A REVIEW OF KNOWING JESUS THROUGH THE OLD TESTAMENT
By Christopher J. H. Wright
OBST591-D17 Old Testament Orientation I
Dr. Doug Wilson
November 28, 2010
Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament is one of many books written by the Rev. Dr. Christopher J. H. Wright. He is also the author of The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland the son of missionary parents, he was raised as an Irish Presbyterian. He studied at Cambridge earning his doctorate in Old Testament Economic Ethics. Ordained as a pastor in the Anglican Church of England, he has worked as writer, pastor, teacher and missionary. He currently lives and works in London.1
Wright’s purpose in this work is to give the reader a deeper understanding of Old Testament teachings and how they molded and impacted the life of Christ. “For these are the words he (Jesus) read”.2 A book completely without footnotes, it represents the thoughts of only the writer. This book has been in demand and in print since its original publication in 1992.3
The easy, though sometimes wordy style clearly teaches the book’s main idea that the Old Testament begins to tells the story that Jesus completes! Through a deeper understanding of
the Old Testament story and promise, and how it molded Jesus’s identity and mission as well as his values, we are lead to a deeper understanding of who Jesus truly was, why he lived the way
1Langham Partnership International Website <http://www.langhampartnership.org/chris-wright/biography>,(accessed November 20 , 2010)
2Christopher J.H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), ix.
3Alliance.Net Website <www.alliancenet.org/partnet/Article_Knowing Jesus>, (accessed November 19, 2010)
he did and why he did the things he did on Earth. According to Wright, the Old Testament is the key that unlocks the true understanding of Jesus.
Wright’s clear and easy writing style begins with the five chapter divisions, each detailing a key aspect of Jesus’s connection with the Old Testament. The writer presents a very clear and easy to understand outline of the history of Israel in the Old Testament. The presentation of three key historical periods and their connection to Jesus is also easy to follow. Christianity may have begun with the birth of Jesus4, but the real story began with Abraham, then moved to David, and then to the exile before Jesus’s birth. Wright shows how Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus was not just included in scripture to fill space or somehow legitimize Matthew’s knowledge of Israel but to show without doubt Jesus’s clear and legitimate connection to ancient Israel and his true Jewish heritage. The strong connection between Old Testament history and teachings and the genealogy of Jesus quickly begins to define who he was and where he came from. Wright’s approach to Matthew 1:1-16, the genealogy most Christians have casually heard or read many times, is to use it as the initial foundation and validation of
Jesus and his part in the past prior to his birth as well as create a path of credibility on which he could walk during his ministry.
4Christopher J.H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 1995), 1.
This central theme, the connection of Jesus and how he completed the story started in the Old Testament weaves though out the entire work in its descriptions of key childhood events and his fulfillment of the promise declared by the Old Testament centuries before. The connection outlined between Jesus’s personal identity and his mission is fascinating and hard to put down.
The book concludes with an analysis of the Savior’s core values, how they originated in the Old Testament teachings of his youth from Deuteronomy5, then were demonstrated with the actions of his life. Jesus’s obedience to the Father in his mission and “uncompromising loyalty”6 to God are reminiscent of Moses in the wilderness, again a parallel to Old Testament teachings.
When Jesus faced temptation, he fell back on Old Testament Teachings. When Jesus was weary and ready to give up, he was supported by his identity as the end result of the line of Abraham. When he foresaw the pain of the cross ahead, he knew he would one day be home with the Father from the audible voice of his baptism stating “you are my son”7, parallel with the teachings of the Psalms regarding King David.
Jesus’s entire life was an expression of Old Testament teachings as he walked the Earth to complete the story the Old Testament had foretold. This central idea is clearly laid out in the
work by Wright as well as illustrated by other parallel ideas. There are thoughts on typology
with regards to how it can help better understand Jesus in light of the Old Testament as well as other theological ideas.
In short, the Old Testament told the story and Jesus came to live it. He fulfilled the promises made and accomplished the mission foretold. He provided the direct path to God and to salvation that Israel had anticipated and desired for all of its life as a nation.
The fulfillment of Wright’s central theme of Jesus’s connection to the Old Testament and how we can better understand him by understanding that connection was clearly accomplished in the two strongest theological ideas I drew from the book. There are many reviews and thoughts on this work available and what I came away with from it with are different from most of what I discovered as the thoughts of many other much more qualified reviewers. I accepted the themes and ideas pretty much at their face value as presented. The big ideas presented were well supported. Several reviews I read much more deeply dissected the work. I found the issues presented in Wright’s easy writing style as easy take aways.
