N.T Wright says in his book “How God Became King”: “We have all forgotten what the four gospels are about.” So it is imperative, Wright urges, that we restore the primacy of the Gospel as revealed in the four Gospels, and learn to read these books for all they’re worth.
How has the Church misread the Gospels?
In part two of the book, N.T. Wright uses the metaphor of a four-speaker sound system to make his points. The church has failed to “adjust these speakers” to the right volume and balance that will enable them to “hear the music” of the Gospels and their message.
- Speaker One: The Gospels tell the story of Jesus as the culmination of Israel’s history. This speaker’s volume has been turned down so low that many Christians have failed to hear it at all. This has led to a de-historicized Jesus, a de-Judaized Jesus, and a world in which matter and spirit are in conflict rather than a world in which God is accomplishing his redemptive purposes through a flesh and blood people to put all creation right.
- Speaker Two: The Gospels present Jesus as the coming of God to redeem his people. This speaker has often been turned up so loud that the message has become distorted, as though the primary purpose of the Gospels was to “prove” the deity of Jesus.
- Speaker Three: The Gospels present the commencement of God’s renewed people and kingdom agenda in the world. Wright counters the view that they are documents that are really about the church — they are projections of early Christian faith that shape the story of Jesus to address issues in the early Christian communities. This speaker has also been turned up too loud, especially in the past century, giving the distorted impression that Jesus was creating something brand new in the church, and not launching a movement that grew organically out of the fulfillment of the Story that preceded him.
- Speaker Four: The Gospels show the clash between God’s Kingdom and the kingdoms of this world. This speaker has not only been turned down, but unplugged and stored in the attic for many Gospel readers, especially those who have lived in cultures where Christendom has made little distinction between the two kingdoms. Wright notes that, from the beginning to end, God not only delivers his people from personal sin, but from the powers of the world which “set themselves against the Lord and his Messiah” (Psalm 2).
In part three of How God Became King, N.T. Wright notes how improperly calibrating the “speakers” and failing to hear the message of the Gospels clearly has led to a division between Christians who emphasize the “kingdom” and those who stress the “cross.” Instead, he says:
The gospels are telling us that the whole story belongs together: the kingdom and the cross are part of one another (and both, together, are part of the larger whole that includes incarnation, on the one hand, and resurrection, on the other). We have become stuck in habits of thought that pull these apart. Once you lose the kingdom theme, which is central to the gospels, everything else becomes reinterpreted in ways that radically distort, that substitute a subtly different “gospel” message for the one Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are eager to convey….
…We have lived for many years now with “kingdom Christians” and “cross Christians” in opposite corners of the room, anxious that those on the other side are missing the point, the one group with its social-gospel agenda and the other with its saving-souls-for-heaven agenda. The four gospels bring these two viewpoints together into a unity that is much greater than the sum of their parts….
Wright takes examples from the Gospels and links them with passages from the Hebrew Bible and shows that passages we have normally taken as being either “kingdom” or “cross” texts are actually about both. God became king through the cross.
He sums up his argument with three reflections:
“First, the evangelists insist that the kingdom truly was inaugurated by Jesus in his active public career, during the time between his baptism and the cross. That entire narrative is the story of ‘how God became king in and through Jesus. …through Jesus the Messiah, Israel’s God reclaims his sovereign rule over Israel and the world.”
“Second, this kingdom is radically defined in relation to Jesus’s entire agenda of suffering, leading to the cross.”
“Third, the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated, that is implemented through his cross, is emphatically for this world. The four gospels together demand a complete reappraisal of the various avoidance tactics Western Christianity has employed rather than face this challenge head-on. It simply won’t do to line up the options, as has normally been done, into either a form of ‘Christendom,’ by which people normally mean the capitulation of the gospel to the world’s way of power, or a form of sectarian withdrawal. Life is more complex, more interesting, and more challenging than that. The gospels are there, waiting to inform a new generation for holistic mission, to embody, explain, and advocate new ways of ordering communities, nations, and the world. The church belongs at the very heart of the world, to be the place of prayer and holiness at the point where the world is in pain — not to be a somewhat ‘religious’ version of the world, on the one hand, or a detached, heavenly minded enclave on the other.”
Wright wraps up his book by giving us a chapter on how to better read the gospels and how to more thoughtfully say the creeds as Christ’s church.
If you are seeking to expand your view of the Gospels and the collective story they are telling, this book is a good resource to add to your understanding.