Christ Is Coming in Weakness, but with a Powerful Key
The text for today is 1 Peter 3:18-22: “For Christ also suffered once for sins… being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit… who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to Him.” Here ends the text.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Lord Acton of England once said that power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely. Isn’t that true about power as we see it? Those who don’t have it want it; and those who have it abuse it. The powerful may have started out with good intentions, but sooner or later, that same power corrupts them. Just read the newspaper and you’ll find plenty of examples in governmental agencies and large corporations.
But the corrupting influence of power is not confined to Washington, D.C. or Wall Street. We all want control and power, don’t we? We all want the power to tell our boss the project we’re working on won’t work. We want the power to make it rain on our crops. We want the power to keep the kids from fighting! We may even want the power to take care of the disadvantaged and promote global peace. But when we do get that power, how do we use it? The road to hell is paved with good intentions for the use of our power.
Tonight we look at two more of Advent’s “O Antiphons.” This time it’s stanzas 4 and 5 of our hymn “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel.” The first antiphon describes Christ as the Root of Jesse. The second says He’s the Key of David. Both of these antiphons speak of Christ’s authority and power. But they also show how God’s understanding of “power” is not the same as ours. In fact, God’s power looks for all the world like total weakness. But God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
I suppose, before we go too far, we should ask: “Who is this Jesse? And why is Jesus called his “Root?” Well, actually, Jesse is not mentioned very many times in the Bible, but the few times he is, it is very significant. Jesse’s claim to fame is that he is the father of David, the great king of Israel, and so all the kings descended from David likewise come from his line. And that line of kings, including David and Solomon, lasted for about four hundred years—a lengthy dynasty from historic perspective. But then it was cut off, at least as far as kings actively ruling in Jerusalem. Oh, the physical line of descendants continued, but they were no longer reigning as kings. Other powers took over the nations: first Babylon, and then Persia, followed quickly by Greece, and then Rome.
And so the royal line of kings was cut off. It was like a tree being cut down. What was left looked like a dead stump. Could another king come from that dead stump? Not a chance! But that’s exactly what our antiphon is talking about when it says, “O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign before the peoples, before whom all kings are mute, to whom the nations will do homage.” Unexpectedly, after all worldly hope is exhausted, a king will come, a descendant of Jesse, before whom the nations will bow down.
David, who reigned over Israel about 1,000 years before Christ, ended up being quite a powerful king himself. He was surrounded by growing empires, but he ruled over a growing and prosperous nation that was respected by the other nations around him. In fact, if there’s one king of Israel that the average Christian knows by name, even if he hasn’t been in church in years, it’s King David.
We tend to remember David for his power. But he hadn’t been chosen for his leadership abilities. He wasn’t an obvious choice for king by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, he was the young, “artsy,” least promising son of the Israelite, Jesse. The Lord directed the prophet Samuel to look for a king in Jesse’s household. And Jesse didn’t even think to bring David out for a look!
When it was left up to Israel to pick a king, they had picked Saul. They had judged by his appearance. He was tall and good looking. He had an air of authority about him. But that had been a disaster. So God would select His own man, “a man after His own heart.” He elected a king that no one would have thought of: David. David became the first ruler from “Jesse’s stem.”
Christ is called the Root of Jesse. It could have said, “Root of David,” but instead it takes it one step back from David, back to Jesse. This is to say that the new king will not just be another descendant of David; He will be a whole new David, a new and eternal King, even better than David, even more powerful than David. David 2.0, if you will. So many of the Davidic kings fell short, including David himself. Some were downright evil, their hearts far from God and His Word. But there would be no mess-ups with this King. He will far surpass them all. And so will His kingdom surpass any previous kingdom of this world.
This Son of David, Jesus of Nazareth, was not an obvious choice to be King, either. Scripture says of Him, “For He grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not” (Isaiah 53:2-3, ESV).
Jesus wasn’t born in a palace, but a barn in Bethlehem. He wasn’t born into power and wealth, but into a poor, obscure family from Nazareth. He didn’t rise to the throne, but ended His life nailed to a cross that stood between two thieves. But that is the way Christ established His kingdom—through His suffering and death. You see, His is not your run-of-the-mill earthly kingdom. Asked by Pilate if He was the King of the Jews, Jesus replied: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would have been fighting that I not be delivered over to the Jews. But My kingdom is not from the world.”
Christ’s power didn’t mean He commanded troops and counselors and a court, giving orders all day long. Christ’s power was revealed in His suffering and death. He did not inherit in some earthly way the throne of David. But like David, He was elected by God’s special choice. In that way, He’s not a branch of David, but a root from David’s obscure father, Jesse.
One of the church’s earliest pastors, just a few decades after Christ’s resurrection, put it this way: “The scepter of the majesty of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, appeared not with pomp of pride or arrogance, though well He might, but in humility” (Clement of Rome, 16.2). That’s how God’s power works. Not the way we think of power, with armies and money and prestige, but in weakness.
