Knowing jesus through the old testament


Dr. Christopher Wright was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1947 and was brought up in the Presbyterian Church. While attending school in England, he received his doctorate in Old Testament studies and was later ordained in the Anglican Church of England. Currently, he serves on the staff of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, England. He has served as a teacher at Union Biblical Seminary in India for five years (1983-1988), as a principal at All Nations Christian College, a missionary training school in England, from 1993 through 2001. . Wright is now the international director of the Langham Partnership International (known in the United States as John Stott Ministries), providing literature, scholarships and preaching training for pastors in Majority World churches and seminaries. He has authored several books in addition to Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament, including commentaries on Deuteronomy and Ezekiel, and Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. The author of Knowing Jesus looks to connect the contemporary Christian to the historical Jesus in the Old Testament scriptures. Within the pages of the book, the author uses an example of cinema in presenting Christ as an English speaking white man. Such a presentation is what most modern Christians think of with regard to Jesus, which, in part, establishes what is sorely lacking; an Old Testament perspective on Jesus Christ. Presently, where the first half of Scripture has lost much significance, the author concedes that "many Christians in these days love Jesus, but know so little about [him]...Jesus becomes a kind of photo-montage composed of a random mixture of Gospel stories, topped up with whatever fashionable image of him is current, including...the New Age caricatures of him."[1] In looking back upon the Old Testament to view Jesus, the author relies on a more inductive approach of analyzing the life of Christ from a humanistic perspective.


Wright opens his book expounding upon Matthew's account of the genealogy of Jesus. While only contained within seven verses, Wright devotes much of his first chapter to trace the history of Jesus' ancestral roots from the lineage of Abraham. There are three main areas which Wright focuses uponthe period of Israel's history from Abraham to King David, from David to the exile, and from the exile to the Christ. Throughout her history, it is clearly established that the nation of Israel was chosen to be a unique foreshadow of the coming Messiah.

Despite the uniqueness of the nation of Israel, Wright suggests that the ultimate aim of God's purpose is to redeem all nations. Israel serves as the vehicle through which His redemption would enter humanity, but to say His redemption was solely the means of salvation for the nation Israel itself would be short-sighted. To further his point, Wright reminds the reader of several passages of Scripture which progress from the original covenant established with Abraham to various reminders later in the Biblical history. For example, when God chose Abraham to serve as the founding father of the nation of Israel, he was promised that all of the nations of the earth would be blessed through him (Gen. 12:2-3). Thereafter, the Old Testament contains reminders of this Abrahamic covenant woven throughout its writings.

As he continues, Wright then explores the role of Jesus in light of God's promise as a Redeemer. It is at this point that the author writes of the five covenant promises the Lord established throughout the Old Testament history: the covenant with Noah, the Abrahamic covenant, the Sinai covenant, the Davidic covenant, and the New covenant. There are several features that distinguish these promises from predictions: God took the initiative to establish these covenants with the intended party, He established His promise solely upon the authority of His word, and there is a required response from those with whom He establishes this bond. Wright does admit, though, that because God is the author of these covenants, they "call for human response, but they are not based on it..."[2]

In light of the God's aim to bring salvation to all nations, Wright shows this development of the promise through the various covenants. Accordingly, he notes that it ultimately reflects the Lord's desire to bless all nations through Jesus. This is reflected in five key themes within this covenant: a new relationship with God is establishedone in which people have direct access to the Lord; a new experience of forgiveness; a new obedience to the lawas created by the Spirit of God in order to accomplish this feat; Jesus as the new Davidic kingthus fulfilling the original promise that David would have an heir on the throne; and because of the fulfillment of the new 'David', those who receive salvation are granted a new abundance of nature[3].

Wright then proceeds to consider how Jesus received His identity through the Old Testament scriptures. Reflecting upon the crowd's inquiry into the background of Jesus as told in Mark 4:41, Wright sets out to demonstrate that our Savior gleaned His identity and purpose from the Hebrew Scriptures. In particular, the baptism of Jesus served as the precipice of great assurance to Him. Wright suggests that the Lord's proclaiming "this is My Son" was a defining moment for Christ.

Wright continues to emphasize that Jesus ascertained a sense of His mission from His conscious relationship with God the Father. In contrast and despite the clear announcement from John the Baptist regarding His arrival, Jewish expectation of the coming Messiah was misguided at best. While the Israelites looked forward to the restoration of their nation and subsequent emancipation from Roman occupation, Wright notes that the term 'Messiah' was rarely used by Jesus to describe Himselfrather, He used such terms as 'Son of Man' and "Servant of the Lord' to refer to Himself. In light of these terms, Wright proposes four biblical principles that are to characterize the modern Christian: we are to continue in Jesus' mission to evangelize the world; we are to evangelize the Jewish people; the characteristic of being a servant to all should be a prominent feature among the church; and our lives are to be characterized by justice, gentleness, healing, and wholeness[4].

In his last chapter, Wright discusses the shaping of Jesus' values during His earthly ministry. For example, His use of Old Testament scriptures to overcome the testing of his faith in the wilderness solidified the level of His obedience to God[5]. With the successful demonstration of His faith in God, Wright argues this was the establishment of authority in Jesus' word. But just as the prophets were rejected by the Israelites, so too would Jesus find Himself being rejected on similar grounds. His loyalty to God, His view and teaching on economic issues, and His warning of impending judgment upon the nation of Israel would all be questioned and resented my many; however, Wright concludes that one particular theme looms over the Old Testament and serves as the hope of His returnthe kingship of God[6].

