“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “So who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1)
“James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached him and said, ‘Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask you.’ ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked them. They answered him, ‘Allow us to sit at your right and at your left in your glory.’” (Mark 10:35-37)
“Jesus called them over and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over them. It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave’” (Matthew 20:25-27)
Control, control, control. Every minute of every day, month after month, year after year. We may not realize it, but almost every human interaction involves some measure of seeking control, from minuscule to nuclear, and the ultimate goal is whose will, will prevail.
Think about the interactions you’ve had today. Did you and your spouse wrangle just a bit about how things are supposed to be done around the house, or who would tackle a particular chore? Did it involve a debate over doing it now or later “because my show just came on”? If you have children or teens, was there a battle over getting ready for school? Did you hear the siblings unsheathe the glorious rant, “You’re not the boss of me!” against each other?
Or did you bristle when a well-meaning work partner insisted you do your job their way because, as the cubicle emperor that they are, they know better? Or if you’re a manager, did you derive just a bit of pleasure delegating an unpleasant task to your “inferior” while you scanned emails on company time after they left your office with an even heavier workload?
Road rage! Oh, that’s a good one. Did you verbally cuss out the idiot driving slow in the passing lane or make a unique hand gesture at the lame-o who cut you off as they changed lanes? Or did you make your car horn play the One Note Samba when the brain-dead teenager missed the green light because the so-and-so was looking narcissistically at their phone to see how many “likes” they got from their adoring five followers only to gun their car forward through the intersection as the light turned red leaving you stranded for another cycle during rush-hour? Am I right?
Why did you get so mad? Because you know the rules of the road and dutifully follow every one of them perfectly and insist that everyone else does the same. Why? Because they’re in your way, your lane, and messing up your agenda because it’s all about you.
See? Control. When we lose control, it’s easy to go ballistic.
Now think of an entire world with seven billion people jockeying for control over their world and those who get in their way. I was so used to doing the same thing that I hardly noticed how prevalent the lust for gaining control and managing it was. I just did it (and still do, truth be told).
But then I discovered the Subdue and Rule Mandate and our deep-seated, irresistible drive for dominion. Do you think things are aggravating not knowing about our God-given drive used for infernal purposes? Once you’re attuned to how intense and prevalent the drive for dominion is, it gets even worse. It’s everywhere and in every situation, because that’s where people are – in every situation. You in yours and me in mine. But when our two domains interact, the interpersonal fireworks can erupt if we haven’t learned how to respond as our Heavenly Father wants us to respond. That, dear reader and delightful control freak, is the point of some of Jesus’ teachings.
All of those teachings about how we’re to use our Subdue and Rule Mandate comes down to “…Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). I want to focus on three specific areas that Jesus addressed to get us started on the right path of becoming the image of God our Heavenly Father wants us to be.
These three main areas strike at the core of our dominion drive, which is about establishing and maintaining control of “our” world. The question we continually must face is “whose control” and “over what or whom?” If gaining and maintaining control is exercised according to God as His viceregent, our dominion drive is our benign Subdue and Rule Mandate in action. If achieving and maintaining control is deployed according to fallen human nature as self-willed rulers of our personal space or perceived realm, our dominion drive ramps up to the toxic attempt to Conquer and Dominate. If our attempt to control life is limited to God’s creation, it’s usually Subdue and Rule unless we exert control over God’s world in a sinful, ungodly exploitive way. But if we attempt to control people outside God’s parameters for governmental or organizational purposes, we’re either at the line or into full-blown Conquer and Dominate.
Although Jesus didn’t specifically refer to the Subdue and Rule Mandate by name, some of His teachings speak volumes about how His disciples are to interrelate and work side by side as God’s representatives. Jesus’ teachings also contain fences (wider protective boundaries) to prevent His disciples from letting the dominion drive push them into controlling others, thus violating their God-given areas of responsibility or “domains.”
When Jesus sent out the disciples as His advance team in Matthew 10, He gave them authority “over unclean spirits, to drive them out and to heal every disease and sickness” (Matthew 10:1). This commissioning is a clear example of a king dispatching his viceregents to subdue and rule within the king’s realm. Under Jesus’ appointment, the disciples’ delegated domain included the spiritual realm (unclean spirits) and physical creation (physical diseases attacking bodies). As they traveled, the disciples were to work within their given domain (10:5-6), proclaim the new way God’s dominion is advancing (10:7), demonstrate God’s dominion (10:8), do so freely, i.e., not using their charge to enrich themselves (10:9), trust God to provide for their needs through those who welcomed them (calming any “sweat of your brow” anxiety, 10:10), go where they were received, and not force God’s dominion upon anyone. If the disciples encountered opposition, they were to let God deal with those who rejected His representatives (10:11-15). The disciples’ commission is reminiscent of the original Adamic commission to go into the “untamed world” and extend God’s reign.