First, the connection of Jesus to historical Israel and the Jewish culture set a firm foundation for the idea that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s central promise of salvation. Wright achieved the book’s goal by the end of the second chapter illustrating this connection and its support of the fulfillment of the promise. The rest of the work supported this idea achieved with illustrations of Jesus’ life through a discussion of his personal identity and values and how all of this supported his mission on Earth.
Matthews first seventeen versus set the stage for all of the New Testament to come. The end of the geonology moves easily to Jesus birth for after Wright’s presentation of the three significant segments of Old Testament history and their climax at the birth of Jesus. The explanation that followed of how Jesus was a true example of a Jewish man of that day, with “his deep roots in his Hebrew scriptures”8 completed the theme of a savior predicted by the Old Testament, coming to the Earth and prepared now for his mission with a deep and complete connection to the Jewish society around him.
This was however one of many places that left me wanting for more specific connections to Old Testament scripture. The narrative style and presentation of these ideas was complete and logical but sometimes lacking for more references. What were the specific steps to manhood in Jewish society? How were they illustrated in the life of Jesus and connected to the Hebrew Bible of his day? Since the central theme of the book was the literal connection of old to new, more documentation could have been presented in some areas. Documentation was presented but at times it was a big vague and felt more like the opinion of the writer than actual connection to the Old Testament. While Wright’s writing style itself provided strength for his arguments the lack of consistent Old Testament references at times leaves the reader with gaps between his opinions and the desired Old Testament connection.
Second, after setting the stage for Jesus’s ministry with the connection to ancient Israel through Matthew’s genealogy and Jesus upbringing in Jewish society, Wright’s presentation of Jesus’s life and ministry as the clear fulfillment of the Old Testament promise was the book’s strongest and most satisfying portion. Scenes of Jesus’s childhood were the backdrop for the summary of how his life would fulfill the Old Testament promises but how the Old Testament had predicted his fulfillment!
“Not only does the Old Testament tell the story which Jesus completes, it also
declares the promise which Jesus fulfills.”9 At this point in the work, the connection of Jesus to the Old Testament was very complete. The rest of the work built on this well established foundation. Wright’s goal was accomplished and his central point proven about halfway through the work.
This book is very usable the real world of relationships and ministry. Wright’s writing style is a strength here. In every chapter and significant section, his intention and summary of the presentation to come are found in the first few sentences. The chapter on Jesus’s mission for example starts with “he knew he had been sent”.10 Similar indications of the content to come could make this book a handbook of sorts once the reader is familiar with the content. At the same time, although not a really negative factor but at time a distraction was Wright’s tendency in several places to explain in a very word and rambling manner minor points in support of a chapter or section’s main theme. The content on covenants in Chapter 2 and on Jesus’s values on Chapter 4 were examples of this. Overall, his style is easy to read and understand and is an asset to the work.
For this reader, Wright fully achieved the goal of creating the connection between the Jesus of the New Testament and his Old Testament heritage. I’ve always know the solid connection was there but now many areas previously grey in my understanding are now much more clear. There is still work to do and much to understand but the path of connections is now well outlined for me. My reading of this book was a bit of a journey I must admit. Wright’s writing style pulled me in and allowed me to move quickly and easily through the first pages well into chapter three with an enthusiasm I haven’t experienced in some time. Sometime in the chapter 3 typology discussion, the occasional wordiness of his style slowed me down quite a bit! But my enthusiasm from the early pages carried me on and the journey was very rewarding.
Specifically the main idea of each chapter was well communicated and his purpose achieved. Partly due to my lack of experience in this sort of review process, some of the material was hard to digest and it was sometimes hard to stay focused on the big idea in the wordiness of the style. Overall I learned a lot for sure.
This book really made me think differently about Jesus as a Jewish man and what that meant, not just to him as part of heritage but also how it molded his behavior. I see this now as a separate factor from the Old Testament prophecies of his coming and from his focus on his mission. It made me see him as a “man” as well as a savior.
Jesus really was a man on a mission. But it was a mission started long before a night in Bethlehem. This book frankly made me smile. I’ve long felt the yearning to first study the Old Testament as I began my journey of seminary. That idea is now even more affirmed.