Wright and the mission of the early church

Chapter 6 of Tom Wright’s How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels is entitled “The Launching of God’s Renewed People”. I read it on a rather scary bus ride through the mountains from Diyarbakir to Tatvan on the western edge of Lake Van, in eastern Turkey. It was such a rough ride I had a hard time highlighting the text and making notes on my iPad.

In this chapter Wright makes the point that the Jewish story continues beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection, that the Christian movement is not something completely new, that it is the fulfilment, not the replacement of Israel. I have complained before that in Wright’s reconstruction story and history tend to stop when we get to Jesus, so this chapter goes some way towards correcting that impression. The next chapter on God and Caesar will go even further, though still not far enough in my view. In the end, I still think that he overstates the fulfilment in the cross and resurrection of Jesus—or at least understates the significance of what happens in the three centuries that follow.

This is the essence of my critique of this chapter on the mission of the early church and how it became the mission of the later church. Wright wants to argue that the Gospels determine not only the life of the early community of Jesus’ disciples but also, at least in outline, the life of the future church. He considers the passage in which Jesus sends off the twelve disciples to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God (Matt. 10:5-23), and argues that we “can see here both the specific and unrepeatable elements in the commission and the shape of a much longer-lasting missionary movement” (114).

So on the one hand, their mission is restricted to Israel and will not be completed before the Son of Man comes; and on the other, there are elements that “we would be right to assume relate to the period after Jesus’ public career is over”. The longer-term elements he has in mind are the warning that they will be dragged before Gentile rulers, the reception of the Spirit, and the promise that they will be accompanied by the resurrected Jesus “to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).

Now here are the problems that I see with this. First, the immediate mission to Israel will not have been completed before the coming of the Son of Man, which introduces a timeframe of a generation (cf. Matt. 16:28). In other words, these are instructions for the disciples from this first mission trip up to the destruction of Jerusalem, which will be the moment when the Son of Man, and those who have taken up their crosses to follow him, will be concretely vindicated.

Secondly, if the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple did not count as the “end of the age” from a Jewish perspective, then nothing does. What Jesus envisages in Matthew 28:18-20 is not the global mission of the church throughout the remainder of human history but the proclamation either to diaspora Judaism or to the nations that Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.

Thirdly, in my view the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost is also an eschatologically determined event: it is, in the first place, the empowering of the disciples to preach the same message of judgment and renewal as the Jewish War loomed ever larger on the horizon.

Finally, it hardly makes sense from a literary point of view to separate out immediate and distant elements in Jesus’ instructions to the disciples. Certainly there are aspects of his teaching that will prove to be relevant to the life of the later church—even the later Christendom church. But that is incidental. The instructions have in view exclusively the mission of the disciples to Israel.

So I agree with Wright that Jesus’ teaching about mission is not restricted to the work of his disciples during his lifetime—that hardly needs saying. But I disagree that it can be simply translated into teaching for the whole church throughout history. It is instruction for what I would call communities of eschatological transition. It has in view the difficult period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem. The apostles will later instruct similar communities of eschatological transition, but they will have in view a longer period, culminating in the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the oikoumenē.

The mission of the church today arises out of this narrative and in that sense is determined by it. But it also has to taken into account both the wider biblical implications of the renewal of the people of God and the fact that western Christendom has come to an end. Our mission is not simply that of first disciples in Judea or of the churches of the Greek-Roman world.

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Comments

Wright mentions the time-frame issue of “the coming of the Son of Man” whilst describing the “specific and unrepeatable elements in the commission and the shape of a much longer-lasting missionary movement” (114). I wondered why you did not raise the issue where Wright does, in the context of Matthew 10:5-23, instead of going to Matthew 16:28.

Wright draws out from Matthew 10:23 that the mission will not have been completed before the “coming of the Son of Man”, adding that “this seems to be a reference to the climactic events at the end of the gospel story.” (From your point of view, this is a slight understatement!) The verse lends itself to ambiguity. It could mean: the mission will not have been completed and will not continue beyond that point. Or it could mean: the mission as it has been defined will continue in the same form beyond that point.

The latter interpretation recommends itself, since it would seem odd for Jesus to start a mission and then not to bring it to completion. It seems reasonable then to argue, as Wright does, that some elements of the mission were specific, unrepeatable, and time-bound, and that restrictions such as on geography and time were later lifted, as in Matthew 28:19. Wright adds that it is not simply that restrictions have been lifted, but that:

“now, with Jesus’s death and resurrection, the rule of the king of the Jews has been established over the nations as in Isaiah 11 and Psalms 2, 72 and 89. His followers are therefore to go and put that rule into effect.” (115).

This also makes sense of what Wright has to say about the gospel writers presenting history as “myth” - “to put down markers for the life and witness of their own communities” (109), which, in his view, would continue beyond Jesus’searthly ministry (and by implication beyond the period leading up to AD 70, and even a further “transitional” period before the official endorsement of the faith by the Roman empire).

I find it difficult to understand what you are saying about the church’s mission, in response to Wright. On the one hand, you say:

Certainly there are aspects of his teaching that will prove to be relevant to the life of the later church—even the later Christendom church. But that is incidental.

Which aspects, I wonder? And who has the authority to select and decide which aspects, in view of what you then say:

The instructions have in view exclusively the mission of the disciples to Israel.

You then you say:

The apostles will later instruct similar communities of eschatological transition, but they will have in view a longer period, culminating in the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the oikoumenē.

What will the apostles’ instruction to these “communities of eschatological transition” be, I wonder, if different from the gospels? What will it then mean, subsequently, for “the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the oikoumenē?” The evidence suggests to me that the apostles gave the same instruction as Jesus (eg echoes of the sermon on the mount in Romans 12:9-21), on the basis of his lifestyle, ministry and teaching. The apostles’ teaching supplements the teaching of the gospels, but does not need to repeat it, as this was already contained in the gospels, which were undoubtedly read and re-read by the early Christian communities.

I don’t think Wright “overstates the fulfilment (of the Jewish story) in the cross and resurrection of Jesus”, as you say, mainly because of the weight and extent given to the description of these events in each gospel, and the fulfilment Jesus enacts through them of the centrepiece of Israel’s story: the Passover.

Each gospel has a clear sense that the cross was the dénouement of the action. Within the NT, the cross and resurrection are also the turning points of the story, with the “climactic events” (destruction of the temple) figuring importantly, but in a secondary capacity (no explicit reference outside Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21, and no record of the event in the NT when or after it happened, unlike the cross and resurrection).

Here was a story in search of a fulfilment, and finding it in, not in national Israel, or even in faifhtul Israel, but in Jesus himself.

I do think Wright has surprisingly little to say about AD 70, given that it was he who largely flagged up the significance of this event in the first place, in his reading of the gospels. But I agree with his proposition, that the gospels are providing a “myth” for the life and ministry of the church far beyond AD 70. He provides further substantiation of this viewpoint in chapter 6, especially p.116 onwards.