How our work builds for the Kingdom
Jordan Raynor sits down with N.T. Wright, whom Newsweek has called “the world’s leading New Testament scholar,” to talk about why Paul is “rolling over in his grave” over the Church’s response to George Floyd and systemic racism, the danger in the Church’s overemphasis on “saving souls,” and how the work we do today can physically last into eternity.
[0:00:05.3] JR: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the Call to Mastery. I’m Jordan Raynor. This is a podcast for Christians who want to do their most exceptional work for the glory of God and the good of others. Every week, I’m bringing you a conversation with a Christ follower, who’s pursuing world-class mastery of their vocation. We talk about their path to mastery, their daily habits and how their faith influences their work.
Hey, I hope you guys don’t mind, we’ve been bringing you more content than usual, dropping quite a few bonus episodes over the last few weeks. These conversations are just so timely, we wanted to make sure we got them into your ears as quickly as possible. Today, I am welcoming one of my great heroes, N.T. Wright to the podcast. If you don't know who Dr. Wright is, Newsweek calls him “The world's leading New Testament scholar.” Quite an endorsement. I mention Dr. Wright constantly on this podcast, in my books and in my devotionals.
Nobody, not even Tim Keller who you guys know how much I love Keller, has influenced my perspective specifically on heaven and the kingdom and the New Heavens and the New Earth more than Tom Wright. It was an absolute honor to welcome him to The Call to Mastery. This is a terrific episode.
I’m going to go back and listen to this one multiple times. I’m going to have to read the transcript multiple times to really fully digest everything that Dr. Wright said. By the way, if you don't know, you can find those transcripts really easily at podcast.jordanraynor.com.
Dr. Wright and I sat down. We talked about why Paul is “rolling over in his grave right now,” over the church's response to systemic racism that has led to the crisis we're seeing right now and the response that we're seeing to the murder of George Floyd. We talked about the danger in the church's overemphasis on saving souls; maybe my favorite part of the whole conversation.
Then we also talked about – I asked Dr. Wright to just give us a summary of the biblical evidence that the work you and I do today has a chance of physically, the physical products we make lasting into the New Heavens and the New Earth. I think you guys are going to love this episode. You may have to rewind it, listen. I’m going to have to to Dr. Wright’s brilliance, but please enjoy this episode with N.T. Wright.
[0:02:40.8] JR: Dr. Wright. This is an incredible honor. Thank you so much for joining us.
[0:02:44.2] NTW: Thank you. Good to be with you.
[0:02:45.7] JR: By the way, are you in Oxford today?
[0:02:48.2] NTW: Yes. I am. My wife and I moved to Oxford last October. Rather to our surprise, we still have a home in Scotland and we hope to be able to keep up a Scottish connection.
Probably not that particular house over the years, but we'll be in Oxford during the university terms, at least.
[0:03:02.6] JR: Yeah. You're at Wycliffe Hall. Last time I was in Oxford a couple years ago, I was just down the street at my favorite tourist spot in all of Oxford, The Eagle and Child.
[0:03:12.5] NTW: Oh, really? Yes, yes.
[0:03:13.5] JR: Yeah. Where of course, Lewis and Tolkien and the Inklings gathered for years, but I heard they're tearing it down and building a hotel. Have you heard this?
[0:03:21.8] NTW: No. I would be very, very surprised. I don't think that's going to be an option in St. Giles Street right there. There are various projects going ahead. There's one in Summertown, where they're putting up a new hotel and there's a big new college building right in the middle of Oxford on the corn market. The bit of the street where The Eagle and Child is, I think those 18th century houses at least, if not 17th century and I’m sure they will have a preservation order on them. I’d be very, very surprised if that was to go.
[0:03:47.7] JR: I would think, but there's multiple news stories about this. I got to get to the bottom of this. It's such an iconic –
[0:03:54.5] NTW: Such and I’ve heard of it.
[0:03:55.3] JR: Yeah. It’s such an iconic spot and such a terrific experience to go share a pint with friends, like Lewis and Inklings used to do. Hey, speaking of Lewis, you were born in the UK 1948, right when Jack was writing the Narnia novels. Did you grow up reading first edition copies of these books?
[0:04:14.5] NTW: Exactly. My mother read them to my sister and myself. My sister's a year older than me and we were just at the right age. Yeah, I’m not sure what happened to those original copies. They're probably all fallen apart by now, have been read so much, but we got them as they came out pretty much. I remember my mother would read them to us night by night, or week by week. There's good memories. Good memories.
[0:04:34.3] JR: I love it. Yeah, you get to see them as they came to market, which is fun. Speaking of great writers, you are one of my all-time favorite non-fiction writers. I think you're just brilliant at studying the word and communicating it in fresh new ways while remaining true to the text. I’d love to talk a little bit about craft and how you've mastered that craft.
First off, I’d love to start here. I’d love to hear what your writing process looks like at a high level. Maybe take your latest book, this terrific book, God and the Pandemic, as a case study. What was your process for putting that book together?
[0:05:08.2] NTW: I’m not sure it's really a very good case study, because –
[0:05:10.4] JR: I know. It's such a rare exception, right?
[0:05:12.2] NTW: Well, it happened so quickly. What happened was at the beginning of this whole thing just after lockdown had been announced, I was actually working very hard on finishing my commentary on Galatians, which was on a tight deadline, it had to be done and I really had no spare time from that at all. Then I got a call from Time Magazine, an editor who I’ve got to know a bit over the last year or two. She said, “Could you just do me 800 words on a Christian response to the pandemic and what's going on?”
I looked around on the web and I saw people saying various silly things and I thought, “Well, I can say something about that. Just put it to bed and then not worry about it anymore.” I wrote this short article, ran it by my wife as I usually do and she gave me the thumbs up, which is always a good sign. Off went the article, went into Time. Time Magazine liked it so much, it got so many hits that they put it in the print version, not just online, which is a rare honor.
