Power and The Christian
In fourth grade, I found a way to cut through the prickly bushes at the end of recess which allowed me to always be first at the water fountain. I was first to drink down the cool refreshing water that always quenched my thirst after an hour of kickball. Not just the water was satisfying, but also the fact that I had a leg up on my classmates. I think the majority of us can identify with the urge to find a shortcut, to get ahead of the crowd.
As a teen, if a line was long, I found great joy in seeing a friend up at the head of the line. I think most of us can relate. If traffic is tight, we switch lanes or take the side road to get around it. Perhaps others have worked for the company faithfully for years, but we would be ok with being promoted ahead of them on the basis of friendship or a family connection. We might reassure ourselves that it is just the way the world works.
Ambition is not always a bad thing, but it is dangerous. When our search for significance becomes all-consuming, it can run unchecked. It becomes a gnawing hunger in the pit of your soul, a need to prove yourself, to be somebody to somebody. Unrestrained ambition does not count the cost, consider the consequences, and allows for little self-awareness. It becomes so focused on the goal that other persons, principles, or priorities are forgotten in the single-minded drive to achieve the power we covet.
“Hearing this, the other ten began to feel indignant with James and John. Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles domineer over them; and their people in high position exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you; rather, whoever wants to become prominent among you shall be your servant; and whoever wants to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
Just before the above text, Jesus had given the last of three passion predictions. In it, Jesus gives more details than He does in the other two. Jesus talks about the details of how the chief priests and the scribes are going to hand Him over to the Gentiles. He talks about the suffering, the spitting, the mocking, and the scourging; all that He’s going to endure. It reads like the atmosphere is really serious and solemn as Jesus speaks.
Into this heaviness, James and John ask an odd question. They ask if they can be Jesus’ number one and number two when He comes in His glory. It is kind of a remarkable failure on the part of James and John to not “read the room”. It’s like a doctor telling everyone’s favorite Grandma she has terminal cancer and a week to live, then the weird Uncle asking her if he can have the house.
James and John were just playing the game, coming to Jesus on the down low in an effort to secure places of power and status for themselves. Their actions were just an extension of how they thought things worked. Their request was also telling for it confirmed a set of assumptions at the heart of the problem. The assumption that the world operates by the exercise of power and one gets ahead by securing status.
Their request for greatness is in opposition to the values of the kingdom of God. Their maneuvering for places of honor has no place in God’s kingdom. James and John clearly demonstrate that they have not yet understood or committed themselves to the kingdom of God for they were building for their own kingdom.
In v.41, we see the disciples’ response, “Hearing this, the other ten began to feel indignant with James and John.” Now, context shows us that this is not a righteous anger but more of a jealous anger. The ten have shown this same tendency for self-promotion a little earlier in Chapter 9. The anger is actually that they didn’t think to ask the question. Their anger does not distinguish them from James and John but it links them together. They all have the same opportunistic desire for power and position. This is why in verse 42, when Jesus starts teaching He’s addressing all of them. James and John’s question showed Jesus that all the disciples still had a long way to go; they were all still thinking like “the gentiles” rather than like children of God.
Earlier in the text, Jesus had taught them “the last will be first”. He taught that following Him is not like a new and different way to get blessed and get ahead. Last will be first is not a new way to be first. He was telling them to quit worrying about it. Next, Jesus deals with a deeper issue than competition. Jesus is about to tell them to quit buying into the system that tells them that self-serving greatness and power are valuable pursuits.
Jesus wants to squash that mindset. For the mindset they display is dangerous to the harmony and unity of the disciples. It is dangerous because that desire for personal power and dominance focuses on self-preservation, standing out, getting ahead of the pack, and kills any real love for others.
In v.42, Jesus, “calling them to Himself” could be translated “summoning them”. It is a Greek word of some force and intensity. Mark’s readers would have “buckled up” for Mark has used the same word to introduce Jesus speaking on His mission, identity, and what He means by discipleship. (10:42; cf. 3:13, 23; 6:7; 8:1; 12:43). So, hearing this, they would have perked up as Jesus is about to teach something important. Something that goes against the grain of the universe. He is about to cut across all expectations and drill down on a necessary truth.
Approaching Jesus’ teaching (v42-45)
In vv. 42-45, we have what scholars call, Jesus’ enigmatic and paradoxical teachings. To understand it, we must read it as Jesus in the middle of discipling his gang through the process of deconstructing bad mindsets and reconstructing a new mindset. We should not read it as static teaching. It is organized with a negative comparison, a principle, and then a positive example. The comparison gives us a negative example. This negative example helps deconstruct the disciples’ ideas of power and greatness.
- Mark 10:42b-43a – Negative Example
- Mark 10:43b-44 – Paradigm-shifting Principle
- Mark 10:45 – Positive Example
Jesus gives a negative example that He then places up against His disciples in an ironic way. The Gentile rulers in v. 42 are the negative example. In v.45, He gives a positive example in the Son of Man. Jesus wants them to consider how the Gentile rulers are ruling over them and contrast it with how the Son of Man uses His power and authority to serve them. In-between, Jesus gives a principle that redefines greatness with the extreme imagery of being a servant and a slave. In this post, we will look at just the negative example to learn how NOT to handle power as a Christian.
