Jesus as God — but which God?

One of the career-long projects of N.T (Tom) Wright has been the “question of God,” and if you read his New Testament and the People of God you will remember his use of the lower case “god” in that book as he was setting up a major proposal as his (now) three volume set develops. (The other books are: Jesus and the Victory of God and The Resurrection of the Son of God, with volume four on Paul now finding its way to completion as Tom chips away at it in St. Andrews.)

What has been your approach? Know God, see God in Jesus? or Know Jesus, see God? What happens to “theology” if Jesus is the revelation of who God is and what God is like?

At the heart of that project was that too many folks said “This is who God is and what God is like, now does Jesus fit that?” In other words, many presume they know what God is like already. Wright’s proposal was to work the way around (and there are echoes of Barth here but in spite of digging I’ve not seen anything explicit about Barth in Wright): namely, since we know who Jesus and what he was like, and since he is the revelation of God, we now know who God is and what God is like.

In Wright’s newest book, How God Became King, Wright explores the image of needing four speakers all set to the right settings to hear the Gospels well. If the first speaker concerned the Story of Israel, which speaker has become all but muted, the second speaker is the Story of Israel’s God. And Wright contends this speaker has been set to way-too-loud, and it screeches “Jesus is God, we know who God is, the deity of Christ is what matters, the creeds tell us this.” So it’s a matter of proving Jesus is God and showing those who deny deity are wrong. Wright helpfully warns us that we have to avoid letting the Enlightenment set the terms of what “deity of Christ” means.

So he sketches the biblical story of God: temple, image of God, dwelling with Israel, withdrawing and coming back again to re-dwell in the Temple with Israel. So the Story is the Story of God returning to Zion to end the exile of Israel.

It is right here that Wright is making his major proposal on God: we are to read the Gospels as the Story of God’s returning to Israel, to Zion, to the Temple and Jesus is that presence of God. He calls this a “high” Jewish christology. The approach here is not “we know what deity means” but “Does Jesus fulfill those expectations of the return of God to Zion?”

Mark: begins on this very note, that is, with the return of God to Zion as prophesied by Isaiah, and this presence is in Jesus himself. He points to God to explain what he is doing. “Who is this?” drives people to the Old Testament to find passages about God (Mark 4:35-41; cf. Pss 65:7; 89:9; 107:28-29). God’s “son” is along these lines too.

Matthew and Luke: Wright traces Israel’s God coming to Israel and returning to Israel to explain passages like Matthew 1 (name is Yahweh is salvation, Immanuel – God with us) and 28 (I will be with you), and Luke’s “day of visitation” — both Gospel say essentially “seeing Jesus, thinking God”.

John: John connects Israel’s Story and new creation and new temple all in Jesus, who “tabernacles” with us in John 1 and who is the temple and who fulfills the festivals and feasts.

We get a different view of God and we get it because we are to see in Jesus the return of God to Israel, and therefore there is an altogether new kind of kingdom.

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  • Very mundane, but: great that the colour scheme is now sorted for iPad!

  • I really must read this. Thanks for flagging it up. It’s a theme that’s been on my mind for a good while now. What does discipleship look like when the God we pursue is dangerously close to an idol of our own construction? To take this to extremes involves a radical rejection of dogma. The creeds are ambiguous (as is orthodoxy). What should we make of a doctrinal statement that is employed in the suppression of dissent and downplays Jesus’ humanity?

  • Jerry

    I’m enjoying this book but it has given me much to ponder. I’ve always thought, know Jesus–know God. BUT, if Wright is right, we often do not know Jesus as the gospels actually portray him. We know Jesus as the creeds have described him or perhaps as Paul describes him or in a “Soterian” mode (your book, Scot).

  • James Petticrew

    So is Wright proposing a modified “functional christology?” …. Not opposed to that and I am sure I remember IH Marshall saying in a lecture that every functional christology has an assumed ontological christology, hope I am doing justice to him, it was a long time ago

  • I appreciated the way that NT Wright describes the story of Israel being fulfilled in Jesus ministry, but he does not deal with the role of Israel in the New Testament age. With his second speaker, Wright emphasises that God has returned to Israel in Jesus. He does not discuss the fact that after Jesus ascended out of Israel, Israel was sent into exile. Now some of Israel seems to have returned to the promised land, but God has not returned with them. Israel is back in a post-exillic limbo again. How does this fit within in God’s plan.

