Time for an Intervention
What pivotal changes in relationships did Jesus make?
In the chapter on Unfolding Revelation we learned that God had been gradually revealing details of His redemptive plan as history moved along, and thus that time is an important element of context. In Gal. 4:4-5 we read, "But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship."1 So now we turn our attention to the very pivot point of history, the most obvious divine intervention since creation week: the arrival of Jesus the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God.
While in the past God had conceded by making rules that governed flawed human social constructs such as slavery and patriarchy, Jesus announced in word and deed that such things were now to be phased out, beginning with Israel. He took the Pharisaical, ultra-legal view of the Sabbath and showed the true intent of that law;2 He repeatedly exposed their evil intent in laying heavy burdens on people that they themselves would not lift;3 He showed them the hypocrisy of legalistic perfection that was devoid of the more important matters of the heart;4 He overturned their self-righteous presumption that the sick and diseased were a lower class of sinner than they were, or that only such sinners were cursed with disease or poverty.5 In short, Jesus' condemnation was overwhelmingly on those with power and control, not their victims. Not one of those religious leaders was commended for being authoritatve and elitist. In fact, Jesus went so far as to tell His disciples, "You have to do as they say, but don't do as they do."6 No kind words are to be found for anyone who overstepped their authority.
But all this softening of the Law was only the beginning. Jesus actually did more by His actions that His words to move from softening to overthrowing. However, before we examine those actions we should make a point about His first public reading of scripture from Isaiah, as reported in Luke 4:16-19 (emphasis mine): "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Jesus' mission was foremost one of release and rescue, a message not restricted to the privileged; in fact, they are never the ones who need to be set free,7 but are almost always the oppressors. So He came at this point in history to do much more than tolerate and concede.
Now to His actions. His very first miracle was at the command of a woman, His mother, in John 2:1-5. Today's controllers would view such a thing by a religious leader as un-manly and spineless! They would instead have had Jesus pulling rank and rebuking her. Another was in Luke 4 when He healed a man in the synagogue who was possessed by demons. He also healed Peter's mother-in-law (Luke 4 again), the sick (many references), the diseased (lepers, paralytics, blind), and even a few non-Jews (Mt. 15, Luke 7), one of which was a woman who actually argued with Jesus— and won! The elitists and control freaks of His day considered such people beneath them and therefore undeserving of mercy, even within their own synagogue. But Jesus gave powerful object lessons that not even the most hard-headed Pharisee could ignore.
So along with showing compassion for the oppressed, Jesus showed utter contempt for the self-righteous and elitist. His statement referenced earlier about having to obey the Pharisees is thus seen not as an endorsement of power and control, but as a rebuke of heartless burdens and double standards (and an object lesson for those today who say that "correct doctrine" alone makes a leader untouchable). And those rulers were actually usurping the authority of Moses and even God, substituting their own yet still thinking themselves to be guardians of divine law.8 But this mentality hardly died out with the sect of the Pharisees; it lives and prospers in the ekklesia today, as it has since the apostles died.
And what of the rank or position of those Jesus chose to be in His inner circle? They were fishermen, tax collectors, ordinary people without religious standing. And beyond them in the larger group of followers we see former prostitutes, those who had been possessed by demons, the formerly lame and diseased. Yes, there were also women of means who provided for Jesus.9 And we don't know for sure whether any others who had wealth before necessarily lost it all when they followed Jesus. But the point is that wealth and status were not factors in Jesus' selections. He is, after all, the same God who told the prophet Samuel that He looks on the heart.
Sadly, though, and in spite of the short duration of their time with Jesus, these of humble beginnings who were chosen to be in the inner circle showed signs of the control disease. In Mt. 20:20-28 we read of the request of two disciples to have positions of preeminence in Jesus' coming kingdom. But Jesus did not restrict his rebuke to only those two. This important principle deserves to be quoted:
Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (emphasis mine)
The "you" in that passage is plural throughout. Jesus is saying that the true servant is a servant to all, to the entire group. And if they knew they were not above their Master, then how could they claim to rise higher than He by wishing to rule over others of their own kind, something Jesus Himself did not do? People think that Jesus modeled the so-called "servant leader", but did He not say explicitly here that He "did not come to be served"? Of course as God He was their leader, but it was never His divinity that He modeled for others to take upon themselves. When some argue otherwise, they fail to distinguish between that which Jesus was, and that which He intended for us to emulate.
Let us also examine the Greek of Jesus' rebuke. The terminology would be understood today as something like this: "Whoever of you who wants to be the one being served at the table must instead take the place of the waiter, and whoever of you who wants to be first in line must take the place of the lowest of slaves." Many today want precisely what Jesus condemns: the first place in line, the preeminence, the seat of honor, to the point of encouraging (sometimes even demanding) an "alpha male" attitude on the part of those that have come to be known as "pastors". But "alpha males" are typically found among packs of wolves! In all Jesus said about any who would serve as shepherds, He never portrayed them as overlords, bosses, rulers, or deserving of pampering by the sheep. Instead, they were described as gentle to sheep yet deadly to wolves, leading not by force but by example, being servants to the sheep, to the point of carrying on their shoulders (not under their arms or behind them on leashes) even the smallest one that wandered away. Only a controller would want to be an "alpha".
At least the disciples of Jesus were indignant at the conceit of the two seeking important positions, but what of today's Christian leaders? Even if they recognize error in some of their own number, do they express any rebuke? Do they even offer a weak protest? No, they are either cowardly silent or boldly supportive! They are like Nicodemus, who would only come to Jesus at night, or unnamed others who stayed in the closet for fear of losing their status in the synagogue.10 Quite possibly, some of them may even have "skeletons in the closet", that is, hidden sins that they would risk having exposed if they did the same to their peers. Satan has blackmailed them into silence.
