Charles Malik of Lebanon, the distinguished Christian statesman and former president of the United Nations General Assembly, has said, “The West is afraid of being revolutionary.” Is he correct? If so, then we are traitors to our Christian heritage. History’s greatest revolution began, not under a red star in Petrograd in 1917, but under the star of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago in the cradle where God invaded history.

Men begin revolutions with riots and gunfire. God began his revolution by singling out Mary, a simple, country girl, and by telling her that the Holy Spirit would cause the very Son of God to be born in her! Mary consented, and the revolution began. That’s how God always starts his revolutions: by quietly invading ordinary lives that are open to him.

When Mary felt the new life stirring in her womb, she knew instinctively that a new world was also stirring. She’d gone to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and as she entered the house Elizabeth cried out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42, 43). Mary replied in those famous words that we have come to know as the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name!” (Luke 1:46–49).

The Magnificat has rightly been called the most revolutionary document in history. In a flight of prophetic and poetic inspiration, Mary went on to speak that day of a many-sided, multifaceted change that God would bring to the world through the baby in her womb. This was the beginning of a spiritual revolution: “he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts”; of a social revolution: “he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree”; of an economic revolution: “he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.” In Jesus Christ God began the great reversal. Human categories were turned upside down, and the proud and the humble, the mighty and the weak, the rich and the poor, switched places.

The picture of Jesus as a revolutionary is foreign to most of us. From Sunday school we still retain the mental image of a Jesus who was preoccupied with lambs—“gentle Jesus, meek and mild”—and so he was. Yet Jesus Christ was also the greatest revolutionary who ever lived. He said, “I came to cast fire on the earth.” He came preaching about a revolution that he called the Kingdom of God. He gathered around him twelve men, and through these men he changed history.

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The revolutionary program of Jesus Christ began as a spiritual revolution. “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” Our greatest need is for an inner revolution that can transform men’s hearts. As Winston Churchill noted when he received the Nobel Prize, “we have learned to control everything except man.” Can man’s egocentric pride be changed? One dark night a member of the Jewish establishment came to see Jesus. This man was a concerned leader of society. Like many political and intellectual leaders of today as well as a host of average men, he wanted to know how to solve the human dilemma. What would Jesus suggest? Before he could actually bring himself to ask his question, however, Jesus interrupted with, “Unless a man is born all over again, he cannot see or enter into the kingdom of God.” Without a fresh start, Jesus was saying, you can’t even grasp the nature of the problem and the kind of revolution we need. This prescription for a new world began with a new birth!

No educated person today can fail to be impressed with the staggering achievements of man. But at the same time no thinking person can look at the world without being depressed by man’s failure to solve his deepest problems.

What’s wrong with the world when on the same day our newspapers carried front-page stories of man’s first flight into space and of the trial of a man in Israel for his part in the murder of six million Jews?

What’s wrong with the world when promises are not enough and we must have contracts; when doors are not enough and we need locks; when laws are not enough and we need police to enforce them?

What’s wrong with the world when science, which has solved so many problems, seeks at the same time a way to cure cancer and a way to destroy the world?

What’s wrong with the world when education has dispelled so much ignorance and raised the literacy rate, yet the worst wars in history have been fought by the most literate nations? Justice Robert Jackson once pointed out, “It is one of the paradoxes of our time that modern society needs to fear … only the educated man.”

What’s wrong with the world when government and labor and business produce an affluent society but cannot cope with the spiraling rates of crime, suicide, drug addiction, and moral breakdown?

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Eleanor Roosevelt told of a visit she once had with Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia. She asked the Communist leader if they had yet achieved his idea of Communism in his country. He laughed, she said, and replied in effect, “No, we have no Communism here. They don’t have Communism in the Soviet Union. In fact, there will never be Communism any place in the world until you can somehow eradicate selfishness from men.”

Moral aspirins and political pills cannot solve our problem. What we need is radical surgery for cancer of the soul. The philosopher may describe our problem as irrational thought. The psychologist may call it emotional behavior. The sociologist may dismiss it as a “cultural lag.” But Jesus diagnosed our problems as a sickness of the soul, a spiritual heart disease that the Bible labels sin. The real problems, he said, are those that come from the inside.

