We struggle every time we try to convey "God" thoughts in human words.
At funerals we speak of going "up" to heaven when we die. Symbolically correct but not theologically, we use the word up because it works. Heaven is not up; it's up. The contrast is not geographical but dimensional.
Heaven is above, higher, more perfect than anything we have ever experienced "down" here in the physical dimension. If heaven is straight up from, say New York, it is straight down from Sydney. The poor unfortunate who dies in Australia must, one supposes, circle the globe before ascending.
Down works the same way. Where is hell? Under our feet? If we drilled straight down from Kansas City, would we pop out in hell? No, in Calcutta. Hell is the shrinking away, the loss of all that is good and godly, until, as C. S. Lewis wrote, every spirit that has ever or will ever go to hell could fit in a crack in the sidewalk. Hell is not down. It's down.
Years ago the story circulated in some evangelical circles that in a mineshaft in Lithuania or some such place, screams and extreme heat were detected. This, then, was the mouth of hell, the story went. Do we honestly think that the mouth of hell is a Balkan mineshaft? That would surely simplify evangelism. A few hundred yards of concrete, and no one could ever go to hell again. Just seal that sucker up and forget it forever.
There is no place in Scripture where this communication breakdown has caused the church as much heartache as Acts 1. Having longed for a new Davidic kingdom, a Messianic dominion with Jerusalem as its headquarters and themselves as its deputies, the disciples found their hopes dashed at the death of Jesus.
His resurrection likewise raised from the dead their dreams of kingdom and power and glory. Now, they thought, now comes the kingdom.
"Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?"
They wanted the yoke of Gentile oppression snapped, the Romans defeated and the glory of David renewed. Surely with Jesus having defeated death, the kingdom was now, and they wanted in on the ground floor. It was the greatest IPO in history, and they were the 11 original stockholders. The smell of power was a sweet perfume in their expectant nostrils.
This confusion has haunted the church for 2,000 years and continues to until this day. On the eve of a crucial battle near Rome with his opponent Maxentius, the pagan emperor Constantine claims to have seen a vision, a cross in the sky with the words in hoc signo vinces, "In this sign you will win."
The emperor promptly ordered his army to paint white crosses on their shields. When victory was his on the next day, Constantine ordered mass baptisms, and Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire.
Constantine himself, however, was baptized only on his deathbed 25 years later. Presumably he wanted to keep his options open while not offending the source of his victory, a fascinatingly modern approach.
None of this is to say that Constantine heard no voice and saw no vision of the cross. Both may well have been real, but, assuming they were, perhaps Constantine misunderstood their meaning. Just possibly God was telling Constantine that there is another way to power other than by conquest, another means to victory other than the sword, and that the way of the cross may lead, not to an empire, but into the kingdom. Power, not power.
No stranger to politics, Pontius Pilate was raised in a city where malevolent power was exercised to smash lives and careers. Rome's armies, the most powerful in the world, crushed countries and cultures, not with intrigue, but with a brutality unmitigated by any hint of mercy. Though not named per se among Rome's pantheon of gods, power, not Zeus, ruled supreme. Rome meant power in the world as he knew it, only Rome, nothing else, nothing less, only Rome. In the whole world there was no other power worth mentioning. Rome meant power, and in Palestine, at least, Pontius Pilate meant Rome.
That was precisely what concerned Governor Pilate the most about this case. Power was, as always, the only real issue, but his early education in Roman infighting and its dangerous political machinations had not prepared him for the ceaseless bickering of these Jews.
The gods knew he had tried to understand, had listened patiently to rambling lectures on the nuanced distinctions of their major religious cults and political rivalries. Pharisees vs. Sadducees. Both vs. the Herodians. Squabbles ad nauseum to be sure, but meaningless in light of the bald fact that none of them had even a pinch of power except what Rome allowed.
To Pilate they were petulant children arguing over borrowed toys in the back bedroom of a vast estate owned by a distant landlord. Beyond all that, they were unspeakably rude, unruly, implacable and unfailingly resistant to clear Roman logic.
He had no clue why he had been posted here. Quirinius, his classmate who had been sent to Syria to govern there, commiserated, but no appeal was possible. "Judea," his orders said. "Procurator, Governor Regent, of the territories and peoples thereof in the name of the senate, the republic, and Caesar."
This maddening people, their incomprehensible customs, their barbaric religion so impoverished it could afford only a single god, and their barren, rocky land filled with barren, rocky fanatics made him ache for Rome and his father's house. He had wanted foreign service, trained for it, even petitioned the senate for it at no small expense, and he had been excited at his first provincial governorship. Now ... O Zeus, now he just wanted to go home and leave these Jews to stew in their own juice.
"Governor?" The adjutant's smooth, warm voice and excellent Latin always comforted Pilate, reassured him that somewhere there was sanity, culture and Roman civilization.
"Governor, they won't go away. They demand to be heard."
"They demand. Perfect. Never in history have the conquered demanded so much, so arrogantly of their masters. Mark my words, Claudius, someday Rome will be forced to raze this country to the ground."
