The King is Dead, Long Live the King
Something that has really stuck with me about the account of the events of Good Friday was probably best summarized in a talk given by N.T. Wright. He begins talking about this question of authority that Jesus and Pilate had a conversation about (what amounted to his official trial). There’s quite a bit of background to this question that, in the talk I heard, Wright doesn’t really have time to get into. Essentially, Pilate is trying to ascertain whether Jesus is guilty of sedition, of trying overthrow the empire to establish his own Kingdom. It turns out, Jesus is 100% guilty of that charge, but not in the way that Pilate had suspected. The whole dialogue is spread of John 18 and 19.
Pilate asks if Jesus is a King. Jesus responds by asking why he would think such a thing. Heavily implied in Jesus’s response is that Pilate actually has no authority, but does as others ask him. Yet soon it comes about where we have a key line from Jesus “My Kingdom is not from this (ek tos) world.” This is not saying there is a kingdom and it exists somewhere, but not here. Instead, Jesus is boldly declaring that his kingdom does not arise out of this world. It comes from somewhere else. Because it comes from somewhere else, it will be achieved in a radically different way. Jesus is basically telling Pilate that the Kingdom is coming from God himself, and Jesus’s death will only accelerate its arrival. This is why Pilate tries to release him.
The crowd having none of it, Pilate tries to make him king, in a mocking sort of manner, and in the cruelest way possible. Pilate seeks to make him a king completely according to the ways of this world, through violence and insult. Yet it is to no avail. Instead the people remind Pilate of Jesus’s claim, he claimed to be “the Son of God.”
There is a heavy nuance we often miss today in our modern sensibility. Jesus’s claim to be the “Son of God” was not, exclusively, a claim to divinity. There are other, much more explicit passages about that (“I and the Father are one.” “Before Abraham was, I AM (ego eimi)”). Instead, it’s important to note that, by this time, the Roman emperor had taken on a very specific title: son of the gods. It is for this reason Pilate became terrified. This is a true and unmistakable revolution. It also leads Pilate back to touting his authority, rebellions must be squelched, after all.
It is here that Jesus reminds Pilate of what authority actually looks like. Pilate claims to have authority, but any authority he has “comes from above.” The dual meaning here is that it comes only from Caesar, who is in authority over Pilate, but also that it comes from God. That is if he has authority. As it turns out, Pilate does not act like one with authority. His wish, at that point, is to be done with Jesus and not to crucify him, yet he succumbs to the will of the people, those over whom he claims to have authority. Pilate wants to release Jesus, but that is in violation of his authority from Caesar. Still he wants to to release Jesus, but his authority is taken away by the crowds.
And it brings me back to this line from the lecture by N. T. Wright.
“Pilate and Jesus have this debate about authority and who has authority and where authority comes from. Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified, and Jesus wins.”
Pilate cannot let it go, and must admit Jesus is King, because he acted with authority. And there, on the cross, he is inaugurated. The Kingdom of God has broken into our world. The sorrow of the Friday will turn to joy on the Sunday. But let us not skip over the sorrow too quickly.
The King is dead, long live the King.