In the Power Game, Love Wins

Love and knowledge are partners. Knowledge without love is arrogance. Love without knowledge is sentimentalism.

Human might comes in three packages: muscle, money, and mind. At least, that's the picture presented by Alvin Toffler in his best-selling book, Powershift.

For centuries, Toffler notes, human power depended primarily upon muscle--sheer force of body strength. The Industrial Age expanded that power through the symbolic use of money, which could purchase machines to leverage the strength of arms, legs, and backs. Our day has welcomed the Information Age, in which knowledge has redefined both physical and financial strength, and created whole new paradigms of power.

Jesus knew about all three sources of power. Roman swords vanquished Jewish patriots' dreams of home rule. Lavish living by moneyed magnates--whether priests, politicians, or merchants--argued convincingly that money worshippers are winners. Even fishermen and peasants played mind games to prove their superiority.

The lure of one-upmanship

Jesus' own disciples were snagged by that lure. Repeatedly, they joined the one-upmanship contest. Who gets to be prime minister or secretary of state or budget director in Jesus' New Society? Or, how many points do I have in the "do good" game? Or, what grade do I get on my latest kingdom talk? Or, how many healings do you have to your credit? I can outscore you!

Jesus knew that His disciples, who didn't have enough swords to outfence the Romans and who would have been fools to measure their worth by the bulge in their bags of gold, had fallen for the mind trap: You can outmaneuver others by your smarts. It's so subtle and so smooth. If dummies finish last, then smart people must be God's favorites.

Jesus had already warned them about this deception. When He heard them baiting one another about positions, He said, "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave--just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:26-28).*

Nice rhetoric, but it didn't seem to take well. Slave? Not an attractive word.

Later, as they climbed the staircase to the Upper Room, they were still playing mind monopoly for top positions. Still scrambling to sit in the right places. Still trying to impress Him and each other, while He prepared for Calvary.

At last they settled themselves around the table. They all saw the blood-red wine and crumbling bread. He knew the meaning, while they waited to outsmart one another.

Two ideas in contrast

When John wrote about this night years later, he wisely contrasted two ideas time and again in the story. For he came to see that one of the themes of this feast-event was the triumph of the power of love over the love of power through knowledge. "Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave the world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love" (John 13:1).

Jesus knew the time, but He also loved His people. Being savvy of the times proves one's knowledge, information, and mind-power. Today, we know the time. It's time for Jesus to come. Social conditions, church situations, international problems--all cry out the times. Or perhaps we know our times. Some think that the church is behind the times. We're waiting for its outdated values and beliefs to catch up to our age. We're so smart. So well informed. When we talk about the times, are we displaying our knowledge or our love? Jesus knew, therefore He loved.

Again John states: "Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him" (John 13:3-5).

Because Jesus knew who He was, He could afford to do an act of love, and perform the work of a servant for others. Later, He could allow degraded soldiers to ridicule Him, spit on His face, press thorns into His scalp. And He could pray, "Father, forgive them." Because He knew who He was, He could love instead of retaliate.

Inner worth

Tender elbows and thin skin reflect our uncertainty about our inner core of worth. A young salesman once asked a veteran of the trade how he handled insults. "I've never been insulted," the old fellow replied thoughtfully. Then he added, "Well, I've been sworn at, had the door slammed in my face, and even thrown down the stairs. But I never took things as insults." He knew that we must give permission to others to insult us. Their behavior is their problem; our response is ours.

Next, it was Peter's turn. But the seasoned fisherman tried to refuse Jesus' service. He knew he should have done the work. Jesus' lesson was too powerful. Then Jesus said, "What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter" (John 13:7, KJV).

Why didn't Peter know what Jesus was doing? Because he had not yet learned the power of love. Later, after Peter's denial and Jesus' resurrection, when they met by the shore of the Sea of Galilee again, Jesus three times asked Peter, "Do you love me?" Peter protested the repeated question, but still affirmed his love each time. Then Jesus could repeat His commission to the fisherman: "Follow me!" (See John 21:15-19.)

At the table, Judas sat silent and sullen. John turned the spotlight on him: "He [Jesus] knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean" (John 13:11).

Later in the story, John describes Jesus' incredible patience with His betrayer. He let Judas know that He was aware of his intentions, but did so in such a subtle way that "no one at the meal understood" (John 13:28).

The mark of discipleship

John ends this part of the story by quoting Jesus: "'A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another'" (John 13:34, 35).

Not only does the power of love mark Christ's life, but it imprints His followers as genuine disciples of the Lord of love. Intellectual brilliance, creativity, quick wit--all are sharp tools to be used in the service of Jesus. But they are effective only to the extent that they are bathed in the oil of love.

At the height of the David Koresh disaster in 1993, when some of the media were connecting the Waco cult with the Seventh-day Adventist Church and some Adventists were writing disclaimers, a letter to the editor appeared in the New York Times from a professor in a Pennsylvania college. In essence he said, I don't know the historical or theological connections between Adventists and Koresh. But I know Adventists. I met them in Vietnam. They were medics, most of them rural youths with simple faith and basic beliefs. I watched them under pressure during battle. Refusing even to carry sidearms, they were the bravest men I knew. They were consistent in practicing Christian values. I would trust any one of them with my life. And I want the world to see Seventh-day Adventists like I do: as genuine Christians who care for people and are worthy of society's deepest respect and trust.

In reality, love and knowledge are partners. For while knowledge without love is arrogance, love without knowledge is sentimentalism. Yet, "the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Philip Follett is vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for leadership development. He has served the church as a pastor and administrator, as well as script writer for Impact, a Los Angeles-based religious TV program.

* All Bible quotations are from the New International Version, except as otherwise noted.

The author acknowledges his debt to Dr. Des Cummings, Jr., vice president of Florida Adventist Hospital, for the key thought of the knowledge-love motif in John 13.