(The following is a book review of Christopher Wright’s Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament.)
In the second century A.D., Marcion of Sinope was rightly declared a heretic for rejecting the Old Testament scripture and declaring that the New Testament had a different God than the Old. Unfortunately in our current culture, there are many who have adopted a subtle version of this heresy. Many in the contemporary church have a very low view of the Old Testament, and tend to somehow think that Jesus came to do away with it. Christopher Wright makes it clear in Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament that far from coming to do away with the Old Testament, Jesus comes from within the Old Testament framework. The Old Testament provides the background for so much of Christ’s teaching and mission. Yet it does more in that Jesus came to fulfill and uphold all that the Old Testament taught.
In reading the Old Testament, we are reading the very words of God. As Paul writes to Timothy, “All Scripture is God breathed and profitable…(2 Timothy 3:16-17).” The Old Testament contains the commands of God, the mission of God, and the promises of God. These are the words Jesus read. These are the stories, songs, and commands that Jesus memorized. Wright says that, “In short, the deeper you go into understanding the Old Testament, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus.” This is the thesis of Wright’s book. The more we understand the Old Testament the better we will understand Jesus and the more we understand Jesus the better we will understand the Old Testament. Wright works to show this through how the Old Testament story, promises, and mission find their completion in Christ. Wright also shows how Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, Son of God and Son of Man is based upon revelation found in the Hebrew scripture. Lastly, Wright shows that far from coming to abolish the Old Testament commands and ethic, Jesus comes to uphold and re-establish those commands through Christ’s own ethical teaching.
Before digging into each of Wright’s chapters and main points, it might be helpful to say something here about the hermeneutic that he uses. While this book is not on hermeneutics per sey, Wright, as do all theologians who write books, uses a hermeneutic principle as he interprets the scriptures. Wright dismisses allegorical schools of interpretation that would seek to spiritualize the words of the Old Testament. He does, however, acknowledge typology, though he does have some reservations about how typology has been used in the past. He says that typology has been abused in the past by those who would seek to find a type in every passage or story of the Old Testament. For Wright, to use typology properly is to understand “Christ and the various events and experiences surrounding him in the New Testament by analogy or correspondence with the historical realities of the Old Testament seen as patterns or models.”
For Wright, the Old Testament is not primarily “a promise box full of blessed predictions about Jesus.” It is a story from real history with promises that only make sense in relation to that history. Wright’s hermeneutic will be firmly grounded then in historical grammatical interpretation. However, it is not historical-grammatical interpretation alone but historical-grammatical in light of redemption history. Therefore for Wright, “first of all, we must affirm whatever significance a particular event had in terms of Israel’s own experience of God and faith in him.” That is the grammatical-historical part of the hermeneutic. And for the redemptive historical aspect Wright says, “Second, however, we may legitimately see in the Old Testament event additional levels of significance in the light of the end of the story—that is, in the light of Christ.” Thirdly for Wright and possibly the most important aspect is that “the Old Testament event may provide levels of significance to our full understanding of all that Christ was and said and did.”
Much more could be said about the hermeneutic used but that would fall outside of the scope of this review. It does seem to be a healthy correction to both those who would over emphasis typology or allegory and those who would see no typology. One should be careful however that this correction does not go too far in the opposite direction. The entire Bible ultimately has God as its divine author. He has seen the beginning from the end. We also know from Peter’s letters that the Old Testament human authors were writing down things for our benefit. Wright seems a little hesitate for example to say that Genesis 3:15 refers specifically to Jesus, though he says that it ultimately finds its completion in Christ. This hesitation to see this as a direct reference to Christ seems to be unfounded in light of God as the primary author of all of scripture. That minor critique aside, let us now turn to each of Wright’s main points.
Jesus and the Old Testament Story
It makes sense that Wright would begin his look at Jesus with what is often called the Hebrew gospel, the Gospel of Matthew. Many people skip the genealogies but Matthew had a purpose in starting his account with one. Matthew wants to show that Jesus did not just show up on the scene out of the blue. Jesus is the one who all of the Old Testament was anticipating, the Messiah. This genealogy therefore shows that Jesus has a legitimate claim to this title. In recounting this lineage Matthew is also recounting the story of Israel. “So when we turn the page from the Old to the New Testament, we find a link between the two that is more important than the attention we usually give it. . . The Old Testament tells the story that Jesus completes.”
