Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament by Christopher J.H. Wright. Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 1992, 256 pp, softcover.

Dr. Christopher J.H. Wright introduces the importance of the Old Testament to New Testament Christians by presenting the unfolding prophetic events that accompany the arrival of the Son of God that are fulfilled perfectly, but in a manner that Israel does not fully understand. The reader is introduced to the mindset of Jesus Christ whose spiritual growth and understanding to His identity, purpose, and destiny unfolds through His reflection and revelation of the Old Testament. Christ is prophetically expressed as the promised Messiah, and according to the author, fulfills Israel’s covenants through the establishment of His church.

Summarization of the Book

The author presents the need to examine the self-understanding of Christ through His connection with Old Testament exegesis that He fully interprets as His self-identity is revealed to Himself and Believers. Wright develops his major theme of the absolute need to understand the Old Testament connection with the Lord Jesus Christ to understand Christ fully. The Lord’s teachings in relationship to Old Testament Scripture are expounded, and His New Testament instructions are shown to be the fulfillment of Law, rather than a new faith requirement separate from the older Testament. He also stresses that the fulfillment of some prophesy associated with Israel should not be interpreted literally, but rather, understood as an unfolding of events leading to the coming of Christ in ways not understood by the initial receivers of the promises made by God. Consistent throughout the book is the idea that Israel is replaced by the Church through the full development of the Covenant that is difficult for the original holders of the promises to understand.

The Lord Jesus Christ is presented in humanistic terms with a focus upon discoveries of His fulfillment of Old Testament promises,[1] His self-identity discoveries, [2] His Old Testament mission carried forth to the New Testament,[3] and the development of His Old Testament Values.[4] Wright constructs his arguments for Christ’s human revelations with the backdrop of specific Scriptures within the Old Testament that plausibly influence His development as the Son of Man; he also lists specific examples used by Christ to teach Believers the will of His Father. Dr. Wright also carefully constructs a covenant line that shows his belief of the fulfillment of the promises given to Israel but realized and completed through Christ’s church.

Dr. Wright’s major thesis is that “the Old Testament tells the story which Jesus completes,”[5] Christ is the climax of the unfolding Old Testament story,[6] and it is His deep spiritual roots in handling the Hebrew scriptures that is the “most essential key to understanding who he was, why he came and what he taught.”[7] The thesis of Jesus Christ’s humanness is woven throughout Wright’s writings, with the declaration that in Christ is the end time climax of Old Testament promise and the reason for the words of the Old Testament from the beginning.

Critical Interaction

Dr. Wright’s position reflects Replacement Theology, declaring the Church as the replacement to Israel, which is a popular view of the early church that predates Covenant Theology,[8] but also continues from the middle of the second century A.D. to today as a consensus among many churches.[9] Also, prominent theological concepts of salvation, redemption, and the choosing by God are addressed with both the Old Testament and New Testament promises.

Wright leans toward Replacement Theology, also known as Supersessionist Theology; this is the teaching of both the Roman Catholic Church and Martin Luther, who said “The Jews have lost this promise, no matter how much they boast of their father Abraham….They are no longer the people of God.”[10] While he is not as blatant in his statements, his position reflects his belief that Christ chose the Gentiles as His people, arguing against the idea that the Jew remains the Chosen People separated from Christians by their Covenant with the LORD God.

Wright rejects the literal two-covenant system where the Jews have one promise through their Covenant and the Gentiles another through Christ; instead, he believes that Jews can only be saved through acceptance of Christ as their Messiah and Lord, with the resulting salvation through faith required by all those who desire redemption and eternal life.[11]

Dr. Wright effectively presents his views, and develops an understandable progress of Christ as fulfillment of Israel’s covenants with His arrival. While Wright avoids the terminology that is familiar to the Replacement Theologists, his end conclusions do not fully support Christ’s intentions with Israel as recorded in the Word of God. Thus, his argument is presented soundly, but it has flaws that need to be defended further through solid Scripture exegesis.

Also, footnotes were deliberately omitted by Dr. Wright in his authorship of this book. The lack of references was glaringly apparent when a deeper theological examination became necessary; this forces readers to refer to the Bibliography and try to guess where many of these opinions originated.