Then I started to get feedback from it. I mean, bad feedback. People putting on Twitter, “It looks like N.T. Wright never reads his bible, because it's obvious what the pandemic is all about, because God is –”
[0:06:08.6] JR: The world's leading New Testament scholar doesn't read his bible. Yeah.
[0:06:11.1] NTW: Well, absolutely, because God is obviously punishing us for our sins, and so we need to repent. That's what this is all about. I start to think about that. Then one or two friends asked me if I would do lockdown talks to their congregation online, like I’m talking to you now or often with video, just discussing it. I found myself saying various things and arguing various ways. Then somebody said, would I do a talk on this for I forget which organization. I once again pooled my thoughts together.
By the time I’d done that, I was thinking, “Do you know? I’m saying a few things here that I hadn't expected to say and they might be of some interest to somebody.” I said to my publisher, “What do you think?” He looked at it and he said, “How soon can you do it?” I said, “It'll take me about three days.” He said, “Well, go for it,” so I did.
[0:06:55.0] JR: Three days you knocked out 90 pages of content?
[0:06:57.6] NTW: Well, it's only 20,000 words. I mean, that's only like certainly 7,000 words a day. It's not rocket science. I’ve been thinking about it. Then I did what I always do, which I sent it to three or four good friends who I knew would give me sharp feedback and they sure did. One or two said, “You really can't say this, but if you're going to say X, you have to say Y as well or whatever.” As usual, I took most of that advice, and so I fiddled around with it and so off it went. My publishers here and Zondervan in America have done a great job rushing it through.
[0:07:27.8] JR: Yeah, they've done a great job. I want to go back to feedback. We hear this a lot on The Call to Mastery, from world-class master of any craft, they deliberately seek out feedback and ask probing questions to get really good feedback. I’m assuming you're not just sending the manuscript over and just asking for a general review. Are there specific things that you're looking for when you send a draft out to some of these friends?
[0:07:50.4] NTW: That's a good question. It depends what project it is. With this one because it's quite short, just one of the shortest books I’ve ever written, as if 20,000 words is not long. That's basically three lectures and not very full lectures either, I would usually just say to people things like, “I think this bit is important. I think I’m maybe treading on thin ice there, but just let me know any feelings you have.”
Sometimes I might say specifically to some people, “I really need you particularly to comment on chapter three, page such and such, or whatever it is.” I wouldn't usually do that. I would let them make whatever comments they wanted. I am indebted to good friends who've rescued me from saying some silly things and have pushed me towards saying some clearer and I hope sharper things.
[0:08:33.1] JR: I can co-sign that. I completely agree. Those friends that give early feedback are invaluable. By the way, maybe not a book like this, but a book that you have more time to write. How many books are you reading on a topic before you start to outline and write your own?
[0:08:47.2] NTW: That's a good question. I really don't know how to answer that, because with this book I don't think I read anything new. It was all completely out of my reflections. Although I did check, particularly the bit on Romans, on Romans chapter 8; I pulled a few commentaries off the shelf just to check, because there's some technical stuff in there about the translation of verse 28. I wanted to be sure I was up with some of the recent commentaries and what they'd said and so on.
Normally, apart from checking references like that, it's pretty straightforward. Of course, it goes all the other way to one of the other very recent books that I’ve written, which is you've probably seen it called History and Eschatology, which was the Gifford lectures which I did in Aberdeen. For that, I got the invitation six years before I had to do it and I was reading around in history, in German theology, in all sorts of things and just following my nose and going in and out of libraries and buying books and checking articles and trying things out with friends on and on and on. I sketched it and I went for long walks in the country with friends and we talked through particular chapters and so on and the thing very gradually took shape.
It's a complete contrast. Depending on entirely what the subject is, some things I’ve basically done enough more or less research to be able to rattle through it quite quickly. Other things, you can't hurry, at least I can't hurry my own intellectual development. I can see that I may need to get to a certain point, but I can't just leap there. I need to take the steps of filling in the blanks, putting in the paving stones so that I can walk down that path. It just depends on the subject matter.
[0:10:19.3] JR: I love that you're using a walking analogy, because I actually think physical walking is such a critical piece of the writing process. At least it is for me.
[0:10:26.2] NTW: It can be. Yeah. Yeah.
[0:10:27.6] JR: Can you talk about that? Do you go on long walks just to outline chapters in your head, or think through issues? What does that look like for you?
[0:10:33.1] NTW: I used to. I’m afraid that now in my 70s and I am not as thin as I should be, let's put it delicately like this. I’m sure if I went to my doctor and said, “How many pounds should I lose?” He'd probably say about 35 or 40, because my knees give me hell if I walk for too long at any pace. Actually, around Oxford, I normally cycle. I can cycle quite easily. If I walk especially up or downhill, my knees really do not appreciate it.
I don't walk too far, but I cycle longer distances. Years ago, I used to walk great distances. I’ve been on 25-mile mountain walks. I’ve been on all sorts. When I was on sabbatical in Princeton, when was that? 2009. The fall of 2009, every Sunday I would take a day off. I was writing the big book on Paul. Every Sunday, I would take the day off and go to the early service at the nearby church, come home and have breakfast and then I would do things like I would take a cab to some nice point, which I’d found on the map about 10 or 15 miles away, from which I could see there would be a pleasant walk to get back into town. I would then walk back down the canal, or across footpaths, whatever.
Yes, usually I was thinking about some aspect of the book. I totally agree. If your knees will stand it, walking is a great way of juggling the brain into thinking afresh. Usually for me, it would happen after about two or three hours that I would start suddenly to get a glimmer of, “Ah, what I want to say is this and then that and then the other.” I would always have a notebook with me and I would sit down maybe in a little cafe somewhere and simply scribble for half an hour and then carry on and think more about what I just done.
