The Back Story to the Jesus Story

If you take any historical book of the Old Testament, say Genesis or 1 Samuel or 2 Chronicles, and read it from beginning to end you get a good introduction to the Bible’s Story — and it is a Story about God’s election of Israel and of Israel seeking to live as God’s people, and most notably a Story about kings and prophets and priests. Put another way, the first thing the reader encounters is not how to get saved or stories of how people got saved. Or how to get happy. Or how to find personal fulfillment. Or.. or… or.. but … It is a Story about God’s work with God’s people to make a nation that embodies God’s will — and witnesses to the nations about Israel’s God! And it is Story that is seeking resolution because something’s not right.

How would you summarize the “Story” the Gospels are resolving? Have we been taught another way to approach the Bible, another way that too often blocks our seeing the Story of Israel as the Gospels’ true back story? What stories do you hear?

The Story of Israel, as Tom Wright makes abundantly clear in his new book How God Became King, is the prequel or back story to the Story of Jesus. Too many read the Jesus Story as if Israel’s Story was not the back story and as if another story was at work — what I call in The King Jesus Gospel Plan of personal Salvation. He opines that many think it is only the story of Adam and Eve, of “Everyman” (67), of Genesis 1-3 that then needs Jesus.

But the Gospels all open with sketches of Jesus that show dramatically, clearly, forcefully, and undeniably that they see Jesus completing/climaxing the Story of Israel. That’s the Story that sets up the Story of Jesus.

So he sketches this theme for each Gospel:

1. Matthew: the story reaches its goal, and he observes that Matthew begins with the genealogy, and that genealogy cuts up Israel’s Story into Abraham, David, Exile, Jesus chapters. This permits Wright to develop again his well-known End of Exile theme, and who can deny its relevance for how Matthew reads Israel’s Story when he begins with that theme in the genealogy?! Jesus is the Jubilee in person. To be sure, this solves Adam’s problem because Adam’s problem is solved in the election of Israel for the redemption of the world.

2. Mark: Jesus and the breaking in of God’s new world, and he focuses on Mark 1 mostly …

3. Luke: the Scriptures must be fulfilled, and anyone can spot this in Luke 1-2 and in Luke 24 where Jesus opened both the Bible and the minds of his listeners to show it all pointed to him, the one who was crucified and raised.

4. John: the themes of creation (John 1) and new creation (John 1!).

The Gnostic Gospels don’t do this; they don’t like Israel’s Story; they don’t want a creational monotheistic God but one who takes humans from this world into the spiritual world.

"I've been wondering if the vision of the church isn't simply Jesus. If vision means ..."

Pastor As Midwife (Mike Glenn)
"Thank you Betty for your stand and willingness to share the difficulties you have faced, ..."

Willow Elder Of 30 Years Talks
"I agree with Scot's thoughts, and I think they are stories not just worth telling, ..."

Willow Elder Of 30 Years Talks
"Eric, I did call attention to it at the time."

Willow Elder Of 30 Years Talks

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • “It is a Story about God’s work with God’s people to make a nation that embodies God’s will — and witnesses to the nations about Israel’s God!”

    I loved this section of the book.

  • RJS


    Nice summary. As I’ve been thinking about this, both your book and Wright’s book, it seems as though the problem isn’t that we read the gospels wrong … it is that we have no clue what the OT is about and thus are incapable of reading the gospels right.

    This is a place where Pete Enns’s book on Adam really made a difference for me. It wasn’t his view of Adam that had impact as much as it was the way he provided insightt to put the OT in context. But it is just a start.

  • Norman

    I pretty well agree with Scot and Wright by and large but coming from the fulfilled Preterist position I do not see the consummated Kingdom being put off into the future. IMO putting it off is similar to the idea of focusing upon the future “life after death in Heaven mantra” instead of taking hold of the fullness of Kingdom life that has been manifested through Life in the Spirit established by Christ. It essentially becomes somewhat of a semantics discussion but the subtlety of the psychological ramifications for believers is similar.

    It also seems upon detailed examination the Adam and Eve story is a perfect microcosm of the story of Israel. Adam/ Israel are raised up from mortal humanity to walk with God and receive the blessing of God’s Garden walk. Adam (established priest) however fails to run off the deceiver that brings a propensity for Law keeping. Thus Adam/Israel suffers under that curse until Christ the Last Adam steps on the Head of the deceiver serpent (Pharisaical Law keepers) crushing the reason that those walking faithfully with God could not fully abide in the Garden. The sign of this consummated completion was the fulfillment of Christ prophecy against physical Temple worship, mortal priesthood, animal sacrifices and a physical City Jerusalem.

