God Save the King

Easter Monday

The charges that the kangaroo court brought against Jesus were very odd.

They say he claimed to be the “King of the Jews.” And they will nail these words, “King of the Jews,” above his head in mockery as he hangs on the cross.

In none of the four gospels does Jesus ever refer to himself as “King of the Jews.” Neither do his disciples address him by this title. In all four gospels, the first time anyone calls Jesus the “King of the Jews” is here, now, as he stands before the court.

From this moment on, the phrase “King of the Jews” is on everyone's lips. Whether it be from the Jewish religious authorities, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, the soldiers who carry out the flogging, or the barbaric crowd of hecklers, “King of the Jews” is virtually the only title by which Jesus is addressed from now until his death (see Mark's gospel, or John's). Tellingly, the crowd uses the title to pressure Pilate into executing Jesus, saying, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” All Jesus has to say in response to the charges brought against him is, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

This is all very mysterious.


Something odd is going on in the gospels' crucifixion narratives, something ironic and subversive and literarily clever. (It's actually hugely, glaringly obvious once you see it, but it's possible to overlook even the main points of the biblical narrative if our expectations of the text are lowered by its gross distortions in pop culture.)

The crucifixion is the coronation.

The language of kingship does not come completely out of the blue. Jesus has spent a lot of time talking about the “kingdom of God” as something very near at hand. By this, he appears to mean that an event is going to happen soon, such that God will be re-installed as king over a world which has lain in rebel hands for some time. The message that God will soon reign again over the earth, just as he does in heaven, is a message of good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, sight to the blind. The coming of the kingdom of God means revolution.

The crucifixion is the coronation.

The soldiers mock Jesus by dressing him in a purple robe (imperial colors) and a crown of thorns. They put a reed into his hand, like a scepter, and bow before him, and kneel, crying “Hail, King of the Jews.” It is a mock coronation.

But the authors of the gospels believe that something tremendously ironic is going on. The soldiers, the crowd, the kangaroo court all spoke more truly than they knew. Jesus was truly crowned that day. “Regnavit a ligno Deus,” says the 6th century hymn “Vexilla Regis”: God hath reigned from the tree.

The scandal of the cross is that Jesus redefines the meaning of authority, kingship, and power. Throughout his life and death, Jesus taught that the true king must become the servant of all. True authority is earned and manifested only in humble, selfless love. In this new, topsy-turvy kingdom of God, Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

If the universe is a monarchy and God is King, then we are all anti-royalists. Most of us rather resent the idea of some gigantic external authority hanging over everyone's heads, over our lives, to whom we shall all be held accountable. But the life and ministry and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth radically reinterprets what the divine monarchy looks like. God's kingdom is full of surprises. It is scary good news that God is in charge.

One might ask whether this “spiritualized” redefinition of authority still deserves to be called “authority.” In response, I could mention a familiar array of spiritual leaders, whose character impresses us with the force of authority. I could say that the power to transform people's hearts and minds is the most significant power there is.

But that's not what the early Christians would have said. They gave one reason, and one alone, for why Jesus's power was known to be real power, and his authority, true authority:


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