With my daughters now heading back to school, I realized that I hadn’t adequately taught them something vital about Jesus:
I’ve taught them a lot of about his obedience–how he “was obedient to death, even death on a cross” (so says the glorious ‘hymn’ of Philippians 2).
But his disobedience? Ummm…. not so much. Though unwisely (even tellingly?) neglected by many Christians today, Jesus’ disobedience is readily found in the four canonical gospels, and his earliest followers imitated him–joyfully, it seems–in his disobedience.
Wait. Jesus wasn’t perfect?
Not remotely, according to some. Here are just a few examples:
“The Pharisees said to Jesus, ‘Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?'” (Mark 2.24)
“The Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why do your disciples…eat their food with unclean hands?'” (Mark 7.5)
According to Israel’s ancient Scriptures, failure to observe the Sabbath was a capital offense, while cultic impurity could result in death as well (see Exodus 31.14; Leviticus 15.51). These are not, then, minor infractions. They threatened an entire way of life and called into question the identity of Jesus’ own people.
But it gets worse.
Both before and after his death, Jesus was commonly understood to be a deceiver:
During one Jewish feast, many Israelites had concluded of Jesus, “He deceives the people.” Just after his death, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate and summarized Jesus in two simple words: “that deceiver.”
These acts of deception are more than the occasional lie; they are likely references to Deuteronomy 13, where “deception” is how the Penteteuch (in its Greek translation) describes someone who is “teaching rebellion” against Yahweh.
That’s a really big deal. Such a person “must be put to death.” Jesus was far from perfect; in fact, he was dangerous.
And so it is that all four gospels record that Jesus’ life and teaching were a threat to both Jewish and Roman order. As the council of Jewish elders explained to Pilate,
“We have found this man subverting our [Jewish] nation. He opposes payment of taxes to [the Roman] Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king” (Luke 23.2; see John 11.48).
And, as the crowds shouted to Pilate, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” (John 19.12).
No wonder Jesus’ followers fled when he was arrested, tried and crucified.
But the book of Acts tells us that this was hardly the last word on these followers. There we find Jesus’ apostles and other followers of Jesus disobeying in a way that mirrors their Lord’s. In fact, they can’t seem to stay out of prison.
Perhaps the most exceptional of these apostles was Paul (or Saul of Tarsus). How so?
Well, when we first meet him in Acts, he’s actually hunting down and, if possible, executing followers of Jesus precisely for their dangerous, Christ-like disobedience. But astonishingly–and something that no serious historian of early Christianity today denies–Paul went (almost over night) from being an executioner of Christians to an emissary of Christ, as he himself states (see Galatians 1.22-23).
Here are just two examples of how Paul (and his partners in crime) disobeyed:
(1) “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city [Macedonian Philippi] into an uproar and are advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” (Acts 16.20-21)
Here Paul is guilty of (i) simply being a Jew and (ii) disturbing the glorious Roman peace, a “peace” in which free men were ever so peacefully exploiting a slave woman for her apparent powers of clairvoyance (powers which they themselves probably didn’t even believe in; by the way, for a great sermon on this passage, click here).
(2) “These men [associates of Paul, but surely implying Paul] who are turning the world upside down have now come here [to Thessalonica]… They are all defying the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” (Acts 17.6-7).
Here Paul and his associates are guilty of upsetting the social and political status quo of the entire known world (almost as if to suggest that no one has it right), behaving as though the current political powers are not the final word.
That is, there is another king.
And if they answer to “another king,” it’s hardly surprising that at times these Christians are “all [i.e., collectively] defying the decrees of Caesar.” Wonderfully, here the Greek word “decree” is dogmata.
That is, in their day the earliest Christians were defying the undefiable–that which could not be questioned, much less discussed: the dogma of Caesar. Like Jesus, they were incredibly disobedient.
Kavin Rowe summarizes the disobedience of Paul and his accomplices straightforwardly:
“By proclaiming another king, the Christians act against the decrees of Caesar and thereby turn the world upside down.” (World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Greco-Roman Age).
But all this makes Paul one of the most interesting figures of early Christianity.
Why did Saul of Tarsus go from executioner of Christians to emissary of Christ? What compelled him to “consider everything a loss” compared to “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ”–or so he writes to the Philippian Christians? (And, indeed, Paul lost everything–all his social, vocational, religious, familial-financial bonds were obliterated. Paul went from hero to zero.)
So why did the persecutor choose to become the persecuted?
At least two things: Christ’s love and Christ’s lordship. First, Christ’s love, demonstrated by his sacrificial death: Paul writes autobiographically–and intimately, “the Son of God…loved me and gave himself for me,” writes Paul. Second, Christ’s lordship, demonstrated by his death-defeating resurrection: apparently, neither Jewish traditions nor Roman imperial decrees (dogmata) were far–very far–from the last word.
Jesus’ resurrection declared him to be “the Son of God in power… Jesus Christ our Lord”–so Paul declares to the Christians at Rome.
Love reigns. Not Caesar. Or anyone else.
