SYNOPSIS – Satan offered Jesus unlimited political power to achieve his messianic calling. This he refused, choosing instead to submit to the cross – Matthew 4:1-11.
On more than one occasion, Jesus refused political power and office. In the wilderness, Satan tempted him by offering “all the kingdoms of the world.” To attain absolute power, all that he needed to do was to “render homage” to the Tempter. Unexpectedly, the Messiah of Israel did NOT dispute the Devil’s ability or “right” to dispense political power. But he refused it and submitted, instead, to the path of the ‘Suffering Servant’ of Yahweh – (Matthew 4:8-9, Luke 4:5-7).
In contrast, many Christians have embraced the political means and the institutions of the state to advance the kingdom of God – However, inevitably, this has necessitated accommodating biblical principles to the values of this fallen age.
(Matthew 4:8-11) – “Again, the devil takes him to an exceeding high mountain, and shows him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and he said to him, All these things will I give you, if you will fall down and worship me. Then said Jesus to him, Get you hence, Satan: for it is written, You will worship the Lord thy God, and him only will you serve. Then the Devil leaves him; and behold, angels came and ministered unto him.”
Satan demanded homage as the price of political power. According to him, the kingdoms of this Age “have been delivered to me and I give them to whomever I will.” His right to do so was not disputed by Jesus.
Although he was chosen by God to rule all the nations, Jesus refused this satanic offer. Scripture confirmed his destiny to reign over the Cosmos, yet he refused political power so valued by this evil age. How could Yahweh’s designated king reign over the rebellious nations of the earth without the military and economic powers of the State?
(Psalm 2:6-8) – “Yet I have set my king Upon my holy hill of Zion. I will tell of the decree: Yahweh said to me, You are my son; This day have I begotten you. Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance, And the uttermost parts of the earth for your possession.”
Imagine what great good Jesus could accomplish if he held Caesar’s throne and commanded the legions of Rome! With him at the helm, would not righteousness prevail across the Empire, especially with the military and economic might of Rome to enforce his messianic dictates? Surely, if ever there was justification for the resort to State power, force, and violence this was it. Who better to wield the awesome might of Rome than the Prince of Peace?
However, rather than resort to political means, Jesus embraced the way of the cross, the path of the ‘Suffering Servant.’ In the Kingdom of God, true victory is achieved through self-denial and sacrifice. “Greatness” in the kingdom of God is defined as self-sacrificial service and acts of mercy to others, not the use of force to compel them to submission and obedience.
The incident during his forty-day sojourn in the “wilderness” was not the end of Satan’s political intrigues. Following his rebuff – “The Devil departed from him until an opportune time.” Jesus faced this challenge again after miraculously feeding a multitude near the Sea of Galilee. Certain members of the crowd planned “to come and seize him that they might make him king” – (Luke 4:13, John 6:15).
But Jesus walked away at the very point when the mob had determined to crown him king, thus turning many minds against him. He would not be the militaristic messiah out to destroy Rome that many of his contemporaries desired. The closer Jesus came to Calvary, the more the fickle crowds rejected him as the Messiah of Israel.
Just prior to his execution, Pontius Pilate inquired whether Jesus was “the king of the Jews.” He did not deny his kingship and responded to the representative of Rome – “You say that I am a king: I for this have been born.” However, he qualified his kingship by stating, “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” – (John 18:33-36).
Jesus never stated that his kingdom was a strictly “spiritual” and otherworldly reality. However, the source of his kingship was other than the political power that has always characterized the existing world order. The kingdom of God was of an entirely different nature than the kingdoms of this age.
Pilate found no fault in Jesus and was about to release him. However, at the instigation of the Temple authorities, a crowd demanded that Pilate release Barabbas instead, a léstés (Greek) or “brigand.” Seemingly, the priestly leaders preferred a violent political revolutionary to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.
Contrary to the messianic expectations of his contemporaries, 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, which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” His followers are summoned to adopt this same mind:
(Philippians 2:6-11) – “Who, being in the form of God, counted not the being like God a thing to be seized, but poured himself out, taking the form of a slave, being made in human likeness; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross. Wherefore, God highly exalted him and gave him the name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth.”
Christianity has a long and sordid history of mixing Church and State. The temptation to use political power to impose “right” beliefs and reform society has been too great – Force always appears easier than persuasion.
But to advance the cause of Christ through the political means always necessitates the resort to the coercive power of the State. The choice before us is the cruciform and rough pathway trod by Jesus or the expedient and smooth highway offered by Satan through the employment of force and violence.
Should we, the disciples of the same Jesus who “gave his life a ransom for many,” embrace what he rejected? Or should we emulate his example of self-sacrificial service for others? We cannot do both.
To achieve political power and dominion over all the nations all Jesus had to do was render homage to the Devil. Effectively, this is precisely what we do when we decide to acquire political power to achieve our ends. But partisan politicking is a poor substitute for Gospel Proclamation and lives conformed to the Cross of Christ.
It is high time to return to the task with which Jesus himself commissioned his church and to do so in the same manner as he did.