Posted by: Mike Willoughby | November 23, 2009

Power Trip: Part 1

Niccolo Machiavelli

I don’t know how many of you are viewers of reality TV shows such as Survivor or The Apprentice, but I think shows such as these are fascinating glimpses into the way we view power and influence.  Most of these “reality” shows showcase a group of people who are competing against one another to achieve a position of prominence such as a choice job in Donald Trump’s organization (The Apprentice), the Sole Survivor (Survivor) or a fiancé (The Bachelor/The Bachelorette).  In these contests, strategies that include shrewdness, deception, manipulation, disloyalty and generally any means that justifies the end result of winning the contest are rewarded and encouraged by the rules of the game.  Niccolo Machiavelli (pictured above), the 16th century author of The Prince, the primer on the formation and use of political power would be very proud!

A couple of weeks ago, in my article The Good Stuff, I wrote about a powerful man who approached Jesus looking for affirmation and asking what things he should be doing to inherit eternal life.  Jesus, recognizing the man’s problem, told him to sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor and needy and then follow Jesus as the apostles had been doing for three years.  The man left grieving because he was very wealthy and he was holding on tight to his possessions.  After this exchange, Jesus turned to his apostles and told them it was very tough for a rich man to gain eternal life.  This astonished the apostles because they had a very traditional secular perspective on wealth, power and influence.  Jesus challenged them in this passage with radical thinking that still challenges us today.

From their traditional perspective, presuming wealth to automatically indicate God’s blessing and preference, the apostles asked Jesus if a rich man was to have difficulty being saved then what person in the world could be saved.  Furthermore, they wondered what their reward would be from following Jesus.  Jesus reassured his apostles that they would have positions of great responsibility in his coming kingdom where they would occupy thrones and be judges.  Somewhat cryptically, Jesus ended this discussion with the comment that “many who are first will be last, and last first” and then proceeded to tell them a parable of laborers in a vineyard who start working at different times during the day but all receive the same wage.  Jesus even reminds the apostles specifically that the trip they are taking to Jerusalem will end with his persecution and death followed after three days by his triumphant resurrection from the grave. 

From this discussion, the one take-away the apostles seemed to focus on was the promise of positions of responsibility in the coming kingdom.  This promise probably caused much discussion among the apostles concerning the nature of these positions of power and apparently some of the apostles even discussed this with family members.  Their misconceptions about almost everything including the nature of the Christ, the nature and timing of the kingdom and most importantly the nature of true power and influence led to the following interesting bit of drama.

James and John, the famous brothers nicknamed “Sons of Thunder” (presumably for their brash attitudes and hair-trigger tempers) apparently work with their mother to conceive one of the most audacious power trips of all time.  Mom comes up to Jesus with her two sons and bows before Jesus with the following request from her sons“Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”  Jesus asks the men if they are able to travel the same path that he will travel (remember, Jesus had just reminded them of his persecution and death) and they both assure him without knowing what they are saying that they are able to bear up under the same treatment Jesus will suffer.  Jesus acknowledges James and John will travel a similar path as Jesus.  Indeed James becomes the first apostolic martyr and John, although long-lived, suffers persecution and exile for his faith.  Jesus then lets the apostles and their mom down by telling them the seating arrangement in the kingdom is not his decision to make.  God will choose the throne assignments.  However, the request does predictably cause a stir among the other ten apostles who do not seem to appreciate James’ and John’s power grab and they jump on the two brothers for their audacity.  I wonder if they were also just a little upset that James and John had beat them to the punch with the request since they all were probably thinking the same thing.  Jesus called an impromptu team meeting and delivered a radical lesson that had a huge impact on my life once I understood it.

Jesus told his apostles their thinking was all wrong concerning power and influence.  Their thinking was influenced by secular power models – and who can blame them?  Our thinking is also heavily influenced by secular power models.  We owe more of our thinking on power and influence to the thoughts of philosophers such as Machiavelli than to the thoughts of God and Jesus Christ.  Jesus told them, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones 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.” 

Put yourself in the apostles’ shoes and try to reconcile this teaching with the promise of thrones and authority he had just given them.  It just didn’t seem to fit together in their minds shaped by centuries of kingdoms and empires with their despotic and evil kings and emperors.  What they needed was a practical demonstration of exactly what this teaching looks and feels like.  I think we need the same thing to really understand this teaching!  Next week, I will complete this article with the practical application lesson that Jesus gave his apostles teaching them just what he meant when he said, “even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”  As always, Jesus not only talked the talk, he walked the walk.

This week, let’s all think about this radical statement Jesus makes about power and influence when he said, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.”  We are all in positions of leadership, power and influence in certain areas of our life.  What is Jesus telling us in this statement about how we lead, influence and exercise power?  I know I will be meditating on his words as I get Part 2 ready for posting next Monday.  I’ll also tell you how finally learning this lesson changed my life.

In the meantime, let me know what this passage means to you and your thoughts on this servant leadership concept Jesus taught.  Also, if I can be of service to you by praying for you, please let me know.  My Tips from Mike page has instructions on how to send me a private comment that will not be published to the public.  I promise that if you ask me to pray for you I will honor your request and include your need in my personal prayers.  I will be honored to serve you in that way.

Until next week,

Meet me at the intersection!


  1. Can I get a preview on part 2!!!!

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