    I don’t really buy Wrights idea that we are heading toward a utopia established here on earth some day in the future which is setting up the same idea of “life after death in Heaven” . It’s just another subtle form of looking to the future instead of taking fully hold of the fullness of what Christ has accomplished for us in the here and now. There is a lot more to contemplate but that’s a starter.

  • Todd Kemp


    Brilliant! Thanks for your beautifully written snapshot. This is helpful. How would you juxtapose Wright’s Back Story with the “Back Story” of the Eikon in “Embracing Grace?”

    Grace and Peace,

  • Paul D.

    “The Gnostic Gospels don’t do this; they don’t like Israel’s Story; they don’t want a creational monotheistic God but one who takes humans from this world into the spiritual world.”
    I wonder if a case might be made that the over-emphasis on a soterian gospel has paved the way for the attraction of neo-gnosticism in the church and society. If a soterian gospel tends towards “escapism” eschatology, what greater escape is there than the spirit from the material?

  • John Mc


    Fascinating that you have summarized the evil in the world as “Pharisaical Law keepers”. There are so many reasons to question this conclusion, not the least of which is Jesus’ own statement that he did not come to change the Law but to fulfil it.

    I don’t know that Jesus came to address a single evil, but if I had to name one, it would be the human propensity to employ violence, coercion, and all manner of weapons and tools of fear and insecurity to control, oppress, and exploit one another. Jesus’ singular commandment to love one another as he has loved us, makes the point most emphatically.

    Abusive religious practices are but one aspect of such oppressive evil.

  • Scot McKnight

    Todd, the back story in Embracing Grace, as I say in King Jesus Gospel, is too soterian, even if holistic. The Eikon story is the story of redemption, the impact of the gospel. If you read it carefully, you will see in Embracing Grace, some gropings for that King Jesus Gospel. I was trying to get everything into the bundle but needed a different angle on the bundle, which King Jesus Gospel does.

  • Norman

    John Mc,

    I think you have missed the point. Relationship with God via a Garden walk in faith is/was the desire. Christ restored that problem that excludes a faithwalk being productive by removing the curse of the Law upon this walk. You appear to have overlooked Paul’s extensive examination of the Law as a problem that had to be rectified in Romans.
    I’m not sure you realize the fulfilment of the Law and Prophets is a restoration of Garden life. The Garden is the idea but human nature via law keeping didn’t work. That should be an understanding of Grace 101 for Christians.

    However once Law Keeping is set aside then we can have a discussion of humanities need for God absolving our natural sins. The specific sin of the Garden was introducing Law keeping into Godly relationship. Read Romans 1-8 and 1 Cor 15.

    1Cor 15:56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

  • John Mc

    Norman we disagree. Legalism and religious compulsion are just forms of oppression. The “Garden Walk” with God is precluded by fear and insecurity and the institutions, principalities and powers which exploit those conditions.

    Adam and Eve were not undone by the Lawor even legalism, but by the failure of their trust in God, fostered by the serpent’s manipulation of their insecurities through its suggestion that there was a good which was greater than God, i.e., being like God, and it further fostered in them the mistrust and fear that God was purposely keeping them from this greater good for malevolent reasons.

    I do agree that legalism is “a problem that had to be rectified,” but it is only a manifestation of the greater problem of oppressions which prevents us from trusting in the abundant grace of God.

  • Joe Canner

    Just today I happened to be reading in I Samuel about David being chased around the country by King Saul. The chronological reading plan I’m using also had us read Psalms 11 and 59 which reflect David’s state of mind at the time. I was struck by the parallels between David’s experience (unjustly accused of being an enemy of the state) and that of Jesus. In a small way, I think this illustrates the point Scot and NT Wright are trying to make.

    I agree with RJS in #2 about understanding the OT. I grew up learning a lot of facts about the OT, as well as learning a lot about Messianic prophesies and typologies. However, I am starting to see how this is a “flat” way to view the OT. I guess it’s never too late to start over…

  • Norman

    John mc

    Indeed legalism is a form of oppression and that is why they had no place in the relational arrangement of Garden life with God. Garden life is not supposed to produce fear but peace with God. The problem is the mortal/human nature of walking in a legalistic manner with God was beyond our abilities but not Christ who lived and died it for us.

