Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament: A Review


NOTE: This book review was an assignment my Old Testament 1 class at Criswell College. 

How do the Hebrew law, writings, and prophets tell of the coming Messiah? Christopher Wright shows through his work, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, that the Hebrew Old Testament tells the story which Jesus completes (2). Wright, an Anglican minister in England has served for just over a decade as the Director of International Ministries for the Langham Partnership International, the international fellowship of famed theologian John Stott. Prior to his current role, Wright served as an Anglican pastor, missionary, and academician. It was during his time at All Nations Christian College that write penned this work as well as its counterparts Knowing God Through the Old Testament and Knowing the Holy Spirit Through the Old Testament.

Through thorough examination of Scripture, Wright explores the connection of Jesus to His Old Testament story, promise, identity, mission, and values. In doing so, Wright clearly explains that the more you understand the Old Testament, the closer you will come to the heart of Jesus (108)­.

Summary

Knowing-Jesus

Wright examines Christ in the Old Testament through five critical lenses beginning first with Jesus and the Old Testament story. Wright shows how the genealogy found in Matt 1:1-17 actually is more than simply a list of names in a family tree. It is a history of the Hebrew nation dating back to the Father of the Nation—Abraham. Wright does this so that the reader may understand that Christ is understood properly when He is seen in light of the story of Israel, which He completes and brings to its climax (2).

Not only does Jesus complete the story of the Old Testament, He fulfills the promises found in the Old Testament. With this lens, Wright uses five scenes from Jesus’ childhood to demonstrate how five critical promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled. Wright is careful to delineate these promises from mere historical predictions by pointing out that the promises were made to the nation of Israel, not about them (65). The third lens Wright studies Jesus through is His identity as the Son of God. While this name may be one we find rote and seemingly understood today, to first century Jews, this was quite a claim. However, Jesus backed up this claim and Matthew was quick to show that in his account of Jesus’ baptism when he wrote “This is my beloved Son. I take delight in Him” (Matt 3:17 HCSB). Through this lens, Wright shows the internal self-identity of Jesus Himself (109).

Next is the mission of Jesus. This is where Wright flashes his brilliant scholarship. One of the leading missiologists in the world, Wright uses this chapter to show not only how Christ saw his mission and took clues from the Old Testament, but how the same mission Jesus had impacts how modern Christians must live out our own mission (174). The Old Testament set forth a mission. A mission which Jesus accepted as the driving aim of his own life and then entrusted to his followers (180). That mission Jesus entrusted to his followers is the very same mission the church has today—to know God and to make Him known. The final lens through which Wright examines the Old Testament connection to Jesus is through His values. The crux of Jesus’ values was found in the Shema (Deut 6:4-5). The Israelites were to have one Lord, one love, and one loyalty (186). They failed at times, but Jesus fulfilled these values to their greatest extent—even through His death on a cross.

In doing so, He also fulfilled the Old Testament laws. These laws were given for the people’s sake, not for God’s sake (206). Yet the people had forsaken them. Jesus, again, fulfilled them. After establishing Jesus fulfillment of the law, Wright moves to another major focal point of the Old Testament and concludes this section by comparing and contrasting Jesus as the true and better prophet of Israel. Wright emphatically demonstrates that the Old Testament tells the story which Jesus completed, declares the promise He fulfilled, provides the models which shaped His identity, programs a mission Christ accepted and passed on, and taught a moral orientation to God and the world (252).

Critical Evaluation

Wright’s evaluation that Christ is the embodiment of the Old Testament law, values, mission, and story, is one met with great enthusiasm from some, and great caution from others. Those sharing Wright’s reformed theological perspective tend to share his view of Christ as the focal point of the entire metanarrative of the Bible. The storylines of creation-fall-redemption-consummation and God-man-Christ-response both intersect at the coming of Jesus. Wright’s theological persuasion notwithstanding, one can see those paradigms in the Bible when looking at it as one grand story. What Wright does well is begin with New Testament events the reader is familiar with and expose the contextual meaning those events displayed to the Jews in the first century A.D. While the modern reader might see Matthew’s genealogy as just a list of strange-sounding names, this genealogy anchors Jesus to the history of the Jewish nation (3). It reminds the reader that Israel’s very reason for existence was to bring blessing to the rest of humanity (4). Jesus is that blessing. And Wright never loses sight of that.

