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Nov 25, 2018

“King Jesus” 11-25-18

John 18:33-37
Christ the King Sunday
November 25, 2018

In the Apostles’ Creed we confess that our Lord Jesus Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”  Our Lord’s conduct on that occasion made a profound impact on his followers, seeing in his responses to Pilate the ultimate standard for Christian testimony or confession.  As part of a call to “fight the good fight” St. Paul exhorted Timothy, “In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (1 Timothy 6:13-14) 
If we were to ask what it was about our Lord’s confession that qualified it as “the good confession,” it would have to be the unhesitating, direct response to Pilate’s questions about his kingship.  In response to Pilate’s “So you are a king then?” (Jn. 18:37) Jesus offers an emphatic affirmation and an explanation that his kingship is for the sake of the truth.  Later, in response to Pilate’s “Don’t you know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (Jn. 19:11) Jesus affirms that Pilate has power only because it had been given to him “from above.”   So, on this Christ the King Sunday we have an opportunity to take a close look at the disclosure of Christ’s kingship in his responses to Pilate.
The first thing to observe is that Jesus, under trial, makes the strongest, most straight-forward affirmations of his kingship or messiahship. Sometimes this is not as clear to us as it might be in our English translations, owing to the nuance of the Greek idiom of Jesus’ reply.  In response to Pilate’s “So you are a king, then?” Jesus’ answers literally, as most of the translations indicate, “You say I am a king.”  This sounds to us like some sort of evasion or equivocation—hardly a straightforward answer to a life and death question.  In fact, though, this is the equivalent of an emphatic “yes”.
This can be most easily seen if we compare the accounts of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin in the Synoptic tradition.  In Matthew 26:63-64 the narrative reads, “Then the high priest said to him, ‘I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so…’”   Luke records the same episode this way in Luke 22:70-71: “All of them asked, ‘Are you, then, the Son of God?’ He said to them, ‘You say that I am.’ Then they said, ‘What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!’” Note that the Council did not understand Jesus’ words “You say that I am” as evasive or equivocating.  Instead, they understood “You say that I am” to mean “Yes I am.”   This is even clearer in Mark 14:61-63:
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses?  You have heard his blasphemy!

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark gives the meaning, rather than the wording, of Jesus’ reply.  Again, note how the listeners responded.  His answer removed all doubt.   Jesus was a blasphemer.  To their question, Jesus had given a clear, equivocating “Yes”! 

By the way, we do something very similar in English.  Perhaps you watch an exciting sports event or attend a moving concert or dramatic performance.  If you see someone afterwards and talk about the event with them, you might say, “Wasn’t that a great game?!”  (Note that your question expects the answer “Yes!”)   The reply to your question very often might be, “You said it!”  You all know what that means.   When Jesus answers Pilate’s “So you are a king, then?” with “You say so,” he means the same thing: “Yes indeed! I am a king.”

Only this understanding, which is clearly demanded by the Greek idiom, provides a coherent account of Jesus offering “the good confession” before Pilate.  Timothy is to keep making this kind of confession of Christ.   “Are you a Christ-follower?”  “Yes indeed!”  That is to characterize the testimony or profession of every Christian.  “Yes indeed!  I am one of his.”  This should not be misunderstood as an in-your-face what about it? boldness.  Instead, it is the honest, unhesitating telling the truth about ourselves in relationship to Christ’s call.

In Jesus’ appearance before Pilate, it is Pilate, of course, who initiates the inquiry about kingship.  “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Jn. 18:33)  The Jews had been unwilling to specify to Pilate exactly what Jesus’ fault was when they brought Jesus to him late at night on the eve of the Passover.  We may assume, though, that Pilate had his ear to the ground and that he knew about the stir that Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem had caused among the people.  Jesus does not deny that he is a king, but explains that his kingdom is not of this world.    We may note that when Jesus responds to the Jewish Council’s question about his Messiahship, he explains the full import by citing Daniel 7:13-14 where one like a Son of Man comes on the clouds of heaven and receives an everlasting kingship.  With Pilate, however, Jesus obviously takes a different approach and explains that his kingship is not “of this world.” (Jn. 18:36)  By exploring this characterization of his kingdom, we find clarity and encouragement for our own calling as those who serve King Jesus.