Critical Weaknesses of Wright’s Views

One factor in applying a Replacement Theology removes the original promises and covenants that the LORD God made with Israel, and reapplying those covenants to Christian believers. Matthew 21:43 is an important verse for the replacement system, because theorists claim this proves that Christ invoked a transfer of the Chosen people of God from Israel to the church.[12] It is critical for proof of this position to prove that a permanent rejection of Israel is the meaning of this verse, and that this “nation” will be given to the church, not the Jews. While most Theologists agree that a rejection of Israel is made by Christ, there is vast disagreement of the length of time this will occur; those who believe it is only a temporary rejection leave open the chance for future restoration.[13]

Also, Christ believes in a future restoration of Israel; Matthew 19:28 shows Christ speaking to His disciples about the thrones from which they would occupy in their judgment of the twelve tribes of Israel.[14] When these two criteria are applied, Wright’s position of the replacement of Israel does not conform fully to Christ’s stated view from the Word of God. Matthew 23:37-39 shows Christ looking toward the future restoration of Israel using the word “until” that shows Israel will one day come to Him for blessings. Stanley D. Toussaint writes, “It is extremely important for one to note that Christ’s rejection of Israel is not an eternal one. The word ‘until’ of verse thirty-nine together with the following statement affirms that Christ will come again to a repentant nation to establish the promised millennial kingdom.” [15]

Summary of other Reviews

The most scholarly of three discoverable full-text reviews of Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament contrasts Wright’s writings with two other books concerning this subject. Frank Thielman points out that Wright believes “Jesus is God’s Son in the Gospels in the same way that Israel is God’s son in the Old Testament, with the crucial difference that whereas Israel rebelled against its Father, Jesus was obedient.”[16] Stanley Horton identifies the theology of Wright as reflecting a replacement theology in the expression of his belief in the relationship of Jesus with the Old Testament.[17] Also, Long believes strongly that Wright accomplished his thesis to prove the Old Testament reflective of the heart of Jesus.[18]

Author David E. Holwerda wrote Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two? (Eerdmans, 193 pp.). This book identifies Israel as Jesus fulfilled, but stresses that there still remains ethnic differences between Christians and Jews. Holwerda believes that unbelieving Jews continue to hold a special place in God’s saving works. [19] The Messiah in the Old Testament, by Walter C. Kaiser Jr. (Zondervan, 235 pp.) finds references to the Messiah in numerous Scripture of the Old Testament, and charges that Israel would not understand these references because they were like the two on the Emmaus road, “ignorant and slow in heart to believe everything the prophets spoke” (Luke 24:25).[20] All three books enlighten believers substantially in the fulfillment of Christ that is fully reflected in the first and oldest Testament.

Students, scholars, laymen, pastors, and believers would do well in both reading Wright’s book, and analyzing its contents. From a scholar’s perspective, Wright’s work is not complete; however, the general ideas expressed about Jesus as reflected in the Old Testament are worthy for contemplation and application. Pastors would benefit by forming a discourse of many of the concepts within this book, especially those that bring Christ’s human being in fuller light. Scholars must surely start with the thesis of this book, to form a beginning place of meeting Christ in the places He dwelled, both spiritually and mentally. Care should be taken, however, that exegesis of the concepts of Israel replacement by the Church is expressed with Biblical soundness.

Conclusion

Dr. Wright says that Christians cannot fully know the Lord Jesus Christ unless they examine the Old Testament influence upon Him. He effectively presents the need for Christians to connect the Old Testament with the New Testament and realize the necessary symbiosis between the two as a requirement for the Messiah and Lord Jesus Christ to come forth. However, his replacement theology, though seemingly more politically correct than most, is flawed when examined by Scripture; Christ’s words reflecting the future restoration of Israel in Matthew 23 disagree with the thesis development of Wright. While Christ may well be the fulfillment of Israel’s covenants, the author needs to contrast his views with the views of Replacement Theologists, and explain his position with scholarly reference that can be integrated fully with the Truth of the Word of God.

Dr. Christopher J.H. Wright received his Ph.D. from Cambridge; he is a mature biblical scholar who has a great deal of classroom experience in teaching critical theological issues.[21] He is the director of John Stott Ministries (Langham Partnership International). He is also the author of Old Testament Ethics for the People of God.

Footnotes

[1] Christopher J.H. Wright, Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 1992), 55-101.

[2] Ibid., 103-129.

[3] Ibid., 136-179.

[4] Ibid., 181-248.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Ibid., 3.

[8] H. Wayne House, “The Future of National Israel,” in Bibliotheca Sacra(Dallas, TX: Dallas Theological Seminary, 2009), 467-468.

[9] Michael J. Vlach, “Has the Church Replaced Israel in God’s Plan?,” in Conservative Theological Journal(Fort Worth, TX: Tyndale Theological Seminary, 2000), 7-8.

[10] House, 467-468.

[11] Wright, 176-177.

[12] Vlach, 18.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew (Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1980), 265-266.

[16] Frank Thielman, “Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament,” Christianity Today 40, no. 3 (1996): 61.

[17] Stanley M Horton, “Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 2 (1997): 287-22.

[18] V Philips Long, “Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament,” Presbyterian 19, no. 1 (1993): 61-62.

[19] Thielman: 58.

[20] Ibid., 61.

[21] Ibid.