Wright’s goal is to show Christ as the personification of the future hope the nation of Israel was searching for through its creation, enslavement, exodus, settling, exile, and return (7). He accomplishes this through the use of typology while staying short of allegory. Some in the Christian church avoid typology and see Scripture as simply a collection of writings that are seen simply as historical narrative or historical poetry. Wright’s perspective is that using typology is essential to understanding Christ and what God is doing throughout the entirety of Scripture. The correspondence between the Old and New Testament is not merely analogous, but points to the repeating patterns of God’s actual activity in history (114).

In speaking of typology, Wright also is careful to caution against prefiguring and foreshadowing. With these methods of interpretation, there is a tendency to indulge in fanciful attempts to interpret every detail of and Old Testament “type” as in some way a foreshadowing of some other obscure detail about Jesus (115). This caution is a wise one. For those who take typology too far, a disconnect between the historical reality of Old Testament texts and the over-interpretation of them is present and leads to hypersensitive view of the Old Testament. A piece of silver can’t just be a piece of silver in this interpretation method. It somehow must represent the silver Judas took when he betrayed Jesus.

In addition to his needed warning against both prefiguring and foreshadowing, Wright wisely provides one final caution on using typology to interpret the Old Testament. He carefully points out that typology is a way to better understand Jesus in the light of the Old Testament. It is not the exclusive way to understand the full meaning of the Old Testament itself (116). This might be the single greatest strength of Wright’s work. In this section, he clearly articulates the why and the how of typology as well as the need for balance. This section embodies the argument he sets forth in the entire book. There is a why—we need a greater understanding of who Jesus was, what he did, and how it is connected to the Old Testament.  There is a how—by examining the details found in the synoptic Gospels, we see their connection with God’s historical and eschatological plan for both the nation of Israel and the church.

Finally, Wright shows the need—we understand Christ’s significance for today when we understand His context from throughout history. This balance is advocated by more scholars than just Wright. In his book, The Word Became Flesh, former professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Dale Ralph Davis writes:

[T]he whole Old Testament bears witness to Christ; and, the Old Testament does not bear witness only to Christ . . . I think Jesus is teaching that all parts of the Old Testament testify to the Messiah in his suffering and glory, but I do not think Jesus is saying every Old Testament passage/text bears witness to him . . . [Jesus] did not say that every passage spoke of him. Therefore, I do not feel compelled to make every Old Testament (narrative) passage point to Christ in some way because I do not think Christ himself requires it.[1]

This caution shared by Davis complements and affirms that espoused by Wright in his work and could be argued as the predominant view by those who share Wright’s theological view of Scripture.

In setting up Jesus’ identity, Wright clearly ties that to His mission—to restore the nation of Israel and fulfill the covenant made with Abraham that God would bless the entire world through His people. He simply states: [Jesus] was sent (136). Wright’s seminal work, The Mission of God, is based on this premise of being sent and is anchored in John 20:21. God is a sending God. Jesus was sent into the world to accomplish restoration. Now, the church is sent out to the world to serve the world and to draw them to salvation through Christ.

Other reviews tend to be in agreement with Wright’s assessment of Jesus in the Old Testament stating that “Wright’s linkage of a deeper understanding of Jesus with our understanding of the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, is an important point often lost in many of today’s churches by many of today’s Christians.[2]” Others also emphasize the importance of Wright’s topic as it pertains to preaching. Paul Alexander writes “It can help us avoid becoming practical Marcionites, only ever preaching from the New Testament because we think the Old is an optional introduction at best. If you find yourself hesitant to preach Christ from the Old Testament, Wright will not only show you how to do it – he’ll make you want to do it.[3]” Regardless of ones role as a pastor, preacher, academician, or student, one can greatly benefit from this work as Wright masterfully weaves the Old Testament and New Testament together using their central character, Jesus, to do so.

Conclusion

There are several ways of understanding the Bible—and even more ways of interpreting it. Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament provides an excellent paradigm for seeing Christ as the central figure through the grand metanarrative of Scripture. It thoroughly accomplishes the author’s goal of showing how the Hebrew law, writings, and prophets tell of the coming Messiah. One cannot help but to walkaway from Wright’s book not just understanding Jesus in the light of Scripture, but understanding Scripture in light of Jesus (117).


[1] Dale Ralph Davis, The Word Became Flesh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative (RossShire, UK: Mentor, 2006) 134-35.

[2] Ken Stockdell, Jr., Review of Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament by Christopher J.H Wright, Covenant Theological Seminary, 2009): 1.

[3] Paul Alexander, “Book Review: Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament” 9Marks Journal, http://www.9marks.org/books/book-review-knowing-jesus-through-old-testament (accessed September 19, 2013).