Luke 9 has the parallel account but with the disciples returning to Jesus for debriefing (Luke 9:10). Luke also records a second advance team of 70 (or 72 in other translations) sent out with a similar commission. What is noteworthy is this larger group is dispatched in teams of two, reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s commission. When the 70 return, they’re stoked about how the demons submitted to them under their Jesus-empowered dominion mandate. But Jesus tells them not to rejoice in their newly experienced dominion, which would undoubtedly appeal to an undisciplined and unredeemed drive for dominion. Instead, the disciples are to rejoice about being under God’s dominion and watching it in action because our original sin was forgetting under whose dominion we were designed to be.
Let’s now focus on Jesus’ specific teachings about controlling our dominion mandate per His Father’s way, although Jesus doesn’t precisely categorize them as that. But you’ve come this far and will soon see how profound these teachings help us understand how to exercise our dominion without hurting, controlling, or dominating other people. Let’s focus on the Subdue and Rule Mandate and our all-too-common quest for Greatness, Position, and “Lording Over Others.”
Subdue and Rule and our Quest for Greatness
“The disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘So who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’” (Matthew 18:1). That’s a question straight from the Conquer and Dominate mindset. How do we define greatness? Greatness is “The quality or state of being large in amount, extent, or importance.” Also, “something meriting the highest praise or regard” (American Heritage Dictionary).
Mark 9:33-35 and Luke 9:46-47 parallels the disciples’ question. Jesus and His disciples arrived in Capernaum after the remarkable Transfiguration experience in Caesarea Philippi. Luke writes that the disciples were disputing as they traveled about who among them would be the “greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1). What could have prompted this question? At Caesarea, Philippi Jesus affirmed for the first time that He was God’s chosen Messiah (Matthew 16:17-20). Jesus then selected only His “inner circle” of Peter, James, and John to ascend “a high mountain” with Him (likely Mt. Hermon, the only high mountain in the area) to witness His Transfiguration.
No doubt Peter, James, and John were stunned by Jesus’ revealed glory. Seeing Jesus’ divine glory so intensely had to have raised their regard for their Messiah and Master to an extremely high level. In short, Peter, James, and John saw Jesus’ “greatness” in a whole new light (pun intended). Jesus would be a spectacular king for Israel, far surpassing any earthly king endorsed by God Himself! And even though Jesus told them not to share with anyone what they had seen until after His resurrection, the experience made a deep impression upon Peter (2 Peter 1:16-18) and likely excited the three about Israel’s future king. As for the other nine disciples, they were doubtless also excited when their miracle-working rabbi revealed that He was Israel’s Messiah and future king, but they didn’t get the memo the way the Three did.
However, Jesus’ selection of His inner circle for a special mountaintop meeting could not be overlooked. And so, the stage was set for a vigorous discussion about who would be the greatest among the disciples in Jesus’ future messianic cabinet when He reigned in Jerusalem.
The word for “greatest” in all three verses about which disciples would be greatest is megas, and in this case, it refers to rank. This definition also infers “eminent for ability, virtue, authority, power” (Thayer and Smith). We could rephrase the disciples’ question as “Who among us will have the highest rank, authority, and power in God’s kingdom when You rule, Jesus?”
This question is perfectly understandable, given our battle with human nature and our innate drive to control. Sources of authority and power inevitably draw those who crave control because control is useless without the authority and power to enforce one’s will upon another. Again, this makes sense since our commission to subdue and rule God’s world had to be accompanied by our King’s authority and the power (ability) to carry out our task.
According to our world’s standard, the “greater” a person is, the more control they can assume or that is granted to them by others. To prove this, all we need to do is observe peoples’ reactions when they encounter someone they regard as great by virtue of perceived importance, high regard, or rank. The appearance of “greatness” can come from political power, economic standing, intellectual depth, physicality, or even something as vacuous as fame. There can be mild reactions of respect and deference or more intense responses like trepidation, fear, submission, and even fawning behavior from the lesser. And the person regarded as “greater” often displays recognition and acceptance of their “lesser’s” respect and deference. But when the “greater” person slides into Conquer and Dominate mode, intense displays of domineering can erupt, like aloofness, condescension, arrogance, aggression, dismissiveness, disregard, and many other awful behaviors that are designed to convey to the “lesser” person their status relative to their superior.
