An American family once went on vacation in England. While they were visiting Windsor Castle, the 15-year-old daughter, Karen, saw a statue of a man on a horse halfway down the meadow. She wondered who it was. At the suggestion of her father, she asked a security guard who the man on the horse was. He grinned, knowing that the family was American, replied, “Oh, that’s your last king.” Karen was silent for a moment and then quickly said, “Ah, King George.” The security guard was impressed, and it made the Americans stop to be reminded that at one time they DID have a king.
Americans today find it difficult to imagine that we once had a king. It seems like such a foreign idea. We think of kings, queens, princes and princesses as something that happens across the ocean in England. It’s just not something most of us can relate to.
But Pontius Pilate knew what a king was. It was not a far-off, fantasy image for him. He served the most powerful king in the world at the time. Being a king really meant something in those days. Pilate knew about the power that a king has, the absolute authority that he wields, the unquestioning obedience that he demands and the power that he has to compel obedience when it is not willingly given.
When Jesus was accused of being a king, Pilate took notice. The religious leaders saw Jesus as a threat to their power over the people. Jesus said and did too many things that exposed their authority, and so the religious leaders were out to get him executed. They knew that one sure way to get him in trouble was to say that he was disloyal to the king, that he was setting himself up as a political ruler, and that he was trying to get the Jews to revolt against Rome. So they told Pilate, “He wants to be king.”
Those accusations are the prelude to this scene of the trial of Jesus by Pilate. But we are forced to ask, “Who is the real king here?” The trial is supposed to be a scene in which a powerless, poor, itinerant rabbi named Jesus stands trembling before the man who represents all of the power and might of Imperial Rome.
Yet scarcely has the trial begun before we realize that this trial is not going to go the way we expected. There is Pilate, jumping around all over the place, moving back and forth seven times from one room to the next, checking with this legal expert and that judicial scholar. We see Pilate biting his nails, uncertain, inept, indecisive and frightened of the crowd outside.
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“Are you king of the Jews?” Pilate asks Jesus. Surely Pilate’s question is meant as a joke. The Jews are a captive people. They have no army. Pilate stands there, backed up by a huge Roman occupation force. Pilate looks at this forlorn, whipped and bleeding Jew and asks, “Are you king?” What a question!
And Jesus calmly responds, “Do you say this by yourself, or did others tell you about me?”and we think the tables may be turning.
Again there is a question followed by Jesus’ assertion, “My kingdom is not from this world.” And we are beginning to get the point of this courtroom drama. The kingdoms of this world depend upon armies and violence for their power. But Jesus says, “My kingdom is not like any you have ever seen before.”
And suddenly, Jesus the defendant has become Jesus the prosecutor. Pilate the judge has become Pilate the defendant, standing sheepishly before Jesus the judge. Every statement shows Pilate more and more confounded by Jesus. It is a scene filled with irony. Jesus was to be crucified, but it was Pilate who was defeated. Pilate wore the royal garb, but Jesus wore the royal manner. Pilate peppers Jesus with his questions, “Are you a king? What have you done? What is truth? Where are you from?” By the end of the scene we know the answers. Jesus is king. He is truth. He is not from our kingdom, but rather from God’s kingdom which is breaking into this world in his person.
In this trial, as Jesus goes head-to-head with the powers-that-be, and we see those powers crumble before his power. It shows an upside down world where the meek inherit the earth.
The image of Christ as king is useful to us as Christians as long as it doesn’t become the only way we think and talk about Jesus. The Bible gives us many, many images of Jesus. Some of them even seem at odds with each other. Jesus is both the Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd. Jesus is the Prince of Peace and the one who said that he came not to bring peace, but a sword. And so, when we call Jesus King, we must be careful to understand what that means. When we talk about Christ as a King, we are not talking about an earthly king who has absolute power over a certain geographical area. We are using the idea of king to describe something that we don’t have words for.
We must use this word carefully, first, because it is not a word that Jesus used about himself. At the beginning of his earthly ministry, one of the temptations he faced and rejected was to be a political Messiah.
Jesus was king, but not in the way we normally think of kings. He was a servant king, the suffering servant that Isaiah mentioned.
There have been earthly kings who have glimpsed something of that servant-role. During World War II, London was the site of many bombing raids. Buckingham Palace, the home of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth was a prime target and was hit at least once. Most families who could afford to leave the city left or at least sent their children away. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth chose to stay. The Queen said, “The girls will never leave without me, I will never leave without the King, and the King will never leave.” This example of the king gave enormous encouragement to the working people of London, those who had no choice but to stay through the bombing. The good King does not leave his people, but endures whatever they are enduring alongside them. Jesus was THAT kind of king.