An Ironic Comparison
In v.42b Jesus presents the Gentile rulers and great ones as a negative example. Jesus likely got an “amen” and two “hallelujahs” from the disciples. All of Judaism saw the Gentile rulers in Palestine as oppressive and were despised by the people. Their rule was viewed as self-serving and harmful.
In v43, Jesus continues, “But it is not this way among you.” In Greek, the verb is descriptive and refers to the present time. Jesus makes the idealistic statement as a present fact. What is Jesus doing? He is being ironic. Irony is what academics call sarcasm. It’s like Jesus was saying, “No, you’re not like those guys, AT ALL (eye-roll).” Jesus trolled them because they were clueless as to how they were acting. They were operating on zero percent (0%) self-awareness. As William Lane notes, “The irony was that the disciples were imitating those whom they despised.” 
Context makes it clear, they are acting like those leaders. They’re striving for what they see as despicable. Yet, their striving for prominence and their desire to be most important is evidence they’re still operating under the system that defines greatness, power, and prominence as something to protect at all costs.
Now, back to the Gentile rulers and the systems of power that Jesus is talking about. What exactly is Jesus hinting at? Who did He want His disciples to think of when He said “Gentile rulers”? He wanted to bring to mind the Roman system in general and the leaders over them in particular. Mark helps us out further by twice writing of Gentile rulers Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate.
Gentile Rulers In Genreral
First, what is the Gentile system?
Roman imperialism was the political, economic, and cultural system imposed on the Jewish people in the time of Christ. The system demanded a specific way of leading as well as a distinct way of getting ahead.
Second, what did Roman leaders do in general?
Gentile leaders operate with a view of insuring and extending their own power. They operate to gain an advantage, whether through wealth or other systems of power. They operate with a view of building up their own brand and platform in the eyes of those who matter.
They gave little to no thought to the welfare of the people who lived under them. Instead of considering the flourishing of the people, they value them only for their usefulness. People become useful tools, means to someone’s else’s ends and not ends in themselves. The people under them are seen as good and often praised as long as they are useful to whatever projects are before the leader or however they can support the leader’s vision and direction. Any consideration given to those under them was for the express purpose of control so as to serve some other purpose. To them, people are chess pieces to be moved and manipulated for some grander governance.
Really, the only time they cared about the people in governing is to make sure they’re doing well enough to feed the Empire. They have the people moving and working to feed the elites. The leader was driven to perpetuate the system and the system focused all the power at the top, and it was in the best interest of the leader to protect that power and extended all privilege to maintain that power. Leaders did this at all costs.
These leaders love things and use people. So they weilded their power in such a way that it led to the oppression and harm of the most vulnerable. Yet their self-serving tendencies are never to the point of being self-destructive to the system. So some under them flourished, often the closer to the leader the better off they were. Thus, a system of elitism became ingrained in the social order.
The system was marked by pretension, people pleasing, and manipulation. It operated on the principles of ruthless competition and insider nepotism. Someone through flattery and appearing useful could climb closer to the ones in power. If you were good at “looking like you fit in” and cunning enough to gain the affections of the people in prominence (gatekeepers), doors would be open for you. Yet those at the bottom, where the powerless and disenfranchised live, are ground to dust.
We must also consider the Roman ethos, that is, the kind of person this system habituated. In the Roman ethos, humility was a vice that reduced the glory and greatness one could gain. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, considered it a weak and useless vice. It was seen as a sure way to become a doormat to the dominant, self-serving “winners” around you. The idea of putting yourself first was respected and those who succeeded in being first were praised. Anyone who made something of themselves did so by having that cocksure swagger that comes with a self-sufficient, self-directed disposition. This attitude was the cornerstone of the value system. A similar, modern-day “influencer” to look up to in Roman terms would be someone like Logan Paul.
Gentile Rulers In Particular
Mark gives two examples of Gentile rulers: Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate. They are emblematic examples of the wrong way of using power that are to be rejected by Jesus’ followers. We will look at Pilate shortly and give an extended look at Herod.
- Pontius Pilate and the Ruling Class
Pontius Pilate is a Roman transplant and best known for his abuse of power at the trial of Jesus. He knows that the charges against Jesus are bogus. He knows that the shady priests are jealous of his influence and popularity. Pilate gets it. He has the power to free Jesus and stop His execution but he doesn’t. He doesn’t free Jesus because he wants to appease the crowd. Two reasons he wants the crowd appeased:
One, He doesn’t want another stain on his record. He’s already had a bloody and violent riot on his watch. He doesn’t need another one he can’t handle. He did not want more bad press, claiming he had no integrity. 
Two, He wants to keep the system working to keep the religious tourism money flowing. Even in first century Palestine, religion was big business. In the end, to save his position, he allows an innocent man to be executed. He had no real integrity for he governed unjustly for pragmatic reasons. Moral principle is at odds with the loss of power and reputation. He sacrificed his principles to keep his power.