Wright then recounts the story of the Old Testament. Central to this story are the covenants. Wright seems to deviate from traditional covenant theology, in that he does not see an Adamic covenant. He doesn’t spend a lot of time at this point, so it is hard to tell if he is rejecting the implied “covenant of works” in the Garden of Eden or the idea of a post-fall covenant with Adam that is the beginning of the “covenant of grace.” It not being his main point to come up with a complete covenantal theology, it will be too difficult to supply a full critique for this review. Wright’s main point is to show that Adam sinned in the garden and man fell. God does show grace to Adam and Eve in supplying a covering for their bodies and promising that the seed of the woman would defeat the serpent.
Skipping forward to the Abrahamic covenant, we see part of what may be called Wrights secondary thesis for the book. “The main point of God’s promise to Abram was not merely that he would have a son and then descendants who would be especially blessed by God. God also promised that through the people of Abram God would bring blessing to all nations of the earth.” A theme of Wright’s writings in other books and clearly in this book is the mission of God throughout the Bible. God chose Israel so that they would be a blessing to all nations. Jesus’ mission then is tied to that blessing.
The story of the Old Testament is tied to this election of Abraham and his descendents. Wright rightfully sees that the Mosaic covenant was not a covenant of works but one of grace. God had saved his people from slavery and chosen to enter covenant with them as a nation. He would be their God in relationship with them. “It is important to see that this covenant was based on what God had already done for them. God’s grace and redemptive action came first.” Their obedience to law did not allow them to enter the covenant but was to come from response to God’s grace. This obedience would enable them to complete their mission and calling to the nations. Israel was often reminded that while they were chosen it was not because of anything in them but because of God’s love and purpose.
But we see that the people did not and could not live up to this mission. They fell into sin and idolatry. Even after periods of great blessing through the kingdom of David and Solomon, the people did not remember their commitment. God who had a concern for justice within the society, sent prophets to call His people back to Him and remind them of this commitment. Wright makes several points about this concern of God for justice and righteousness.
God’s moral concern is not only individual (though the masses of individual stories show that it certainly does claim every individual) but also social.” God evaluates the moral health of society as a whole, from international treaties to market economies, from military strategy to local court procedures, from national politics to the local.
These same concerns show up in the teaching and ministry of Jesus. We also see in the New Testament that in fact the death and resurrection of Jesus was a victory over all authorities.
At the cross Jesus defeated all the evil forces that bind and enslave human beings, corrupt and distort human life, and warp, pollute and frustrate the very creation itself. That victory is an essential part of the biblical “good news.” And applying that victory to every dimension of human life on earth is the task of Christian mission.
Jesus comes at the end of this Old Testament story. The people of Israel had failed to live up to their mission. They had been taken into captivity and now brought back into the land. However the people were still not fulfilling this purpose. They were still under the rule of the Romans. The New Testament opens up with Jesus into this story.
Jesus and the Old Testament Promise
Having gone through the Old Testament story leading to the birth of Christ, Wright now turns his attention to going back through that story and pulling out major themes and points of contact with Christ. The first aspect of this is to pay attention to how Jesus fulfills the promise of the Old Testament. Again going back through the beginning of Matthew, Wright highlights five scenes from Jesus’ childhood and how Matthew claims that all these events fulfill scripture. In using this fulfillment theme, “Matthew clearly wants his readers to see that Jesus was not only the completion of the Old Testament story at a historical level, as his genealogy portrays, but also that he was in a deeper sense its fulfillment.”
How does Jesus provide this fulfillment? Are these texts mentioned by Matthew direct prophecies of Christ or does Matthew have something different in mind when highlighting these texts? Wright shows that these texts in their original context do not seem to be prophecies on the surface. Instead it seems that Matthew is working back from events that happened in the life of Jesus to certain texts in which in light of Christ they contain a deeper significance. Wright follows his hermeneutic mentioned above to show that the Old Testament events are in some way types but also that they point forward to a greater promise and fulfillment. This section was very helpful in seeing, for example, how Jesus could fulfill something such as the text of Hosea.
He is not suggesting that the Hosea text was a prediction. His point is simply that what God had done for his people Israel—in fact the greatest thing God had done for them—had its counterpart, even in a purely physical sense, in the life of Jesus.
Continuing, Wright explains that what makes the the exodus and the return from exile so important to the Old Testament story is that even though they in and among themselves were awesome examples of God’s grace in history, they were more than that. “Both events were utterly saturated in promise.” This promise is what Jesus is fulfilling. All of the Old Testament points forward to the promise of God beginning in the garden and continuing through Abraham, Moses, David, and the Prophets. This promise, according to Wright, is more than prediction because unlike a prediction, a promise involves a relationship. This promise to make of Abraham a great nation so as to bless the entire world is fulfilled in Christ. Again coming back to Wright’s theme of mission in the Bible, the promise is to fulfill this mission.
