To us a child is born, to us a son is given, and that child will be the king who will bring an end to war and oppression and all the darkness of the world. He will be the perfect king who will rule forever and bring eternal peace—but not the peace of the tyrant, who brings the peace of the grave by crushing dissent and killing anyone who opposes him. His peace will be a peace of life and growth, in which all the world will flourish. He will bring this about through his wisdom, for he is the miraculously-wise counselor, the one who speaks and leads with the perfect wisdom of the Lord of all creation. He will bring this about through his power, for he is the mighty God.
The word for “mighty” in the Hebrew is an adjective, but it was often used as a noun, rather like our national anthem calls America “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” When it was used this way, it meant a great warrior or a great hero. The meaning is clear. This child who is king because he is God will not only rule with the wisdom of God, he will defend his people with the power of God, and so he will be incomparably mighty in battle. He will defeat all his enemies, and he will never be overcome. His kingdom will endure forever because there will never be any power that can conquer it; it will grow forever because there will never be any power that can stand against it. His people will know absolute security and freedom from any threat.
That all sounds conventional enough. Empires grow by winning battles and wars, after all, and they start to shrink when they start losing. If you’re going to envision a ruler who will reign forever and whose kingdom will never stop expanding, it’s probably going to have to be someone who never loses a battle, let alone a war. That’s why the greatest empire-builders in human history have been military geniuses like Alexander the Great. But the funny thing is, that’s not actually what God has in mind.
Look at the Gospel of John. John 18: Jesus goes to meet Judas Iscariot, who has betrayed him. He knows Judas has betrayed him, he knows Judas will be leading the soldiers there to arrest him; he could have avoided the arrest, but he doesn’t. In fact, he practically volunteers to be arrested. Later, he’s being interrogated by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate—who’s bewildered by the whole situation—and he tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevernt my arrest. But now my kingdom is from another place.” John 19: Pilate says, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus responds, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” And so he was crucified.
And then he got up, alive again after being tortured to death; and not only alive again, but able to bless his disciples with his peace. For that matter, he’s able to do things like appear in the middle of locked rooms. He’s alive, and he gives his disciples the Holy Spirit—though they don’t fully receive the Spirit of God until a few weeks later—and he commissions them as his ambassadors to the world.
This is the mighty God whose kingdom shall never end. He never led soldiers in battle; not only did he not march from victory to victory, he was captured and executed like a common thief. He suffered, it seemed, the ultimate defeat. The thing is, he did that because he was after a much greater enemy than any he could overcome in this life. He wasn’t after earthly rulers, he was hunting much bigger game: his battle was against sin, and against death, and to beat them, he had to face them on their own turf. He allowed himself to be murdered so that he could go one-on-one with death—and it was a three-day fight, but he won in a knockout.
This is how the mighty God goes to war, and this is how he fights his earthly enemies: with mercy, by making himself vulnerable, laying his own life down for us. This is how he calls those of us who worship him to fight for him: by not fighting, by loving our enemies, showing grace and mercy to the undeserving, and laying down our lives for those around us. And if this often looks like the way of defeat, we can look to his example and remember that the greatest defeat this world could deal was his way to ultimate victory.