The first consideration that shows how Jesus’ kingdom is not “of this world” is the fact that his servants do not fight.  (The servants were still learning this lesson.  Shortly before this in the garden, at the time of his arrest, Peter had drawn his sword and attacked a servant of the High Priest.  Jesus had to reprove Peter for his action.)   Jesus’ kingdom, then, is not of this world because it does not rest on the power of physical force and coercion.   Rome maintained order by the sword.  The power of civil government to restrain evil by force is appointed of God; Jesus’ kingdom is of a different order than the kingdoms of this world.  As Jesus makes plain in Jn. 18:37, his kingdom rests and advances on the power of truth, and particularly through bearing witness or testimony to the truth.   Here we may anticipate the triumphant note of Revelation 12:11 where it is said of those who gained victory over the Devil, “…they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.”  Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world in that it rests on an entirely different source of power.

St. John Chrysostom, (Archbishop of Constantinople, d.407 A.D.),one of the Greek Fathers of the church, in a homily on John 18, insists that Jesus’ suffering under Pontius Pilate is, in fact, a demonstration of the secret of his royal power.   It is by his example of suffering under Pontius Pilate that King Jesus sets his followers free from dark passions that hold them captive:

But let us not merely read of these things, but bear them in our mind; the crown of thorns, the robe, the reed, the blows, the smiting on the cheek, the spittings, and the irony. These things, if continually meditated on, are sufficient to take down all anger; and if we be mocked at, if we suffer injustice, let us still say, “The servant is not greater than his Lord”

Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.  The world despises weakness and humiliation.  But Jesus’ followers see glory in his sufferings and, in their contemplation, experience transforming grace.

St. Augustine (Bishop of Hippo, d. 430)—the most influential of the Latin Fathers—helpfully connects the kingdom that is not of this world with the disciples who, in the high priestly prayer of John 17, are also said to be “not of this world.”

For what is His kingdom, save those who believe in Him, to whom He says, “Ye are not of the world, even as I am not of the world”? …Hence also He says not here, “My kingdom is not” in this world; but, “is not of this world.” And when He proved this by saying, “If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews,” He saith not, “But now is my kingdom not” here, but, “is not from hence.” For His kingdom is here until the end of the world, having tares intermingled therewith until the harvest; for the harvest is the end of the world, when the reapers, that is to say, the angels, shall come and gather out of His kingdom everything that offendeth; which certainly would not be done, were it not that His kingdom is here. But still it is not from hence; for it only sojourns as a stranger in the world…”

Augustine makes the point that the kingdom, since it is comprised of disciples, is like the disciples—in the world, but not of the world.  The disciples have turned away from evil of the world, but they have not turned their backs on the world.   For this reason, the kingdom that is not of this world is not innocuous.  It is not some purely spiritual construct that commends flight from the world.  Jesus’ servants may not fight, but they are his servants, all the same, and they are in the world.

It is worth noting, in passing, that Jesus refers to his disciples in Jn. 18:36 with the Greek word uperetes.  Though this word can be a general term for “servant,” it is the only place in the Gospels where it is used of the disciples.  All of the other instances of this word in the Gospels refer to servants with an “official” status.  It is the common word for the adjutants of commanders and the administrative assistants of public officials.  In John 18:12, for example, the NRSV translates the plural of uperetes as the Jewish “police” who join the cohort and centurion in arresting Jesus.  Pilate and the Roman commanders and the Jewish leaders have this kind of official servant.  Jesus, in conversation with Pilate indicates that he has the same.  His kingdom is not of this world.  But he is a king and he, like Pilate, has his own governing assistants.  Earlier, Jesus told his disciples that he no longer called them slaves, but friends.  Before Pilate, Jesus honors them by calling them adjutants.

Finally, as the trial before Pilate stretches into the hours of early morning, a third consideration arises to make clear how it is that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.  Pilate, hearing the Jews witness that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, asked Jesus where he was from.   No doubt the phrase “not of this world” was taking on a little more significance to Pilate!  When Jesus refused to answer, Pilate reminded Jesus that he held the authority over Jesus’ life and death.  Here the nature of true authority becomes clear.  Though, Pilate sees his authority as deriving from the power structures of the world, Jesus says that even Pilate’s power over life and death is from above.  If Pilate’s “kingdom,” then, is not ultimately of this world, but from above, how much more is the kingdom of the Son of God from above.  Even as we pray, “Your kingdom come.”

Jesus’ trial before Pilate encourages us to take heart and believe that his kingly power is at work in the face of the opposition and indifference and complicity that the world and the Devil can stir up.  The Psalms remind us of the Lord’s kingly power over creation, and with the prophets, anticipate the joy of his coming again in glory to put all things right.  But here in his trial, when the price to be paid for the good confession is most costly, Jesus confidently affirms that he is king and that this affirmation is at the heart of the world’s true story.   So, may we take heart and be quick to confess him as our King today.

Amen.


Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906