    This leaves some big questions. What is happening to Israel now? How will they be grafted back into the vine? When will that happen? What will be the impact on the Kingdom of God, and how will it bring blessing to the world. How does Israel come into the Kingdom of God, without reverting to the militaristic version of the Kingdom that Jesus rejected?

    The Wright account of the gospel does not answer these questions, although they are an important part of the story of Israel. The gospel was good news for Israel, not just good news for the world. To fully understand the gospel, we must understand how it is good news for Israel.

  • scotmcknight

    Andrew, not sure what you mean but it sounds a bit cheeky to say “very mundane” … what’s mundane?

  • Norman

    @Blessed Economist,
    I’m not sure you have understood Paul’s ideas about the grafting of Israel back into the root. Israel is not coming back into physical reality usurping the Kingdom that Christ has implemented. Paul defines for us in Rom 9 and Gal 3 whom now comprises (makes up) “true Israel” and it’s not a restoration of their physical kingdom but they are added back to the root just as you and I and anyone else is through faith in Christ who redeemed them.

    We need to be careful and not revert to the physical Kingdom ideas that Israel mistakenly believed was to transpire at the coming of Messiah. Christ turned that notion on its head and sometimes people today still are clinging to it.

  • Sam

    Norman, I disagree. I think the physical restoration is not just possible or likely when we look at scripture, but I think it’s actually taught. What’s more, it’s happening.

    What are the chances that after nearly 2000 years of exile, the Jewish people would finally return to their land in exact accordance with passages like Ezekiel 37?

    When the disciples ask at the beginning of Acts when God will return the Kingdom to Israel, Jesus does NOT say “do you still not understand, you fools?”, he says “it is not for you to know the times and the seasons, get on with preaching the gospel”.

    I take that to mean that the gospel should and has rightly gone to all nations and all people groups but once the “times of the Gentiles” are fulfilled THEN God will restore the Kingdom to Israel. By which I mean 1) they will have their homeland back and 2) they will come to know their messiah. I’m pleased to report both have happened in very modern times, and scripture is indeed still being fulfilled today.

    It’s a shame Wright doesn’t agree. I interviewed him here and put the question of Israel to him, but it didn’t make the final cut. While Wright may not agree with me, plenty of others do. Spurgeon for example was very big on the idea of Israel being physically restored. It’s people like him who give me hope that you can be 100% true to the gospel and communicate it well, while recognising that God has not finished with the Jewish people and eagerly await for their total spiritual restoration – which is now following their physical one. I believe this is what Paul and Jesus taught.

  • Art Balis

    I’m with Phil. Thanks for bringing this back to the top of the reading stack.
    it’s nice to see some of the bugs have worked out.

  • Norman


    I can’t begin to emphasize my total disagreement with your ideas. By stating that what was established through Christ was not sufficient and is in need of being completed physically is in my opinion one of the colossal mistakes of Christendom and has only gotten progressively worse. It boils down to the issue of how to read and interpret OT and NT language and symbolism that has a long history to help us define it. Like many today realize that you can’t take Genesis literally because it doesn’t mesh with physical reality nor theological as well so too does taking apocalyptic messianic fulfillment language literally in the NT. Take our cue from the book of Hebrews where the author demonstrates that covenant fulfillment of the Temple, sacrifices and OT ordinances were simply types providing a foretaste of the true spiritual nature of Israel to come. No indeed we do not revert back to the types that have been set aside by Christ.

    One also has to understand the contextual language of the NT times and realize that most if not all of their projections of coming were pointing to the OT type of judgment upon Judaism that was firmly established in Deut 28 and numerous other prophetic locations. This judgment was to occur in the believer’s lifetime and their language reflects that upcoming fulfillment happening soon. According to Josephus Judgment upon the Temple, priesthood and sacrificial systems occurred when Titus wiped Jerusalem’s slate clean in 70AD. The same kind of judgment that occurred around 600bc against the first temple putting Israel in exile.

    Hanging on to physical Judaism is misunderstanding g the messianic language of fulfillment in my opinion.

