs a signpost saying “London” in Piccadilly Circus. You don’t need the Sabbath when the time is fulfilled. It was completely consistent with Jesus’ vision of his own vocation that he would do things that said, again and again from one angle after another, that the time had arrived, that the future, the new creation, was already here, and that one no longer needed the Sabbath.

The Sabbath law was not, then, a stupid rule that could now be abolished (though some of the detailed Sabbath regulations, as Jesus pointed out, had led to absurd extremes, so that you were allowed to pull a donkey out of a well on the Sabbath, but not to heal the sick). It was a signpost whose purpose had now been accomplished. It was a marker of time pointing forward to the time when time would be fulfilled; and that was now happening.

Notice how this theme then ties in with others we have already observed. If the Sabbath now has a purpose, it won’t be for rest from the work of creation, but rather for celebrating God’s victory over the Satan: “And isn’t it right,” asks Jesus, “that this daughter of Abraham, tied up by the Satan for these eighteen years, should be untied from her chains on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16). Victory in the real battle is closely connected with the healings that reveal that God is in charge. “My father is going on working,” declares Jesus, “and so am I” (John 5:17). And these things happen, of course, in the moment when the time is fulfilled. If Jesus is a walking, living, breathing Temple, he is also the walking, celebrating, victorious Sabbath.

But this means that the time of Jesus’ public career, taken as a whole, also acquires a special significance. He spoke about this special significance when he insisted that the wedding guests can’t fast while the bridegroom is still at the party. Something new is happening; a new time has been launched; different things are now appropriate. Jesus has a sense of a rhythm to his work, a short rhythm in which he will launch God’s kingdom, the God’s-in-charge project, and complete it in the most shocking and dramatic symbolic act of all. “Look here,” he says to those who have warned him that Herod wants to kill him, “I’m casting out demons today and tomorrow, and completing my healings. I’ll be finished by the third day. But I have to continue my travels today, tomorrow, and the day after that! It couldn’t happen that a prophet would perish except in Jerusalem” (Luke 13:32-33).

This follows hard on the heels of some sharp little sayings about God’s kingdom. It’s like mustard seed, which starts small and grows to a great shrub for the birds to nest in; it’s like yeast mixed into dough, transforming the whole lump. And, in a solemn warning that resonates with many similar ones, Jesus warns his hearers that they may one day see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets – and people from east and west, from north and south! — sitting down to eat in the kingdom of God, while they themselves will be thrown out (Luke 13:18-30). The time of Jesus’ public career is the time of fulfillment, the time through which God’s new creation, his earth-as-in-heaven new reality, is being launched, up close and personal. But this means it is possible to miss the boat, to lose the one chance. That is the warning that goes with the note of fulfillment.

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Redefining Where God Dwells — N.T.Wright

December 26, 2011

The Heller Altar was created 1507–09 by Albrecht Dürer for the patrician Jakob Heller of Frankfurt, the central panel copied ca. 1614–17 by Jobst Harrich, its original destroyed by the fire of the Munich Residenz in 1729

In his most recent book, Simply Jesus, N. T. Wright explores the ways in which people in Jesus’ world would have thought about space, time and matter.

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For many centuries mapmakers put Jerusalem at the middle of the earth. That corresponds to what most Jews in the first century believed about the city, and particularly about the Temple. It was the heart of everything, the holiest spot on earth. It was the focal point of the holy land. Its decoration symbolized the larger creation, the world we read about in Genesis 1. It wasn’t, as sacred buildings have been in some other traditions, a retreat from the world. It was a bridgehead into the world. It was the sign that the creator God was claiming the whole world, claiming it back for himself, establishing his domain in the middle of it.

It was, in particular, the place where God himself had promised to come and live. This was where God’s glory, his tabernacling presence, his Shekinah, had come to rest. That’s what the Bible had said, and some fortunate, though frightened, individuals had glimpsed it and lived to tell the tale. But God lived, by definition, in heaven. Nobody, however, supposed that God lived most of the time in heaven, a long way away, and then, as though for an occasional holiday or royal visitation, went to live in the Temple in Jerusalem instead.

Somehow, in a way most modern people find extraordinary to the point of being almost unbelievable, the Temple was not only the center of the world. It was the place where heaven and earth met. This isn’t, then, just a way of saying, “Well, the Jews were very attached to their land and their capital city.” It was the vital expression of a worldview in which “heaven” and “earth” are not far apart, as most people today assume, but actually overlap and interlock.