Princess Diana was not a king, but she was royalty. She was the beautiful, fairy-tale princess. Americans, who have chosen not to have kings and queens, watched her wedding by the thousands. Two billion people watched her funeral. In the media coverage around her tragic death and funeral, everyone wanted to talk about what made Diana special — her beauty, her accessibility, her vulnerability, her compassion – the list went on and on. Everyone who had ever had any connection to her had a chance to speak. But the key to what Diana did was this: in the princess of Wales, majesty stooped. She certainly had her flaws, but her greatness came when she was willing to lay aside the trappings and prerogatives of royalty to be with those who were downtrodden. Diana had an amazing ability to communicate her concern for the wretched of the earth. One American physician accompanied her on hospital rounds where there were no cameras. He said she did not hesitate to caress and linger beside patients with disfigurements and symptoms that were distressing even to medical personnel. That capacity, the doctor emphasized, cannot be faked.
Royalty stooped. The princess let go of her right to be served and became the servant. She did not pay someone else to minister to these sick and dying people, but walked among them, caressing and comforting them. Jesus was THAT kind of king.
Isn’t that part of how we understand Christ as King? Philippians 2 tells us that Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and took the form of a human. Royalty stoops. Jesus, who is God, becomes an ordinary, humble human being.
We find another example in the legend of King Christian X of Denmark. According to the legend, when Denmark was occupied by Hitler’s forces during World War II, the order came that all Jews were to identify themselves by wearing armbands with yellow stars of David. King Christian said that one Danish person was exactly the same as the next one. So the King donned the first Star of David, and let it be known that he expected every loyal Dane would do the same. The next day in Copenhagen, almost the entire population wore armbands showing the Star of David. The Danes saved 90 percent of their Jewish population. The Danish people knew their king loved them and that he would identify with them to the extent of putting his own life on the line by wearing the Jewish star. Jesus was THAT kind of king.
In these examples of human royalty, we find the sort of king that Jesus was. Philippians declares that Jesus also stooped. Because Jesus was humbly obedient, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name. Jesus is Lord, not because he held onto power and demanded the absolute allegiance due him, not because he rules over the kings of the earth, not because he is God and was with God from the creation of the world. Jesus is Lord, because in him, God has come near to us. In Jesus, royalty stoops. In Jesus, the idea of what a king is has been turned around.
In a book entitled Whispering the Lyrics, Tom Long tells of a scene similar to that of Jesus before Pilate:
During the prime days of the struggle for racial integration in the South, black civil rights workers — ‘freedom riders’ they were called — would travel on buses from city to city, challenging segregationist laws. Sometimes they were greeted with violence; often they were arrested. In one town, a bus was halted by the police and the passengers booked and jailed. While they were there, the jailers did everything possible to make them miserable and to break their spirits. They tried to deprive them of sleep with noise and light during the nights. They intentionally over salted their food to make it distasteful. They gradually took away their mattresses, one by one, hoping to create conflict over the remaining ones.
“Eventually the strategies seemed to be taking hold. Morale in the jail cells was beginning to sag. One of the jailed leaders, looking around one day at his dispirited fellow prisoners, began softly to sing a spiritual. Slowly, others joined in until the whole group was singing at the top of their voices and the puzzled jailers felt the entire cellblock vibrating with the sounds of a joyful gospel song. When they went to see what was happening, the prisoners triumphantly pushed the remaining mattresses through the cell bars, saying, ‘You can take our mattresses, but you can’t take our souls.'”
Tom Long says, “It was the hymn singers who were in jail, but it was the jailers who were guilty. It was the prisoners who were suffering, but the jailers who were defeated. It was the prisoners who were in a position of weakness, but it was the broken and bigoted world of the jailers and of all the Pontius Pilates of history that was perishing.” (Thomas G. Long, Whispering the Lyrics, quoted in a sermon by William Willimon, November 23, 1997)
King Jesus had a way of turning the world upside down. In the end, Pilate allows Jesus to be crucified with the words “King of the Jews” posted over his head in three different languages. He is being sarcastic, mocking the Jews for having such a pitiful, powerless king by having the sign put up. He does not believe what he has caused to be written. The irony was that Jesus was a king, just not one like anybody expected.
I wonder if it is the same for us. I wonder if we, like Pilate, name Jesus as King in our church songs, in our church language, but we don’t really stop to think about what that means, how Jesus is or is not a King, what it means when Jesus says that his kingdom is not from this world.
Jesus wants to be the king of your life and mine, not ruling with absolute power and authority, but as a suffering servant. In Jesus, royalty stoops to stand with us, to love us, to be in relation with us. The question is, “Will we let this kind of king be Lord of our lives?”
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2001, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.