    Rom 7: 9 Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.

    Don’t disagree with some of your observations but the question before us is what is the story of the Bible and we can’t ignore the significant examination produced by Paul concerning how law introduced in the Garden via Adam caused a problem for people of faith walking relational with God.

    I think what is often overlooked is that Paul regards the original Garden life given to Adam as a faith fowler of God to have alleviated the natural sin problem of man by not counting it against him. The commandment is a problem for faith followers who aspire to Garden life such as Israel had.

    Rom 5:13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law.

  • John Mc

    I’m confused, it seems that Adam’s sin was indeed charged against his account, and, under the idea of Original Sin, against everyone’s account. That happened before the Law.

    Also, you said “such as Israel had”, However, Israel never lived in the Garden, allegorically or in reality.

    The Commandment that remains is to love one another. I remain convinced that the thrust of this Commandment is to address conditions of fear and insecurity, and the exploitation of fear and insecurity for purposes of oppression.

    I agree that Paul, as a Pharisaical Jew, spent much time reflecting on the issue of legalism and the relationship between the Law, Sin, and the redemptive work of Jesus. He necessarily had to work these concepts through as a critical component of his own conversion experience, and for purposes of his ultimate ministry of teaching to Gentiles and to Jews in the Diaspora.

    However, most of humanity is not composed of Pharisaical Jews, and as such the oppression most of humanity experiences is not in the nature of Pharisaical legalism. Consequently, the problem of oppression manifests itself differently. The oppression experienced by most has to do with fear, violence, coercion, and insecurity, and the exploitation of these conditions by the principalities and powers of the world. As a result, Paul’s teachings about oppression and freedom need to be developed beyond the Jewish/Christian, Law/Grace context.

    In my opinion core problem for humanity is not legalism, though many experience it, but fear.

    “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” John 14:27

  • Norman

    John Mc,

    We are talking about the comprehensive story of Israel which derives from the Adam and Eve story in Gen 2-3 as a microcosmic outline of Israel.

    I’ think you are reading some Original Sin acquired concepts into your approach to the Garden story that may not be the Jewish concepts under consideration.

    Concerning Israel and existing in the Garden, you might want to investigate Ezekiel and see the connection that is made concerning being found in the Garden and the aim of being restored to the Garden.

    In my opinion Genesis was written from the point of view of Israel likely around the end of the first Temple or shortly after Israel’s exile. The story of Adam and Eve very possibly was contemporarily developed around Ezekiel’s time as he references it and its concepts heavily. It’s a historical story no doubt but it frames the plight of Israel in a mini storied format and I might add is a special genre of literature that is not necessarily literal.

    Ezekiel 28:13 Thou wast in Eden, the garden of God;

    Ezekiel 31:9 I made it fair by the multitude of its branches, so that all the trees of Eden, that were in the garden of God, envied it … 18 yet shalt thou be brought down with the trees of Eden

    Ezekiel 36: 33 Thus saith the Lord Jehovah: In the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be builded. …. 35 And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden

    I think Ezekiel is clear that at least an analogy to Israel’s existence with the Nations is framed from the Garden of Eden perspective.

    Also getting back to the concept of sin in regard to Law breaking by God’s faithful and the comparison of Paul’s idea of natural sin not being accounted for in the Garden.

    Unless one propagates Universalism to Paul in Romans 5 then his concept of not having sin accounted can only be understood as regarding the original Garden status of Adam when first placed there. Paul essentially assumes that his contemporary readers that he was communicating with understood that sin not being attributed can only occur in the perfect Garden. There is simply no good way to assume that Paul is saying that humanity at large outside of God’s covenant people have their sins not accounted. That would make a farce out of his arguments, so by paying close attention to Paul discussing Adam, the commandment and sin throughout Rom 5-8 it becomes quite obvious that his case is completely about the problem of coming out of legalism for the faithful not about those dwelling in the outer darkness of natural sin. There are some good commentaries that can help frame this issue well.

    John Mc, I’m not saying this story is easily discerned in fact quite the contrary, it is difficult and especially in Romans 5-8.