Wright is very helpful in clearing up some misconceptions people have about the Old Testament. He points out that salvation has always been by grace in both the New and the Old Testament:
Some people have the idea that the difference between the Old and New Testaments is that in the Old salvation is by obeying the law whereas in the New it is by grace. But that sets up a totally false contrast. In the Old as in the New, it is God who takes the initiative of grace and calls people to faith and obedient response.
He also points out that there is a conditional element to this promise that requires our response. God’s promise requires our faith and obedience. Wright drives home that our response is vital. He does not mince words. Our faithful obedience is necessary. However, Wright should note that part of what makes the new covenant so glorious is that it enables what the old couldn’t, our faith and obedience. In Christ, we are transformed. We are justified not by any of our merit but by Christ’s faithful obedience. We are imputed his righteous obedience. Jesus fulfilled the obligation that we could not. He also however enables us with the Holy Spirit now to respond in faith and obedience. God then fulfills the promise and demands of the covenant. This does not in any way diminish our responsible to respond in obedient faith. It does however provide the way that this is even possible.
One further note on the promise from Wright’s view is important to highlight. Wright does an excellent job of explaining the nature of the land promises in Jesus. Using the story of a father who in the days before the invention of the automobile promises his son a horse when he turns twenty-one, but gives the son a newly invented automobile instead, Wright tries to show that the promises in Christ are expanded and better than what could be imagined in the Old Testament. While the analogy is not perfect there is truth to the fact that in Christ the promises are expanded and better. One point of contention is that in the book of Hebrews, it seems to say that Abraham and those in the Old Testament were aware that the promises were larger than just a promise to a plot of land in the Middle East. The question that always arises is: how much did the Old Testament saints understand about the promise? A good case based upon statements from Jesus and other New Testament books can be made that they knew more than what we often want to allow that they knew. That said it is important to see that instead of a plot of land in the Middle East, the meek now inherit the earth. The promise is not limited by national boundaries but all of the earth belongs to those in Christ.
Jesus and His Old Testament Identity
Next, Wright continues into the book of Matthew to Jesus’ baptism. Here the voice of God proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God. Wright now moves to answer what it means for Christ to be the Son of God, the Son of Man, and the Messiah. Going again through the Old Testament we see that each of these titles have precedent. Sonship of God is something said of both Israel as a nation and of its king. The king in particular enjoyed a son-like relationship with God. He was a representative of God’s rule and was required to be obedient to the divine King. This idea of sonship is also linked to the idea of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah. This link is especially prevalent in Jesus. Jesus is the representative of God. He is the King and he is the obedient servant. “Similarly, obedience was the link with the allusion to Isaac, as the one willing to be sacrificed, even as the only son of a loving father.” Kingship, servanthood, and service are built into the calling of Jesus.
Wright looks at this sonship theme in four ways. First he sees how the parent-child relationship actually works in Israel’s society. Next he shows how the metaphor undergirded the covenant concept. Third, he shows how sonship generates hope and expectation. Fourthly, Wright sees that idea is broadened and given eschatological flavor. This leads us to see that Jesus as the Son of God is one who represents Israel. Where Israel failed at being this Son, Jesus is God’s true son who would succeed in completing this mission. Wright also correctly points out that “(i)n an eternal sense, of course, Jesus always was, is and always will be God the Son, the second person of the Trinity.”
More can be said about this chapter but I would like to quickly highlight an excellent section of it. Some have argued that Christians should not be involved with politics. They argue from both a faulty view of eschatology and from a faulty of view of Christ’s mission.
But for the present it will be enough to say that if Jesus had intended only to talk about a purely spiritual revival in an otherworldly framework with no relevance to the seething politics of his day, then he went about it in a very strange way. So many of the words and actions of Jesus were so challenging to the political authorities that they executed him as a political threat. But to argue that because he did not preach violent politics he was therefore uninterested in politics at all is absurd. Nonviolent is not simply nonpolitical—now or then. No, the difference between Jesus and his contemporaries was not that he was purely spiritual while they were political (a modern kind of dichotomy that would probably not have made much sense in Jesus’ world anyway). The problem was that his announcement of the arrival of the kingdom of God in the present did have profound political and national consequences for the old order of Jewish society that were too radical and final for its leaders to tolerate.
