The Irony in Jesus’ Approach to Power
Earlier this week, as I was driving back from Richmond, I came across a podcast titled With a Politician by Tim Keller: a sermon based on Luke 23:1-25. In a day and age where it seems that our politics and religion go hand and hand, it is difficult to decipher how Jesus approaches these things. So often, we can have our opinions and use those in a way to determine what we believe about God; instead, as believers, I firmly believe that we must first look to the person of Jesus and allow that to shape every area of our lives.
What does Good Friday and the Crucifixion have to do with politics you may ask?
Well, if you end up diving into this blog article this is not some political op-ed. Instead, I want to share my reflections/notes on the way that Jesus approaches power. His kingdom and the way that he establishes it is so counterintuitive to the way that we think about rising to power. The life Jesus lived and the way he approached the establishment of his kingdom was brought into the spotlight on this day many years ago. Good Friday is a time where Jesus appeared to be without power and weak, but, as I will share below, he was anything but weak in the realm of his Kingdom. I encourage each of you to read Luke 23 and to also listen to the podcast after reading this. Enjoy.
In Luke 23, we see Jesus turned over by the religious leaders to Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Since the religious leaders didn’t have the power to execute Jesus, they turned him over to the only individual that did. The part of the story that stands out to me is when Jesus is asked by Pilate: “Are you the King of the Jews?” You see, Pilate was in direct contact with Caesar and it was blasphemous for anyone to be considered a king in the time of the Roman empire. It was Caesar or bust (or be killed). So when the religious leaders handed Jesus over to Pilate, they didn’t say “This man claims to be the Messiah! Put him to death!” That would have meant nothing to Pilate. Instead, what the religious leaders did was essentially say: “Here is Jesus. He claims to be king and is going to threaten Caesar’s reign.” This made Pilate’s ears perk up and he wanted to find out for himself. When Pilate asks if Jesus is the King of the Jews, he is asking: “What is your platform? What is your political agenda? How are you going to attain power?” And we are left with such an ambiguous answer from Jesus: “It is as you say.” As Keller talks about, this response is initially extremely frustrating. However, if we begin to dive into Jesus’ response, we are blown away.
You see, if Jesus had said “Yes, I am” he is saying: “Yes, I’m coming for your throne and am raising up an army to revolt.” But if he says no then he is communicating: “No, I just am concerned with everyone’s individual spirituality and don’t want to stir the pot within the political realm.” Both of these things don’t fall under the realm of how Jesus would define his kingdom. First off, I would like to define how the world defines power. Since we live in a day and age where the governing authorities are the ultimate power in our country (Especially with the potential $2,500 fine or class 1 misdemeanor for groups of 10 or more gathering) they will act as our example. I then want to look at how Jesus defines power.
World’s definition of power:
1. Coercion. Pilate governed through coercion. If he wanted someone to do something, he would pass legislation. If he didn’t see something should be working the way it was supposed to, he would change the policy. *Disclaimer: I do not know much about the government structure of the Ancient Romans so bear with me.* So often, this is how we think this is the best way to get people to do what we want. At work, we may give ultimatums. In our relationships, we push and push and push with our words and actions. We want power through means of forcing people to do what we want.
2. Self-promotion. When I think of power, I often think of “marketing yourself” or really putting your name out there. Whether that is through social media, blogs (the irony), campaigns, etc. we live in a culture where self-promotion is the way to get into places of authority. There may be confession of weakness on the road of self-promotion, but it is only when that weakness benefits you and your plan.
Again, I’m not writing this blog to knock down government or to say government is pointless and we should be anarchists. But, as believers in Jesus Christ, I want us to now look at how Jesus’ life and ministry spoke to the way that he views power.
