I used to be a high jumper. I loved the competition. I’d start with the bar and at 1.85m which is just over 6 feet. The bar would then rise by 2 inches or 5cm at a time. And my record was 2.08m which is about six feet 10 inches, well short of the world record, 2.45m, or 8ft. It’s a great athletic event. But it is also a weird event, because it always ends in failure. You finish the competition by knocking the bar off. Even as you win the first feeling is failure and disappointment, before the sense of victory sinks in.
The high jump is a really helpful way to understand Jesus’ teaching on the law in Matthew 5:17-20.
Matthew 5:17-18 – Everything in the Old Testament, Law and Prophets, is about Jesus. He fulfils and accomplishes everything written there.
Matthew 5:19 – Jesus sets the bar high for his disciples. He has high expectations and wants the best.
Matthew 5:20 – Jesus sets the bar impossibly high, demanding a righteousness beyond our reach as the condition for entry to the kingdom of heaven.
The high jump image helps us first to understand how to get into the kingdom of heaven and second how to be great in that kingdom.
To get into the kingdom Jesus sets the bar impossibly high. In verse 20 he says our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees or we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We are to think of the most holy, most godly, most religious, best, most moral person; think of their life, their duty, their goodness, their life of prayer, their self sacrifice, their high morals, their celibacy, their charity. Think of how righteous they are, that’s what the Pharisees were like and Jesus said to them “You are not righteous enough. You need to be more righteous to enter the kingdom of Heaven.” And if you or I want to enter that Kingdom we need to be more righteous than the the Pharisees.
Jesus raised the high jump bar from a measly 2.45m to over 3000m and said “I you want to get into the Kingdom of Heaven you need to jump that. Exceed it. I will not accept failure.”
What are we to do? It’s not possible to jump that high. How will anyone ever get into the Kingdom of Heaven? Here’s what to do. Nothing. We don’t have to DO anything. That’s the good news of Jesus Christ. We can have a righteousness which exceeds the Pharisee, but it is not by anything we have done, it is by what Jesus has done. The law has penalties for breaking it, death and hell, but Jesus died on the cross to take that penalty for his people. And by dying for sin, he removes our sins and frees us from the guilt and shame of breaking the law, so that we are free to keep it, without being afraid of judgement. If you have received Christ as Saviour, you are now righteous in God’s eyes and so you can enter the Kingdom of heaven.
Knowing this sends us right back to the first beatitude, blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Like the high jump we need the first feeling of failure and disappointment, before the sense of victory sinks in.
Once into the Kingdom, how do we become great? Like a high jumper we must practice and improve, raise the bar. Get to know what Jesus expects, aim for it and teach others to do the same.
The life of the Christian goes like this.
– Jesus sets the bar for us in some area of life and calls us to jump it.
– So we practice and practice and get stronger through prayer, and through practice we get over that bar.
– But as soon as we get over the bar, Jesus raises it, perhaps in some other part of our life.
– And we deal with that area, and then there’s a new, higher level to get over.
And so it goes on as we are refined by God’s word and Holy Spirit.
Now, there is a problem with raising the bar. It always ends in failure. Jesus sets the bar above our ability and says “go on aim for that, that’s my expectation for you.” Jesus sets us up to fail and says, go on, go for it, you’ll be blessed by aiming high and when you fail I’ll catch you. I’ve dealt with the guilt of failure, of breaking my law. I’ve died for your sin, so that you are free to keep on aiming high. So the cross is the way into the kingdom but even once there, training and competing, we must never lose sight of the cross.