Book Review: “Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament” by Christopher J.H. Wright (1992)

In the following paper, we will discuss how Christopher J.H. Wright not only commits to introducing an accurate yet surprisingly unique biography of Jesus Christ founded in the Old Testament Scriptures, but also develops throughout his book a strong confidence in the value of those Scriptures, upon which the entirety of the New Testament is based, and which Jesus Himself read, studied and used as the basis for His own worldview.

Wright’s book, Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament[1] is first in a series of three books seeking to understand each member of the Trinity through the Old Testament Scriptures.[2] Wright earned a Doctorate in Old Testament Ethics from Cambridge University and is currently serving as the international director of the Langham Partnership International which provides Doctoral scholarships to pastors worldwide and literature to seminary students.[3]

Throughout Wright’s book, one overarching theme seems to hit every point he covers: one issue seems to be foundational for all other ideas he presents. He states this theme quite candidly when he says: “the more deeply we understand the Scriptures Jesus used, the closer we will come to the heart of Jesus Himself” (Wright, 158). Wright has utilized this key concept extraordinarily well, as he is obviously entrenched in the idea that every issue of the New Testament is solidly grounded on books of the Old Testament. He reasons this, for though it is clear no one in the New Testament had the New Testament (ix), too many Christians today approach Jesus and the characters of the New Testament as if they are separate and completely distinct from the Old Testament. But that is certainly not so, for to them, the Old Testament was Scripture, their only Scripture, and it molded the way each one of them—from Christ to the apostles—lived out their lives in relation to God.

Wright evidences this foundational belief in the importance of the Old Testament as it pertains to Christ by first reviewing the story of the Old Testament in three neat parts (a method borrowed from Matthew [8]): from Abraham to David, David to the Exile, the Exile to the Messiah (9-26). Brief though it may be, Wright expertly whittles the entire Old Testament narrative down to the bare essentials in order to bring us to speed with the story of Christ. And with such a background firmly and freshly replanted in our brains, we the readers are ready to embark on the journey of learning more about Christ from those very passages than we had ever known before.

From these texts, Wright manages to pull four major themes of Jesus, each offering a different perspective on the Messiah than we had first supposed. Wright begins with Jesus and the Old Testament promise, which, after detailing the essence and features of a promise (78) (as contrasted with a prediction [64-65]), he compares the New Covenant with His people in Christ (97) to those covenants made with Noah (81), Abraham (83), Moses and the Israelites (85) and David (88).

Next, Wright focuses on Jesus’ identity, most notably that He is God’s Son, a perfection of the sonship of Israel (124), as seen in the Old Testament (106-107) and clarified in the New (104).

Third, Wright discusses the different aspects of Christ’s mission, as seen in the various titles and roles He took on during His ministry on earth. He is the Messiah (143), the fulfillment and completion of the Old Testament, though due to certain stigma attached to the title, He never called Himself such (145). He calls Himself most often the Son of Man (148), a title which had grave implications as it declared Him to be a representation of both the saints of God (151) and God Himself (152)—quite possibly the reason for which the Jewish religious leadership most hated Him (153). And He is called the Servant of the Lord, a title which has deep prophetic significance in relation to the suffering He had come to face (154). Wright masterfully analyzes Christ’s role and mission as the Servant of the Lord, with both a look back to the times of the Old Testament and Israel as the original servant of the Lord (162), and forward to growth of the Church, of both Jews and Gentiles, after His ascension (166). Wright manages in an incredible way to explain Christ’s role as the “hinge” of history (166), from restoring Israel (170) through His own sacrifice (147-148) to the ultimate inclusion of and blessings to every nation (169).

After a brief episode of personal application (174-180), Wright concludes his book with a discussion of Jesus and His Old Testament values. He discusses Jesus’ relationship to and use of the Law, how He “restored the true perspective and essential point of the law […:] a single-minded, uncomplicated loyalty to God Himself” (191). He then concludes the study with a look at Jesus’ relationship to the Prophets (222) and then to the Psalms, the major theme of which is the Kingship of God (242).

