Where Do You Set the Bar?
“Raising the bar” has become a universal meme for establishing the level of competence or achievement that we would aspire to regardless of the area of expertise being pursued. No matter what it is that we might want to accomplish or excel at, we can always find examples of others who preceded us and set standards of success that become our guidelines for meaningful achievements.
In 1993 a somewhat obscure Cuban, 16 year old Javier Sotomayor, shocked the sports community by setting a new world record for the high jump. He was the first and only person to exceed 8 feet in the high jump when he cleared 8’ ¼” in setting the new world record—a record that still stands today. Consequently, every high jumper following Sotomayor’s incredible triumph now sets their sights on exceeding this mark.
I find it somewhat fascinating that in the world anyone who wants to achieve at whatever endeavor aspires to reach or exceed the highest mark or standard ever reached in that person’s particular pursuit. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who set out to accomplish something motivated with the mindset that they were content with mediocrity. The accomplishments of those who have gone before us in whatever field become the bar, the standard that helps to define and give substance to our pursuits. No one remembers who came in second! Whether it is in sports, business, politics, the military, academics or whatever pursuit, most persons are motivated to reach or exceed whatever bar was previously set for their particular ambition or following.
We seem to understand these things with regard to matters pertaining to this world but what about life in the Kingdom of God? Is there such a thing as “setting the bar” in the Kingdom? Is there a legitimate and knowable standard for life in the Kingdom and if so how is it discerned? Maybe more importantly, who is setting the bar?
Historically I think we could agree that God set the bar for Israel as articulated in what we call the “Shema.”
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. Deut. 6:4,5 KJV
God was to be first and foremost in the minds and hearts of the people of Israel. For them, this primarily constituted the utter eradication of all idolatry from their lives. In helping to delineate and incorporate this standard (bar), God also gave them the Ten Commandments. As you follow the Old Testament history of Israel, you quickly realize the struggles and failures of the Israelites to achieve and maintain God’s standard for righteousness all the way through the Babylonia captivity. They constantly faltered by adopting the evil practices of the nations around them. By the time Jesus comes on the scene Judaism, through the adoption of man’s ideas and doctrines, has become a legalistic, religious system. What God intended to be an inner reality of the heart had become an outward, fossilized regimen.
It is fascinating that the resistance Jesus encountered in his ministry was from the organized “church.” In a sense, Jesus was guilty of attempting to reset the bar and that severely challenged the institutional religious structure of his day. The Jews were well established in what they considered constituted salvation or life with God, and they, for the most part, were not open to a new idea, to someone resetting the bar. Today, we face a similar challenge. Who is setting the standard for us and where is that standard set? Since we are all ultimately responsible for our beliefs and conduct, the real question then remains—Where are you setting the bar?
There is an interesting account in the synoptic gospels recalling the encounter of a wealthy man (in Luke’s account he is also a religious ruler) who sought to know from Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. I believe we have in this narrative one of the best New Testament examples of who sets the bar and where it is set (Mark 10:17-22). Strikingly Jesus’ initial response to this man was the traditional, religious answer which seemingly belonged more to the old paradigm from which Jesus came to redeem them. Jesus simply told this man he should obey the commandments. I believe in answering in this manner Jesus was testing this man’s sincerity and commitment to the word of God.
It is noteworthy that although this man appeared to know the Scriptures and apparently followed them, there was still residing in him a yearning and questioning regarding his eternal security. The fact that he came running to Jesus certainly suggests something of the earnestness and unsettledness of this man’s faith. He was doing all he knew to do but somehow he was also sensing something was missing. There was a hole, a gap, something needed to be filled in his life. This is exactly how one feels when the bar has been placed too low. Paul, to the believers in Corinth, reminded them…”Remember that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize.” I interpret this to mean that only one “kind” of a person gets the prize…the one who runs straight to the goal with purpose in every step! This is one who lets Jesus set the bar and aspires to that standard.
Upon establishing this man’s sincerity and commitment to Scripture, Jesus then proceeds to shift the paradigm and set the bar. Most readers of this passage seem to focus primarily on the nature of wealth to one’s relationship to God. However, I believe the real substance here is in Jesus’ answer to the man’s original question…what must I do to inherit eternal life? The man’s personal wealth was the “one thing” that became a stumbling block in his life to entering into eternal life in a way the entire Old Testament pointed to but was only accessible when Jesus came to fulfill his eternal mandate from the Father. The prevalence and substance of “one thing” in a person’s life precluding their entering eternal life the New Testament way is immeasurably varied. The “one thing” is whatever keeps us from fulfilling Jesus’ answer to this anxious inquirer.
When Jesus said this young man lacked one thing, he was saying that at this particular point in his life this “one thing” was standing between him and what Jesus was setting as the bar for eternal life. In that moment, it happened to be real wealth for this individual. When Jesus continued by asserting that it was nearly impossible for the “wealthy” to enter the Kingdom of God, the term riches or wealth should be interpreted in a generic sense. In other words, substitute whatever it would be in your life that God has fingered as an obstacle to your fully aspiring to the “bar” that Jesus has set. It is important to realize that we could possibly face “one thing” any number of times in our spiritual pilgrimage.
In the narrative at hand, it is worth noting that this man, one seemingly so earnest and eager to fill that spiritual void in his life that he would literally run into the presence of Christ to find his answer and discover where the bar was set, left without embracing the words of life Jesus spoke to him, all because of “one thing.”
Let us be absolutely clear at this point in our narrative. Dealing with the “one thing” isn’t what would answer or resolve this rich man’s question regarding where the bar is set for eternal life. Facing the “one thing” was all about clearing the decks so he could in fact faithfully respond to Jesus’ answer. Here is the bottom line, the absolutely essential response of all who believe in their hearts and confess with their mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord—“…come, take up the cross and follow me.” Jesus further clarified this premise in Luke 9:23 saying, “And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
Salvation is not about escaping hell and gaining heaven; it is about being completely filled with the fullness of Christ’s life, about being conformed to his image; it is about growing up into the full stature of the Lord Jesus Christ. To paraphrase the renowned author and teacher DeVern Fromke, salvation is ultimately all about what Father God has always wanted for himself from eternity past, many sons and daughters just like Jesus. Inviting persons to come to Christ for what he can or will do for them is to preach a self-centered gospel, a false gospel. A Christo-centric gospel always presents the principle of the cross as a way of life. It demands discipleship. To quote the pastor/theologian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” Without discipleship…”Salvation, instead of being construed as the gift of a transformed, abundant life in the now-present Kingdom of God, begins to be equated with an otherworldly reward” (Mere Discipleship, Lee Camp).
Becoming a disciple of Christ is not some add on or optional plan in the Kingdom of God. To be a believer in Jesus means to become his disciple, a follower of his. Christianity is not divided into multiple classes or levels of believers. Referring again to Pastor Bonhoeffer, he said it this way:
Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.
Taking up the cross daily is in essence embracing the principle of the cross in one’s everyday life. Putting it another way, it is choosing to elevate the will of God over one’s own will in all circumstances as a rule of life.
When Jesus calls us to follow, he is calling us to literally become his disciple, to join ourselves to him. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon renders the word follow thusly: to cleave steadfastly to one, conform wholly to his example, in living and if need be in dying also.
Jesus has shown us where to set the bar, not just through the words he taught but in the life he lived. To settle for anything less than this would be to utterly misrepresent and falsify the faith we proclaim. I encourage all who are reading these words, don’t let “one thing” stand between you and what Christ died to bring you into for all eternity.
I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I keep working toward the day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be. Phil 3:12 NLT