I miss that, because I say since I can't walk the way I used to, that's a problem. I should lose weight. I know I should lose weight. Don't tell a 70-year-old to lose weight when he's in lockdown and his wife's going mad about what recipes to use anyway.
[0:12:27.7] JR: Exactly. I just read a study that showed that – This shouldn't come as a shock, right? But walking, as your feet hit the pavement actually increases blood circulation to the brain. There's a lot of science to back this up. There's also a lot of case studies. I mean, Lewis did this around Oxford all the time.
[0:12:43.8] NTW: Oh, yes.
[0:12:44.2] JR: Wilberforce did this a lot. William Wilberforce was walking around London all the time with a notebook in his hand, an ink literally in his pockets to think through how to abolish slavery. I’m really curious. Aside from walks, aside from doing a lot of research, what is the delta between good and great for writers? What habits or practices separate world-class writers from less masterful writers?
[0:13:09.5] NTW: I wish I knew the answer, because I never really was taught to write. I think for me, writing is very close to music and I grew up with a lot of music, both playing it and writing it and singing it and so on. For me, it's a matter of listening to the sentences and seeing if they sing, which involves writing as I would speak. Often, I’ve written in order to lecture and so I write as if I’m going to be speaking, so that when I do the speaking, it sounds as though I’m just talking. I’ve worked on that over the years, over many years. That's been my aim.
When I read through what I’ve written, I’m hearing it in my head. One of the frustrating things about this is I can't work with music on in the background, because the music invades the rhythm of the sentences. I want to listen to the music, think about what it's doing, and so I just can't concentrate.
For me, writing ought to come in a flow like music. When I re-read that is what I’m looking for, there are tricks which you learn from the masters. I often go back and read bits of Lewis, including his literary criticism, where the way he constructs a paragraph is so smart. The thing with Lewis is you never have to read a sentence twice, even when they're long and technical, if it's his scholarly work, you know exactly what he's saying and he brings in his metaphors and his images in a very graceful way. Learning how to do that, I think it's as much court as it is taught, but we're all learners in this game.
I’m not saying I’ve mastered it by any means, though I do enjoy writing. When I re-read something that I’ve written that's actually worked, then I get pleasure from it and I just think, “Oh, yeah. This actually will sing.”
[0:14:49.6] JR: Yeah, you're emulating the creator who stepped back and said, “This is good.” I think that's a God-honoring approach to our work.
[0:14:54.1] NTW: It should be. Of course, it can just be self-deceived, but –
[0:14:56.9] JR: Yeah, absolutely.
[0:14:57.8] NTW: Anyway. Yeah.
[0:14:59.1] JR: If you knew you could only write one more book, you had one more book left in you, what would it be?
[0:15:07.0] NTW: Ah, goodness. That's a difficult one.
[0:15:08.4] JR: We're starting with the easy questions.
[0:15:10.2] NTW: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay. I have long wanted, and actually my publishers want me to do this, to write a children's bible, because I’m fed up with the bibles that I’ve seen my children and grandchildren having.
[0:15:21.0] JR: Yeah, me too. Yeah.
[0:15:21.8] NTW: Because even the ones that try to tell the biblical story – Most children's bibles, it's just Aesop’s Fables with a Christian wash. In other words, it's a few isolated funny old stories about strange people living in the desert wearing strange clothes, doing odd things. There's maybe a moral to it or maybe not. Then you turn the page and it's somebody else doing something unconnected.
The only narrative which is there is the implicit western Christian one of how to get to heaven, or how to behave yourself while you're on the way to heaven possibly. It's not clear how the whole thing works. I want to try and this is very difficult. I want to try to display and this will depend on the artist that we're going to get to do the illustrations, because there won't be that much text. I want to try to display the genuine biblical narrative, which is of the creator making this amazing heaven plus earth world, like a house for himself to come and dwell along with his human creatures. At the very end in Revelation 21, that's what we finally get, the new heaven and New Earth and the dwelling of God being with humans.
Not the usual western tradition, which is that the last story would be the dwelling of humans is with God. The point is the dwelling of God with humans. But then to tell the biblical story in such a way that a six-year-old could grasp it and an eight-year-old could read it for themselves and see the point, that is the real challenge. I hope I will be spared to do that in the coming months.
[0:16:45.0] JR: All right. I want to ask some questions about that, my favorite anti-Wright theme of the kingdom in a second, but before we do, before we move on from craft, we like to talk a little bit about daily habits and routines on this podcast. I’m really curious pre-COVID, what did your day look like typically, from the moment you woke up to the moment you went to bed, can you give us the tick-tock of your day?
[0:17:05.6] NTW: Yeah. It gets more scatty as it goes on, but the morning is usually fairly standard. I’m usually up early. Before COVID started, I was working to try to finish my commentary on Galatians. I would be getting up usually about 4:30 or 4:45. By 5:00, I would be in my study with a large pot of tea and with the Hebrew bible and the Greek testament. After about an hour, I would be saying my prayers. Then after about half an hour, I would shamble through to the kitchen and make myself some breakfast.
My wife would be still asleep. She needs about three hours more sleep than I do per night. Then I would have breakfast. I would check the newspaper online while I was eating breakfast. Then I would be back at the study usually by I don't know, about 7 or something like that. Then it would just be, “Let's crack on with wherever we're at,” which was pulling together.
At that point, I’d done several lectures on Galatians over the last couple of years. It was a matter of going to the computer and lining those lectures up and seeing where they needed to be expanded and where things needed to be explained further, where I needed to bring in more secondary literature, so more footnotes or more actual engagement in the main text and so on, all the things that you do when you're writing biblical commentary.