Jesus indeed was political and the gospel has implications for all aspects of life. Jesus being the Messiah King has enormous practical applications that Christians should be working through. We will see in the next two chapters how this works out in Christ’s mission and ethical teaching.
Jesus and His Old Testament Mission
We have seen how Jesus comes within the historical story of the Old Testament, how the Old Testament promises of His coming, and how the Old Testament provides the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, King, and Son of God. Now we are at what is the heart of Wright’s message. We are now looking at why Jesus came. What was his mission? This mission is tied up in all of the previous chapters. It is what the story, promises, and identity point to. We see that each of these things are tied up in the expectations of the Messiah. To be sure there were some expectations that had developed during the inter-testamental period that were unfounded, but there were clear expectations set forth by scripture.
Again Wright points out that the mission is tied to the covenant and mission of Israel. Israel was to be a nation of priests and kings for the rest of the world. In Israel’s faith and obedience the rest of the world was supposed to marvel and give glory to God. But further than that, the scriptures declare that the nations would stream to Israel and its God. Thus the goal of the Old Testament is world missions. It is a turning back of sin and a recreating of the world in righteousness. It is a restoration from the fall. All people and even nature itself was awaiting this mission. Wright explains that Israel was awaiting its restoration and the ingathering of the nations. This was seen in eschatological terms as the final great act of God, the Day of the Lord. This was what the kingdom of God was all about.
Jesus’ mission is launched by John’s mission “to identify, through his call for repentance and baptism, the remnant of Israel who, by responding, was destined for cleansing and restoration as the true, eschatological people of God.” Wright says that
The fact that Jesus accepted and endorsed the ministry of John the Baptist and launched his own ministry on the foundation of John’s shows that Jesus also saw his own mission in terms of the fulfillment of the great expectations of the restoration of Israel. If John was the one who had been sent to prepare Israel for its eschatological restoration by God himself, then Jesus was the one who had been sent to accomplish it.
There was something deep about Christ’s coming. We then see that Jesus preaches that the kingdom is at hand and is here. This means that the promises from the psalms of restoration had entered in history. We then see in Christ’s death the atonement for sin and in the resurrection the victory over it. Christ then tells his disciples that authority in both heaven and on earth had been given to Him. Jesus is not just King over some nebulous spiritual realm. He is Lord and King over all reality. He then tells his disciples to take that good news worldwide.
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were to bear witness among the nations of God’s saving and redeeming rule. They failed but Jesus the true Israel and Son of God did not. Now in Christ we are fulfilling this mission.
Jesus was launched by a revival movement for the restoration of Israel. He himself launched a movement for the blessing of the nations. Jesus, therefore, was the hinge, the vital link between the two great movements. He was the climax and fulfillment of the hope of Israel and the beginning of the hope of the nations
This is incredibly good news. Sin can be forgiven and lives changed. Through this gospel, individuals, families, cultures and entire nations can be changed. We are called to a part of it.
Sometimes our eschatology hinders this. A pessimistic view of history and the future can lead people to see themselves as just holding on until being rescued out. Dispensationalism with its view of a secret rapture has led many Christians to avoid being salt and light in a real way in the culture at large. Why bother polishing brass on a sinking ship? Premillennial views miss this glorious picture of the kingdom of God. They miss the message that Jesus brought that in Him the kingdom of God had actually come. The promises of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets were coming true in Christ’s day. He was bringing the kingdom then and not at some later date. Amillennialism also fails on this same part. It misses the progressive growth of the kingdom into victory promised throughout the Old Testament and in Jesus’ teaching. Ultimately it is the Postmillennial view that accurately sees this thread of mission and victory woven throughout scripture. The Postmillennial view has always been such a great fuel for missions. No wonder the period that we often call the Greatest Century of Missionary advance was also the time in which the Postmillennial view was the dominant one.
Jesus and His Old Testament Values
We have seen how the Old Testament provided the story, purpose, identity and mission of Jesus. Jesus had come to fulfill the mission of Israel to be a light to the nations. He did this through perfect obedience and by being a sacrificial atonement for the sins of His people. Through Jesus those who were far off are now made near to God. Those born genetically Jewish and those born genetically Gentile are now in Christ united together as the true Israel of God. They are now called and enabled to continue the mission of Christ. Jesus commands his followers to share the good news of the gospel of the kingdom by making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching these new disciples to obey all that he commanded.