    I think we focus too much on our natural sin state which all humanity shares and mix the discussion with faithful covenant people who are being addressed by Paul. It’s the same concept today when those outside of a faith walk with Christ reside in their natural sin state but when they enter the renewed Garden established through Christ then their natural sin state is not held against us. However if we broker the law again by replacing the Gospel of Jesus Christ then that is no gospel at all. That is the tension of the Judaizing Christians that caused Paul so many problems that he was trying to suppress amongst believers.

    In my opinion we take too much of this literature as speaking individually when Paul wraps up most of these issues from the collective group concept.

    Hopefully you are correct that most of faithful Christians today are not legalist minded but I happen to come out of a heritage that played right up against the bar and likely are somewhat legalist. That was a curse on the faithful of old and is problematic even today.

    Entering into Garden relationship with God through Christ is supposed to remediate our natural sin inclinations and that is the great expectation that we all have in developing a faith walk with God. That has been the desired goal from the beginning but the story of Israel encompasses their getting off track via law keeping and according to them and Paul it started with Adam.



  • jim


    While I do like the approach you are using I don’t find myself coming to the same conclusion. I do agree that there is a problem with legalism, however, I think the ultimate problem in the Garden is that of control.

    Throughout the Old Testament, I would say the ultimate problem is that Israel does not embrace her identity as she continually would rather have control than leave it to God. We see this in Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, through Babel and even at times Abraham and the Israeli patriarchs.

    This problem also culminated in Exodus as the Israelites continually push against God’s control. In Judges as well. I don’t think it could be made any plainer than in Samuel when Israel’s greatest sin was asking for a king.

    And was this story much different than Jesus’? Continually Jesus was asked about his identity. And then when thy saw the Kingdom and system he proclaimed, again they ignored God and usurped his authority.

    Legalism and control are part of a bigger problem which is mankind continually placing himself before God.

  • PaulE

    @Joe Canner – You note the parallels betweens David and Jesus, which you say illustrates the point Scot and Wright are making; but then say that typologies are a flat way of reading the OT. What do you mean by typologies? Because I would understand your reading of the Scriptures in the first paragraph to be along typological lines.

  • Joe Canner

    PaulE #15: You may be right, at least based on the (probably inadequate) way I described it. I’m having a hard time articulating the difference between the way I read the OT growing up and the way I am reading it now. I think the former was a simplistic “X in the OT is a type of Jesus” without any explanation as to why that might be the case or what the significance is*. The way I am starting to read the OT now (thanks in part to books like this) is to see the OT as a story and to see Jesus as reliving that story. In other words, reading the OT is more than just a collector’s hobby, looking for artifacts that connect with the NT.

    *Perhaps my experience is a unique consequence of the kind of church I was brought up in, or perhaps it is simply a consequence of the way Bible reading is generally taught to children. In retrospect, I’d like to think that if kids can learn to interpret the classics of literature in HS English that they can grasp more substantive concepts involved in interpreting Scripture.

  • Norman


    What I am doing is attempting to frame the Adam/Israel narrative in the manner that Paul is laying out in Romans and especially 5-8 and also 1 Cor 15. I don’t disagree with your recognitions but IMO these themes all work together in the overall biblical narrative. The story of Israel is applicable Nationally, Corporately and individually in the Biblical narrative. Paul appears to develop the outworking of Christianity more toward a corporate and individual perspective getting away from a Nationalistic application if you will. The reason being is that the Government now resides in the Heavenly Spiritual realm under the auspices of Christ and God. The mantle of taking it away from National Israel and the Priesthood comes as a surprise to the Jews and it was a bitter pill to swallow for sure. (However it was prophesied in Eze 34) Even the apostles did not grasp this concept until after the resurrection and Christ teaching them to go out and create a new nation albeit a spiritual dwelling one.

    Paul though brings it down to an intimate body of Christ and individual members of that body at the end of Rom 7 where in my opinion he illustrates the concept of the tree of Good and evil in these following verses. Indeed the application is well recognized that you present in the OT but much of that is typologically pointing toward the Spiritual Kingdom to come. Philosophically I’ll let those of you that are equipped well delve into the human currents of individual sin and national sins implications. I’m primarily dealing with the big picture that Paul is presenting throughout his work. However the Gospels and the life of Christ and his works of redemption are more robustly illustrated for us in the Gospels it seems where He models for us.

    Rom 7:14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

    The story is big and there are more than just a few ways of illustrating the Biblical picture but grasping big picture overviews possibly helps us keep things in order.

