In Priene, an ancient Greek city located in Western Turkey, archaeologists found two stones in the town marketplace. The inscribed stones, dated 9 BC, commemorate the reign of Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor and heir to Julius Caesar, with the following words:
“…Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus..…sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things…He, [Augustus] Caesar, by his appearance excelled even our anticipations, surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done…the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news [gospels] for the world that came by reason of him,”
Many consider Augustus to be Rome's greatest emperor; his policies greatly improved the Empire's life span and initiated 200 years of Roman peace – the Pax Romana. Yet with his many achievements, Augustus’ ascendancy was marked by violence and betrayal. To gain and consolidate his power, Augustus killed or exiled numerous enemies and former allies, while using marriage as a political tool. According to historian H. H. Scullard, “... the ultimate sanction of his authority was force, however much the fact was disguised."
Around the 30th year of Augustus’ reign, in the backwater Roman province of Judea, a different kind of savior was born. During his relatively short life, this Jewish preacher brought a message that turned the world upside down. Instead of vengeance, he taught love for one’s enemies. Instead of worldly wealth, he valued spiritual richness. Instead of a kingdom built on coercion, his kingdom won hearts. Living a humble life, Jesus of Nazareth taught his followers that the first amongst them should be the last and that to die for God is to gain eternal life.
Today, more than 2,000 years later, both names are still remembered, but only one still has followers willing to love, obey, and die for that name. Why is that? What did Jesus Christ have that Augustus Caesar did not?
In his book Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch offers the concepts of “Authority” and “Vulnerability” to explain the paradox of Jesus’ life.
As humans beings created in the image of God, we are given authority, defined by the capacity for meaningful action, over all creation. In that sense, authority can be anything from financial power, to intellectual expertise, to the command of other’s hearts. Crouch defines vulnerability not simply as transparency or sharing (indeed, he accurately notes that our world often “overshares” through social media). Rather, he defines vulnerability as “exposure to meaningful risk,” even “risking something of real and even irreplaceable value.”
But are authority and vulnerability mutually exclusive? After all, most people on earth spend their lives trying to gain wealth to avoid suffering. Is it godly for Christians to have power and influence in their lives? To answer these questions, Crouch takes us to a 2x2 chart, where he redefines the relationship between authority and vulnerability from one of “OR”, to one of “AND”.
Starting with the bottom right corner (II - Suffering), where there is a lack of authority yet much vulnerability, this is the state of hundreds of millions of people in the world. These people often live below the poverty line, in war-torn regions, without any meaningful ability to change their environment.
Moving to the left (III - Withdrawing), this is the state we were born in. As children, our parents protected us from risks (e.g. bars on cribs) and from the ability to wield power (e.g. no driving). In our age today, many people continue to be withdrawn as they are afraid to venture out to take meaningful risks for God. It is the story of the servant with one talent.
According to Andy Crouch, what every idol promises, and what the world craves after, is authority without vulnerability (IV – Exploiting); that you shall not die, and you will be like God. Every idol delivers, at first. But when they stop, those who have authority exploit the vulnerable to retain their power. This is the sin committed by many kings and organizations. Emperor Augustus, at the height of his power, commanded the absolute authority of the Roman Empire, yet he obtained it through much bloodshed and destruction. He wouldn’t have given up his power or wealth, much less his life, for anyone.
What God wants all of us to do, Andy Crouch argues, is to move to the top right (I – Flourishing), a position of both authority and vulnerability. In Genesis, humans were given dominion over all creation. Yet on the cross, the God who had all authority over the world came in the form of a man and gave up his life as a ransom for many. Philippians 2:6-8 says: “(Jesus) Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death-- even death on a cross!”
When I think about the calling of young Christians today, on whether they should choose between authority or vulnerability in serving God, the answer is – yes. I sincerely believe every Christian student should be excellent in the field God calls them to. They need to be great mathematicians, poets, engineers, cooks, CEOs, or janitors, yet should be willing and able to cast all of that excellence aside as garbage when compared to their pursuit of Christ.
This was the case for Adoniram Judson. Born in Massachusetts in 1788, Judson was an extremely gifted child. He learned to read at the age of 3, did especially well in reading, mathematics, and even mastered Latin and Greek. At the age of 19, he graduated from Brown University as the valedictorian of his class. With his strong academic training, great intelligence, and linguistic abilities, Judson could have very well become a famed scholar, politician or theologian in 19th-century America. However, through the convictions of his faith, he turned down the prestigious offer to be a minister at Boston’s Park Street Church, to the great dismay of his family. Instead, Judson embarked on a 37 years long service abroad as one of the first missionaries to Burma, during which time he endured numerous rejections, persecutions, tortures and even the death of his wife and children.
For his hard work and sacrifice, Judson left Burma with the translated Bible as well as a half-completed Burmese-English dictionary, 100 churches, and over 8,000 believers at the time of his death. In large part due to his influence, Myanmar has the third largest number of Baptists worldwide, behind the United States and India. Even today, his name has continued to challenge and inspire countless people to wholly dedicate their life to God.
That’s a life of authority plus vulnerability. Dedication plus risk-taking.
The world unfortunately turns a deaf ear to the vulnerable and those without authority. It idolizes those who have authority and no vulnerability. However, when Christians like Adoniram Judson gain authority through diligence and discipline, yet choose to become vulnerable for the world, they imitate their Savior. By this, may we turn the world’s attention to His gospel.