I concluded the recent series at my church on Genesis chapters 1-12. I had this topic on my mind for a little while but it fit well within this series. You can watch the talk (timestamped at the start of the talk) or read the script below. As it is a script, please forgive potentially poor grammar as it is written how I speak and I often adapt it as I speak which you'll notice if you read AND watch!
As always, you are welcome let me know what you think!
Who do you think of as someone who has power?
Generally speaking, our culture would assume someone as powerful when they are in positions of authority over many people. They have great influence and often some form of prestige. Possibly you might have thought of someone with great strength and athleticism. It may also be that you’ve connected it to military power and command over armies.
All of these are connected with the definition of power – the possession of control, authority, or influence over others.
As you may have noticed in our series on Genesis: The Blue Print for Life, a lot of the foundational beliefs and core themes of Christianity are found in the first few chapters of the bible and then these themes are a thread that can be found through all the books of the bible. We’re going to specifically focus on one theme I believe is relevant to us today both in the church and outside it and that is to do with humanity and power.
In keeping with our series, this is called ‘The Blueprint for Power’.
We’ll start in Genesis 1.
26 Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’
Do you see power here?
Genesis claims that all humanity is made in God’s image. There is something about us that reflects God. God has made each human ‘in his likeness, SO THAT we may rule’. God has instilled in us an ability to rule over creation, a command and blessing to fill the earth and subdue it. The words ‘authority’ and ‘dominion’ is not just the language of rulers, but here in Genesis 1, it is the language of partnership with God.
Humans have power.
Genesis 2 is an image of how all humanity ought to use this power. God sets the man in the garden to ‘work it and take care of it’. Commentators point out that this isn’t just Adam being a gardener but someone who participates in the creative power of God. Adam is a mediator, or middleman, between God and creation – the term we’d recognise if we’ve been Christians for a while is Priest.
Adam is being given the work of a priest, the power to take care of the sacred space we know of as Eden. Part of this power was to be able to give names to other creatures.
If you follow the thread of ‘naming’ things and how God gives people names to point to their identity and purpose, this again is an important part of God’s power and authority. As a priest of creation, Adam was bringing order and God’s power even to the extent that other living creatures were living harmoniously and not in fear of Adam. God was sharing his power with humanity, as it was intended to be.
Unfortunately, we know the world isn’t as it feels it should be. The last 18 months have highlighted this to us more than ever. The bible gives a picture of how humanity’s relationship with creation has come to be the way that it is. In chapter 3 the man called ‘earth’ or Adam in Hebrew and the woman called ‘life’ or ‘Eve’, decide to take power into their own hands. God was generous in giving them the entirety of creation with only one exception, warning them that if they eat the fruit of this single tree, they will surely die. They reject God’s instruction and warning by taking the knowledge of good and evil for themselves.
Adam and Eve decided that as they had the power, they no longer needed to hear God’s word on how to use it. This rejection of God, what we call sin, leads to humans inverting the power God has given them to begin trying to rule over each other and over creation in ways that lead to death.
Where there was harmony between humanity, God and creation, there is disharmony and hostility. There is a play on the words of Adam’s name ‘earth’ in the curse of Genesis 3 that he will end up becoming the dirt he toils over when he dies – he will
‘return to the ground, for dust you are, and to dust you will return.’
This is a dire consequence of the misuse of power. As Stuart pointed out in his talk on Genesis 3, there is a hint of good news amidst the terrible consequences. There will be someone, a descendant of ‘the woman’ who will have the power to crush the serpent who deceived them and deliver humanity from the curse. Adam’s response to the curse is to then name the woman ‘Eve’. It is an odd part of the story and might seem a bit of a random point to make but it shows Adam believed God’s word and chose a name that showed faith by stating that this so far unnamed partner will be the mother of life. She will have a descendant who undoes the curse and bring life.
As we read the rest of the bible we should be looking at it with the question as to who is that offspring who will use the power given to them to crush the serpent and save humanity from death and sin.
Chapter 4 gives us our first abuse of power as Cain kills Abel out of jealousy and fails to use his power to control the beast called sin.
Things only gets worse as by chapter 6 and the story of Noah, as humanity grows powerful it also grows more violent to the extent that God regrets their creation and is deeply troubled by humanity’s condition. Do you notice that God feels troubled? God made himself vulnerable in creating humanity in his image. I’ll leave that thought for you to chew on…
God inverts creation and where the land had been separated from the waters in chapter 1, the waters now cover the land in chapter 7. Only Noah and his people are saved. When Noah comes out of the ark, he sets to working in a garden – sound familiar? – but instead of tending to it and bringing God’s harmony, he gets drunk and in a bit of a confusing story he ends up cursing his son.
Noah fails to be the offspring of Eve, the priest, that we are hoping for.
We then see a powerful hunter, a man called Nimrod in chapter 10 who starts building Babylon or as we see it called in chapter 11, Babel. This looks like a powerful guy who should get things done and defeat a serpent – that is what hunters do isn’t it? On the face of it, it looks like he is bringing harmony, at least all the people are working together under one language. It turns out that they are using their collective power not to share God’s presence and power to bring harmony to the earth but to make a name for themselves. This is a power move to reach the heavens and make a name, to become gods over creation without God.