Then at a certain point, there would be a natural break when my wife would emerge and I would have a second breakfast with her and then see about tasks for the day and whether there was any shopping needing doing. Then I would spend as much of the rest of the day as I could simply working on whatever stage that project was at.
I have never been one for saying, “I must write a certain number of words in the morning or in the afternoon or whatever.” Though I have to say usually, because I get up early, I often hit the wall around 2:30 or 3 p.m. and there have been times over the years when, actually around right now, it's now 20 past three in the afternoon in my time. Often at this time of day, I would find my head slumping over the computer and sometimes I would even wake up with a jerk and discover that I had typed 75 Ks or something like that with my nose, or my hand or something that just landed on the keyboard. That would be the signal to go for a brisk walk in the fresh air and to make a cup of tea and to carry on.
Then by about 6 or 7, I’d be watching the news with my wife. We would have supper. I might read a chapter or two of some book that I needed to read after supper and before bed, or I might just go straight to bed. Pretty boring day, but exciting if you've got the subject matter to go with it.
Then since COVID, I mean, the other thing which we've injected into our routine most days is that we only have a very small garden here, but the college right across the street from where we live, New College in Oxford, has this wonderful garden with a wonderful border with all kinds of lovely shrubs and flowering trees and climbing roses and so on. We've been walking around there with their permission most days for the last 12 weeks and watching all these things happen.
It's been lovely for both of us. My wife's a photographer, and so she's been photographing these gorgeous plants with the old stone walls behind them and so on. That's been very therapeutic and I can come back to the desk after half an hour in that garden feeling quite refreshed. There you are. That's the typical scholar’s Oxfordish life.
[0:20:21.5] JR: No, I love that. You say it's boring, but I think that's the genius of world-class performers. They have routines that are standard. They stick to them. The excitement comes in between.
Tom, this podcast is all about showing Christ followers that the work they do every day, whether they're nurses, or entrepreneurs, or writers, or marketers, whatever, matters for eternity. Thus, inspiring them to care about doing it really well, doing really, really good work.
Over the years, you and others have convinced me that we can't really grasp the eternal significance of our work until we have a more accurate understanding of eternity itself. Your book Surprised by Hope has influenced my understanding of this more than any other. I know I’m asking an impossible question, but as succinctly as you can, you've already touched on this, but can you summarize what the New Testament actually says about heaven eternity, New Heavens and New Earth, and how that contrasts with the western caricature of eternity that we live with today?
[0:21:29.7] NTW: The short answer is that Western society, including sadly, Christianity, has become very platonic. That is to say it's going with what is actually the middle Platonism of somebody like Plutarch who says in his treaties on exile that our souls are exiled from their true home, which is in heaven and that we are looking forward to escaping this rather shabby old world and getting back to heaven as soon as we can. When I first read that in Plutarch, I thought, “This is funny, because that's what a lot of my Christian friends think Christianity is.”
[0:22:01.8] JR: Also, my Christian friends.
[0:22:03.1] NTW: Yeah. Then I thought, “Can I find any place in the New Testament which says that?” And the answer is no, I can't, because that is simply not an early Christian point of view. It comes into Christianity by probably the third or fourth century through some of the fathers. Though some of the fathers resist that strongly, because the New Testament view is the Jewish view, which is that creation is not a bad place to be escaped, but a good place to be redeemed. That makes all the difference in the world.
What I said 10 minutes ago, whenever it was, that the narrative of the bible is not how do we get out of this world and go and live with God? But how does God so prepare this world that he will be able to come and live with us? That of course is what the temple is all about. Before that, what the wilderness tabernacle was all about, those were pointers to the fact, this is what God wanted to do, to come and live with his people, but those were never meant to be permanent. This is from the point of view of the New Testament, of course. They were signposts pointing forwards to the time when God would come in and as a human being.
John says, the word became flesh and tabernacled in our midst, pitched his tent in our midst. This is what it's all about. The high priestly prayer in John chapter 17 is a moment when we are in the temple. We are with Jesus, which means that heaven and earth have come together and Jesus is talking about, “I and them and thou in me, that the world might believe.” This is the establishment of a new unity of heaven and earth consisting of Jesus and his followers, which then is reaching out into all the world, so that in the end, the world shall be full of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. That's the great biblical vision.
When we then talk about heaven, I often say to people, feel free to use the language of heaven if you like, for where you go in between times, for how it is when as Paul says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.” Philippians 1. Or in 2nd Corinthians 5, he says something similar, that our desire is not to be in a mess down here, but to be with the Lord. That's fine, but that is only ever a temporary thing, because God is going to make New Heavens and New Earth and he's going to raise us from the dead to be dwelling within that New Heavens and New Earth.
Here's the irony; this is so clear in Romans 8. But because since the reformation and before actually, people have read Romans 8 as the story of how we get to heaven at last. The key bits have been misunderstood or misinterpreted. When Paul talks about creation itself, being rescued from its slavery to decay in order to have the freedom which comes when God’s children are glorified, people have just thought, “Oh, this is some rather complicated old language. We're not sure we understand it.”
If they had read that in the light of 1st Corinthians 15, shall we say, or Revelation 21 and 22, then they would have seen, here is the biblical vision of new creation. If we persist in talking about going to heaven, we're doing something the New Testament doesn't do, I know Jesus said to the bringing beside him on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Paradise was only ever the waiting room in between the present world and the world to come.
Then the really tricky bit actually, I was working on this in St. Andrews before we came down to Oxford, the really tricky bit is how you then give a Christian account of that waiting period if you don't want to use the platonic idea of the soul. It seems to me that the New Testament uses the fact of the spirit that the Holy Spirit has in indwelt us in this life. Then after our death, the Holy Spirit who has indwelt us still knows us, remembers us, holds on to us, so we continue to exist in the saving embrace and love of the spirit.
