Book Review: Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament by J.H. Wright

Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament By Christopher J.H. Wright Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 1992, pp. 256, $ 17.00 paperback.

Christopher J.H. Wright (Ph. D., Cambridge) is the international director of the Langham Partnership International (otherwise known as John Stott Ministries in the United States).[1]  Wright received his doctorate in Old Testament ethics and taught the Old Testament in India for five years before serving as the principal of All Nations Christian College, an English training school for missionaries, for eight years.[2]  In his book Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, Wright attempts to clarify the importance of the Old Testament for Christians by explaining how the Old Testament points to the coming of Jesus.  Wright explained in his preface, “the deeper you go into understanding the Old Testament, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus.”[3]  It is with this mindset that Wright unfolds the intricate and direct connection between the Old Testament texts and their importance in acquiring a complete and accurate understanding of their relationship to Jesus and how his coming was a fulfillment of both Old Testament law and prophecy.

Today’s Christians often have a lack of understanding in terms of the relationship between Christ and the Old Testament.  A misinterpretation of Paul’s teaching that we no longer live under the law leads many Christians to believe that the Old Testament is of little or no relevance to our faith today.  However, in addressing the Old Testament laws and prophets in Matthew 5:17, Jesus stated, “I came not to abolish them, but fulfill them” (ESV).  With this background in mind, Wright begins his book with a short preface in which he explains,

“It saddens me that so many Christians in these days love Jesus, but know so little about who he thought he was and what he had come to do.  Jesus becomes a kind of photomontage composed of a random mixture of Gospel stories, topped up with whatever fashionable image of him is current, including, recently, the New Age caricatures of him.  He is cut off from the historical Jewish context of his own day, and from his deep roots in the Hebrew scriptures.”[4]

It is with this mindset that Wright divides his books into five chapters; each explaining how Jesus is connected to a specific theme of the Old Testament.  In these five chapters, he explains how Jesus is seen through the story, promise, identity, mission, and values of the Old Testament.  Using this format, Wright unfolds the story of the Old Testament from Abraham to David, to the exile, and to Christ, illustrating a story that was always destined for one conclusion; the coming of Christ.  Wright demonstrates that Christ is the focal point of the Old Testament story and encapsulates the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises and how both helped Jesus to understand his own identity.  He also cites Jesus’ knowledge of the Old Testament texts in his understanding of his own identity, role, and mission as the Messiah.  Wright also identifies several underlying themes that contribute to a full understanding of Jesus in the Old Testament.  There is a significant amount of attention given to the five biblical covenants (the Noahic, Abrahamic, Sinai, Davidic and new covenants), the sonship of Israel through the lens of Jesus as the Son of God, and Jesus’ relationship with and fulfillment of the Old Testament laws and prophets.

Wright begins his book by immediately referencing the beginning of the New Testament.  The first seventeen verses of the book of Matthew indicate the importance of understanding the Old Testament to the reader of the New Testament.  Wright explains,

“Because, says Matthew, you won’t understand that story – the one I am about to tell you – unless you see it in the light of a much longer story which goes back for many centuries but leads up to the Jesus you want to know about.  And that longer story is the history of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians came to call the Old Testament.  It is the story which Matthew ‘tells’ in the form of a schematized genealogy – the ancestry of the Messiah.”[5]

Wright uses this as a framework for the whole book.  Simply stated, “The Old Testament tells the story which Jesus completes.”[6] He uses Matthew’s genealogy to demonstrate the historical significance of the Old Testament and to point to three major time periods in the Old Testament: Abraham to David, David to the Babylonian exile, and the exile to Jesus.[7] Wright also points out the importance of genealogy and ancestry in ancient Jewish culture and the importance of understanding Jesus’ heritage.  He elaborates, “The Gospels bind us to the particularity of Jesus and Matthew anchors him in the history of the Jewish nation.”[8]  However, Wright does not use Matthew’s genealogy for the sole purpose of declaring Jesus’ historical completion of the Old Testament, but also his fulfillment of it.

In his explanation of Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament, Wright writes of the Old Testament, “It is the story from which he acquired his identity and mission” (italics added).[9]  Wright would later add, “At the threshold of his public ministry he needed to be absolutely sure of who he was and what he had come to do.”[10]  Wright’s comments downplay any communication with the Father while Jesus walked on the earth, and portray a Messiah who had to figure out, on his own accord, who he was.  Wright would go on to state, “It was the Old Testament which helped Jesus understand Jesus.  Who did he think he was?  What did he think he was to do?  The answers came from his Bible, the Hebrew scriptures in which he found a rich tapestry of figures, historical persons, prophetic pictures and symbols of worship” (italics added by original author).[11]  Wright makes the assumption that it was Jesus’ responsibility to realize that he was the Son of God.  However, the Gospel of John tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God” (1:1-2 ESV).  While the Bible is rather silent on Jesus’ childhood and adolescence, Luke 2 seems to indicate the young Jesus had an idea of who we was.  When sitting with the Jewish teachers in the temple in Jerusalem, they were amazed with his “understanding and answers” (Luke 2:47 ESV).  When his parents found him in the temple, he asked them, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (ESV 2:49).  Scripture also tells us that Jesus, the Word, was with God from eternity past.  Genesis 3:15 states, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (ESV).  If one accepts the traditional view of this verse as pointing to Christ’s triumph of Satan, then Christ has also known what his purpose would be on earth.  Furthermore, Isaiah 46:10 explains that God has declared the end since the beginning.  If God knew the end at the beginning, and Jesus was present with the Father at the beginning, it can be assumed that Jesus has always known his purpose.  Admittedly, Scripture does not specifically clarify whether he, in his time on earth, always knew, had it revealed to him, or had to “figure out” that he was the Son of God.  However, Wright’s understanding of Jesus’ knowledge of his purpose leaves little room for direct communication between the Father and the Son, and furthermore, leaves little room for the concept of homoousios, in which Jesus is the second person of an omniscient, triune God.

