Thoughts on Evil: Part 8, Prince of Power

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’

I find it interesting that Jesus does not say to “the devil” something like “But all the glory and authority of the kingdoms of this world do NOT belong to you.” He doesn’t dispute the devil’s claim. He simply says, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and him alone.'”

Jesus doesn’t dispute the devil about his claim to have a certain kind of sovereignty in the world and over the world, because the claim is true. The devil is “the prince of this world.” Immediately we are thrust into a theological problem. Something of a theodicy issue – if God is ‘good’ and ‘loving’ how can he give dominion over the ‘the devil?’ I think the problem arises from our interpretation of the word ‘world.’ It might better serve us to say that the devil is “the prince of this present evil age” – or ‘the old aeon.’

I am exploring Jacques Ellul’s “six evils” of the Bible:

“The Bible refers to six evil powers: Mammon, the prince of this world, the prince of lies, Satan, the devil, and death. Concerning these six, one might remark that if we compare them we find that they are all characterized by their functions: money, power, deception, accusation, division, and destruction.”

So when we say “the prince of this world,” we are referring to ‘power.’ Particularly the power of empire. See how the prince of this world operates in the Desert Temptation Narrative in Luke 4 – offering Jesus dominion that “has been handed over to [him]” and it is his to give and take as he pleases. Power – the second temptation to evil.

This is a touchy subject. Particularly when we realize that our own kingdom (nation, empire, etc.) is part of what belongs to “the world.” For the modern thinker, a kingdom is either right or wrong. To add religious overtones to this line of thinking, you might say, a nation-state is either holy or evil. It is a scandal to the modern-mind to think in terms of ambiguity here. That is, at any given time and in any given situation, a nation-state may either be operating on behalf of the new world coming to birth in the Jesus movement, or it may be working to thwart it.

And there is a deeper issue here. Power is typically thought of to be “good.” Yet, in Jesus, we discover the one who emptied himself of divine authority and became a servant. “Power” in the kingdom of God, it seems, is redefined as service. Greg Boyd says it this way:

“Followers of Jesus must realize – and must help others realize – that the hope of the world lies not in a particular version of the kingdom of the world gaining the upper hand in Babylon’s endless tit-for-tat game. The hope of the world lies in a kingdom that is not of this world, and kingdom that doesn’t participate in tit-for-tat, a kingdom that operates with a completely different understanding of power.” (Myth of a Christian Nation, pg. 27).

In scripture, there is a constant thread of distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men. And it is critical to note that the single most important value that makes one holy is service (love in action). Some verses here to consider:

Mark 10:35-45
Philippians 2:5-10
Mark 8:31-38
I Samuel 8
I Peter 2:9-12

Power in the kingdoms of this world, according to the Prince of Power who rules them, is defined as “power-over” others. It is quantified in terms of military might, wealth, capital, strength, influence, etc. Power in the kingdom of God is defined by the cross.

There is typically some confusion here. I have often made this point (a point that has clear biblical references), and have been met with anger. America, it seems, is somehow above reproach here.

I would want to reply with two thoughts:

(1) I am not saying that America, or any other kingdom of this world, is not good, or that it cannot or has not been wielded for good. This is where the ability to see ambiguity is so imperative. Jacques Ellul says this:

“The idea that the social hierarchy, or the law, or the authority of the state or of owners rests on the will of God is thus at one and the same time both true and false. It is false inasmuch as all these things indubitably express the active, present power of the prince of this world. It is true inasmuch as they are also a means to limit the ultimate consequences of evil.”

This is certainly the stance of Paul in Romans 12 & 13. To those opponents who want America to be above reproach, claiming that we exist as a city on a hill, I want to say, “Yes and No.” There have been times when America operated in its biblical calling to squelch evil so that the church might be the church. But there have also been times (too many to recount), when America has stepped outside its realm of authority given to it by God, and operated according to the seduction of the power of the Prince of this world, (for its own ends). All of this, however, misses the point entirely. The point is that America, or Mexico, or the UK, or Hungary, or China, or Japan, or Sudan, or Romania, or Iran, or Iraq… NONE of these are the kingdom of God.

Just because I tell the truth about American history and acknowledge that we have not always been “good” does not mean that I am somehow saying that “America is not good.” It only means that I am saying America is not the kingdom of God. God can and will use all kingdoms of this world to bring about his ultimate purposes. His plans cannot be thwarted.

(2) I want to say that thinking in “right or wrong” terms is incredibly dangerous. It is precisely when you think you are “right” that you become capable or horrifying evil. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are glaring examples. Oddly enough, Pearl Harbor is an example of Japan doing evil when they believed they were justified. The sense of justification is not a licence to do whatever you can and must do. Faithfulness to the reign of Christ is still called for. Enter the need for ambiguity. The beauty and work of having to think through everything and bringing it into captivity to the cause of Christ for new creation.

This highlights, the seductive nature of power. Power entices us, perhaps to good things. And when we are safe in the clutches of power, we are tempted to wield it for our own ends. After-all, we are justified. We have used it for good already.

But when we think with the heart and mind of God and not of men, we begin to see that there is a difference between “good” and “better.” The call of the church is very different than the call of the nation-state. We are called to again and again, choose the better over the good – to opt for service rather than power-over. To have the same attitude as that of Jesus the Messiah:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

But the “take home” to all this stretches WAY beyond kingdoms. Make a list today – what sort of power has been entrusted to you? How do you wield that power? Have you ever abused that power? If you are a Christ-follower, in what ways have you laid that power down and opted for serving others instead?

The Prince of Power, tells us a lie. The lie goes something like this: “This power belongs to you – use it for you.” The truth is instead something like this: “On the cross, Jesus Christ defeated power with powerlessness and exposed that power as inept to shape the world in God’s image. Because of his faithfulness, God has redeemed the powers and handed them over to Jesus and put them under his authority. Any such powers that exist belong to him, not us, and should be EITHER wielded for the kingdom of God’s flourishing, or laid down and forsaken for service of others.”

In dying to the false self of power, we discover the true self of the beloved child of God.

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