I was no stranger to the power of the Good News.
Growing up in Malaysia, I had front row seats to the ancient religions of the world. It was easy to compare the message of Christianity with the tenets of other faiths. In fact, my dad had grown up in a Hindu home and had converted to Christianity in order to marry my mother. At least, that’s how the story goes. But there was something compelling him toward Christ, something that drew him to the Gospel. It was the goodness of this news: Sins can be forgiven! We can be in relationship with the living God!
I had the good fortune of being raised in a home grounded in the goodness of this news. My parents have given the majority of their adult lives to telling others this good news—through their ministry of hospitality and prayer, through teaching and preaching, and through pastoral work. Our family moved to America in 1988 in order that my parents could attend a Bible College as part of their preparation for this life of pastoral ministry. After returning to Malaysia in 1991, I finished my high school education, and came back to the States in 1996 to attend college. Like my parents, I too studied theology as part of my preparation for a life devoted to teaching this Good News. I joined the staff at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the summer of 2000, leading worship, writing songs, and teaching in various contexts.
Was Something Wrong with the Good News?
But there was something not quite right about my understanding of the Good News. Like fairy tales that wrap up quickly with a sweeping, ‘and they lived happily ever after’, I was content for the Grand Story of the Gospel to end with a note about going to live with Jesus forever in Heaven.
And then there was the uneasy seam between the first part of the Story and the second, between the Old Testament and the New. The Good News the way I understood it had not required Jesus to be Jewish. So long as He was both God and Man, salvation was possible. True as this is, it left gaps in the story. Or, if you’d like: a bump in the middle and an untidy bow at the end.
Until I began reading N. T. Wright.
The first book I picked up was The Lord and His Prayer, and I remember thinking what an unusual take on the Lord’s Prayer it was. I had never considered those words in the context of Jewish expectation, Roman oppression, and a re-framed Messianic hope.
Then I read Simply Christian, which began to address the questions of the skeptic with a Story that was both grander and simpler than the one I had tried to stitch together. It wasn’t long after that I picked up Surprised by Hope, and everything began to change.
Three Ways Wright Unveiled the Grand Story of Scripture
It’s been almost a decade now of reading Wright—and I’ve read nearly everything he’s written (I say nearly because the man is so prolific it’s hard to keep up!). Wright’s account of Pauline eschatology even features prominently in my doctoral dissertation. But Wright’s work goes beyond academic learning for me; it has shaped my preaching and pastoral life. Though it can be tricky to nail down precisely how it has done this, I think there are at least three contours to his influence on my life and vocation.
The Scriptures tell a grand story.
I knew the chronology, but I had missed the Story. Wright often begins his works—whether they’re about Jesus or Paul—with a re-telling of Genesis 1 and 2 to highlight the vocation God gave to humans. He compares the image-bearing humans to an angled mirror: reflecting God’s wise and loving rule downward into the world, and reflecting creation’s grateful worship upward to God. This vocation was pushed off course when the first humans decided to disobey God.
Thus, for Wright, sin is not simply ‘doing bad things’, but rather a failure of vocation—we have not worshipped rightly, nor have we rightly reflected God’s love into the world.Thus, for Wright, sin is not simply ‘doing bad things’, but rather a failure of vocation—we have not worshipped rightly, nor have we rightly reflected God’s love into the world. Click To Tweet
In Wright’s hands, the calling of Abraham was a way of keeping God’s mission on track by means of one family who would reveal God to the nations. Wright sums up Israel’s faith as a combination of ‘monotheism, election, and eschatology’. Each of those terms is a compact summary of Israel’s witness to the world: there is only one true God; He has chosen a people for Himself through whom He will accomplish His purposes for the world; He will bring a good and just end to time and history.
When Israel falters through covenant unfaithfulness, the mission of God for the world appears to be in jeopardy. Each key office falls short of its design: the priesthood is tainted by its vigilante justice at the end of the book of Judges; the kings are corrupted by idolatry, which in turn results in a divided kingdom; the prophets seem to have forgotten the call for all nations to repent as represented by Jonah’s unwillingness for Nineveh to be saved.
