[Jesus] said to [His disciples], “The kings of the nations lord it over them, and those who have authority over them are called ‘benefactors’ (Luke 22:25).
There were many aspects of Jesus’ teaching and ministry which the disciples did not fully understand while He remained with them. Jesus proved patient with them, recognizing how all things would be fully revealed in time and through the Spirit. But when the disciples sought to jockey among themselves for position, Jesus worked immediately to nip their attitudes in the bud.
We can easily understand why the disciples were acting the way they were. They had come to believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God: and to them, that meant Jesus was going to inaugurate a great Kingdom, one that would overcome the might of Rome. As Jesus’ closest associates they stood to gain positions of great influence, prominence, and above all, power. But who would stand to gain the most and have the greatest power among them? Even though James and John already enjoyed great intimacy in their standing before Jesus, they did not want to risk anything. They asked their mother to speak to Jesus and to ask for them to stand at His right and left hand, to have the two highest positions of power beneath Jesus, when He entered into His Kingdom (Matthew 20:20-23, Mark 10:35-40). Jesus knew they did not really understand what they were asking to receive; He humored them, yet let them know that it was for the Father to decide who would stand at Jesus’ right and left hand. The other ten disciples proved indignant at James and John: not because in their greater piety or spirituality they understood how foolish the request was, but more likely because they themselves had not made the request first, and were concerned that they would have inferior positions of power when Jesus entered His Kingdom (Matthew 20:24, Mark 10:41, Luke 22:24)!
Jesus was well aware of what His disciples had assumed regarding how His Kingdom would work: as if it was just another power in the world. The ruler had great power over others which he would use to aggrandize himself and his associates (Matthew 20:25). He would act as if his rule provided all kinds of benefits to his subjects (Luke 22:25). Competitors might try to unseat him so they could enjoy the resources that would come from maintaining such power.
Such is the way of power in the world. The means by which rulers obtain power may differ over time and place; some may be elected, while others inherit their position or overthrow previous rulers. Once in power, though, we tend to see a similar story play out: the ruler uses power to benefit himself and his associates, however broadly defined. Sure, the ruler will likely make grandiose proclamations about all the ways that his rule has benefitted all the people. There might be some infrastructure projects built, and you will definitely be able to tell who was responsible for building them. The world is littered with statues and other forms of art commissioned by said rulers to memorialize, glorify, and highlight all of their achievements; as propaganda they seek to justify the rule in the sight of those subjected to him.
For those who receive the benefits and advantages of that ruler’s power, everything seems well and good. They share, to some degree, in economic benefits. They have reasonable confidence they will be heard and their concerns taken seriously. They have reason to feel loyal to the ruler and to support and reinforce his regime.
Yet, almost invariably, there will be many other groups and people who will not share in such advantages. In fact, they will suffer disadvantage on account of the way the ruler exercises his power. They will be made to suffer in various ways. They may have to pay undue taxes and suffer the loss of property. They may even be harassed, persecuted, or even killed. Even in less severe circumstances they are made to understand that the rulers that be have no desire to support or benefit them in many meaningful ways. They have no confidence they will be heard or that their concerns would be taken seriously. They suffer under the oppression of the regime and feel no loyalty towards them.
What will the oppressed groups do? Sometimes oppressed groups rise up in revolt and overthrow the current regime. When this happens, a ruler comes out of the oppressed group, and very often will simply reverse the situation. Now those once oppressed become the oppressors and gain great advantage; those who once oppressed now suffer the disadvantages once experienced by others.
At other times oppressed groups find ways to make their voice heard, and their oppressors repent to some degree. We do not find that groups with power and privilege welcome others to share in that power or privilege without such provocation. Even so, those who had enjoyed the advantage and privilege of authority are always concerned that it will be done to them as they did, however consciously or unconsciously, to others. Truly indeed, to those used to inequality, greater equality feels like loss and oppression.
The Scriptures attest to such an understanding of power in the world from beginning to end. Pharaoh oppresses the Israelites; only after a series of plagues and the demonstration of the power of YHWH would he relent and let them go (cf. Exodus 1-15). In the days of the Judges we find local nation after local nation oppressing the Israelites, and God providing deliverance through the judges, who become continually more corrupt over time (cf. Judges, 1 Samuel 1-8). David and Solomon rule over all Israel and a large empire; the nations of the empire would have experienced this as oppression, and even the Israelites themselves found maintaining a king oppressive in and of itself (cf. 2 Samuel 1-1 Kings 11). Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Macedon, and Rome develop empires, oppress others, and are defeated and become part of the empires of others in turn.
For the two thousand years since Jesus lived, died, and was raised in power, this story of the use of power has continued unabated. Power provides advantages and benefits to some but not to all. The desire to exercise said power is always tied up with the desire to obtain and/or enjoy such benefits, even if it comes at the harm of others. And perhaps worse are those who have so much power and advantage that they cannot see it, for everything works for them the way they think things ought to work, and in their blissful ignorance they presume it should likewise work for others for whom the rulers and systems have not provided such advantages. Many times we do not recognize how much we have come to love and appreciate power until we are faced with the prospect of losing it.
Such is the way power works in the world; such is the way power will continue to work in the world until the Lord Jesus returns. Yet, as Jesus wanted to make abundantly clear to His disciples, it should not be so among the people of God (Matthew 20:26, Mark 10:43, Luke 22:26). The people of God instead consider Jesus their example of how power ought to be used: to serve and to suffer on behalf of others (Matthew 20:26-28, Mark 10:43-45, Luke 22:26-27). May we not prove blind or naïve regarding how power works in the world, and may we diligently strive instead to exercise power according to the way of Jesus the Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry