Christ the King Sunday: Christ’s Kingdom According to Seekers or Cynics

33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” 34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” 36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” 37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

John 18:33–37 New International Version (NIV)

I am the youngest of three siblings and the youngest by a bit of a gap — my older sister is almost 7 years older than I am and my brother almost 5. So when I was a little girl I looked up to them like they were amazing! They could do all sorts of things I couldn’t yet do like:

  • reading thick books without having to sound out the words; and like
  • shooting basketballs that made it all the way up to the rim… and sometimes even went in; and like
  • opening the passenger door of our family’s Ford Econoline van without assistance.

Big stuff they could do — I marveled.

One of the many things my siblings got to do before I did was go to sleepover camp. My parents were involved in the local Bible Club ministry, which meant weekly Bible lessons taught on flannelgraph in our living room during the school year, and during the summer, it meant Bible Club Camp.

At camp groups of girls and boys got to stay 5 nights and 6 days in cute clapboard cabins with real, live teenagers as their counselors. And they had Bible classes and archery lessons, and they got to swim in the pool every single day! What a place!

The first year I went with my parents to pick up my big sister from camp we gathered at the tabernacle to hear about all the wonderful, exciting things that I wasn’t old enough to do yet. And it was there that I first heard the song based on Matthew 6:33: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness / And all these things shall be added unto you / Allelu- Alleluia.”

I thought that song was so lovely. And then! Then something happened that was so beautiful I would almost call it magical (except that Bible Club did not encourage talk of magic). Coming from the group of girls that included my very own sister, was a higher “Alleluia” — something that I learned a few years later is called a descant. But that day, I would have called it a choir of angels. {A – le – lu – ia… A – le – lu – ia…}

I didn’t really understand the words they were singing: What was the ‘Kingdom of God’? What was ‘righteousness’? I didn’t understand, but it sounded beautiful and mysterious. I didn’t know what would be “added unto me,” but I sensed that it was something good and worth having…worth “seeking first” (whatever that meant). We’ll come back to these questions.

Here we are on Christ the King Sunday, reading about events leading to Christ’s death, in a culture that customarily skips over Advent and begins celebrating Christ’s birth the day after Halloween.

Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ the King. King of the Jews. The Kingdom of what? The Kingdom of God. But what is that?

Biblical scholar John Bright points out that the bulk of Jesus’ own preaching heralded the Kingdom of God. The Gospel of Mark begins telling of Jesus’ ministry with these words (Mark 1:14–15): “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the good news.’”

Bright writes:

“Everywhere (in the Gospels) the kingdom of God is on (Jesus’) lips, and it is always a matter of desperate importance. What is it like? It is like a (farmer) who (plants); it is like a costly pearl; it is like a mustard seed. How does one enter? Sell all you have and give to the poor; become like a little child. Is the kingdom of God important? It would be better to mutilate yourself and enter maimed than not get in at all.”

John Bright

(Of course Bright is referring to Jesus’ own words about gouging out your eye or cutting off your hand if either causes you to sin. You don’t see those Scriptures painted prettily on plaques and posted for sale on Etsy! Jesus packs a hyperbolic punch with his warnings. Sin matters. It has deadly consequences — not just for our bodies but also for our souls.)

“But for all his repeated mention of the Kingdom of God,” Bright continues, “Jesus never once paused to define it. (And we have no record of anyone interrupting him to ask what he meant.) Jesus used the term as if it would be understood — and, in fact, it was. The Kingdom of God was a familiar part of the Jewish vocabulary. It was something they understood and desperately longed for.”

You see, the Jews realized their identity as the people of God, but felt frustrated that the political systems of the world failed to reflect the power and peace that such standing should afford them. Instead, they jockeyed for position like everyone else. And they suffered more than their fair share of opposition and persecution. The struggles and sufferings of God’s people had gone on for centuries so that by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the Jews were hungry for protection, eager for vindication, and ready for the promised Messiah who would correct the situation; and who would establish the Kingdom of God on earth so that all would see and respect the Jewish people for who they were, who they were meant to be, how they were meant to live, with their fearless leader making everything right forever.

