The purpose of this talk is not to lay down the law, nor to defend the status quo, nor to encourage us not to engage in society. (If anything, Christians need to be more engaged.) The aim is to consider how Jesus approached power—how he lived, what he permitted, and what he prohibited. As we seek for zealous obedience to God’s Word in a spirit of grace, we stand to benefit greatly by looking to Christ. In this talk (39 minutes) I make four observations, under the headings of alignment, agenda, amalgamation, and attitude.

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What was Jesus's approach to politics? And what are the implications for us today?

Opening thoughts    

  • Politics is the management of power. Dictionary def: "the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power."
  • Jesus wasn’t a politician, and you probably aren’t, either, but all the same we live in a world defined by political and economic power—and Jesus’s life and words can help us navigate the murky and often turbulent waters of our own political world.
  • Of course the power of Christ’s kingdom isn’t political, at least not in the normal meaning of the word—involving government, the military, and seeking the best for one country, even at the expense of others.
    • True, at the last day Jesus will hand over the kingdom to God the Father—after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power (1 Cor 15:24). 
    • But until that time, the Prince of Peace wills that we live in peace with all men and women. 
  • Nevertheless, it is an ancient and persistent error for religious people to seek power—and to identify one’s own group with God’s kingdom. 
    • Israel was meant to be an expression of the kingdom, but it was not the kingdom.
    • The church is not the kingdom, though its members are citizens of the kingdom.
    • Christians do not proclaim an earthly kingdom, but a heavenly one.
    • Our primary identity is not national, or even international, for our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20).

[1] In a politically diverse landscape, Jesus remained unaligned politically—but not because he was apathetic. Rather, he was busy preaching the kingdom of God—something represented by none of the political options of his day.

  • 1st-century political landscape: corruption, prejudice, sexism, xenophobia, oppression, stratification (rich over poor). Some were born to privilege. This is much like our own day.
  • The political landscape in 1st-century Israel
    • Pharisees and Sadducees – collaborators – Matt 22:29
    • Herodians – supportive of Herod the Great (Rome’s “king” in the backwater of Palestine) and his successors
    • Zealots—violence is an acceptable means for political change
    • Essenes – gave up, created their own community with its own laws
    • The Romans – soldiers. (Although not all Roman soldiers were Romans.)
    • Tensions rising… and will erupt into armed revolt in a few short decades, starting in Galilee!
  • “Unaligned” doesn’t mean without conviction, or moderate.
    • Jesus had very strong and specific conviction about virtue and vice, sin and holiness—and we should, too.
    • In his day, Jesus took a stand on many issues, while other issues (as far as we know) he never addressed. Read the gospels carefully and see if this is not the case.
  • Why was Jesus unaligned?
    • No group can ever be right on everything, or perfectly represent God’s will.
      • There are always inconsistencies.
        • For example, in the country of my birth, Republicans are for business, though not necessarily for small business. Democrats for education, yet unwilling to pay teachers more than a fraction of the income enjoyed by most, say, in the world of sports, banking, and law. R for death penalty, war, D for a woman’s right to choose.
        • Both parties agree on the goal of a culture of recreation and entertainment. Miroslav Volf (Yale University) defines modern culture (the good life) as “the managed pursuit of pleasure.” Seeking happiness, not holiness.
      • Political agendas aren’t necessarily God’s agenda:
        • American first, China first, Russia first…
        • Excluding others from a voice and power, by force if necessary
        • The American dream—whereas Jesus taught that our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions (Luke 12).
        • The individual’s rights are valued over the community's good. (The opposite of traditional cultures, and strongly opposed to the totalitarianism of communist states.)
      • Every political party has some good points. But even if we were to select the best of every party and combine the these qualities into one super-party, it would still fall woefully short of representing God’s will.
    • Church-state doesn’t work!
      • We don’t need church/state again. “Christian Shari’a.
      • This was tried in the Middle Ages! Legislating morality worked poorly.
        • Laws against other religions, homosexuality, etc.
        • The exclusion of Jews, pagans, and dissenting Christian groups from the public sphere
        • Requiring “tithes”—mandatory donations, more or less taxes.
    • Although God works through all circumstances and situations—God is totally sovereign—the marble corridors of government are not where Jesus chose to flex political muscle. In fact, he didn’t deliver his provocative challenge to the corrupt duo of high-priestly politics, headed up by Annas and Caiaphas, until just days before his arrest.
    • In a politically diverse landscape, Jesus remained unaligned—but not because he was apathetic. Rather, he was busy preaching the kingdom of God—which was represented by none of the political options of his day.

[2] Jesus was not afraid to speak truth to power, though he did not focus there.

