Stories about Jesus: how they fit together, and what he means for us today

Theology has always had a “narrative” shape. The problem with propositional or systematic theologies is not that they are non-narrative but that they have reduced the dense historical narrative of scripture to a bare sequence of cosmic-level events: creation → fall → redemption → final judgment. Theology then systematically expounds those events.

In this crude “meta-narrative” the story about Jesus has two parts to it. There is the “Jesus is God” story about the eternally existent Second Person of the Trinity, who at a certain place and time in history became incarnate of the virgin Mary; and there is the “Jesus is man” story about the Saviour who died on the cross to redeem humanity from sin and death, before returning to heaven.

This familiar organisation of the biblical data has served an important purpose throughout the ages, but it suffers from a glaring weakness—one that is disastrous not only for biblical interpretation but also for the “mission” of the church after Christendom. It completely misses the dominant story that is being told about Jesus in the New Testament, which is the story of how a crucified Jewish prophet-messiah became Lord over the nations of the ancient world.

So I suggest that we need to structure things differently.

1. The Son sent to Israel

The base story is the human-Jewish one of Jesus who was the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel with fatal consequences (Matt. 21:33-44). It is inseparable from the long story of Israel and especially of Israel’s clash with regional empires, from Babylon to Rome. It culminates in the rejection of the Son by the stiff-necked leadership of Israel and his crucifixion at the hands of impious Gentiles in anticipation of the judgment on rebellious Israel that will come within a generation.

2. The Son of Man

As the obedient Son who suffers, Jesus is the “one like a son of man”. He embodies the fate of faithful Israel under Gentile rule; and when God intervenes to judge his people and put things right, he is raised from the dead, vindicated and given authority to rule over the nations. This gets us from the latter stages of the Son-sent-to-Israel story to the parousia—the moment when (in the real world rather than in the theological world) Jesus is revealed as Lord to the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē.

3. Lord of the nations

This transformative event begins the story of Christendom, a period of 1500 years or so during which the worldview, culture and institutions of western and eastern Europe were premised on the fact that the one true living God raised Jesus from the dead, seated him at his right hand, and authorised him to rule the nations.

4. King over the people of God

The churches had to wait a long time and endure great suffering before Jesus was eventually confessed as Lord by the peoples of the Roman empire, but he became king over his own people at the ascension. This régime has survived the collapse of Christendom and will continue throughout history, until the last enemy is destroyed, which is death. At that point Jesus will give his kingdom—his royal authority, the title of Kyrios—back to the Father and will himself become subject again, so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

5. The second Adam

The preceding narrative threads can be fitted together into a more or less coherent “apocalyptic” storyline, which is the story of the kingdom of God—judgment and rule both over the people of God and over the nations. This gives us the primary significance of the resurrection in the New Testament: Jesus is raised in order to become king.

But there is also an important secondary significance: the resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of new creation; he is a second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45-47). The resurrection was an ontological novelty, a concrete sign that the creator God would ultimately make all things new. The resurrected Jesus remains with God in heaven until there is a new heaven and a new earth, when the new Jerusalem will descend from heaven, and the dwelling place of God and the Lamb will be with men (Rev. 21:1-8).

6. The Wisdom of God

Perhaps the realisation that Jesus was also the beginning of new creation was the stimulus that led the early believers to identify Jesus with divine Wisdom, the powerful, creative Word of God. The “one Lord” was also the agent of creation, the one “through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6; cf. Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2). Or as John puts it, the logos, which was in the beginning with God, which was God, through which all things were made, became flesh and lived in Israel (1 Jn. 1:14).

7. Second person of the Trinity

The Greeks found little direct use for the apocalyptic narrative. Instead they took the rough Jewish rock of John’s Wisdom/Word christology and fashioned from it, using the philosophical tools that lay to hand, a concept of Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity that would be the keystone of the great arch of the Christendom worldview.

Until fairly recently this was the dominant story told about Jesus by the church. Historical-critical research in the modern era, however, has helped us to recover the Jewish-apocalyptic narrative that, I think, accounts for the basic shape and historical relevance of the New Testament. In view of this, whether the Trinitarian model is still the best way of “summarising”—or perhaps better “rationalising”—the argument about Jesus seems to me at least debatable, but it has been an important part of the consolidated narrative.

Where does this leave us?

In the post-Christendom world we still confess, as church, that Jesus is our king, that he has authority and power greater than any other force in the world, which means that we can live and bear witness confidently in his name.

The rule of Jesus over the nations appears to be over, so we no longer tell a political story about Jesus—not in the old “rule of YHWH over the nations” sense, at least.

But the new creation / second Adam storyline has acquired a relevance and urgency for the modern church that it did not have in the New Testament period. New Testament eschatology was oriented towards the collapse of the pagan worldview and the defeat of idolatrous Rome. The horizons and concerns of the church today in secular West are not regional and imperial but global and ecological.

