Today we celebrate Christ the King, a day that was declared by Pope Pius XI in 1925. At that time, the world was facing the fanaticism of dictators and a rising secularism that disregarded Christ’s authority. To the church, it was obvious that only a just and merciful ‘king of kings’ could save the world from mutual destruction.
However, this proclamation of Christ the King is not an unsubstantiated whim of the church; it has a biblical basis, and one passage that supports the notion is the Gospel passage set down for today, John 18:33-37. In this passage we read the account of Jesus’ cross examination after his arrest by the Roman Governor, Pilate.
The request by the Jewish leaders for the death sentence required Pilate to conduct his own examination of the prisoner. So, Pilate called Jesus in and was apparently surprised by the appearance of this man who was being charged with claiming to be a king – his appearance did not fit the charge. ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ he asked.
The following discussion revealed to Pilate that Jesus is indeed a king; but, not in the sense that we generally think of a royal monarch. Further, his kingdom is not like a kingdom of this world. So, what is the nature of Christ’s kingdom? John 18:33-37 reveals two features of Christ’s kingdom:
I. Christ’s Kingdom is a Heavenly Kingdom
When Jesus said to Pilate, ‘My kingdom is not from this world’ (v.36), he was speaking about the origin and nature of his kingdom. He conceded that he is head of a kingdom; but, it is not a kingdom that Rome would need to fear as a political rival.
In the kingdoms of this world, the king’s position and authority arises by succession, election, or conquest. Jesus’ kingship however arises from the divine will of God in heaven. This has a number of implications.
Firstly, there is the question of the source of Jesus’ authority. Clearly, his authority is not of human origin; rather, it is derived from God. Throughout the Gospels we have accounts of Jesus’ authority over evil spirits, sickness, nature, life and death, and most importantly, authority to forgive sin. He demonstrated authority over all things, both animate and inanimate.
Jesus’ authority over all things ultimately extends to all people, including you and me. But unlike secular kings, even though he has rightful authority over us, Jesus does not force his authority upon us. In fact, as we are told in Matt 20:28, Jesus ‘did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’
Nevertheless, whilst Jesus took upon himself the form of a servant, we recognise the honour and authority of a king; and it is recognition of this truth that ultimately challenges us to respond to Jesus’ claim over us.
A second implication of being a heavenly kingdom is that the nature of Christ’s kingdom is not found in material things, such as lands, castles, armies, or accumulated wealth. Christ’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom found within the hearts of men and women. Jesus’ dominion is over people’s hearts, subduing the self-centred selfish nature with its greed and corrupt desires, and replacing it with a love of peace and unity.
Thirdly, the weapons of Christ’s kingdom are spiritual. Jesus did not need or use secular force to uphold and expand his kingdom because his kingdom is only opposed to sin and Satan. Pilate acknowledged the fact that Jesus’ kingdom was no threat to the Roman Empire.
Finally, a heavenly kingdom’s subjects are not of the world, even though they are in the world; they are called and chosen out of the world, and are destined for another world.
Now, Jesus’ acknowledgment that he is head of a kingdom surprised Pilate who responded, “You are a king then!?” Jesus then went on to explain further the purpose and nature of his kingdom: ‘I came into the world to testify to the truth…’ ‘Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’ and is thereby one of my subjects. (v.37) So, the second feature that is revealed to us by this passage is that …
II. Christ’s Kingdom is a kingdom of Truth
But what does this mean? As Pilate himself was to ask at the end of his cross examination of Jesus, ‘What is truth?’ (v.38)
Philosophers have been asking this question for centuries. In more recent times certain philosophers have suggested that truth is subjective, relative and pluralistic. They would claim that, what is true for you may not be true for me. The idea that there can be any absolute truths that apply, whatever the circumstances, ceases to be a possibility.
However, from the theological perspective, truth is grounded in the being and will of the triune God. Whatever reflects God’s own being and will is truth. Furthermore, Jesus Christ is the truth in that he is the revelation of God. In John 14:6, Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life ….’ ‘If you know me you will know my father also.’ (v.7)
Jesus’ purpose was firstly to reveal to the world the truth about God and the grace that he has extended to all mankind. Christ the king reveals to us God’s plan of salvation, born out of his love for us and his desire to have a personal relationship with each one of us. In John 17:26 Jesus says, ‘I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.’
