Discipling the Powerful
SABBATH SCHOOL INSIGHT #9
"Discipling the Powerful"
March 1, 2014
This week we are considering the theme of discipling the powerful, that is, those in powerful positions. Jesus instructed the eleven disciples that they were to "make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19, ASV). Certainly this would include any and all classes that were willing to learn the lessons of the kingdom of heaven, under whose authority and name such discipling was to be conducted (verses 18 and 19). Thus, though the idea of discipling a person of power can be intimidating, one can confidently and calmly undertake to carry out that commission knowing that it comes from the highest power and authority in existence, and he or she is simply an agent or ambassador of that higher power.
It appears that when we consider the stories and counsels of Scripture illustrating this theme, we note that the witnesses that are recorded there carried this conviction of a higher power, with a working understanding of the meekness and lowliness that such a responsibility includes, since those qualities were the trademark of true power and greatness (Matt. 11:29, 30). From that vantage point, God's agents in scripture were able to appeal to the powerful of earth, helping them to see the bigger picture (God is really in charge), modeling for them a submissive attitude (so those in power could see how to submit to God), treating them respectfully (as God's image required), walking with them in the challenges they faced learning these lessons, and willing to suffer personal loss (even at the hands of those in power) to illustrate to them what the greater values are (that giving is more important, and more powerful, than taking).
Of the many stories we could review in sacred history, consider briefly the stories below.
Daniel and the three Hebrews with Nebuchadnezzar
The context of why Daniel and his three friends were in Babylon is the frame that connects the story in Daniel 1 with the last years of Judah's existence, beginning with the great repentance, revival and reformation of King Josiah, based on the book of the law and the sanctuary service. There are vital lessons here that we must learn as end-time witnesses, to have an "excellent spirit" (Dan. 5:13; 6:3; compare Prov. 17:27) in the midst of Babylon and beyond. The assurance the stories from Daniel's time gives us, is that God can use us to reach the powerful in Babylon with the message of the everlasting kingdom whose trademark is humility, whose King is the creator, and whose way is in the sanctuary (Psa. 77:13).
Jesus and the Jewish leaders
Jesus early learned His higher identity (Luke 2:49), which was affirmed at the beginning of His public ministry (Matt. 3:17). That gave Him a higher commission that no earthly religious or civil leader in power could control or supersede. While His mission was on a collision course with their power, it was mostly because the power of heaven is more effective, through its humility and spirit of giving, in gaining a deep and lasting allegiance, which likewise lifted one above the negative control of earthly powers. At the same time, Jesus showed that the spirit of heaven, in its unselfishness, shows respect to those in power, calling them also to join the higher allegiance. Thus Jesus would affirm the position of religious leaders, indeed, had to affirm that authority, before unmasking their spiritual poverty (Matt. 23:2, 3). This was necessary, otherwise He would have fomented rebellion, which is opposite of the spirit of heaven. Lucifer was expelled because of that spirit.
Jesus and the Romans
Jesus' unselfish authority, manifested through the power of His word in healing and teaching, reached out to a Roman military leader, a man thoroughly acquainted with Roman authority, and kindled a responsive, humble faith in his heart. Jesus' commendation of that faith contrasted it with the unbelief of His own people (even His disciples; Matt. 8:10; compare 8:26).
Jesus affirmed Caesar's rights, but made them separate (and by implication, subservient) to God's (Matt. 12:17). When Pilate tried to impress Jesus with his authority, Jesus replied to him with respect, but clearly witnessing to the higher authority. "Thou couldest have no power [authority] at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin." (John 19:11). Jesus was not ignorant of the Roman system or its principles, but His approach in winning disciples was based not on attacking error but witnessing to the truth. This is vitally important in reaching the powerful.
The Disciples and Jewish leaders
An error in discipling powerful people is seeking their cooperation in God's work when they have no understanding or experience in the principles of His kingdom. The disciples learned this painful lesson through Judas' course.
Jesus avoided this error, as well as that of exposing Himself to "useless conflict" with those in power (Ibid, p. 450.1). While He would avoid conflict if at all possible, He was ever open to the individual seeker, even "a master of Israel." (John 3:11).
The Disciples and the Romans
Peter had a special vision to prepare him to treat another Roman centurion with the openness and respect that Jesus showed to the earlier centurion. He testified to the corporate nature of the gospel message (Acts 10:28, 34, 35), though he still struggled at times with the prejudice that is a direct attack on the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:11-14).
Saul of Tarsus went from a powerful persecutor to Paul the apostle who shared before many people of power the testimony of his learning the higher power of the gospel in his encounter with Jesus. He wrote to the believers in Rome of the importance of respecting authority, framing the godly attitude with the verb "be subject unto" (Rom. 13:1) which was first used in the New Testament for Jesus' relating to His parents. It means "a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden" (Thayer). Can we help carry the burdens of the powerful? In this passage Paul then used the same verb "render" that Jesus did of Caesar (Rom. 13:7). Paul lived his own advice, with his personal testimony in Rome winning some of Caesar's own household (Phil. 4:22), and even making the last appeal Nero would experience (Ellen White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 496.1&2). God's witness reaches the highest levels of earthly power.
The lesson should be clear. "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much." (Luke 16:10). The preparation for witnessing to, and discipling, the powerful, is effectively ministering to the weak and lowly. For the words of Mordecai to Esther applies to you, dear reader. "Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14). The powerful are awaiting your witness.
The witness to those in power includes these lessons from Adventist history--
We have men placed over us for rulers, and laws to govern the people. Were it not for these laws, the condition of the world would be worse than it is now. Some of these laws are good, others are bad. The bad have been increasing, and we are yet to be brought into strait places. But God will sustain His people in being firm and living up to the principles of His word. When the laws of men conflict with the word and law of God, we are to obey the latter, whatever the consequences may be. The law of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey; and we must abide the consequences of violating this law. The slave is not the property of any man. God is his rightful master, and man has no right to take God's workmanship into his hands, and claim him as his own. (Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 1, p. 201.2). [1859; the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850.]
Accordingly, Christ says in another place, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's." Matt. 22:21. In that time the head of the Roman Empire, the personification of the world's power, was Caesar. And in that Roman world-system it was claimed that whatsoever was Caesar's was God's; because to all the people of that world-system Caesar was God. He was set before the people as God; the people were required to worship him as God; incense was offered to his image as to God. In that system the State was divine, and Caesar was the State. Therefore that system was essentially a union of religion and the State.
In view of this, when Jesus said, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's," He denied to Caesar, and so to the State, every attribute, or even claim, of divinity. He showed that another than Caesar is God. Thus He entirely separated Caesar and God. He entirely separated between the things which are due to Caesar and those which are due to God. The things that are due to Caesar are not to be rendered to God. The things due to God are not to be rendered to Caesar. These are two distinct realms, two distinct personages, and two distinct fields of duty. Therefore, in these words Jesus taught as plainly as it is possible to do, the complete separation of religion and the State; that no State can ever rightly require anything that is due to God; and that when it is required by the State, it is not to be rendered. (A. T. Jones, Christian Patriotism, pp. 63.2, 64.1)