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Power, Politics, and the Example of Christ

All power comes from God, but Jesus alone shows us how to use power.


In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus shares some important insights on power. Mary the mother of James and John came to him and asked, "When you come into your kingdom, let my boys sit at your right and your left." In other words, "Put them in charge of everyone else. Give them power." Jesus said, "You don't really know what you are asking, and it will not unfold that way." He then turned to calm the other ten disciples who heard the request and immediately felt indignant.

Matthew 20:25-28 says,

Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the 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 your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

I want you to think about power. Don't just think about how it shapes national and international affairs, but also how it shapes your relationships with family and friends. Ask yourself, Who sits in the front seat on the way home? Who decides what's for lunch? Who gets the remote?

The truth is, we all have power. It carries with it great upsides and great downsides. Few people handle it well. I pray that we can learn to handle it better in light of Christ's example.

What exactly is power? That depends on who you ask. A physics professor would say, "Power is the rate at which work gets done," and then he would calculate it with an equation. A political science professor would say, "Power is the ability to get what we want."

Where does power come from? Once again, it depends on who you ask. Sociologists would note that there is a complicated set of ever-morphing rules, a complex interplay of factors such as age, education, socio-economic status, intellect, sex, and physical strength. They might also note that people arrive at an unspoken agreement over the balance of power, but it's always changing. Lots of things can tip that balance.

Theologians, on the other hand, would note that all power ultimately comes from God, the all-powerful, omnipotent One. He enjoys the power of ownership—he created all things and retains all rights to his creation. He is the only one with inherent power. We are dependent beings who require inputs to produce outputs, but God is entirely self-sufficient. He is able to generate power without any inputs. Our power is derived. His is inherent.

In their next breath, theologians would likely note something else: God gave some of his power to us. In Genesis 1:28 we are told to rule over his creation, to steward his world in a productive way. We were given power to bring all of creation to its fulfillment.

We are supposed to use power to glorify God and serve others. That may strike you as an unhelpful, religious answer, but I promise you that in 100 years, you will wish you had used your power to glorify God and serve others. That use of power will gain the greatest reward. I don't mean that you need to work on a church staff or at a soup kitchen. Everything everywhere belongs to God. There are many ways to glorify God and contribute to human flourishing.

I don't want to suggest that we can't use power to do what we need to for ourselves. But we tend to use this loophole too often. Most of us live selfish lives and use power for our own good instead of for the best.

After our failed "power grab"—the fall, when sin entered the world—we and the rest of creation became corrupted by sin. As a result power became very complicated. It became very easy to misuse. We quickly started to divert it from building God's kingdom and used it instead to build our own. And we've made a mess of the world.

In light of the confusion that exists around power, I want to make six observations.

We all have power.

Some have more than others, but everyone has some. We have the power of will. We have the power of speech. We have the power of example. Don't underestimate the significance of these powers.

All power ultimately comes from God.

As dependent beings, we collect and allocate power. But we can't create something out of nothing; we can't generate our own power. We merely steward God's power. There is great responsibility in that.

In today's broken world, power is complicated.

It can be used for good or evil. Some people argue that power is always bad. They see it as coercion. John Howard Yoder, a 20th century Mennonite theologian, argued that power is always bad. He defined it as influence, which he then equated with coercion, and he said that we should refuse it.

But power can be good. Equating power with coercion is like confusing sex and lust. Sex can be good. Not all sex is lust. For a long time, the church said, "Sex is bad." We never talked about it. We said, "If you are going to do it, do it as little as possible. If you are really holy, you won't do it at all." Well, that doesn't work with power. We can chose not to have sex, but we are stuck with power. God gave us dominion. The early chapters of Genesis make no sense if all power is bad.

Power corrupts.

It changes people without them realizing it. One of the best illustrations of this is found in J. R. R. Tolkien's work, The Lord of the Rings. In this trilogy the ring represents power. Its owner has remarkable power and could rule the world. But this power destroys its possessor.