You see… our worldly power doesn’t get us very far. Every earthly kingdom falls—from without or within. Every military power is eventually defeated. Financial security is fleeting. Just a few years ago almost everybody’s 401K dropped to half its value almost overnight. The economy is so sluggish that the only way the unemployment numbers have gone down is that so many people have just taken themselves out of the job market. Billions of dollars that our federal government doesn’t have were printed to bail out financial institutions that were deemed too big to fail. China holds IOUs that they could call in any day. The housing bubble burst. Millions of people defaulted on mortgages they should have never taken out in the first place. And when’s the last time you saw an infomercial where some smart man or woman tells you that they can teach you how to make gobs of money flipping houses using borrowed money?
What did all that financial power gain? Nothing of any good, that’s what. Unemployment. Disillusionment. Despair. Depression. Insecurity. Hopelessness. That’s the way worldly power works. It hardly ever makes things better. It usually ends up making things worse.
King David found out the same thing. Once he became well-established as king, his power went to his head. Even David, who the Lord said was a “man after His own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), ends up sleeping with another man’s wife and having the man killed to cover up the sin to boot. Talk about an abuse of power!
Yes, David used his power to accomplish a lot of good. Yes, he tried to worship the Lord faithfully. But in sinful human hands, any authority and strength end up being abused. The more power—even godly, divine power—the more our sinful nature twists it for its own ends. So who could ever wield the tremendous power it would take to undo sin and death and not be completely corrupted?
Only God Himself could do it. Only God could wield all the power David was meant to have for good. Only God would use such authority selflessly, instead of selfishly.
That’s what the Key of David antiphon is all about. It’s about authority, and who’s using it, and how he’s using it. That’s the “key” to understanding this antiphon. Keys are used for opening and closing things. If you’ve been given the key to something—a door, a building—that means you’ve been entrusted with a certain amount of authority. If you’ve been given the key to the city, that means you’ve been given the run of the town. An officeholder holds the keys, so to speak, to exercise the powers of that office in a responsible manner. And so, to say “the key of David” means that someone is exercising the powers that David did.
Our O antiphon describes the Key of David as a ruler of great authority and power: “You open and no one can close. You close and no one can open. And then it pleads: “Come and rescue the prisoners who are in darkness and the shadow of death.” That’s an impressive King. Certainly like no other kings, greater than any of the Davidic kings, greater than even David himself. Here is a case where the man exceeds the office and takes it beyond what it has ever been before.
We meet Him in the only New Testament passage where the specific term “Key of David” is used. In one of the letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation, this one identifies Himself, basically quoting Isaiah 22: “The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.”
This, of course, can only be the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ. He holds the key of David in a much greater and glorious way than any king ever did. This is the same Lord Jesus Christ we meet in Revelation 1. There we see what it is that He holds the keys to, and how He gained that authority. John sees “one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around His chest,” who says to him, “Fear not, I am the First and the Last, and the Living One. I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
Dear friends, see the authority of your Savior. See how He gained it and how He uses it! If we had had Christ’s power, what would we have done with it? Probably struck down our enemies, first of all. If you and I had Christ’s power, would we have let the Jewish leaders hand us over to death? Would we have let Pilate waffle and give in to their demands? Would we have let our enemies have their way? I doubt it! We would have encouraged our disciples to pick up their swords. We would have called down the legions of angels to wipe them all out.
But Christ did no such thing. He used God’s power perfectly, in peace, in kindness, out of love. The One who is “the first and the last,” that is, the almighty, eternal Son of God, came down from heaven, emptied Himself of His rights and His honor, humbled Himself, and died. Yes, that is who the man, Jesus is—God in the flesh dying on the cross. He did that for you. That was His saving mission, to rescue mankind from their sins, by dying in our place. His blood, shed on our behalf, purchases your forgiveness. He has the authority to forgive sins, and He does.
And so, by His death, by His taking away our sins, Christ Jesus took away the power that Satan held over you. Death and Hades are conquered and defeated; they are powerless to hold you any longer. They lie vanquished at the feet of the mighty King. Christ’s own resurrection proves this. It shows us what Christ has won for us.
Now, the same Christ who suffered and died, has now “gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God.” That’s how Peter puts it in his first Epistle (3:22). Peter goes on to write that “angels, authorities, and powers [have] been subjected to Him.” That means that heaven is now open to Him. That means that heaven is now open to you!
Christ has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. He opens your prison doors and sets you free from your dark, dank dungeon of death. He brings you out into the light and freedom of His everlasting kingdom, full of life. The path of misery you were on has been closed, and now you have been set to walk on a new road, the path of life. The way ahead is open and clear, with Christ Himself leading the way. For His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.