Once upon a time there was a ship with 100 sailors aboard. The captain was a kindhearted man whose leadership resulted in great prosperity and happiness for his crew and everyone they did business with, but nevertheless a mutiny arose against him, led by his mischievous first mate, who banished the captain to a deserted island. The first mate had a very different way of doing things than the captain had, which led to some serious problems for the crew—dangers, loss of life and limb, infighting, and diseases. Some of those crew members recognized that the problems stemmed from following the first mate–they actually wanted the old captain back at the helm. Others couldn’t see that their troubles had anything to do with the first mate, so they continued to follow him. After a time, the captain, having escaped from the island, decided to take his ship back. So he intercepted the ship, climbed aboard, overpowered his mutinous adversary, tied him to the mast, and began to win over the hearts and minds of his crew. After all, his way was not to force people to do what he wanted, but to lay out the truth and let them make their choice. And some of the sailors pledged renewed loyalty to the captain, leaving their old ways behind. But others didn’t. They were still listening to the first mate, who still had some influence for as long as it took to get to port, where he would be put off the ship along with all those who refused to follow the captain.
What I have been telling you is a parable about God’s Kingdom based on Bible passages like Matthew 12:22-37 and Revelation 20. Jesus is the captain and the devil is the mutinous first mate and all humanity are the sailors. Now obviously the devil did not kick God out of His own world; the banishing of the captain was needed to make the analogy work to make the point that people are following the devil’s leadership rather than God’s, but that God has acted to restore His kingdom on earth. We have the choice of whom to follow, Jesus or the devil (who isn’t even believed in by most, but is unwittingly followed by everyone who disobeys Jesus–it’s called ‘giving in to temptation’, which all of us have done). Jesus has bound the devil (Matthew 12:22-30), limiting his power, an initial victory that will be finalized when Jesus rids the earth of the devil and his henchmen and finishes reclaiming the earth for himself (1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Revelation 20-22). But until then, he graciously extends the opportunity to all humanity to gather with him. He sent the apostles and all communicators of the gospel since then to tell people of his reign and the eventual victory, justice, peace, joy, love and blessing promised to those who come under his authority. But it is ultimately the choice of each person whether to take his side or not. And there are important consequences now and later for the choice each of us makes.
One may think it’s contradictory to say that Jesus imposes a penalty for rebellion against him, yet does not force anyone to submit to him. But not so. There’s a big difference between human free will and ‘political’ freedom that is often overlooked. It is like a police officer speaking to a group of high school students and urging them to obey the law by not drinking and driving. Even if he tells them he will arrest them for doing this, they are still free to obey or disobey the law. They are born with the inherent ability to choose freely, but that does not mean they are free to flout the law without punishment. So it is with God’s universal moral law and reign. He informs us of the law, the penalty for breaking it and urges us to obey it, but then we choose to obey or disobey, and the choice carries consequences. I suspect some confuse the two types of freedom in part because they would prefer autonomous moral freedom to do whatever they want (short of directly harming others) without any negative consequences. But God did not make His world to work that way. He synced up human nature, moral law, and the ways of nature. In other discussions, I have emphasized the royal authority God has given His sons and daughters. But here I must point out that the ultimate authority is God’s and therefore our authority has limits.
“The ship must have a captain”, said Bootstrap Bill in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. It’s not the devil and it’s not us. Jesus is The Captain. All aboard!