In discussing the use of the Old Testament in establishing Jesus’ identity, Wright pays a great deal of attention to the use of typology.  Although he admits that it is used minimally among today’s scholars, he would go on to make a case for the use of sound typology and analogy of the New and Old Testaments.  He writes, “there is good biblical justification for seeing analogy as a valid feature of biblical interpretation, because the Bible itself uses it.”[12]  He would go on to say,

“Typology, then, to sum up, properly handled, is a way of understanding Christ and the various events and experiences surrounding him in the New Testament by analogy or correspondence with the historical realities of the Old Testament seen as patterns or models.  It is based on the consistency of God in salvation-history.  It has the backing of Christ himself who, on the authority of his Father, saw himself in this way.”[13]

However, one must be very cautious in the use of typology, as it requires human analogy.  Wright is accurate in noting that the New Testament writers’ use of such analogies to demonstrate the connections between the New Testament and Old Testament.[14]  However, this does not mean that it is necessarily biblical to make conclusions based on one’s own analogies.  The writers of both the Old Testament and the New Testament were inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16).  The analogies in the Bible, being “breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16 ESV), are authoritative.  Analogies from anywhere other than Scripture are subjective interpretations and must be considered with the utmost scrutiny in order to ensure that the Scripture is not taken out of context.

Wright thoroughly explains the mission of Jesus through the lens of the Old Testament.  Beginning with the Jewish expectations of the coming Messiah and emphasizing the “Servant Songs” of Isaiah, the prophetic books of Daniel and Revelation, and other various scripture as well, Wright describes not only the situation in which the Messiah would arrive, but also the mission he would complete upon arrival.  He would go on to make a direct correlation from the mission of the Servant, to the mission of those serving him.  Wright explained, “the Servant has the task of making real to the rest of humanity the whole package of ethical values and social priorities that God had entrusted to Israel.  Being a ‘light to the nations’ includes this moral teaching dimension as well as the extending of the saving light of the covenant.”[15]  He would go on to state, “Christian mission, if it is true to the whole biblical pattern, cannot be confined to verbal proclamation alone.  The mission of the Servant included justice, compassion, enlightenment, liberation.”[16]  It is all too common for Christians to look to the New Testament alone to guide them in their mission.  Yet, Wright demonstrates the need for all believers to look to the whole of Scripture in serving and carrying out God’s mission for all believers.

Wright’s book is an excellent resource for both the pastor and the congregation.  First and foremost, the book would be helpful to anyone looking to add depth to his or her understanding of Christ, both historically and spiritually.  Whether used as a personal study tool, or in a small group setting, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament instills a greater understanding of Jesus’ purpose on earth.  Wright’s book received similar praise from pastor and IX Marks author Paul Alexander.  Alexander wrote,

“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.”[17]

Wright’s Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament is both an insightful and thought provoking work, which makes apparent the need for an understanding of Jesus through the Old Testament texts.  Wright successfully demonstrates the story, in Scripture, that always points toward Jesus in the Old Testament, without reaching for correlations that have no foundation in Scripture.  Wright causes the reader to think harder about the seriousness with which one must study the texts of the Old Testament and their importance in our mission as Christians.  Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament would be a wonderful addition to any church or home library.

Bibliography

Alexander, Paul. “Book Review: Knowing Christ Through the Old Testament.” http://www.alliancenet.org/CC/article/0,,PTID314526_CHID598026_CIID2438290,00.html (accessed July 27, 2011).

InterVarsity Press. “About Christopher J.H. Wright.” http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/author.pl/author_id=343 (accessed July 24, 2011).

Wright, Christopher J.H. Knowing Christ Through the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1992.


[1] InterVarsity Press, “About Christopher J.H. Wright,” http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/author.pl/author_id=343 (accessed July 24, 2011).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Christopher J.H. Wright, Knowing Christ Through the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1992), ix.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 1-2.

[6] Ibid., 2.

[7] Ibid., 9-26.

[8] Ibid., 3.

[9] Ibid., 27.

[10] Ibid., 108.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 113-14.

[13] Ibid., 116.

[14] Ibid., 113.

[15] Ibid., 179.

[16] Ibid., 179-180.

[17] Paul Alexander, “Book Review: Knowing Christ Through the Old Testament,” http://www.alliancenet.org/CC/article/0,,PTID314526_CHID598026_CIID2438290,00.html (accessed July 27, 2011).

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