In chapter 10 each of the nations have their own language but in chapter 11, Nimrod has made his empire assimilate these languages into one. This is what tyrants do – if you want an empire, you make everyone speak the same language. Language is cultural identity. To remove language is to break individual nations until they are assimilated into a greater empire. This is what continues to happen in Babylon which we see in the book of Daniel when Daniel and his friends are given Babylonian names. Even in recent history it was the move of colonial powers to dominate nations who had their own cultures and languages – the English did it, the Spanish did it…
We must recognise the ways our nations have been and continue to be like Babylon. We try and use our power to make others exactly like us rather than seeing the beauty in diversity of culture and language. God’s scattering of people is a restoration of God’s purposes for the nations to be diverse, to have their languages and cultures in preparation for his promise to Abram in Genesis 12.
The significant promise in chapter 12 is that through Abram, an old man with no children who is an unknown with no power, would be given a new name and through him a great nation would be born and that through this nation, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. This theme of choosing the humble, the weak, those who are not mighty hunters, those who have no obvious power is a theme which we must look out for when we read the Old Testament and it helps us understand how God expects us to use the power we have.
Despite Abram messing up several times over the next few chapters, God reinforces his promise by giving Abram the name Abraham which literally means ‘father of a multitude’ and is clearly what God is intending for Abraham by stating ‘you will be the father of many nations’ in chapter 17. Through the Old Testament we see this promise reinforced to both Abraham and those who come after him:
Genesis 18:18: Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.
Moses: But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. Exodus 9:16
He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.’ Joshua 4:24
And even when Israel fails to honour God and God uses the armies of the nations they were supposed to bless to bring judgement on Israel, the prophets repeatedly point back to this promise. Israel is meant to bless the nations, to be the mediator between God and the rest of creation. They, as a nation, are meant to do what Adam and Eve were meant to do in the garden. To work and care for creation.
To mediate God’s power to all of the nations and bring honour to God’s name.
As Israel fails, the prophets point to a ‘son of man’ who will fulfil the promise of Genesis 3 – an offspring of Eve who will defeat death, who will bring the harmony between God’s power and humanity and restore creation to the way it was meant to be. This promised one won’t use his power in the way that we might assume. Isaiah, as one example, wrote that this promised one will be a servant of God who suffers to save God’s people from their sin.
This is where we start to look at Jesus and the New Testament.
The gospels, that’s the first four books of the New Testament, make claims about who Jesus is. When Jesus preaches, he says the kingdom of heaven is near and as he does so, he makes it clear he is referring to himself. Jesus brings the kingdom of heaven, where Jesus is, that is where the kingdom is.
The gospels repeatedly show that Jesus isn’t just someone with the power of God, he IS the power of God "humanified" – in the flesh. He receives honour and worship deserving of God, he calms storms – has power over creation, he heals people of diseases, he has power over demons and spiritual powers, he is given the names of God in that he is called saviour, lord, my God… I could go on.
Jesus is the promised one who the whole of the OT points to.
He is the ultimate Adam, the best priest that works and cares for creation by mediating God’s power to humanity.
The gospels are emphasising from Matthew chapter 1 to John 21 that Jesus is the one that we’ve been hoping for since Genesis 3. The issue is that his power doesn’t look like what is expected.
Many were expecting a king to come riding on a horse, a powerful fighter to kick out the Roman rulers. Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Jesus laid his power aside, allowed himself to be arrested, falsely accused, beaten and killed in the most savage of ways.
The religious elite were expecting to be promoted by the promised one for their wealth and knowledge and keeping of the law. Jesus came to heal the sick, choosing the humble and the outcast, those with no name, those blocked from the temple by the religious teachers, to be his disciples.
In Matthew 26:64, Jesus makes a bold claim just before he dies. He says that his trial and death will actually fulfil a vision from Daniel 7 (see verse 14) where a son of man ‘comes on the clouds of heaven’ which is a phrase that means to share the throne of God. Whoever this son of man is they are given "authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed."
Jesus is telling those who are sending him to his death, that through this act, he would prove that he has this power and authority. That he is the son of man. Their response is spit on him and beat him and call him a blasphemer – they accuse him of claiming to be God.
God made himself vulnerable in Jesus.
It follows then that when Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 28 that he has ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ and for them to ‘make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’
He is giving his disciples his authority, his power.
Any power that we have as Christians is
“given to us by [Jesus] for the sole purpose of glorifying him and blessing others” as Diane Langberg points out in her book Redeeming Power and she goes on to conclude that if all power is given under Jesus’ authority, then we must hold it with great humility.
This is in agreement with what the apostle Paul writes about Jesus’ death quoting an ancient hymn of the early church in Philippians 2:
"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,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father."
Jesus humbled himself from the throne of God to the grave. In this act, he is exalted so that all the nations are blessed.
