Power to Rule vs Power to Die: From Rulers to Martyrs
As important as the resurrection is, we naturally think that it was the singular event that unlocked the disciples understanding of the type of kingdom that Jesus was establishing. But it wasn’t.
The disciples, like everyone else, expected a military Messiah. That was the lens through which they read all the OT promises of national deliverance. That was the anthem of the Zealots who sought to kill Roman officials in an attempt to help usher in their messiah. And, that expectation was the major concern of any Roman king or governor in Judea.
So, it’s no surprise that the disciples were expecting a military Messiah as well. But, that’s not how Jesus was operating. Overthrowing Rome and establishing a new independent political Israel was not what he was about. He tried, unsuccessfully, to explain it to his closest followers three times in Mark (ch. 8, 9, 10), but each time the disciples failed to grasp what he was talking about. They wanted to rule in honor, with power and exact revenge on the Romans for their oppressive and brutal treatment of the Israeli nation. However, Jesus was presenting a kingdom that embraced shame, service and forgiveness of their enemies.
Even after the resurrection the disciples didn’t understand. They had been waiting for power, and after the resurrection they were still thinking they’d rule with honor, power and revenge. That’s why after the resurrection when He appeared to them, they asked Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Earlier, before the resurrection, in their craving for power James and John even asked Jesus point blank for power; “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” (Mark 10:35) [that’s bold, but the wrong kind of bold].
After they asked “will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus replied “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority (Acts 1:7). But knowing they really wanted power, Jesus continues to explain his new kingdom of love and forgiveness. He says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses [wait, not rulers?] in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria[wait, what?!], and to the end of the earth (Acts 1).
I’m sure they were excited to finally hear that they would receive power! But then Jesus says that power will be used not to rule with Him in honor, but that they will receive power to be his “witnesses.” The Greek word Jesus uses for “witnesses” is martys and refers to one who bears “witness” by his death, by being a martyr. Not exactly the same as ruling in positions of power, is it?
What caused the disciples to finally figure out what kind of kingdom Jesus was setting up? It wasn’t the resurrection. That just confused them because of their expectations. And this recent news from Jesus that they would in fact not rule with Him, but possibly die for Him had to be confusing, shocking and discouraging.
How then did they finally get on track with what kind of Kingdom Jesus was establishing? It was shortly thereafter when the Spirit of God came upon them in Acts 2. He is the Teacher that brought them up to speed (John 14:26). That’s when everything came into focus for them and from that point on, we see their complete transformation.