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Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament--Book Review of Christopher Wright

Updated on December 28, 2020

Introduction


Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament was written by Christopher J. H. Wright in an attempt to show his readers how they have many times misunderstood Jesus and His mission through a misunderstanding of the world in which He lived. Wright holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and another of his works is Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament was written in 1992 and published by InterVarsity Press/IVP Academic.

Wright looks into the various ways in which he believes Jesus can be better understood by viewing Him through the eyes of His contemporaries, who had been brought up on a steady diet of Old Testament teachings. To understand Christ by looking at His life and ministry with an exclusively New Testament understanding is to misunderstand Him.


Source

Summary

The thesis that Wright attempts to argue in this work is that “the deeper you go into understanding the Old Testament, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus. (After all, Jesus never actually read the New Testament!)”[1]

Wright looks at the following topics in his work: Jesus and the Old Testament story, Jesus and the Old Testament Promise, Jesus and His Old Testament Identity, Jesus and His Old Testament mission, and finally, Jesus and His Old Testament values. In arguing this thesis, Wright begins with the beginning of Matthew’s gospel and the genealogy that most readers merely skim over. The genealogy ties Jesus to the history of Israel.

“We see Jesus in the particularity of his context in Jewish history, and yet with the universal significance which was attached to that history since the promise to Abraham.”[2] This chapter of the book ends by looking at how this section of Matthew shows God’s sovereign control over the universe and how that is tied to the nation of Israel and ultimately to the rest of the world.

Wright moves from the Old Testament story to the Old Testament promise. He argues that the phrase used by Matthew regarding fulfillment of the promise in the narrative of Jesus’ birth is very significant. The promise that Jesus fulfilled is tied to the Old Testament covenants that God made with the nation of Israel.

God’s promise to Abraham to bless all nations through his seed is the promise in view. This promise is part of the Abrahamic covenant and is a promise to all of humanity on another level. The overarching promise of the Old Testament, according to Wright, is “God’s unwavering intention to bless.”[3] The next chapter of the book deals with Jesus and His identity. It is argued that Israel typified the sonship of Christ in the Old Testament. In this way, Christ is linked inextricably with the Jewish nation.

From here, Wright goes on to describe Jesus’ Old Testament mission. Much of this section of the work deals with Jesus’ mission in terms of the “servant motif” that is most identified in Old Testament literature with the prophet Isaiah. It is pointed out that the servant of the Lord had a ministry to both Israel and the Gentiles, which would have been problematic for Jews in Jesus’ day. The author argues that we need to understand the continuity of the fundamental mission. He writes:

So we ought to realize then that missionary commitment is not some kind of optional extra for the extra-enthusiastic. Nor was it just a new idea invented by Jesus to give his disciples something to do with the rest of their lives. Still less was it a merely modern movement of the church that coincided with colonial expansionism. Mission to his fallen, suffering, sinful human creation, and indeed ultimately to his whole creation as well. That is why he called Abraham, sent Jesus, and commissioned his apostles. For there is one servant people, one Servant King, one servant mission.[4]

Finally, this work turns to the Old Testament values of Christ. This section of the book deals with ethical issues. Wright looks into each of the sections of the Old Testament, the Law, the prophets, and poetry, and attempts to show how Jesus and His mission were fully in tune with what was written down in the Old Testament from a standpoint of fundamental ethics.

Critical Interaction

From reading this work, it appears that Wright comes from a reasonably conservative standpoint, as a lack of respect for the Biblical account is not evident in his writing, although he does argue at points that some prophecies do not really have a need to be interpreted literally because they may be fulfilled in a figurative way.

The treatment of the predictions of the Old Testament as nothing but legitimate prophecies would indicate a respect for the Biblical narrative. It could be argued by some that the wording that is used in dealing with Jesus and His identity tends to take away from Christ’s omniscience.

On more than one occasion, Wright discusses how Jesus saw Himself, as if Christ was involved in a sort of self-realization. As the incarnate God-man, it should be argued that Jesus never had to come to understand who He was.

Wright’s goal in this work is to show that to truly understand Jesus as fully as we should, we must view Him in light of the Old Testament world into which He came and in light of the Old Testament writings and promises that He fulfilled.

Wright does a good job of making his point that Christ must be understood in light of the Old Testament. He uses examples from Scripture to show that Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament history and promises. The history and promises of the Old Testament are tied to the blessing of God to humanity, as was discussed in the summary above.

In his section on the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, Wright mentions that Matthew stresses five times that events surrounding the birth of Christ were accomplished that it might be fulfilled that was spoken by the prophet.[5] He argues that “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.[6]

Wright also shows that Jesus’ mission and values/ethics were closely tied to the Old Testament mindset. Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament message in fulfilling what Israel was intended to do. Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations to bring them to a knowledge of God.

In an indirect way, Israel did provide a light to the Gentiles in the person of the Messiah. From an ethical standpoint, Jesus was tied to the Old Testament law in that He was concerned with how events affected people. His arguments with the Pharisees over the Sabbath are one glaring example of this solidarity with the Law of Moses.

This work has been peer reviewed in academic journals. Stanley Horton in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society argues that Wright “does give some concessions to liberal higher critics, and he reflects a replacement theology.”[7]

Frank Theilman reviewed Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament in Christianity Today, which is an evangelical magazine, rather than a peer reviewed journal. Theilman brings up Wright’s argument that the promises to Israel do not need to be fulfilled literally, but that they could be fulfilled in a figurative sense. Theilman’s review of Wright is part of a review essay that compares Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament, Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two by David E. Howlerda, and The Messiah in the Old Testament by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.[8]

This work should be useful to both ministers and laypeople. It goes into the importance of understanding Jesus in light of His being the fulfillment of the Old Testament. The first chapter should give enlightenment as to Christ and His relation to Old Testament history, which would have been extremely important to first-century Jews.

Also, the book gives insight into Jesus as He was related to the mission given to Old Testament Israel to be a light to the nations that would encourage the heathen to turn to the God of the Israelites. Jesus fulfilled the mission given to Him and succeeded in drawing Gentiles to the God of the Israelites.

Perhaps one of the greatest ways that this book could be useful for both ministers and laymen is its treatment of the values and ethics that Jesus had, which were strongly grounded in the Old Testament law. Although many look at the Mosaic Law as a harsh and Draconian corpus of restrictions bent upon cutting down freedoms, Wright ably shows that the Mosaic Law was extremely enlightened and concerned with the well-being of people.

Some of the examples cited look at economic issues such as the exploitation of the poor in relation to land[9] and the fact that human needs were more pressing than property rights.[10] Wright argues that Jesus was considered obnoxious to both the Romans and the Jews. Perhaps those who would most closely align themselves with Jesus today should find themselves opposed by both the secular and religious higher-ups. This is where Jesus found Himself.

Conclusion

Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament is an interesting read and should be taken seriously. Ministers and laymen should benefit from its argument. This work does a good job of forcing the reader to reconsider the common misconception that causes modern-day readers to read the Bible with our twenty-first century sensibilities.

It argues that we should attempt to understand the Bible in the way that its ancient readers did. Jesus Christ is the main focus of the Scriptures and to fully understand His life and mission, we must understand them in light of the Old Testament world to which He came.


[1] Christopher J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1992), ix.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Ibid. 101.

[4] Ibid., 175.

[5] Ibid., 55-56.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stanley Horton, “Review of Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 2 (June 1997): 287-339.

[8] Frank Theilman, “Jesus B.C.,” Christianity Today 40, no. 3 (March 4, 1996): 58.

[9] Wright, 224-226.

[10] Ibid., 216-218.

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