Wright suggests in this chapter that we ought to be reading Paul’s use of “Christ” a bit more apocalyptically. Essentially, when Paul says “Christ,” he means “Messiah.” That Jesus is the Messiah is not a major issue in the circles I travel in, but in New Testament Scholarship, a return to Jesus as Messiah is something which is in fact controversial.
Wright wants to get away from a false dichotomy that the Messiah was either a political idea or a religious idea (49). This is excellent, since there is no separate of church and state in the first century or in the Hebrew Bible. In addition, Wright states that Paul’s used of Messiah was not “religious” over against “political.”
A second idea which Wright argues strenuously against is that apocalyptic in the Second Temple period and in Paul does not mean “end of the space time universe” (50-51). If one thinks that when Jesus returns is the “end of the world as we know it” they are wrong – that sort of an idea does not exist in the first century, in the Bible or in most Second Temple period apocalypses. Again, Wright is more or less correct. In this literature, when Messiah comes he vindicates Israel and restores them to their inheritance. Zion becomes the center of the world and all people, whether Jew or Gentile, will worship in Zion.
It is significant to me that Wright talks about the coming of the Messiah as God accomplishing his “many-staged plan of salvation” (53). Even a text like Eph 3:8-11 is apocalyptic: God has called Paul to make know “the plan that through the church the many-splendoured wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places” (52). That God has a plan administered in several stages to bring about the redemption of the world is a very familiar idea to me and it warms my dispensational heart.
However, clearly Wright is not a dispensationalist, and many people have noticed that Wright has become increasingly agitated at dispensationalist finding comfort in his books. There are really two reasons for this, as I see it. First, Wright sees the American “Left Behind” version of dispensationalism as an aberration. In The Last Word and Surprised by Hope he seems to go out of his way to distance himself from this sort of thinking. Secondly, Wright is an Anglican and does not make a distinction between church and Israel the way a dispensational does. Israel has been replaced by the Church and there is not “future” for Israel separate from the church.
If I have read Wright correctly, two reactions immediately come to mind. I hope that no one judges dispensational thinking by Left Behind (or Hal Lindsey, etc.) Those books are not theological mature thinking, nor are they theological in the least. There are at least a half-dozen well-written and scholarly explanations of dispensational thinking that are better representatives than pop-culture phenomenons. I am thinking here of Bock, Blaising, Saucy, and of course Dale DeWitt.
Secondly, Wright is incorrect if he thinks that dispensationalism (even in the hokiest forms) believes that the return of Jesus is the “end of the world as we know it.” In dispensationalism, the present age gives way to the kingdom, which goes on forever. The re-creation of the heavens and the earth, drawn from texts in the Hebrew Bible and Revelation, is in fact a re-creation of the heavens and the earth. I suppose this is a radical change, but it is the same “space-time universe.” Apocalyptic that looks for the complete destruction of the world is wrong-headed (Wright is correct here. Although it makes a great Bruce Willis movie, “Armageddon” as the end of the world is not good theology!)
I find much in Paul: A Fresh Perspective which is conducive to a contemporary, even progressive dispensationalism even if Wright would protest. Your mileage may vary.