Paul says, our life is hidden with Christ in God, which I think means substantially the same thing. Then when God makes all things new, the spirit will give life as Paul says to our mortal bodies in the way that he gave life to Jesus’ mortal body.
All of that said, of course I’ve spelt this out as you know in Surprised by Hope, but I still think there's a whole swathe of Western Christianity that still hasn't come onboard really with any of this, because our prayers and our liturgies and our hymns all pull us back to the old medieval, going to heaven idea.
[0:26:24.9] JR: Yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, your writings and some other writings have been thinking about this. Jesus talked very little about salvation, about saving souls. By my account, it's I don't know, a dozen or so times in all four gospels?
[0:26:39.9] NTW: Well, I’d like to see where those ones are. Yes, yes.
[0:26:42.0] JR: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You would know better than me. Talk of the kingdom, I mean, it's 15 times more that he references this. You talked about this in God and the Pandemic, you were hitting on this theme that the western church's over emphasis on saving souls. Can you talk a little bit more specifically about why you think we've over emphasized the topic and why that overemphasis matters to the work that we do every day?
[0:27:09.5] NTW: Yeah. We've over emphasized it partly, because the western tradition has been heavily influenced by Greek philosophy; Aristotle and Plato. Long before the reformation, that was the case, so that people were thinking in terms of well, we're in this miserable world at the moment and then we'll have to go to purgatory and then we'll hopefully, finally make it to heaven. That was the standard narrative in European Christianity in the 14th and 15th centuries.
When Luther and the others saw the abuses that were resulting from the teaching about purgatory, they didn't say the whole story is wrong. They simply said you've inserted an extra stage in there called purgatory. Purgatory doesn't exist. Or if there is a purgatory, it's here and now, not in the future after death. They then left the ultimate goal to be pretty much the same, still talked about going to heaven.
Then all the soteriological debates of subsequent centuries, all the debates about how you get saved and what justification is and all that, they happened within that going to heaven model. All the time, the New Testament is teaching about the kingdom of God was chafing against that. People were misinterpreting the kingdom.
I grew up with a view that the kingdom of God was heaven, because in Matthew’s gospel it comes out as the kingdom of heaven, so it looks as though Jesus is just saying well, we all know the main aim is to get to heaven. How are you going to do that? The kingdom of heaven, if you do this and that and the other, you either will or won't inherit the kingdom of heaven.
We never noticed that in the Lord's Prayer, Jesus says, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven.” Or if we did notice it, we just thought that was a temporary prayer that while we're on earth, we hope that God will do the right thing here. Of course, we're heading for heaven. That's the real thing. Instead of seeing, no. That is the central prayer that God’s will will be done and his kingdom will come within this present earth, that the earth will be flooded with the goodness and love and glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
[0:29:05.3] JR: All my work is trying to show people through texts, like what you've written and expending upon the scriptures that their work has great meaning for eternity, beyond saving souls. Because I know a lot of people who will say, “Oh, yeah. I go to work and I do a good job, so that I can share the gospel with my customers and with my co-workers.” Listen, this is a good thing. We should be introducing people to the kingdom, but it's also important to create for the kingdom, to build for the kingdom. I want to hear you talk about that. When we're focused myopically on saving souls, what happens?
[0:29:42.0] NTW: Sure. I do want to say and because Britain is very different from America, there aren't too many people who walk around Britain saying, “I’m doing a good job, so that I can then save souls.” I’d much rather people were doing that than simply saying, “I’m doing this, because I want to buy a yacht and sail around the Mediterranean, or whatever.”
I worry about the word ‘eternity’, because we use the word eternity in a positive sense, but most people will hear it in terms of a timeless eternity, this platonic idea that we will pass outside space-time and matter altogether and be in a different space. That's simply unbiblical. I am absolutely convinced about that. When the book of revelation says something about “And time shall be no more,” and it comes into one of the old spirituals, I think, people say, “Oh, that's the abolition of time.”
It really isn't. That means the time for doing something will have run out. Like if I say, “Quick. Hurry up and get your coat on. There's no more time. It means we're about to be late for the train or whatever it is.” It doesn't mean that time itself will come to a stop. We have to be careful about the word eternity. I would not normally use it myself. I would talk shamelessly about the New Heavens and New Earth, because that's what the New Testament does.
Then because of the overlap, because the new age has already begun when Jesus of Nazareth came out of the tomb on Easter morning, God’s new creation was decisively launched and it's not going back again. God, then through Jesus, gave us his spirit, so that we could be not just beneficiaries of that new creation, but actually agents. The way I put it now in regard to justification may be a help that I’ve often heard myself say, that God intends to put the whole world right.
In the present time, he puts us right. That is justification, so that we can be part of his putting right project for the world. Where does that then cash out in terms of what you said? This is where you've picked up exactly what I’ve emphasized in various places, that we're not building the kingdom by our own efforts, but we're building for the kingdom. And in Surprised by Hope, I use that image of the people who are working on a great medieval cathedral and the stonemasons in the yard who are told, you've got to carve this bit of stone like this and thus. The guy probably is fairly illiterate. He's just doing what he's told. He's got his chisel and his hammer and the stone and that's what he's got to do.
If somebody said, “What are you doing?” He probably wouldn't say, “I’m building the cathedral.” He would say, “I’m building, working, or carving for the cathedral.” The cathedral is the larger project that the architect and the master mason are responsible for and he's working for it. Then when the master mason comes around and collects up all those carved stones, they get up on the old rickety wooden scaffolding, then the stonemason looks up at the west front of the cathedral and there is his little bit of carved stone, carved the way he was told to carve it. Meaning, far more than he could have ever imagined, because it now joins up with a thousand others and they together make this great design. That's what I see in the work that we're called to do as Christians.