As political candidates go, Jesus showed “potential.” I’m kidding about that, of course. But I’m trying to relate the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conversation with Pilate in the year 33 A.D. to the familiar experiences of us who live in these United States in 2018, who participate in local and national elections of our leaders, and who observe global power struggles — from the caravan of Central American refugees currently making their way through Mexico seeking asylum; to the controversial death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month; to the messy unfolding of Great Britain’s decision to exit the European Union.

In many ways, the world has changed immensely in the two millennia since Jesus lived and died as a human being among us. In other ways, the words of another king, Solomon, come to mind — he wrote, 900 years before Christ: “There is nothing new under the sun.” People are people. Politics are politics. Fighting over power and control and money and religion — who’s right and who’s wrong and who’s in charge and who gets access to the good stuff in life? These are old, old problems.

And Pontius Pilate, as governor of Judea, “knew the drill.” His own life was steeped in politics. Pilate’s appointment to leadership appears to have been a classic case of “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Once he landed this posh government post, his position seemed precarious. Evidence suggests that he was constantly kowtowing to his higher-ups in Rome while irritating, insulting, and in some cases brutalizing the people assigned to his bumbling leadership. He was eventually ousted and ordered to death. (Pilate was not so much a shining star in the Empire.)

But to Pilate the responsibility fell to judge Jesus.

Initially when I read today’s tête-à-tête between Pilate and Jesus I figured: OK, they’re politicking… or at least, Pilate is. He’s trying to figure out what he’s supposed to do to keep everyone happy (that’s what politicians do, right?) — not necessarily the right thing, but the satisfactory thing, the thing that will appease his people without getting him into trouble with his boss… again!

Before we find Pilate confronting Jesus inside the palace, let’s look at the lead-up:

  • Jesus has told his disciples that the time has come for his fulfillment of God’s plan. He has done his best to comfort and prepare them.
  • Jesus then spent several hours agonizing over this reality and praying — for himself, for his disciples, for all who would come to believe as a result of their ministry (that’s us — Jesus was praying for us!)… and overall, praying that the glory of God would shine through everything that was about to transpire.
  • Near the end of the sleepless night, Jesus was apprehended and arrested by a gaggle of soldiers and Jewish leaders. In the midst of that arrest he defended his disciples, who then scattered and, in Peter’s case, denied even knowing him. (By this time Judas had already betrayed him.)
  • The convoy escorted Jesus to one high priest and then to another.
  • By the time they took him to the governor’s palace it was early in the morning. Pilate might not even have been dressed for the day; might not even have had breakfast yet; might have been still in bed.
  • Meanwhile, Jesus had been abandoned, betrayed, twice interrogated, slapped in the face, and bound by his hands, and all the while his arresters had not come up with a conclusive charge against him.
  • They wanted Pilate to do their dirty work, and since he was known for being unscrupulous and malleable, they figured he might be their best option for getting rid of this vexing figure, this Jesus of Nazareth.

Some Jews regarded him as the Messiah, and he did preach God’s kingdom come. But the Jews opposing him clearly had a very different kingdom in mind than Jesus intended to lead. If his were a political platform, the chief priests and Pharisees sat solidly on the opposite side of the proverbial aisle. Perhaps they surmised that ridding the world of this “false messiah” would make way for a (quote-unquote) “better candidate” — one with more charisma, more money, more electability… and certainly more political gumption.

The Gospel Jesus preached reflected none of the ambition for power that would certainly be necessary for the Jews to break free of Roman rule and live independently, well-defended and secure. The religious leaders, so settled on their own notion of how God should operate, remained oblivious to the much bigger, world-redemptive, everlasting kingdom of God that Jesus was, in fact and in person, ushering in — right before their very eyes!

Hearkening back to John Bright’s excellent explanation of the Kingdom of God as the unifying theme of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament (and as summarized in John Piper’s review of Bright’s book): “The Kingdom of God, as foreseen in the Old Testament and realized in the coming of Christ, is not equated with any human state, race or societal group, but rather is made up of a humbled people who obey the will of God who rules over them as King.

“This Kingdom does not come with signs and portents and the overthrow of earthly kingdoms, but rather in an unobtrusive, seemingly insignificant Servant who by suffering and death accomplished the decisive victory of God’s Kingdom. He is, therefore, the fulfillment of all Israel’s hopes.” And, I would add, ours as well.

