Jesus: Examplar of Submissive Obedience

John Dalberg-Acton once observed, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[1] This succinct statement has become a universal truth associated with the acquisition of power throughout history. The emperors of Rome, the tsars of Russia, the old monarchies, and Napoleon Bonaparte: all held unlimited power and abused it through war, greed, and disinterest in the suffering of their people. Even today, people are leery of those who have gained too much authority, because someone who has power is more concerned with maintaining it than using it for good. Power corrupts the very character of men. Lord Acton discerned a general condition of the human heart, its thirst for power, and warned against its destructive nature. 
     Then there is our Lord, Jesus Christ. “All authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to him. Unlimited power and Divine favor: he was the ultimate definition of rex Dei gratia – King by the grace of God. Unlike the kings and queens of history, however, Jesus maintained the attitude of submissive obedience. His authority was a gift from his Father, given to help the people, not rule over them.
 
Submission of Divinity
     Men are accustomed to accumulating power as the human inclination is to seek privilege, not poverty. Jesus, however, refused privilege because of His willingness to be submissive to his Father.
Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:6-11)
     These verses teach a simple truth: Jesus was willing to forgo the pleasures of the earth, which his exalted status deserved, and sought instead the glory of his Father through simplicity. Verse 6b notes Christ’s pre-incarnate choice: he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Jesus enjoyed the divine position of equality with God, yet did not seek to abuse this privilege. Instead of accepting the inherent power of divinity and selfishly enjoying it, Jesus shared it with others. Instead of employing deification as an opportunity to escape redemptive suffering and death, he humbly accepted his role in the salvific history of man.[2] 
     People in power rarely refuse to be obedient. Why should they when there is no one to force them into submission? No one can claim divinity, thus we are commanded to emulate the attitude of Christ by being humble to one another. When did you last subject your will to someone you considered beneath you? How long has it been since you submitted to someone else’s plan because their idea was better than your own? What level of submissive obedience are you currently practicing?
 
Submission of Power
     John Dalberg-Acton stated an intuitive truth concerning the human need to acquire power, but Jesus Christ is clearly the exception. He did not hoard power, but freely gave it to his Father.  Any glory that his Father gave him, he quickly relinquished, remaining ever humble and pure. An overlooked text concerning the submissiveness of Christ to his Father is found in Paul’s grand treatise on the resurrection:
Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘all things are put in subjection,’ it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.  (1 Cor. 15:24-28)
     These verses emphasize the post-resurrection work of Jesus, in which he overthrows the rule and authority of the present age. At the end of time, Jesus Christ will reign until he has suppressed all of God’s enemies. He will destroy every evil ruler, authority, power, and, most importantly, death. The cosmic battle can only end with Jesus being victorious. The crucial point, however, is that once Jesus has gained complete authority and power, he will turn it all over to His Father. 
   Jesus did not and will not accomplish these tasks for his own glorification. He is ever seeking the glorification of his Father in Heaven, not of himself. Verse 24 says, “(…) when he delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father (…).” There is an order of subjection described here. First, the world will be subjected to Christ, then Christ will be subjected to God, and, finally, God will be “all in all.” This is, and always has been, Jesus’ mission on earth: to bring glory to the Father.  Even Christ’s crowning achievement of resurrection and the overthrowing of God’s enemies were done so that he might bring glory to God the Father. Christ did not use power in rebellion, a common habit of men in leadership roles. He instead demonstrated submissive obedience, thus refusing absolute power to corrupt him absolutely.
     The instinct of mankind is to increase personal power in order to remove every sense of submission to someone else. An increase in such power, however, often creates a matching decrease in submissive obedience. Hebrews 5:8-9 declares, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” The importance of independence in modern society compels us to bow to no one, thus the willingness of people to be submissive to God also diminishes. We need to recall Christ’s example, for as his authority increased so too did his submissive obedience. Jesus never abused his position of authority to escape being obedient to his Father, but rather revealed the impermanence of earthly power through humility and subservience to God.


[1] John Daberg-Acton, “Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887,” Historical Essays and Studies, ed. J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907).

[2] David J. MacLeod, “Imitating the Incarnation of Christ: An Exposition of Philippians 2:5-8,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (2001): 316.