Very occasionally, we are allowed to see something of the larger design. Most of the time, I think we only see tiny little glimpses. I’ve often had the sense, for instance when I’ve been in pastoral work and ministry work in the church that actually, the kind word said to somebody who is really hurting or suffering after a church service, that may mean the world to them. That may stop them going home and killing themselves, or it may mean that they go home and take a deep breath and go and say sorry to somebody they've offended or whatever and turn a situation around.
As far as I’m concerned, it's just a kind word said to somebody after church. When you do that thing prayerfully and intentionally and within the love of God, God can take that and use it in huge, enormous ways. The same with every poem, every symphony, every painting, the same with every good, right, upstanding business deal, the same with every good piece of carpentry, or dress-making, or whatever it is. If it's a good piece of work, it says something about the glory of God and God’s enjoyment of the goodness of the material world and his wanting to make it a beautiful place.
I was recently working on a different project. I was thinking about this in terms of art and so on and the way that God brings his artwork into the world and the way that that artwork both itself embodies something of God’s future and is assigned to God’s future. I find that hugely encouraging as I talk to artist friends and musician friends and so on. Anyway, [inaudible 0:34:25.9].
[0:34:26.0] JR: Absolutely. I’m going to quote you to you, for the sake of our audience. In Surprised by Hope, you said, “The work we do in Christ and by the spirit in the present is not wasted. They would last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there.”
You basically go on to saying, “Hey, listen. There's biblical evidence to say that the stonemason’s work, even though he's never going to finish the cathedral, Jesus is going to finish the cathedral, but that work is important. It's going to last an eternity. Then you basically go on to say, “We don't know exactly how.” We don't know exactly what that will look like in practice. Paul makes clear in 1st Corinthians 15 that it will and we've got to look to scripture for clues as to how that might happen, how these things, how the work we do today might last into the new habits of New Earth. What are those clues? What are those that you –
[0:35:12.7] NTW: Well, the only real model that we have is of course, Jesus’s own resurrection, which is a very mysterious model, because the resurrection body of Jesus is very strange. It does things we didn't expect. It comes and goes through locked doors. It appears and disappears. It can be touched. It can eat. It can drink. It can talk. It can no doubt, sit at a table and break bread in Emmaus, etc., etc.
It's strange. It's as though it inhabits heaven and earth simultaneously. I think that's part of the point. There's a wonderful line in the American scholar, Ed Sanders, in his book on Jesus, his shorter book on Jesus, where he says it looks as though the gospel writers in describing Jesus’s resurrection were very much wanting to say something for which they knew they didn't have very good language. I think that's exactly right. I think we are in the same bind when it comes to talking about God’s future creation.
That's why I in various books have used a variety of different images. I don't know if you've had a chance to read my – I mentioned it before, my Gifford lectures History and Eschatology, but I use the image of the chalice, the waiting chalice that the world is like a beautiful silver chalice, beautifully carved. As it stands, it is beautiful and haunting and makes you think, “Wow, this is a work of art.” Of course, it's 10 times more beautiful when you realize what it's meant to be filled with, what it's there for and the role that it plays within the worship of the church and the strange mystery of the sacramental life of the church.
When we start to see the world and our work within it in, that sense we realize there are other dimensions here. We're not messing around. C.S. Lewis somewhere when he's talking about seeing people as God sees them, he says, “You have never talked with a mere mortal.” Now Lewis was a Platonist too. He believed in the immortality of the soul. The point is that the people that we meet with and talk with day by day, these are people who have stories which God wants to go on into his ultimate future. Whatever we say and do with and to them will be part of that, whether it's something they have to forgive us for, or something that they will be grateful to us for.
In our human relations, as well as our work, putting everything in the light of that coming new world. As you say, nothing is wasted. This is the allusion to 1st Corinthians 15:58, where Paul says, “Get on with your work in as much as you know that it is not in vain in the Lord.” That is such a wonderful thing. It may seem little, but it's not going to waste if it's done in Christ and by the spirit. That was [inaudible 0:37:45.5].
[0:37:46.8] JR: Am I misreading Isaiah 60? Isaiah 60 is this picture of people bringing physical, material, cultural artifacts into the new Jerusalem and laying them at the feet of the king. I heard Keller preached on that years ago and he's basically saying, “Hey, listen. The physical things we create, the art, the books, the business of whatever, have a chance of being considered what Isaiah 60 calls the Glory of the Nation, these physical things that actually last into the New Earth.” Would you agree with Keller’s commentary on that?
[0:38:22.7] NTW: Yeah, it's because and one of the many reasons I agree with it, apart from the fact that it's in two-thirds of the cases, it's always a good idea to agree with Tim Keller. He and I probably disagree about one-third of the stuff, because I think he still represents an older form of Evangelicalism, which I think is not fully yet taken onboard, the revolution in online studies, etc., but that's a different discussion.
The main reason I agree with it is because this of course is what Revelation 21 says. Revelation 21-26 says of the new Jerusalem, “People will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations.” Verse 24, “The nations will walk by its light and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” That is the direct reference back to Isaiah 60 verse 5. What that actually means in practice of course, is very curious. It's picture language, but what is the reality for which that is a picture is not entirely clear. Not to me.
That's why I’ve said in Surprised by Hope and elsewhere, all our language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a fog. They may be true signposts, but like all signposts, they have symbols telling us that there's something there. Though we know perfectly well that when we get to the destination, it won't probably physically look like the symbol we saw on the signpost, but the signpost will have been true, nonetheless.
