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.