Jesus’ definition of power:
1. Changing from the inside. Think about a relationship that means a lot to you. For me, that person is Emma (fiancé). Now, if there is something that is driving me crazy about Emma, I have two options. I can either try to force that change through words or passivity or whatever else I can do to act like a 3 year old. OR, I can take those things to the Lord and trust that in his timing, he is going to change those things internally and not in the way or timing that I want him to. (Yes, I’m learning there are real conflicts in relationships and I can promise you I drive Emma 10x crazier than she does to me). But, the point I’m getting at is this: Jesus didn’t force change externally- he changes from the inside out. In Bob Goff’s book “Everybody Always” he says this:
“A similar but different problem happens in our churches and schools and faith communities too. We’re told by someone what God wants us to do and not do. We’re told we shouldn’t drink or cuss or watch certain movies. We’re told we should want to have “quiet times” in the mornings and talk to strangers about “a relationship with God.” We’re told we should want to go on “mission trips” and “witness” to people, and sometimes we do it even if we don’t really know what the word means– but often, just for a while. After long enough, what looks like faith isn’t really faith anymore. It’s just compliance. The problem with mere compliance is it turns us into actors. Rather than making decisions ourselves, we read the lines off the script someone we were told to respect handed to us, and we sacrifice our ability to decide for ourselves. The fix for all this is as easy as the problem is hard. Instead of telling people what they want, we need to tell them who they are.“
Boom – mic drop. Jesus told people who they were. He spoke life into people. He healed the sick and blind. He hung out with the people that nobody else would hang out with. How is that power?? Because he lived his life in a way knowing that the only way someone could truly change was from the inside out.
I have seen this first hand in youth ministry. Obviously I want kids to know and love Jesus and experience the freedom that comes with that. But, I can’t have a sign saying as kids walk through the door: “Hey, in order to enter into this room, you need to make sure you’re not cussing, not misbehaving at home, or not watching things you shouldn’t watch or else you’re not welcome here.” Of course not! What I can do is pray like no other for them. What I can do is speak truth and life into who they are and watch the Holy Spirit do the work. One of the hardest parts about being a youth minister (or pastor in general) is that people act how they think you want them to act. I encourage our students to not put on a show- why? Because I don’t believe there is real heart transformation that can take place when you’re just trying to abide by the rules and never share what truly is going on. Jesus showed his power by transforming people from the inside out- not forcing them to live a cleaned up life and fake it.
2. Real power comes from Vulnerability and Honesty. When we truly let people into our lives and share the things we are struggling with, there are walls that come down on both sides of the relationship. Worldly power tells us to put on a show and act like you have it all together all of the time. Don’t show weakness. Don’t let people know what is really going on- it will show that you aren’t in control. However, I have seen in my life, that when I get real with people and really tell them what’s going on in my life it creates space for them to do the same. I’ve seen walls come down in people’s hearts and lives changed by this simple principle. Real power comes from vulnerability and honesty; not self-promotion.
What does Good Friday have to do with any of this?
On Good Friday, we see Jesus exhibit his power in a way that still befuddles me. In John 12:30-33, when Jesus is predicting his death he says: “‘This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.”
In verse 32, Jesus explains that in order for people to be drawn to himself, he must die. In order for people’s hearts to be changed, he must be beaten and die a death on the cross. This kind of death that he was going to die was in opposition to how the world would define power. You see, this is the irony: If Jesus saved himself he couldn’t have saved us; if he saves us then he can’t save himself. That is power. The fact that he stood before Pilate and Jesus could have snapped his fingers and had angels knock everyone dead yet he didn’t, shows his power. Why? Because if Jesus did that then God’s plan for the power of his kingdom wouldn’t have panned out. If Jesus didn’t die on a cross for the world and give himself up for us we wouldn’t be gathering all over the world to reflect and remember that. And in two days, we wouldn’t be rejoicing in the resurrection. On this Good Friday, I want you to think about this: Look at how many kingdoms/empires have crumbled over the years. How did they go about achieving their power? Now, think about the Kingdom of Jesus and its 2000+ year reign.
Why is that? Because Jesus’ way of enacting his Kingdom isn’t the same we we think about power. The cross was the pinnacle of the Irony in Jesus’ establishment of his Kingdom. What was used as an instrument for death would be a tool everyone looked at for means of salvation. If that isn’t power, then I don’t know what is. Today, as we remember Good Friday, let us ask the Lord for a lifestyle that reflects Jesus’. Let us earnestly pray and seek Jesus and desire the way the he lived his life. And at the end of the day, we can rejoice because JESUS IS KING.