Last night we began our week of reflection by looking at John 1:29, behold the Lamb of God. Tonight our focus is on The King of the Jews. As we look at the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, let’s hold in our minds the pictures of the Passover Lamb from last night.
Kings today are very different from kings 2,000 years ago. Monarchies today are constitutional, they operate within a framework of law and democracy, their powers are restricted by elected government and law. They can let their will be known, and bring subtle pressure to bear on politicians, but little more than that.
In Jesus day it was quite different. Monarchies were absolute. The king’s word was law, and there was no court of appeal. Kings could promote one person and demote another, their will was supreme. If they disliked you, they could choose to end your life. Like today, when a king died he was usually succeeded by his son, or by a close male relative. I say usually, because there was another way to become king, that is, by starting a revolution, by military might and violence. Dynasties rose and fell through the strength, or lack of it, of their armies.
So when Jesus stands before Pilate, and Pilate asks him the question, “are you the king of the Jews”, Pilate knows he is not a hereditary king, so the question is, is this man a dangerous revolutionary? Pilate doesn’t really understand the Jews, their odd ceremonies and customs, the way they order their affairs, but Pilate knows, better than most, what a king is and what a king does. He knows what a kingdom looks like and how a king behaves. And he knows it’s his job to stop any such thing happening on his patch.
The idea that this man is a king is completely laughable. Pilate sees a poor man from the wrong part of the country, a man who has a small band of followers who all seem to have deserted him. Of course he is no king, but perhaps, just perhaps he is deluded enough to imagine he might be. Better ask and find out, Pilate thinks.
Pilate then discovers, as many had discovered before, and many have discovered since, that when you ask Jesus a question the response is likely to be another question. Where is this suggestion coming from, Jesus asks? Who put this idea in your head? Pilate waves this away. You must have done something wrong or you wouldn’t be here.
Jesus’ answer is both apparently incriminating, and also deeply revealing. His kingdom doesn’t come from this world. Pilate seizes on the fact that he claims a kingdom, but sadly misses the point. Some translations of the scriptures say, my kingdom is not of this world, which can lead to misunderstanding the point, a bit like Pilate, to imply that it is a spiritual or heavenly reality that has nothing to do with this earth. So think back to the time Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “thy kingdom come on earth, as in heaven”. The point is that Jesus kingdom does not come from this world. The world, as depicted throughout John’s gospel, is the source of evil and rebellion against God. Jesus is saying that his kingdom does not originate in this world, or share the qualities of this world. But it has a this-worldly destination. That is why he has come into the world, and that is why he has sent and continues to send out his followers into the world. His kingdom is not of this world, or from this world, but it is for this world.
That’s why he makes the obvious point, if his kingdom were of this world, his followers would take up arms and fights. That’s what kings did. They nearly did, of course, and Jesus had to restrain them. Jesus is claiming to be a king, but a totally new, different sort of king. Different from Judas Maccabaeus, different from Herod, and even more different from Caesar.
The kingdoms of the world are ruled by military might and the threat of violence. The kingdom of God is ruled by the power of love and truth.
“What is truth”, Pilate asks. Pilate looks at things from a this-worldly perspective. Truth comes out of the barrel of a gun.
For Jesus truth is that one man dies, so that another, Barabbas, might go free. Through all the cynicism, the casual local customs, the misunderstandings, the plots, the scheming, the betrayals and denials, Truth stands there in person, taking the death that would otherwise have fallen on the brigand. Pilate doesn’t see it at the time. Even the cunning Ciaphas probably didn’t appreciate the irony of it all. But John wants to spell it out for us. This is what the cross means. This is what truth is and does. Jesus is truth, and Jesus is dying in the place of Barabbas, in the place of Israel, in the place of the world, in the place of you and of me.
Every detail of the scene is laden with irony. The king is stripped naked, flogged, then mockingly dressed in a purple robe and crown of thorns. Slapped, beaten, spat upon, while they hail him as king of the Jews. Pilate says to the crowd, “behold the man.” Has Pilate any idea what he is saying? Behold the living embodiment of God, the one who made the invisible God visible. Here is the image of the creator of the universe, placed in the midst of his creation to see its true master and Lord. Yet all his rebellious subjects can do is mock, and slap, and deride. God does not enter into the world as some sort of superhero, sweeping through the rebel states with horses and chariots, defeating rebellion in a blaze of glory. Rather he comes in innocence, in truth, crowned with thorns, bruised, bleeding, loving to the very end.
As the tensions rise Pilate again speaks with Jesus, and finally brings him out to the judgement seat, the pavement, or in Hebrew, Gabatha, to pass sentence. Once more he offers the crowd a choice. And this time their words chill even the hardest heart, “take him away, crucify him. We have no king but Caesar.” It is a devastating thing to hear from the lips of the representatives of Judaism, God’s chosen people. God has been their king since creation. Now, having painted themselves into a corner in their attack on Jesus, they proclaim the hated, vile oppressor Caesar to be their king. Would they remember these words the next time they sing the Psalms that speak of God as king. The Lord is king, let the people tremble. Would they tremble as they remember their blasphemy?
Like them, we can sing of Christ our king in worship, and then in our lives exalt many false kings. Christ may be our king in church, but is he our king in work, in school, in the golf club, in our wallet?
As he was crucified Pilate caused a plaque to be fixed to the cross saying “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.” The inscription was in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. These were the three great languages of the world, but more than their universality, they speak of three great contributions to the world and to world history. Greece taught the world beauty of form and beauty of thought. Rome taught the world law and good government. The Hebrew nation taught the world religion and the worship of the one true God. The consumption of all these things is seen in Jesus. In him was the supreme beauty and highest thought of God. In him was the law of God and the kingdom of God. In him was the very picture and image of God. All of the world’s seekings and strivings find their consummation in him. It is more than just symbolic that Pilate acclaims him king in Hebrew, in Latin and in Greek.