Through this book, Wright has accomplished his goal of presenting a better understanding of Jesus by analyzing the Scriptures Jesus Himself read and studied, the Scripture which He Himself not only completed but fulfilled, as we will see. As noted above, time and culture has completely separated our view of Christ from the Old Testament, presenting Him as a paper doll, as it were, cut only from the pages of the New Testament. But without interaction with the Old Testament, we risk misinterpreting Jesus’ actions, His words, His methods and His goals as presented in the New. And so, as the title of the book suggests, to truly know Jesus, we must understand the Old Testament.

In his Preface, Wright eloquently shares with us his conviction concerning the Old Testament (ix) and purpose for writing this book. While recognizing the credibility Wright’s own background suggests, as noted above, one can approach this book confident in the research and integrity upon which it is based. And no matter the readers’ doctrinal background, so long as each is a child of God and believer in the Savior Jesus, all can benefit from this study, for the very foundation of our faith is the covenant promises of God found in the Old Testament, and no doctrinal differences “can relieve us of the imperative necessity of faith proving itself in active obedience” (70).

With this in mind, we turn now to look at the various strengths and weaknesses of Wright’s argument, beginning with the strength of how he handles major misconceptions of the Old Testament. One popular yet dangerous method of Old Testament interpretation has been to view it only as a foreshadowing of Christ (115). While certain types of Jesus do exist in the Old Testament, such types are not the “primary purpose” of it (115). To think otherwise poses the dangers of both devaluing the Old Testament accounts for what they truly are—literal history—and opening the door to excessive spiritualizing, forcing connections to the New Testament where none exist (115-116). In contrast to such literal foreshadowing, Wright suggests the use of “typology” in biblical study, “understanding Christ […] in the New Testament by analogy or correspondence with the historical realities of the Old Testament seen as patterns or models” (116). Second, Wright dispels the common misconception that God chose Israel by their merit (10, 39, 122), but instead points out that He in fact chose Israel through His relationship with Abraham (10, 66), evidencing His original and ultimate goal of blessing all nations through Him (39, 66). In like manner, Wright assures us that not only did God originally base His promise on a relationship, how He fulfills that promise is also based on relationship (71), dismissing the common misconception that God has historically been changing His mind of how men come to Him throughout each dispensation. This brings us to the final misconception: that salvation in the Old Testament was attained through works. Instead, Wright points out that salvation is and has always been based on God’s grace and promise (68), never works, for God’s promise to Abraham came before the Law (69).

This leads us to the second strength of Wright’s arguments, how he deals with the promises of the Old Testament. Using the image of a river, Wright explains that the Old Testament “Promise” is not one, but many streams with flow into a mighty river (101). Because much of “knowing Jesus through the Old Testament” involves searching through actual references to Him, Wright first explains the differences between a promise and prediction: whereas a prediction is made about someone, a promise is deeper, more personal and significant, as it is made to someone (64-65). And unlike a prediction which must be fulfilled in a detailed way, a promise can be fulfilled in a magnified, better way. To illustrate this concept, Wright suggests a father who promises his five-year-old boy to someday give him a horse, but instead gives him a car at twenty-one: the promise of transportation was fulfilled, only better, as a car is an upgrade on a horse (71, 76-77). As pointed out above, God made a promise to humanity through Abraham (66), that He would bless his seed. This promise was fulfilled and magnified in many ways: first in Isaac as his son, then in the Israelites as a nation, then in Jesus as the Messiah, and ultimately in the Gentiles as those grafted into God’s chosen people (72,169[4]). All were and are seeds of Abraham, and thus the promise was fulfilled. But it is important to note that since God’s promises involve both His own initiative and human response (78), His promise to Abraham would have been “pointless” without Abraham’s own faith and action (68), for in this promise, obedience was required (131).

