N.T Wright: What Grounds Are There for Claiming, from the Texts, That Jesus Is God Incarnate?

My (N.T Wright speaking) faith in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God does not rest on the verses in the Gospels making this claim. It goes much deeper, in fact way back to the very important question about how first-century Jews understood God and God’s action in the world. And, of course, as Jews they went back to the Psalms, to Isaiah, to Deuteronomy, to Genesis, and so on. And we can see, in the Jewish traditions of Jesus’s day, how they interpreted these.

They talk about the one God who has made the world, who is also the God of Israel, and they talk about this God as active within the world, present and doing things within the world and within Israel. And they talk about this in five ways (nothing to do with Aquinas’s Five Ways!).

They talk about the Word of God: God spoke and it was done; God said, “Let there light,” and there was light. The Word of God is living and active, and in Isaiah we have the very powerful image of the Word coming down like rain or snow and doing things in the world.

They talk about the wisdom of God. We see this in Proverbs, of course, particularly, but in several other passages as well. Wisdom becomes almost a personify cationic you like, of God’s “second self.” Wisdom is active in the world, dwelling in Israel, and doing things that help human beings themselves to be wise.

They talk about the glory of God dwelling in the Temple. We must never forget that for Jews in the fi rest century the Temple was, so to speak, an incarnational symbol—they really did believe that the Creator of the universe had promised to come and make his home in this building just down the road in Jerusalem. Until you actually go to190 there is a god Jerusalem and think about that, you don’t really realize it. But it’s quite extraordinary.

Then, of course, they talk about the law of God, which is perfect and revives the soul (as in Psalm 19). The law, like wisdom, is not just a written law. It is an ontologically existing force and presence through which God makes him known.

And, then, finally they talk about the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God rushes upon Samson in the book of Judges; the Spirit of God enables the prophets to be prophets; the Spirit of God indwells humans so that they can do extraordinary things for God’s glory.

These five ways of speaking about God’s action in the world were all ways in which first-century Jews expressed their belief that the One they knew as the Eternal God, the Creator of the world, was present and active within the world and particularly within Israel. And you can see this all over, not just in the Old Testament, but in the footprint that the Old Testament leaves in first-century Judaism, the rabbis, and the Dead Sea Scrolls and other similar texts.

Now when we come to the Gospels with those fi vet ways of speaking in our heads, we discover Jesus behaving—not just talking, but behaving—as if somehow those fi vet ways are coming true in a new manner in what he is doing. In particular, we see this in the parable of the sower. The sower sows the Word, and the Word does its own work. Appendix b 191But, wait a minute, who is going around doing this teaching? It is Jesus himself. And then likewise Jesus speaks in various ways about wisdom: the wisdom of God says, “I am doing this, I am doing that.” And you can track the wisdom traditions of the Old Testament in not just the individual sayings of Jesus, but in the way he went about doing what he was doing. His challenges about the wise man who built his house on the rock and the foolish man who built his house on the sand—that’s a typical bit of wisdom teaching. But, wait a minute, the wise man is “the one who hears these words of mine and does them.” So wisdom and Jesus are very closely bound together. And then, particularly, the Temple. Jesus behaves as if he is the Temple in person. When he says, “Your sins are forgiven,” that is a real shock, because forgiveness of sins is normally declared when you go to the Temple and offer sacrifice. And yet Jesus says you can have it right here out on the street. When you’re with Jesus, it’s as though you’re in the Temple, gazing upon God’s glory.

