SYNOPSIS: Satan offered Jesus unlimited political power to achieve his messianic calling. This Jesus refused and, instead, submitted to the way of the cross.
Satan tempted Jesus in the Wilderness by offering him, “All the kingdoms of the world.” All he needed to do to attain unlimited political power was to “fall down and render homage” to the Tempter. This Jesus rejected out of hand. In contrast, many Christians today embrace the political means to advance their religious agendas which, of course, necessitates that they accommodate themselves to existing political systems.
Put another way, politically-active Christians must accommodate their Christian principles, allegiances, alliances to the demands of political parties, ideologies, and governing regimes (Matthew 4:1-10, Luke 4:1-13).
Satan demanded homage from Jesus, the price of political power. Likewise, in the book of Revelation, the Beast from the sea demanded that the “inhabitants of the earth” render homage to its image to participate in the empire’s economic life. Political power and influence in this age are not free; they always come with chains!
The Devil declared, the kingdoms of this Age “have been delivered to me and I give them to whomever I will.” Note well: JESUS DID NOT DISPUTE HIS CLAIM! The Dragon authority to wield political power provides the reason why human governments very often exhibit such beastly behavior. There should be no surprise or confusion when a regime emulates its Master.
Though he was chosen by God to rule all nations, Jesus refused Satan’s offer. As God’s Son, he was destined to rule the nations and the “kings of the earth.” Scripture confirmed this. So, why do we grasp what the Son of God refused? Do we believe we can succeed without doing a little evil along the way (Psalm 2:6-10)?
Imagine what great good Jesus could do if he held Caesar’s throne! With Rome’s military and economic power behind his messianic dictates, righteousness would prevail across the earth! Surely, if ever there was justification for the resort to political might, this was it. Who better to wield worldly power and state-sanctioned violence than the Prince of Peace?
However, rather than resort to political power, Jesus submitted to the way of the cross, the path of the Suffering Servant. In the kingdom of God, true victory is achieved through humble obedience, acts of mercy, and the denial of one’s “rights” for the sake of others. His kingdom is epitomized by self-sacrificial service, not the force of arms or political machinations.
This was not the end of Satan’s intrigues. Following Christ’s rebuff in the Wilderness, “the Devil departed from him until an opportune time.” He would face this challenge again after miraculously feeding a multitude of men and women. Having observed firsthand his ability to employ supernatural powers, members of that mob determined to seize him by force, so “that they might make him king” (John 6:15).
Instead, Jesus walked away at the very moment the mob intended to crown him the ruler of the Jewish nation, and by force, if necessary. In doing so, he turned many minds against his cause. Contrary to popular expectations, the true Messiah of Israel was not to be the militaristic leader bent on the destruction of Rome that so many craved. The closer the Son of God came to a Roman cross, the more the fickle crowds rejected his messiahship.
The representative of Rome, Pontius Pilate, inquired whether Jesus was the king of the Jews. He did not deny his sovereignty but responded, “You say that I am a king: I for this have been born.” However, he qualified his kingship:
(John 18:33-36) – “My kingdom is not from (ek) this world: if my kingdom was from this world my own officers would fight that I should not be delivered up to the Jews: but now my kingdom is not from here.”
Nowhere did Jesus state that his kingdom was only a “spiritual” and otherworldly realm. However, the source of his sovereignty was other than the kind of political power that characterizes the existing world order. The coming kingdom of God would be of an entirely different nature than the kingdoms of the present age.
Pilate found no fault in Jesus and intended to release him. Instead, at the instigation of the Jewish Temple authorities, a mob demanded that Pilate release Barabbas, a léstés (Greek) or “brigand,” a term used for insurrectionists, not just common thieves.
Thus, the priestly leaders of the Temple preferred a violent revolutionary to the messianic figure portrayed as the Suffering Servant in the book of Isaiah.
Contrary to the messianic expectations of his day, Jesus “took on the form of a slave” and became “obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” Because of this choice, God exalted and bestowed on him: “The name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:6-11).
Christianity has a long and sordid history of mixing Church and State, going all the way back to the fourth century when the emperor Constantine merged the two in an act of political expediency. Within a generation, the once persecuted became the persecutor. Ecclesiastical authorities learned to use the power of the State to suppress doctrinal “dissidents” who refused to conform to the party line. The temptation for the Church to use political power to impose “correct” doctrine and conduct was too great. Force always appears easier than persuasion.
To advance the cause of the Gospel through the political means is to resort to the coercive power of the State. The choice before Christians is between the cruciform and narrow pathway trod by Jesus or the expedient and smooth highway offered by Satan through the political means under his sway. Should the disciples of Jesus embrace what he rejected or, instead, emulate his example of self-sacrificial service?
To their dismay, Christians will discover that the political means is a double-edged sword. By its very nature, it is counterproductive to the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of God. The corruption inherent in political systems leeches inexorably into the church – “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.”
The church of Jesus Christ cannot reform the political system. Instead, it will corrupt the church.
To achieve political power over all the nations, all Jesus needed to do was to render homage to the Devil. Is that not what Christians bent on acquiring political power do today? Partisan politicking is a poor substitute for Gospel Proclamation and self-sacrificial service. It is high time to return to the task with which Jesus commissioned his church and to do so in the same way as he did.