I noticed there that there's a generosity about it, a sense that the best that humans have been able to do, even though Mozart doesn't seem to have been a practicing Christian, there are so many moments in his work when you just think they have to be playing this in the new creation. You cannot leave this out. This is just so transcendentally beautiful and so powerfully relevant of the gospel. Maybe Mozart was a closet Christian. Who knows? I’m not prepared to judge him.
Do you see what I’m saying? There are people like that, who you say, “Well, faith may have been a bit dodgy. I’m not sure, but what he created.” Of course, the next verse in Revelation after the first one I quoted there immediately says, “By the way, there will be certain categories of people and what they do, which will be outside. There is no room for making lies in God’s new creation. No room for various other things as well.” It doesn't slide down the hill into an easygoing universalism of, “Oh, well there. You tried well, so you can come in too.” It's much more mysterious than that and we don't want to give the wrong impression to that.
[0:40:49.3] JR: Over the last couple months, we've seen with the recent news events, lots of people working hard to build those signposts to what will ultimately be in the New Heavens and the New Earth. With the pandemic, we see doctors and nurses heroically going to work every day to try to find a vaccine. Here in the US with the news surrounding George Floyd and people are rolling up their sleeves and trying to fix race relations in this country.
Here's my question. I want to play devil's advocate for a second. If these are just signposts, why does this work matter? If at the end of the day, all we're doing is pointing to the Kingdom, why does the work matter now if Jesus is going to come and make it all right again?
[0:41:28.2] NTW: Sure. No, that's a great question. In fact, I’ve just written a couple of things in the last three or four days on this, because one or two senior colleagues in the Church of England have asked if I would produce some material for study, or meditation, or thought on this. In fact, you'll see a lecture that I gave two days ago is now on the website of [inaudible 0:41:44.6] fall here in Oxford with an introduction from the principal, because the tragedy for me of the George Floyd thing and all that goes with it in terms of systemic racism and we have it here in Britain too.
In fact, there are lots of protests. This time yesterday, there was a police helicopter right over my house, because just around the corner there was a big demonstration, because there's a statue three streets away from here which certain people want to pull down, etc., etc. The usual stuff.
The tragedy is this, Paul’s vision of the church in Romans, in Galatians, in Ephesians, in Colossians, in the Corinthian – all the way through, Paul’s vision of the church is of a polyglot, polychrome, multi-ethnic, many peoples gender blind in terms of leadership, fictive kinship group. That is people who aren't in fact the same family at all, but who live as family, caring for one another, outward-facing in service to the world, culturally creative, etc., etc. That's Paul’s vision of the church.
The church at his best sometimes has achieved that. Now, of course, in Paul’s world, there was no easy black and white. Paul lived in the Mediterranean world where you had people from North Africa, you had people from the Middle East, you had people from Spain, Portugal, all different skin pigmentations. Now there was no easy – you're either this or you're that. In fact, skin color wasn't a big issue in Paul’s world. We need to remind ourselves of that.
Particularly, slavery in Paul’s world had nothing whatever to do with the color of your skin. Anybody could become a slave. You just had to be defeated in battle and taken captive. Anybody who was a slave, or many people could buy their freedom, or could get out of slavery and become well to do again. Lots of people did.
It was a very different phenomenon from what we know in the history of the United States, or what we know in the history of apartheid South Africa, etc., etc. You hear what I’m saying? Now having said all that, what went so wrong? It should have been the case from the very beginning that the church would have been setting an example to the world of what a polyglot, multicultural, multi-ethnic, but united society should have looked like. We have done the opposite.
Since the reformation, we have had churches based on ethnicity, because we've wanted to have the bible and the liturgy in our own languages, which is a proper rightful thing. We've allowed that to say, therefore, we'll have a German church, we'll have a Dutch church, we'll have a Swedish church, we'll have a Portuguese church, whatever.
Then disastrously, we've had black churches and white churches and we've colluded with that and nobody has stood up and said, “Hang on. Paul is turning in his grave at the thought of this.” Because they've said, “No, no, no. Paul is about justification by faith, which is about how we go to heaven. So, don't give us that social gospel stuff.”
The answer is sorry, this isn't social gospel. This is about the church being the church as a sign to the world that there is a different way to be human. If we hadn't forgotten that Ephesians is the central poor line letter, this would have all been clear. From the reformation, we made Romans and Galatians the central letters.
Now, I love Romans and Galatians. I’ve spent my life studying and teaching them. As a result, we've missed out Ephesians 1, where Paul says that God's plan from the beginning was to sum up all things in heaven and on earth in Christ. We missed out Ephesians 2, where having said that salvation is by grace through faith. He immediately goes on to say therefore, Jew and Gentile are one body. The walls of division are broken down. We are a single family, a new temple indwelt by the spirit.
Therefore, in chapter 3, he says that through the church, this many splendid thing, the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. If we had even been trying to do that the last 500 years, the last 1,000 years we would have been setting an example to the world. What's happened is that the secular enlightenment has invented its own rules for its own reasons and has tried to get without the gospel at its basis what the church should have been doing all along.
In other words, the enlightenment modernity and then post-modernity have tried to get this pluriform, multicultural society, but without having the gospel of Jesus at its basis, that's never going to work. Then when the church finds that it's got racism inside itself as well, it says, “Oh, dear. We're very naughty. We're racists.” As though the secular world are telling us what the ethics ought to be and we Christians are having to follow them. That's complete rubbish. We should have been showing them all along that there is a different way to be human and shame on us that we didn't and we have a lot of ground to make up. I’m sorry to rant on, but I’ve just written a lot about this in the last two or three days that I feel it very strongly indeed.
[0:46:31.6] JR: I can't wait to read that. It's just a reminder and you talked about this in God and the Pandemic. God has always wanted to work and bring about his will in the world through people. You see it in –
[0:46:42.4] NTW: Exactly. Exactly.