A third strength of Wright’s arguments is his explanation of how Jesus fulfilled God’s prophetic plan. The Israelites understood from their Scriptures that a new covenant was coming, but that for it to arrive, there must first be a purging or judgment of Israel (147). But what they failed to see was Christ’s role in this process: for as the Son of God, and thus the representative of Israel (122-124, 147) and the world as a whole (72, 169), Jesus took the purging, took the judgment of God that God required by dying in their place (147), and through His own resurrection brought about Israel’s and the world’s redemption (148).  The evidence of this amazing and key “hinge” (166) of history hit the stubborn Jews only when they began to see that God had invited the Gentiles into His fold (169), for “if God was gathering the nations, Israel too was being restored” (170). The door to the Gentiles was open, but it took the apostles and early Jewish Christians a while to go through (167), and Paul led the way (170-173).

While Wright’s background is predominantly grounded on the Old Testament, he acknowledges in his Preface that he feels like an “amateur” when it comes to matters of the New Testament (x). This information offers slight concern for the authority of his topic as a whole, but as he also acknowledges the help of New Testament Scholars chained to his own Old Testament prowess, this apparent weakness to his work diminishes greatly. Another weakness pointed out in the book review by Brian Tubbs of Protestantism.com is that throughout his book, Wright “meanders,” leaving the reader desiring a more systematic approach[5]. While I understand where Tubbs is coming from, I found Wright’s book to be well-outlined in his Table of Contents, and I found him to be proficient in his use of signal words throughout his text.

The greatest discrepancy I found in Wright’s book was his persistent references to Christ’s “identity” (108), His “self-consciousness” (191), and His uncertainty (108). Christ was not a machine to become self-aware (117), and while He was a human who grew “in wisdom and stature and favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52), I do not believe He, as God Himself, could ever have been uncertain of His role or unaware of His so-called “selfhood” (117). But while it is perhaps a debate neither side could win (“Was Jesus fully aware of who He was, even as a baby, fresh from the womb?”), we will one day know the answer, when we all bow at Jesus’ feet and give Him all the honor that is due Him.

After finishing this book and compiling my own notes based off the text, I discovered just how much I had learned on both the humanity and deity of Jesus: He was a man with a job (227) and tastes who loved the Hebrew Scripture (ix), but He was also God Himself (152), God’s Son (104), here with a purpose and a mission (136). In conclusion, I strongly believe that, even above the one flaw I find in his work, Christopher Wright’s book would prove indispensable to any denomination craving to know Jesus more. I have learned an immense amount that should have already been foundational to my faith. I have gained a much greater love and appreciation for God’s Word: the Old Testament (158), the Gospels (63, 173), Paul’s writings (170) and the entire New Testament as a whole (102). And this, perhaps, is the greatest gem I have found in this class.


[1] Wright, Christopher J.H. (1992). Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.[2] New Frontiers Book Review. Retrieved on February 26, 2010 from http://resources.newfrontiers.xtn.org/product_info.php?products_id=1231

[3] Westminster Book Review. Retrieved on February 25, 2010 from http://www.wtsbooks.com/product-exec/product_id/1883/nm/Knowing+Jesus+Through+the+Old+Testament+%28Paperback%29

[4] To truly grasp this concept in beautiful detail, I encourage you to read the full text on pages 163-174.

[5] Tubbs, Brian. “Jesus and the Old Testament.” Retrieve on February 25, 2010 from  http://protestantism.suite101.com/article.cfm/jesus_and_the_old_testament

© 2010 E.T.

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This entry was posted in Bible Doctrines, Bible Study, Biblical History, Book Review, Character Studies, History, Non-Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: “Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament” by Christopher J.H. Wright (1992)

  1. Tess says:

    This is a very well put review. Thank you for sharing. Have a nice day. Tess

  2. I have really enjoyed reading your reviews. They are well thought out and incredibly detailed.
    I read “Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament” at a friend’s recommendation a few years ago, and enjoyed Wright’s thoughtful exposition of the Old Testament, and the manner in which he addressed the promises of God.

  3. Pingback: I Give Up Book Review: “The Miracle of the Scarlet Thread” by Dr. Richard Booker (2008) | Elliot's Blog

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