  • michael

    I appreciate your summary as well. I would refer you to either Russell Moore’s The Kingdom of Christ or 3Views on The Millennium. Moore does a great job detailing how BOTH dispensationalists & covenant theologians historically have abstracted the Kingdom from Christ leading to an unbalanced view–everything’s either future or spiritual. And Darrell Bock in 3 views details the the history as well how both sides have gone awry.

  • Wonderful. McKnight and Wright and putting great ideas which should never have been lost into language everyone can understand. As a rabbi (Messianic), I have never been more encouraged than in the last 5 years by the massive interest in the foundations of the Bible (Pentateuch) and development forward from Abraham to Sinai to David to Prophets and Sages to Yeshua (Jesus). Let’s read it forward (not backwards).

  • I find the emphasis of McKnight and Wright that Jesus is the fulfilment of Israel’s story really helpful, but it does not provide a full explanation. An important question is left hanging. The big question is this. Why did God choose to work through Israel, if he knew it was going to fail to fulfil its calling, and that he would have to send his son to get the job done anyway.

    I approach this through “authority” rather than “story”. The problem the gospels are resolving is an authority one. Who is in charge on earth? The Gospel message is that God is being put back in charge on earth again. How could this happen without him trampling on human freedom and snatching back the authority on earth that he had given to us. Once we understand that the issue is authority on earth, it becomes clearer why the history of Israel is so important for the gospels.

    I would describe the problem that the Gospels are resolving this way. When God created the earth, he delegated authority over it to humans, without recourse. When humans sinned, they handed authority over the earth to the forces of evil. We underestimate the significance of this authority shift. God was outlawed from his own world, by the people he created and empowered. He could only intervene in the world, if humans gave him permission, and not many did, because they were captivated by evil.

    God chose Abraham and Israel, because he needed a people to give him authority to act on earth, and to provide him with a place where he could launch his plans to redeem the world, without the constant risk of being squeezed out, before he was finished. Abraham and his descendants provided him (intermittently) with the authority he needed to intervene on earth. Israel provided a place from which he could expand out his work of restoration.

    God needed a place where he could operate with more freedom than he usually has on earth. Israel was not ideal, but it provided something that he could work with. I explain this more fully at Gods Big Strategy ( When Jesus came to earth as a baby, he came to a place where God had permission to intervene to support his life and ministry. Israel made the Incarnation safe.

  • Blessed Economist:

    Your “authority” theology doesn’t work for me. Also, in what sense was Israel a failure? I know you meant nothing disparaging about us Jews when you said that (I give you the benefit of the doubt). Jewish people still cling to thousands of years old traditions and cohere as a people. Carnal election (you are born into it) is the term used by Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod, and it works. It sure did bring the Bible and Messiah to the world and God isn’t through with us Jews yet. Furthermore, I don’t think God is concerned at all about authority, but with creating and consummating his creation. Through one family to all of earth’s families God blesses humanity and moves us forward toward the world to come.

  • davey

    Story gospel and King Jesus gospel – I don’t think so! We don’t want a King Jesus, we want a servant Jesus and a friend Jesus (John Chs 13 and 15). Of course we want to know God’s in charge, but He’s always been that. But what have we to do with kings? It’s an ancient category, that’s of no use. People think of themselves and their societal organisations differently now, and quite right (of course there are always throwbacks!). And we are not the continuation of the story of ethnic Israel. Ethnic Israel was always under judgement, it had nothing to do with the promises to Abraham of Jesus. At best it was a sort of vehicle for true Israel and for information about God and what He was doing. Now as for true Israel within ethnic Israel, we are not a continuation of their story. They were always of the same status as ourselves, just happening to precede us in time, but then all Christians between Jesus and us preceded us in time.

  • Dana

    Norman said on April 13, 2012 at 8:20 am:

    “I don’t really buy Wrights idea that we are heading toward a utopia established here on earth some day in the future which is setting up the same idea of ‘life after death in Heaven.'”

    I don’t think that NTW suggests anything like what you’re saying here. He dismisses any notion of some sort of progressive, postmillenial-style utopia on earth, flat out rejecting such an idea in his “Evil and the Justice of God” (135 and throughout).

    And he certainly doesn’t espouse any sort of notion that we’re headed toward any “life after death in heaven.” He wrote an entire book debunking that idea in his “Suprised By Hope.”