Discipleship and the Kingdom, or Jesus-the-One-Upper

No one like a one-upper.

Come on, you know the type. That woman who always improves upon your plans? Only moments after you excitedly announce that you and your man are finally taking a long-awaited, long anticipated, long-saved-for vacation to Breckenridge, she tells you how you’ll love it, because they have a vacation home there. Or should you mention that you’re reading a new book series, she just happens to mention that she has met the author.

One-upping: it’s the social art of raising the bar to your higher standards. It can be downright annoying.

Husband and I have been reading through the Gospels the last few months for our morning devotionals. Recently, we have come to Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6), and in this reading I have come to this startling conclusion: Jesus was a one-upper.

You heard me. Jesus, our good God and Savior, was a one-upping fiend.

This is most apparent when you look at the Sermon on the Mount from an aerial view. Go ahead – grab that Bible of yours and look with me.

No, seriously. I meant it.

Take at looks at Jesus’ opening words. Remember, this is a sermon. Jesus is preaching to a crowd of people who want to better understand the Text at hand. For them, that Text was the Old Testament, and there is no one better to explain the intricacies of such a Text that Jesus. Looking at the beginning of chapter 5, do you see the primary vocab Jesus is using as He begins this sermon? Blessed! It all but jumps off the page at you! Jesus is calling all kinds of people blessed. It is as if His sermon begins, “Blessed are these types of people, and these kind of people are blessed, too.”

The language of blessing is unmistakable, and it almost makes you settle in, doesn’t it? If I was a Jewish woman in that crowd, sitting in that field, listening to this mysterious Man of God begin His sermon, I would be inclined to think, “Hey, I kinda like this preacher!” Jesus pronounces nine broad categories of people as “blessed,”but He doesn’t stop there.

Jesus turns from His language of blessing, and interprets for His hearers the Hebrew Scriptures (or the Old Testament). Like I said, this sermon is best understood – for our purposes – from a bird’s eye view. So scan it with me, noticing once again the common language Jesus uses as He begins each section of teaching, focusing on Matthew 5:21-43.

(If you’re using a modern translation, your Bible is likely broken into little sections, each with a header. So you should see a title like, “Jesus Fulfills the Law”, followed by about 8 verses or so. These are the little sections we are looking at, keeping an eye out for the way Jesus starts each. These sections are called pericopes.)

Have you found the common language? Do you see the theme?

Jesus starts almost every section of His sermon with, “You have heard …. But I say to you….” Jesus takes well-known teachings from the Old Testament Law, common practices of the Law with which His hearers would have likely read, and one-ups them! He quotes the Old Testament commands they were familiar with and interprets them according to the mysterious and radical ways of the kingdom of God. Take verse 21 for instance. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment’.” His hearers would have been well aware of this command – yes, murder was clearly against the Law. But Jesus goes on to say, “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”

If you look through the rest of the sermon, here are some of the other one-ups Jesus offers:

5:27, “You have heard that it was said those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

5:31, “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery.”

3:31, “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely …’ But I say to you do not swear at all…”

5:38, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a took for a tooth’. But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”

5:43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you…”

Wowza, amiright?

Jesus takes these hard-and-fast cultural, moral, attainable boundaries and raises the bar infinitely. He takes a command like “Do no swear falsely,” and raises the bar to “Do not swear at all.” And the most striking one to me is when He take the command to love your neighbor and hate your enemy, and insists that His followers love those who oppose them, to be kind to those who spew curses at them, and tangibly bless those who out-spokenly hate their stinking guts.

At the core of Jesus’ teaching is the profound reality that the kingdom of God cannot be limited to cut and dry commands of dos and don’ts. In the painful, stretching way of the kingdom, Jesus pushes on the limits of the Law, insisting that the kingdom of God cannot be contained there. He expounds upon the moral code of the day and insists that His kingdom was much, much bigger.

And while many of us could potentially, maybe, possibly keep the previous list of commands – those of which Jesus said, “You have heard it said…” – it seems an unbearable task to obey the elevated commands of Jesus’ one-upped interpretation! The call that He gives in this sermon, to those in the crowd that day and to us today, is a call to follow Him. And that call is hard. It is the kind of throw-your-hands-up, can’t-take-it-anymore, kind of hard.

And that is the reality of following Jesus. As G.K. Chesterton aptly puts it: [the path of discipleship] has not been found tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried. There is a really serious thing that happens when we follow the call of Christ and pick the path of discipleship. We are called to the hard realities of Christ’s elevated commands. There is not a checklist of simple dos and don’ts, but an all-encompassing, life-consuming way of living that marks those who bear the name of Christ.

For us today it may be that you have heard that you should tithe 10% of your income, but Christ calls you to live generously in every area of your life, including your resources, space, energy, and time. Or perhaps you have heard it said that you should respect your husband, but Christ calls you to foster tenderness for him in your words and your actions. Maybe you have heard it said that you shouldn’t coven your neighbor’s stuff, but the call of discipleship mandates that you choose contentment, not only in your financial situation, but in your singleness as well.

Following Jesus means choosing to live according to His higher standards. Thankfully, He doesn’t leave us to do it on our own, giving us both Himself by His Spirit and the Church to help make us more holy. But today, my encouragement to you would be this: those who follow Jesus pick the hard path of discipleship – so pick it. Walk it faithfully, knowing you are participating in the kingdom of God.


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