Wright now turns to these commandments and shows that Jesus’ commands are not a new or different law than what was revealed in the Old Testament. In Matthew, Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Wright here does not go into a complete exposition on Matthew 5 but does make it clear that Jesus is not ending the requirements of the law. Greg Bahnsen wrote a complete exegesis of this passage. He says in “Theonomy in Christian Ethics, “fulfill” should be taken to mean “confirm and restore in full measure”. Wright’s view is similar. Wright says that Jesus taught the validity of the law and made a point to correct misapplications and notions in his opponents. Christ in his teaching thus is restoring the full measure of the law.
In fact the nations are described as waiting for him to bring the law (Torah) and justice (mishpat) of God to them. In other words, the Servant has the task of making real to the rest of humanity the whole package of ethical values and social priorities that God had entrusted to Israel. Being a “light to the nations” includes this moral teaching dimension as well as the extending of the saving light of the covenant.
Wright explains that Jesus is not concerned merely with outward conformity to laws. This is not new to the New Testament, because in the revealing of the law in the Old Testament we see that God is concerned with “the whole shape of a person and society, the inner drives of the heart, the direction of the walk of life. “
It is important to realize that our justification and right standing with God does not come by our obedience but by the grace of God. Our obedience is only made possible by this grace. “The repeated command is to obey God’s laws wholeheartedly, since that is the way to life and blessing for a people who have already experienced God’s redemption.” The law is and never was a way to salvation. It is intended to show how those who are redeemed live.
Wright works through several motivations for keeping the law that Christians have. First as said above, obedience flows from gratitude for grace—in both Old and New Testaments. Another powerful motive is that the law is for our own benefit. The assumption behind this kind of motivation is that God, as the creator of human beings, knows best what kind of social patterns will contribute to human well-being.” God’s law used lawfully is good and protecting of life. Living by God’s commands will generally bring benefit and happiness. A society built around these commands will generally prosper while a country in disobedience will find judgment.
The reality of God’s rule cannot be spiritualized into heaven (now or later) or privatized into individuals. Of course, it does have spiritual and personal dimensions, which are fundamental also. We are called to submit to God’s reign in our individual lives. But the term itself speaks of the aligning of human life on earth, in all its dimensions, with the will of the divine government of God. To pray “may your kingdom come” is to pray “may your will be done on earth as in heaven.” The one must produce the other. . .To enter the kingdom of God means to submit oneself to the rule of God, and that means a fundamental reorientation of one’s ethical commitments and values into line with the priorities and character of the God revealed in the Scriptures. The point of being Israel and living as the people of Yahweh was to make the universal reign of God local and visible in its whole structure of religious, social, economic and political life. It was to manifest in practical reality what it meant to live, as well as to sing, “the LORD reigns.”
Wright cannot be accused of having a truncated view of the gospel. The Gospel saves sinners and souls. The Gospel does not stop there though. As people are saved their lives are changed. This change will naturally work itself out into every area of life. More can be said of this positive view of the law for the Christian life but the interested reader would be encouraged to seek out more along this work in the writings of Greg Bahnsen, RJ Rushdooney, or Gary North. You can find must more at Chalcedon, The American Vision, and Apologia Radio.
Wright’s work here is an excellent introduction to Jesus through the Old Testament. There is not much to be critical of. Wright’s theme of mission through the Bible is refreshing as is his view that the law of God is still applicable today. Of course there will be exegetical work to do to see where in the New Testament we are told that some parts of the law, i.e. the ceremonial aspect have a changed application in Christ. Work will need to be done to see what part of the law was a shadow of Christ such as the sacrifices. Another refreshing theme of Wright is that he has a whole life perspective of the gospel. The gospel will have impact on economics and politics along with our spiritual lives.
One area that Wright could improve on is to be very clear about is the doctrines of grace. It is not that he does not acknowledge grace through faith alone but one can never overestimate the value of this doctrine. The biggest area of improvement is the lack of footnotes or endnotes. He does have a bibliography at the end but it would have been helpful to be able to track his research along with him.
Overall the book provides good insight into why Christians are to be the people of the book, both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus without the Old Testament is not Jesus. His mission, identity, and ethics get lost when we neglect to see how he comes into the Biblical story with its promises. This teaching is vital today in which Jesus is often ripped from his context to support all manners of evil. Wright is correct, the better we understand the Old Testament the better we understand Jesus.
 Bahnsen Greg, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 3rd Ed. (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2002), 67.