And that’s the point – to display greatness to place oneself above others. In doing so, the greater person builds themselves up and can more easily assume or exert control that the “lesser” person is handing to them due to their actual or perceived greatness. Sadly, much of social media today thrives on selfish or narcissistic attempts to make oneself great in the eyes of others with the hope of becoming an “influencer.” In simple terms, an influencer exerts a measure of control over others by persuading or cajoling people into doing, saying, or buying something per the influencer’s will. Influencers play off their viewers’ desire to rise in rank (via “likes” and responses) if they only emulate their idol.
Are all influencers Conquering and Dominating their followers? Not at all. The influencer’s motives and methods can only determine whether they align with God’s character and ways. An influencer can be successful because they accurately see a person’s need and graciously guide them to something that will meet that need. Or the influencer can play off their “greatness” and manipulate multitudes into unwise decisions, thus savoring their ability to control others.
Striving for greatness in the quest to obtain and maintain control over people clearly indicates Conquer and Dominate in action.
So, back to the disciples arguing about who among them will be the greatest when Jesus sits on Israel’s throne. While the disciples were arguing over rank, the irony is the highest-ranking person who ever was or will be in human history was among them (proven by the Transfiguration and the Father’s declaration, Luke 9:35). Jesus, the greatest person of all time and eternity, had already begun His self-abasing “humble descent” from the highest revelation of His greatness upon Israel’s highest mountain only to end in Jerusalem where He would be rejected and utterly brought down in lowest death, only to be later raised to life and exalted to the highest heaven once again.
Jesus went from the greatest to the least to the greatest of all in complete accord with His Father’s will.
In this context, knowing His impending absolute humiliation and supreme exaltation, Jesus sets His disciples straight, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Jesus then called a nearby child over and placed him amid the disciples and explained, “…unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child—this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).
Why call for a child to illustrate a humility lesson? Generally, children are dearly loved but rank low on the social pecking order. Do kids understand that? Most do. Is it a child’s goal in life to “pull rank” on their parents? Not if that humble child recognizes they rank lower than their parent who is greater than them (higher in ability, authority, and power) and who wants to avoid discipline.
So, what is Jesus teaching to His disciples? “Forget maneuvering for rank or esteem in My Father’s kingdom. You won’t even be a part of My Father’s kingdom unless you humble yourselves because entering My Father’s kingdom starts with putting His will before your own.” Parents expect a child to submit their will to their parents humbly. Jesus taught His disciples that true greatness comes from the opposite of what they sought. True greatness comes from submitting one’s will to God first, which stands at the core of our lives. Submitting our wills to another person’s will takes great humility.
Conquer and Dominate seeks greatness to impose our will over others for control and our sake. Subdue and Rule humbly exerts control over ourselves and for God’s sake. Conquer and Dominate seeks greatness to build our self-esteem. Subdue and Rule works humbly with no mind to how it affects our self-esteem. Conquer and Dominate seeks greatness to attain rank. Subdue and Rule humbly accepts responsibility regardless of rank. The spirit, attitude, and behavior born from the Conquer and Dominate “greatness” mindset often lead to independence, prideful resistance, and undue control over others. In contrast, the Subdue and Rule “humility” mindset leads to humble submission and willing cooperation with others.
Subdue and Rule and our Striving for Position
The following teaching (Mark 10:35-40, Matthew 20:20-23) occurs soon after Jesus discusses what constitutes true greatness. Regardless of who asked Jesus for the favor (whether James and John’s mother or the two disciples themselves), the question is the same, “Grant…one to sit on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21). The significance of the two disciples’ request is they asked for the two most prominent positions of power next to Israel’s future king Himself.
Relative to the king’s throne, the right-hand position is the highest, and the left-hand is the next highest. Since Jesus’ current position is at His Father’s right hand (Mark 16:19; Hebrews 1:3), Jesus holds His Father’s authority and power in totality. “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18), and no being (human or spiritual) is higher in authority or power as Jesus is other than His Father. Therefore, Jesus exercises absolute dominion on his Father’s behalf in heaven and earth.
James and John were asking their future king to be given the two positions of utmost authority and power second only to Jesus in the Father’s kingdom when the time comes. Why did they dare to ask for this? Again, the dominion mandate drives us to exercise control, and control needs authority and power to operate. The two men recognized Jesus’ future reign as the pinnacle of God’s coming authority and power on earth. They sought the ultimate positions of power any human being could hope to attain other than the kingship itself. Seeking a position for dominance is like the quest for greatness above.
But while a person’s greatness is often judged by amount or worth to determine dominance and control, what James and John sought was positional dominance relative to Jesus and others. In other words, they wanted to Subdue and Rule not based on who they were as people but on their position.
