One considerable problem with coordinating the Messiahship of Jesus with contemporary political life is the kind of leadership Jesus embodied and the difference between that leadership and the kind of leadership prevalent in business and government, then and now. When Jesus says, “You have heard how the leaders of the Gentiles lord it over them,” he is not just speaking of Greece or Rome but of all political systems then and now. And, by defining the Kingdom of God by the leadership it will possess, he establishes new criteria for Kingdom leadership—service to others.
Force and Leadership
From the beginning of time until now, leadership has involved a certain amount of force. One cannot be certain, but it is likely that human political organization evolved initially as a matter of self-defense. Human beings, social by nature, realized that there was strength in numbers. Predators, human and otherwise, were best deterred, not by single individuals acting alone, although that helped, but by the human capacity for organizing itself. Human beings, social by nature, quickly realized that there was strength in numbers. Predators, human and otherwise, were best deterred, not by single individuals, although that helped, but by the human capacity for organizing itself.
The biblical story does not hide the human descent into violence. It is an integral part of the story of the fall, as told in Genesis. The world’s leadership evolved upon those most capable of employing violence to achieve their ends. Only at the beginning of Western civilization did the notion of law, peaceful arbitration of disputes, and limitations on the powers of leaders begin to develop. The difference between Tubal Cain, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar is not as significant as we imagine. The difference between Julius Caesar and Napoleon is hardly worth discussing. The difference between Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin is a matter of degree and technology.
The Good News
The Gospel According to Matthew contains alternating sections, some focusing on Jesus’s teaching and others on his mighty deeds of healing, exorcism, and the like. According to Matthew, somewhere in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, he went on a preaching tour, during which he performed many miracles. This, of course, provoked opposition from the Pharisees scribes and teachers of the law. In particular, the Jewish leadership focused on Jesus’s lax attitude toward Sabbath-keeping when it came to providing for human needs, the need of his disciples for food, or the need of the sick for healing. Jesus withdrew with such opposition, but the crowds still followed him. It is at this point that Matthew has the following commentary.
Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:15-21).
I suspect that Isaiah and Jesus knew the nature of leadership in their day. The day’s leaders were not above quarreling, screaming, or violence. There were wars and rumors of wars. Leaders engaged in all sorts of schemes to gain power. Lenin’s famous quote in justification of his murderous regime, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg,” is a memorable description of power politics at every age.
It is a characteristic of contemporary democracies that they are filled with public quarreling. The entire process of modern democratic political leadership relies upon constant conflict and quarreling in a bid for votes. The term “negative politics” describes the fact that in democratic societies, demonizing your enemies gets more votes than anything you might say positively about yourself. Jesus and Isaiah had other ideas about leadership and politics in the Kingdom of God.
Isaiah 42:1-4 and Jesus
The Spirit of Servant Leadership. Isaiah begins this poem with these words: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold,my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1). Here we have four words that describe the nature of Christian leadership and therefore of the Christian kingdom: The Messiah will be:
- A servant,
- Chosen by God,
- Empowered by the Spirit of God, and
- His leadership will be focused on justice within his Kingdom.
Then, the focus on power, the will to power, the acquisition of power, and the use of power are absent from this description. As modern political science textbooks continuously proclaim, if politics is about the acquisition and use of power, the kingdom of God is entirely different. The kingdom of God is not focused on power but on justice. The justice that the Messiah will bring flows from the spirit of God, the election of God, and the spirit of a servant.
The Gentleness of Servant Leadership. After introducing the character of the servant leader, Isaiah goes on to describe the behavior of the messianic leader: He will not cry aloud or lift his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice (vv. 2-3). The Messiah will be:
- Quiet in his approach to the give and take of politics,
- Gentle in the application of power,
- Faithful to his calling to achieve a just order
Once again, the kind of self-promotion, constant arguing, negative characterization of opponents, and other noisy elements of our contemporary politics are absent from the description of the politics of the kingdom of God. The behavior we have seen in the past, where the party and power run over its opponents, is inconsistent with one who is gentle in applying power and hesitant even to put out the slightest glimmer of light in the candle of a human soul. And finally, once again, the Messianic leader is focused on justice.
The Endurance of the Messianic Leader. Finally, Isaiah realizes that the Messianic Kingdom will not be easy to create. He reminds us that the Messiah “will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth, and the coastlands wait for his law” (v. 4). It will take physical and emotional endurance for the kingdom of God to be established. Interestingly, leadership theories often consider the necessity of high energy levels and emotional stability to achieve excellence in leadership and any organization. The Messianic Kingdom is not for the faint of heart, nor can it be created by the faint of heart.
When I was in seminary, the professors were anxious to impress upon us that the original meaning of the servant psalms in Isaiah was related to the nation of Israel and its status as a servant people. When the disciples looked back at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesu, they saw in him the fulfillment of these prophecies in a marvelous and unexpected way. This week’s blog focuses on leadership as much as on political organization. This should not hide from us that Jesus, the suffering servant, immediately created an alternative political organization. We call it “the church.” He named it “my disciples.” He called the twelve disciples and others into a community that was to be governed by messianic principles. This community did not exist separately from Greco-Roman or contemporary Jewish society. It existed within that society as a servant. Christians and the Christian church do not exist as separate from the societies in which they are located. Instead, the church exists within and is part of every society. Like Jesus, it exists not as a secular power but as a servant power. This power cannot be exercised otherwise than by Christians and their churches serving the needs of a broken world.
Mathetes describes the unique character of the Christians of the early centuries in his letter to Diogenetus:
Christians are distinguished from other men by country, language, or the customs they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive people, nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according to the lot each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their excellent and confessedly striking method of life.
They dwell in their own countries but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth is a land of strangers. They marry, as do all human beings; they beget children but do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.
They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws and, at the same time, surpass the laws in their lives. They love all human beings but are persecuted nevertheless. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death yet restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they lack all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and glorified in their very dishonor. People speak evil of them, yet they are justified; they are reviled, yet they bless others; they are insulted, repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks, yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.
Contemporary Christians probably need to internalize the message of this letter. Christians are not called to be the rulers of a society but servants. The greatest service that can be done is to simply live in a community of faith (a church) according to the standards of the Christian faith. This message has been the subject of prior blogs. It is the message that Stanley Hoss tries so desperately to communicate to contemporary churches. On the left and the right of the Christian community, the supposition that Christians should somehow be transforming society using the tools of society is a mistake. Instead, the spirit of Christ itself transforms society as a servant people go about their day-to-day business. Some of them may be leaders in government and culture. Others may never be known. All are important.
Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved
 Mathetes, “Letter to Diogenetus” https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0101.htm (downloaded February 27, 2024). The term “Mathetes” is Greek for Disciple, and the author does not identify himself. He was an early Christian (circa 130-200) who describes himself as having studied under the apostles. I have undertaken a slight paraphrase for contemporary readability.