A King Like No Other
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. This festival marks the end of Ordinary Time and serves as a bridge into Advent. This is a fairly new commemoration – less than 100 years old. It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in December of 1922 as a response to the growing secularism that emerged after World War I. This feast is somewhat difficult for Twenty-first century Americans, since we have no royalty; moreover, one of the central issues in the rebellion that won us our independence was to rid ourselves of the trappings of a royal court. Nevertheless, here we are acknowledging that God is restoring all things through his beloved Son the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Unlike other peoples in the ancient Near East, Israel’s institution of the monarchy came relatively late in their history. Other kings were often regarded as gods, but the Lord God was the only sovereign of Israel (Jer. 10:7-10), the “great King above all gods” (Ps. 95:3). Honoring the covenant between God and Israel also distinguished the monarchy of Israel from that of other nations. A king in Israel was often referred to as the “anointed one” (1 Sam. 2:35), from which the title “messiah” was derived.
David was revered as the greatest of all the kings of Israel, the one through whom the Messiah would come. In today’s Old Testament passage David’s last words contrast a just ruler and a wicked ruler. David himself is described as “anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1).
A just king who rules “in the fear of God” (v. 3) is like morning light and refreshing rain. David has ruled according to the everlasting covenant made with the Lord, from whom his power was derived as a gift. Therefore, his household has prospered, and God has promised an everlasting dynasty for David’s heirs. In contrast, godless rulers are like thorns to be thrown away and immediately consumed by fire.
The Gospels frequently applied royal imagery to Jesus, beginning with the arrival of the Magi, who ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Mt. 2:2). Matthew’s genealogy established that Jesus was of the royal Davidic lineage (Mt. 1:1). Although Jesus was accused of royal pretensions (Lk. 23:2), he resisted all efforts to make him king (Jn. 6:15). Nonetheless, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowd proclaimed, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Lk. 19:38).
The Gospel reading for this Christ the King Sunday is from John’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, with the royal status of Jesus as a major point of Pilate’s interrogation. However, a beaten and scorned Jesus hardly seems kingly. He had been flogged, dressed in a purple robe with a crown of thorns, and mocked by the soldiers: “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Jn. 19:3). Although he seems utterly powerless as he stands before Pilate, Jesus is the only one who knows where true power comes from and what it means.
As this dramatic confrontation begins, Pilate asks Jesus point-blank, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (18:33). Although this question is asked by Pilate in all of the Gospel accounts (Mt. 27:11; Mk. 15:2; Lk. 23:3), only John records a lengthy response by Jesus.
Roman law required a definite accusation, even for the punishment of noncitizens. Pilate had dealt with other nationalist rebels, and Jesus did not seem to be a violent terrorist. Jesus had already been found guilty by the Jewish authorities, and now Pilate sought to verify the vague charges against him.
Jesus, in his public ministry, had avoided the title of Messiah because it represented a distortion of his objectives; nevertheless, some of his actions had raised messianic hopes in the minds of the people. Thus, Pilate asks Jesus directly if he is the King of the Jews.
Instead of affirming or denying the accusation, Jesus simply inquires whether Pilate asks this question on his own, or whether he has heard others say this about him. Pilate contemptuously replies that since he (Pilate) is not a Jew, the issue is really between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities, and therefore has nothing to do with him.
In verse 36, Jesus defines the sense in which he is indeed a king: “My Kingdom is not from this world.” If the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed belonged in any sense to the temporal world, he would not have been handed over without a fight from his followers. The fact that there had been no conflict — nothing more than Peter’s impulsive attack on the High Priest’s slave — demonstrated the falsity of the charge brought against him. Jesus again reiterates this fact: “But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Pilate’s only context for the idea of kingship was political and not spiritual; thus he once again asks Jesus, “So are you a king?” (v. 37a). Jesus then replies that he has come into the world to bring a reign of truth, and those to whom truth is meaningful will give heed to his word. In him, the world can see the nature of God most fully (cf Jn. 14:6).
Jesus exemplifies the character of true kingship and redefines worldly assumptions about power and authority. Pilate, who thinks he has power, in fact has little; and the power that he does have to order Jesus put to death will be overcome.
In Jesus there is no personal vanity or desire for aggrandizement at the expense of others. He came to serve and not to be served. His Kingdom would create a new community of believers who would hear and obey his voice. Jesus rules through grace and love in a realm of spirit and life in which justice and peace shine out for all. This was the saving truth that was being offered to the whole world in our crucified Lord, and is the essential meaning of our proclaiming Christ as King.
In a final twist of irony, Pilate ordered the inscription over the cross of Jesus to read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” When the chief priest insisted that it be changed to read, “This man said, I am King of the Jews,” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written” (Jn. 19:19-22).
The description of the exalted Christ in the Book of Revelation provides a vision of the celestial Kingdom. Addressing the seven churches, the writer begins with blessings of peace in the style of Paul’s letters. The source of blessing is the Divine One “who is and who was and who is to come,” along with the “seven spirits” or seven archangels who serve God and Jesus himself (1:4).
The victorious and exalted Christ of the vision is described as the faithful witness; the first from among the dead in his victorious Resurrection; and “ruler of the kings of the earth” (v. 5). By his love for us we are freed from sin through his blood. As Christ’s redeemed, we are ourselves a kingdom and priests to God the Father. Verse 7 reflects the language of the vision of Daniel (Dan. 7:13), as Christ comes in the clouds where “every eye will see him.” Then all the tribes who rejected him will cry out in fear of the coming judgment.
The Lord God is Alpha, the beginning, through whom all things were made; and Omega, the ending to whom all must come. Here all the ends and purposes of life and history are brought together through the One “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (v. 8b)
As we sit on the cusp of a new Church year. Let us give thanks that we live in a kingdom that is not of this world but transcends it. A kingdom that calls us to new life in and through Jesus the Christ – the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.