  • Herod Antipas: “Go tell that fox…” (Luke 13:31-32) v. refusing to answer his questions (Luke 23:6-12).
    • This reminds us of John the Baptist: Herod Antipas. Like the OT prophets, he challenged Israel’s religious and political establishment.
    • This was at a time when God’s people were a political unit as well as a spiritual unit.
    • We also recall Paul: Felix, Festus, and Agrippa (Acts 24-26).
  • Pilate (John 18:28-38)
    • Jesus engaged him on none of the societal wrongs—the Roman occupation, abortion, slavery, injustice…
    • Perhaps because Pilate would not have listened. But he did remind him his authority was only derivative. It came from above.
  • I do not mean to imply that dissent or protest is wrong.
    • At the moment I think of ongoing public protests in Myanmar, Belarus, Russia, India, China, and the Middle East…
    • Yes, some protests lapse into violence, but I take this more as a symptom than as a fundamental problem. Members of the dominant class tend to under-react, while the underclass have been conditioned to hold back. I hope the rallies, marches, and genuine dialogue don't die down—where there is actual dialogue. What a waste if the status quo remains.
  • Clarification of Christianity and activism
    • The early church changed the world person by person, not by attacking power structures.
    • This changed in the Middle Ages, with the evolution of the Church State. Generally speaking, church leaders behaved like politicians—going where the wind was blowing.
    • Conservative (“Bible-believing”) churches used to be leery of involvement in the public square.
    • The Social Gospel emerged in early 1900s…
      • Fundamentalists and conservatives tended to stand aloof.
      • They did align on Prohibition and Women’s Suffrage.
    • It was the liberals took up social causes—long neglected by most conservatives.
    • This would change, in the US, by the 1970s, when politicians and Christian leaders mobilized evangelicals as a voting bloc.
  • How the Lord approached politics and the issues often differs from how we may be tempted to engage.
  • This is not to say that Christians are prohibited from interacting in the public sphere except in the exact same ways Jesus did. But in all our interactions we must demonstrate respect, strive to understand others’ points of view, and both speak and act in love.
  • Most churches throughout Christian history have failed to teach biblically, and faithfully, in the midst of moral crisis. They have failed to prepare the body of Christ to think biblically about significant social issues.
    • That is most unfortunate.
    • Sure, some of these leaders hardly follow the gospel, if at all. But there are still plenty of bona fide believers who have no excuse for their wilful blindness, lack of training, and dismissive attitude towards critique and input from others.
    • If you have been hurt by leadership unwilling to speak the truth—or, maybe more to the point, unwilling to teach and preach through the whole Bible, as opposed to selecting verses to lend authority to their agenda—I am sorry.
  • Many of us are rethinking. I trust that we all want to keep the gospel at the center—not one or another social issue.
    • After all, the message of the gospel is the message of the kingdom. That heavenly kingdom is a rival government. No one can serve two masters, or two kings. Conflict and compromise are the inevitable result when we attempt to keep one foot in the world and another in the world to come.
    • But when the gospel is preached—not a stripped-down version that includes only the death and resurrection of Christ—nor the revivalist variation that reduces the gospel to faith, repentance, and baptism—confusing our initial response to the gospel with the message itself—when the gospel is preached and lived, the impact on social issues will be considerable. We can be salt and light (Matt 5:13-15).
  • Though Jesus was not afraid to speak truth to power, his mission was far greater. His agenda was infinitely greater than a mere political agenda. He stayed on message. He stayed on point. He preached God’s kingdom, never adopting the agenda of human kingdoms.

[3] Jesus amalgamates people. He unites his followers; he does not divide them.

  • Yes, of course, the sword of truth (Matt 10:34) divides—or rather, reveals which side we’re on. (See also Luke 12:51.) Jesus did not heal society or bring an end to its multiple divisions, for the world rejected him and his message. But among his followers he created unity—he built family. He didn’t divide; he united.
  • Consider his own disciples, the apostles.
    • Simon the Zealot – terrorism as legitimate means to the end of national freedom
    • Matthew – tax collector, collaborator
    • Judas Iscariot – political agenda (speculative)
    • John – connection to the high priest’s family
  • Their political leanings fade into the background.
    • They would have had to let go. Their previous agendas were now for the most part unimportant.
      • These were not necessarily trivial differences. US license plates: “A House Divided,” or a couple who may think differently about some social issues.
      • This wasn’t a time to challenge Rome, though they did challenge the religious establishment.
      • This is in line with the long prophetic tradition.
    • Jesus got them to focus on others; they were unified in a common mission.
  • Our mission isn’t political.
    • Promoting any one political group while proclaiming God’s kingdom sends a mixed message.
    • It would have amounted to a rejection of God’s sovereign reign.
    • The OT prophets continually warned against putting stock in political alignments and power politics.
  • Jesus unifies us; he does not divide us.

[4] As for attitude, Jesus renounced the weapons and ways of the world.

  • Mark 10:42-45: “…You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,and whoever wants to be first must 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.” We are forbidden to lord it over others.
  • Jesus forbade us to curse our enemies (Matt 5:38-48). We are to pray for them, to bless them, not to take revenge. This was also the teaching of his apostles (Rom 12:14, 17-21). We are to give our enemy food and drink, to show them love, to disarm them by the love of Christ.
  • Sadly, far fewer 1% of churches hold to Jesus’s teaching about enemies, retaliation, and violence. Certainly very few churches I’ve ever visited have taught this message.
  • Matt 26:52-33: Jesus did not protect himself from arrest. Jesus told Peter to put away the sword—even though Peter intended his violence to protect the innocent (Jesus). Nor did he use power to come down from the cross / vanquish his enemies.
  • Have we taken an honest look at the apostolic teaching on the topic? Paul, the apostle of Jesus about whom we know the most, reflects Jesus’ disposition. Let’s consider 2 Cor.
    • A group of elitist leaders, self-styled “super-apostles,” are trying to undermine Paul’s influence.
    • Paul refuses to engage in a “power struggle” with the super-apostles.
      • He shares his weakness.
      • He refuses to flaunt his credentials.
      • He demonstrates that the Christian approach to power is different to the world’s—just as Jesus taught.

