Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is taken from there to the religious leaders, who question him vigorously. They do not have the power to execute Jesus, so they send him to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
The way John tells the story, the first question Pilate asks Jesus is “Are you the king of the Jews?”
We need the back story here. As I said, Pilate was the Roman governor. The Romans had conquered Israel in 63BC, and this was bitterly resented by the Jewish people. For the Jews, God was king, ruling them through King David and his sons and grandsons. To have foreigners in charge, Gentiles, non-Jews, was absolute anathema. In the Roman system, the Emperor was king. The Emperor was also divine, god – which was an appalling concept for Jews. But politics was politics and the Jewish religious leaders learnt to work alongside their Roman masters, so much so that Caiaphas was able to remain as High Priest for 18 years. He didn’t manage that without a good deal of compromise with the Roman authorities.
When Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” he is checking out whether Jesus is setting himself up as a political rival to the Emperor. The Emperor is king. The Emperor is god.
And no, that’s not the kind of king that Jesus is. But Jesus is king, another kind of king.
Time for another back story. In the story of Samuel, in the Old Testament, the people asked for a king. The prophet Samuel told them – you don’t really want a king! A king will oppress you and take from you goods and horses and your children to serve him. But the people said – Yes, we do want a king, so that we can be like the other nations. So God told Samuel how to choose and anoint the man who would be king – and that was Saul. However, the downside that Samuel had predicted soon came about and Saul was not a good king and disobeyed God. So Samuel anointed David, and when Saul died, David became king and his sons and grandsons after him. David had his flaws and imperfections, but he was remembered as the ideal king. And centuries later when Israel was overcome by enemies and the monarchy suppressed and sent into exile, the people of Israel waited for the time when God would raise up for them a king in David’s line, who would put down all their enemies and restore the glorious kingdom. This was the Messiah, the anointed one, God’s chosen one, the true king.
But that’s not the kind of king that Jesus is. Jesus is king, but another kind of king.
So when Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”, Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And he’s not saying: mine is a spiritual kingdom, I don’t care about politics. He is saying, my kingdom is different – it’s not about power politics and oppressing people. In my Kingdom, God is in charge, not power-hungry politicians and emperors who play at being god.
Pilate goes back to the Jewish leaders and their crowd of followers and offers to release a prisoner in honour of the Passover festival. “Do you want me to release the king of the Jews?” he asks. He is mocking them. He is the one who has the power of life and death. Jesus may be the king of the Jews, but whether he lives or dies is in Pilate’s hands. Pilate is playing the crowd. And when the crowd call for Jesus to be crucified, they are acknowledging the power of the Roman state over them. They say, “We have a law and by that law he ought to die, because he claims to be the Son of God.” So they put themselves in the hands of the Roman Emperor who also claims to be the son of god.
Pilate has Jesus flogged. The soldiers dress Jesus in purple as for an emperor and put a crown of thorns upon his head. They mock him, humiliate him, beat him, flog him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” What kind of king is this?
Pilate brings Jesus out again before the Jewish leaders. and then brings him out into public view. “Here is your king!” he proclaims, a king who is bruised and bloodied from the beating. “Shall I crucify your king?” And they answer, “We have no king but Caesar”.
So they take Jesus away and they nail him to a cross and hang him high. And Pilate adds one more touch: he has a notice made and placed above Jesus on the cross, a caption. It reads “The King of the Jews” in 3 languages, so you couldn’t make any mistake about it. Pilate’s message to the Jews is – this is the kind of king you have, dying on the cross like a terrorist. Rome has proper kings. Rome has the power to put down your petty so-called king.
But in the end, Pilate’s mocking sign is a prophecy. This is the king of the Jews. This is the king of the whole world. This is a king who dies on the cross because God loves the world so much. As someone said on Twitter recently: This is God who would rather die than risk eternity without you.
This is your King!