Jesus often resisted the power structures of his day:
This may seem like an odd thing to write about. We do not normally think about Jesus as being resistant to things. He certainly never resisted his heavenly Father nor the will of God. Indeed, he is God, but he still fully submitted to the plan of salvation that all three members of the Trinity had agreed to. When at Gethsemane he prayed to the Father about the horror of the cross that he was about to endure, he fully submitted to the Father’s will.
So in that sense there was no resistance or rebellion in him at all. But he certainly pushed back against evil men – especially the religious leaders of the day. He certainly resisted them, at least in terms of confronting them, challenging them, rebuking them, and chastising them. He stood his ground against these men, just as he stood strong and resisted the devil during the wilderness temptations.
I discuss all this in the light of what is known as “resistance theory”. This has to do with the question of whether it is ever right to resist civil government, evil rulers, or unjust laws. Throughout church history such questions have been debated, and they especially came to the fore during the time of the Protestant Reformation. I speak more to this in introductory fashion here: billmuehlenberg.com/2021/04/12/on-resistance-theory/
In fact, this is the 38th article I have now penned on this general discussion (with many more planned for this series). So it is worth looking at Jesus himself in this regard. Were there times when he resisted the state, or when he did not fully submit to leaders of various kinds?
The cleansing of the temple is obviously one clear example of resisting religious leaders at least (see for example John 2:13-22). Instead of just glibly accepting the religious status quo, Jesus rebelled against it quite forcefully. He strongly resisted the way things had degenerated in the ongoing work of the temple and went out of his way to declare and reveal his opposition.
Indeed, he deliberately took the time to form a whip to use in his cleansing of the temple, and he was even willing to flip over tables to display his great displeasure – even anger – at what was happening there. There was no meek submission here but an act of defiant and purposeful resistance.
But let me look at two other episodes as recorded in John’s gospel. And let me preface my remarks by saying that Jesus was obviously a man on a unique, one-off mission. Specifically, he was born to die. The reason he came into this world was to die on the cross for our sins.
So the fact that he fully and willingly went along with this all the way to the bitter end does not in itself excuse or justify any unjust laws or actions of both the Roman and Jewish leadership. These leaders were wrong to do what they did, but as part of the divine plan to secure our salvation, Jesus submitted to all this.
So his case is quite unique, and of course different from us and how we might face and deal with unjust laws, evil rulers, and ungodly governments. But the point I am seeking to make here is that Jesus at the very least was not afraid to challenge and rebuke those in authority when needed. He was not a spineless doormat in other words who allowed everyone to walk right over him.
The first episode I wish to address has to do with the plot to kill Jesus as recorded in John 11:45-57. It reads:
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there he stayed with the disciples. Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? That he will not come to the feast at all?” Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.
Again, Jesus was acting according to the divine plan, but this did include – at least temporarily – seeking to avoid what these leaders had planned. Notice that he no longer walked openly among the Jews once plans for this death were made (verses 53-54). So he did not just act as a doormat and resign himself to his fate, but took steps to avoid arrest – at least for the immediate future.
We see this by the way with Paul and some of the other disciples who took steps to avoid arrest and to escape persecution. As but one example, when the Jews sought to kill Saul, “his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket” (Acts 9:23-25). One need not just fatalistically put up with whatever the enemies of God and God’s people are up to.
My second episode has to do with the confrontation Jesus had with Pilate as he was about to be delivered to the cross. In John 19:1-11 we read the following:
Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”
This was quite the power confrontation. At first he resisted Pilate by refusing to answer his questions. And when he did speak, Jesus made it clear that any power and authority that Pilate might have was not his own, but only that which God gave him in the first place.
As already stated, the life and ministry of Jesus was in one sense utterly unique, and we must be careful therefore in using some of his actions as paradigms for believers today. But the point I was seeking to make remains: Jesus was not a push-over, and he was willing to at least confront the authorities – be they Roman or Jewish – and there were times when he resisted.
And other examples could be offered here, including when Jesus got into trouble with the Jewish leadership for picking grain on the Sabbath. I speak to that matter further here: billmuehlenberg.com/2021/03/24/12-biblical-cases-of-civil-disobedience/
And see this article as well: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/07/17/would-jesus-violate-the-law/
The point is this: those believers who appeal to texts like Romans 13:1-7 as they seek to argue that the Christian must NEVER resist the state, and must ALWAYS submit to government, are simply incorrect. Yes, generally speaking, we are to submit, but the state is NOT absolute and at times the Christian must disobey, must rebel, and must resist. But see more on this here: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/05/15/the-state-is-not-absolute/
Jesus WAS a resister and a rebel, in the good sense of those words. As John Whitehead put it: “A radical nonconformist who challenged authority at every turn, Jesus was a far cry from the watered-down, corporatized, simplified, gentrified, sissified vision of a meek creature holding a lamb that most modern churches peddle. In fact, he spent his adult life speaking truth to power, challenging the status quo of his day, and pushing back against the abuses of the Roman Empire.” www.rutherford.org/publications_resources/john_whiteheads_commentary/from_jesus_christ_to_julian_assange_when_dissidents_become_enemies_of_the_state_by_john_w._whitehead
If Jesus did not always meekly submit to the powers that be of his day, we have good reason to at least consider the same in our time as governments and leaders become increasingly evil, unjust and ungodly – if not anti-godly. There is a place for Christian resistance to evil rule and rulers.