By N.T. Wright
The whole New Testament assumes that Israel was chosen to be the people through whom the creator God would address and solve the problems of the whole world. Salvation is of the Jews. The early Christians believed that the one true God had been faithful to that promise and had brought salvation through the king of the Jews, Jesus himself. Israel was called to be the light of the world; Israel’s history and vocation had devolved on to Jesus, solo. He was the true Israel, the true light of the whole world.
But what did it mean to be the light of the world? It meant, according to John, that Jesus would be lifted up to draw all people to himself. On the cross, Jesus would reveal the true God in action as the lover and savior of the world. It was because Israel’s history with God and God’s history with Israel came to its climax in Jesus, and because Jesus’ story reached its climax on Calvary and with the empty tomb, that we can say: here is the light of the world. The Creator has done what he promised. From now on we are living in the new age, the already-begun new world. The light is now shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
This means that the church, the followers of Jesus Christ, live in the bright interval between Easter and the final great consummation. Let’s make no mistake either way. The reason the early Christians were so joyful was because they knew themselves to be living not so much in the last days (though that was true too) as in the first days—the opening days of God’s new creation. What Jesus did was not a mere example of something else, not a mere manifestation of some larger truth; it was itself the climactic event and fact of cosmic history. From then on everything is different.
But it would be equally mistaken to forget that after Easter, after Pentecost, after the fall of Jerusalem, the final great consummation is still to come. Paul speaks of this in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15: the creation itself will receive its exodus, will be set free from its slavery to corruption, death itself will be defeated, and God will be all in all. Revelation 21 speaks of it in terms of new heavens and new earth.
In all of these scenarios, the most glorious thing is of course the personal, royal, loving presence of Jesus himself. I still find that among the most moving words I ever sing in church are those in the old Christmas carol “Once in Royal David’s City”: And our eyes at last shall see him, Through his own redeeming love.
Blessed, says Jesus, are those who have not seen yet believe; yes, indeed, but one day we shall see him as he is and share the completed new creation that he is even now in the process of planning and making. We live, therefore, between Easter and the consummation, following Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and commissioned to be for the world what he was for Israel, bringing God’s redemptive reshaping to our world.
Christians have always found it difficult to understand and articulate this, and have regularly distorted the picture in one direction or the other. Some suppose God will simply throw the present world in the trash can and leave us in a totally different sphere altogether. There is then really no point in attempting to reshape the present world by the light of Jesus Christ. Armageddon is coming, so who cares about acid rain or third-world debt?
That is the way of dualism; it is a radically anti-creation viewpoint and hence is challenged head on by (among many other things) John’s emphasis on Easter as the first day of the new week, the start of God’s new creation.
On the other hand, some have imagined we can actually build the kingdom of God by our own hard work. This is sorely mistaken. When God does what God intends to do, this will be an act of fresh grace, of radical newness. At one level it will be quite unexpected, like a surprise party with guests we never thought we would meet and delicious food we never thought we would taste. But at the same time there will be a rightness about it, a rich continuity with what has gone before so that in the midst of our surprise and delight we will say, “Of course! This is how it had to be, even though we’d never imagined it.”
So I send you.
Right at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, in verse 58, Paul says something that could seem like an anticlimax. Rather than a shout of praise at the glorious future that awaits us, which would be appropriate, Paul writes: “Therefore, my beloved family, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, inasmuch as you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
What is he saying? Just this: that part of the point of bodily resurrection is that there is vital and important continuity as well as discontinuity between this world and that which is to be, precisely because the new world has already begun with Easter and Pentecost, and because everything done on the basis of Jesus’ resurrection and in the power of the Spirit already belongs to that new world. It is already part of the kingdom-building that God is now setting forward in this new week of new creation.
That is why Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 of Jesus as the foundation and of people building on that foundation with gold, silver, or precious stones, or as it may be, with wood, hay, and stubble. If you build on the foundation in the present time with gold, silver, and precious stones, your work will last. In the Lord your labor is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that is soon going over a cliff.
Nor, however, are you constructing the kingdom of God by your own efforts. You are following Jesus and shaping our world in the power of the Spirit. And when the final consummation comes, the work that you have done—whether in Bible study or biochemistry, whether in preaching or in pure mathematics, whether in digging ditches or in composing symphonies—will stand, will last.
The fact that we live between, so to speak, the beginning of the End and the end of the End, should enable us to come to terms with our vocation to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel, and in the power of the Spirit to forgive and retain sins. The foundation Paul writes of in 1 Corinthians 3 is unique and unrepeatable. If you try to lay a foundation again, you are committing apostasy.
