We find the one who we worship today as King of Kings and Lord of Lords standing before a mid-level Roman statesman with a battered face and bound hands in our Gospel reading from St. John. Pontius Pilate asks Jesus an important, and incredibly appropriate question, as he gazes upon the face of this Jewish peasant, handed over to him to be crucified: “are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks once more with a hint of sarcasm, “so, you are a king?” We may not like to stand in the shoes of Pontius Pilate very often, but he speaks for all of us. How can this man, who was beaten, subject to a mock trial, and hung on a cross, be King? How can Jesus Christ, who often looks just as weak, just as powerless, and just as silent in the face of the powers of our own time as he did before Pontius Pilate, be King today? Pontius Pilate speaks for all of us when we look at Jesus Christ, “so, you are a King?”
Archaeologists have discovered graffiti in an ancient schoolhouse on the Palatine hill in Rome dating back to the time of AD 50. In an ancient schoolboy’s hand, there is etched into a plaster wall a crude image of a man worshipping another man hanging from a cross with the head of a donkey. A mocking inscription beneath the picture reads, “Alexamenos worships his God.”
Even a Roman schoolboy understood the obvious. If you are a King, if you are “Lord,” and Lord was the term used to worship Caesar at the time that Jesus’ followers first began to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, you did not get crucified. Kings do not get killed. Kings kill people. Kings crucify people. That is how power works, that is how kingship works, that is how the real world works. Ancient Romans mocked Christians for believing otherwise, they often called them “asses,” for worshipping a savior who they mockingly depicted as an ass at his crucifixion.
There are well-meaning Christians who speak of Jesus as “King of my heart,” or “Lord of my life,” but that is not the confession that has drawn ridicule, mockery, and death throughout history. A Jesus whose Lordship is qualified, “Lord of my heart,” or “Lord of my life,” is not a real rival to any other king. The scandal of Jesus’ kingship is not that Christians believe he is Lord of our hearts, but that he is Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
“My kingdom is not of this world.” This is the heart of Jesus’ answer to Pilate’s questions about Jesus’ kingship, and to ours. My kingdom is not of this world. For Jesus to say that his kingdom is not of this world does not mean that he does not care about this world. Jesus cares enough about this world to redeem it, to save it, and to die for it. It is not God’s intention to remove us from this world so that God can just destroy the world he created, that is not what Jesus means at all. Jesus has come to redeem all of this world and to restore it back to God. He has come to be the King of this world.
But Jesus will not be the King of this world on this world’s terms. Jesus refuses to accomplish the redemption and reconciliation of humanity and the world with God on the world’s terms. Jesus will never use the means of the world to accomplish his ends. If Jesus had come to be King by whatever means necessary, the New Testament would be much shorter, and it would not contain good news. It would have ended with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness when Satan offers Jesus every kingdom of the world in exchange for his worship. Jesus Christ’s kingship begins with the cross.
That is exactly where the challenge lies, isn’t it? We really would prefer an obvious, straightforward kingdom, over one that mysteriously begins with a crucified God. We would prefer to set the terms of Jesus’ kingship for him, terms that are more suitable to our understandings of kingdoms and power. We would prefer that Jesus simply use the tools of power at his fingertips, call down his legions of angels on the legions of Romans, or whoever our enemy is at that moment. St. Peter cuts off the ear of a Roman guard at the beginning of this chapter that ends with Jesus before Pontius Pilate. That is St. Peter’s way of dictating the terms on which he will accept the Kingship of Jesus, and so it is no surprise that shortly after that violent scene Peter denies knowing Jesus three times.
Demanding that Christ be King on our own terms is the same thing as rejecting Him, even if we do so with a pious disguise. Even when we imagine we are fighting for Jesus, like Peter. Jesus does not need anyone to fight for Him, as He himself says, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting.” Jesus has come to heal and restore, not fight and kill. As Lutheran New Testament Scholar Craig Koester summarizes Jesus’ kingship: “Jesus wields divine love as a weapon against demonic hatred, divine truth against the world’s falsehood, and the power of life against the forces of death.”
When Pilate asks, “so you are a king,” Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Jesus’ kingship is not won or taken by power, coercion, or strength. There are a number of occasions in John’s Gospels when a powerful group of people wants to “make Jesus” the king, and in those moments Jesus mysteriously flees from those crowds. The most obvious example is after Jesus feeds the crowds with bread and fish in John chapter 6. But Jesus’ kingship does not derive from the whims of a crowd, it is not a kingship of power. Jesus speaks to Pilate as one who is already King, who already has authority. Meaning Jesus does not need to win his kingship, fight to keep it, or defend himself as King. He only needs to tell the truth about who he already is and show the world how he rules as King.
Jesus’ kingship is a kingship of speaking truth, “I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth.” Jesus is the King because he speaks truth, and not only because he speaks truth, but because he speaks truth as truth. Pilate famously asks that cynical question, “what is truth?” after Jesus connects his Kingship with truth immediately following the exchange we just read in our Gospel reading. Pilate does not care about a king or kingdom that is grounded in truth, only those grounded in power. What is truth? “I am here, you are there, what does truth matter?”
Seen from another light, from the vantage point of truth, Pontius Pilate is revealed to have no real power at all, because he is not of the truth. He knows that Jesus is innocent. He says so right after this interaction with Jesus. He goes out to the crowds and the Temple leadership and says, “I find no fault with this man.” What can he do about that? Nothing. Pilate does not even have the power to do the right thing. He cannot live in the truth, he has no real power, even though it sure looks like he does. In terms of earthly power, the real power is found in the lynch mob, not the ruler, who demands that a criminal who has actually committed the political crimes which Jesus is accused of, be released instead of Jesus. And that man’s name is Bar-Abbas, ironically, which in Hebrew means “son of the Father.” This is John’s way of saying, look, this is what a kingdom of this world does, this is what kingdoms of this world look like. Kingdoms of this world are built upon falsehoods, resulting in injustice. My kingdom is not of this world, because my kingdom is of the truth, and lives in the truth. Those who are of the truth listen to the truth, and know the truth about Jesus, he is King.