    I agree somewhat with Wright but he too falls into the over literalizing thinking that something literal is going to happen to planet earth at some point. Well the physical earth has a 4.5 billion year old history and as long as we don’t get wiped out via some natural causes we will continue to operate under the same laws of physics we always have. Hopefully those who have placed their hope in God and eternal life will be safe in His arms of promise where he has prepared rooms for us. Speculating how God handles our post mortem existence can easily get way out of line because the scriptures really don’t speak of the details. Those who think the bible does speak to the details simply haven’t paid attention to the defining application of that apocalyptic type language and what it is truly projecting.

    No the YEC literal view of Genesis is wrong along with the physicalizing view of messianic fulfillment which has been firmly established already IMO.

  • Sam

    Woah hang on a second, you seem to have completely misunderstood me. I’m not telling anyone to hang on to Judaism?!

    You say “By stating that what was established through Christ was not sufficient…” but I never said that? Of course Christ is sufficient.

    None of what I said contradicts the gospel that we both (presumably) believe in and share. I’m not taking anything away from the gospel, neither am I adding to it. I’m just saying that the Jewish people’s spiritual restoration (see Rom 11) is happening post their physical restoration, but both are of course on going. Where’s the controversy in that?

  • Kenton


    Thanks for this series. I’m still plowing through “Simply Jesus”, though, and by the time I get around to reading this one – and I really want to read this one – NTW will have 2 more books I will want to read. ARG!

    This Sam and Norman convo is really piquing my interest. My pastor spoke on Acts 1 this past Sunday and he also added the “notice that Jesus didn’t say that he wasn’t restoring the kingdom, just that no one could know the time” bit. I’m with Norman that that sort of thinking really misses the point, and it probably does boil down to the question of Know God see signs of it in Jesus/or see Jesus know who God is. Those who take the former view are more likely to see Jesus coming back, kicking butt, taking names and restoring a physical kingdom to Israel. Those who take the latter are more likely to see Jesus’ response in Acts 1 coming from a mind thinking, “Wow. Three years roaming all over, a crazy week in Jerusalem culminating in a freaking resurrection and they *still* don’t get it. I guess I better tell them that no one knows when that will happen’ to tide them over until they get it at pentecost.”

  • Norman


    Then we agree it’s not about ethnic National Israel being restored to a phsycial land but them individualy coming to rest in the promised land of Christ. I think Paul’s hope for their restoration continues to live in some of their remnant coming to Christ such as we see in the Messianci Jews.

  • Sam

    Ultimately yes that it is more important they come to know Jesus then get their land back.

    But I am not so bold as to presume their restoration in 1948 was not a fulfilment of prophecy. We revel in how accurately and specifically prophets like Isaiah predicted the birth, life and death of Jesus. Why do we find it so hard to revel in how accurately and specifically prophets like Ezekiel have predicted a second return from the four corners of the earth for the Jewish people?

    It’s really simple. God promises to bring them back to their land. THEN he promises to save them. See here – Ezekiel 36…

    I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions. 20 And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, ‘These are the LORD’s people, and yet they had to leave his land.’ 21 I had concern for my holy name, which the people of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone.

    22 “Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. 23 I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.

    24 “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.

    You see the result (salvation) is more important than the method (return to land).

    What amazes me is what we see today backs this scripture up wonderfully. Do you know that every year since Israel became a nation, the number of Messianic Jews has increased and increased? God has clearly brought them from the nations where he scattered them and saved them. And he has done it “for his holy name’s sake” because he is the God of Israel. This is something we should be rejoicing in, not doubting.

  • Kaleb


    If Jesus being the lens that we are able to see the character and essence of God through does that give the opportunity to re-read some of the ‘harder OT’ verses in light of the revelation of Jesus? Can we now read some of the OT as ascribing a nationalistic approach to how God deals with others in light of how Jesus shows that he actually deals with people? To make it more specific for example: Jesus walks up to a woman about to be stoned in accordance with the law that was given by God to Israel and stops the whole procession and pretty much condems it by saying none should do it unless they are without sin and the woman just walks away. This paints a completely different picture of God than what the law did; do you agree?

  • Joe Canner

    Kaleb, I was thinking along the same lines. We in the 21st century certainly need to understand God through the lens of Jesus because we don’t have a very good understanding of the language and cultural milieu of OT Judaism. However, I, too, wonder whether even 1st century Jews didn’t understand God very well and needed Jesus’ life to correct their understanding.