And Jesus, had been going about saying that this God, Israel’s God, was right now becoming king, was taking charge, was establishing his long-awaited saving and healing rule on earth as in heaven. Heaven and earth were being joined up — but no longer in the Temple in Jerusalem. The joining place was visible where the healings were taking place, where the party was going on (remember the angels celebrating in heaven and people joining in on earth?), where forgiveness was happening. In other words, the joining place, the overlapping circle, was taking place where Jesus was and in what he was doing. Jesus was, as it were, a walking Temple. A living, breathing place-where-Israel’s-God-was-living.

As many people will see at once, this is the very heart of what later theologians would call the doctrine of the incarnation. But it looks quite different from how many people imagine that doctrine to work. Judaism already had a massive “incarnational” symbol, the Temple. Jesus was behaving as if he were the Temple, in person.

He was talking about Israel’s God taking charge. And he was doing things that put that God-in-chargeness into practice. It all starts to make sense. In particular, it answers the old criticism that “Jesus talked about God, but the church talked about Jesus” — as though Jesus would have been shocked to have his pure, God-centered message corrupted in that way. This sneer fails to take account of the fact that, yes, Jesus talked about God, but he talked about God precisely in order to explain the things that he himself was doing.

So we shouldn’t be surprised at Jesus’ action in the Temple. The Temple had, as it were, been a great signpost pointing forward to another reality that had lain unnoticed for generations, like the vital clue in a detective story that is only recognized as such in the final chapter. Remember the promise to David — that God would build him a “house,” a family, founded on the son of David who would be the son of God? David had wanted to build a house for God, and God had replied that he would build David a “house.” David’s coming son is the ultimate reality; the Temple in Jerusalem is the advance signpost to that reality. Now that the reality is here, the signpost isn’t needed anymore.

But it isn’t just that the signpost had become redundant with the arrival of the reality. The Temple, as many other first-century Jews recognized, was in the wrong hands and had come to symbolize the wrong things. It was, for a start, a place that for many Jews stank of commercial oppression. This is an additional rather obvious overtone of Jesus’ action in driving out the money changers and the traders. But it gets worse. The Temple was the center of the banking system. It was where the records of debts were kept; the first thing the rebels did when they took over the Temple in the great revolt was to burn those records. That tells you quite a lot about how people saw the Temple. I had a letter today from the tax man, politely asking me for my annual contribution to government finances. If I don’t answer it, the next one won’t be so polite.

Now imagine letters and records building up, detailing all the debts of ordinary people in Jerusalem, while the chief priests, who ran the system, lived in their fine mansions in the nice part of town and went about in their smart clothes. If you were an ordinary, hardworking resident of Jerusalem or the surrounding area, what would you think of the building that was supposed to be God’s house, but that stored the records of your debts, while the rich rulers who performed the religious rituals marched by with their noses in the air on their way to put on their splendid vestments and chant their elaborate prayers? Yes, that’s exactly how many people saw the Temple.

It gets worse again. The Temple had come to symbolize the nationalist movement that had led many Jews to revolt against pagan oppression in the past and would lead them to do so once more. As we see graphically throughout the history of Israel, and not least in the first century, the Temple was the sign that Israel’s God, the world’s creator, was with his people and would defend them against all confers. Battle and Temple had gone together for a thousand years, from David himself through to Judah the Hammer to Simon the Star.

And Jesus had come as the Prince of Peace. “If only you’d known,” he sobbed out through his tears, “on this day — even you! — what peace meant. But now it’s hidden, and you can’t see it.” Enemies will come, he said. “They won’t leave one single stone on another, because you didn’t know the moment when God was visiting you” (Luke 19:42-44).

Israel’s God was coming back at last, and they couldn’t see it. Why not? Because they were looking in entirely the wrong direction. The Temple, and the city of which the Temple was the focal point, had come to symbolize violent national revolution. Instead of being the light of the world, the city on the hill that should let its light shine out to the nations, it was determined to keep the light for itself. The Temple was not just redundant; not just a place of economic oppression. It had become a symbol of Israel’s violent ambition, a sign that Israel’s ancient vocation had been turned inside out. In Luke’s gospel, the scene of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem balances the scene near the start in which Jesus goes to Nazareth and risks his neck by declaring God’s blessing on the pagan nations. Then it was the synagogue; now it’s the Temple.

It also balances the scene even earlier, when the twelve-year-old Jesus stays back in Jerusalem, to his parents’ alarm, at the end of a Passover celebration — and is finally discovered sitting in the Temple with the teachers, listening to them, quizzing them in turn, and explaining that he had to be getting involved with his father’s work (Luke 2:49). Now here he is, back again, involved up to the neck in his father’s work, astonishing the Jerusalem authorities for a different reason. This is the climax of his father’s work, and that work is now focused on Jesus himself, not the Temple.

If Jesus is acting out a vision — astonishing, risky, and one might say crazy — in which he is behaving as if he is the Temple, redefining sacred space around himself, something equally strange and risky is taking place in the realm of time.

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