What are the Gospels for? Putting it another way, why did Jesus live?
This is an urgent question because for centuries Christians have tended to focus almost exclusively on the death of Jesus as the center of the Christian message. The real meaning of Christianity is then perceived to be mainly about the opportunity to receive forgiveness of sins. As a result, many people assume that “the gospel” is the declaration that anyone can benefit from what happened on the cross. Anyone can be justified by faith, or can rest in the promise of eternal life, or something of the sort.
In light of this, it is a little odd and probably even confusing, that leading off our New Testament are four “Gospels” which are primarily about the life of Jesus. Their coverage of Jesus’s death fits neatly into the typical cross-shaped gospel announcement, but what are we supposed to do with all of the teachings of Jesus which they recount for us? Why should we observe all the things that Jesus did during his life? What, if anything, does all this material say about the gospel of personal salvation?
What Is the Gospel?
Anglican theologian N.T. Wright has been considering these questions for some time, and he believes that the lack of clear answers from the church is a serious issue; indeed, he sees it as a “fundamental problem deep at the heart of Christian faith and practice” (ix). This problem is of such depth, in fact, that one is prodded to wonder just what “the gospel” is in the first place.
In his work on the New Testament, Wright has steadily been reorienting his readers toward a more biblical understanding of “the gospel.” It is not, as Wright reveals, the shrunken message of personal salvation, but the good news in all its fulness—that in the person of Jesus the God of Israel is becoming enthroned on earth as its king. Through the lens of this more authentic vision of the gospel, Wright inspects at length the particular question of what purpose the Gospels serve in his recent book How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (HarperOne, 2012).
The Gospel in the Gospels
The first part of his book shows how the church’s primary attempts to explain the Gospels’ purpose, while for the most part are commendable in some way, are actually deeply inadequate. The Gospels aren’t showing us how to go to heaven, they aren’t just showing us how to live moral lives, and they aren’t just showing us how Jesus was the perfect divine sacrifice for sin.
The big question then becomes, what are the Gospels actually about in the first place?
Since Christians have for so long been unsure of what Jesus’s life is about, Wright says that the problem is not just that we’ve misread the Gospels; “It is more that we haven’t really read them at all” (10). In order to give the Gospels the proper reading that they have been denied, in the second part of his book Wright situates the Gospels within the larger story of Israel. It is the neglect of the story of Israel’s call—that she would be the means by which God would save and enthrone himself in the world—which forms the great missing piece in the church’s reading of the Gospels. Wright provides four major aspects of how this fits together. First, the Gospels are the climax of this all-important story of Israel (65). By recognizing this we can more fully realize the identity of Jesus through Wright’s second aspect, that the story of Jesus is the story of Israel’s God, for he does only what Israel’s God has promised to do throughout salvation history (83).
Furthermore, Jesus’s life as the climax of the story of Israel and her God is not only the inauguration of God’s final saving activity on earth but it is also the story of the launch of God’s renewed people to work toward and inhabit God’s new world, which is the third aspect (112). Finally, the fourth aspect highlights the Gospels’ teaching of an enthroned God in Jesus as conflicting with the worldly empire, for the story of the kingdom of God clashes with the kingdom of Caesar (127). The importance of this final aspect is arguable, and Wright admits that it is much more implicit than the first three.
The Forgotten Story of the Gospel(s)
Wright’s main point is that the Gospels are about the gospel, that their purpose is to show how in and through the life and death of Jesus God is becoming king (175). It is the story of the kingdom that is the forgotten story of the Gospels, and as Wright observes, “Once you get the kingdom back in its place, everything else—Trinity, incarnation, atonement, resurrection itself—all gain in meaning” (273).
After all this study, Wright appropriately reminds us that this is not simply a matter of how best to read ancient texts according to their authors’ original intent, as vital as this is. Rather, the most pertinent question before us is, as a result of this study, can we discover “a new vision for God’s mission in the world, in and through Jesus, and … in and through his followers?” (x)
By shining such crucial light on the meaning of such important writings, Wright succeeds at this task. He has written one of the most valuable books on how to properly draw from the Gospels in order to genuinely engage the Christian faith.