Critical Analysis

Wright's approach is heavily indebted to his appreciation for the Old Testament. As such, he aims to consider the earthly ministry of Jesus in light of the revelation from Old Testament scriptures. After all, it was through these scriptures that Wright maintains Christ uncovered His identity. Additionally, the author argues that Jesus had to struggle with the cost of obedience towards God, but overcame it due to His growing confidence in His relationship to the Father.

In order to set the stage of his book, Wright appropriately begins his introduction with an overview of the Old Testament history as it pertains to the Israelite nation. In order to have a basic understanding of how the Old Testament Scriptures reveal the Messiah, it is wise to observe all of the historical events which may have influenced the early teachings of Jesus. Wright makes a great point of creating a parallel between his offering of the history while remarking that this history would have been the very thing which oriented Jesus to Jewish history during His formative years. Accordingly, if Jesus were trained to understand the history of His people, then it would be very wise for the reader to become affiliated with Wright's approach.

With that said, there appears to be an area of concern for Wright's delivery. There are several areas where the author appears to be humanizing Jesus. While some may not be concerned with this approach, a potential danger for such a strategy is to put Jesus in "our shoes" and emphasize His humanity over and beyond the fact that He was the Son of God during His earthly ministry. Theologians will continue to debate the degree of Jesus' humanity, but it would be prudent to keep His humanity in its proper orderHe is God and was not influenced by His humanity to the extent Wright appears to suggest.

For example, Wright quite regularly ponders how Jesus learned what His earthly mission was. He presumes that the Hebrew Scriptures provided Christ with the answers and directions necessary to give Him His sense of direction. While this point would apply very well for today's generation of Christians (who seem to be lacking in their sense of duty), it appears rather nave to presume that the Lord did not fully comprehend the purpose of His entering humanity. Wright ponders such questions as "what then was his mission? What did Jesus himself believe he was sent to achieve? What were his personal aims & objectives? What did he think he was doing?"[7], but to surmise that Jesus did not grasp His objective is to limit His omniscience. The Scriptures record the Lord's quotation of Isaiah 61:1-2 by which He validates His entire purpose for entering humanity: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18-19)a passage which Wright even refers to. Again, the author suggests that "He [Jesus] must have been deeply influenced by them & would have sought to interpret his own ministry & mission in relation to is Jesus' creative & original way of handling his Hebrew scriptures that gives us the clearest clues to his mission"[8], but His words are recorded in the book of John which suggest otherwise: "...the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner" (John 5:19). Even a few chapters later, Jesus reminds the crowd of His authority: "For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak. I know that His commandment is eternal life; therefore the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me" (John 12:49-50).

While there are scanty reviews of Wright's book, Spurgeon took a slightly more conservative approach when noting the Lord's self-identity: "No one can answer for Jesus: He must speak for Himself. Like the sun, He can only be seen by His own light. He is His own interpreter. Not even the angels could explain the Savior...Is He not the Word? Every word that Christ speaks is true: He speaks not in falsehood, but in righteousness. The gospel which He proclaims is a just and righteous one..."[9] This is not intended to discount Wright's notion; rather, it is to solidify the argument that Christ fully knew Who He wasWho better could comprehend His very own words as recorded in the Hebrew scriptures? To surmise that it was necessary for Jesus to acquire or learn of Himself from the scriptures does not appear to properly align with the entire Biblical narrative.

So long as the reader does not succumb to the temptation to view Jesus through our fleshly experiences, the validity of Wright's thesis does bear much weight. Because our postmodern culture is rebuffing traditions and "antiquated" laws, our churches would do well to return to the Old Testament portrayals of Jesus to further glean how we are to live. To only emphasize the New Testament evidence of Jesus is to only garner half of the picture. Since it is the obligation of every Christian to imitate Jesus, it becomes necessary for us to understand the other half of our Bible. It certainly then becomes critical that our churches properly teach this approach. Failure to properly view Jesus in light of our Old Testament scriptures is to create yet another idol of God whom we fashion to our liking.


While Wright's book may lend itself to creative thinking when it comes to the revelation of Jesus in the Old Testament, the reader should cautiously proceed through some of his suggestions. It has been demonstrated that there appears to be a hint of humanism woven in Wright's analysis of Jesus, and the reader would do well to approach his book utilizing a conservative, Biblical methodology. The author does correctly encourage the church to imitate the life of Christ in her daily undertakings as well as be mindful of her calling. It is also commendable that he encourages the church to strengthen her resolve in light of our postmodern days. The student and/or layperson would do well to heed the exhortation in Wright's closing words: "...without the Old Testament, Jesus quickly loses reality and either becomes a stained-glass window figurecolorful but static and undemanding, or a tailor's dummy that can be twisted and dressed to suit the current fashion."[10]


  • Spurgeon, C. H. Christ in the Old Testament. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1994.
  • Wright, Christopher J. H. Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament. Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995.
  1. Christopher J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), ix.
  2. Ibid., 79.
  3. Ibid., 97-100.
  4. Ibid., 174-180.
  5. Ibid., 190.
  6. Ibid., 244-248.
  7. Ibid., 108.
  8. Ibid., 137.
  9. C. H. Spurgeon, Christ in the Old Testament (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1994), 654-655.
  10. Wright, 251.

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