Jesus came to set the human race free from slavery, which meant breaking the power of every tyrant on earth. The tyrants had chariots, horses, catapults, walled cities, and ships. Jesus had a crowd of poor disciples and a borrowed donkey. Jesus was going to oppose all the powers of the world with no other weapons except truth, love, and obedience to God. The tyrants were doomed.
The tyrants had already struck first: King Herod had imprisoned, and then eventually beheaded, the most popular prophet of the time, John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12). The prophet had not done anything political; he had only talked about morality, but that was dangerous because King Herod’s “private life” was immoral (the Jews believed that the king’s sins could bring disaster on his people).
Jesus soon gained more popularity than John the Baptist ever had. When the man from Galilee came into Jerusalem, he did not do so quietly. He did not have any army, only a crowd of poor pilgrims, but by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus claimed to be king and Messiah and heir to the throne of David. Kings by that time had traded in their donkeys for horses, a luxury King David never had, so the donkey was a very deliberate and humble choice. It connected Jesus to David and also to the Messianic prophecies (Matthew 21:1-11). His growing popularity frightened the Jewish leaders enough to make them pull out the secret weapon of tyrants; they plotted to put Him to death (Luke 22:1-2). The battle lines were drawn, and a showdown was coming.
In fact, there are three showdowns in the Holy Week narrative. In the first, Jesus was trapped by his enemies, in the middle of the night, in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the Gospel of Matthew, the drama is heightened because one of the disciples of Jesus drew a sword and attacked the high priest’s servant. Jesus said “Put your sword back in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:52-53; a legion was about 5,000 troops). Jesus had enormous power at his fingertips but he refused to wield it; prefering to use only love, truth, and obedience to God. Jesus was quickly captured and brought to trial.
The second showdown was the trial before the priests and scribes. The religious leaders, who felt threatened by Jesus’ sway over the people, accused Him of blasphemy, which is insulting and offending God (Luke 14:53-65). If the accusation was true, then Jesus deserved death. The tyranny here is that the leaders were not interested in the truth; they were only manipulating religion to keep themselves in power and destroy their enemies. Jesus refused to adjust the truth to their distorted claims, and so he was condemned to death.
The third showdown was before Pontius Pilate, the local administrator of the Roman Empire, which seemed to cover the whole earth with its power. Jesus was not intimidated. Instead, he pointed out that he was not a threat because, as he said, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews, but my kingship is not from the world” (John 9:36). The fact that Jesus was NOT fighting was his greatest proof that He did not come to be a tyrant like other tyrants; he had not come to place himself in power by force of arms. He had only come to witness to the truth, and no one who accepted the truth was threated by Him. Pontius Pilate, however, was not interested in the truth and instead followed popular opinion.
Jesus was condemned to death by three tyrants: the tyranny of manipulated religion which ignores truth, the tyranny of political power which is not based on truth, and the tyranny of the democratic popular vote. Violence swallowed him up into darkness and death.
Seven weeks later, the disciples of Jesus began to preach that He rose from the dead. They claimed that because He was faithful to God, the almighty God saved Him from death, and made Him King of Kings and Lord of Lords. They claimed that Jesus would come again in power to destroy all His enemies and establish His kingdom forever.
Some of the followers of Jesus were arrested, beaten, and ordered to stop speaking about Him. To this they replied “We must obey God rather than men” and rejoiced that they had been made to suffer for the sake of Jesus (Acts 5). Another disciple, Stephen, was arrested by the high priests for preaching that Jesus was the Messiah and had risen from the dead. When he refused to change his story, he was stoned to death (Acts 7:54-60). His death was the clearest possible sign that he was telling the truth. His death was an act of testimony, and the early Church called him a martyr, which was a Greek word for a witness who gives testimony in court.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus had convinced a few men and women that God alone is Lord of life and death, and that He will reward those who are faithful to Him, and punish those who do evil. Faith in Christ, and His Holy Spirit, made the disciples invincible. Since threats did not work on them, tyrants turned to violence. Christians were whipped, beaten, and killed, and rejoiced to suffer for God. The kings could not kill every Christian, and they could not force them to submit, and the Chrstians were happy to suffer for Jesus. Eventually it was the tyrants themselves who had to surrender.
The poor man from Galilee, by the power of His witness, the force of His teaching, and the grace of His Holy Spirit, had broken the powever of tyrants through an army of unarmed men and women. Kings were no longer the absolute power on earth; they always had to look behind them because now they knew that God saw their sins and He would judge them.
Of course tyranny still happened, but it was much more difficult to pull off. The Church would speak up against it, and the Church proved impossible to silence. The leaders of the Church did sometimes try to dominate their own people from time to time, but that tyranny failed as well, because the Gospel of Christ condemned those who were not servants of their people. Jesus had told His disciples,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
The drama between Church and tyranny has had a number of showdowns throughout history, and some of the worst were in the 20th Century. Since absolute power was not possible as long as God was looking down from Heaven, tyranny closed up the sky. The men in power pointed to science and evolution and declared that God did not exist. With God out of the picture, man was now the absolute power in the universe. This led directly to the horrible tyranny we saw in the 20th Century: Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Once world leaders had convinced themselves and their people that God did not exist, they felt at complete liberty to do whatever they wanted, without fear of punishment, Millions of Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, and many others were put to death. Once again the Church spoke up against tyranny, and the Church proved impossible to silence. Communism fell across Europe and in Russia itself.
The lesson, however, remains valid and poignant today: whenever leaders refuse to acknowledge God’s existence, or refuse to accept any moral limits that might be “imposed” on society by religion, they have declared themselves to be absolute authorities, with no one to judge them. We know that the truth itself with judge them, however, as long as their are Christians who are willing to bear witness to the Truth. +