Now both of these–i.e., Jesus’ crucifixion-love and Jesus’ resurrection-lordship–are found in 2 Corinthians 5. Humbly writing (as he often does) in the 1st person plural (“we”), yet surely speaking autobiographically, Paul beautifully bursts forth,
“…the love of Christ compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all and, therefore, all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
But how do we join Jesus in this disobedience? How do my twin 11-year-old daughters do this? What would it look like for many tweens and teens? Well, Paul tells us:
1. “…no longer live for self…”
In a culture obsessed (understandably but deceptively and destructively) with “self-determining” and “self-identifying,” disobedience looks like self-denying. Why?
Because my “self” is a big part of the problem.
“Girls,” I said, when driving them to school last Friday, “be the first to admit that you’re wrong. Confess specifically and fully.” We also discussed how, when the moment is right, it’s really good to talk with others about occasions when we trusted ourselves–when we thought we were so right (and when it felt so right)–and yet it turned out horribly wrong. It’s also good to admit ways in which we still want to live for ourselves (in fact, we did that around the dinner table recently).
But if tweens and teens are no longer to live for themselves, for whom are they to live? Paul writes that they are to…
2. “…live for him who died for us and was raised.”
Our tweens and teens are not to live for us parents, who often want simply to show off our children, subtly (even unconsciously) setting before them impossible standards of “success.” They are not to live for their classmates, whose cooperation or competition can lead to all manner of deeply dysfunctional under- and over-achievement. They are not to live for our cultural icons, who have been air-brushed not only graphically but socially, financially and vocationally.
No. They are to live for Him who is Love, free to take Him at His every word. He–not their parents, their classmates, or culture–defines what love is.
So Christian “disobedience” means that we are, first, to no longer live for self, second, to live only for Him who is Reigning Love, and, third, to…
3. “Regard no one according to the flesh.”
If our tweens and teens live for their loving, reigning Lord, this will massively reshape how they think about their classmates–indeed, everyone.
Paul continues: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.”
Here “flesh” represents our default personal and cultural criteria for evaluating self and others–e.g., brilliance, “beauty,” bling, brawn, etc., all of which are God-created and, therefore, good, yet have been hijacked by us humans and absolutized: they are “it,” tantalizingly and tragically.
For tweens and teens “flesh” might look like popularity, Pokémon, or athletic or academic prowess–and we can’t forget pedigree: “flesh” is about having not only the right jeans but also the right genes. For us post-teens “flesh” is merely a more subtle and sophisticated form of the same: we’re not after popularity, just…prestige; Pokémon gives way to…publishing; and athletic prowess becomes financial prosperity. And I don’t have to say that we adults aren’t remotely past pedigree: gender, race, ethnicity, physique, etc.–we post-Enlightenment, Obama-era sophisticates of late modernity still exclude on the basis of these things.
Paul says that no longer are we to give priority to any of these criteria in evaluating anyone. No, we do not denigrate prowess or pedigree; indeed, we dignify them: another person’s prowess is God-given and is to be celebrated (“Did Sally do well on the math test? Give her a high-five!”); another person’s pedigree–e.g., their ethnicity or race–is not to be ignored but discovered, embraced: it is part of their story, their identity (“Does Marjani’s mom dress her in traditional Iranian garb? Compliment her and ask her about it!”).
But to dignify prowess and pedigree–or any other category of “flesh”–isn’t to deify them: for Paul, and for any follower of Christ, they do NOT define another person:
“we regard no one according to the flesh.”
We could translate more directly, “We do not conceive of [or categorize] anyone according to the flesh” (the NIV’s paraphrase is helpful: “from a worldly point of view”).
Today the “dogma” of Caesar says that our gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc., are overwhelmingly what define us. We are taught to be deeply offended when those who are defined differently don’t understand us. But according to Paul, while our children and their classmates are certainly not less or other than these things, they are so much more.
But the dogma of Caesar says that, when it’s not our pedigree that defines us, it’s our prowess: that is, we have worth to the extent that we have wit or can generate wealth. Such criteria of worth create deeply unhealthy, agonistic interaction and competition at our schools (and work places!): being the wittiest or the wealthiest, the most stimulating, sexy, or successful is a downright exhausting and highly exclusive venture (even when do have it, we’re terrified of losing it).
No one can be like the person on the cover of the latest issue of People, Vogue, Business Week, Vanity Fair, or Time‘s Person of the Year. Even the person pictured on the cover isn’t like the person on the cover.
In life-giving, liberating contrast to “the flesh”–i.e., human cultures’ exhausting, exclusive, exploitative criteria of worth, Jesus can actually be pleased: “Follow me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
In short, Jesus doesn’t judge us according to the criteria of “flesh,” and so we don’t either.
And if others evaluate us according to these criteria, demanding that we follow the rules of their game (whether spoken or unspoken), we can–indeed, we must–disobey.
Because Jesus disobeyed. And He is our King.
He alone is worthy of our exclusive and immediate allegiance, an allegiance that brings freedom, peace and community. He alone is selfless authority, a reign of Love–as He alone defines it (to talk to your kids about what love really is, click here). And He is establishing a new order, a new creation, with new–noble and doable–criteria of worth. The criteria and rules of the order of “the flesh” are passing away.
“Girls, incredibly and undeservedly, in Christ you and I are part of that new creation. Jesus frees you, and fully expects you, to disobey, just like He did.”
“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets…. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” – Luke 6.22-23, 26