Secondly, Jesus’ purpose was to confirm the truth (Rom. 15:8). By his miracles he witnessed to the truth of religion, the truth of divine revelation, of God's providence, and the truth of his promise and covenant. He did this so that all men and women through him might believe.
In a world subject to unreality and illusion, Jesus offers the reality of a personal relationship with ‘the only true God’ (17:3); and the truth that we subsequently come to know (we are told) sets us free from sin, i.e. the power of our self-indulgent-nature (8:32).
As Matthew Henry wrote,
‘the foundation and power, the spirit and genius, of Christ's kingdom, is truth, divine truth. When he said, I am the truth, he said, in effect, I am a king. He conquers by the convincing evidence of truth; he rules by the commanding power of truth… It is with his truth that he shall judge the people … and (by which) he brings our thoughts into obedience.’
So, Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom defined by his mission to testify to the truth. His purpose was not to assert power; not to collect armies; not to subdue nations in battle. It was simply to present truth to men and women, and to exercise dominion only by the truth. And, the only power exercised by Jesus to restrain our self-centredness, to convince the sinner, to guide and lead his people, and ultimately to sanctify them, is that which is produced by applying truth to the mind.
As we consider how we might apply this understanding of Christ’s kingdom to our personal lives we would do well to reflect upon the behaviour of the other characters in this passage; namely, the Jewish leaders and the Roman Governor, Pilate.
The first application is found in the way the Jewish leaders framed the charge against Jesus. Their concern had been religious – a charge of blasphemy. However, they knew that Pilate would dismiss a charge of blasphemy as simply a Jewish superstition. So, they refashioned the case in political terms. Jesus, they alleged, had been claiming to be ‘King of the Jews’ i.e. he was a political revolutionary guilty of inciting rebellion against Rome.
Some Christians today want to make Christ’s kingdom a worldly political kingdom. For example, the way that such people conduct church business becomes focused on establishing their own authority over others and building their own kingdom of power. We must be careful not to politicise the church.
Others conduct church business as though they are running a secular club or business – profit and loss, control of assets, and building the owners equity of the business becomes the main game. They begin to think of it as their church and forget that it is Christ’s church and that he is the king.
A second application lies in the readiness of the Jewish leaders to distort their testimony to achieve their own ends. Unfortunately, particularly where disunity exists within a church, some people in the church distort their testimony to manipulate others to take their side in the factional in-fighting. The lesson here is that we who desire to receive God’s grace must be prepared to extend grace, truth and forgiveness towards one another.
A third application may be found in the refusal of the Jewish leaders to enter Pilate’s house. If they entered the house of a Gentile they would have become defiled and been barred from participating in the Passover rituals. As G.R. Beasley-Murray wrote, ‘In their zeal to eat the Passover lamb they unwittingly helped to fulfil its significance through demanding the death of the Lamb of God, at the same time shutting themselves out from its saving efficacy.’
A similar tragedy is re-enacted whenever people depend upon fulfilment of ritual observances to alleviate their consciences before God. The ritual is only intended to provide a framework in which we can make a personal confession. Empty ritual cannot achieve redemption; ceremonies cannot save! So, if we have sinned, rather than relying on ritual, we must sincerely, in our hearts, repent of that sin and ask God for forgiveness.
A final application is provided by Pilate. Having asked Jesus the question, “What is Truth?” Pilate immediately left the room without waiting for an answer. Thousands of people today are duplicating this action – on the one hand they ask, “What is truth?”; but, they are not prepared to wait to discover the answer provided by the Bible.
Christ’s kingdom is a heavenly kingdom and is a kingdom of truth. On this day, as we celebrate Christ as King, let us ask ourselves these questions: If Christ is King, am I being obedient to his will and commands? Or, have I placed myself on the throne?
Do I tend to politicise the church? Do I tend to distort the truth to manipulate others? Do I need to make a personal confession of any sin? Am I open to waiting to discover the truth that may be found in the Bible?
And a final over-arching question to ask ourselves: “If Christ is my King, am I subjecting myself to him in all things, or, do I need to repent and ask Christ to again take his place as Christ the King on the throne of my life?” (I know that I need to do this from time to time)