Jesus remains our king, but as the beginning of new creation he embodies a quite different eschatology, and we are called to a quite different witness. The story that we need to tell is not that pagan nations will confess Jesus as Lord, but that the one true living creator God—the God so aggressively sidelined by secularism—will finally be vindicated. We affirm the truth, the reality, the presence of the God who has already begun to make all things new.

Donald | Sun, 03/26/2017 - 16:52 | Permalink

Thank you for this exceptionally ,to me anyway, clear picture of the difference between the traditional approach and one that makes better sense of the bible, your diagrams are always clarify itself

We can make it our mission to tell the world for the next few thousand years that Jesus is reigning and the creator God will be vindicated in the end. But I wonder if giving water to a thirsty person will change the world more than this message…(and, yes, I realize these things aren’t mutually exclusive).

No, they’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, they’re mutually required, so to speak. The lordship of Jesus, according to the biblical narrative that we have, is the condition, or one of the conditions, under which the church, as a priestly-prophetic people, serves the interests of the creator God in the world. That service has always been—in principle—creational in scope and character, so giving water to a thirsty person would come under the remit, even if it’s not exactly what Jesus was talking about in his description of the judgment of the nations.

Hi Andrew,
I agree that the story seems to say the lordship of Jesus is the condition or one of the conditions under which the church, as a priestly-prophetic people, serves the interests of the creator God in the world. But I’m also concerned that the narrative-historical method creates a message for today that sidelines Jesus for all practical purposes. We can say he is lord, he is king, and he is reigning, but I can’t see how to show these propositions are relevant in the world in which we live.

In response to one of my earlier comments on your post about Moses, the apostles, and transformation, you said Jesus judges and protects God’s people. How do you see this playing out today?

Yes, that’s the challenge…

1. The lordship of Jesus was massively and immediately relevant for the pagan world in which the good news about him was first proclaimed. For the church it meant that they were guaranteed “success”; for the nations it meant that paganism was coming to an end. Roll on Christendom.

2. The lordship of Jesus today still means something for the church, but it means next to nothing outside the church in the secular Western context. So in response to your comment, perhaps we cannot “show these propositions are relevant in the world in which we live”. That’s something we are having to face up to.

3. Does that matter? It doesn’t alter the fact that we are called to be a prophetic-priestly servant people of the creator God whatever the world may think. It’s only when people seriously want to join that programme that they have to reckon with the biblical narrative and the emphasis that it places on the lordship of Jesus.

4. As I see it, Jesus does what a king in Israel was expected to do: he judges (governs) his people and he defends them against their enemies. What that would mean in practice now is hard to say. In a sense, perhaps we have to say that it’s “theoretical”—or at least, that it’s just the story that we tell. But I guess the basic New Testament message is that Jesus reigns throughout the ages until all enemies have been defeated. To affirm the lordship of Jesus is to affirm that we have no fear of our “enemies”—or of the hostile circumstances that we face.

I hope you don’t mind just a bit more pushback.

I think you would say Gentiles from the death of Jesus to the present time have benefitted from the fact that Jesus’ death removed the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. And I suspect you would say that because that wall was removed, Gentiles can now receive the Spirit of God.

Do you see the giving/receiving of God’s Spirit primarily as a perk to help us in this life or as a system of marking those to be resurrected to life on a new earth one day?

I have no objection to pushback. I enjoy the conversation.

I would take it to be both. In the New Testament the gift of the Spirit had a forward-looking aspect—notably it empowered the witness of the church to the coming judgment and transformation of Israel; and it gave a taste of the power that raise the martyrs. But it was also the Spirit of the new covenant, a replacement for the Law as the means by which the whole life of the people of God was managed—a bit more than a perk, really.

Both these aspects remain relevant, except that our “eschatological” outlook is not the same as that of the early church. For us the presence of the Spirit is a sign and anticipation of “new creation”.

By the way, I like your “Rediscovering the Biblical Story”!

Thanks, Andrew!
I’m glad to hear you like my ““Rediscovering the Biblical Story” since I stole it from you. :)

Andrew, I’m sure you dealt with this in one of your posts, but when you talk about a “new heaven and earth” and a “new Jerusalem,” are you picturing a “brand new” creation and a literal city coming down to this newly created earth?

I believe NT Wright teaches a “re-newed heaven and earth.” (I’m not sure what he thinks about the new Jerusalem.)

Based on what you’ve read in the OT and intertestamental writings (and the works of OT and NT scholars), do you think it likely first-century Jews would have understood these things in a literal way?

I ask because I’m finding J. Stuart Russell’s view fairly convincing: All of Revelation has been fulfilled with the exception of Rev. 20:7-10. (As you probably know, he saw the judgment at the end of chapter 20 as the sheep and goat judgment we read of in the gospels.)

(I learned of Russell through someone’s comment on an earlier post.)

This feels weird responding to my comments, but I figured I’d save you the time of responding just to say J. Stuart Russell’s view doesn’t work well. I went back and read Revelation 20 about 5 more times and I no longer find his view “fairly convincing.” :)

I wanted it to work because I like the idea of having only one resurrection (rather than 2 separated by a thousand years), but it seems to be too much of a stretch.