Reign of Christ (Christ the King)
TEXT: John 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33)
Pontius Pilate knew what a king was. He served the most powerful king in the world at the time: Caesar, the emperor of Rome. Being a king in those days meant wielding absolute power—unlimited authority. In Pilate’s world, kings demanded unquestioning obedience, and they had the power to compel obedience if it was not willingly given.
Now, the Jewish religious leaders of the day were certainly not kings, but they did have their own measure of power. And, as religious leaders of all kinds have been prone to doing—all through the centuries, and even in the church, and even today—they saw Jesus as a real threat to their own power over the people. He was dangerous.
What to do? Well, they knew that one sure way to get rid of him in was to claim that he was disloyal to Caesar, that he was setting himself up as a political ruler, and that he was inciting the people to revolt against Roman authority. So they told Pilate, “This man wants to be king.”
Now Jesus of Nazareth finds himself in Pilate’s court, on trial for his life. Here is this humble, itinerant rabbi from backwater Galilee, accused of treason, standing before a man who represents all of the power and might of imperial Rome. Yet scarcely have proceedings begun when we realize that this trial is not going to go the way anyone expected.
Consider Pilate. He clearly has grave doubts about Jesus’ guilt. The governor appears oddly uncertain. Indecisive … even inept. And fearful of the crowd outside his window.
“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks Jesus. And Jesus calmly responds, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
Desperately, Pilate asks another question: “What have you done?” And Jesus tells him, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
The kingdoms of this world depend for their power upon armed might and the threat of violence. 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 before Jesus the judge. Every statement shows Pilate more and more confounded by Jesus. It is a scene filled with irony. Jesus would be crucified, but it was Pilate who was defeated. Pilate wore the vestments of power, but Jesus wore the royal demeanour.
Jesus was a king, but not as we usually think of kings. He was a servant king—like the “man of sorrows” to whom Isaiah referred (Isaiah 53:3).
Rarely, there have been earthly kings in whom we have glimpsed something of that servant-role.
During World War Two, London was subjected to numerous bombing raids. Buckingham Palace—the home of King George the Sixth and Queen Elizabeth—was, of course, a prime target. Most families who could afford to leave the city left—or at least, sent their children away. But King George 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 alongside them.
Jesus was that kind of king. Or consider Princess Diana. She was not a monarch, but she was royalty. She was the beautiful, fairy-tale princess—and when she married Charles, the Prince of Wales, multitudes across the globe watched the telecast of their wedding. Years later, two billion people watched her funeral.
In the media coverage around her tragic death, 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.
In Diana, the princess of Wales, royalty stooped. She had her flaws, to be sure—but her greatness was demonstrated as she set aside the trappings of privilege to be with those who were downtrodden. Diana’s concern for ordinary people—even for the most wretched—was genuine, and freely expressed.
One 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 said, 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. Instead, she walked among them, touching them and comforting them.
Jesus was that kind of king.
Chapter two of the Epistle to the Philippians tells us that Christ Jesus—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 being. Royalty stoops. Jesus—who is God—becomes an ordinary, humble human being.
We find yet another example in the legend of Denmark’s King Christian the Tenth. According to the story, when Denmark was occupied by Hitler’s forces during World War Two, 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% 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.*
These examples of human royalty—of remarkable human royalty—point to the sort of king that Jesus was. He stooped. Because Jesus was humbly obedient, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.
Jesus is Lord—but not because he held onto power and demanded the absolute allegiance due him. No. 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 upside down.
In the end, Pilate ordered Jesus to be crucified with the words “King of the Jews” posted over his head. Pilate, most likely, was being sarcastic. He certainly could not have actually believed what he had ordered to be written. And yet, just as certainly, Jesus was a king. He just was not the sort of King that anyone expected.
I wonder if that’s true for us, also. We name Jesus as King in our hymns, and in the language of our prayers. But how often do we stop to think about what that means? About how Jesus is a King? About what it means when he says that his kingdom is not from this world?
Jesus wants to be the King of our lives—of your life and of mine. He does not seek to rule with absolute, overwhelming, crushing power, but as a humble servant. In Jesus, royalty stoops to stand with us, to love us, to be in relationship with us.
I wonder: will we allow this kind of King to be Lord of our lives?
Next Sunday, as the Advent season begins—as the journey toward Bethlehem commences—I hope our common pilgrimage leads us into paths of service. I hope the run-up to Christmas is, for each one of us, about something more than parties, wine, and expensive gifts.
I hope we take the time to stoop. Because Scripture tells us that we are royalty, also. As the apostle Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, the Holy Spirit “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ …” (Romans 8:16-17a).
Mark that. We are children of God. Siblings of Christ the King. In chapter two of First Peter, we read that we “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession, that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of [the One] who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Through Advent and Christmas, let’s shine that marvelous light into this world’s gloom. Let’s use the royal power we’ve been given. Let’s glow brilliantly—with an incandescent love. Let’s stoop to lift up our neighbours who are struggling or hurting at this time of year.
Whether by making a loaf of sandwiches for some hungry folks, or putting a jar of peanut butter or a tin of soup into the Food Bank bin, or breaking through someone else’s loneliness with a visit or a phone call … Let’s find ways to show forth the love of Christ in these coming weeks—to make this a happy season for everyone.
Each of us has the royal power to do exactly that. Let’s exercise it. Amen.
*According to popular legend, King Christian X chose to wear a yellow star in support of the Danish Jews during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. In another version, the Danish people decided to wear a yellow star for the same reason. Both of these stories are fictional. In fact, unlike Jews in other countries under Nazi rule, the Jews of Denmark were never forced to wear an identification mark such as a yellow star. However, the legend conveys an important historical truth: both the King and the Danish people stood by their Jewish citizens and were instrumental in saving the overwhelming majority of them from Nazi persecution and death.