A Summary of Chapter 3 of Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright

1. Introduction

This chapter is entitled “Messiah and Apocalyptic.” N.T. Wright intends to look at the concept of Messiahship and how Paul’s view of Jesus as the Messiah allows him to draw on Jewish apocalyptic thought. The apocalypse, or revealing, of the true Lord of the world challenges the claims of pagan empire and will be looked at further in chapter 4.

2. Jesus as Messiah in Paul

Wright summarizes Paul’s views of the Messiah in six points:

  1. The Messiah is a royal Messiah, the true king of Israel. Since Israel is the people of the one God this Messiah is the world’s true Lord.
  2. The Messiah will successfully fight the forces of evil and paganism on Israel’s behalf.
  3. The Messiah will build the Temple, the dwelling place of God.
  4. The Messiah will fulfill the messianic prophecies and usher in a new world.
  5. The Messiah will act as Israel’s representative.
  6. The Messiah will act as God’s representative to Israel and to the world.

Wright supports these points with brief allusions to a number of passages:

  • Romans 9.5 states that the Messiah is of the Jewish race.
  • Romans 10.4 states that the Messiah is the climax (telos) of the law.
  • Romans 1.3-4 states that David is Jesus’ ancestor. N.T. Wright, unlike some other scholars, does not believe that Paul inserted this reference to merely curry favor with Jewish Christians in Rome because: (a) Paul opened his letters with an eye towards what he wanted to say in the rest of the letter; (b) Paul draws out, especially in chapters 6-8, the implications of this statement; (c) Paul seems to allude to passages (Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7) which were messianic proof-texts at Qumran; and (d) in 15.12 Paul quotes Isaiah’s prophecy about the root of Jesse.
  • In Galatians 3-4 Paul views the law as a temporary stage until the coming of the Messiah, who brings history to its goal.
  • In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul draws on Psalms 8 and 110 to describe how the Messiah will conquer evil.
  • In 1 Corinthians 2.6-8 Paul sees Jesus as involved in the battle against the “rulers of this age.”
  • Colossians 2.14-15 also has the theme of a victorious battle.
  • 1 Corinthians views the church as the renewed Temple built by God on the foundation of Jesus the Messiah.
  • Paul also refers to Jesus as God’s son. Clearly it carried the messianic meaning it had for some Jewish groups of Paul’s time but it also meant something more. Drawing on the language of Wisdom and Torah (Gal 4.4; Rom 8.3, 32), Paul translates these gifts to his people in terms of divine sonship, thus making Jesus God’s representative to the world.

3. Apocalyptic in Paul

N.T. Wright proposes that Paul drew heavily on apocalyptic categories to contextualize and give specific focus to his theology of creation, covenant, and Messiah. Since there are different views as to what is meant by the term “apocalyptic” it is important to summarize Wright’s views.

He believes “apocalyptic characteristically speaks of the unveiling or revelation of mysteries, hidden secrets known in heaven but not before known on earth” (p. 52). In particular, the plan of God is revealed. In this sense we can see that Paul views the events surrounding Jesus, particularly his death and resurrection, as a revelation of God’s plan (e.g., Colossians 2; Ephesians 3.8-11). “One of the things which is ‘unveiled’ is precisely how the covenant plan has been worked out, how God has at last done what he said he would do, even though it doesn’t look like what anyone had thought it would” (p. 53).

Creation, covenant, Messiahship, and apocalyptic are brought together in Romans 1.17 (NRSV): “For in it [the gospel concerning the Messiah] the righteousness of God [his faithfulness to the covenant which is the plan through which creation will be liberated from evil] is revealed [apokalyptetai] through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

This leads to a tension in Paul’s thought between the fact that God always intended for things to happen as they happened and that even the most devout Israelite had never dreamed that it would happen like this.
“And at the heart of both parts of this tension stands the cross of the Messiah, at once the long-awaited fulfillment and the slap in the face for all human pride. Unless we hold on to both parts of this truth we are missing something absolutely central to Paul” (p. 54).

N.T. Wright does realize that Paul also believes that Jesus will come again as judge but does not offer a full review of the relevant passages in this book. However, our author does summarize his beliefs. First, parousia, often translated as “coming,” actually means “presence,” as opposed to “absence.” Second, 1 Thessalonians 4 does not speak of a rapture, but is meant to show that both those living and dead at the Messiah’s appearance will inherit the new age. Third, the language of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 evokes the scene of a ruler being met by the citizens of a city and escorted into the city. Thus Paul is looking forward to the Messiah’s triumphal return to earth where he shall reign. Fourth, some passages thought to refer to the final apocalypse were not intended to be taken that way. 1 Thessalonians 2:16 says that “at last” God’s wrath has come upon the inhabitants of Judea. When he tells the church in 2 Thessalonians not to be worried if they get a letter saying the Day of the Lord had arrived he clearly does not have the final judgment in mind.

This can be termed an inaugurated theology. The church is living both in God’s new world and in the present one. The age to come has arrived with Jesus but will be consummated in the future.

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