Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. This well-known quote from the 1st Baron Acton, or Lord Acton, was not a new insight when he penned those words in a letter to a colleague in the late 19th Century. In fact, other figures throughout history have identified the corrupting influence of power. The French republican poet and politician, Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine who witnessed the uprising of the French people against the ruling monarchy wrote:
“It is not only the slave or serf who is ameliorated in becoming free… the master himself did not gain less in every point of view… for absolute power corrupts the best natures.”(1)
Perhaps he had in mind the ironic result of the French Revolution which replaced the Monarchy with an Emperor named Napoleon Bonaparte.
Sadly, it does seem that power and corruption walk hand in hand. The news media around the world document scandal and abuse by the powerful with the oppression of the weak and the vulnerable a daily reality. Perhaps more tragic is the reality that there are those who hold sacred power, religious leaders of all faiths, who use the authority entrusted to them for malicious and evil purposes. While clergy sexual abuse scandals continue to emerge, stories of “spiritual abuse” and “authoritarian” leadership abound in houses of worship of every denomination and creed.
The Christian gospels present an alternative vision of power and authority as they bear witness to the life and ministry of Jesus. As a rabbi, he was described by others as one who “taught with authority,” washed his disciples feet, ate and drank with outcasts, elevated those who were poor, cared for those who were vulnerable, and said of his own life that “he did not come to be served but to serve and to offer his life as a ransom for many.”(2) For those who struggle with a more jaded view of power, the attribution of authority applied to Jesus’s teaching ministry might cause even the skeptic to sit up and pay attention; for even someone not familiar with the intricacies of Christian belief or theology would be reticent to compare the authority of Jesus with the way in which authority is often demonstrated in the world today. Jesus never held political office nor did he have a high-ranking leadership position in the temple or synagogues of his day. Indeed, he would ultimately be crucified by those in authority over him.
Yet, we might forget that one of the temptations Jesus faced in his wilderness testing was one of wielding earthly power. Recorded in Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus is tested in the wilderness for forty days. He is tempted towards expedience to meet real needs in turning stones to bread to satisfy hunger. He is tempted to test God by throwing himself off of a high building. And he is tempted to despotic power by having all the kingdoms of the world given to him, if he would simply worship the Tempter. In each temptation, Jesus is challenged by the refrain, “If you are the Son of God…” What kind of Son of God would he be? In the ancient world a son represented his father, and in the Old Testament the king is sometimes called God’s son, meaning that he represents God on earth and is obedient to God.(3) Importantly, then, the Son reveals the nature of the Father in the wielding of power and authority.
But Jesus refused the offer. And in doing so, he would not be the Messiah that some would have wanted. All three of the temptations appeal to the image of the Messiah as one of unequalled power on earth—one who could create abundant resources for Israel and who would be capable of demonstrating invincibility; for God would protect him from danger as he reigned over the kingdoms of the world. In contrast, the power and authority of this Messiah would be made manifest in service, healing, hospitality, and a cross.
As one theologian notes, this has radical implications for our conception of the God who sent Jesus, the Son:
“This is obviously a radical conception of God, and it seems to me the Apostle Paul knew it. It is conveyed in his recognition that the cross is ‘a stumbling block (scandalon) to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…’ (1 Corinthians 1:23). The concept of a God whose essence-defining love led him to become powerless on a cross is foolishness to Greeks, the lovers of wisdom, because, like many today, they assumed God’s essence was defined by his otherness, transcendence, power… And the cross is a stumbling block to Jews because they assumed God’s messiah (the Christ) would come in power and lead them into victory over their enemies… Like many today, they defined God in terms of how he favors ‘our’ nation, ‘our’ causes, and stands against ‘our’ enemies.”(4)
Rather than demonstrating commonly held ideas about power and authority, the God on display in Jesus would exercise power and authority through sacrificial love. And it was a radical love that took Jesus all the way to the cross.
The authority of Jesus was not simply a demonstration of power or influence in the way we normally think of authority. Rather, the authority of Jesus brought healing, atonement and restoration. Illness and disease kept people away from community, away from temple worship—and away from God because it was understood as a manifestation of sinfulness. Jesus released individuals from sickness, delivered them from principalities and powers, and thus restored them to their communities and to worship where the presence of God drew near to them. In his ministry of teaching and healing, he brought those on the outside in.
Indeed, the miracles that Jesus performed demonstrated the nature God’s authority. All who relied on Jesus could enter into the realm and rule of the God who was on full display in his life and ministry. Jesus was not simply acting for God, but acting with God in such a way as to demonstrate that something new had come and had come with real power and authority. Those who choose to place their lives under his kind of authority are free to live in ways that demonstrate God’s reign. Rather than acting in ways typical of the power politics of the day, all who follow Jesus can seek to reveal his authority in “ordinary, individual lives, in the breaking of cycles of violence and evil, in the paradoxical power of forgiveness, in the actions of those little platoons who live by the transcendent values of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world, loving their God and loving their neighbor.”(5)
Regardless of the earthly authorities or powers, anyone can live in light of the authority shown in Jesus. The original language indicates that his kind of authority gives the capability or liberty to enter into God’s new realm more fully and more deeply than ever thought possible. Placed within the kind of rule on display in the life and ministry of Jesus, all those who seek a true leader find the capability and liberty to live in like manner—using authority for healing, for calling powers and principalities to justice, creating order from chaos, and restoring new life to what was dead. This is a power that never corrupts.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
1) The Phrase Finder, http://www.phrases.org, accessed online August 20, 2017.
(2) See Mark 10:42-45.
(3) Psalms 2:7; 89:26-27; 2 Samuel 7:14.
(4) Greg Boyd, “What Kind of God Did Jesus Reveal,” ReKnew, February 2014, Accessed online, August 30, 2017.
(5) Charles Colson, God and Government (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Books, 2007), 420.