Jesus’ life and death is not an escape route out of this world, but an invitation into a whole new way of life in this world. Yesterday I posted a section titled “The self-made project” from chapter four of my book proposing that a meaningful life with meaningful relationships will not happen when much of our attention is guided and fueled by the self-made project. Instead we will need a whole new approach to life. Here’s where we left off…
Jesus and a New Way to Be Human
Contrary to what many people (even Christian people) assert about him, Jesus did not enter human history merely to ensure people have a great afterlife only to neglect much of life on earth here and now. This must be said because a very large number of professing Christians (in North America in particular) believe as much.
The opposite is actually true.
Jesus challenged and invited people into a new way of life that involves making a radical shift in how we think about and relate to others (friends, neighbors, enemies…everyone), and this has everything to do with life on earth here and now. In fact, Jesus lived in this new way of being human, and it has proved to be the only solution to and replacement for the self-made project. But don’t take my word for it; read the four accounts of his life on earth in the Bible books titled Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to see for yourself.
A little context first.3
Jesus came out of a long but powerful story about a people who God had chosen to make a difference in this world. The story goes that ancient Israel was called by God to bless all the nations of the world.4 At first, this calling comes across a bit vague when it first shows up in the Bible, only saying that Israel was somehow going to bring about (with God’s help) something good (the Bible calls it blessing) to every group of people around the world. The one problem is that, like every nation (ancient or modern), ancient Israel became self-absorbed. On one level, they continued holding claim that God had chosen them, but they turned that “chosenness” into an excuse to act as if they were the only ones who mattered to God and that God could care less for the other nations of the earth.
Turning inward, both individually and on a national level, always has side effects. Eventually, ancient Israel began to even treat their own people carelessly and shamefully. The rich and the powerful took advantage of the weak or economically challenged, sometimes enslaving them, and generally acting from a place of self-interest.5 The irony too was that the rich and the powerful of God’s people were claiming God was blessing their actions with some of the religious leaders backing them. Religion had, in that sense, condoned social injustice.
In the decades leading up to the first century in Palestine, the commission to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth seems all but forgotten. Pagans were “enemies” to be hated or disliked, not to bless. The “gentiles” were not so deserving of God’s goodness like Israel had been.
Proud of being “the chosen people,” they failed to be the light of the world they were called to be.
By the time of Jesus, the world superpower was the Roman Empire whose leader (Caesar) and his military boasted of being peace bringers to the whole world. They even believed their gods had given them favor to accomplish this. The irony of “peace bringing” is that like all world powers, ancient and modern, who claim to bring peace (or freedom), they often do so by fear and intimidation through the use of a large and powerful military force. Peace bringing has more often than not gotten confused with world domination, then and now.
Jesus grew up in the early stages of Rome’s occupation of his own homeland.
While Israel’s approach to life had turned inward over the centuries of inhabiting Palestine, and while Rome’s approach to life was to be the greatest nation and empire on earth (blessed by their gods, of course), Jesus offered a whole new approach and mission for humanity, beginning with his own people:
Whoever wants to be first and greatest in life must learn to serve others.6
What could Jesus have meant by this?
To be first and great, a person must learn to serve others.
Jesus challenged people to frame their lives around serving others in the sense of serving the betterment of others. This is how Jesus himself lived, and it was what motivated him and ultimately led him to his death on a Roman cross.
Throughout his career, he engaged in the everyday lives of people. He ate meals with them, worked with them, laughed with them, cried with them, touched them, loved them, and invested his wisdom into their life situations and problems. He affirmed the dignity and value of all people, both his own (the Jews) and those who were not; this could be seen no more clearly than in the way he treated those who were ostracized in society, deemed by the larger community and religious leadership as unworthy. It should be noted that Jesus’s affirmation of the dignity and worth of people who were outcasts in the religious community is very likely part of his larger motivation behind the healings. Physical healing restored people back into the community where they rightfully belonged in the first place.
The New Testament authors are clear too that Jesus’s affirmation of people (their value and humanity) was not simply his own view but was actually the way the God of his ancestors viewed (and felt) about people. “For God so loved the world” is a theme threaded throughout the pages of the New Testament.7
People mattered to Jesus. Unfortunately, the current religious systems in place did not allow for a Jewish man to treat people with such dignity, respect, and love. Religion, in its worst forms, blinds religious leaders so that they end up keeping certain people down in order to make their lives comfortable, all the while ignoring the social ills and problems right in front of them that need to be dealt with but aren’t.8
We could go on and on about the myriad of socially contextual elements that compelled Jesus to serve his own people in order to help them to get their eyes off themselves (their inward focus) and begin looking out beyond themselves to see how their lives can and should affect the larger world around them, starting with their own people.