Gollum had the ring for ages and it turned him into a soulless, wispy creature. As the story unfolds, Frodo claims the ring, and it slowly destroys him, too. In the end he is unable to part with it.

Few people handle power well.

Those who have it often force their way, using it for their own benefit and clinging to it when they should not. People with power tend to get their way. Malcolm X said, "Power only takes a step back in the face of more power." I disagree. I think there are people who willingly back down. They put others ahead of themselves. But it's rare, and it's hard.

The Bible and history books are full of examples. The list starts with Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Saul, and David. It includes a long list of business leaders, professional athletes and politicians. It includes me, and it includes you.

Lord Acton famously stated that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It's hard to touch power without being compromised a bit. David is a great example of this principle. He was a man after God's own heart. He did many wonderful and God-honoring things. But as King he had great power, and he did some really stupid things because he could.

We get another glimpse of the corrosive nature of power in Vaclav Havel's 1991 acceptance speech for the Sonning Prize. Havel was a poet, playwright, and opponent of communism in Czechoslovakia before the revolution. Through a series of unexpected events, he became the President of the country. In 1991 he was honored for his work and took advantage of that opportunity to express his worry about the changes in his life. He had previously criticized politicians. But now he understood how difficult it was to be close to power without succumbing to it.

In his speech he notes that people are in office for one of three reasons: they really want to serve and believe they can make things better for others; they want to be affirmed, to shape the world in their own image; or they like the perks that come with the job. These three are intertwined; no one ever says, "I'm in it for the glory or the perks." He initially viewed his public service as a sacrifice. The perks were "to be endured." But the line is hard to see and easy to cross.

It only made sense to employ a driver, given his busy schedule. It only made sense to use police escorts, given the wide-ranging places he needed to be. It only made sense to bring medical personnel directly to him, given that he could not miss important events for a tooth ache. It only made sense to hire a chef and ship in quality ingredients, given that he couldn't shop for his own food, and he couldn't serve other heads of state anything but the best.

Havel was unable to say where the best interests of the country stopped and the love of privileges began. It was virtually impossible to keep his sense of judgment. Havel argues that politics is not a dirty business. Instead, it requires especially pure people because it is so easy to become morally compromised.

There are a lot of people with a lot of power in America: people who lead companies and have climbed to the top. There is something very dangerous in thinking, I deserve this. After all, I'm president, I took the risk, I studied for years, I worked harder than anyone else.

Those who work hard and take risks deserve more upside. That's the best system we can hope for in this broken world. The problem is that power corrodes your soul. The line between appropriate and inappropriate power is very hard to see and very easy to cross, even if we are doing our best to embrace humility, show grace, and put the needs of others ahead of our own.

At best, our motives are mixed. In Acts 8 we read about a Samaritan magician who came to faith under the preaching of Phillip. Before following Christ, he had power because he was able to amaze people with his tricks. Acts 8:9-11 reads, "He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, 'This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.' They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery." After Philip preached the Gospel in Samaria, Simon "believed and was baptized." Simon "followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw."

Peter and John started laying hands on people, and Simon wanted in. He wanted to heal people and do other miracles. These are good ambitions. But he offered to buy his way in. And Peter replied, "May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God" (Acts 8:20-21). On our best days, our hearts are not completely right. It's very easy to have mixed motives like Simon.

Jesus is the perfect example of how to use power.

He obviously had power. John 1 tells us that he was present at creation—all things were created through him. Though he humbled himself at the incarnation—some of his glory and power appear to be on hold for a time—he demonstrated remarkable power on earth. His miracles advertised his power over nature, illness, evil, and death. He calmed storms, turned water into wine, healed the sick, raised the dead, cast out demons. Jesus demonstrated that he could do whatever he wanted.

But power didn't corrupt him. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus resisted the devil's temptations to abuse his power. Satan tried to convince Jesus to use power selfishly by turning stones into bread. He tried to convince Jesus to use power frivolously by throwing himself down from the temple tower. He even tried to offer Jesus power that he already possessed, to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus rejected these tempting invitations. Later he resisted the efforts of his followers to make him king and instead washed their feet.