This may seem crude and oversimplified. However, Jesus wasn’t naïve enough to suggest that if only everybody had some pious little experience all our problems would disappear. Obviously, if everyone in the world were converted to Christ overnight, we’d still face staggering problems. There would still be hungry people to feed, illiterate people to reach, and urban masses to transport. Conversion of the human spirit is not the detailed answer to all our problems, but it does provide a platform from which we can begin to tackle those problems. For the basic conflict is the greed, pride, and self-centeredness of the human heart.

As a wise man observed long ago, the man who goes out to change the world must be an optimist, but the man who goes out to change the world without some way of changing human nature is an absolute lunatic!

O. Henry once told the story of a country boy who went off to the big city. He fell in with a bad crowd, forgot the ideals he’d been brought up to honor, and ended up a pickpocket. One day on the street he saw a girl he had known back home. In her face he could still see the purity and radiant freshness of youth. Suddenly a sense of revulsion filled him. Disgust with what he had become overcame him. He felt his cheeks flush hot with shame and, leaning up against a lamppost, he said, “I wish I could die.”

That, essentially, is what happened to the first Christians. When they met Jesus and saw what he was, they faced up to themselves. They felt ashamed and sick of themselves. They wished they could die—and they did die, to their old selves. But they also underwent a resurrection—to a new life in Christ!

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Peter and John and Andrew and the others found that a new dimension had invaded their lives in Christ. Eternity had come into time. God had stepped into history in the person of Jesus. “He that has seen me has seen the Father,” said Jesus, and they knew that they were seeing the expression of God in human form.

But this spiritual revolution was more than God invading history and living among men; it was God invading personality and living in men. When Jesus told his disciples he was going to die and leave them, they were desolate. How could they go on without the leader they depended on? But Jesus made a fantastic promise, “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you … and I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth” (John 14:18, 16, 17).

This promise was fulfilled—with power—at Pentecost. One hundred and twenty followers of Jesus gathered in an upper room on their knees. They had good reason to kneel, for these were the men and women who ran when Jesus was arrested, denied him when he was tried, hid themselves when he was executed, and locked themselves in a room when he was buried. Yet these were the men and women that Jesus was now ordering into an enemy-occupied world to represent him. No wonder they were praying!

A mysterious power came upon these people—like a sweeping desert wind, like a consuming forest fire—as the Spirit that Jesus promised gripped them like high-voltage power. No longer was God “out there” or “up there.” He was present, immediate, real! The evidence was in their lives. Men who had been cowards now “proclaimed the Word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). Men who had been obsessed with their weakness now “with great power … gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33). They became more conscious of the supernatural world, the spiritual warfare between powers of good and evil. As Paul put it, “our fight is not against any physical enemy; it is against organizations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil” (Eph. 6:12, Phillips). But they also knew there was supernatural power on their side. The evil spiritual forces were not able to resist the commands of the apostles, who spoke in Jesus’ name. These men discovered new spiritual capacities. The spirit of love and selflessness that had been in Jesus now dwelt in them. New compassion for others sprang up in them. When there was a famine in Jerusalem, Christians far away in Ephesus sent aid. Like Jesus they were enabled to forgive and love their enemies. Stephen, the first martyr, cried out as they stoned him, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” just as Jesus on the Cross had prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

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Indeed, a revolution had happened. An old regime had been overthrown in their lives and a new regime had taken over. Christ had overthrown the old forces of sin and evil and had taken over the master control center of their lives.