Before the Fall, when the Subdue and Rule Mandate was unaffected by sin, Adam and Eve were commissioned by God to exert His dominion together, positioned side by side and under God. It’s only after the Fall that God established an essential check and balance among human beings with Adam in a position “over” Eve, apparently serving as a governing mechanism, “…he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). But that didn’t diminish Eve’s dominion drive to control herself or her world. Eve still faced the inescapable desire to overrule Adam, “Your desire will be for your husband…”.
From that moment on, people have sought positions to gain the desired authority and power to satisfy their drive for dominion over others and for persons under another’s domination to gain the authority and power to escape being dominated.
It’s the story of our lives.
The goal of humanity’s anti-God social system is to come out on top and stay there. Gee, just like “you shall be like God,” as the old temptation goes, right? Those in “higher” positions can control others while minimizing other peoples’ control over themselves. Thus, the jockeying for positions within various social groups. Who hasn’t seen this in politics, business, academia, families, media, the arts, entertainment, or religious institutions? Ultimately, it comes down to any relationship between two people. Before the Fall, we were designed to work shoulder-to-shoulder. After the Fall, a position became the goal to gain any advantage we could achieve dominance “over” another person. Haven’t we all encountered “gaining the upper hand?”
Every person seems to have an acceptable level or hierarchy under which we’re willing to submit. Those with a stronger dominion drive seek positions to exercise control over increasingly more people. Those with a lesser dominion drive are satisfied with “lower” positions in which they’re content to be led and directed but still exert control. This observation is a simplified approach to explaining social hierarchies and how they relate to the Subdue and Rule Mandate, but the goal is still control. The drive for control helps explain why all social groups develop hierarchies over time. Hierarchies offer positions within groups to define and establish lines of authority, power, control, and, to be fair, responsibilities and functions.
Jesus’ response to James and John is revealing. Position within God’s kingdom comes with a cost. The cost is self-sacrifice which is counter-intuitive to how the world strives for position. Within the world system, self-sacrifice is required to reach high positions, but the reward is self-serving; the lust of the flesh (enjoy), the lust of the eyes (obtain), and the pride of life (achieve). Position in God’s kingdom comes through self-sacrifice as our reasonable service to God (Romans 12:1), and our reward is knowing we serve God and please Him.
Within the world’s system, positions can be worked for and achieved, which fuels our drive to Conquer and Dominate. Once in power, it’s the standard operating procedure for us to use our previously mentioned greatness to jockey for positions, awash with titles, offices, and top cabinet posts with all the influence, power, perks, and control that come with those positions. According to Jesus, positions within His Father’s kingdom are prepared in advance according to the Father’s will, to which a redeemed dominion drive properly submits. Like grace, future “positions” in the Father’s kingdom are granted by grace and never attained “so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do” (Ephesians. 2:9-10).
In a related passage, Jesus attended a Sabbath meal with a group of Pharisees (Luke 14:1). As the guests were seated, Jesus saw “how they chose the best places.” The prime positions at these social functions were to the immediate right and left of the host (Brimmer). This account echoes James and John’s request. Jesus’ point is about humility. Fallen human nature strives for the “highest” position and despises the “lowest” place. Conquer and Dominate strives for the highest position possible. A servant’s heart humbly desires the “lowest” place and accepts “being moved up.” A proper Subdue and Rule attitude accepts our God-given responsibility to humbly extend our Heavenly Father’s rule in our world and His promotion to greater responsibilities. Conquer and Dominate brings public shame when we’re demoted for prideful presumption. A properly controlled Subdue and Rule drive brings public honor when we’re promoted. As Derek Prince once said, “The way down is up, and the way up is down.” Those rightly following Jesus don’t strive for position but carry out their assignment with humility. Also, what it comes down to is responsibility, not position. For the record, I’ve known some people who have positions who shirk their responsibilities while others fulfill their responsibilities while having no position or recognition, whatsoever. Sadly, I’ve seen this where it shouldn’t be – among Jesus’ people. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo?
Subdue and Rule and our “Lording Over” Others
Jesus’ teaching about not “lording over” others immediately follows James’ and John’s position request in Matthew 20:25-28 and Mark 10:42-45, and the greatness dispute in Luke 22:24-30. As the “greatness” and “position” topics apply to our Subdue and Rule Mandate, so too does Jesus’ “lording over” prohibition.
Jesus addressed the topic by setting up a negative example, “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over them.” He acknowledged the way fallen humanity works in our fallen world. The standard method of ruling in the Gentile (read pagan, as in not God’s way) world is to “lord over” others and how those holding positions (megas, great in rank) exercise their authority and power over their “lessers.” To “lord over” in Matthew and Mark is the Greek word katakurieuo, which has two definitions; 1) “to bring under one’s power, to subject one’s self, to subdue, master,” and 2) “to hold in subjection, to be master of, exercise lordship over (italics author). It sounds an awful lot like Subdue and Rule, doesn’t it?