Then, Jesus arrives—the True Priest, King, and Prophet. Jesus, the seed of Abraham and the son of David, comes to be faithful on Israel’s behalf and to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham to use his family to bless all the families of the earth and to complete God’s promise to David that his throne would continue forever.
The story not only culminates in Jesus; it continues because of Jesus. The church is a new humanity made up of Jews and Gentiles. The original call on humanity to rule and to worship is restored; those in Christ are a royal priesthood.
And then, there is the glorious ending of the Story. But this deserves a section of its own.The story not only culminates in Jesus; it continues because of Jesus. Click To Tweet
The Ending is Everything
Like any good story, the grand story of the Gospel is all about the ending. When we tell the story, however, the ending is often heaven. But as Wright has famously and frequently said, ‘Heaven is great, but it’s not the end of the world’. Wright helped me focus, not on ‘life after death’, but on ‘life after life after death’ (another one of Wright’s marvelous sayings).
As it turns out, the Bible has far more to say about the ultimate end than it does about heaven. Heaven, in the Biblical view, is God’s space—a separate but overlapping and, at points, inter-locking space with earth, which is human space. While there are glimpses into the activities of heaven, the ultimate vision of the end of all things is a vision of new creation and of resurrection. That is significant because of what it means for our hope as followers of Jesus.
Think of it: our hope is not evacuation—that God will get us out of here one day; our hope is not explanation—that God will explain it all to us one day; our hope is not compensation—that God will make it up to us in the end (though there will be justice and recompense). Christian hope is better than that: it is the hope of new creation and resurrection.
But this is not a distant hope; the ‘age to come’ has dawned now, and all who are in Christ are already beginning to experience new creation. (Wright’s exposition of 2 Corinthians 5 is stunning on this.) Thus, we are to read Paul’s theology in the twilight of this age and in the first light of the age to come; all of Paul’s ‘ethical’ injunctions are pastoral reflections on how to live now as it will be then.
Wright, of course, is not the first to articulate an inaugurated eschatology; but he makes the connections between Jesus’ resurrection, our future bodily resurrection, and our life now in the power of the Spirit with clarity and poignancy. I would wager that every sermon I’ve preached from a Pauline text in the past several years has been shaped by holding these ‘Wrightian’ connections in the back of my mind. He has helped me to preach with the end in mind.Wright has helped me to preach with the end in mind. Click To Tweet
We Are All Counting on the Faithfulness of God
More than just seeing the Story and its glorious ending, Wright has taken me back, time and time again, to the faithfulness of God. He is a theologian and a churchman, and as such he is careful to turn the spotlight on the character of God in a way that inspires worship. In Wright’s portrait of the Gospel, the light of God’s faithfulness shines brightly, and this faithfulness is good news for the whole world. Here’s how I see it: God does not scrap his project (creation), forget his promise (the covenant with Abraham), or abandon his people (Israel).
And isn’t that good news? If all these promises come to their ‘yes and amen’ in Christ, how firm is God’s faithfulness? However feeble our faith may feel, it is God who remains faithful. And just as God in Christ was faithful on behalf of an unfaithful Israel, so will we be saved by faith in the faithfulness of Christ, even as God the Holy Spirit empowers a life of faithful obedience in us.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three Persons, one Faithful God.
This is the Story; this is the Song; this is our assurance that we will come to the end of it all and gasp in awe at the faithfulness of God and the goodness of this News.
Glenn Packiam is an Associate Senior Pastor at New Life Church and the Lead Pastor of one of its congregations, New Life Downtown, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is an author, songwriter, and a doctoral student at Durham University. He and his wife, Holly, have four children. (And..Glenn loves N.T. Wright so much, he just had the whole ministry staff at New Life go through the ‘Simply Good News’ book and online course together!)
Learn more about Glenn at his blog, mysteryoffaithblog.com.