The church has so often read the Gospels as the teaching of timeless truths that it has supposed that Jesus did something for his own day, and that we simply have to do the same—to teach the same truths or to live the same way for our own day. Jesus, on this model, gave a great example; our task is simply to imitate him. By itself that is a radical denial of the Israel-centered plan of God and of the fact that what God did in Jesus the Messiah was unique, climactic, and decisive. People who think like that sometimes end up making the cross simply the great example of self-sacrificial love instead of the moment within history when the loving God defeated the powers of evil and dealt with the sin of the world, with our sin, once and for all. That is, once more, to make the gospel good advice rather than good news.
Before you can say “as Jesus to Israel, so the church to the world,” you have to say “because Jesus to Israel, therefore the church to the world.” What Jesus did was unique, climactic, decisive.
Receive the Spirit.
But once the foundation is laid, it does indeed provide the pattern, the shape, the basis for a building to be constructed. Our task is to implement Jesus’ unique achievement. We are like the musicians called to play and sing the unique and once-only-written musical score. We don’t have to write it again, but we have to play it. Or, in the image Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 3, we are now in the position of young architects discovering a wonderful foundation already laid by a master architect and having to work out what sort of a building was intended. Clearly he intended the main entrance to be here; the main rooms to be on this side, with this view; a tower at this end; and so on. When you study the Gospels, looking at the unique and unrepeatable message, challenge, warning, and summons of Jesus to Israel, you are looking at the unique foundation upon which Jesus’ followers must now construct the kingdom-building, the house of God, the dwelling place for God’s Spirit.
In case anyone should think this is all too arbitrary, too chancy, we are promised at every turn that the Spirit of the master architect will dwell in us, nudging and guiding us, correcting mistakes, warning of danger ahead, enabling us to build—if only we will obey—with what will turn out to have been gold, silver, and precious stones. “As the Father sent me, so I send you…receive the Holy Spirit.” These two go together. Just as in Genesis, so now in the new Genesis, the new creation, God breathes into human nostrils his own breath, and we become living stewards, looking after the garden, shaping God’s world as his obedient image-bearers. Paul, indeed, uses the image of the gardener alongside that of the builder in 1 Corinthians 3. We are to implement Jesus’ unique achievement. This perspective should open the Gospels for us in a whole new way. Everything that we read there tells us something about the foundation upon which we are called to build. Everything, therefore, gives us hints about what sort of a building it is to be. As Jesus was to Israel, so the church is to be for the world.
But, you say, the people we minister to, the people we work with in the laboratory or the fine arts department, the people who serve us in the grocery store or who work in the power station, are not first-century Jews. How can we summon them as Jesus summoned his contemporaries? How can we challenge them in the same way? What is the equivalent? What is the key to help us to translate Jesus’ message into our own?
The key is that humans are made in the image of God. That is the equivalent, on the wider canvas, of Israel’s unique position and vocation. And bearing God’s image is not just a fact, it is a vocation. It means being called to reflect into the world the creative and redemptive love of God. It means being made for relationship, for stewardship, for worship—or, to put it more vividly, for sex, gardening, and God.
Human beings know in their bones that they are made for each other, made to look after and shape this world, made to worship the one in whose image they are made. But like Israel with her vocation, we get it wrong. We worship other gods and start to reflect their likeness instead. We distort our vocation to stewardship into the will to power, treating God’s world as either a gold mine or an ashtray. And we distort our calling to beautiful, healing, creative, many-sided human relationships into exploitation and abuse.
Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud described a fallen world in which money, power, and sex have become the norm, displacing relationship, stewardship, and worship. Part of the point of postmodernity under the strange providence of God is to preach the Fall to arrogant modernity. What we are faced with in our culture is the post-Christian version of the doctrine of original sin: all human endeavor is radically flawed, and the journalists who take delight in pointing this out are simply telling over and over again the story of Genesis 3 as applied to today’s leaders, politicians, royalty, and rock stars. Our task, as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to the world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to the world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to the world that knows only exploitation, fear, and suspicion.
Humans were made to reflect God’s creative stewardship into the world. Israel was made to bring God’s rescuing love to bear upon the world. Jesus came as the true Israel, the world’s true light, and as the true image of the invisible God. He was the true Jew, the true human. He has laid the foundation, and we must build upon it. We are to be the bearers both of his redeeming love and of his creative stewardship: to celebrate it, to model it, to proclaim it, to dance to it.
N.T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham for the Church of England, and the author of dozens of books on New Testament scholarship. This article was taken from The Challenge of Easter. Originally found in The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was & Is by N. T. Wright. Copyright (c) 1999 by N. T. Wright. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.