Book Review: Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, by Christopher Wright
As well-known as Jesus’ name seems to be today, there certainly is a lot of confusion about who he is. From the quest for the historical Jesus to self-professed evangelicals who see no problem in locking arms with Muslims to teach love for God and neighbor, Jesus is famously misunderstood. How do we know who Jesus is?
Christopher Wright’s answer is that we know him in a profound way through the Old Testament. Wright presents his case that the Old Testament is where Jesus “found the shape of His own identity and the goal of His own mission” (ix). He works out his thesis in five stages, neatly summarized in five points about the Old Testament:
We have seen that the Old Testament tells the story which Jesus completed. It declares the promise which he fulfilled. It provides the pictures and models which shaped his identity. It programmes a mission which he accepted and passed on. It teaches a moral orientation to God and the world which he endorsed, sharpened, and laid as the foundation for obedient discipleship. (p. 252)
Wright takes Matthew 1 to 4 as his touchstone text, methodically working his way from Jesus’ genealogy to his wilderness testing. Broadly speaking, Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1 proves him to be the completion of the OT story (pp. 1-54); his infancy as recorded in Matthew 2 proves him to be the fulfillment of the OT promise (pp. 55-102); his baptism in Matthew 3 proves that he understood his identity in terms of OT pictures and models (pp. 103-135); his understanding of himself as Isaiah’s Servant of the Lord and Daniel’s Son of Man proves that he lived and taught an OT mission (136-180); and his wilderness testing in Matthew 4 proves him to be the obedient Son of God who modeled God-centered morality in a way that OT Israel failed to do (pp. 181-252).
It’s not difficult to see why this book has stayed in print for so long. For starters, it’s very readable. Wright’s sentences are short and powerful, and the way he organizes and frames his material is pretty intuitive.
From the title, you might wonder if you’re about to see an exegetical magic show that produces really exciting Christology but leaves you asking how he pulled the rabbit from the hat. Actually, Wright is careful to affirm the historical reality and significance of OT events in their historical context. He then uses this historical significance, guided by the New Testament interpretation of the text, as the starting point in his search for Jesus in the OT text. “What it meant for Israel,” he writes, “does not just evaporate in a haze of spiritualization when we reach the New Testament. . . .”
There is a tendency among Christians to say something like, “the OT is a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ.” Carefully explained, this is true. But it can lead to the prejudice that dispenses with the Old Testament itself as little more than shadows, or a kind of children’s picture book. (pp. 28, 30)
Instead of fronting as a magician who refuses to share his secrets, Wright explains how Scripture not only lets him know Jesus through the Old Testament, but leads him to do so. He has an especially helpful section on typology (pp. 110-116), which is to understand Jesus’ person and work “by way of analogy or correspondence” with events, people, practices, offices and institutions in the Old Testament (p. 116). In other words, the whole Bible encourages us to look for patterns or models of how God works in history, and then to see how those patterns are fulfilled by Jesus in the New Testament. No hocus-pocus, just close attention paid to God’s pattern of working in history.
At the same time, Wright helps us understand that the OT promise involves ongoing levels of fulfillment (pp. 70-77). This, I think, is one of the most helpful sections in the book because it again reveals something of Wright’s method. Crucially, he distinguishes between prediction and promise:
Because [a promise] involves personal relationship and commitment, it has a dynamic quality that goes beyond the external details involved….Because it is the relationship behind [the promise] that really matters, the material form in which it is fulfilled may be quite different from the literal form in which it was originally made, and yet it is no less a valid fulfillment of the promise. (pp. 70, 71)
God made promises to Israel in forms they could understand, yet their fulfillment will transcend those forms so that God’s faithfulness is confirmed rather than called into question. Thus, Wright concludes that “to hanker after the original forms of the promise would be like preferring shadows to real objects…. To insist on literal fulfillment of prophecies can be to overlook their actual nature within the category of promise, with the potential of different and progressively superior levels of fulfillment” (pp. 76-77).
Wright is so solid with text and context that once he’s done teaching us how to know Jesus through the Old Testament, we’re left identifying with him when he says
Jesus was not just an identikit figure pasted together from bits of the Old Testament. He transcended and transformed the ancient models…so that for His followers, what began as a shaft of recognition and understanding of Jesus in light of their Scriptures, ended up as a deepening and surprising new understanding of their Scriptures in light of Jesus. (p. 117, emph. orig.)
Fellow pastor, this is an important book for you not only to have on your shelf, but to read carefully. It’s a great example of using biblical theology to enrich our preaching without impoverishing our exegesis. It can help us avoid becoming practical Marcionites, only ever preaching from the New Testament because we think the Old is an optional introduction at best. If you find yourself hesitant to preach Christ from the Old Testament, Wright will not only show you how to do it – he’ll make you want to do it.
Addendum: While I am happy to recommend this book without reservation, I cannot say the same for the author’s signing of the evangelical response to A Common Word in 2007 (the response of 300 evangelical leaders, along with the list of signatories, can be found at http://www.acommonword.com/lib/downloads/fullpageadbold18.pdf). For the sake of gospel clarity, I pray that Wright would see the inconsistency between the Second Person of the Trinity he wrote of in 1992 and the non-Trinitarian “All Merciful” Divinity he endorsed with our Muslim friends in 2007. This is a disappointing lapse in judgment from one whose Trinitarian Christology as championed in this book has proven so enriching to so many for so long.