- Herod Antipas and the Death of John the Baptist
In Mark 6:14-29, we meet Herod Antipas. He was a member of the Jewish ruling class,the son of Herod the Great. He ruled during the time Jesus and John the Baptist wereministering in Galilee. He’s in charge of Galilee and a few other areas. He is married to his brother’s wife. John the Baptist has spoken out against that immorality. He’s spoken out publicly and he’s spoken out multiple times. To shut him up, Herod has put John in jail. He stopped short of executing him even though Herod’s wife would prefer that John the Baptist was dead.
John’s popularity played into it but Herod seems to have a strange reverence and respect for John. We see this in Mark 6:20, “for Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him.”
Herod liked John’s preaching but it perplexed him. Herod is Jewish. He knows John is a prophet. John is the first prophet to come around in a long time. Maybe he knew not to touch God’s anointed? Maybe He heard something of God in John’s words. Something that conflicted with the elitist ethic he was taught growing up. Something that confused him for he was both fascinated and terrified by John’s words. Simply stated, God was bringing conviction on Herod. He experienced conviction that both exposed his sin yet gave him hope. When John spoke, it pierced his heart revealing sin and yet for a moment breathed life into him.
Why does Herod have John the Baptist killed? It’s because he’s caught in a web of his own self-promoting power. He’s made a promise to his daughter-in-law to give her whatever she wants.
Herod made the promise in front of other powerful men. Mark 6:21 talks about these guests at his banquet, they are the political leaders and military officers, all the governing officials. The whole cast of Israel’s aristocratic elite. The men were the foundation of Herod’s power. All of the ruling class, the elite, all the power brokers in his little kingdom were at the banquet.
Even though Herod is at the top, he still is not free to use his power in the way that he would have wanted. The text makes it very clear that Herod does not want to execute John. Yet in order to avoid losing face in front of these men, he executes another. In order to avoid losing his platform, his position of power, he keeps his promise. Essentially, Herod puts himself first and sacrifices a man to the god of political power.
I am sure he reasoned to himself something like, “What’s one man for all the good I bring to the nation. I am important. John is replaceable. God will raise up another. God only has one of me.” Herod beheads a man that he knows to be holy and righteous all to preserve himself and maintain power in the system that benefits him. Power that exists to protect the powerful will always do violence even against its own better judgment. Here we see the principle behind the examples: Power and Position is not to be protected at all cost. When you have power, learn to give it away for a greater good and God’s glory.
Power and the Christian
With one little comparison Jesus draws a line in the sand. It shows us how to handle power as a Christian and how to not handle power as Christians. The questions before the disciples, and us, are these: what power do you have, are you going to hoard it, misuse it so you can protect it, or are you going to be willing to serve others as Jesus would by giving power away to make others better?
Option one traps us in the cycle of Herod and the other option frees us to love like Jesus loved. On the one hand, you have Herod obsessed with how he is perceived. He is surrounding himself with the powerful and the elite and he still has to act against his conscience in order to hang on to that precarious power. Jesus, on the other hand, surrounds himself with the unclean and the expendables and he’s free to love people well and use his power to bring healing and wholeness.
Today many fail to seek the kingdom, because they confuse seeking their own kingdom for God’s kingdom. They might seek to secure cultural influence, popularity, social platform or position all to legitimize their existence and bring some kind of psychological meaning to their life. So many today can’t enjoy the Lord in obscurity. They can’t imagine a meaningful life without fame or platform. They can’t value a life given away for the sake of others in unrecognized obedience. So they seek to construct a life of a certain kind that others would affirm as spiritual. Where their thoughts and spiritual ideas are seen as special, or in some cases, divinely inspired. Both paths may have kingdom power, but only one has kingdom peace.
Servanthood means we give power away and not hoard it. We seek to share the platform and spread the privilege around. In short, those who work themselves out of a job do the work of ministry. If we lose power as quickly as we gain, we may find God gives us more to give away for that’s the way of the kingdom.
What if the praise we receive on this side of the eschaton, diminishes what we receive when the kingdom comes in its glory? What if the greatest believers in the age to come turn out to be unknown in this age? Men and women know only by God. How would it change your perspective if those closest to the throne of God turn out to be men and women without book deals and international ministries. What if they are just people who obeyed in obscurity and changed the world in ways unknown by all but God?
The kingdom is oriented not toward power but toward service. Greatness is therefore measured not by one’s status or power but by one’s commitment to serving others in Jesus’ name. Jesus places before us two ways of living. Seeking to keep what we have or serve others. Every day, we all must choose between the quest to control our life or the desire to serve others. May we choose wisely.
 William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), 382.
 Roman view of integrity was rooted in results, and thus measured by competence and compliance. One had integrity when they finished on time and under budget. The focus was on externals and practical acts showing you could be trusted because you get stuff done. A far cry from Hebraic understanding that held integrity as an internal consistency and faithfulness to biblical principles in all areas of life and character. Politically, Pilate had the higher-ups in Rome upset with him due to some rebellions he let get out of hand and he needed more troops to squelch the uprising.
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