Digging into the Text:
It’s interesting that this year Christ the King Sunday comes just a few weeks after a very divisive American election. Actually, as of this writing, it’s not even over yet, as recounts continue in closely fought races. On top of that, the Gospel for this year is a tense conversation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, the representative of the supreme political authority of the Roman empire.
This might cause a tightening in the chest for some preachers who have been busy trying to bridge the divisions in their congregation that mirror those in the whole country. What am I going to say that will not be understood as your taking the side of any group?
Of course, there’s an easy way out of this bind, out of this tension. All you have to do is focus on Jesus statement: “My Kingdom is not from this world.” You see, it’s got nothing to do with politics. Jesus’s Kingdom is “spiritual,” it’s not about the politics of this world.
You probably already know this, but if you take that route you will be betraying the text and failing your congregation. An honest grappling with this text will probably not be satisfying for any “side” in the congregation, but it will deeply satisfying for those who really want to hear the gospel. Jesus takes the whole thing to another level altogether.
Just before our text, the priest Annas and his son-in-law the High Priest Caiaphas have already decided that Jesus must die. As Caiaphas puts it, it is better to have one man die for the people. (18:14) But they don’t have the power of capital punishment which Rome has reserved for itself.
So, they take Jesus to Pilate, but there’s a complication. It’s just before Passover, and if a Jew entered the pagan courts of the Roman procurator, they would be ceremonially unclean and unable to eat the Passover. They bring the Messiah to be executed, but are so punctilious about God’s law that are afraid of becoming unclean. To call this ironic would overload the word.
This means that Pilate has to come off his judgment seat and out from under all the trappings of imperial power to meet this Jewish mob in streets. And he is not only perturbed, he is placed into a political bind. The last thing he wants to do is get into the middle of a Jewish religious hassle right when thousands of Jews from all over the empire are packing the city for Passover.
Pilate tries to wiggle out by telling them to take care of it themselves, but they throw throw the regulations back in his face. “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” So, after that prickly interview with his Jewish accusers, Pilate goes back inside to get the facts and decide the case.
He summons Jesus. He asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” But what’s the tone of the question. Obviously this was not a question meant to get at the facts. Pilate knows he’s not king of the Jews. I think it was more like this: “So, you’re the “King of the Jews,” are you?”
But Jesus response is astounding. He doesn’t seem bullied or afraid. He certainly acts like a king of some sort. In contrast to the synoptics, in John’s gospel Jesus is never a victim; he always seems in control of the situation. His reply to Pilate is hardly deferential. Pilate asks, “Are you King of the Jews?” Jesus replies with his own question, “Is that your own idea or theirs?”
Very shrewd. Jesus is pointing out that if the question came from Pilate it would be something like this: Are you claiming to be some kind of king challenging the authority of Rome? The answer is clearly, No. But if it was a Jewish question, it would be something like this: Are you the messianic king of Israel? To that the answer would be, Yes. So Jesus, like a skillful attorney, wants to know who’s asking the question and what it means?
Pilate is put on the spot, and he doesn’t like it. He nearly spits his disgust with the Jewish leaders who wouldn’t even enter his house; “I am not a Jew am I? It’s your own people who have handed you over. It’s all part of their political-religious garbage with self-proclaimed messiahs who were nothing but dangerous terrorists. Now let’s get down to brass tacks. What have you done?”
For some reason his mouth is going dry. There’s something unsettling about this man who may be king of nothing but stands before him with remarkable dignity and cool confidence.
So, now Jesus knows where Pilate’s coming from. Pilate needs a lesson in the politics of God’s kingdom. “OK”, says Jesus, “You want to know who I am and what I’m all about, I’ll tell you. Call me a King, I’ll accept that, but then you must understand it by my terms and my definitions, or you won’t understand it at all.”
And then Jesus speaks the words that form the hinge on which this whole drama swings, “My Kingdom is not from this world.” But what does he mean? Some older translations had it as “My Kingdom is not of this world.” That would mean that his kingdom has little or nothing to do with this world and its politics.
The issue here is not the whether Jesus’ power and authority as King has anything to do with this world. Jesus is not saying his authority is purely spiritual, otherworldly, having little or nothing to do with life here and now.
There is a segment of Christians for whom matters of faith have has little or nothing to do with this world. It’s about heaven, not earth; it’s about religion, not politics. The Kingdom of God is about the personal and private side of life, not the public and communal.
There is another segment for whom matters of faith have everything to do with the politics of this world. That has certainly come to the fore in this era where some Evangelical leaders have declared that candidate and now President Trump is chosen by God to lead the nation. Some advocate that in order to be truly blessed by God, the nation needs to follow God’s laws, a near theocracy.
How does Pilate see it? Well, he’s worried about a threat to the political power of Rome and to his own civil authority. There is only one kind of politics to Pilate, and it is the kind that requires the exercise of power for the interests of the Roman Empire.
“My Kingdom is not from this world.” The way Jesus places the issue before Pilate, it is not about the extent of Jesus’s Kingdom rule and authority, but its origin. Where does it come from, who authorizes it.
Jesus says his kingship does not originate in this world; it is not cut from the same cloth as the kingdoms of this world. The Kingdom of God is the coming of God’s judgement and salvation to the world. Therefore Jesus’s kingly power and authority rests on a completely different foundation than the power and authority of Rome. It has a different origin and employs different tactics.