“You are the light of the world! A city can’t be hidden if it’s on top of a hill”9 was not intended to be a nice and neat Sunday school lesson to merely make people feel special inside about themselves, but was intended to call people (you and I included) out of their complacency to start serving the betterment of others in this world.
This is the way of Jesus.
This is what it means for us to follow Jesus.
Serving others through Jesus’s style can be expressed in many ways here and now, but here are a few out of Jesus’s life and teaching:
to give time and energy to,
to be supportive of,
to affirm the value and dignity of others,
and finally, to bring correction to and solution for the ills and problems of society.
When you have replaced the self-made project, there’s really only one alternative approach to life that works: the servant project.
To serve the betterment of others is not something you can force or manipulate people into. It has to be embraced from a place of receptivity and choice. It also just doesn’t happen merely by wanting to be a better person; although there’s no shame in wanting to be better (that’s a good thing). Pursuing this kind of life comes into view when we can observe someone else who has gone before us in this way of life.
For those of us who have been captivated by the good news of Jesus and Jesus himself, he has become for us that someone. As we consider the way he lived and led others as a servant from the beginning of his public ministry all the way through to the time of his death on a Roman cross, we discover a growing desire and motivation forming in us to do the same. Not necessarily a desire to die, although in time you may find yourself willing to do something for Jesus and his mission in this world that may invite the risk of death. But for many people right now, you will find a desire forming to serve others in a way you hadn’t ever considered until you began to observe Jesus’s life closely.
I don’t mean that any of us actually see Jesus in front of us literally, but that as we observe him through reading the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the way of the servant comes into view. There’s a bit of mystery involved here. Somehow as we watch Jesus (so to speak) in action in his life and in his death on the cross, we begin to see what life truly is about—serving others, even in his name—and we begin to discover inner motivation and strength to actually live in this new way, both of which I suggest come from his Spirit.
At the cross of Jesus, we see the emptiness of all other approaches at being human—the two big ones we discussed earlier being “the life turned inward” (ancient Israel’s big sin) and “the life that dominates others” (Rome’s big sin). The life turned inward, as demonstrated by ancient Israel, involves ignoring and or rejecting others due to self-centeredness and self-righteousness. The life that dominates others, as demonstrated by ancient Rome, involves seeking greatness over others, approval and praise, or a combination of both.
Jesus’s life leading up to and including his death on a cross exposed the life turned inward for what it actually is—the cheap alternative of comfort and security that isolates and alienates those who live in its clutches from others. Jesus’s life leading up to the cross also redefined greatness, but more likely than not he was challenging people to see the pursuit of greatness in all its many forms and expressions for what they actually are—empty pursuits that make us less human rather than affirming our humanity.
Jesus’s new way of being human is no longer about competition (at all). It’s no longer about exalting ourselves above others anymore. It’s no longer about your wins and successes, all the while neglecting or ignoring the effect that your life’s choices have on everyone else (your family, friends, community, church, and others).
It’s also no longer about obtaining or seeking recognition from others.
Instead, following Jesus into his new way of being human is about choosing to make your life about the betterment of others. It’s a way of living that affirms the value and dignity both you and they already have—the value and dignity we inherently have from God.
Think of the servant project (and mind-set) as a new pair of glasses we need to put on every morning in order to see anything and everything in our world with detail and clarity. It shifts the overall focus (or mission) of our lives and relationships from being entirely about us (the self-made project) to being about others too.
More than that, it challenges us to make a habit of considering others’ needs first, even before our own. This is hard for most people to accept. Think of it this way: when our needs and wants are priority number one, we tend to only use people in relationships. When our needs are first, we tend to think about how others can serve our needs.
But this is not the way of the servant.
This is not the way of Jesus.
However, when you make it a habit of considering others first, it allows you to actually give more thought and intention to serving their betterment—to how you could contribute and invest yourself into their lives (even in the smallest ways). All of us are quick to see what we think others “should” do for us or how they could benefit our lives; it’s high time for those who claim to know and follow Jesus to live in his way of life…which is the way of the servant.
Remember, life is no longer just about you.
It’s about others. It’s about giving to others.
As you learn to live in this way of life, you will gradually become more aware of how your life affects and influences not just you, but everyone you know—family and friends (including your church community), coworkers, and others in your life.
This is the life lived in Jesus’s name. And if it truly is in his name that you are living, it ought to be about investing yourself in the lives of others.
Whoever wants to be the greatest must learn to serve others.
The above is taken from chapter four, “Beyond the self-made project” in my book Authentic Christianity: Why it matters for followers of Jesus (2018)