2 Cor 10:1-5: By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you—I, Paul, who am “timid” when face to face with you, but “bold” toward you when away! I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

  • Humility – not arrogance, not pretence
  • Gentleness – not rudeness
  • Spiritual thinking – not worldly thinking
  • Reason – not shouting and slogans, like the mob that pushed for Jesus’ crucifixion, the riotous horde at Ephesus (Acts 19), or the hateful throng Paul faced at Jerusalem (Acts 21-22).
  • The message of Christ is beautiful, winsome, universal. In contrast, the (ugly) weapons of the world are marked by:
    • Defamation [hate texts], division, alienation [the other is demonized], coercion, power, violent protest, having to be right (and others wrong). These are the usual weapons. They constitute the norm in politics.
    • As do deliberately and deceptively oversimplifying complex issues, awarding favors to friends, family, and cronies, and caring more about keeping power than the common good.
    • If you are involved in the political arena, are you an agent of gentleness and humility? Do you refuse to slander or vilify those who think differently than you (Ps 15:4)? Christians don’t fight dirty. We don’t threaten (1 Pet 2:23); that is the way of the world (Acts 4:21, 29; 9:1; Ps 10:7; 55:1).
  • If we aren’t to wield the weapons of the world, does that mean it is wrong for Christians to be in politics? Perhaps not impossible, but like the theatre or professional sports, this arena is corrupting and dangerous.
    • Few remain untainted.
    • Righteousness is more important than being right.
  • Jesus renounced the weapons and ways of the world. Next time you read the four gospels, keep an eye on this theme. It may stand out more strongly than you expect.

What should we do?

  • The influence of the world runs strong even in the Christian church. It can b e difficult to resists, esp. when all our friends are jumping on the band wagon, championing the latest cause, while we’re still trying to get our heads around the last cause!
  • As individual Christians, let’s take our cue from the Lord, not from the world or from worldly influencers.
    • This isn’t to say we should isolate ourselves. Interaction is good. Christian faith changes the world—not so much when that is our goal, but as a by-product.
    • Like Jesus and Paul, let us strive for justice—for others’ rights—even while being willing not to insist on our own (Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 2:20-23; Rom 8:36; 1 Cor 8:1-11:1).
    • We don’t need to address every issue, or right every wrong. Not even Jesus did this. We have faith that all will be sorted out at Judgment Day. This is not an excuse for inaction or passivity, but a bedrock truth that should stabilize our faith, moods, and lives.
    • Let’s be humble, quick to listen, and respectful (Eph 4:2; Matt 11:29; Isa 66:2; Ti 3:2)
      • Nor should we study reasons for various positions put forth by only one side. We ought to be aware of the good points made by those with whom we may disagree.
      • Another aspect of humility is the ability to admit one’s opponent is wrong and to change course.
      • When’s the last time you changed your mind on something significant? ("Never" – that’s concerning! "What do you mean?" – that's perhaps even more concerning.)
    • The issue also deserves to be addressed from the pulpit.
      • That is, the issue of indiscreet posts that alienate believers and drive outsiders away. Christians who persist should be corrected.
      • Current issues should be addressed, with great care—never aiming to sway others to partisan positions.
      • Preach the kingdom of God. When we do this authentically, there will be an impact. Soul by soul.
      • Preaching Jesus’s message we are certain to step on toes. Supremacists will exposed. Those who are hateful or vengeful will feel uneasy—but hopefully repent. Those who demand their rights—the opposite of what Jesus did—may be upset. Those who have equated faithful Christianity with one of their country’s political parties will hopefully give up this false identification.
    • Let’s be willing to learn from Jesus, Paul, and other important voices in God’s Word.
      • Solidarity is good—as is empathy. People need to know we care.
      • Yet the Bible urges us not to go beyond words, dialogue, and listening. “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

Finally...

  • Jesus was unaligned—apart from being aligned with God’s will—yet he was not unwilling to speak truth to power. Still, his agenda was not primarily political. Jesus was godly in attitude, renouncing the ways and weapons of the world. Rather, he loved all, enemies included. As a result he has the power to unite us all, to amalgamate his people into family, a safe place, a spiritual home.
  • True unity was the intent of Jesus’s prayer (John 17). Of course this means not unity at the expense of holiness, of righteousness, but remaining connected despite our different perspectives. Not the lowest-common-denominator connection of group affiliation, but connection at the heart level—family love.
  • Such unity is the experience of Christians all over the world where men and women seek his kingdom first.