Of all the scandals and challenges of accepting a king and kingdom who are not of this world, the most difficult by far to accept is that Jesus’ kingdom is a hidden kingdom. We must accept that Jesus’ kingship and kingdom are hidden if we are to confess that Jesus is Lord of Lords and King of Kings as he stands before Pilate as he does. Jesus’ kingdom is hidden, it is not visible or easily discernible. There is indeed more than meets the eye about Jesus’ kingship.
Everyone has someone in their life who marks all of the emails they send as “urgent” or “very urgent,” just so that they know you will pay attention. It seems like our society and culture love to mark every problem or challenge as “very urgent,” and often the way this is done is by calling every single challenge we face “apocalyptic.” I would love to suspend the use of this word for a while for many reasons, and the first reason is that we do not know what the word apocalyptic actually means.
The Greek word that our English word apocalypse comes from does not mean “end of the world.” Apocalyptic means “‘unveiling,” that something once hidden is no longer hidden but revealed. Apocalypse means revelation. The end times will be apocalyptic because the truth of God’s kingdom will be laid bare and finally no longer hidden, but not everything that is apocalyptic has to do with the end times. Christians believe that it is only by God’s own initiative, God’s own action of making Himself unhidden, that is what we Christians call “Revelation,” that the hidden God becomes known. To say that Christ’s kingdom and Christ’s kingship are hidden does not mean they are not real. Christ’s Kingdom is real but hidden. Christ’s Kingdom is here, right now, and still to come. The fact that God chooses to reveal His Kingdom in some instances and not others is and will remain a mystery.
So too are Christians always tempted to fill in the gaps of Jesus’ mysterious hidden kingdom by seeking a kingdom that fits earthly definitions of a kingdom, always by human strength, power, and wisdom. Health, wealth, power, prosperity, comfort, where these are present are where we expect to find Kings, even Jesus. There have been many attempts to establish Christian kingdoms and nations. From 800 until 1870, the Pope, as Bishop of Rome, had one of the largest armies in the world. We all know about the Crusades. St. Augustine was Bishop during the fall of Rome in the 400’s, and one of the questions he received most was, “how could God allow a Christian Empire to collapse?” That question was why he wrote his greatest work, “The City of God,” in which he basically says, “the kingdom of man is visible, the kingdom of God is hidden right now.” You cannot find the kingdom of God in any nation or empire, because it is hidden. That is simply not how the Kingship of Jesus operates. The temptation to equate Jesus’ kingdom with secular power is mighty.
The church in our own time often teaches that we look for signs of Christ’s kingship in the health of our bodies, our comforts, the circumstances of life, and in our bank accounts. Don’t wait for the next life to receive God’s blessings, you can receive them all right now, provided you have the faith to believe it.
Kate Bowler is a Christian and church historian at Duke University who has dedicated her career to studying the “health and wealth” gospel so commonly taught in our churches. It was quite ironic that a few years ago at the age of 35 she was diagnosed with an incurable cancer. Kate lives between regular check-ups, and every three months there is a good chance that she, her husband, and their children will all be told that she will not survive until her next check-up. She has written a powerful, gripping book about the experience of living with the knowledge of her imminent death, while studying a kind of Christianity that would tell her that God only wants to give her health and wealth, and that if she does not have those things it is her fault, called “Everything Happens for a Reason: and Other Lies I Used to Believe.”
Kate Bowler’s story is a reminder that Christ’s Kingdom is hidden, and not of this world. We all catch glimpses of Christ’s Lordship, through healings, or miracles, or transformed lives. But a hidden kingdom and a hidden king do not operate by always giving us what we pray for. We should not try to answer the mystery of why that is, because whenever we do the answer is not only untrue but cruel. The answer given by a gospel of health and wealth is that God is waiting to heal you or someone you love until you have enough faith, or repent of every bad thing you have ever done. But God is not conjured up by good behavior, He is not withholding his kingdom from us until we get our lives together, and blaming a suffering person for their suffering in the name of God is appalling. The answer to these mysteries is simple. Christ’s kingdom is hidden, not of this world. Jesus Christ is King on his terms, on God’s terms, not on our own terms.
The key to Christian life is finding that to be good news. The world Jesus Christ comes to save is so backwards that it kills a perfect man. It is so backwards that it kills its own loving creator. Why does it surprise us that Jesus’ means of exercising kingship look backwards to us? Seen from his perspective, the only one that truly matters, we are the backwards ones.
Jesus Christ is not the King that we asked for. He is not the King St. Peter asked for. St. Peter was wrong to imagine that a kingdom established by violence to expel Roman rule over Jerusalem would save him. Peter could be saved from Rome, but who then would save Peter from Peter? Consider how many Romans did accept the Kingship of Christ, even in Peter’s own ministry. What a surprising kingdom, that it is big enough for them and for St. Peter.
We are also not looking for a King like Jesus today, of that we can repent. King Jesus chose for his throne a cross, where he was lifted up to tell all the world, “this is the kind of king that I am, follow me.” I love you enough to die for you, you who are not seeking me as your king, you who deny me, you who crucify me. He is not the King we want, but exactly the King we need. Only this King can save us.
So we pray, “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”