In all fairness, though, the sheep are expected to know the voice of their shepherd. Yet if they have been conditioned to follow "hired hands"11 who abandon them to the enemy at the first sign of opposition, can we really blame people for wandering around aimlessly in a minefield of error? Jesus promised to lose none that are His,12 but they can wander far and wide, easy prey for deception, until the day Jesus finally draws them back into His fold. We need to show compassion for those lost sheep and care for them as a real shepherd should. At the same time, we must expose and oppose the fakes, the hired hands, the "alphas", in order to keep them from doing harm to the flock, which does not belong to them.
Another aspect of Jesus' lessons about humilty and service, concerning Him in His humanity, is seen in Phil. 2:5-11. This elaborates on what He said here about not coming to be served. He laid privilege and power aside in order to stoop down and lift us up. After accomplishing this He returned to His former place of glory in heaven. And this teaching was powerfully illustrated at the Last Supper when He washed His disciples' feet. Why do you suppose Jesus told Peter he'd "have no part with" Jesus if his feet weren't washed too? Because service must be mutual; we must all be willing to serve and be served by our brothers and sisters.
What example is Jesus giving, especially since Paul in that passage in Philippians expressly states that these were examples for us to follow? Clearly, it is that we all should lay down any perceived status and rank for others. So even if one were to completely ignore all else the Bible says about the need for humility and service, thinking they do have divine privilege, these examples of Jesus should demolish once and for all the perceived right to retain such privilege. Can anyone still claim to be a follower of Jesus while dismissing His example and refusing to walk in His steps?
It is not without reason that we read in Prov. 16:18, "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall." Those who extol the virtues of pride and rule should take warning. Which of them is exempt from "not so among you"? Which of them is greater than their Master? Which of them is not to follow Jesus in His example of laying privilege down? Which of them truly grasps the difference between a shepherd and a hired hand? When did Jesus set up a chain of command for his followers to rule over others among them? When did He tell any of them, even Peter, to take on the role of Father to the others' Son?
It should be abundantly clear by now that Jesus never taught hierarchy among His followers, in any form, for any reason. But many insist that even if all that is true (which it is), there is still one lesser class, one in line behind them: women. We have examined the OT and found no divine sanction for such an idea, but since we're looking now at examples from Jesus, how did He treat women?
In the account of the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well in John 4, He openly conversed with her in spite of her being a woman, a Samaritan, and promiscuous. She discussed theology with Him, and it is to her that Jesus first spoke of a very radical change whose time had come:
… a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.
No special places, no special buildings, no special human priesthood, only "spirit and truth". This is nothing less than the blueprint for the coming ekklesia, something Jesus did not first give details about to His inner circle. And the woman ran quickly, not considering her despised status among her own people, telling everyone that this Jesus may be the Messiah. She was an evangelist in the truest sense of the word; men came to Jesus from her testimony alone. Ironically, and very sadly, many today would tell godly Christian women that they are in sin if they do the same!
Then there is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. In Luke 10:38-42 we see that she "sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said." Jesus responded to her sister's objection to this, telling her that "Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." This was no petty jealousy or even a plea for help in the kitchen, but an attempt to keep Mary in her place. It was scandalous for a woman to sit as the student of a rabbi, especially as the sole student at the moment.13 So we see an obvious example by Jesus that in Him there are no "roles" to play or appearances to protect, and He was openly defying the social norm. Even so, commentators today quickly engage in the logical fallacy of "special pleading" by insisting that, in spite of this, somehow Jesus was not overturning alleged "role distinctions". We already know that this is not the first time Jesus did such a thing (nor that it would be the last), but even if it were, how many such instances would it take for them to acknowledge that Jesus was doing exactly that?
Other such incidences could be cited as well, such as Jesus' treatment of Mary Magdalene, His care for His mother as He hung on the cross, and His appearing to women first after His resurrection, charging them with telling the other disciples the good news. All these women are portrayed in scripture as brave, open to teaching, trustworthy witnesses, and full equals with men. And if people today wish to brush all of that aside and pretend it isn't there or impose twisted interpretations upon all the evidence, I pray that their eyes will be opened before they find themselves at the Judgment having never repented of this control spirit.
But we cannot end this chapter without confronting a common assertion: that because Jesus only chose males for His inner circle He thereby established an all-male leadership for the ekklesia. Yet if this amounts to such proof, then it also proves even more: that every local ekklesia must be led by a group of twelve, and that they all must be Jews! It also ignores the fact that this was all before the cross, before anyone really grasped the coming entity called the ekklesia, and that Jesus stated explicitly that He came first to His people Israel.14 And in Rev. 21:14 we are told that while the names of the twelve tribes of Israel will be on the gates of the New Jerusalem, the names of the twelve apostles will be on the foundations. Clearly Jesus' inner circle is to be mapped to the tribes of Israel, and for that reason alone had to be all male Jews. We should also consider the fact that these were to be Jesus' witnesses,15 and in that society women would not be formally recognized as such. I am quite certain that if this alleged principle were applied consistently, its proponents would find even more reasons to engage in special pleading.
In word and deed, time after time, from the beginning of His public ministry to His ascension, Jesus did away with any social norms that would get between His people and their Savior. Throughout that time, He did figuratively to the status quo what he did literally to the merchants in the temple.16 If I were a controller, I would consider that a threat.