  • Sam,

    Yes this language of Ezekiel fits perfectly with what occurred and is recorded in the NT. I would indeed hope and believe that all Nations including the Jews would continue to flow into Christ. However it was just a remnant few then and as it has continued to be who come to Christ as redeemer. The shepherds of Israel (Priest) failed to feed their flock and to protect them and keep them in the faith and so they were scattered among the Nations but the remnant faithful (see Rom 10 & 11) were gathered back to God via the apostles as they were sent to the Nations and reunited true Israel under the banner of Christ the Messiah; then what Ezekiel said in chp 34 becomes true where Christ through His body of believers go out to reclaim the faithful of God in which Christ fulfills Gods statement that He will be the good shepherd finding his lost sheep. All Israel is saved through Christ but not all Israel is Israel; Christ sought out His sheep via the great commission that began the church and it was achieved through Him via the apostles and saints and the Helper called the Holy Spirit.

    Eze 34 10 Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.
    11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land.

    The lineage is not biological nor is the Land physical in the New Jerusalem which comes down from Heaven in which God now dwells with his people via the lamp of Christ. The new land and City are from on High without human rulers and priest. We have a better priest now who shepherds the flock. Paul knows that people think that it is a biological redemption in Rom 9 but he addresses the issues saying that the word of God has not failed just because people misunderstand its implications. True Israel is through the promise and is not through the flesh.

    Rom 9:For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers,[a] my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
    6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.

    So just exactly what is Israel going to accomplish for us today or in the future since they have been reclaimed to the physical Land? It seems to me that many a prognosticator has spent endless speculation on the 1948 return that has not caused anything but grief for the world so far. Tell me how is that return supposed to turn out in order for it to add to what Jesus Christ has already accomplished? Is it to bring forth Armageddon? I thought that happened to the Jews in AD70 in fulfillment of Christ prophecy against them who persecuted the church and in relief of the saints. Are they going to add something to Christ message of redemption that is somehow missing now? Or is it to usher in the tribulation and rapture scenes that populate the 1948 prophets of today like Hal Lindsey and the Left behind crowd. Or maybe it’s the crowd that supports flying in Jews from all over the world in order to bring on Armageddon in which most of these Jews will be annihilated. No I’m afraid the 1948 ideas are simply a can of worms for literal reading Christians who take apocalyptic messianic literature and turn it every which way but loose. It’s very easy to speculate with apocalyptic literature while it’s more difficult to study the literary genre and understand it for what it typologically is projecting. It’s easy to raise money and rouse people with Hagee’s message than it is to teach just the pure word of God’s redemption. It’s like the Joel Osteen prosperity gospel in which people aren’t satisfied with what Christ accomplished for them in the Gospel. They want more so they invent more than is there.

  • Phil – great thoughts. If you’d like to think more ablou the implications of this “Insurrection” by Peter Rollins is a must read. If you (or anyone else) reads it my advice is to go slowly, think a lot, and keep a charitable open mind. Great book.

  • Jon G

    Scot said “we are to see in Jesus the return of God to Israel, and therefore there is an altogether new kind of kingdom.”

    Scot, please don’t think I’m being provocative here, this is an honest question…doesn’t this sort of statement seem to make “God” the point and lessen the idea of a Trinity? In other words, this seems to place God in the center and Jesus as a tool or means to an end (God). This seems, to me, to diminish the idea of an equal status between Jesus and God and, rather, elevates a singular personage.

    Again, I’m asking because I’m not sure how you reconcile this…

  • PaulE

    John especially seems to recommend the “Know Jesus, see God” approach. But just as “many presume they know what God is like already”, so also many of us presume to know what Jesus is like already. Along these lines, I worry there is a tendency to disregard the OT as a revelation about Jesus Christ. We should not think, “Jesus is all about mercy, so those laws about stoning must not have been true revelation.”

    Jesus isn’t the story that supplants all the previous stories. His is the story that makes sense of all the other ones and helps us to see them as they really are. Or as he says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

  • Scot, I think Andrew meant that his comment might seem mundane, not that your post sounded mundane to him. (Andrew doesn’t seem like that kinda guy.)

  • …I think Andrew is just talking about the redesign of the site 8)

  • Norman and Sam
    Thank you for our comments. I am aware of Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11 and have written on the topic. I agree with much of what you both say.