But the powers that be didn’t see that. They were blind to the truth.

Let me read the verses immediately preceding today’s passage:

29 So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” 30 “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.” [They didn’t answer the question, did they?] 31 Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” “But we have no right to execute anyone,” they objected. 32 This took place to fulfill what Jesus had said about the kind of death he was going to die.

John 18:29–32 (NIV)

Then we come to today’s Scripture, John 18, starting with verse 33:

33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” 34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

John 18:33–34 (NIV)

Why didn’t Jesus answer Pilate outright? Why did he return the question with a question?

You can see why at first I thought they were simply sparring. Pilate seemed to be trying to get Jesus to incriminate himself by claiming false authority. And so by turning the question back, you might suppose that Jesus was simply trying to protect himself and avoid execution.

But two things occur to me here:

First, Jesus had clearly come to terms with the reality of the suffering he would have to endure in order to carry out God’s plan of salvation. His entire life and ministry had led to this juncture; his prayers of the previous night had reflected his acceptance not only of his mission but of its imminent fulfillment; and even at the moment of his arrest, when his passionate disciple Peter cut off the right ear of one of the men who had come to take Jesus away, Jesus had rebuked Peter, saying: “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John chapter 18 verse 11)

So I don’t think Jesus is returning Pilate’s question with a question in order to escape.

Why, then? Why, why, why?

Let me tell you: As a wife for 22 years and counting, and as a mother for 19 years and counting, I know a thing or two about people who ask questions.

My husband Tom is a news reporter, and since he works primarily from home, I often hear his side of the phone interviews he conducts in our living room. He asks a lot of questions. If I want to find out the answers, I have to read the article he posts — sometimes just a few minutes following that conversation!

Along with Tom, I also live with our son and three daughters. Children, of course, are famous for asking questions, starting almost as soon as they can talk.

According to Harvard-based child psychologist Paul Harris, a child asks around 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five. And the most frequent among those questions: WHY? Based on my experience, I was frankly surprised that number wasn’t higher than 40k!

So when I myself asked “Why?” in this context: Why did Jesus turn the question of his kingship back to Pilate? I thought about my own responses to questions — especially hard questions, important questions. And I’ve learned that sometimes, even when I’m tired and stressed, the best way to lead someone to the right answer is prompting them to consider the possibilities for themselves. Sometimes the answer is right in front of them, they just need the courage — facilitated by encouragement — to see and accept it.

What if Jesus, though he had every reason to be physically exhausted, emotionally distraught and spiritually writhing under the weight of what he knew he was about to undergo — What if Jesus, in spite of every tremendous difficulty he was ostensibly experiencing as a human being in that moment, didn’t see Pilate as a man wielding the political power to order his death, but as a sinner in need of salvation? As a vulnerable, confused, frightened, insecure human being — a person whom God created and loved and wanted to welcome into the very Kingdom about which he was inquiring.

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

John 18:34

“But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15) Jesus had asked Peter and the rest of his disciples at an earlier time and place.

Unlike Peter, who immediately and prophetically proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, Pilate returns Jesus’ question with yet another…and another.

35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” 36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” 37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

John 18:35-37

Here it is, Pontius Pilate! Not Pilate the Roman governor, but Pilate the person in need of the truth. Here is your golden opportunity to repent, to believe, to enter into the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is at hand!

But instead of listening to Jesus and siding with the truth, Pilate mocks it. “What is truth?” Pilate retorted. And ultimately, though with some reluctance and without any legitimate charge against Jesus other than the blood-thirsty demands of the crowd, Pilate sentenced the truth to death.

What if Pilate had chosen surrender instead of cynicism in that moment? What if he had heard and received the truth rather than rejecting it? Would Jesus still have had to die? I think we all know the answer is yes. But Pilate could have chosen life that day — the abundant life, the eternal life that belongs to citizens of God’s kingdom.

Just a few hours later, the two men hanging on either side of Jesus at the place called Golgotha — they faced a similar choice. The one man mocked him. The other man repented and believed in Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, King of the Jews and King of Glory. And Jesus said to him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

God extends this same grace to each of us:

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

Matthew 6:33

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and the door shall be opened unto you”

Matthew 7:7

— the door to the Kingdom of God. Alleluia, Alleluia!