Chapter 2

Will We Take Jesus Seriously?

To return to the analogy between Christian discipleship and Professor Stratton’s experiment, Jesus essentially says to us, “Anyone who wants to be my disciple must put on my kingdom goggles and live accordingly. Once you do this, much of what I tell you to do will seem upside-down, backwards, and inside-out. But trust me. I am modeling and teaching you the way that my heavenly Father has always wanted his children to live in this world.”

The good news is that if we persist in wanting to see the world from Jesus’s kingdom perspective and then do what he asks, we will eventually reach that tipping point of familiarity where viewing the world upside-down becomes more and more comfortable. It may never appear right-side up. Following Jesus always remains an exercise in counterintuitive decision-making, going against the grain, swimming against the current, marching to the beat of a different drummer-or whatever topsy-turvy metaphor you prefer. But, with enough time and experience, living an upside-down life as citizens of the kingdom of God will slowly become more natural to anyone who follows Jesus consistently, for the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification will conform us more and more to the image of Christ himself. One day you may even go downhill skiing or ride a bicycle with your kingdom goggles on.

Long-term spiritual success is a matter of “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (hebrews 12:2). Taking our eyes off Jesus, turning away from him, is the equivalent of putting on Professor Stratton’s blindfold. With the upside-down images removed, the older, deep-seated instincts of how we were born and raised to live in a fallen world reassert themselves because they never completely leave us-at least, not in this life. The seemingly “normal,” right-side-up perspective on life only appears to be normal because we are sinners who are most comfortable living out the status quo of our fallen, sinful world. Our own fallenness naturally aligns itself with the fallenness of the world we live in, so that our native preference for living right-side up rather than upside-down is always more than ready to reemerge as a serious contender for control over our ethical and spiritual lives.

This internal debate between seemingly right-side-up and apparently upside-down responses to life’s daily challenges will continue with frustrating predictability until the day we die or the moment Jesus returns on the clouds of heaven. Either way, only then will we finally be able to see clearly, without doubt, hesitation, or second thoughts, that Jesus’s upside-down way of self-denial, sacrificial service, peace, forgiveness, and unremitting, unconditional mercy is the only true way of living a meaningful life that is pleasing to God. In the meantime, the disciple’s only chance for long-term faithfulness is to wear Jesus’s kingdom goggles 24/7, knowing that eventually Jesus’s kingdom lifestyle will become every disciple’s (super)natural preference.

Jesus Is the Starting Point

Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom of God is a foundational component to his ministry. That Jesus taught about the kingdom of God is hardly controversial nowadays. The New Testament scholar Bruce Malina goes so far as to say, “Even the most skeptical historian would agree that if Jesus spoke about anything, he spoke about the kingdom of heaven.” I will go one step further. In my estimation, the actual arrival of God’s kingdom in and through Jesus’s earthly ministry is central to his teaching, at least according to the Synoptic Gospels. In fact, we understand the significance ofJesus’s ministry only insofar as we understand his message about the kingdom.

A proper view of Christian ethics must begin with a correct understanding of Jesus and his kingdom teaching. Although this may sound like a foregone conclusion to some readers, others insist that any biblical study of Christian ethics must begin with the apostle Paul, not with Jesus.

But a proper understanding of Christian ethics must begin with Jesus. Why?

First, the priority of focusing on the biblical text, as important as it is, does not mean that those texts must be studied only in chronological order. That claim has the ring of something I am tempted to call the chronological fallacy: a chronological approach to interpretation may be required when investigating how a theme or topic developed over time, but the compositional date of a text (which is frequently subject to debate) should not be confused with the date of the traditions and the ideas contained within that text.

The traditions about Jesus were not the invention of anonymous communities who felt themselves free to invent unhistorical Jesus stories out of nothing more than their own immediate felt needs (such as comfort during times of Roman persecution or exclusion from the synagogue) inflamed by pious, overactive imaginations. We must grant to the earliest Christians what I refer to as a positive presumption of ethical concern, which means that they well understood the difference between passing along complete fabrications as if they were true, on the one hand, and relating the traditions of eyewitnesses burnished with some editorial license, on the other. Even Hays admits that the Gospels, including John’s unique story line, were not invented out of whole cloth. They may not be the literary equivalents of exact, photographic reproductions of the historical Jesus, but they do make up masterful portraits in which each gospel author captures Jesus’s likeness by preserving and retelling in his own way the earlier traditions about Jesus’s teachings and actions.

There simply is no getting around the fact that Jesus is “the definitive paradigm” for the obedient Christian life and what it means to be in right relationship with the Father. The preferred metaphor in the Synoptic Gospels depicting Christian discipleship is “following Jesus,” with the Lord urging his followers to conform their lives to his.

Obviously, following after Jesus is a particularly apt turn of phrase for the Gospel story line, but the evangelists did not invent it themselves. Paul urges the church in Corinth to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 corinthians 11:1). Following after ChristJesus is also Paul’s definition of what it means to live an obedient Christian life for the Roman church (romans 15:5; see also 1 peter 2:21; revelation 14:4). Even though we can never know how much Paul knew about Jesus’s earthly life and ministry, these references demonstrate that Paul was repeating a much wider Christian consensus. Christians were defined as Jesus followers. They were expected to be like Jesus and to conform their lives to his example, which means in effect that Christian ethics must begin with Jesus-not only his teaching but also his personal behavior.