    My point was slightly different. Messrs Wright and McKnight say that the coming of Jesus was the climax of the story of Israel. I do not understand how they can make that statement and not go on to discuss the future of Israel, particularly in books about the Kingdom of God. Jesus said some fairly stanch words to the people of Israel in Matt 23 and 24, but in the midst of that he promised hope for the future (Matt 23:29). This and other scriptures suggest that the story of Israel extends far beyond Jesus ministry on earth. If the story of Israel is important, and I agree that it is important for understanding, the Kingdom of God, then some discussion about the future of Israel seems to be essential. This lack seems to be a serious gap in their books.

    There is another important implication. The grafting back of Israel (whether spiritual or physical) brings blessing to the world. I presume that that blessing means greater fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. This suggests that the Kingdom of God is constrained during the times of the Gentiles. When the team is complete, the Holy Spirit will have much greater authority to work in the world. He will be free for the first time to do what needs to be done to bring Kingdom of God to a much greater fullness. He will do that without reverting back to the ugly Kingdom that Jews of Jesus time dreamed about. For me, this is an important dimension to the good news of the Kingdom.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Scot asked: “What has been your approach? Know God, see God in Jesus? or Know Jesus, see God? What happens to “theology” if Jesus is the revelation of who God is and what God is like?”

    OK all, this is the question before us, so let’s FOCUS.

    I began my quest for God in the Jesus story by reading the Gospels (_a la_ King Jimmy). In the midst of that I was “encountered” by God in a dream that directed me to seek truth primarily in scripture (O & NT canon). So, in a sense for me it was explicitly neither of the two alternatives posed in your question, Scot. For me “theology” began with an experience of the presence of God in my thoughts and dreams, then became a conscious quest for who God was and is through growing understanding of the particulars of the whole canon of scripture. That having been said, for me it was clearly a NT Gospels centered inspiration since I was pre-eminently reading there about the life of Jesus, and as such, Jesus was and is the revelation of God, the embodiment of the presence of God in saving love for His people and those who would be His people. Nevertheless, it was clearly a story that had a prequel.

    If one approaches the question of who God is through encounter with Jesus one engages a narrative that both includes and transcends the revelation of God as presented in the OT. We tend to call this “progressive revelation.” Full disclosure: my pre-conversion conception of Jesus was as the guy who loved and wouldn’t do anything to hurt anybody (a post WWII “Jesus wouldn’t have done it THAT way”). Realistically, most people have an approach to knowing God that has an implicitly preconceived idea of who God is because all they know is what they have been told or what they have heard preached. I am not conscious of my pre-conceptions about God as revealed in Christ, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t or don’t have them; that is the problem all of us have. The challenge before us is to deny our self-imposed preconceptions and seek to re-conceive God in conformity to the whole of the biblical witnesses He inspired about Himself. My impression is that both we evangelicals and liberals, conservatives and progressives, would all have to restructure our thinking if we thoroughly immersed ourselves in the God-revealed image in Christ.

    This doesn’t answer every or perhaps even many questions you might have, but it does present a context in which any and every question can be asked and perhaps answered without resorting to either/or approaches (however popular those may be!). 8>) Grace and peace to all in and through Christ.

  • Kaleb

    Paul E,

    You said, “But just as “many presume they know what God is like already”, so also many of us presume to know what Jesus is like already. Along these lines, I worry there is a tendency to disregard the OT as a revelation about Jesus Christ.”

    The difference between knowing what God is like and knowing what Jesus is like is that Jesus was observed as an actual human being. So when people presume to know what Jesus was like based on all his in person teachings in scripture and all of his actions that he took, I can hardly think that it is unfair or misrepresentative to think we can know what Jesus is like. I agree Jesus is the ultimate revelation of the OT, but that does not mean that we have to believe everything the OT says about how God interacts and feels towards others is correct. In Jesus I am able to see what the true Creator God is like and have a better understanding of the OT, since Jesus is the fulfillment and the capstone. That doesn’t mean the OT is not without great value, but some things are better understood now that we have the lens of Jesus to put on, where the OT folks did not have this full revelation.

    To make this into an example: I wonder how the stoning of an adulterer in the OT is a revelation of a Jesus who says the exact opposite to those about to fulfill this law. In this case if Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT does that mean Grace and Forgiveness were suppose to overide the law, since Jesus shows us how God responds to this situation? If grace and forgiveness are what God wanted then yes that is going to change my view of the OT and how some people responded to situations and what they thought God wanted of them.