N.T. Wright on How to Study the New Testament for All its Worth

Excerpted from The New Testament in its World By N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird Zondervan, November 2019. Used with permission.


How do we understand the narrative, the real-life story of God in the New Testament? How should we view the story which reached its ultimate climax in Jesus of Nazareth and which then flows out, in the power of the Spirit, to transform the world with his love and justice? How do we let the poetry of the early Christians, whether it’s the short and dense poems we find in Paul or the complex imagery of the book of Revelation, transform our imaginations so we can start to think in new ways about God and the world, about the powers that still threaten darkness and death, and about our role in implementing the victory of Jesus? How do we make the New Testament matter? How do we study the New Testament for all its worth?

The answer is that we must learn to study the New Testament with a view to making it matter in our lives, our churches, and our communities. Jesus insisted that we should love God with our minds, as well as our hearts, our souls, and our strength. Devotion matters, but it needs direction; energy matters, but it needs information. That’s why, in the early church, one of the most important tasks was teaching. Indeed, the Christian church has led the way for two thousand years in making education in general, and biblical education in particular, available to all people. A good many of the early Christians were functionally illiterate, and part of the glory of the gospel then and now is that it was and is for everyone. There shouldn’t be an elite who ‘get it’ while everybody else is simply going along with the flow. So Jesus’ first followers taught people to read so that they could work out and live out the Jesus-story for themselves. That’s why the New Testament was and is for everyone.

By contrast with most of the ancient world, early Christianity was very much a bookish culture. We sometimes think of the Christian movement as basically a ‘religion’; but a first-century observer, blundering in on a meeting of Christians, initially would almost certainly have seen them as belonging to some kind of educational institution, a type of school. This is the more remarkable in that education in that world was mostly reserved for the rich, for the elite.

This bookish culture, by the way, is why Christianity was a translating faith from the beginning. The movement went out very early on from circles where Aramaic was the main language into the larger Greek-speaking world. From there, it quickly moved north-west into Latin-speaking areas, and south and east into regions where Coptic or Ethiopic were dominant.

But, behind and beyond all that, the reason there’s a New Testament at all is because of Jesus himself. Jesus never wrote anything, so far as we know. But what he did and said, and particularly his claim to be launching God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven, and his vocation to die a horrible death to defeat the powers of darkness and bring God’s new creation into being with his resurrection – all this meant what it meant within its original setting. And that setting was the ancient story of Israel, and the ongoing hopes and longings of the Jews of Jesus’ day for God’s coming kingdom that would bring that ancient story to its long-awaited conclusion. But, from quite early in the movement, most of Jesus’ followers were not from that Jewish world. They needed to be told not only that ‘Jesus died for your sins’, but also that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah and that the meaning of his death was the messianic meaning, to be found in the long story of Israel’s scriptures: in other words, as Paul puts it, summarizing the very early ‘gospel’, that the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures. And to explain what that meant, and how it worked out in practice, four people took it prayerfully upon themselves to tell the story of Jesus in such a way as to bring out its different aspects. Several others, and one person in particular namely Paul, wrote letters to churches which discussed particular issues that needed to be addressed. And one man, out of persecution and prayer and a mind and heart soaked with the scriptures, was granted a breathtaking vision of heaven and earth coming together and Jesus at the middle of it all. Welcome to the New Testament.

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Source: Church Leaders