[0:46:43.2] JR: Creates day six, day seven he takes a rest. He create a canvas for us to fill. The first Easter morning, Jesus rose from the dead, inaugurated the kingdom and told us to go create for the kingdom, to build for the kingdom. The way you commented on Romans 8:28 in God and the Pandemic, I don't think I’d ever heard that verse [inaudible 0:47:02.5] and we’re running out of time, but can you give us a 2-minute preview?
[0:47:07.3] NTW: Sure. It’s a funny thing, because I wasn't going to include that because I know how controversial it is. Then my dear friend, Brian Walsh, who's written this book Romans Disarmed with his wife Sylvia Keesmaat, is one of my former students. He said, “Tom, you've got to add this bit. You can't leave it just like that.” I thought, “You know, he's right.”
Then another student of mine, Haley Goranson Jacob, whose book I also quote in God and the Pandemic, she had been very clear about it. She I think has done more work on it since she published her own book, which is a great book by the way; Conformed to the Image of His Son, about Romans 8:29.
Here's how it goes, the key verb in Romans 8:28, which is work together (sunerge), God is the subject, but sunerge with working takes a dative of the person with whom you work. In this verse, it's obvious that God is working with those who love God. Those who love God are the ones who in the previous two verses, are the ones who are lamenting and in whose hearts the spirit is groaning and God, the heart searcher is listening to the mind of the spirit, to the groaning of the spirit.
The idea is not the stoic idea that everything simply pans out if you love God, it'll be all right for you, which is how the King James version implies. It's closer actually to the RSV, which people have often forgotten that God works all things together for good with those who love him. In other words, we are called to cooperate with God. This is not cooperating in our own salvation. Paul isn't talking about that now. Paul is talking about how God's work goes ahead to bring about new creation and God works with the suffering, prayerful people in whose hearts, the spirit is at work.
He says exactly the same in 2 Corinthians 6:1, by the way. In order that then the great work may go ahead and we may reflect God's glory into his new creation. Those who justified them, he also glorified and glorification isn't we get to be glorified, isn't that nice. It's glorification means we are put in charge of and be stewards of God's emerging new creation. That's what it's all about.
[0:49:12.7] JR: Amen. I would highly encourage everybody listening to pick up God and the Pandemic and read the whole thing. It's a quick read. You can read in an hour, in one sitting. That section in particular was dynamite.
Al right, Tom. Three questions we'd love to wrap up every conversation with very quickly. Number one, other than your own books, what do you find yourself recommending, or gifting most frequently to others?
[0:49:35.5] NTW: Oh, goodness. It depends entirely who the others are. I have enjoyed the work of the historian Tom Holland recently. His recent book, Dominion, is a vast church history, showing a lot of the dark sides of the church history, but showing how despite all the dark sides, some of the central ideas of Christianity have woven their way into modern secular culture, even despite the secularist objections. There's a very interesting thing right there. It's difficult, isn't it?
I tell everyone who is up for it to read Richard Hays’s recent book on the gospels, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, because that is just an amazing piece of work which overturns the consensus of the last two centuries, namely that John had a high theology of incarnation, but the Matthew, Mark and Luke didn't. Richard shows conclusively that the way that they use the Old Testament makes it clear that they think that Jesus embodies the God of the Old Testament. That's a stunning piece of it.
[0:50:32.4] JR: Well as always for those of you listening, you can find those books as well as links to God and the Pandemic and Surprised by Hope and everything else at jordanraynor.com/bookshelf. Dr. Wright, what one person would you most like to hear on this podcast talking about how the gospel of the kingdom influences their vocational work day-to-day?
[0:50:52.3] NTW: Oh, my goodness, my goodness. I can think of all sorts of interesting people. I’d love to hear what Barrack Obama would say if you asked him that question. He maybe isn't about to come onto your podcast tomorrow, though you never know. Scot McKnight you've probably had on your program already. My dear friend Carey Newman who now works for Fortress Press, Carey is a fine theologian and outstanding thinker in his own right, as well as an amazing publisher and editor and entrepreneur. Very interesting to get him to come on and talk about –
[0:51:20.3] JR: Yeah. That sounds super interesting.
[0:51:21.4] NTW: Because Carey has a very good thought out theory of what writing and publishing is all about. I think you'd find him a very interesting guest. Carey is a good Christian man and he and I know each other well and I’ve always enjoyed him. I think you would too.
[0:51:34.9] JR: That's a good answer. I like that. All right, last question. What single piece of advice would you leave this audience of Christ followers, who is trying to do their most exceptional work for the glory of God and the good of their neighbors?
[0:51:47.6] NTW: Ah, what single piece of advice. Get up early, read the bible, say your prayers.
[0:51:52.8] JR: There you go. Start with the word. I love that. Dr. Wright, I want to thank you for the exceptional work you do studying –
[0:51:57.8] NTW: Thank you very much.
[0:51:58.5] JR: - and communicating the truths of scripture. Thank you for giving us a bigger picture a bigger, a story for our work and how it contributes to the kingdom. Guys, the book is God and the Pandemic. It's a terrific read. You've also heard me recommend many times on this podcast, Surprised by Hope. You could buy both wherever books are sold. Tom, thanks again for joining me.
[0:52:16.7] NTW: Wonderful. Very good to be with you. Thank you very much, indeed.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:52:20.6] JR: What an amazing conversation. I had eight questions I didn't get to, and so we may have to have Dr. Wright back on. Again, I hope you guys enjoyed that episode as much as I did recording it. Again, if you want to read the transcripts to this episode or any other episode, you can do so at podcast.jordanraynor.com.
Hey, if you're enjoying the show, do me a huge favor. Please take 30 seconds and go rate and/or write a quick review of the podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you, guys, so much for listening to The Call to Mastery. I’ll see you next time.