Merciless and the Humility of Jesus

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Born in 1971, I was the ideal audience for the 1980 film Flash Gordon. I thrilled to the adventures of Flash Gordon and his companions as he battled the evil forces from another planet who meant to destroy Earth. At the same time, one particular scene was especially scary for me when I was nine years old.

In this scene, the viewers are introduced to Ming the Merciless, the evil emperor. One of Ming’s subjects comes to offer him a tribute, but since Ming has previously destroyed this man’s home, the subject has nothing to offer except for his loyalty. Ming seems pleased and states that he prizes nothing more highly than loyalty. Then he demands that this broken man demonstrate his loyalty by falling on his sword. Having already taken everything else from this man, Ming now commands he give up the only thing he has left—his life. Ming demands this for no other purpose than to demonstrate his own power and authority to the rest of his subjects.

I wasn’t much older than nine when I began to learn at school that our world’s history has been littered with despots and tyrants who, if anything, actually committed more heinous acts than Ming’s. To gain and retain power and to ensure that their interests were held above all others, kings have commanded death for millennia. The most powerful kings and rulers have been those whose subjects feared them the most.

Yet the kingdoms and kings of this world, as powerful as they may be for a time, are just a poor reflection of the one true Kingdom of God and its one true King. The kingdom of Jesus Christ stands above all the kingdoms of the world in its majesty, power and authority. Unlike the kings of this world, however, Christ does not exploit his position for his own benefit.

St. Paul says, “Christ Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage…” (Philippians 2:6).

Precisely because Jesus Christ is God, his kingdom could not be taken from him. He had no need to seize power, nor did he have to use that power to convince his subjects of his rightful kingship. More than that, he did not use his authority to his own advantage or demand that his subjects come to him and pay him tribute. Rather, out of his great love for his people, he took the form of his subjects, hiding his kingship behind it.

“…rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7).

Jesus did not give up being God but instead chose to take upon himself the likeness of man, more specifically, a “bondservant,” the lowest status—the polar opposite of a king. He chose to give up all the privileges and riches of being God and King in order to be born in a stable as the helpless baby of impoverished parents. He gave up his authority, submitting to his heavenly Father’s will.

Eight days after his birth, Jesus made himself subject to his own law through circumcision. Unlike any other human, he kept this law perfectly. In human likeness, he experienced all of our weaknesses. He faced all the trials and troubles familiar to all mankind. He was even tempted in every way yet remained without sin. Still, he submitted himself to John’s baptism of repentance and forgiveness, where he identified with his sinful people despite having no iniquity of his own.

“…the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

Jesus’ suffered under this burden, experiencing an agony that only God in the flesh could suffer, as he felt our sins as if they were his. As his journey to the cross neared its end, his disciples and friends scattered in fear, Judas betrayed him and Peter denied him. Though he was God, Christ was charged with blasphemy and contempt of God. Though he was King, Christ was charged with insurrection. Though he was the creator and giver of life, Christ allowed his own life to be taken at the hands of his created beings.

“And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

The King of all kings—God/man—humbled himself, allowing others to spit upon and slap him. He was whipped bloody, covered with a royal robe and crowned with thorns by soldiers who knelt and mocked this “King of the Jews.” He was stripped naked, nailed to the cross and hung between two robbers with the charge over his head—“King of the Jews.” The chief priests, scribes and elders mocked him as the “King of Israel,” ignorant of the truth about him.

He suffered what his sinful people deserved to suffer, including the hell of the absence of his Father, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Finally, he yielded up his spirit, having been obedient to death.

An earthly king might demand his subject fall on the sword as a demonstration of loyalty; this King fell on the “sword” meant for us in order to demonstrate his loyalty to his subjects. He never sinned. He did not deserve death. Still, he chose to die so that the sins of the world would be charged to his account and his righteousness be credited to all who would believe. “[He] gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4).

Because he loved you, your rightful King gave up everything and took upon himself what you deserved. He humbled himself to reconcile you to God. Trusting in him, you are no longer just a subject in his kingdom; you share in his kingdom because he has given it to you.

Pastor Michael Edwards serves Good News Lutheran Brethren Church in McAlisterville, PA.

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