He used his power for the good of others. He served. If I were Jesus, I would use my powers to make my life a bit easier. He took a big demotion to do this job. He suffered unjustly. He wouldn't have taken anything away from anyone else by making his life a bit easier. But Jesus didn't. He used his power for others.

And he primarily did this by laying it down. In the crazy way that God works, Jesus—the one with the most power—demonstrated that power in weakness. Andy Crouch writes, "At the center of it all we find a thirty-something man with considerable political savvy, a gifted storyteller with a keen eye for shrewd symbolic acts. Moreover, he has the divine power to multiply loaves of bread, heal the sick, and raise the dead. Yet his most decisive, powerful act is not an action at all, but a passion—suffering the brunt of power itself, grieving, forgiving, waiting. If Christians are sometimes called to acquire power, we should probably begin by watching our Lord abandon it."

The stakes are a lot higher when we deal with the geopolitical realm because the power is so great. Institutions of all sorts multiply power. They direct the efforts of large groups of people, whose cumulative power can be used for good or for evil.

Countries multiply power even further, because governments are larger and more powerful than companies. Governments have the ability to force people to do things like pay taxes or serve in the military. They also incarcerate people and declare war.

God ordained both the church and the state, but he gave them different assignments. During the last thirty years, evangelicals have gained political power and have been corrupted by it. Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, lieutenants in the Moral Majority during its formation and rapid rise, believe we were corrupted by political power and used it to empower the church to do the job of the state.

This was wrong. I am not suggesting that Christians shouldn't be involved in government or that the church shouldn't influence the state. But it's more complicated than we made it. We were very naïve, easily corrupted and frequently selfish, using our power to our advantage rather than for the common good. But the church can have a great impact by speaking the truth to and helping shape the worldviews of those in power.

Our founding fathers were skeptical of any person's ability to yield power without being corrupted by it. Their Christian view of human nature led to a system of checks and balances. There are several reasons that Africa is struggling. Though things have generally gotten better around the world in the last 20 years, they've gotten worse in Africa. African government leaders have been horrible. They never step down. I don't know African history well, but I believe Nelson Mandela was one of the first African Presidents who stepped down. But most stay in power until they die in office or are forced out.


In light of these truths I want to encourage you in a few ways. First, be aware and suspicious of your own power. I want you to realize how much we have and that our best motives are mixed. Like Havel, we can convince ourselves that our motives are pure. But while we can see the speck in someone else's eyes, we often cannot see the log in our own. Be suspicious of your own heart.

Second, be intentional about cultivating "Nathans" in your life. David was saved from further harm by Nathan, a prophet who spoke truth to his powerful king. There are few "Nathans" in the world. Chances are there are very few people who are inclined to tell you hard truths. The only person motivated to take that risk might be your spouse, and that sets up less than ideal dynamics. About ten years into our marriage, Sheri pleaded with me to get better friends because she didn't want to be the one telling me hard truths. Small groups can do this. Intentional friends can do this. We need accountability.

Finally, use your power to serve others as Christ did. We cannot take it to the extreme he did. But we can lean in that direction. Those to whom much is given, much is expected. Use your power in the way God intended. Use it to serve others.

When Roman conquerors returned home, they were celebrated with a parade. As the victorious leader rode past the cheering crowds in a chariot, a man stood next to him holding the victory wreath over his head. But the servant's real job was to whisper into the leader's ear, "Remember, thou art but mortal, and glory is fleeting."

All power comes from God, and our best example for the use of power is Jesus Christ.

Mike Woodruff is senior pastor of Christ Church Lake Forest in Lake Forest, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


I. We all have power.

II. All power ultimately comes from God.

III. In today's broken world, power is complicated.

IV. Power corrupts.

V. Few people handle power well.

VI. Jesus is the perfect example of how to use power.