In this book, N.T. Wright explores (in exhausting detail) what actually happened (spiritually, and theologically) when Jesus was nailed to the cross in the Spring of 33 CE. Wright observes that nobody on the Saturday after Good Friday was persuaded by the humiliating death of Jesus from Nazareth that a world-wide revolution had just been launched. And yet within less than 30 years, biblical writers and other contemporaries were writing about this event like it had cosmic significance. Why is that? What did they think had happened?
Early church writers thought two things had happened at the same time. First, that Jesus had won a great victory through his death and resurrection, a doctrine called “Christus Victor,” and secondly that this death was somehow in our place (p. 26). The Apostle Paul says that Jesus died “for our sins, according to the Scriptures,” (1 Cor 15:3) and Wright goes on to explore what Paul must have meant by that very compact statement.
In expanding what the Bible says about the suffering death of Jesus, Wright demonstrates convincingly that the Christian world has made a three-layered mistake (p. 147). First we have substituted “souls going to heaven” as the point of the gospel – something that the Scriptures do not focus on! Secondly we have substituted a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human calling to be image-bearers in creation. Finally, on top of all that we have “paganized” our understanding of salvation. The idea that God has wrath that needs to land somewhere is a popular Greek idea, but it is not one that has a lot of support in the Scriptures.
If that last point surprises or worries you, then this is a book I highly recommend that you read. A book review will not sufficiently convince you of the bold claims that Wright makes but I hope it can pique your curiosity about the revolution in thinking that he is talking about in this book.
Wright explains that in our reading of the Bible, we have created a “works contract” (God wants good behavior so that we can go to heaven) and sin has come into the world and disqualified us from that (p. 74). We need Jesus to take our punishment and give us his gold standard “get out of hell free” card so that we can leave this evil world and go to heaven. That is similar to something that Plato taught, not something that the apostle Paul taught. The Bible on the other hand, says more about a “covenant of vocation”(p. 76). We were created to be image-bearers (Gen 1:26) and sin has come into the world and corrupted our calling. Our biggest problem is that we worship things rather than the maker of every thing. This “idolatry” (p. 85) has granted power to things in the world and we are, as a result, ruled by our pleasures and owned by our possessions.
Wright contends that Jesus’ death on a cross achieved something that urgently needed to be done and that couldn’t be done any other way. Jesus shed his blood to make a way to forgive our sin by launching a “new Exodus” from our captivity to the principalities and powers. We are set free from our slavery to stuff and our idols can be broken through our faith in the saving death of Jesus. That is why Jesus chose to die in the middle of Passover (the celebration of Exodus) rather than during Yom Kippur (the holy day of atonement).
As a result of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection we are free to implement the victory that Jesus won on the cross (p. 358). The darkest and strongest power in the world (the power of death) has been defeated and we can now be set free.
The last two chapters of the book (Chap 14: The Passover People, and Chap 15: The Powers and the Power of Love) describe how followers of Jesus today can live in that victory. Mission and Evangelism become integrated, they are no longer seen as a one-two punch for the church (a promotional strategy).
The Day the Revolution Began is a book that requires careful reading but it rewards the reader greatly with challenging insights from start to finish.