The early church took this to be an example for them. That when they faced trouble and persecution, they would lay down their lives for others. They became famous for not worshiping the other gods and even when threatened with death. Their assemblies became famous for being a place where men, women, slaves, free, Jew and all nations were welcome and shared food, wealth and housing with each other. They openly declared a familial love for each other, no matter their class, gender, or ethnicity, by calling each other brothers and sisters. Christianity was undermining the very fabric of the Roman culture to the extent that emperors were concerned of their power and openly wrote about trying to destroy them – records which we have today.
By laying down their lives for others, by caring for the outcasts, even picking up and caring for discarded babies and following Jesus’ commands to love Him by loving their neighbour, Christians have been showing the world how to be mediators of the power of God for 2000 years.
What we also see alongside those who follow Jesus humbly is the constant shadow of those who use and abuse this given power, hiding behind the cross or the name of Jesus to rule and subdue other humans, to shift doctrine to allow for personal gain and promotion.
The church’s history has not always looked like Jesus.
So what does this mean for us now?
The last year has highlighted some serious issues within society but also within the church. We have investigations of racism within the church of England pointing out major failings in welcoming and honouring those who are not part of the majority white population. While we are not Church of England, we would be remiss to think we could not be or even have not been guilty of the same…of treating others who are different from us in a way that does not honour God’s image in them.
This year has highlighted major failings in holding Christian leaders to account within their personal lives. Hardly a month goes by before another high-profile leader in a church or ministry has a ‘moral failure’ as it is now often labelled. Not just leaders but whole ministries aimed at supporting the most vulnerable and broken people have preyed on their vulnerabilities and abused them even more.
Power and influence in the church when used in a way that does not reflect Jesus’ character will end up tearing communities apart and shaming the name of Jesus. It will leave the vulnerable that the church was designated to lift up, being more battered and bruised than ever.
There are people who cannot enter a church building or community or hear the name of Jesus spoken without being reminded of how they’ve been harmed by those who every Sunday sing about how good Jesus is and act good enough to gain trust.
Misuse of power is often excused, explained away due to the supposed importance of the ministry, the skill of the person and the need for them in the ministry. We have a desire to keep things comfortable for everyone else, except victims of abuse, and an inability to listen to those who contradict our conceptions of the one with a platform, who preaches so well, is just so talented or ‘too nice to do something like that’. We must be people that live the name of Jesus, not just speak it, and this includes calling out character and actions that do not imitate Jesus.
“Anything that is done in the name of God but does not bear his character through and through is not of him at all.” Diane Langberg
The qualification for a Christian leadership is not skills and giftings but character. We as Christians can so often pay lip-service to a statement like this, and it is hard to preach it as I am asking you to look at my character. We aren’t perfect but I pray that what you see in those of us who lead is character that points to Jesus, most of all when we aren’t doing ‘church’ stuff. If it doesn’t, I’m asking you to call us out on it.
Just as God made himself vulnerable in creating humanity to have a relationship with them, and by becoming so vulnerable to die for us, so too we who are in leadership must make ourselves vulnerable, accessible, and known.
The Christian is not called to be a celebrity but a humble child of God who is willing to take up a cross – the implement of a violent and excruciating death – to follow the way of Jesus.
The Christian is not called to seek status and wealth for their own power but to use any status and wealth that they have to bless and serve others through radical generosity and hospitality.
The Christian is not called to be the most eloquent, best looking, most trendy, most charming leader who rules the stage, has plenty of well-known friends and a ministry in their own name. As we have seen this morning, making a name for ourselves has never been a good thing.
The Christian was not called to be a part of an institution or organisation that calls itself a church while holding up structures of power, control and law that are the antithesis of the way of Jesus.
The Christian is called to live in the light so that it may be plainly seen that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
If we know of hidden sins, corporate or individual, we must bring them to light no matter how uncomfortable it might be. It is in the light where repentance, forgiveness and redemption happen.
We are called to take the example of Jesus by humbling ourselves
to seek the best of the other
to outdo one another in love
to seek unity with one another
to have the same love
to live in the same spirit,
never to value ourselves above another
never to seek our own interests before someone else’s. (Philippians 2)
This is the way of Jesus.
This is how we use the power given to us by Jesus.
When we begin to follow Jesus, we step into the kingdom of heaven and become the humans we were meant to be. We become priests who mediate the presence of God to each other and to the world. We do this by laying down our claims to and expectations of recognition and promotion and any other form of power so that we serve and love all who bear God’s image.
This isn’t an easy path but it is the way of life and if you aren’t walking towards Jesus, get in touch, I’d love to talk you through what it means.
This is what we hope for Hope Church and what we often see in our community. Humble Jesus-like service that lifts up the hurting, pray for those who need healing, practically and financially support those in need and sharing the love of Jesus with anyone and everyone we meet.
We want to be a church that uses our power to welcome all, walks the way of Jesus and makes sure the most vulnerable in our community are protected from abuses of power.
If you want to know more about the gospel, you can start with the video below but also please feel free to get in touch.
Is this the first time you've interacted with this blog? Find out more about me here.