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.


A Different Kind of King

This is part 3 of a series of posts for Holy week. Part 1 is here and part 2 is here. Part 4 will appear on Resurrection Sunday.

Jesus life had a clear trajectory, particularly from the moment he started his ministry. It was not going to end well, at least not according to how the world defines success. You say and do the kind of things Jesus was saying and doing without expecting some type of response. And that’s exactly what Jesus expected to happen. He was not the meek and mild cuddly type of person, but boldly went about with determination to change everything. And in the moment that he appeared a total failure, victory had already been won.

Jesus set about to begin a revolution. That’s what the incarnation is all about: it’s a holy and sacred invasion. An invasion, though, isn’t for the sake of observation, or teaching or learning. An invasion is in order to win a victory. Jesus was bringing about a revolution against this present evil age. He came to replace the kingdoms of this world with the reign of God, the Kingdom of God. This idea of the reign of God had been hinted at throughout the history of Israel. Abraham followed God, but God worked through the father of many to bring about his rule. God was in charge, but indirectly so. Moses acted as the voice of God filling the role of both prophet and leader, but there was no real king yet. Even though God was to be their king, the people of Israel rejected that rule and so Saul, and then later David, was made king. God was in charge, but acted through the proxy of a physical king. Then the Exile happened, followed by the reign of numerous other figures. God remained sovereign over all of it, but did not act as the direct king. By the time Jesus was born there was a complex system of ruling authorities: the Roman oppressors who dictated the day to day justice, taxes and military; the Herodian kings who were nothing more than a Roman mouthpiece dressed up to look slightly more Jewish; the Jewish leaders and the various clans, whether Scribes, Pharisee, Sadducee, or other members of the Sanhedrin still jealously guarded the religious rule. Jesus came in and began to upset all of this authority.

He challenged the Herodians. When he stood before Herod, who demanded a miracle or answer to his question, Jesus said nothing. By doing so, Jesus refused to acknowledge any authority that Herod had claimed. He challenged the Roman leaders. When brought before Pilot, he remains silent only to affirm that he is, indeed, the King of the Jews; a claim that even Pilot finds difficult to deny. He challenged the religious leaders. When they questioned him, Jesus also remained silent, up to a point. Things begin to shift when they ask him if he is the Son of God. Upon that question, Jesus responds by affirming it is as they say and then referring to Daniel 7. Two images are given there of this figure, who is clearly meant to understood as YHWH, the God of Israel. The first is of judgment against the rulers and the authorities: those who have misused their place and not given honor to God. Jesus flips the tables on the Sanhedrin. They think they are judgment of him, but Jesus responds that they have only condemned themselves. The second image is of a kingdom that will be established and have no end. That, in fact, is the very reason Jesus came to this earth. His Kingdom would be established.

And so, in response to these claims and actions of Jesus, he is led away to be crucified. Yet on the cross, Jesus brings to mind the victory that is being won. He cites Psalm 22 as proof of this impending victory. Note the subtle shift that happens though. In the Psalm, David says that the mocking of other people is “He trusts in the LORD, Let the LORD rescue him.” The mocking that Jesus receives, though, is “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.” The speaker has shifted. It is no longer someone else needing a rescue. Instead it is the rescuer, God himself, nailed to the cross feeling forsaken. God in our place, taking our death, taking on our forsakennes. Out of Jesus’ forsakenness, though, comes final victory. After Jesus cries out in agony and dies, victory is won. Notice the shift in tone at the end of Psalm 22. David remarks that God will not be far from him and, to the contrary, will establish an eternal and everlasting kingdom. At the moment of Jesus’ death the temple curtain, the last symbol of the separation between man and God, was torn in two. Out of the forsaken cry of Jesus comes our reconciliation with God. And from his death Jesus establishes his eternal kingdom. What looked like defeat was actually victory. What looked like a death of a peasant was the crowning of a king; a different kind of king. Everything was getting ready to change.