To properly understand an action, you need to interpret it in the light of the social context in which it takes place. For example, if we were to hear about a white male offering his seat at the front of a bus to an African American woman, we would probably interpret this as a nice gesture, but nothing more. If we were to learn that this took place in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, however, we would interpret this same gesture as having much more significance. For in the pre-civil rights South, this act would have defied racist laws and social norms.
Similarly, many today miss the revolutionary dimension of Jesus’ life because they interpret his actions by twentieth century western standards. They thus think the way Jesus treated oppressed and marginalized people was merely nice. These folks conclude that being a Christian is about being nice. In reality, when we understand Jesus in his original first century Jewish context, the way Jesus treated people went way beyond being nice. Jesus’ action and teaching defied the laws and norms of his culture. In manifesting the beauty of God’s servant character, Jesus revolted against everything in his culture that was inconsistent with this character.
We are called to join Jesus in this revolt. As John wrote “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did,” (I John 2:6). So too, Paul teaches us to “[f]ollow God’s example” (Eph 5:1). The Greek word translated “example” (mimetai) literally means to mimic. We’re to do exactly what we see God doing. Paul immediately goes on to flesh out what he means by commanding us to “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:2, emphasis added).
Imitating Jesus is not merely about being nice. It’s about joining a revolution. This revolution is what Jesus refers to as the Kingdom of God.
Yet, Jesus wasn’t only a social revolutionary; he was, even more importantly, a spiritual revolutionary. In the first century apocalyptic worldview that is shared by Jesus and the New Testament, every aspect of society and creation was viewed as being under the authority of a spiritual guardian, and some of these guardians were understood to be at war with God. When we interpret Jesus’ actions against this background, it becomes clear that in defying all ungodly aspects of his culture, Jesus was actually revolting against the spiritual powers that fuel those aspects of society.
Imitating Jesus, therefore, is not merely about manifesting God’s reign by revolting against everything in society that is inconsistent with this reign. It’s even more fundamentally about joining in his revolt against the powers that oppress society and creation and that lay behind all ungodly aspects of society and creation. In the words of Paul, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12).
When people get serious about their call to follow Jesus’ example, it’s revolutionary. Literally. The kingdom that Jesus ushered into the world is a revolution. It revolts. In manifesting the beauty of God’s reign, the kingdom revolts against everything in the world that is inconsistent with that reign.
Welcome to the revolution!