“If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (18:36) Jesus is saying, “I refuse, I reject, the use of power or coercion to win the world to my kingdom.”
Then how does this Kingdom operate? How does it conquer? The answer rings clearly from every page of the gospel. Love! “Lead on O King Eternal,” a hymn which certainly ought to be sung on this Sunday puts it just right. “For not with swords loud clashing/ or roll of stirring drums. / With deeds of love mercy/ the heavenly kingdom comes.
When Pilate and the Jewish authorities had exercised their ultimate weapon, the weapon of violence, when the true and only King was nailed to a cross, there, the Bible says, he was lifted up as King and would draw all people to himself. The heartbeat principle of the Kingdom of God is this: Love conquers all.
Jesus repeats again, “My Kingdom is not from here.” Pilate finds this theological discussion tiresome. Pilate is a practical man. And the business at hand is the defense of the power of Rome. That’s all he cares about. He cuts to the chase. “Well, then, You are a King?
Here it is; a straight question that deserves a straight answer. Yes or no, are you or are you not a king? But Jesus is not about to be trapped in Pilate’s practical logic, or stumble into Pilate’s definitions.
“You say that I am a king….” Or as one translator nicely puts it, “King is your word, not mine.” Having told Pilate what his kingdom is not, Jesus now sets out to tell him what it is. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
His kingdom is a kingdom of truth. His royal mission begins in heaven and he has a divine mandate. He was sent to unveil the truth. When Jesus talks about truth he’s not just talking about honesty or truthfulness. He’s not saying he is merely here to say true things. He is the truth.
Truth in John’s gospel is reality, God’s reality. His voice is God’s voice. His words are God’s words. And everyone who recognizes the ring of truth in him belongs to the truth. The very Creator of all things has revealed himself in the world through this one authentic man. He is the King of truth.
But by now Pilate has had it with all this enigmatic talk. “What is truth!”, he says, and turns around to deal with the Jewish leaders. What does all this talk of truth have to do with the reality of power politics that was going on outside his door?
The irony is that Truth is the only authority and power that Jesus wields. He stands as the naked truth that upholds the universe before the lies of religion and power politics. The religious leaders refuse to listen to the truth, and Pilate isn’t listening either. They will ultimately conspire together to destroy him. But the truth cannot be overcome. It is the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
CEP Director Scott Hoezee has been on sabbatical this Fall 2018. He will return to his regular writing of these sermon commentaries next week (Advent 1C). We would like to thank Len Vander Zee for stepping in these past 3 months.
Please Note: Advent and Christmas Year C resources are available at this link.
Preaching the Text:
The preacher needs to make a choice about this text. Am I going do my best to avoid the fraught politics of this time and place by treating the text purely in its own historical context, or interpreting it only in spiritual terms? Good luck with that! The congregation will see right through that and either feel relieved or betrayed. Another choice is to use this text to take sides, and I suppose that it’s possible to interpret the text in any political direction you may choose.
The best choice, and the most challenging, is to honestly and carefully seek to provide your congregation with biblical guidance on how to navigate the choppy waters of politics today as a Christian. You may not be able to avoid any hint of “politics,” but it is more likely to be helpful to the congregation and stay true to the text. If that’s what you want to do, here are a couple of possible directions to go.
1).What does it mean, both in principle and in practice, that Jesus’ kingship is not from this world? In my own Reformed tradition there is a famous saying by Dutch Reformed theologian and politician (Prime Minister) Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
By this Kuyper did not mean that Christians should establish a theocracy. He taught that human life is divided into various “spheres” of influence. Politics is one sphere and the church is another, and they should seek to avoid intruding on each other’s sphere of sovereignty. Yet, for the Christian, Christ is the King in all spheres of life. We need to follow him as best we can as in business, in education, in family life, in church, and in politics. So, as a citizen and voter, that may mean one thing, as a politician in a pluralistic country, that may mean another. The question then is: what does it mean that Jesus is King in my arena of life in this world, and am I willing to bow to his authority?
2).Jesus said about his kingship that he came to testify to the truth. As I mentioned above, In John, truth means more than factual veracity. It means reality, deep down truth. Jesus is the “true vine,” “the way the truth and the life.” But it does also mean truth in the sense of veracity. In chapter 8:44, in response to the Jewish leaders, Jesus says, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
There are few things more damaging to the welfare of a society than the demise of truthfulness. Of course, politicians have always played fast and loose with the truth, but when lies become pervasive the very value of truth is in danger of being lost. Lies corrupt the person who speaks them, and they corrupt the body politic in which they become acceptable.
3.)It is always important to see Jesus’s kingship from an eschatological perspective. As the old saying goes, the Kingdom is already and not yet. The King has come and established his reign of peace, but, as the epistle for today makes clear, he has ascended to the throne in heaven there to wait, “until his enemies be made the footstool beneath his feet.” (Hebrews 10: 13)
We are not going to establish Christ’s Kingdom on earth. We can live certainly live in obedience to the King and seek to establish the principles of the kingdom in our lives. But whenever we try to take it into our hands we forget that it is not from this world. The King is coming, and so is his kingdom. We prayerfully wait for it: “Come Lord Jesus.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 25, 2018
John 18:33-37 Commentary