"Mark my words."
"Of course, Governor, I'm sure you're right. Only ..."
"What shall I tell them today?"
The governor sighed heavily and raked his manicured fingers through his prematurely thinning hair. His wife said baldness made him look more dignified, rather like the busts of the great Julius. She thought a governor should look like Caesar. Perhaps, but here in this dusty, remote, rock garden of Judea, Governor Pontius Pilate longed for more of Caesar's power and less of his dignity.
"Well, there's nothing for it, I suppose," Pilate said with weary resignation. "Send them in."
"Actually, Governor, you see...that's the thing of it. They won't come in."
"Won't come in?"
"It's their Passover. If they come in the house of Gentiles, they will be--uh ..."
"Yes, yes. Unclean. What arrogance. Do you think they don't realize how insulting that is?"
"I should think, Sir, that they don't care. I have set up an official desk and chair on the courtyard pavement. Will you wear your formal robes?"
"No," the governor snapped, mildly irritated that his adjutant had assumed he would go out to meet with the Jewish elders. "Get my breastplate. I'll go out in full military garb. That should rile them. And get my dress sword. Perhaps a sword on my side will remind them who wields the power in this country. What is this about anyway? If they are in such a hurry that it can't wait until after their own feast, it must be important."
"They've arrested a false prophet."
The governor moaned. In this insane land prophets were more dangerous than swords and more numerous.
"Must I get involved? Are you sure this is necessary, Claudius?"
"They want him executed."
"I do not understand these people. Do they love their prophets or hate them? They kill them all. It is safer to be a gladiator in Rome than a prophet in Jerusalem."
"Still, Governor, that's what they want."
"Life and death are Caesar's alone. Now they need Rome to kill their prophet. The power to kill is Rome's, and they know it. For His sake, this prophet had better remember it, too. This is not about prophecy. This is about power. What is His name anyway?"
"Jesus bar Joseph, from Nazareth."
"Ah, a Galilean. I hope he's not one of these sanctimonious Pharisees. Galileans tend to have more respect for real power than these Judeans."
"Remember, Governor, He is a prophet."
"I dread this whole thing."
On the portico, Governor Pontius Pilate--Roman citizen, Caesarean appointee and plenipotentiary of the empire--stared in amazement at the pathetic figure before him. What power in this Jesus of Nazareth engendered such hatred from His own people?
He had no army, was not even accused of having one and had fomented no rebellion. Unarmed, taken with no struggle to speak of, friendless, countryless and defenseless, the man seemed to stand outside the entire proceedings as if it had nothing to do with Him.
His own countrymen were screaming for His blood. He had been tortured, beaten and sleep-deprived, yet somehow the man remained calm, aloof, even detached. Indeed, He refused to respond, defend Himself, or even deny the charges, such as they were.
The Hebrew leaders said Jesus claimed to be a god. This amused Pilate. In Rome there were gods, demigods and self-proclaimed gods galore. Caesar was a god and his wife a goddess. In Rome, he thought, we do not kill our gods--or worship them.
This beaten and bloody Jewish God was certainly silent before His captors and accusers. The governor had seen the accused, guilty and innocent alike, in a thousand legal venues, and they invariably rushed to their own defense.
This Jesus would not open His mouth or offer evidence or even plead for His life. The governor's curiosity, more than his conscience, compelled him to seek a better understanding of this strange man, hated by so many, yet seemingly disengaged from the process that had the power to take His life.
"Do you not realize," Pilate demanded, "that I have the power to have You killed or to spare Your life?"
Jesus lifted His eyes to meet the governor's. At last a response. When it came, the Jew's answer astonished Pilate.
"You have no power over Me at all, none, except that which you are permitted by heaven to have."
Suddenly the governor found himself reluctant to allow this man's death. Something in His answer, cryptic as it was, or something in His eyes made Pilate want to release Him. Pilate was not entirely certain of who this Jesus was or even who He claimed to be.
What was apparent was that the petty power brokers among the Sanhedrin's leadership had no understanding at all of this man's concept of power.
The Roman world was all about power. Caesar had power. Pontius Pilate himself had some power. These scribes and Pharisees bickered over the crumbs of power under Caesar's table. Herod had power, of a sort, and used it without remorse to crush his enemies.
One man in Israel who had absolutely no power was this ragged rabbi from Galilee, yet He seemed more confident, more assured of His power than any of them.
The governor returned the Rabbi's gaze but offered no response. How could he respond? What answer could he give? It was apparent that this man, insane or touched by the gods, was using the same vocabulary as Pilate and the others, but the words did not mean the same thing.
Anyway, it was refreshing to meet someone, anyone, even a benign maniac that had no interest in personal power and who apparently believed that the governor's power came from heaven. That, at least, was unique. In that moment, the governor determined to use his power, however little he had, to spare this poor mystic's life.
This world is obsessed with governmental power, deriving from and depending upon the state, from an election, or succession, or even a military coup. Such power is positional and always temporary. In other words, as long as the office is yours, the power is yours. Sic gloria transit mundi, which loosely translated means, "Lose the election, and the phone stops ringing."