This sending of the Holy Spirit upon men and women is at the heart of the revolutionary power of Christian faith. These men were not simply trying to imitate Jesus. Rather, Jesus Christ was living in them. Instead of one Jesus Christ walking around Jerusalem there were now—and I say it reverently—one hundred and twenty Jesus Christs there. As Martin Luther described it, they were “little Christs,” men in whom Jesus Christ was continuing to live his life. They had undergone a fantastic spiritual transformation that revolutionized every aspect of their lives—the moral, the social, the economic. Jesus Christ touched them with his power and they, in turn, touched their world with power. They became revolutionaries Christian style. They touched hypocrisy and turned it into reality. They touched immorality and turned it into purity. They touched slavery and turned it into liberty. They touched cruelty and turned it into charity. They touched snobbery and turned it into equality.

One of the best definitions I ever heard of revolution goes like this: “To take an existing situation which has proved to be unworkable, archaic, impractical, out of date, and to destroy that situation, tear it down, and replace it with a system that works.”

Now, according to the Bible’s diagnosis, there is something unworkable, archaic, and impractical about human nature. It will not work. It cannot do what God wants.

Sin ought to be spelled s-I-n, “the big I.” This is what lies at the root of our problems. So Jesus came to earth to take upon himself this ego-centered, independent, God-denying nature that man has. On the Cross he died, bearing in himself this sin. And he came to replace our nature, which will not work, with his nature, one that will!

To today’s world longing for positive revolution, Jesus Christ offers a strategy for change that really works. First, we must be convinced of the reality of the God apart from whom no change is possible. He is the author of human history, the ground of human worth. Apart from him, life is a meaningless gamble, and any effort to change things for the better is absurd! Second, we must be changed. The Christian recipe for changing the world involves changing men. Each man must face the fact that he is part of the world’s problem, recognize the sin and self-centeredness in his own life, receive the power of the Living Christ who died to make us whole, and reorient his life toward the future under God’s control. It’s hypocritical nonsense to talk about changing the world when we are unwilling to let God change us. Third, we need to be together. A log on the fireplace by itself will soon go out, but placed with others it keeps glowing. So an essential part of Jesus’ strategy is to bring his people together in a renewing fellowship. Fourth, we must be moving in action for Christ. Changed men, not in isolation but involved in the real world, can make a genuine difference.

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Our world is going to have a revolution. Have no doubt about it. The question is which revolution: the revolution of hate and violence or Christ’s revolution of love and spiritual power.

The same choice arose in Jesus’ day. During his lifetime there was injustice. The Jewish people were being exploited by the Romans who occupied their country. A Roman soldier could walk up to a Jew and say, “Carry my bag for a mile,” and the Jew had no avenue of protest.

In the countryside and the hills of Judea there arose bands of guerrilla revolutionaries. Like the militant revolutionaries of today, they began to preach revolutionary doctrine to the people. “There is only one way to deal with these Roman pigs. Burn them out! Kill them!” There were riots, demonstrations, and protests. There were a few abortive attempts to overthrow the government. There was bloodshed and violence.

It was just at that time that Jesus Christ came with another revolution. He had no sword. He came preaching about the Kingdom of God. He came demonstrating love. He came to walk side by side with the sinners and the ordinary people of his day. He gave them a glimpse of another kind of world.

To the militants of his day Jesus would have said, “You are right. Society is corrupt. It’s no good. But after you get through burning everything down, what are you going to replace the system with? I have come to create a whole new system. If you will open yourself to me I will put my life into you. And you will walk around as a representative of the Kingdom of God here on earth, with God himself living in you.”

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The time came when Barabbas was caught and arrested. So was Jesus. And Pilate, the Roman governor, found himself with two revolutionaries on his hands. At the Passover time he brought them out to the crowd and said, “It’s a custom to release one prisoner to you at the time of the festival. Now who do you want me to release—Barabbas or Jesus? And the people answered, “Give us Barabbas.” Then Pilate said, “What shall I then do with Jesus which is called Christ?” And they all said, “Let him be crucified.”

Nineteen long centuries have passed. But basically the issue remains the same. Which revolutionary shall we choose—Barabbas or Jesus Christ?

Leighton Ford is associate evangelist and vice-president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He is a graduate of Wheaton College and Columbia Seminary. This essay is from his most recent book, “One Way to Change the World” (Harper & Row; © 1970 by Leighton Ford).

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