The act of lording over another person is a deployment of the Subdue and Rule Mandate. But the negative context of using one’s authority and power to gain dominion over people and control them reveals it as being in the Conquer and Dominate mode. Pursuing greatness and position are common ways to satisfy the drive for dominion, especially as it relates to gaining and maintaining it over others. The disciples were concerned about achieving greatness and position. Jesus repudiated the pursuit of both authority and power “to bring others under one’s power” and “to hold in subjection” by explaining that this is how the Gentiles operate because they are not in covenant with God nor His kingdom, but “it must not be like that among you” (Matthew 20:26). There must be a noticeable difference between those outside of the Father’s kingdom and those within it.
Jesus reveals how genuine greatness and proper position are to be as the antidotes to the Gentile “lording over.” Relative to people, true greatness (megas) is being a servant (diakonos), “one who executes the commands of another, esp. of a master, a servant attendant, minister,” and the high position is to be a slave (doulos), “a bondman, man of servile condition; metaph. one who gives himself up to another’s will.”
To choose to be a servant and a slave means we willfully deny our desire to control others. Instead, we decide to control ourselves to “execute the commands of another” and “to be one who gives himself up to another’s will,” first to God’s will and then to the will of the person we serve. Instead of wielding authority and power over others, Jesus calls his disciples to exercise His Father’s authority and power over themselves.
The difference is stark; “I will use my God-given authority and power to control myself and serve others” versus “I will use my God-given authority and power to control others to serve me.”
According to Jesus’ teaching, humbling ourselves to serve others willingly is how we find true greatness in our Heavenly Father’s kingdom. Serving helps neutralize our desire for dominance and control by submitting ourselves to another person. Jesus modeled this for His disciples in John 13 during His foot-washing example, which amplified His point. Jesus “knew that the Father had given everything into his hands, that he had come from God, and that he was going back to God” (John 13:3). If any person in history was ever aware of their personal “greatness” of “rank and eminence in his ability, virtue, authority, and power” it was Jesus, which is what makes his servanthood example so stunning to us.
Even though the disciples didn’t realize the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus at that time, they did, however, recognize him as their “Teacher and Lord” (John 13:13), “both one who offers instruction and insight and one who acts with authority.” It was an impressive act of great humility for their Teacher and Lord to wash their feet and His humility cemented in their minds how the members of Jesus’ New Covenant community were to treat each other regardless of “greatness” (for some will have greater “abilities, virtue, authority, or power”) or “position” (for some will hold places of greater responsibility).
Conquer and Dominate rules down, but Subdue and Rule serves up. Jesus negates “lording over” with servanthood leadership and thereby sets the framework from within which His disciples are to extend God’s kingdom (Subdue and Rule) without stepping on or abusing their fellow workers (Conquer and Dominate).
Jesus’ teachings instruct his followers how to subdue and rule as His Father intended, over creation and never other people, by affirming the preeminence of his Father’s kingdom, by affirming his Father’s Word (specifically the Torah) as the guideline for proper dominion, and by addressing the core problems of human nature (the human heart and will) that have caused people to misuse their dominion mandate.
Jesus’ specific teachings about reaching for greatness, jockeying for position, and lording over others while ruling downward for personal benefit stand in stark contrast to seeking greatness through humility, surrendering position for the “low” place, practicing servanthood, and serving upward for the benefit of others. The beauty of Jesus’ teachings about greatness, seeking position, and lording over others is that the three provide a powerful and very practical antidote to our temptation to Conquer and Dominate others as we learn how not to misuse our dominion mandate as we work side by side for our Heavenly Father’s kingdom work on earth.
However, the Gentiles were not the only ones who sought greatness, position, and “lording over” people. Jesus’ teachings and life’s example brought Him into sharp opposition to the established Jewish leadership. After all, as unredeemed and spiritually unregenerated people who also suffered from the same malady of an out-of-control dominion drive, it didn’t take long for a clash of dominions to begin between Jesus and Israel’s leaders.
American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition
Brimmer, Rev. Rebecca J., What Did That Parable Really Mean? Israel Teaching Letter, Vol. # 771215, December 2015
Prince, Derek, youtube.com/watch?v=w8UUbeNmwN8
Thayer and Smith, The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon
The Jewish Annotated New Testament, NRSV
Pastor Jay Christianson
The Truth Barista, Frothy Thoughts