The things that Jesus did, and the Gospel narratives that describe his actions, can contain ethical lessons every bit as important as the sayings found in Jesus’s ethical instruction. We are not limited to didactic, overtly instructional sayings alone. Jesus also teaches by example. Fortunately, in recent years there have been a number of substantial publications in the field of New Testament ethics from scholars like Richard A. Burridge, David P. Gushee, Glen H. Stassen, and Allen Verhey that all begin from this same starting point: Jesus.

The New Testament insists on describing its ethics as a Christian ethic, that is required of every Jesus follower. As a distinctly Christian ethic, it is universally applicable to all believers everywhere. There are not different classes of believers, more ethical rigor being expected from some than from others. Because all Christian disciples by definition claim that they are following (or want to follow) Jesus, and since Jesus came to this world bringing the kingdom of God, Christian ethics necessarily begin by embracing Jesus and soaking in everything he has to say about living in his Father’s kingdom. As he tells the disciples, “Your heavenly Father knows [what you need]. But seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness and all these [other] things will be given to you as well” (matthew 6:32–33).

Mark, the Cross-Cultural Communicator

The gospel according to Mark wastes no time in introducing the core of Jesus’s message. The first sentence declares, “The beginning of the gospel/ good news [Greek: tou euaggeliou] about Jesus Christ/ Anointed One [Greek: Christou], the Son of God.” The political and religious significance of Mark’s carefully selected words are lost on the average reader today, but to his original audience this sentence was a thunderous shot across the bow of human history. Mark crafts a brilliant act of cross-cultural communication that would have grabbed both Jewish and Greco-Roman readers by the shoulders, shaking them wide awake.

For Jesus’s fellow Jews, he is declared to be their Anointed One, the Messiah, which is the meaning of the Greek title Christos. More specifically, Jesus is the royal Messiah, the descendant of King David who now takes the ancient royal designation “Son of God” as his own. The Davidic Covenant had promised that a never-ending dynasty would occupy Israel’s throne, and that the king would be God’s own son. Yahweh had declared: “I will be his father, and he will be my son” (2 samuel 7:14). The royal psalmist remembered God’s promise, “I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father’” (psalm 2:7).

Furthermore, by referring to this straightforward declaration of Jesus’s royal messiahship as “good news,” Mark ties it together with the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the Servant of the Lord found in Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” In other words, Jesus is both the messianic king and the Spirit-filled servant in the Isaiah mold; he combines these two figures into one by proclaiming the gospel message in his own lifetime, and whose life and ministry continue to be the content of the gospel today. Jesus is the proclaimer and the proclaimed, the messenger and the message, the bringer of the good news and its subject matter. The gospel of Luke conveys a similar perspective by describing how Jesus once read Isaiah 61:1 at a synagogue service in his home town of Nazareth and declared, by way of interpretation, that Isaiah’s words were at that very moment being fulfilled in him (luke 4:16–21). According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus pursued his ministry with a definite messianic self-understanding, announcing the good news about both the coming of God’s kingdom and his own role in its arrival.

Remember, though, this is a cross-cultural sentence that would also grab the attention of a Greco-Roman (gentile) reader who knew nothing at all about Jewish messianism, the prophet Isaiah, or the God of Israel. Mark’s gospel is written in Greek, and the word translated as gospel/good news had a long history in Greek society.

The word euaggelion was commonly used to describe the divine messages delivered through dreams, visions, and oracles to the designated virgins lodged at shrines scattered across the Greek world, places such as Delphi and Korope. It could also be used for announcements of important political events, especially when those events involved news of military victory. In fact, euaggelion had become a technical term for delivering good news from a distant battlefield about the hometown’s victorious army. Proclaiming good news then passed into Roman usage, where it was closely associated with the elevation of a Caesar in the imperial cult. Announcements about the Caesar’s birthday, his ascension to the throne, or a Roman victory on the battlefield all gave occasion for another proclamation of good news, the gospel.

The title “Son of God” is as reminiscent of the Roman imperial cult as is the word “gospel.” The Roman senate divinized Julius Caesar after his death, elevating him to the status of the “divine Julius” (divus Julius). Consequently, Julius’s adopted son and successor, Octavian, also known as Augustus, became “son of the divine Julius” (divi Juli filius), setting a pattern for subsequent Caesars, who were consistently identified as a “son of the divine” (divi filius). Although the Romans understood there was a difference between being deified (divus) and being God (deus), the Greek language was not as clear in maintaining the distinction. Even though no Caesar was ever officially designated “son of God” (dei filius), Greek inscriptions often translated the Latin title “son of the divine” (divi filius) with the Greek words “son of God” (huios theou), the title found in Mark 1:1. Undoubtedly, in the minds of many, the distinction between the two designations was eventually lost.

The opening sentence of Mark’s gospel, then, was every bit as evocative for non-Jewish readers as it would have been for Jews, and in similar ways. To summarize, Mark’s Greco-Roman reader would have understood that a divine message concerning an imperial, divinized figure, which may have included word of a military victory, is presented in the story of a Jewish preacher named Jesus Christ who lived and died in the land of Palestine. Hearing that message as good news would have been as shockingly inconceivable for the average Roman citizen as it would have been teasingly momentous for the average Jew. Yet, despite these different evaluations of Mark’s words, none of his readers would be surprised to learn that this would-be king, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came announcing the arrival of a new kingdom.