THE THE YEAR 75 the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus described the recent Jewish revolt against Roman rule and how the imperial army, led by Vespasian and his son Titus, had crushed the rebels. Vespasian was proclaimed emperor and an elaborate victory celebration was held. The treasures of Jerusalem were carried through Rome in a triumphant display of imperial power. Josephus describes it this way: “Vespasian and Titus came forth crowned with laurel, and clothed in purple … At this all the soldiers shouted for joy…”
A great triumphal march followed with Roman senators and uniformed troops. Treasures taken from the defeated Jews were paraded through the city. “…they made the greatest display carrying what had been taken from the temple in Jerusalem: the golden table, the golden lampstand … and the last of all the spoils, the Torah of the Jews” (The Jewish Wars, VII, 5).
What a contrast to the scene remembered by the Church today: the Lord Jesus, “humble and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Matthew 21:9). He was acclaimed, not by a conquering army, but by a ragtag crowd of children, pulling branches from the trees. Their shout was not “Hail, Caesar!” but “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
Christ as King
The Gospels consistently proclaim that the coming of Kingdom of God was at hand. The presence of the Kingdom was the main focus of the Lord Jesus’ teaching, as it had been the message of John the Baptist. The apostles depicted Christ as One in whom the Kingdom was present and that He Himself was “the son of David,” its King. What kind of kingdom He ruled was regularly misunderstood, however. People assumed that the Messiah-King would re-establish an Israel free of Roman oversight. When the magi asked Herod, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2), Herod assumed that his position on the throne was threatened. He responded by killing the boys of Bethlehem whom we call the Holy Innocents.
When Jesus fed the multitudes with a few barley loaves and two small fish, people thought that this was a sign that, with Jesus, God was restoring Israel’s independence. “Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone” (John 6:15).
When the Jewish authorities accused Jesus before Pilate, it was that He had made Himself a king. Because of this, Pilate asked Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” (Matthew 27:11). Much of what followed – the soldiers’ mockery, the purple robe, the crown and scepter, and the charge nailed over His head on the cross – point to the Romans’ belief that Jesus was claiming to rule the land of Israel.
The Lord had told Pilate explicitly that this was not so. “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36).
There is one further note in the Gospels pointing to the apostles’ faith that the Lord Jesus truly is king. Jesus is buried, not as a homeless convicted rebel, but in a manner worthy of a king, surrounded with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39) provided by Nicodemus. That people saw Jesus as a (supposed) Messiah-King is clear; that they misunderstood the nature of His kingship is undisputed.
A Kingdom “Not of This World”
When Pilate asked Jesus “are you a King?” the Lord answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth” (Matthew 18:37). It is in the Gospel records of Jesus’ teaching – particularly the Parables – that we see what His kingdom was, and what it was not.
This teaching is summarized in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10). This text is so familiar to us that we may not see it as describing the lifestyle of God’s Kingdom:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
It is safe to say that the Lord is not describing the ruling elite of any worldly state.
Elsewhere we see that His Kingdom is based on:
Putting God First – “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33);
Child-like Simplicity – “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, 4);
“Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven’”(Matthew 19:13, 14);
Imitating the Way He Empties Himself – “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8);
Servant-Leadership – “Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.
“But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one
upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:24-30);
“So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:12-14).
This is the Kingdom we celebrate today.