When we come to the Jewish law, we discover something fascinating. One of the great Jewish scholars of our day, Jacob Neuse, who’s written several major books on Judaism, wrote a book about Jesus. In it he said that when he reads that Jesus said things like, “You have heard that it was said thus and so, but I say unto you this and this192 there is a god and this,” he says, “I want to say to this Jesus: Who do youth ink you are? God?” Jesus is actually giving a new law, a radically fresh interpretation of the law, and is claiming, in certain respects, to override the way the law was being understood and interpreted. And, then, finally the Spirit. Jesus says, “If I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God have come upon you.” So what we see is not so much Jesus going around saying, “I am the Second Person of the Trinity. Either believe it or not.” That really isn’t the way to read the Gospels. Rather, reading them as first-century historians, we can see that Jesus is behaving in ways that together say: this whole great story about a God who comes to be with his people is actually happening. Only it isn’t through the Word and wisdom and the rest. It’s in and as a person. The thing that draws all this together (I have spelled this out in the penultimate chapter of my book Jesus and the Victory of God) is that many Jews of Jesus’s day believed that one day Yahweh, the God of Israel, would come backing person to live within the Temple. You find that in Ezekiel, Isaiah, Zechariah, and several of the later postbiblicaltexts.So they’re hoping that one day God will come back. Because, of course, when God comes back, then he’ll send the Romans packing. He will rebuild the Temple propappendixb 193erly—not the way in which Herod had been doing it, and so on.

There’s a string of expectations associated with God’s return. And then we find in the Gospels this extraordinary picture of Jesus making a final journey to Jerusalem, telling stories about the king who comes backlit have argued, as others have, that Jesus, in telling those stories about the king who comes back to his people, the master who comes back to his servants, is not talking of some Second Coming way in the future. The disciples weren’t up for that. They didn’t even know that he was going to be crucified. He’s telling stories about the signify -cancer of his own journey to Jerusalem, and he’s inviting those who have ears to hear to take this Old Testament picture of Yahweh returning to Zion and hold that in their heads as they see him as a young prophet riding into Jerusalem on a donkey think Jesus staked his life—quite literally!—on his belief that he was called to embody the return of Yahweh to Zion. Now, embody is an English word. The Latin equivalents incarnation, of course. But I prefer to say embody, because, at least in the places where I preach, people can relate to this better than to a technical Latin term. But it means the same thing really do believe that Jesus believed that he was called to act on that assumption. And I think that was hugely scary for Jesus. I think he knew he might actually be wrong. After194 there is a god all; some people who believe that sort of thing might turn out to be like the man who believes he’s a pot of tea. Think Jesus knew that that was his vocation, that he had to act in that way, to live and act on the basis of a vocation to embody, to incarnate, the return of Israel’s God this people. That’s why I would say that Jesus, very quickly after his death and resurrection (that’s a whole other story; we’ll come to it presently), was recognized by his followers as being, all along, the embodiment of Israel’s God.

Faced with his resurrection, they then went back in their minds to all the things that they had seen, heard, and known about Jesus and, as it were, slapped themselves on the side of their heads and said, “Do you realize who we have been with all this time? We have been with the one who embodies Israel’s God.” And they then told and retold the stories of Jesus with awe and wonder as, with hindsight, they reflected on what had been happening all along. This is a huge, extraordinary idea. Yet it makes deep and historically rooted sense that Jesus should think like that about himself. Now, of course, it would be perfectly open to anyone to say to me, “Well, maybe you’re right. Maybe Jesus really did believe that about himself. Maybe the disciples did come to think in that way too. But clearly Jesus must have been wrong, either because we know a prior that if there was a God he could never become human, or because we know a priori that anyone who thinks like appendix b 195that about himself really must have been mad, deranged, deluded.” To this I would say: okay, fine, but just hold those a prioris off for the moment, keep the dogs at bay. And just hold in your mind the picture of a first-century Jew believing and doing all that I have said.

And then ask the question about the resurrection. And then ask all the other questions about what we mean by the word God anyway. Because, of course, the early Christians said most emphatically that the word God remains systematically vague, and that it’s only when we look at Jesus that we find it comes into focus. John says, “No one has seen God at any time; but the only begotten Son, who lives in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” The Greek at this point means, literally, “He has provided an exegesis of him; he has shown us who God really is.” That’s a long answer to a vital question, but I don’t think I can make it any shorter. Most people, in my experience, don’t think through the question of Jesus and God in this way. But this is how, I think, Jesus himself, the earliest Christians, and those who wrote the Gospels were thinking, and we do well to get our minds around it.


This was taken from, There is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. Written by Antony Flew. Located in Appendix B. Published by HaperOne November 4th, 2008. 




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