Power is inherent in the office. Only the character of the person in power varies its exercise. Idi Amin used power to ravish Uganda, Saddam Hussein to terrorize the world, and George Washington to build a republic.
That is both the promise and the danger of persons in positions of power, and the reason that conscience and character as well as competence must be considered by a thoughtful electorate.
The power of any position, say, the presidency of the United States, is there no matter who occupies the oval office. A moral pygmy may use it to cover his own weaknesses or even his crimes. A giant shoulders the awful weight of monumental positional power, not in eager frivolity, but in sobriety and in the fear of God.
Jesus' words to Pontius Pilate should be carved over the doors of the White House, the Congress and into the hearts of every office holder or ministry leader:
"Jesus answered, 'Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above'" (John 19:11, KJV).
The paradox of positional power is that its dimensions mean little to those who wield it. In fact, the tinier the terrain, the smaller the office, the more immediate the temptation to tyranny.
For one thing, the world watches the really grand offices. Under the constant gaze of the United Kingdom, and indeed the world, England's prime minister may find outward, if not inward, motivation to act nobly, to use his power for the common good.
A bank teller, on the other hand, with no one watching, may mercilessly terrorize a confused elderly customer. That desk, that one little window in that one branch bank is her domain, and she will brook no rebellion. Humorless, cold, demanding and ruthlessly legalistic, she reminds the world and, more importantly, herself with every transaction that in her small corner of the kingdom of mammon, she rules supreme.
What angry customers fail to understand is that every sullen confrontation, every refusal of service, every time she makes their transaction more difficult, awkward and painful, the whole point is power. They wonder why she is making such a federal case out of this tiny detail or that procedural technicality.
They do not understand. To her it is not a federal case. It is a cosmic case. The issue is not the order in which things are done. The real issue is her power, her realm and her cold control, which reminds her that, though powerless in the rest of the world, in this tiny domain, she rules supreme.
It was the spirit of power that killed Jesus. Power is, in fact, the very essence of the spirit of antichrist. Antichrist does not mean "opposed to Christ," but rather, "an alternative Christ."
When petty men in government and religion who had clawed their way up the corridors of power at last encountered the genuine Man of Power, He had to die. His life, His power, which denied theirs, refused to bow, to even give an answer. Power against power. His death was inevitable.
Herod killed all the male babies in Bethlehem because he feared the birth of the true king. He feared it because he did not understand it. Jesus did not want to be king as Herod was king.
Content for Herod to be king, Jesus wanted to be king. Jesus never called for the downfall of Herod or Pilate or the Sanhedrin. They wanted, lusted for, clung to and killed for power. Jesus never wanted power and never had any. He was a king but never a king. He had power but never power. Likewise it was power, not power He promised believers.
There is a mystery spirit of power--corrupting, evil and able to rationalize, incite and fuel any violence, every monstrosity, without a flicker of conscience or hesitation. To stay in power, ruthless men will destroy the lives of others, perjure themselves, do murder and commit treason.
The same spirit that motivated Herod and Pharaoh to commit genocide compels a president to lie on camera. Power is an addictive tyrant determined to sear consciences, sully souls and strangle every impulse to do right.
Those who will do anything to gain power cannot be trusted with it. Those who will do anything to keep it are to be greatly feared and will be removed only at a terrible expense. Until the last moment, after all rational hope is gone, right up to the final second, the Saddam Husseins and Hitlers of this world will be quite willing to see their countries devastated and their armies decimated rather than give up one shred of their last grip on power.
The remarkable mystery about this nefarious spirit of power is that it steals the soul of a petty bureaucrat no less than that of dictator. That bank teller's domain, over which she rules as sovereign potentate, as tiny and insignificant as it may seem to others, is, nonetheless, hers.
Failure to understand that has caused more than one to stand before her desk appealing to reason where reason is despised.
The smaller the kingdom, the pettier the despot. The great and benevolent monarch of a vast domain sees no threat in the request for a variance in some regulation touching only one square centimeter far, far below him.
The tyrants, the petty, nasty despots who rule bureaucratic desks and commercial cash registers see every client and customer as an opportunity to wield power. Their unreasonableness, their intractable devotion to the rules makes every transaction a war. Having won or lost, each enemy leaves the field of combat asking the same befuddled question: What was that about?
Power. Always, ever there is only one issue. Who is in charge here? Power is the only question.
Mark Rutland, Ph.D., is the president of Southeastern College in Lakeland, Florida, and the founder and president of Global Servants (www.globalservants.org), an international missions ministry serving the needs of national pastors and leaders. He is the author of Dream, Nevertheless and Character Matters.
This article was adapted from Rutland's recent book, Power (Charisma House), which explores the contrast between the power of Christ and His kingdom and that of the world. With his vibrant descriptions of biblical and historical characters and events, Rutland challenges readers to consider that true power is found in weakness. For more information about this book, visit www. charismahouse .com, or call 1-800-599-5750.
Special Offer: Subscribe to Ministry Today magazine and receive two FREE gifts!